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Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – The Red Centre

July 27, 2015

A couple of years ago I wrote three Let’s get physical posts in which I focused on physical descriptions of places in Australia. Since, I am currently in Central Australia (for my third time), I thought it would be good to write another post or two in this series. Central Australia – or the Alice Springs Region, or the Alice-MacDonnell Ranges area – comprises the southern part of the Northern Territory, and includes the famous sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

Alice Springs, itself, is the second major city in the Northern Territory, after the capital, Darwin. My introduction to the Alice was through Nevil Shute’s novel A town like Alice, but but in fact very little of the book is set in Alice Springs. Eleanor Hogan author of Alice Springs in New South’s Cities series said recently in a Wheeler centre interview:

I was particularly interested in the idea of Alice as a microcosm of national identity and history. It’s not a metaphor that you can take to literal extremes, but there are plenty of conundrums and paradoxes about life in Alice as the premier outback town at the heart of the country that intrigued me.

Central Australia is the quintessential outback. It’s geologically old – very flat with low mountain ranges which were formed 350-300 million years ago – and the earth is red. Population is sparse and distances great. It’s replete with heroes and “characters” like explorer-prospector Lasseter, missionary and Flying Doctor Service founder John Flynn, anthropoligist Ted Strehlow, and indigenous artist Albert Namatjira. It has been criss-crossed by many explorers, and it is where Robyn Davidson started her across-desert trek with camels, chronicled in her book (and the later film), Tracks. And it is, most importantly, home to large communities of indigenous people, who, according to Wikipedia, make up about 50% of the region’s population.

Since my focus here is the physical, though, I won’t go further into the history (or we’ll be here all day). The most famous (white) explorer of colonial Australia in this region was John McDouall Stuart, whose south-north expeditions resulted in the establishment of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line and of the main route from Port Augusta to Darwin (now known as the Stuart Highway). Stuart’s journals (covering 1858 to 1862) are available at Project Gutenberg Australia. I’ll share a couple of excerpts from the Journal of Mr Stuart’s fourth expedition – fixing the centre of the continent. From March to September, 1860. These entries describe the landscape a little south of the Alice:

At eight miles the red sand hills commence, covered with spinifex; and on the small flats mulga scrub, which continues to the base of the hill. Red loose sand; no water (Tuesday, 3 April)

Finke River

Finke River, Glen Helen Gorge, West MacDonnells

The creek is very large, with the finest gum-trees we have yet seen, all sizes and heights. This seems to be a favourite place for the natives to camp, as there are eleven worleys in one encampment. We saw here a number of new parrots, the black cockatoo, and numerous other birds. The creek runs over a space of about two miles, coming from the west; the bed sandy. After leaving it … we passed over a plain of as fine a country as any man would wish to see–a beautiful red soil covered with grass a foot high; after that it becomes a little sandy. At fifteen miles we got into some sand hills, but the feed was still most abundant. I have not passed through such splendid country since I have been in the colony. I only hope it may continue. The creek I have named the Finke, after William Finke, Esquire, of Adelaide, my sincere and tried friend … (Wednesday 4 April)

It was he who “named” the MacDonnell Ranges. His journals are beautiful in their description of the geology, plants and fauna of the region. He also notes the presence of local indigenous people (either by seeing them or their tracks or campsites).


Uluru – what more can you say. Ancient and sublime!

A little later came Ernest Giles, who “named” Mount Olga (now returned to the indigenous name of Kata Tjuta). The following comes from his Australia twice traversed:

Its appearance [Ayers Rock, now Uluru] and outline is most imposing, for it is simply a mammoth monolith that rises out of the sandy desert soil around, and stands with a perpendicular and totally inaccessible face at all points, except one slope near the north-west end, and that at least is but a precarious climbing ground to a height of more than 1100 feet. Down its furrowed and corrugated sides the trickling of water for untold ages has descended in times of rain, and for long periods after, until the drainage ceased, into sandy basins at its feet. The dimensions of this vast slab are over two miles long, over one mile through, and nearly a quarter of a mile high. The great difference between it and Mount Olga [now Kata Tjuta] is in the rock formation, for this is one solid granite stone, and is part and parcel of the original rock, which, having been formed after its state of fusion in the beginning, has there remained, while the aged Mount Olga has been thrown up subsequently from below. Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque; Mount Ayers the more ancient and sublime. (July 1874)

And now, something written by an indigenous woman from a book titled Women of the centre (edited by Adele Pring, 1990). The story-teller is Ruth Mackenzie (b. 1919), an Aranda/Aluritja woman, born just south of the Northern Territory border. This particular description is of country a little further south again, but is still relevant. I’m including it because she’s describing traditional Aboriginal knowledge:

He [husband] told us stories … All this country was jungle. That’s a long way back and there used to be big snakes but the seasons changed. Drought and that came and buried everything up and what they call Yandama sandhills the other side of Lake Frome – all those sandhills – that’s all the trees that’s covered up. I think they’ve found animals there. Animals were bigger – wombat, kangaroo. Everything was a lot larger than what they are now. That’s what he said. Australia was different from what it is now, like it’s all barren country now. It was like Darwin I suppose.

For those of you inspired to read about the region, the following books may be of interest:

Many more books are listed on Wikipedia’s Australian outback literature of the 20th century page.

The majority of Australians live on the coast and are drawn to the sea. Not me. I am drawn to the deserts and the Outback. Maybe this post has explained why?

Note: An excellent discussion of “literary constructions” about the Centre can be found in Chapter 8 of The Cultural Values of the Central Ranges: a preliminary report (for the region’s inclusion as a World Heritage area) (2008).


18 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2015 20:43

    Thanks for this. It’s brought me wonderful memories of earlier this year sleeping under the stars in a swag sleeping bag. The countryside is massively impressive, the bird life fascinating and the night sky of course stunning. Apparently it has become a cliche to be wowed by the night sky but I’ve never had such an experience before. I could see the Milky Way without my glasses even and, again as never before, was completely aware of the movement of the universe. I’d go back in an instant for this and for the birds I saw, no – for it all.
    The local people were encountered were so very very quiet and shy, another rare experience.
    I commented here last year that we were intending a trip to Tasmania too. For important reasons that didn’t happen this visit, maybe next time.

    • July 27, 2015 22:20

      So glad you like the post Carol. I have just returned, prematurely but that’s another story, from my third trip to this area. I just love it, so am really glad that you enjoyed it too. Funnily enough I am going to Tasmania later this year, for my first proper visit in quite a long time. Greatly looking forward to it too. So, hope you do make it there one day. I do recollect your mentioning the trip.

  2. July 28, 2015 08:16

    The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, is another fascinating read about Australia and the Aborigines. I envy your trip, enjoy.

    • July 28, 2015 09:33

      Yes, thanks Meg. I was thinking of that one too. I couldn’t find my copy to quote from and then forgot to mention it. Our trip has unfortunately been cut short. We were to have been there another ten days, but instead flew home from Alice on Sunday and down to Melbourne yesterday to help our son who broke his right arm seriously in Korea while on teacher exchange. We’re glad though that we had our Ghan trip to Alice and time in the Centre.

  3. July 28, 2015 09:21

    Thank you, Sue ! – really interesting. Why are you there for a third time ? – or, to be more specific, exactly where are you ?

    • July 28, 2015 09:48

      Hmm, MR, where we are exactly is Melbourne, though where we we’re supposed to be when this post went live was Alice Springs. We were there for the third time for thee reasons: to do the Ghan which we’ve never done before (first time we drove, second time flew), to show the centre to our friends who were to come with us and who hadn’t been there before, and just to enjoy it again ourselves because we love it. But, it all went awry, with first our friends having to drop out due to a medical emergency for them at the last minute, and then our having to cut our trip short due to our son having an accident in Korea. Life sends detours as one of the stories in Love on the road said!

      • July 28, 2015 11:58

        Is he OK ???

        • July 29, 2015 08:11

          Yes, thanks MR, but he’s in for major rehabilitation, and more surgery to remove a plate in a year or so’s time.

        • July 29, 2015 11:13

          Jesus …. The removal of a plate ? I shan’t enquire further, I think; but just hope all continues well for him, the poor bastard …

        • July 30, 2015 01:19

          Yes, poor bastard indeed. That won’t be fun. But in the short term things took a big leap forward today so we are happier than we were yesterday. Thanks MR, for your wishes.

        • July 30, 2015 10:55

          They are fervent, I promise, Sue …

        • July 30, 2015 18:03

          I know they are MR, and I appreciate it. 😀

  4. July 28, 2015 10:31

    Sorry to hear about your son. Some years back, my daughter broke her arm in Japan when she was teaching. She slipped on the snow.

    • July 29, 2015 08:07

      I had a vague recollection Meg that you experienced something there. For our son it happened during a team building water sports activity. It required surgery in Korea, including a plate which will have to come out in a year or so. We are off to an orthopaedic specialist here today.

  5. July 28, 2015 11:23

    Love the pic of Glen Helen Gorge, it is one of my favourite places in the world and used to visit it when I could during the years we lived in Alice.

    • July 29, 2015 08:09

      Thanks Tarla … It is a beautiful place isn’t it. Unfortunately we had to cut our trip short which meant no Western or Eastern MacDonnells for is this time.

  6. July 29, 2015 20:52

    Sorry to learn about your son’s injury. Best wishes to him and to you. We’re hostages to fortune as parents aren’t we.

    • July 30, 2015 01:16

      Thanks Carol, we sure are. We had a good day today with the specialist and feel better about his recuperation. We were “pretty” confident about the long term recovery, but feared the short term was going to be worse, and more onerous for him, than it now looks like it will be.

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