Alice Springs, Australia’s Outback Town

The Great Red Center of Australia has one town. Alice Springs is 1000 miles in any direction from the next town. There are long long dirt roads to Darwin, Perth, and Adelaide and a blacktop (bitumen here) road that goes about 200 miles to Uluru (Ayers Rock). The rainiest month on record was last month and Alice is a bit more than ten times its annual rainfall average already this year. The “rainy” months are yet to come. It was a nice surprise to have the desert green and flowering. There were places where the bunch grasses were so thick they looked like pasture. Everyone is amazed by the bounty this year – but it may not rain again for years (that has happened). 

The plane to Alice was delayed and we were almost three hours off schedule when we arrived. The really bad news is that I didn’t get a chance to assess the Desert Museum. I have wanted to look this museum over for quite a while. It seems to be like the Desert Museum outside Tucson and might offer a great opportunity to visitors. 

This trip we have lots of nature/bird people and I’m sure that 5-7 or maybe even more would stop off at the watery pools of the Alice Springs Waste-Water plant for a quick look at ducks, swan, grebes, and shorebirds in the desert center. We always go to the Flying Doctors and the School of the Air; both interesting but indoors. Here in this remote part of the world the aboriginal history, natural history, and geologic formations are the draws. I would really like to feature the natural history. I think that visiting the Desert Museum and birding in the lagoons could be made as interesting as the other options. We will do the School of the Air today and Flying Doctors tomorrow. Hopefully I can squeeze in a visit one day or the other.

The Crested Pigeon is an elegant member of this group.
The Wallaby below was grazing on the lawn of the old telegraph station.

Paul Griffin, the opal store proprietor here in our hotel, and I will do a talk on the geology of Australia with emphasis on the semi-precious stones and mining options that have been featured here for the past 150 years. However we will also talk of the booming mineral and resource market that Australia is currently taking advantage of. 
Alice is a small town of about 26,000 and is located among the ridge lines known as the McDonald Ranges. The slot (gap) that lets you in and out of town is the Heavitree Gap and it is quite narrow; just wide enough for a good two lane roadway. The McDonalds are the last visual remnants of very old mountains (330 million years) that have eroded away. Like most of the visible hard geology here they are the bent and twisted edges of what were once horizontal sediment layers. Many of them are now approaching the vertical. As this area was sea bottom at one time the sediments are mostly sandstone. Through tectonic pressure these sandstone layers have metamorphosed into quartzite and now have the appearance of a tan glass – blocks of tan glasslike stone, not glass shards, make up the walls of the ridges and valleys. The cooler, wetter, narrow valleys in the McDonalds are vegetated with Cycads and Ghost Gums and Spinifex grass. Some of the passageways become narrow slots, like in Petra, that pass right through the narrow ranges.

This view is of the upper half of the narrow split at Standley Chasm.

The Black-fronted Dotterel was at Standley Chasm as the river bed was actually wet due to the rains.
The Black-footed wallaby is a regular resident near Standley Chasm and is often the only “kangaroo” we see.

The McDoanld ranges are small now, rarely 1000 feet tall and split with these narrow gaps. They are a bit like eskers with cuts through them; or more like a thick sandstone hawser cut shrply at the end with another drawn up close to it but not quite touching. You can see them lying there like large caterpillars in a row. They are not really mountains anymore – but they have character.
When Fran and I come back here, for a month or more, I think I’d like to drive north to Darwin from Alice Springs. We would certainly want to get to Kakadu National Park. It is arguably the best site in all of Australia for wildlife and cultural things. It is a very long way from everywhere else though. Kakadu is supposed to be just great; crocodiles, birds, wet forests, and marsupials. 

The evening we spend in the bush with Con and Kathy and John and Barry Skypse is a treat. Everyone sings along with Barry and two of our travelers get to play along (below). One plays the lager-phone (a broom stick with dozens of beer bottle caps tacked to it) and the other plays the wobble-board (masonite wobbled back and forth). That particular song is a long song and lots of fun. I bought Barry’s CD so that I can do the Gum Tree song with the kids. It has lots of hand motions and is a cute thing. It will be fun to play for and with them.

The next morning we go back into the bush with Con and we get a lesson on the Outback aboriginal people. We can also buy dot-paintings done there by the ladies. It is a very nice morning. The image below is of the lady from whom I bought the picture she is holding. It is a picture of “snake and emu traveling north”.

I did get to spend an hour and a half at the sewage lagoons with our avid nun-birder; but that was barely time to walk the perimeter of this great birding site. Also, as they have had a great deal of rain, there were no “mud” flats only very-full pools. So there were no herons, egrets, and only a few plovers, sandpipers or muddy-edge specialists. But, it was good anyway. There were about 92 Black Swans, one hundred of several kinds of ducks and grebes and a selection of Black-tailed Native-Hens, Black-winged Stilts, and Masked Plovers. There was also a Red-capped Plover and some (hard to get close to) sandpipers.
I have a key to the birder’s gate at the plant. There is a kiosk with a bird book and list of sightings. There is a birder’s pamphlet and a sign-in book. It is a very nice arrangement all-in-all. The key was mine for a $35 deposit a year ago and I have used it during my last three trips here. As I am not booked for any more outings, and if I remember, I will try to sell it to the driver or someone else who lives in or visits Alice.

I really do like Alice and the surrounding Outback. Some day this place will get a week or more of our birding time.

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