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World Beat: On the Road


Alice Springs squats at the geographic center of the continent. One-tenth of its 25,000 residents are Aboriginal. The town got its start as a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph Line, which ran through Indonesia, Burma, India, and clear across to London. This was the Net's big daddy - Australia's first international communications system. The station was built beside a natural spring; Alice was the boss's wife.

Alice Springs grew slowly: In 1925, it had just 200 residents, and even now is the biggest settlement for 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) in all directions. It's the center of a booming tourist industry, based around Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Aboriginal culture. Racial problems still exist, but nothing like the bad old days. This is the only place on this trip where most of The Dreaming is whitefella stuff.

Red earth, red rock, ruddy red skin confront you everywhere you turn. Even the sun turns red, too, when it drops - but the surrounding hills, the MacDonnell Ranges, turn an intense blue, as if internally lit. The hills form a protective ring that almost appears to keep the frightening void of the desert at bay. Nearby, red scars mark the dry courses where mineralized, ultra-healthy water occasionally flows; farther out, red kangaroos and wallabies haunt the ranges.

Permanent waterholes - 60 million years in the making - floor breezy gorges in West MacDonnell National Park. Stimpson's Gap, Stanley Chasm, Ellery Creek, Serpentine Gorge, Ormiston Gorge, and Glen Helen Gorge are sunk into 1.8 billion-year-old rock formations, the oldest on this oldest of all continents. A 220 kilometer (140 mile) walking trail, the Larapinta, is currently being forged through the park. If you want to hike it, do so in winter, June to September.


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