The mobile phone, dead in the desert, crackles back to life when I reach the dry bed of the Todd River which runs through Alice Springs
Until the beginning of World War II, “The Alice” was a village with only a couple of hundred inhabitants. During the war, however, more than 200,000 soldiers passed through on their way to the strategic north, threatened with Japanese invasion. After 1945, some of them returned as tourists, marking the beginning of a broader interest in desert holidaymaking among a wider public and laying the foundations of a town of 27,000 inhabitants.
Many of the locals still make a living from tourism, although business has suffered since the arrival of Ayers Rock Connellan Airport, much closer to the biggest attractions in the area: Uluru and Kata Tjuta. That evening, I stand on one of the many hills at the outskirts of Alice to gaze at the spectacular evening glow, when the last red rays of the day illuminate the scarlet landscape until darkness falls. The view is dominated by the humpbacks of the MacDonnell Ranges.
The next day I visit the Strehlow Research Centre, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Theodor ‘Ted’ Strehlow, the most prominent white scientist to study the values and customs of Aborigines until today. Strehlow was born in Hermannsburg, a mission post built by German Lutherans at about 150 kilometers from Alice Springs in 1877. Raised by the Aranda tribe, Strehlow spoke their language fluently. He was even initiated as a ceremonial chief, an Ingkata, gaining intimate knowledge of tribal secrets that are completely taboo for non-initiated men or any females.
The rules for initiation are very demanding and painful: it is not uncommon for a candidate’s tooth to be knocked out, and novices might have to spend a few weeks in the desert, taking care of themselves and gathering food without outside help. Many young men are understandably scared to death of these rituals and stay out of sight around the end of the year, when the elders, recognizable through a red band around their head, roam the streets recruiting novices.