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How a red dirt outback oval became the ‘MCG of the Desert’

Matt Turner, June 9, 2021 6:30PM News Corp Australia

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Ashley Smith, 11, and Latahnia Anderson, 10, approve of the new grass at Santa Teresa Oval which used to be red dirt and rocks. Picture: Emma Murray media_cameraAshley Smith, 11, and Latahnia Anderson, 10, approve of the new grass at Santa Teresa Oval which used to be red dirt and rocks. Picture: Emma Murray

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Twenty-two children line up between miniature posts, waiting for the goal umpire’s signal.

As soon as she waves her flags, the youngsters take off from inside the centre square.

Most in sneakers, some in bare feet, almost everyone in a football guernsey.

All of them running about 60m across grass towards much taller goalposts, the same as those at the MCG.

This is new for the remote Northern Territory community of Ltyentye Apurte (or Santa Teresa), 80km southeast of Alice Springs.

The oval had long been dirt, made up entirely of clay and covered in small rocks.

But over the past two years, the ground has transformed from reddish brown to green.

Dubbed the MCG of the Desert, it is now the only fully grassed oval in a remote central Australian town and its colour is striking in an otherwise arid* landscape.

media_cameraSanta Teresa oval before the resurfacing project led by the Melbourne Football Club. Picture: Supplied
media_cameraThe oval is now known as the MCG of the Desert after grass was planted on the surface. Picture: Supplied

The resurfacing project has been a partnership between Melbourne Football Club, Melbourne Cricket Club, the AFLNT, the Northern Territory government and the area’s traditional owners, the Eastern Arrernte people.

Santa Teresa’s oval was officially relaunched on June 3 in an event attended by most of the town’s 500 people.

To the local community and the Demons, it was the culmination* of a dream years in the making.

For primary school student Latahnia Anderson, the winner of the race from the miniature posts to the AFL standard ones, the oval ticks all the boxes.

“It’s green and new, and it’s soft,” the 10-year-old said.

“We used to play when it didn’t have grass and it was a bit hard and boggy because of the sands.

“It will be nice.”

The highlight of the ground’s relaunch, which fell in the middle of the AFL’s Sir Doug Nicholls Round and News Corp Australia’s Indigenous Sport Month, was a football match between two sides from the community’s only club, known as Ltyentyies.

media_cameraMembers of the Ltyentyies Football Club played the first official game on the newly grassed Santa Teresa Oval. Picture: Emma Murray

AFLNT Central Australia remote manager Clinton Firth said the region was home to plenty of talent and having grass on the oval could help fast-track development.

Gibson Turner, who was on Richmond’s list in 2012 and was one of the field umpires for relaunch match, agreed.

“Here they can adapt to the way the ball bounces so getting those conditions that’s played in Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide can only be a benefit to their football,” he said.

Planting grass on the oval had been a goal for the town for a long time but getting the Demons involved started as something of a joke.

After Melbourne staff visited Santa Teresa on a cultural immersion* trip in 2017, spending a night under the stars in swags*, hearing stories around a campfire from community leaders and eating traditional foods, they asked locals how they could assist.

The chief executive of the local Aboriginal corporation, Susie Low, told Melbourne’s IT manager, Jimmie Martin, the club could help get the ground resurfaced.

“It was initially tongue-in-cheek*,” Ms Low said.

But within a month, the Demons conducted a feasibility study* that would later determine that re-grassing was possible, and the club went on to source support for the project.

MCG turf manager Michael Salvatore visited Santa Teresa in 2019 to provide advice on growing and maintaining the drought-tolerant grass. He has remained a mentor.

The MCC came on board that year, donating the goalposts, padding and one of the MCG’s mowers.

media_cameraShalaya Young, 4, on the new look Santa Teresa Football Oval. Picture: Emma Murray

The grass will also be significant for the community’s health. Dust has been a hindrance* to asthma sufferers, while rocks and the uneven surface have caused injuries.

Demons chief executive Gary Pert recalled picking up stones close to the size of his fist during his previous visit to the oval, but they did not discourage local children from running on there.

“There’s a whole change of culture when you’ve got that central green space that’s healthy to play on,” Pert said. “It really changes the self-esteem of the community.”


  • arid: dry, with few plants
  • culmination: the end point or final stage
  • cultural immersion: surrounding yourself with the people, practices and beliefs of a place
  • swags: canvas sleeping bags
  • tongue-in-cheek: not meant to be taken seriously
  • feasibility study: a look at whether a plan could work
  • hindrance: interferes with or gets in the way


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  1. What replaced dirt on the Santa Teresa oval?
  2. How far is the town of Ltyentye Apurte (or Santa Teresa) from Alice Springs?
  3. What date was the oval relaunch event?
  4. What was the highlight of the relaunch event?
  5. What three items did the MCC donate to the oval?


1. Design a Banner
Design a special banner for players to run through at the next footy game that will be played by the Ltyentyies at the new oval. Your banner should show the most important parts of the story of the oval and, of course, motivate the players to do their best.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Visual Communication Design

2. Extension
Why do you think that having “a central green space that’s healthy to play on” is so important for our communities?

Write a list of as many benefits for kids, families, schools and communities that you can think of.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Personal and Social Capability

Description of the Senses
Imagine you are one of the children running on the grass for the first time. Decide if you are bare foot or have shoes on.

Now using your five senses (sight, sound, touch taste and smell) describe what the experience is like.

Imagine you have gone back home and you are explaining it to your family, who are yet to see the oval.

Remember when you are referring to touch, it’s not just your fingertips, it’s any part of your skin that feels a sensation.

Use strong emotive and descriptive language to create a clear image for your family.

When you have finished, go through and highlight all your VCOP to see which elements were dominant in this piece of writing.

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