Sunday, June 3, 2018

Visiting Australia--Remote, Central, Alice Springs

Hills around Alice Springs

I knew almost nothing about Australia when I read and loved Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice. So, like generations of tourists, when I visited Australia, I was eager to see Alice. Alice is of course, Alice Springs, a small city in the center of Australia. Australia, the world's smallest continent or largest island, is generally warm and dry. Alice, in the center, is in the middle of the sort of desert where they tell you in October, "before this week, our last good rain was in January."

Settlement in Australia grew up around the edges, along the coasts The center remained unexplored into the late 1800s. But by then Australia needed telegraph and trains to run directly and pushed to explore the interior. The Europeans exploring Australia's center often had tragic stories. (Quick summary on Wikipedia: see European exploration section link). Alice Springs, half way between Darwin on the north coast and Adelaide on the south coast, was founded in 1872 as a critical telegraph and railroad depot.

Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Being a communication hub doesn't make it any less remote. Hundreds of miles of nearly empty space surround it. Yes, the surrounding desert supports aboriginal groups living off the land. Yes, there are sheep stations. But the population is low and scattered.

So Alice, with 29,000 people, is fascinating for its desert, its history in communications and transportation, its isolation and more.

There is a telegraph museum, distributed over a series of old buildings. I loved the buildings saved from the late 1800s with furniture created from local materials, such as cowhide strips, with hair, for bed springs. I lingered over photos and descriptions of the experiences of people who established Alice Springs, weathering droughts, fires and floods.  (Alice Springs Telegraph Station website link).

Telegraph, Alice Springs

Also terrific was the Alice Springs School of the Air. This was their answer to the challenge of educating children in the sparsely-populated region. Australia arranged to fly resources to the children in their homes, providing materials, teaching assistants who stayed with the families and radio (now computer)-assisted education materials. The problem--educating children in sparsely populated regions--is shared across the world. I knew something about Nebraska's solutions, which included excellent public radio and boarding schools. The more I read about Australia's program, the more I was reminded of the difficulty of the problem--distance, children of different ages and abilities, providing timely feedback.  Computers and the internet have made the task less Herculean, but it continues to be a challenge (website).

Exterior, Alice Springs School of the Air
Alice Springs also had a spectacular desert park (link) show-casing their native animals and plants. I saw a bird show in which native birds had been trained to come in for food. They swept down just above the heads of the audience. Of course we ducked. Ooooh.
Alice Springs Desert Park bird show
An owl arrives.
Australia's Northern Territory has at least 2 owls in the genus Tyto with barn owls,
sharing the flat face and color pattern.
Alice Springs Desert Park bird show
The tawny frogmouth landed in the rafters above our seats
Beyond the amphitheater, the bush seemed barely tamed. Paths wound through it and many plants were labeled. I was there just after that "first good rain since January" so it was green.

bush, Alice Springs

A variety of local plants were in full bloom.
Alice Springs Desert Park
Orange spade flower, Hybanthus aurantiacus, in the violet family Violaceae.

The flowers on the orange spade flower were weirdly flat. It is classified in the violet family, Violaceae, so I can call it "a violet" if I want to. I loved how distinctive the flora of Australia is, as exemplified by this flat-flowered, shrubby, orange violet. I imagined a violet ancestor arriving on Australia and responding: "New continent full of opportunities! My descendants won't be bound by the traditions of Eurasia. Maybe an orange flower rather than a violet one..." 
(If that's too informal for you, "Violets in Australia radiated into colors and shapes not found in Eurasia, in response to the unique selection pressures of Australian environments.")

Parakeelya, Calandrinia balonensis
Parakeelya, Calandrinia balonensis purslane family, Portulaceae
My picture doesn't show it well, but parakeelya is succulent, storing water in narrow but fleshy leaves, very useful in a desert.

Alice Springs Desert Park
Perhaps golden everlasting, Xerochrysum bracteatum

This is a composite, in the sunflower family, Asteraceae. My best guess--there are lots of composites with yellow flowers--is that it is golden everlasting, Xerochrysum bracteatumThe widely-planted flowers called everlasting and strawflowers are some of the best-known flowers from Australia, since, although my climate in Colorado is nothing like the climate at Alice Springs, I can grow them as annuals. 

We drove to the Anzac Memorial, on a high point overlooking the town. The Northern Territory flag was flying there. What a great choice of design: the Southern Cross constellation and a flower, Sturt's desert rose.

flag, Northern Territory, Australia
Flag of the Northern Territory
Nearby they had planted Sturt's desert rose, which had a dozen open flowers. Beautiful plants. They are not roses, but a species of cotton, Gossypium sturtianum, a shrub found only in the dry center of Australia.
Sturt's desert rose, Gossypium sturtianum
Sturt's desert rose, Gossypium sturtianum
Also flowering were these quintessentially Australian trees, acacias, locally called wattle.

acacia in flower, Alice Springs, Australia

acacia in flower, Alice Springs, Australia

Here is a representative of another signature plant of Australia, Eucalyptus, called gum. River red gums (Eucalyptus cameldulensis, eucalyptus family Myrtaceae) were growing in a seasonally dry riverbed near Alice Springs. Except for a few puddles, the river was dry, despite the fact that there had been rain within the week.
river red gum, Eucalyptus cameldulensis
Big river red gums, Eucalyptus cameldulensis.
Of course there is more. More native Australian plants, other museums, hiking trails in King's Canyon or the West MacDonnell range...for serious lists see the Northern Territory website link and traveloutback or Trip Advisor link. I've done some of the activities not described in this post, but missed a others. I try to visit places with the idea "I don't need to do it all this trip, I can come back." And while that won't always work out, this was my second trip to Australia when, just eight years ago, I thought it too far to ever reach. I love having a list of places I'd be happy to go back to. Rather than saying, "oh, Alice Springs, been there, done that" I prefer "Alice Springs, been there, loved it, would love an opportunity to go back and do more."

Alice Springs, Australia
A bit of the view from the Anzac Memorial

Comments and corrections welcome.

Previous blogs about Australia include

Kakadu National Park  link 

Blue Mountains, west of Melbourne link

Seeing Australian plants in Australia for the first time link

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist



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