We did not expect to find Alice Springs surrounded by hills.
For a thousand kilometers in every direction the Red Center of Australia stretches in a rarely interrupted, pancake flat plain. Occasionally there will be a rock formation. A dry river bed here; a salt flat en lieu of a lake there. The road is straight and flat like no other straight or flat we’ve ever driven. Until Alice Springs.
Of course there were people living here for thousands of years before it occurred to the explorers that it would be the perfect place for the main telegraph station along the track that Stuart made from stem to stern of Australia. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that any sort of European outpost was built here, but since then, it’s become the most important hub in the Outback. Now, there are 20,000 people gathered to hold down the fort as the main hub of transportation and commerce in the center of the country.
It’s a quaint and walkable town. Every amenity is available, trucked in on massive road trains and rolled in on the rails that run, like the backbone of the city, between the hills. Tucked into the valley, Alice Springs is more than an oasis in the desert, it’s an island in a vast ocean of sand.
We picnicked at the war memorial on the hilltop and took in the grand view, walked the pedestrian mall at the end of Todd street, enjoyed a real grocery store. Toured the old telegraph station. Got the Rickard’s van fixed up. That seems to be a major industry in Alice, car repair, and no small wonder; it’s quite a trek to get here.
Last night we sat under the stars and sipped beer over pork chops and potatoes with our friends: the nurses we met in Coober Pedy. They checked on Hannah’s knee, we swapped stories from Uluru, they showered the children with chocolates, and Ray echoed the lesson we keep learning, over and over: “It’s not about seeing the sites, is it? It’s about this! It’s about the people you meet, the conversations you have and the experience of being here together.”
And so it is.
This morning we pushed off from the safe harbour of Alice Springs and are rolling north towards Three Ways, where we’ll make a significant right turn and head for Queensland and the coast. Mid-morning we piled out of the vans and took an epic photograph on the Tropic of Capricorn, our first land crossing of 23.3 degrees south. Our lunch picnic was at a notably “local” road house. We were the only non-Aboriginals on site. The afternoon play stop was at Devil’s Marbles, where the kids cavorted and mountain goated all over the huge round stones while the Mamas hollered reminders about watching out for snakes.
We’re pushing the envelope tonight, hoping to make the next two days’ driving a little less. It’s going to be a long haul out to the coast and our littlest road trippers have been such troopers.