Category Archives: History

September 6, Part 2

Then it was back to the house to pack for a weekend away–and then wait for Richard to arrive. I have not yet met Richard, just read about him in Nikki’s letters. However, he was working as an outback guide when Nikki met him, so I have no doubt he will be a wonderful asset as we go off exploring for a couple of days. I’m grateful that they are willing to take off a couple of days to show me around their corner of Australia. I’m looking forward to this.

Richard arrived home by 3:30 and found us ready and waiting. We helped him pack the ute, and we were on our way by 4 o’clock, rolling out across the valley, north and east, toward the Flinders Ranges. We passed through miles of sheep raising land, and through the town of Burra. (A quick search on this blog will turn up two posts I did previously on Burra—because it was a favorite spot from my first trip.) We didn’t stop, just admired familiar sites as we continued on, through a brilliant sunset, to the town of Peterborough.

Peterborough is a charming, historic town that grew up along the railways, and it was in fact at the handsome, old Railway Hotel that we would be staying. This is one of those classic, two-story outback hotels with broad verandahs that were so commonly built in the late 1800s. This is serious Australiana. My second-floor room faces the front of the hotel and has a door that lets out onto the balcony that wraps around the building. Simply wonderful. I could hardly be happier.

Railway Hotel in Peterborough, SA

Railway Hotel in Peterborough, SA


We had dinner in the hotel’s bar, and then headed off for a walk through town. We strolled down Main Street, past picturesque storefronts, all of a nineteenth-century vintage similar to the hotel. The town hall was impressive. There were historic markers, but I really didn’t need them, as Richard knows the area’s history so well.

We returned to the hotel, where we enjoyed a nightcap and listened to the live entertainment. Both the staff and clientele were as charming as our surroundings. But then it was time to head off to bed. We’re going to be getting early starts each day, to take advantage of daylight hours. And so, good night.

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Friday, September 6

Up early, to finish packing for my departure. Rae and Bert had kindly volunteered to drive me to the bus depot for my 9:00am bus, and this made heading out much easier. So, again, I said good-bye to good Aussie friends and continued on my way.

Barry, the driver of the Adelaide-Barossa bus, was an amiable man who informed me of much of what we passed, as we headed out of Adelaide and into the Barossa Valley–wine country. We drove through charming old Gawler, then Tanunda, a finally into Nuriootpa, where Nikki was waiting for me at the bus stop. (If you’ve read Waltzing Australia, you might remember Nikki from my tour of Western Australia. She was one of the English women with whom I became friends, but unlike the other English women I met, she did not return home, having fallen in love with someone in Australia–Richard–shortly after I last saw her in Perth.)

We drove to her absolutely delightful house, on the edge of town. It is light and airy, very Australian, surrounded by gardens, and filled with Nikki’s fine needlework, travel mementos of hers and Richard’s, and charming antiques. I loved it. (And I could move in tomorrow, without even having to change the books or music CDs.)

Nikki took me on a whirlwind tour of the Barossa Valley, showing me the sorts of things I would never have seen on the wine tour I took during my previous visit to Australia. We drove through small, tidy towns, past lush vineyards and sprawling wineries, and up to a few impressive, hill-top lookouts. Near Springton, Nikki stopped to show me the Herbig Family Tree.

The Herbig Family Tree is a large, ancient red gum (eucalyptus) that is estimated to be somewhere between 300 and 500 years old. In 1855, a young immigrant named Friedrick Herbig made the sprawling, hollowed base of this tree his home. When he married in 1858, this is the home to which he brought his bride, and their first two children were born while the couple was still living in the hollowed out tree. It would hardly have been weather proof, and with a base that is about 23 feet in diameter, it would really have only offered space for sleeping and maybe a few possessions. Finally, in 1860, Herbig managed to build a house nearby. Apparently, descendents still show up every few years for a family reunion. Fun story, but looking at the tree, it’s hard to imagine living there. That said, I guess it’s no harder to imagine than the dugouts in riverbanks that some inhabited in other areas I’ve visited. (See my “Digging Burra” post if you haven’t seen photos of dugouts.) Still, it’s the tree and its story are quite remarkable.

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Thursday, September 5

Today I was on my own. I headed into Adelaide on a mid-morning train. Adelaide has changed the least of all the towns I’ve been to so far—and the changes that have been made fit in pretty well. Hence, it was all comfortingly familiar, and I had no problem finding my way around town.

I headed for the Victoria Tourist Center, to get information for my drive next week, and then headed off to pick up a few more gifts for folks back home. After that, I was free to wander and see the sights.

I headed up King William Street and around Victoria Square, then I cut down a side street and window-shopped the length of bustling Rundle Mall. I crossed to North Terrace and walked down to the Henry Ayers house. Though I’d passed it often on my previous trip, I had never toured the splendid bluestone mansion, so I took this opportunity to do so. It is said to be one of the best examples of Colonial Regency architecture in Australia. Begun around 1845 on a less ambitious scale, it was later purchased by Ayers and considerably enlarged. Ayers, who came to Australia as a nineteen-year-old law clerk, had made his money in the Burra Copper Mines. Once he was well established financially, he went into politics. He ended up being elected premier of South Australia a record seven times. He is, of course, the person for whom that iconic symbol of the outback, Ayers Rock, is named (largely because, back in the mid-1800s, what is now the Northern Territory was still considered, at least legislatively, part of South Australia).

The massive chandeliers and vaulted, hand-painted ceilings were clearly meant to impress. The antique furniture, silver, paintings, and all other items of use or decoration were all astonishingly lovely. It was not hard to imagine the grand parties, luncheons, and balls for which Ayers become known.

One dear, older lady who works at Ayers House as a docent took me in hand, as I was alone, and spent about 45 minutes showing me things in obscure corners and out-of-the-way places in the house, sharing insights about who would have been there when and what it all meant. Wonderful. Aside from enjoying the information, I’m always delighted by the enthusiasm of those who get caught up in the history and details of a place or time.

I didn’t get any photos of the imposing exterior of Ayers House, and photos weren’t permitted inside. However, I did find this video of the interior of the state dining room on the occasion of a performance by British guitarist Jonathan Prag, so at least you can get a hint of the grandeur of the place.

Leaving Ayers House, I continued down North Terrace to the beautiful Botanic Gardens. I had come for the greenery, but smiled at the connection with the place I’d just left; Ayers was Governor of the Botanic Gardens Board for 35 years. I wandered for about half an hour among the old trees, flowers, and ponds. At one pond, there were a couple of swamp hens in the water, and I noticed that the color of their orange faces matched almost exactly the color of the large carp in the pond.

I then headed back through town, stopping to buy chocolates for Louanne, Rae, and Bert. I headed for the train station and traveled out to North Haven, where I joined my friends for supper and another evening of Aussie TV.

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Tuesday, September 3

I slept in a bit–until nearly 7:00am. (Those who know me well will appreciate the humor in this representing late rising for me. I’m only a “morning person” when I’m on the road.) Then it was up for a shower and final packing. I checked out and dumped my bags at the front desk, so I could enjoy my last few hours in Alice Springs unencumbered. I smiled when I noticed the shortwave radio set. Another reminder that we’re in the Outback.

I set off down the road for the Pitchi Ritchi Sanctuary. The sky is low and gray, which suits a day for departures.

Red Rocks in Pitchi Ritchi

Red Rocks in Pitchi Ritchi

I walked out through Heavitree Gap, busily photographing red rocks and the riverbed as I passed through the “front door” of Alice Springs. After about half an hour, I turned down a short, dirt road to the barely noticeable entrance to the sanctuary.

This is an odd place, but wonderful in its innocence, and in its intent. It is a combination outdoor, pioneering museum, with a large collection of early, and crumbling, relics; outdoor art gallery, with the Aboriginal-themed sculpture of Bill Ricketts (from Victoria); plus bird sanctuary, with a stabs at natural history (a few trees are identified, and there are a number of large rock samples lying about, also labeled).

Rock Samples

Rock Samples


One of the things that delighted me was the careful identification of all the old relics. Not only was there information on what each item was and how it was used, but on many items, there was also a list of who owned it, when, and where. There were ancient wagons, wells and the equipment for digging them, blacksmithing tools and things created by the blacksmiths who used them, a fair bit of mining gear, and artifacts from building the area’s railroads.
Old wagon and its story

Old wagon and its story


One of the Aboriginal-themed sculptures was of a rainmaker. The sculpture was surrounded by large chunks of white quartz, along with an explanation that some Aboriginal groups once believed the bright, white stones were lazy clouds, and it was the rainmaker’s job to coax them back into the sky.
Rainmaker with "lazy clouds"

Rainmaker with “lazy clouds”


The sanctuary is relatively small, but the path winds quite a bit, to take full advantage of the limited space. Many of the signs are peeling, but the sand around the sculptures is carefully raked, so someone still cares.

Near the entrance, a cluster of garbage can lids and hub caps have been converted into bird feeders, so the sanctuary is alive with the squawking of galahs and corellas, the twitter of crested pigeons, crows, magpies, butcherbirds, and several other birds I didn’t know, including tiny, tablespoon-sized gray birds with bright orange beaks that cried “beep beep” as they hunted for seeds on the ground.

The sanctuary has one exhibit which looks like the entrance to a mind. The plaque describes the discovery of the Holterman Nugget, the largest gold nugget ever found, which was discovered in October 1872 in Hill End, New South Wales. It was 5 feet high, 2 feet wide, and weighed 630 pounds. It was discovered by Bernard Holterman and his partner, Louis Beyers. (This seemed so astonishing, I looked it up when I got home, and indeed, this massive nugget did exist—and is still the largest single piece of gold every discovered anywhere in the world.)

There was a light switch at the “mine entrance,” and turning it on reveals an interior heaped with quartz, amethyst, and large, gold-colored rocks. Someone had fun putting this together.

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Monday, September 2

I awoke to the sound of birds followed soon after by the sound of a torrential downpour. But by the time I was dressed and headed outside, the sky was almost completely clear, with only a fringe of fast-retreating clouds in the distance.
I had hoped to get out to Chambers Pillar today, but when I checked at the Northern Territory Tourist Center yesterday, they told me there weren’t enough people interested, so the tour wouldn’t run. Hence, I decided to simply spend the day in Alice Springs.

I walked into town, stopping for a late breakfast of chicken and chips. Might seem like an odd choice, but when the weather is going to be hot, it’s good to get one’s heavier eating done early.
The sky by the time I had eaten was brilliant and cloudless, the sun was blazing, and a breeze blew gently carrying the fragrance of flowering trees. Beautiful day.

Spent the morning hiking around town. Off the main drag, things are a bit more familiar, including the people. One sees more Territorians and fewer tourists just a couple of blocks off of Todd Mall.

I photographed a few historic buildings, usually with their replacements visible nearby: the old Stuart Town Gaol (jail), the original Courthouse, the old Government Residency. (For those not familiar with the region’s history, Stuart was the original name of the town. It just in time became better known for the waterhole at the Telegraph Station, called Alice Springs.)

Stuart Town Gaol

Stuart Town Gaol

Then I decided it was time to start gift shopping. I leave Alice Springs tomorrow, and while opal buying will be better in Adelaide, shopping for Aboriginal crafts is definitely going to be easier here.

I appeared initially to have lost the knack for shopping. I spent three hours combing the shops, and all I’ve managed to purchase is a fruit smoothie. That provided a pleasant interlude, sitting by a fountain at Ford Plaza, surrounded by locals and visitors, both white and Aboriginal. I went over my “need gifts for” list while sat. I need to start making some decisions soon. Not that I feel like the search wasn’t pleasant. I met and talked to a lot of interesting people, including an artist who might be coming to the United States. We exchanged business cards, “just in case.” But still, I do need to find some gifts.

Shopping Mall: A/C and palms in Alice Springs

Shopping Mall: A/C and palms in Alice Springs


Fortunately, after my break, I did manage to regain the ability to shop. In a couple of hours, I managed to tick off all but four people on my list—finishing fairly close to the time shops were beginning to close.

Back to wandering. I climbed to the top of Billy Goat Hill, which was a splendid place from which to photograph Alice Springs. It was not long until sunset, so I waited and photographed the sun going down over the Alice. Then I headed off in search of dinner.

Late Afternoon from Bill Goat Hill

Late Afternoon from Bill Goat Hill

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Sunday, September 1

I arose to the sounds of hundreds of galahs, as well as a few butcher birds and noisy minas. Dawn was beautiful, with a pink blush rising up from the end of the valley.

I hiked around for a couple of hours before breakfast, shooting photos—some probably for the third or fourth time. I got shots of Alec and Burt, as well as some of the other hands, and more photos of galahs and the red ranges. At some level, photography feels like a way to hold on to a place.

I had a big breakfast, figuring it could double as my lunch, then I gathered my gear and dragged it to the little bus that would carry me back to Alice Springs. I tried to stay cool and in control, but tears were running down my cheeks as I handed over my bags. I have really loved this place. It’s everything I dream of when I dream of the Red Center, the epitome of old outback Australia. And as long as it took me to get back here, it’s too soon to be leaving. I blurted out, “I don’t want to leave,” then climbed into the bus. I’m sure they must have wondered how I got so attached to the place in just a couple of days, but they could not know the personal history that made it so much more intense than it would have been if this were my first trip to Australia.

Buttermilk Sky

Buttermilk Sky

It was a beautiful drive back to Alice Springs, beneath a splendid buttermilk sky. When I got back to Toddy’s, I checked in, dumped my gear, and then headed into town. Boy, has the Alice changed. The feeling is still there, and I recognized much, but the Todd Street Mall is now an astonishing concentration of larger, more modern places, shopping plazas, offices, and motels (though interrupted, I was grateful to see, by Adelaide House and the John Flynn Memorial Church).

The Stuart Arms has been torn down, and a glass and steel shopping mall has replaced it. I did discover one good thing, however, and that is that on the second story of this new structure there is a nice museum of Northern Territory/arid regions natural history: rocks, fossils, mammals, birds, reptiles, plants, insects, and heaps of aboriginal artifacts, from old boomerangs to a lovely display of Albert Namatjira paintings.

Albert Namatjira
Australians will have heard of Albert Nmatjira, and those who have read my book, Waltzing Australia, may remember the biography I included of the great artists, but for others who may not know the man or his work, Namatjira was a splendidly talented Aboriginal artist who better than just about anyone else captured the beauty and spirit of the Red Center in his watercolors. He became famous but was always torn between the European culture where he was a celebrity and the culture in which he was raised. He passed away in 1959, but he is still celebrated in Australia. In this video, in addition to giving background on Namatjira and showing some of his paintings, the creation of a play about his life is also discussed.

If you want to see more of Namatjira’s paintings, here’s a site that includes many of them.

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August 30, part 3

Old Homestead interior

Old Homestead interior


Around 9 o’clock, we gathered in the homestead lounge to hear Alec tell us tales of the settling of this area, and about some local Aboriginal customs. He had lots of Aboriginal artifacts: hunting and fighting sticks, shields, coolamons, spear and woomera, digging sticks, and didgeridoos. What made the evening even more fascinating was Alec himself. He’s half Scottish and half Aborigine. His great-grandfather was John Ross, who explored this area, and for whom Ross River is named. (Alec is Alec Ross.)

Alec has had quite an astonishing life. He was taken from his Aboriginal mother when he was age 2. (It was believed at the time that half-white children should be brought up as whites.) He was raised in a camp up north, until the Japanese started bombing it and everyone was evacuated. He left school at a fairly young age to become a droving cook (the cook on a cattle drive–Australian cowboys are generally known as drovers and the moving of cattle was droving). He’s a big man, well over 6 feet, and powerful, so to earn additional money, he began boxing, and he became the number one contender for the Australian heavyweight title. A half brother in Alice Springs read about him and contacted him, to let him know he had family in the area. He was 37 when he finally met his mother. Sadly, se died soon after.

Alec went on to build a good life. He has won awards as a gardener, and he has three sons who are top soccer players in Alice Springs. Now, he’s happy here at Ross River Homestead, teaching bush cooking and boomerang throwing, telling tales at night in the rustic lounge, and pretty much making sure things go well and everyone is getting the most out of their time here. Just guessing, but I can’t help but think that the strong sense of family among those who work here at Ross River would appeal to the little boy who grew alone.

Alec is not the only person here with family ties to the area. One of the stock girls, Natasha, is a granddaughter of the Greens, who first envisioned this place as a holiday accommodation back in the 1950s. It adds to the sense of history here, that the staff is so connected to the place. (And I’m grateful to the Greens for their vision. I love this place.)

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