Mind the Gap

Just 11 miles south west of Alice Springs sits the innocuously named Pine Gap facility, which despite sounding like a shopping mall, is in fact a US military base run by the CIA, NSA and US National Reconnaissance Office to track signals from missiles, satellites and even long-distance telephone calls in this third of the world.  After tourism and indigenous projects, it’s the largest employer in Alice Springs, which means a fair percentage of the patrons at the restaurants I work at ask for more ice and larger pizzas in glaring American accents.  There’s a whole raft of conspiracy theories behind what really goes on at Pine Gap, not helped by several of these Americans dismissing questions on what they do with fuzzy retorts of ‘working with computers’ or ‘in IT.’  I think the theories are irrelevant as it’s strange enough that a huge military telecommunications base run by another country sits deep in the Australian desert (so far from shore that spy ships passing in international waters can’t intercept the signals) with a vague overreaching objective of monitoring anything suspicious and airborne in the whole of Asia and Oceania. It’s strange that once again Alice Springs was chosen as the site for such a substantial endeavour, despite and therefore because, of it’s isolation and location right in the centre of Australia.

The town has been a hub of sorts for over a hundred years, with the Telegraph Station established back in 1872 to act as the halfway point on the Overland Telegraph Line from Darwin to Adelaide.  I should emphasise at this point there was nothing here at this juncture, just the brief congregations of Arrernte people who’ve lived on the surrounding land for up to 20,000 years.  The station was placed here because there was a spring (hence the name, the first part named after the postmaster general’s wife), which turned out to be less reliable than the telegraph line, and that it was as close to half way between north and south as they could calculate back then.  This town literally came into being because it was equally far from two cities.  With the telegraph line – which incidentally linked Australia to her colonial superiors back in Blighty via underwater cables to Indonesia and India and further stretches through Europe – more people arrived as they followed the telegraph posts for navigation and the station became an oasis of civility out in the bush.  With more people came the short-lived discovery of gold and by then the town was too big to fail.  And so here it sits.  Right in the middle of nowhere exactly because it is literally right in the middle of nowhere.  It’s why the US chose it as their spot to spy on Asia and why the first ever radio school was established 60-odd years ago.

Catriona and I visited the school today, which services 122 kids in a radius of over 2000 kilometres.  A class was going on, now beamed live over the internet rather than the lowly radio, with a science experiment being relayed to some students on a cattle ranch 1400 km north of the school.  Alice Springs is the education hub for these far flung students (one kid lived on a ranch bigger than Belgium, so big his mum had to muster the herd via helicopter), with three classrooms hooked up to cameras and speakers beaming lessons live from Monday to Friday.  The school regularly posts grade results in the upper 10% of the national league tables, so it’s clearly a successful operation.  I’m not sure if the US officials at Pine Gap ever get bored watching North Korea and tune in for a quick refresher on the periodic table but I’m sure they could if they wanted to.

Anyway, what I wanted to point out is that one of the reasons we came out here was precisely because it was way out here. We weren’t the only ones either.  In a few weeks we’re going to go one further and go for a proper walk in the bush, taking a fortnight ramble along the Larapinta trail, which starts (or ends depending on your direction) in, you’ve guessed it, Alice Springs.  So whether you’re a spy, a hiker, a morse code operator or a third grader on a cattle ranch, all roads lead to Alice apparently.  It’s coming to that point where we start to figure the road back out, but until then, more ice and larger pizzas sir!