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Published: December 17th 2015
We stayed in Alice Springs twice; once upon arrival from the Ghan train on 23.11.15 and again on our return from the Red Centre on 28.11.15. Both were overnight stays and we stayed in the Chifley Resort Hotel on both occasions, booking the second night after being impressed with our stay on the first. It had a pool, restaurant and bar and was spacious and clean. Our second night's stay there was accompanied by loud music from a wedding party into the early hours of the morning so wasn't as good. Serves us right for breaking our own rules about not revisiting the same place! The heat we had travelled half way round the world for finally happened with the temperature reaching 38°C! Lovely.
We were surprised that Alice Springs was much bigger than we expected, having had a picture in mind of a one horse town. It actually had quite a big shopping centre with a mall, several bars/taverns/restaurants and a couple of museums focusing on Aboriginal art and culture. It seemed its main industry was tourism, followed closely by health and social care. There is a hospital in Alice Springs, the Flying Doctor service is based there and
there is a considerable amount of social work taking place amongst the Aborigine community.
This was the first time we were aware of a significant Aborigine population. The surrounding area is key to their belief system, with Uluru (Ayers Rock) being a particularly spiritual place and Alice Springs being the closest (but still very distant) town. They tended to keep their own company and cluster in groups under the shade of trees, or gather together in the parks - school is permanently out in their wonderland. We saw very few in employment, though one or two worked in the gardens of the hotel and in the laundry. Their language is very loud, staccato, guttural and high-pitched at times which can make the people themselves sound aggressive but we never observed any signs of this. We were approached a number of times to buy some pieces of 'original' art work but they looked mass-produced to us and a simple 'no thank you' was sufficient to be left alone. We felt safe at all times but our street-wise antennae were primed.
There is a significant police presence in Alice Springs though, and there is clearly an undercurrent and tension between
the two communities. There is apparently a big alcohol problem with the Aborigines. The local bottle shop (a bit like our off-licences but the only place to buy alcohol 'to go' in Australia) had a police car on the entrance when we passed by, checking the IDs of the Aborigines. We tried to explore the reasons for this with a young Australian we met in the pub to get his take on this. He may not have held typical views, being something of an outlaw himself. He had spent the last few years travelling through Europe, Asia and the USA and had decided it was time to explore his own country (he hailed from Perth originally). He did not work to support his travelling. He hitch-hiked, sofa-surfed and was quite honest in saying he stole his food. Perhaps he was a descendant of deported British criminal stock - though he seemed to have money from who knows where to buy his pint!
His view was that the problem was of our making, as those from European stock were 'wired' for alcohol and the Aborigines were not (!). He said the Aborigines had to provide ID to prove they did
not live in a designated dry (alcohol free) area (difficult, apparently, because most Aborigine housing has been designated to be in a dry area) and had to provide resident permit details before they would be served. He pointed out that he was of no fixed abode, or a local resident, yet he was never asked to provide ID - nor were we, for that matter. He explained that the Aborigines received dole and welfare stamps that could only be used in certain retailers and only for food, not alcohol, though some bar owners were sympathetic (or wanton?) and would serve them. Our latter-day Ned Kelly was of the opinion that the way the Aborigines were being treated amounted to a form of Apartheid.
We had very little interaction with the Aborigines. This was not a deliberate policy on our part, but the opportunities rarely presented themselves. The bar we were in was 'gated' with iron railings or fences and the Aborigines were simply not allowed in, being forced to tout their 'paintings', which they sell to make money, from outside (no-one we saw begged for something for nothing). Another Australian and his son invited an older Aborigine woman into
the outside bar area to look at her painting (he already had one and didn't really need another but he was trying to make a contribution). This was frowned on but tolerated by the bar staff. He bought her a drink, gave her several cigarettes and $20 for her painting, about which she made up an almost believable story about her grandmother's farm. He took a genuine interest and the lady chatted to him for a good half hour during which time word apparently spread because first the lady's daughter arrived, then her son, then a car full of friends, all hoping to take advantage of the chap's generosity and he really didn't need any more paintings! The goodwill dissipated, the bar staff became mean and all parties left.
The only other time we came close to interaction of any sort was in another area of the Red Centre when a young man came into a bar with his extended family group to play pool. (It sounds as though we spend all our time in bars but we use them a lot to eat in - more our style than fancy restaurants!). He made a point of coming over to introduce himself and shake hands. We were waiting for the follow up - but it never came so maybe the younger generation is trying to build bridges ....
So, that was Alice Springs for us. We used it very much as a gateway to the Red Centre and didn't really do more than scratch the surface. I had a camel burger in Alice, which was OK (the camels are farmed) and the town seemed too big for its population in that it seemed empty and closed but was actually open and just waiting for tourists. We liked it.
Thankfully, we didn't have to repeat the train journey back to Adelaide. It is usually cheaper to fly than to use almost any other form of transport in Australia, so that's what we did. This actually gave us a different perspective - from the air you can truly appreciate just how vast the Red Centre is.
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