Every morning I wake up and Alice Springs is outside. I’ve been here almost a year now, so it’s no longer a surprise to see the rugged slopes of the MacDonnell Ranges looking into the kitchen window as I click the electric kettle into action.
I’ve survived an initial bout of culture shock brought on by direct and immediate exposure to the harsh realities of life experienced by Aboriginal people living in town and on the surrounding communities.
Things can get a bit grim here.
At the northern end of the mall, outside the iconic Todd Tavern, the countrymen begin to congregate in the mornings. People sit individually or in small groups chatting amongst themselves. The community languages sound harsh and guttural to my un-tutored ears.
This is a parallel universe. Indigenous and non-Indigenous folk go about their business with little thought of acknowledging the other. There are scars here.
The whitefella history of Alice Springs is one of brave pioneers opening up the country to push through the Overland Telegraph Line.
But on the east side of town, is a ridge running east-west down to the river bed which is sacred to the caterpillar dreaming. A road, known to the local Arrernte people as “broken promise drive” was built parallel to the river bed in 1983, to open up the area to housing. The “tail” of the caterpillar - a location registered and protected under the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act - was dynamited and bulldozed to allow the road to the casino to proceed.
“It was unfortunate that agreement could not be reached between the government and the traditional custodians on how to protect the site” is the coyly-worded observation on the tourist signage at the base of the site.
A fair chunk of the town’s population steadfastly refuses to acknowledge - let alone embrace - the rich Indigenous history of the place. In some quarters there is a barely-concealed hostility towards Aboriginal people. Local newspapers pander readily to anti-Aboriginal sentiment, as their news columns too often highlight the negative aspects of Indigenous stories.
But it is on the “letters to the editors” page that the real damage is done. In the Murdoch missive, the correspondent’s name and address is frequently “withheld by request”, but intemperate and unsubstantiated vitriol is supplied in copious quantities.
In August of last year, Alice Springs - marooned in a desert and drowning in grog - was declared a “dry” town. The intent was not to reduce alcohol consumption, but to eliminate public drinking - most often the province of Aboriginal people.
The initiative was driven mainly by traders seeking a peaceful and pristine shopping mall, rather than any deep concern for public health.
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