By John Dunn
April 04, 1983 12:00 PM

It was quickly dubbed “the Palace in Alice,” but the place certainly wasn’t fit for a future king. In fact, when the Prince and Princess of Wales decided to begin their six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand at the dusty Outback town (pop. 18,000) of Alice Springs, the itinerary most definitely did not include overnighting at the Gap Motor Hotel. Among its other deficiencies, the hotel’s swimming pool had no outdoor furniture, and cowpokes’ horses were tied to the fence outside the motel. Nevertheless, on March 20 the royal couple checked into Gap’s Room 303. “This is a big occasion for us,” exclaimed manager Wayne Thomas, who played host to the pair after a recent monsoon rendered the town’s new $16 million Federal Casino hotel inaccessible. To accommodate his special guests, Thomas assigned them his only two suites ($117.45 each), featuring a cedarwood hot tub and color TV.

The first week of the visit was free of the incidents that marred the couple’s Alpine vacation two months ago. In fact, an air of informality reigned from the start. Upon setting down at the tiny Alice Springs airport after a 24-hour flight from London, Charles, Diana and Prince William immediately tended to their royal business, posing for pictures. Charles brushed one of the ubiquitous flies from William’s face and joked, “His first Australian fly.”

After the five-minute photo session, William and his nanny, Barbara Barnes, were whisked by jet to Woomargama, a working sheep and cattle ranch in southern Australia owned by Melbourne businessman Gordon Darling. “It’s a lovely family home,” Darling’s wife, Margaret, says of the six-bedroom, four-bath, Colonial-style house, where Ronald Reagan was a guest when he was Governor of California. William is residing at Woomargama throughout the Australian tour, and his parents will return to check up on him at least nine times during their visit.

Alice Springs, in the parched dead center of Australia, was an unlikely spot to encounter royalty; its only claim to fame is the Nevil Shute novel and popular TV miniseries A Town Like Alice. Yet the town was chosen as the first stop precisely because it had never received royalty on such a grand scale. Soon after Charles and Diana registered at the Gap Motor Hotel, stockmen and reporters gathered outside. Aborigines wandered up from their makeshift camps along the Todd River to stare at the goings-on. But the royal couple managed to elude the crowd (by driving through a hole that had been snipped in the wire fence behind the motel) and spend the afternoon beside the properly equipped pool of a local car dealer.

The following day Diana and Charles visited the School of the Air, a radio operation that broadcasts educational programs to 110 children on cattle stations scattered over 650,000 square miles. The students, using radio transmitters in their homes, welcomed the royal travelers. During a question-and-answer session Diana was asked, “Does Prince William have a favorite toy?” “He loves his koala bear,” she answered. All queries were first submitted to Buckingham Palace, which rejected this question: “Do you sleep in a double bed?”

Later that afternoon the royals flew 180 miles to Australia’s most striking tourist attraction, Ayers Rock. Five miles around and 1,100 feet high, it sits on the barren floor of an orange-red desert. The flat-topped rock is a sacred monument for the aborigines, three of whose elders were introduced to the visitors. Later Charles led Diana on a climb 100 yards up the rock; then they descended to watch the sunset—a local ritual.

Tuesday was a typical Outback day with the sun burning down from a cloudless blue sky. Diana’s familiar peaches-and-cream complexion was replaced by a shade of red. At a school in a remote mining town, Matthew Lux, 5, asked Charles, “Are you the King?” “No, not yet,” he replied with a laugh. The next day was scheduled to be spent with Prince William at Woomargama. The couple’s travel agenda holds a number of unprecedented events for the Princess, who is making her first official overseas visit. On Diana’s schedule is “an informal walk among the people” on the island of Tasmania, an inspection of a macadamia nut factory and a visit with brother-in-law Edward, who is a teacher at a school in Wanganui, New Zealand. But Charles and Diana won’t be the only visitors from England over the next few weeks. Making the 12,000-mile trek from London are Kevin Shanley and Michael Dalton, otherwise known as Her Royal Highness’ hairdressers.