Desert outpost, cosmopolitan town... Byron without the bay? Alice Springs is full of surprises.
You don’t “visit” or “arrive in” Alice Springs, you make it to Alice Springs. And if this implies an adventuresome achievement, it’s for good reason.
The Alice is almost without parallel, located about 1200 kilometres from the nearest urban centre, Katherine, and surrounded by not one but five deserts. Not even Timbuktu in West Africa can match it for arid isolation.
It is, of course, geographically (and symbolically) at the heart of Australia and also culturally significant. For the Arrernte people, Alice Springs is encircled by their ancestral beings, who formed the spectacular MacDonnell Ranges. Wherever you go in the city, the ranges look down at you, their mood dependent on the light.
For the European settlers, the town became the staging post that overthrew the tyranny of distance. The Alice, as well as morse code and railways, made it easier to tame the interior.
Today, many of its 24,700 residents have come from somewhere else. It’s home to a youthful population comprising professionals, progressives and those pursuing alternative lifestyles. “It’s Byron without the bay,” as one café owner claims.
Day 1 PM
Collect your hire car and make the short 15-minute drive into town (paradoxically, nowhere in this far-flung city is very far at all).
By now you will have been overawed by “the Macs”, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres both east and west. Though modest in height, these mountains seem substantial, intense and unnaturally close. They also part like curtains at Heavitree Gap, allowing you your first glimpse of Alice Springs.
Ease yourself into the landscape and lifestyle at Olive Pink Botanic Garden, stopping for lunch at the on-site Bean Tree Café. A cheerfully upcycled treasure, this shady eatery serves luscious burgers and juice made from desert-grown beetroots.
Take the easy walk up Annie Myers Hill among pinkish rocks and ochre-coloured sands for views of the Alice and a sense of being embraced by the MacDonnell Ranges. Before you leave, peer between the acacia trees beside the café, where a bowerbird has littered his perfect U-shaped bower with trinkets.
At 5pm it’s time to throw your leg over a camel and lope into the sunset with Pyndan Camel Tracks. On the 45-minute ride, you’ll hear birdlife and savour the smell of desert dew on buffel grass. As you approach the dusty camel yards upon your return, you’ll be given a priceless welcome by a 70-year-old cockatoo that screeches: “They’re coming back! They’re coming back!”
After the ride, cameleer Marcus Williams explains how the desert interior was opened up by trains of up to 70 camels carting loads of about 18 tonnes.
The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Alice Springs sits beside the broad, dry Todd River, which runs through the town. It’s an expansive resort-style hotel, complete with a swimming pool.
Have dinner in-house at Hanuman, a pan-Asian fine-diner set up by Darwin doyen Jimmy Shu and considered one of the town’s best restaurants. The menu is rich with classic curries from Thailand and India, though small plates (such as soft-shell crab with tamarind sauce) are hard to pass up.
After dinner, head downtown for a fix of the burgeoning boho scene at Monte’s, a sprawling, swirling carousel of circus-themed bonhomie built around an old house. Alice Springs has taken this place to heart, probably because it embodies the town’s new spirit: young, colourful and content in its own skin.
Day 2 AM
After throwing yourself into the prodigious breakfast spread at the DoubleTree hotel (the freshly baked sweet treats are especially good), swing by Todd Mall. Note the flourishing coffee culture and the galleries selling Aboriginal art, including Papunya Tula, the artist collective that first committed Aboriginal iconography to canvas in the 1970s.
In nearby Hartley Street you’ll find Alice Texas, a fabulous vintage store with an entire wall dedicated to second-hand leather cowboy boots. As the shop assistant says, “They’re just how you want them – already broken in.”
Across the road at Yubu Napa, behind the deceptively small shopfront, is a huge gallery with canvases priced up to $80,000. Co-owner Karl Bajzik has a strict “all welcome” policy. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a retiree on holiday or a corporate buyer. We’re a public gallery so everyone can view the art and, most importantly, meet the Aboriginal artists.”
Day 2 PM
Time to go bush. Drive 50 kilometres west along Larapinta Drive to Angkerle Atwatye/Standley Chasm, where the traditional owners run a friendly café and camping area. Lunch on a fortifying pie and salad and, if you have room, the damper scones.
At the end of a 10-minute walk, the chasm narrows to five metres, with walls soaring 80 metres on either side. If you’re feeling game, climb the rocky staircase marked for stout-hearted walkers of the 223-kilometre-long Larapinta Trail; within minutes you’ll get a sense of a landscape so vast that it instils awe and a little fear.
On the return trip to town, stop at Tjoritja/Simpsons Gap. Chances are you’ll be alone on the short stroll to the waterhole (20 minutes return) so soak up the solitude in a landscape formed by the Arrernte’s perentie (goanna) ancestors. If you sit still for a few minutes, rare black-footed wallabies may reveal themselves.
On the 40-hectare property known as the Earth Sanctuary, the Falzon family have spent 17 years developing a sustainable desert existence. Check out the geodesic solar-powered homes then grab a sunset beer named the Red Devil (flavoured with the Falzons’ own quandongs), before joining Dan Falzon on a tour of the night sky.
The highlight is when he opens the roof of his observatory, which houses a deep-space telescope. Laying eyes on Saturn’s rings and moons – a mere 1.6 billion kilometres away – makes for a powerful moment. “Looking at the stars recalibrates people’s minds,” says Falzon. “It makes them understand how special our own planet is and, hopefully, gets them thinking about how we can look after it better.”
Ponder further over dinner at Epilogue Lounge (0429 003 874) in Todd Mall. This vivacious bar/café is eclectic in décor, clientele and menu, which includes Thai yellow curry, lamb shanks and housemade fettuccine. Overhead is a rooftop bar where you can hoist a cocktail or two beneath the desert stars.
Day 3 AM
Test out your new stargazing knowledge when you wake up around 5am and drive to your prearranged spot for pick-up by Outback Ballooning. The experience begins with near-freezing temperatures, noise and fire and ends with a flute full of bubbles in the scrub somewhere, warmed by a desert dawn. In between, your half-hour hot air balloon flight will give you an angelic view of the expansive Macs and, with any luck, there’ll be another balloon aloft – a softly-lit orb floating sweetly over the desert plains.
Have breakfast at The Watertank Cafe (0408 854 472) – a hippie, happy shed serving specialty coffee and a vegie brekkie of eggs dusted with dukkah, avo dipped in chia seeds and housemade baked beans. Then end your visit where the European settlement began, at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. This lovely stone homestead, on the northern edge of the town, runs regular tours that reveal engaging stories like this one...
The station is located on the original Alice Springs, a waterhole chosen as the site for the Telegraph Station in 1871 and named for the wife of Sir Charles Todd, architect of the overland telegraph. The town that grew alongside it was actually named Stuart (after the inestimable Scottish explorer who finally crossed the interior). Since the “springs” turned out to be run-off, the water didn’t hang around. The name, however, did: “Alice Springs” was officially adopted by the settlement 62 years later.
And here it remains – still one of the most evocative names on the broad map of Australia.