Meet Damien, the Mayor of Alice Springs, motor racing enthusiast and a proud supporter of our local events. Damien was born and raised in Alice Springs and as a child; his fondest memories include being a spectator at some of our biggest events including the Finke Desert Race. Damien also loves it every time the Todd River flows and the excitement of the townspeople when the rains come down over Central Australia.
Red Heart Beats Within - Damien's Story
It’s a place often described as an outback frontier where the modern world co-exist with the ancient, where blue endless skies are the norm and magical sunsets are almost a daily ritual. A place where rain spit sends ripples of anticipation throughout the town and a single downpour can thrust an entire population into a euphoric state of excitement. This is a unique place where a river flowing makes news headlines and sends social media into frenzy #toddriverflows. This is a place called Alice.
“How many rivers would get cameras clicking because there’s water in it? That’s one thing that’s never changed over the years and that’s the excitement of the town when the Todd flows. It’s an event”
For as long as Damien John Ryan can remember, river flows were always happy times. Born in Alice Springs in 1955, young Damien grew up in East Side with his parents and three brothers. The Todd River was his playground and he recalls many blissful days during his childhood playing explorer, climbing trees and frolicking in the river – dry or wet. His fondness for a water-filled Todd River has never waned:
“All these years later I still go down every time the river flows and it’s something I’ve done with all my daughters”
During his teen years, Damien went off to boarding school in Adelaide, only coming home during school holidays. Damien’s father had a turquoise mine out on Ammaroo Station, 350kms north east of Alice Springs, so his school breaks were spent working at the mine.
“I really felt these times helped me grow up. I was really proud of the different things that my dad did and if I achieve half the things that he did, then I would be a success”
“Going bush to work on the turquoise mine also gave me a fascination for lots of things that I did after”
One of those many things includes taking over the Alice Springs Camera Shop, a Kodak photo store in Todd Street before it became Todd Mall, in the early 1970s. His love for catching beautiful moments came from his many years in the photo industry. Damien worked in the business with his brother Jerome until he was elected in the 2008 Local Government Elections.
In the intervening years, Damien also dipped his toes in other professions including a foray in tourism, managing Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse in the early 1980s. It was during those roadhouse years that he met his soul mate, Joanne. She came there to work and a friendship soon blossomed into a roadhouse romance.
“She’s my rock. She’s a great person to sit down and work things through with. I’ve always worked hard and she’s always been there and she’s amazing with our girls. I enjoy the family that we’ve created, it means a lot to me and it’s that unit that gives you the reason to go out and do what you do”
One of Damien’s other passions is the iconic Finke Desert Race. As the committee’s current Vice President and Lifelong Member, he was there at the inaugural two day event in 1976 when it was called There and Back, with 56 competitors. The race has grown tremendously over the years and is now the biggest off road racing event in the Southern Hemisphere. This was helped in 1988 when cars and buggies were brought in, changing the dynamism of the race.
“Cars and buggies were brought in because we always wondered what old bike riders were going to do and this brought in a whole new array of people to the event”
In 2013, there were approximately 500 riders and 100 drivers.
“We have come far with Finke in 39 years but the only thing that hasn’t changed is the enjoyment of people- the way they enjoyed it in ’76 is the same as today”
Damien also competed in Finke four times in the 4WD class, winning once. But for him, the race was less about the win and more about the great people he was racing against and fronting up to his own challenges.
“As a spectator you go and have one piece of it, but you only get one bite. The only way you can truly be in Finke is to cover the course – 210kms up and 210kms back”
Finke Desert Race is just one of the many Central Australian events that fascinate Damien. Over the years he’s seen the region evolve to a truly remarkable place with much character and soul. And for the Mayor of Alice Springs, this stems from the culture of our events – which gives outsiders a glimpse into our quirky, artistic, sometimes strange but more often hilarious nature.
According to Damien, “the quirkiness of our events comes from the spirit of the people who live here and it’s our ability to laugh at ourselves”
From events with earlier beginnings such as Bangtail Muster Parade (1959), Henley-on-Todd Regatta (1962) and Alice Springs Camel Cup (1970) to ‘newer’ events including Alice Springs Beanie Festival (1997) and Alice Desert Festival (2001). All these events have fascinating and funny back stories.
The Henley-on-Todd Regatta began when members of the Rotary Club of Alice Springs met for a picnic at 16 Mile Creek, where over a few beers they discussed ways to raise money for charity and Reginald Smith came up with the idea of holding a waterless Regatta on the dry riverbed of the Todd. The Alice Springs Camel Cup was born out of a bet between two mates Noel Fullarton and Keith Mooney-Smith who decided to race each other and the event proved so popular and hilarious that the Lions Club turned the race into an annual event.
It is events like these that keep the spirit of Central Australia alive. But for Damien, his favourite event is the one that brings back memories from his own childhood to his three daughters’– when the Todd River flows.