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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.

Euro­pean Explorers

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.

Mod­ern Alice

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.