Stark contrast


I can’t believe that a week ago I was in Alice Springs; it seems like a dream. I’ve gone from this:


… to this:


And from this:


… to this:


It’s grand to be back!

Foreign correspondent


I’m in Alice Springs, a town in the Northern Territory. I lived here for a few years a while ago and now I’m back here for work. Much has changed, much has remained the same.

The town is framed by the McDonnell Ranges (I think I’m obliged by the Northern Territory Government to add the adjective “magnificent” before their every mention) but the real heart of the place is the Todd River. As the town has developed to the east, north, west and south the river is more than ever the environmental hub that provides the Alice with its focus.


Newcastle’s waterways are generally either tidal or only ever flowing at capacity after rain. The Todd, unlike Newcastle’s waterways, is a peopled environment. Don’t be fooled by the snake-like coolings of tyre tracks; they are not made by the vehicles of people who live here, but by the police and the night patrols. As Mr Hockey recently pointed out, if you’re likely to be living in a creek bed then you’re unlikely to be worrying about increases in fuel excise.

The Todd is, for the most part, entirely dry with a bed of gritty, dusty sand. But there’s more to this difference between the two types of river than just “wet versus dry” / “concrete versus sand”. At some point in Newcastle’s recent past we stopped peopling our waterways.

Here, each river red gum stands like a small island of activity. People scatter during the daytime but return at night to the small, scuffed fireplaces (or, in this case, makeshift camp oven from a half wheel hub).


I’ve written before about people who, in our lifetime, remember swimming in the Styx and lazing on its grassed, sandy banks. The endless channelling and straightening, the concreting and fencing, the erection of “Danger!” and “Keep Out!” signs has resulted in a disconnection between the people and the water.

Here, life goes on.

Different creeks


… different issues. Or maybe, the same issues in differently coloured wrapping paper.

A friend from Alice Springs days keeps me up to date with the news from Centralia. A popular quiz night question is “Name the river that runs through Wilcannia / Dubbo / Kempsey” etc.; it’s one that often trips people, but a good proportion of Australians know that it’s the Todd that runs through the middle of Alice Springs.

The Todd River still has its natural, sandy bed and its 500-year-old gum trees, thanks mainly to the foresight of Mounted Constable WG South who, a century ago, saved them from being axed by the newly arrived colonists looking for building materials and firewood. South wrote to the Minister for the Northern Territory “The trees are a great ornament to the place and it would be a great pity to destroy them”. The trees are still under immense pressure, these days from a suite of threats including sand mining, firewood collection and root impaction by vehicles, but South’s foresight has ensured that these beautiful old giants still guard the waterway.

However, the Todd River is, for many people, a place of short-term residence. As the major service town for the Red Centre, Alice attracts people from miles and miles around, people who often don’t have a bed or a room for the night. Among this group is some of the most committed and prodigious drinkers in the world. A recent collection by a small group of people found, in a 200 metre stretch of the river, the following small mountain of casks and bottles.

Check out the website of the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition to find out more.

Meanwhile, over in Los Angeles, USA, there have been concerted efforts over the last few years to rehabilitate the Los Angeles River (view a whole stack of articles via Planetizen here). One major advance was to have the entire 51-mile river recognsied as a navigable waterway by kayakers who made it from top to bottom; there’s a five-minute video on the Los Angeles Times website of the tours that now operate there. (If you have time to noodle around on Tinterweb then check out the blog of the LA Creek Freak people and LA Stormwater.)

The Planetizen site also links to articles on the Los Angeles City Council’s recent approval of an update to the Los Angeles River Implementation Overlay to encourage good quality river-centric development and to begin removing some of the concrete that covers the river and its banks.

It’s all food for thought, some of it heartening and some of it less so. But it is a reminder that waterways are living places that people the world over are attracted to, love and want to care for.

Just like Styx Creek. I mean, how nice is this?