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Alice: Still in Outback, but Oh My How She Grew

January 05, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia — "Alice is a bonza place. . . ." That line may take you back into "A Town Like Alice," Nevil Shute's classic novel of World War II and the film based on it that was shown again recently on prime-time TV.

The Australian Joe Harmon and the English girl Jean Paget were prisoners of the Japanese in Malaya, and he was telling her about his Outback town of Alice Springs.

By calling the town "a bonza place," he was assuring Jean that it was more than the middle of the desert. It had people watering lawns, enjoying their homes and a good life in what was even then no longer a remote part of Australia.

Both Joe and Jean survived the war, and when she came to Australia to look for him, "A Town Like Alice" became a fantasy destination for millions of armchair travelers.

If Nevil Shute could return today to write a sequel to his novel, he'd be astounded at how delightfully bonza Alice has become.

Hotel and Tourism Center

A $35-million Alice Sheraton resort hotel opened here last September. A month later a Northern Territory Government study team recommended creation of a $185-million tourism center about 1 1/2 miles from the central business district. It would include eight small and grand hotels, the largest with up to 400 rooms, all low-rise to harmonize with the Outback landscape.

The town's population of 22,000 is projected to more than double in the next decade.

Alice Springs reflects the trends of tourism and growth in much of Australia's Northern Territory, which acquired status comparable to a self-governing state in the United States only eight years ago. For most of its history this territory was regarded as frontier land.

"Our future," said chief minister Ian Tuxworth, "is based on realities. Our natural beauty, wildlife and aboriginal culture are drawing increasing numbers of visitors every year.

"We also have a major share of world uranium, manganese and bauxite reserves, and large underdeveloped deposits of lead-zinc, oil, gas, gold, copper and other minerals."

Bringing along a copy of Shute's novel, my wife, Elfriede, and I flew here from Sydney to discover that Alice Springs is fast becoming the Palm Springs of Australia, with a bonza touch of Las Vegas.

Dreamtime of Creation

This is against the background of a story that began in the aborigine Dreamtime of creation, when the Aranda people believe that the earth was born. The Hugh River and the oasis watering holes of the valley, and the spectacular gorges of the Macdonnell Ranges were part of Aranda history and art for thousands of years before John McDouall Stuart traveled up the river in 1860.

Scarcely a dozen years later the Telegraph Station at Alice Springs was one of 12 constructed along the Overland Telegraph Line that spanned the continent between Adelaide in the south and Darwin in the north so Britain could communicate with the independent Australian commonwealth.

Construction of that line across central Australia was recognized worldwide as a remarkable feat of engineering and human endurance and is commemorated at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve. Our tour of the town began here among stone buildings and other features of the old station carefully reconstructed from early photographs and sketches.

Marked walking paths lead into grazing lands where wildlife such as euros, rock wallabies, echidnas, dingos, colorful birds and baby kangaroos can be photographed in the early morning and late afternoon. The era of the railroad didn't follow the telegraph line into Alice Springs until 1929.

Mecca for Prospectors

Gold and rubies were discovered east of Alice in 1887, and prospectors still believe more treasures are there. After the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942, Alice Springs became a vital supply and support station. By the time Jean Paget came to find and marry Joe Harmon, she could, Shute wrote, join "the swimming party at the pool" and "become absorbed into the social life of Alice Springs."

Now she would find many pools around which to sun and look up at the silhouette of Mt. Ertwa, just as sunbathers in Palm Springs can contemplate San Jacinto. The new Sheraton is one of more than a score of lodges, inns and resorts, such as the Desert Rose Inn with a pool, spa and charcoal grill for guests, right in the heart of town.

The new Sheraton has 252 guest rooms including seven suites. Guests can step from the pool to the tennis courts and the adjacent 18-hole golf course. This Desert Springs Course was completed in October. Australian champ Greg Norman and Johnny Miller, one of the top U.S. players on the pro circuit, were here in November to inaugurate the course with a challenge match and teaching clinics.

Casino, Country Club

The new Diamond Springs Casino and Country Club is a step in another direction from the Sheraton. The casino opens daily at 1 p.m. Action includes roulette, blackjack, poker and keno.

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