A photographer’s guide to exploring central Australia Part II – Alice Springs

Written by Gary on August 5th, 2015

Following on from my introduction to the Red Centre which covered why go, getting there, accommodation and car hire issues, for many the first major stop in central Australia will be the remote semi-arid township of Alice springs which is half way between Darwin and Adelaide – 1,500km from each.

The airport is some 20km from the town and taxi fare will cost about $35 into town although some car rental companies may offer personal pick up, and in addition there are regular shuttle bus services which will cost about $17 per person.

The Ghan train between Adelaide and Darwin does stop in Alice Springs and this may be an attractive alternative to getting there.

Most of the main accommodation resorts are on the east side of the dry Todd River in the “golf course precinct” and are about 2km from the shopping centre which is on the west side of the river and towards Anzac Hill in the north.

Once in Alice, cycling and walking are common modalities if you can’t catch the shuttle buses and you don’t have a car.

The Alice Springs shopping centre has most items you would need including a camera shop but is certainly not a shopping destination – although given a population of 28,000 one would not expect it to be.

There are very few historic buildings in Alice but it is worth checking out The Residency which was the Governor’s house, and you may wish to cycle or drive to the Alice Springs Telegraph Station a few kilometres north of the town.

Things to do in Alice Springs

Relax and explore the many native flora in the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens and climb the hill for nice views across the town to Anzac Hill and to Mt Gillem.

view from Botanical gardens hill towards Anzac Hill

The view of main township from Botanical gardens hill over the dry Todd River bed and towards Anzac Hill.

Relax by the pool in the lovely winter sun at your resort.

Walk through town and check out indigenous art works and learn about their culture.

Learn about the wonderful Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Climb Mt Gillen (see below).

Explore the old road trains and Ghan train at the National Road Transport Hall of Fame

See the desert wildlife at the Desert Park.

Cycle to Simpson’s Gap.

Day trips to the East or West Macdonnell Ranges and explore their gorges.

Day trip to historic Hermannsburg (a 19th century Lutheran missionary community) and Palm Valley (if you have a high clearance 4WD and you can take it on the very rough roads).

Day trip on unsealed roads to Chamber’s Pillar.

Climbing Mt Gillen

Mt Gillen is the tallest peak near Alice Springs and climbing it is like a rite of passage for those staying in Alice Springs.

It is named after ethnologist, Francis James Gillen.

It is a challenging walk which rises over 360m from the start of the walk at the John Flynn Memorial on Larapinta Drive some 7km from town, on often steep, slippery gravel paths requiring reasonable fitness and coordination skills along with stable knees and ankles. It is a very exposed walk and you will need sunscreen, sunglasses, water, a hat which will not get blown off your head, sturdy shoes, phone, and preferably at least one companion in case you do suffer an injury.

The last phase involves a near vertical rock climb of some 5-6m which is not for the faint hearted but provides a rewarding walk along the top to the beacon which provides glorious views over the ranges and of Alice Springs.

These views are best at sunrise or sunset when it is also much cooler (you will need a warm jacket and gloves if going at sunrise), and you should be carrying a headlamp to help to see your way along the path in the dark.

Mt Gillen climb

Perhaps 2/3rds of the way up Mt Gillem showing the top cliffs which need to be negotiated.

Mt Gillen climb

The wonderful view across to the West Macdonnell Ranges and Mt Sonder in the far distance.

Mt Gillen climb

After the relief of surviving the cliff climb, you look back to this view westwards.

Mt Gillen climb

A short walk from there across the top to the beacon gives a view to the north-east overlooking Alice Springs.

All images taken with Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus mZD 12-40mm f/2.8 lens and circular polarising filter and essentially are straight from the camera other than resizing for web.

This very strenuous walk is NOT great for large, heavy dSLRs, especially if one is silly enough to carry a tripod as well – although I am sure you would get some nice pre-sunrise shots for your hike up the mountain in darkness – if you survive.

Towards an understanding of the plight of Australian indigenous peoples

Let me first state, that their issues are complex and I have only had a very brief introduction to them, and what I present here is my perception from what I have been told in a few days in Alice.

Firstly, they arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago and developed a strong connection with the land and its sustainable management – that was until the British arrived in 1770 and subsequently colonised the continent, bringing diseases and substantial culture change to these people, and worse, bringing their arrogance of how they should live and often with very few of the rights and expectations that the whites had available to them.

It would seem the indigenous peoples in Alice Springs, of which there are some 4,800, do not wish to be assimilated into white culture, and wish to retain their own cultures and cultural identities. This has been extremely difficult psychologically with their loss of identity and respect in the white world – after all, by aboriginal laws, their indigenous destiny, society roles and responsibilities had been decided well before they were born, but these are rarely respected by the white people. This is part of the reason for the high alcohol abuse and resultant domestic violence, crime rates and imprisonment that is currently endemic.

This is further compounded by poverty (75% are in the lowest socioeconomic quintile compared with 10% of non-indigenous people) and poor access to well constructed housing, heating, food and water in a harsh environment with very cold winter nights and very hot summer days, the combination of which leads to very high endemic rates of disease rarely found in white people of Australia such as:

  • blindness due to trachoma which is partly due to inadequate washing of faces due to inadequate access to water, poor access to topical antibiotics and ophthalmology specialists
  • chronic childhood suppurative lung conditions which lead onto bronchiectasis (150/100,000 in children older 15yrs which is highest rate in the world and 40x rate of non-indigenous), which may be partly due to high rates of HTLV-1 infections as well as lack of access to nutrition, heating, running water and antibiotics
  • rheumatic heart disease affects 2-3% of adolescents and adults and treatment involves more than weekly penicillin injections for 10 years!
  • alcohol is responsible for half of fatal road trauma and over half of suicides, and complicates 40% of ICU admissions (4x that of non-indigenous ICU admits), recent public policy changes to restrict access to alcohol has also markedly reduced bleeding from stomach and pneumonia
  • increased mental health issues – aboriginals in remote communities have over 3x rate of mental health issues and completed suicide is 2x (female) and 5x (male) higher, this is compounded by substance abuse (historically both alcohol and petrol sniffing), and higher levels of organic brain injury
  • obesity due to reduced exercise, access to cheap high calorie foods, limited access to cheap quality food, intrauterine malnourishment, and structural issues.
  • diabetes (18% of those aged 45-54yrs and 35% of those aged over 55yrs – 3x the rate of non-indigenous people but 18x the rate when looking at 20-45yr olds!) and its many complications (19x the rate of end organ damage) including chronic renal failure (25% by age 45-54 and 35% in ages 55-64yrs – 4x rate of non-indigenous) with high rates of younger adults requiring renal dialysis. 50% of these diabetics have HbA1c levels > 10%!
  • sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis
  • they do have differences in DNA, for instance, >10% have HLA-B*56:02 (rare in whites) which causes severe drug reactions (DRESS) when given the anti-epileptic drug phenytoin, and their genes are optimised for low caloric, high protein desert existence and curiously, may have lower mortality from severe sepsis than non-indigenous people.

Aboriginal presentations to the newly developed Alice Springs emergency department account for around 50% of all adult presentations and around 70% of all adult hospital admissions despite the aboriginal population being only 17% in Alice (although catchment area is 45,000 people and a third are aboriginal), while life expectancy is some 15 years shorter than non-indigenous peoples in the region at 63yrs for males and 69 years for females. Age adjusted death rates are 3.5x higher and hospitalisation rates are 6.5x higher than non-indigenous people. 70% of deaths occur before age 65yrs compared with 21% of deaths for non-indigenous people. The hospital has high re-admission rates of 28% within 30 days and high own discharge rates. Many indigenous people do not trust the white hospital system, and furthermore, many wish to die on their land rather than in hospital.

Infant mortality though has dramatically improved over the past 15 years falling from 14 per 1,000 live births in 2000 to about 5-6 per 1,000 live births which is almost the same as non-indigenous rates of around 3-4 per 1,000 live births.

The challenge is to find effective and culturally-appropriate models of care to reduce this disease burden which is compounded by the remoteness and poverty of many of these communities.

Road trauma issues in central Australia

The Northern Territory has the highest per capita rates of fatal road trauma in Australia (over half are due to single vehicle rollover accidents, and most are tourists aged 20-40yrs) which is due to a number of factors:
  • remote distances from medical care and longer times for discovery of accident increase death rates with average time to hospital from accident being 8hrs!
  • unfenced roads means more wandering wildlife including dingoes, kangaroos, camels, cows and horses – these are a particular issue at night and swerving to avoid animals is a major cause of  roll-over
  • narrow road shoulders, high rates of SUV/4WD vehicles with high centres of gravity, and unsealed roads means more likely to lose control of the car and subsequent roll-over at speed
  • high tourist population not used to driving on road conditions, often in a strange rental car and on opposite side of road to what they are used to, and potentially distracted by sights, multi-tasking and passengers.
  • high speed with minimal capacity for speed enforcement in the remote areas
  • high alcohol use
  • long distances resulting in driver fatigue, inattention and tiredness
  • tyre blowout is a significant cause of rollover accidents but much less than driver fatigue, speed and swerving to avoid animals

tire blowout

A blown out tyre on the remote Mereneenie Loop unsealed road between Hermannsburg and Kings Canyon.

Next post will be exploring the West Macdonnell Ranges.


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