A Brief History
The Aboriginal Arrernte (pronounced arrunda) people are the traditional custodians of Alice Springs and the surrounding region. Mparntwe (pronounced m’barn-twa) is the Arrernte name of Alice Springs.
Arrernte stories describe how the landscape surrounding Alice, including the MacDonnell Ranges, was created by the actions of their ancestors, the caterpillar beings Ayepe-arenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrengatye. Creation stories also explain the traditional connection with more distant areas such as Urlatherrke (Mount Zeil) in the West MacDonnell Ranges, to Port Augusta in South Australia.
Arrernte people living in Mparntwe continue to observe traditional law, look after the country, and teach their children Arrernte language and the importance of culture.
In October 1861, Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart departed Adelaide with a small expedition team to survey inland Australia for potential settlement. He reached the centre on 12 March 1862, eventually traversing the continent to arrive at the Arafura Sea on 24 July, the same year.
Though a controversial figure, Stuart is arguably Australia’s most preeminent explorer due to his extensive experiences surviving the harsh, deadly conditions of the interior. The Stuart Highway, spanning the continent south (from Adelaide) to north (Darwin), is named in his honour.
Following the path of Stuart, the Overland Telegraph was constructed to enable pastoralists to take up leases in the red centre. Overseen by South Australia’s Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd, and completed on 22 August 1872, the Overland Telegraph is considered ‘the greatest engineering feat of 19th century Australia’. Within two months of completion, the line was linked to the Java-Darwin submarine telegraph line, connecting communications between Australia and Europe. The Alice Springs Telegraph Station, located within the Historical Reserve on Herbert Heritage Drive, was established as a repeater station in 1871.
Between 1871 and 1933, Alice Springs was simply the name of a waterhole adjacent to the telegraph station and named after Alice Todd, wife of Sir Charles Todd. Alice Springs began its modern history as the township of Stuart.
The area’s population did not grow significantly until the discovery of alluvial gold in 1887 at Arltunga, 110km to the east. Camel trains, already transporting essential provisions 600km from the railhead at Oodnadatta in the south, were put under additional pressure as they carried essential water and supplies onwards from Alice to the extremely arid Arltunga. Following the east MacDonnell Ranges for around 120km, the journey out of Alice would take at least a week in temperatures frequently exceeding 40°C.
Afghan cameleers forged a place in Australia’s history, driving their camel trains through the unforgiving desert climate. Their legacy is proudly evident in Alice Springs today with many local families being direct descendants of those early pioneers.
“Their contribution to the opening up and accessibility of the great mass of inland Australia was enormous and vital. The very backbone of Australia’s economy, the traditional spheres of pastoralism and mining, owe an immense historical debt to the cameleers and their camels.”
Tin Mosques and Ghantowns, Christine Stevens, 1989.
By 1929, the railway line from Oodnadatta was extended to reach Stuart, linking the centre with Adelaide – a mechanised steam train replacing the Afghan camel trains. On Sunday 4 August, the first ‘Afghan Express’ left Adelaide Railway Station and arrived in (the informally named) ‘Alice Springs’ on Tuesday, 6 August. Though always intended to connect with Darwin, The Ghan transcontinental railway line was not completed until February 2004 – the entire journey today covers 2979km in 54 hours.
After decades of confusion, the township of Stuart was officially gazetted Alice Springs by government administrators in Adelaide on 31 August 1933.