The outback city of Alice Springs, nestled at the foot of the northern slopes of the MacDonnell Ranges, is really the hub of Central Australia and is steeped in history. It became a railhead in 1929 and remained so until 2004. From its beginnings, as Stuart Town, it had a close connection with South Australia. Evidence of this can be seen at many of its attractions. Among them are the School of the Air, started by Adelaide Miethke in 1951, the Royal Flying Doctor Service which now provides, upon request from international visitors, a subtitle for its documentary in almost any language.
There are also the Road Transport Hall of Fame, Adelaide House and Anzac Hill. But there is more still. The Todd River, which does not see water too often, the Overland Telegraph Station, National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, the Stuart Gaol and last but not least Rev. John Flynn’s Grave. Out of town there are the many gorges to visit, some of the best scenery can be found at Standley Chasm, Simpsons Gap, Palm Valley and a little further away Haast Bluff and Hermannsburg.
Like Alice Springs, most of the northern settlements along the Stuart Highway developed around the original Overland Telegraph Line and its repeater stations. They are Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek, Newcastle Waters, Daly Waters, Katherine, Pine Creek and Adelaide River. The Alice Springs telegraph station operated until 1932 after which it became a home for part-Aboriginal children and was later, during WWII, used by the Australian Army.
After leaving The Alice an eye should be kept out for the many well signposted monuments, ruins, attractions, scenic points, look outs, and historical information. For those particularly interested in Australia’s defence during the Second World War, the Stuart Highway provides several interesting reminders of these days. The highway between The Alice and Darwin was constructed between September and December in 1940.
About 30 kilometres north of the Alice the highway crosses the Tropic of Capricornia, but don’t expect to see a tropical landscape all of a sudden. It remains arid until past Renner Springs. Some 18 kilometres on there is a right hand turn to the ruins of the old goldfield town of Arltunga. Discovered in 1887 by Joseph Hele and Isaac Smith, Arltunga’s story it that of isolation, lack of water, hardship, back-breaking work but little gold or rubies to show for it. Regardless of its poor results the venture did help to open up Central Australia.
To visit Arltunga be prepared for a 250 km round trip to get back to the highway. Once back on the highway it is a further 9 km to see Peter Egerton Warburton’s monument on the left, just before Burt Creek. A further 60 km north a stop is recommended at Ryan Well. Edward Ryan, a well sinker, accompanied John McKinlay on his 1866 wet season survey of Arnhem Land and George Goyder on his survey of Palmerston, later named Darwin, in 1868. In 1885 he began sinking wells, vital to the settlement of arid Central Australia. Ryan Well was dug in 1889 and Glen Maggie station, established in 1914 by Sam Nicker, grew around it.
The next site of interest is Ti Tree farm, not to be mistaken for Ti Tree Hotel which is another 15 km. Having driven just 60 km since Ryan’s Well one would not expect to see acres of grape vines, as green as green can be. Take a left turn and have a look, a cold drink and sample some of the local products.
After the farm experience it is only 36 km to get to the Central Mount Stuart turn off, just across Scull Creek where some 70 Aboriginal men, women and children were murdered. Stuart, William Kekwick and Ben Head were the first Europeans to sight Central Australia on Sunday 22 April 1860. Stuart wrote in his diary; Today I find from my observations of the sun that I am now camped in the centre of Australia. The next day he and Kekwick took a flag and went to the top but ‘found it much higher and more difficult to ascent that I anticipated’ He thought it to be as high as Mount Serle, if not higher. Stuart named it Mount Sturt, in honour of his friend Charles Sturt but the name was later changed.
From here the road goes via Barrow Creek, Wycliffe Well and Wauchope which was named after John Wylie Wauchope who worked on the OTL for the full time of its construction. For a short time the area was important as a mining centre of Wolfram which was mined especially during WWII by Italians, then Chinese and finally Italians again. The Wauchope hotel opened in 1939.
The next attraction is a further 10 kilometres on where the Devil’s Marbles can be admired. These granite boulders owe their shape to millions of years of chemical weathering and erosion. According to Aboriginal legends they are the Dreaming Place of the Warramunga who believe them to be the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. Dr Renner wrote in his diary on 16 March 1872; that the great granite boulders rest one above the other (in the most frightful shapes) some like loaves of bread, heaped one over the other.
When finished marvelling the marbles it’s on to Tennant Creek. Named on 6 June 1860 by Stuart, who wrote; struck a gum creek in which we found water. The banks have excellent and abundant feed, so, for the sake of the horses, I have determined to remain here today. This creek I have named after John Tennant, Esq. of Port Lincoln. When Stuart was there again on 20 April 1861 there was still plenty of water and feed but on his final and successful crossing of Australia he found it to be dry. Even digging in the sand did not provide any water, forcing them to move on.
The town of Tennant Creek started as a repeater station but did not really develop until gold was discovered in the early 1930s. It was officially named in 1934. The Tourist Office at Battery Hill should be visited for its old mining equipment and mining information of the local area. Just past Threeways Roadhouse there is the John Flynn Monument.
At Attack Creek there is a memorial plaque. Here Stuart had to turn back on 26 June 1860 after being attacked by a large group of Aborigines. In April 1861 he was back again on a course to the top of the range which he named Whitington Range, after William S. Whitington of Adelaide. A nearby creek he named after John Morphett, Chief Secretary.
Renner Springs is named after Dr Renner who discovered them during the building of the Overland Telegraph. Dr Frederick E. Renner obtained his medical qualifications in Jena, Germany and arrived in South Australia in 1848. He practised in several towns until his appointment as Medical Officer for the central section of the Overland Telegraph line covering some 1700 kilometres. His first patient was an Afghan cameleer. Afghan cameleers too made a large contribution to the opening up of Central Australia. When the OTL was completed Renner returned to general practice. He died in 1893, aged 70 and is buried at Peterborough.
From Renner Springs it is just 90 kilometres to Elliott, a staging camp for troops heading north during WWII and Newcastle Waters. Just north of it, before the Newcastle Creek, there is a monument at the George Redmond Crossing. A further 50 km there is another monument to honour Sir Charles Todd and the men who built the OTL. It is also near this point where Patterson joined the two wires from the northern and southern sections.
Continuing a mere 25 kilometres will lead to Dunmarra, where Stuart had major problems finding water, and Daly Waters. Situated about 4 kilometres from the highway, its historic pub holds the longest continuous liquor license in the Northern Territory. Daly Waters lies 212 metres above sea level and is located 620 km south of Darwin. Now little more than a stopover for people travelling along the Stuart Highway it was named by Stuart during his epic attempt to cross Australia in 1861-2. He finally arrived at Daly Waters on 28 May and burned his initials in a tree. Stuart named the springs after the new Governor of South Australia, Sir Dominick Daly. It later became Australia’s first International Airport and WWII Air force Base.
Birdum was the end of the line for the railway south from Darwin in 1929. It never went further down and during WWII thousands of soldiers and material travelled between the two railheads of Alice Springs and Birdum. The line was taken up but in 2004, after more than 125 years of promises, the Great Northern Railway finally became a reality.
Larrimah also has an historic hotel, a large military base and airport was established during the Second World War. There is also a museum well worth visiting. Some 50 kilometres further north is the turnoff to Elsey Station, its cemetery and Mataranka thermal pool, at a constant 34 degrees Celsius. All of them made famous by Jeannie Gunn in her book We of the Never Never.
Just before Katherine and its famous Gorge are the Cutta Cutta Caves. Going further north the Katherine River is crossed followed by the Edith, Fergusson and Cullen Rivers. From there it is some 25 kilometres to Pine Creek. This town was the centre of an important mining district for both Uranium and Gold. At the El Sharana Mine the largest piece of pitchblende in the world was found weighing 976kg. The early goldfields were discovered during the construction of the OTL which attracted thousands of Chinese diggers.
For an imposing view take a short drive to the Mine Lookout and view the abandoned Enterprise Pit. Park your car in town and take a walk following the signs of its historic sites to find out that there is more to Pine Creek than meets the eye. Another 30 km will lead to Emerald Springs and a further 25 to Hays Creek.
Next stop should be Adelaide River. The river was discovered in 1839 by 2 crew members of the HMS Beagle and named after Queen Adelaide. Until 1888 the town was not more than just a crossing on the Adelaide River. In this now landscaped oasis, host Haimes kept his hotel, which no doubt was a favourite place for the men who were constructing a bridge across the river that year. Forty years later the place had expanded somewhat and with the help of local travelling teacher Ernest Tambling, Carabao seedling mangroves were imported from Manila. The town even had Refreshment Rooms.
In 1928 Mrs Lillias Carroll had secured the tender for its operation. She had some excellent credentials. Among some of the more important was the fact that she was well known to Territorians, had been working at Pine Creek for 5 years, had been a cook at the Government Residency during Stanforth Smith’s term of office and had cooked for 3 years at the Overland Telegraph Mess.
Even so, the town remained a small settlement until the military build-up in late 1939. The No119 Australian Hospital was established in March 1942. By that time the male population was big enough to field several cricket teams and matches were played right up to the end of 1945 between teams of the Navy, Army, Air Force and the locals. Adelaide River has now the distinction of having Australia’s only War Cemetery on Australian soil with some 500 burials.
While at Adelaide River on 11 July 1862, Stuart wrote in his diary; I got greatly bothered by the boggy ground and numbers of springs coming from the table lands. The country is nearly all burnt, but those portions which have escaped the fire are well grassed. I should think this is a likely place to find gold. A few days later he encountered a number of springs, one of which he named Billiatt Springs.
Continuing north there are old air fields on both sides of the road all the way to Darwin. However before going that far a detour should be made to Batchelor and Litchfield Park. The park was named after Frederick Henry Litchfield, a member of the original Finniss Expedition in 1864. They had hoped to establish a settlement at Escape Cliff at the mouth of the Adelaide River. In 1869 Goyder also was in the area and one member of his survey party, Edwin Smith, surveyed the Tolmer Area.
Stuart reached the northern coast near modern day Darwin on 24 July, 1862. Finally he could write; I dipped my feet, and washed my face and hands in the sea, as I promised the late Governor Sir Richard McDonnell I would do if I reached it. I returned to the valley, where I had my initials (J.M.D.S.) cut on a large tree. If this country is settled it will be one of the finest Colonies under the Crown, suitable for the growth of any and everything. It was exactly 9 month since the party had left Adelaide. Two days later Stuart and his party began the long track back to Adelaide.
If only he was able to see the results of his attempts to cross Australia he would be happy to observe that it had all been worthwhile. He would also be amazed that what took him several attempts, the last one taking a year to get to the Indian Ocean and back, can now be done in a week if need be. Hopefully you will take a few weeks to see all the sights. Have a safe and enjoyable trip.
Stuart Highway Part 1,