Post 23 of an ongoing series detailing our Australian adventure. Access the full series here.
Alice Springs, slap-bang in the middle of Australia, is some 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) from the nearest city. It’s built on a river that is almost always bone-dry and surrounded by nothing but desert for hundreds of miles in every direction. Despite its mind-blowing remoteness, Alice Springs is the third largest town in the Northern Territory and well-known as a tourist hub for Australia’s ‘Red Centre’. That didn’t stop it from being a very strange place indeed.
Steve and I awoke in a drab, muggy room of The Diplomat Motel, having arrived in Alice Springs the day before via a long drive from Ayers Rock Resort. We’d be boarding the Ghan – the historic train running through the centre of Australia, from Adelaide at the bottom to Darwin at the top – at 6pm. So we had several hours in which to explore the town.
Cultural insights – good and bad
We ate cereal bars as a quick breakfast before heading out. Our first stop was the Mbantua Aboriginal Art Gallery and Cultural Museum just across the road, which was undoubtedly the best thing we found in Alice Springs. The museum went into much more detail about local Aboriginal cultures than the museums at Ayers Rock Resort and it was fascinating. The artwork was wonderful, so much so that we decided to buy some of our own. The main street, Todd Mall, had several Aboriginal art shops to browse through and we found a small cross-hatch style painting of a kangaroo that was inexpensive and perfect (see below). We received with it a Certificate of Authenticity that told us it was painted in acrylics on canvas by Reg Pengarte, a man of the Arunta tribe.
The high street itself was less enchanting. It felt eerily quiet for a town centre, and the shabby shop and cafe fronts appeared to have been in place since the 1950s. What was most difficult to ignore, however, were the great numbers of Aboriginal people in town who appeared, to me, to be homeless. A few were ambling listlessly through the streets in scruffy clothes, while far more of them were sitting quietly, in large family groups on every patch of grass. It was a shock after spending the previous few days surrounded by vivacious and professional Aboriginal staff at Ayers Rock Resort.
They might not have been homeless; they may have just going about their lives in a different way. I felt painfully aware of being an ignorant white person making narrow-minded assumptions and feeling potentially misplaced pity; yet I was incapable of asking anyone about this seemingly taboo subject in plain sight. My discomfort increased with every public service advert I saw targeted specifically at Aboriginal people: telling them to stay away from alcohol, or to ensure their children went to school. Was this insulting condescension from the white ruling classes, or earnest attempts at supporting a minority? I had no idea, although this article seems to confirm my suspicions.
I still don’t understand the situation in Alice Springs, nor the entire complex issue of Aboriginal-White relations in Australia. All I know is that white people treated Australia’s indigenous population appallingly in the past, and it appears that the scars are still a long way from healing.
The deserted museum
But back to our day in this strange town, in which we next made the unwise decision to visit a tourist attraction in the low season. Having already seen plenty of animals on this holiday, we overlooked the Kangaroo Sanctuary, Desert Park and Reptile Centre in favour of the Old Ghan Heritage Railway Museum, to learn about the history of the journey we were about to take. It took a visit to the visitor centre, several circles around town and asking bus drivers where they were going, but we eventually found the bus that would take us there. It was lunch time and we were hungry, but decided we’d eat at the ‘Old Ghan Tea Rooms’ described on the website.
The bus dropped us off in an empty car park just out of town. The desolation was rather off-putting, but we were encouraged by the colourful combined entrance to the Ghan museum and the Road Transport Hall of Fame. The path separated into two and we followed the one pointing to the Ghan museum. It led us to some bird cages and cafe tables in front of an unsigned, apparently locked-up building. We had yet to see a single other person. We hung around for a bit, wondering whether we were just too early, before deciding to search for signs of life at the other museum.
We walked inside and, to our relief, found an old couple tending a small ticket desk and souvenir shop. They told us that the Ghan museum wasn’t tended by anyone today, as it was too quiet, but that we could let ourselves in. We paid the entrance fee and went to do just that.
Inside the museum it was just as eerily quiet as you’d expect. The walls were covered in information on the history of the railway, yellowed newspaper clippings, vintage advertisements, passenger’s personal accounts, even old menus from the Ghan’s on-board restaurant. The tables held every kind of artifact you could imagine for a historic train, from uniforms to passenger’s lost belongings. We wandered around, examining everything in silence. It was pretty interesting and I probably would have enjoyed it had I been able to shake the uncomfortable feeling that we weren’t supposed to be there. We found a door that led into the backyard, where stood the old Ghan train itself (as well as a few others) that we could enter and explore. Walking around the old train’s preserved carriages was the best part of the museum by far. But our stomachs were now growling ferociously.
We returned to the other museum’s ticket office to ask the old couple whether we could buy any food, but the best they could offer was a can of coke and a bag of crisps. Things only got worse when we asked them when the next bus was, and they told us we’d just missed one. The next was an hour and a half away and we couldn’t wait that long for proper food. Reluctantly, we asked the couple to phone us a taxi.
Making our getaway
Back in town with lighter pockets, we found a mostly empty, diner-style restaurant called Sporties in Todd Mall. To our relief, we arrived just before they stopped serving lunch. The meals we ordered – risotto and pasta – were basic but tasty and in generous portions. We made quick work of these and returned to the Diplomat to pick up our luggage.
The time had come to board the modern-day Ghan train and embark on the final leg of our journey through Australia. Having wheeled our luggage to the station and boarded the train, we felt a sensation of déjà vu. The Ghan’s interior was identical to that of the Indian Pacific train we’d rode from Perth to Sydney: the ‘Red Class’ area filled with the same reclining seats that we’d be living in for the next two days. Except this time it wasn’t excitement we felt, but relief to finally be getting some rest! We settled in for a long, relaxing night as we began our journey up to Darwin.