After our stroll around KarluKarlu/Devil’s Marbles, Big Red speeded us on to the ‘heart, soul and centre’ of Australia – Alice Springs.
Girded by the McDouall Ranges, Alice is the second largest city in the Northern Territory. For us, it meant that we were half way home.
Named after the wife of surveyor/explorer/telegraph pioneer, Charles Todd, Alice has a population of about 28,000. Being slap bang in the middle of the Red Centre, the temperatures vary hugely, especially in winter. Day time temperature is a pleasant 20+/-C. Nights can plunge into the zeros. Just a couple of weeks before our stay it had plunged to -4. It has even been known to snow there, the last time being in the 70’s when the temperature plummeted to -7.5. We didn’t experience such extremes of temperature. Suffice it to say that it was the first night we needed blankets since leaving home.
Funded by the South Australian Government, the brief was to link Adelaide to Darwin and Great Britain. It is still considered to be a remarkable 3178 km long engineering feat completed in an astonishing period of less than two years under extremely harsh conditions.
TRH (The Retired Husband) was keen to visit the site which he fondly calls ‘the first internet’. It has been restored to original condition for posterity. Comprised of a closed circuit Morse code system, the poles for the line were seven metres long, cut mostly from native timbers and placed 80 metres apart. The line was carried on insulators mounted on pin holders driven into the top of the pole. Every second pole had lightning conductors.
In 1898 the wooden poles were replaced by metal, the route straightened and a second copper line installed. Selected site voice communication commenced in 1925, telephone services all the way through to Adelaide by 1942.
Due to the length of the line, 12 repeater stations were required to carry the signals. Of these, the Alice Station is the best preserved.
A number of buildings had been built, including a harness room, buggy shed, police station, blacksmith’s workshop, telegraph office, kitchen building and station master’s residence.
Now, these were the men (station masters) that ran the place. They were officers in charge. You can call them masters or managers. They actually had to do eight years when they were appointed. If they cut them short, there was something wrong. For that eight years, he was the officer in charge. He was the magistrate, he was the doctor, he was also the protector of Aborigines. Now being a doctor – he didn’t practice medicine – the reason? He could use morse-code to get to a doctor, that’s all. He did learn first-aid though. And the other thing, as Protector of Aborigines, I think Charles Todd’s idea was to get the Aborigines on side early and quickly, and they would then look after both sides so that they didn’t fight against each other. (as told by Alec Ross in A Living History of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station)
Supplies transported by camels only arrived from Adelaide once a year so self-sufficiency was critical. Sheep, goats, cattle and a vegetable garden were essential. The blacksmith made most of the equipment needed in one of the first buildings erected. He worked there for 33 years. The station masters children loved helping him in the winter months because it was warm. Summer was a whole different story! Temperatures in Alice can be searing in summer, reaching mid to high 40’s. In those days they had no air-conditioning.
Eventually the blacksmith shop closed and he was dismissed. On leaving, he said I would never have taken the job if I knew it was not going to be permanent.
While the waterhole supplied the settlement with water, a well was later sunk to maintain supply during drought periods. Drought is common in the outback. After completion, the telegraph station operated for 60 years.
Since its closure the original station has been an education centre for part aboriginal children (1932-42) known as The Bungalow; a wartime army base during World War 2 (1942-1945); and an aboriginal reserve (1945-1963). In 1963 the aboriginal people moved to Amoonguna, an aboriginal settlement south-east of town. This settlement still exists today. The station was then gazetted as the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve.
Alec Ross, the great grandson of the explorer, John Ross who chose the site of the Central Telegraph Station back in 1871, was highly regarded as a living history of the station. He worked there as a tour guide for the latter part of his life until his death in November 2017.
His story is unique and fascinating, worthy of its own post. As a four year old, Alec was one of the mixed race children who were moved to live in The Bungalow for several years before being evacuated at the outbreak of WW2. In this video he reminisces about his time there.
© Raili Tanska