Greg Borchers and Robyn Linsdell
Plans are one thing but life often turns out very differently. When we moved to Alice Springs from Melbourne in 1991, we intended to stay for two years. We initially rented a house in Priest Street but within six months moved to 8 Giles Street, then owned by Paul and Rosemary Burke. The Burkes had gone to Canberra, planning to return within a year. They didn’t come back and we didn’t leave. Instead, we ended up buying the property.
There were just the three of us back then. The summer of 1991- 1992 was difficult, as it was so hot and we were not accustomed to the heat. At the same time, the weather was magnificent. Constant storms followed the build-up of huge, billowing cumulus clouds. Lightning regularly illuminated the night sky, followed by crashing thunder that seemed to shake the foundations of the house. The rain would sheet down in volumes rarely seen by people from Victoria, where the more constant rain tends to fall gently. Little did we know that the Central Australian seasons would set the rhythm to our lives. With the approach of summer, we would look forward to the opening of the town’s swimming pool and prepare for our beach get-away. In winter, the swags would come out and we would camp under the huge desert skies.
At some point in the history of 8 Giles Street, a garden had been lovingly planted. When we took possession, there were citrus and stone fruit trees in the back yard, grape vines on some of the fences and verandas and roses at the front. Geoff Myers pronounced the citrus trees to be over 30 years old. The trouble was that almost all these plants had been neglected and were riddled with disease. Additionally, the garden was planted at a time when saving water was not a significant public concern. We removed most of the trees, except for two orange trees. The driveway was lined with white cedars. Driveways are there for cricket, which goes without saying when there are young boys in the house. White cedars drop large, round seeds that hurt when stepped on with bare feet. The white cedars went too and nobody regretted the decision.
The garden now blends with most of the other gardens in our section of Giles Street, between Sturt Terrace and Lindsay Avenue. We have natives, dirt mounds, ground cover and drippers. Any bright colour comes either from the frangipani, which does not always bloom annually, or from the red flowers on the callistemon. Occasionally, when motivated by the Saturday morning ABC gardening show, we attempt to grow desert peas on the dirt mounds, but too often this ends in tears.
The house is a prefabricated, public-housing kit home, transported to Alice Springs in the 1960s. There are a number of them in East Side — three on Gosse Street and another three on McKay. They are built of timber and sit on brick “stumps”. The most obvious feature is their complete lack of space, despite the fact that they are supposed to have three bedrooms. Our house was largely un-renovated in 1991, except for a concrete front veranda that had been added before we moved in. However, as with many houses on East Side, the garage had been made into a room which, we were told, was used by friends of the previous owners who lived in a bush community. It was a very poor renovation. We have substantially altered the house. At the last inspection, I noticed that every room had in some way been altered. Rooms have been added and we have tried to extend the house into the garden by keeping one of the original trees and building a veranda around it.
Our town is a place where older residents didn’t necessarily intend to put down roots for a lifetime. Many of us have a different view of the world to our children, as we did not come to Alice Springs until we were adults. We may never have intended to stay. We may not have mentally adjusted to calling Alice Springs our home until after our children were born here.
For our children, however, there is no question of where home might be. Only after they complete secondary school might they contemplate spreading their wings and leaving for the big smoke, somewhere else. In that decision, another painful issue arises.
Alice Springs is defined by some of the most perplexing problems confronting our society. Are the indigenous drunks and homeless merely pitiful individuals, needing our sympathy and material help, or might we need to reassess our cherished and accepted public policies? Regardless of your answer to that, the fact is that we migrants to Alice Springs experience our town as a place of cutting-edge political and social issues — and that, in part, is what makes it so interesting.
So our house, in some ways, reflects our physical adjustment to our lives in Alice. As Robyn and I did not intend to stay in Alice for more than a couple of years, and as both our families and close friends remained in Melbourne, there was a sense for a long time that 8 Giles Street was not home. In fact, we still owned a house in Melbourne.
We had both been raised in permanent family homes, where our parents remained until old age. Moving around was not really in our blood, except to say that in our early twenties neither of us had put down roots. We saw Alice as part of the journey that would take us back to Melbourne. For me, it was probably six or seven years before I thought of our house as my home, a place where I really wanted to be. By then, we’d had two more children and the house had felt, heard and experienced the joys of having large numbers of kids running around.
There are 18 houses in our section of Giles Street. In only five (including ours) have the same occupants lived continuously since we arrived. Does this say something about the transient nature of settlement in Alice Springs, even now? In the same period, all but two of the 18 houses have been renovated to some degree. Does this tell us something about the availability of land in Alice Springs and increasing disposable incomes? I think yes, and while the reasons may be complex, we can deduce something about our connection to our community.
Making our section of Giles Street particularly beautiful are two hills. To the north is Spencer Hill, while Anzac Hill appears when you leave the street at the western end. Both have been appropriated by man to some extent and both show the scars of development you might expect on land so close to town.
Spencer Hill’s allure for development appears to have begun and ended during World War II. This was a time when the town was largely deserted by its civilian population. In their place, thousands of soldiers transited on their way north to Darwin. They camped in a number of locations but a major camp was established on East Side. Ammunition bunkers were needed to keep the munitions safe and these were built at the base of Spencer Hill. You can still see the footings, which remind us that the war in the north of Australia came a lot closer than we realise.
Today Spencer Hill is a much gentler but still-dominating presence. There’s no better place to watch the Todd River flow than from the top of Spencer Hill, or to watch the moon rise in the east, or to listen to the birds roost at night. It’s a beacon around which walkers stroll, dogs exercise and sniff the kangaroo droppings, and joggers run, making the Telegraph Station the start or finish of their route.
I’m sure Spencer Hill has seen many friendships and romances, as mates and couples daily walk by, enjoying its constant beauty. There’s evidence that this part of Alice Springs was covered with coolabahs and corkwoods, as some of these trees still grow at the base of the hill. Most importantly, we get a reminder that, right there at Spencer Hill, starts the “bush”. For as far as the eye can see to the north, there’s nothing but natural landscape. The great emptiness of remote Australia is on our doorstep, powerful and awe-inspiring.
Anzac Hill seems in some way more subtle, as from the end of Giles Street you see it through the river red gums that line the Todd. You don’t often hear its Aboriginal name, as everyone knows it as Anzac Hill. On the top is a shrine to fallen servicemen and women and two flag posts. The flags give away the wind direction, important if you ride a bike. There’s a sealed road to the summit, used during the day by people seeking to enhance their fitness. At night, people drive to the car parks to enjoy the view. In some ways, it’s our version of the beach, a place for contemplation, brief solitude or possibly a little romance; a place to enjoy the view of the Western MacDonnell Ranges.
Below sits the RSL on Shwartz Crescent, a testament to white man’s contribution to history. But to the Arrernte people, the hill is known as Atnellkertyarliweke, a mouthful by any linguist’s standards. This hill carries the message of continual habitation by the traditional owners of Alice Springs.
These are the physical landmarks that have made living in Giles Street so rewarding. The emotional connections have now stretched beyond our home, as neighbours’ children have left Alice Springs and undoubtedly our children will follow. There will always be that special bonding. “You lived in Alice, didn’t you? And wasn’t your house on Giles Street?” They can’t escape that question, and it will always be answered with a sense of pride: “Yes, we lived at number 8 Giles Street.”