Stunningly set at the geographical centre of Australia, Alice Springs may have a population of just 26,000, yet it's still the largest settlement in the interior. A modern, compact town in the midst of the MacDonnell Ranges, it makes an excellent base from which to explore Australia's "Red Centre". The bright, clear desert air gives the Outback town and its people a charge that you don't get in the languid, tropical north. The area has been inhabited for at least forty thousand years by the Arrernte (also known as Aranda), who moved between reliable water sources along the MacDonnell Ranges. But, as elsewhere in the Territory, it was only the arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line in the 1870s that led to a permanent settlement here. Following John McDouall Stuart's exploratory journeys through the area in the early 1860s, it was the visionary Charles Todd, then South Australia's Superintendent of Telegraphs, who saw the need to link Australia with the rest of the empire. The town's river and its tributary carry his name, while the "spring" (actually a billabong) and town are named for his wife, Alice.
When a spurious ruby rush led to the discovery of gold at Arltunga in the Eastern MacDonnells, Stuart Town (the town's official name in its early years) became a departure point for the long slog to the riches east. In 1929 the railway line from Adelaide finally reached Stuart Town. Journeys that had once taken weeks by camel from the Oodnadatta railhead could now be undertaken in just a few days, so by 1933, when the town officially became Alice Springs, the population had mushroomed to nearly five hundred white Australians. The 1942 bombing of Darwin saw Alice become the Territory's administrative capital and a busy military base.
A tourist boom, spurred by the massive publicity surrounding Azaria Chamberlain's abduction by a dingo at Ayers Rock in 1980, took a knock when direct flights to Uluru were established, but Alice Springs and the surrounding area remain a worthwhile destination in their own right.