Long before satellites and digital gizmos, the people of the central desert had their own GPS system. They navigated by the stars, the rocks and the riverbeds with mental maps held together by the Songlines, also known as Dreaming Tracks or Footprints of the Ancestors.
Nowadays your GPS will take you to the Territory and anywhere else you wish to go, but it won’t tell the stories of the first people or of the white settlers who braved the heat and drought to settle the inland before the arrival of the refrigerator and the “eggnishioner”. One of the first explorers in the Territory was a six-foot Highland Scot named John Ross who led a party to prepare the way for the overland telegraph.
In her book Gidgee and Grit, Lorraine Day tells how “for a thousand miles John Ross navigated with a prismatic compass using a tracing of Stuart’s map, a carpenter’s lead pencil, and a two-foot rule.
“Flour, tea and 400 pounds of jerked meat, or ‘bootlace’, formed the basis of their diet, varied occasionally with boiled crow and nardoo, an aboriginal food made from grinding the sporocaps of the pond plant Marsilea drummondii which is mixed with water to form an edible dough.”
“They once went three months without meat, except for three hawks. Water was carried in canvas saddle-bags. If they became torn from riding through scrub, wallabies were shot, meat stewed and water bags made from the skins. The guns they carried were long-barrelled Colt muzzle-loaders.”
Ross River, a tributary of the Todd River that runs through Alice Springs, was named after this explorer, and Elsey Homestead after the horse that carried him more than 3000 miles (4800km) through the centre.
Lorraine’s book, subtitled A History of Loves Creek Station and Ross River Homestead, may well be the only thing you need to take with you, apart from your GPS, when you travel north from Port Augusta or Adelaide, or south from Darwin to Alice Springs. You’ll learn who Alice was, and what happened in the Ruby Rush and the Arltunga Gold Rush, and how the Afghans were the only people you could trust to transport grog.