Built on the floodplains of the Todd and Charles Rivers in the heart of the MacDonnell Ranges is the dusty town of Alice Springs, a place where evaporation exceeds rainfall, phone reception is rare, and the winters are warm(ish). Conditions here are harsh, and the town feels like a transient place, with a population of just 27, 000 people.
The drop point for tourists coming to visit Uluru, travellers roll through in large numbers, often staying for just a night in the flat desert town before heading south another five hours to visit the monolith.
We spent a few days there during the Alice Desert Festival in September visiting local art galleries, riding through the desert on bikes, swimming in watering holes and eating roo burgers with locals, and found out that Alice Springs itself is more than just a stop over.
Double Tree by Hilton
Accommodation is modest in Alice Springs but if an air-conditioned room and a pool are prerequisites, the Double Tree is your best bet. There is also the popular Thai eatery Hanuman in the hotel foyer, and upon check in, you will receive freshly baked (warm) cookies with a local story, which you’re likely to leave with a tin of.
82 Barrett Drive
(08) 8950 8000
For something more modest and self contained with kitchen facilities, try Desert Palms Resort right next door to Double Tree.
EAT & DRINK
A small hole-in-the-wall espresso bar run by a local called Cam, CafeGonzo is basically standing room only, but down the lane is an outside setting with table and chairs in the sun for a morning latte and freshly-baked muffin. This is our top (and only) pick for coffee.
10/76 Todd Street
Always bustling, Page 27 is a local favourite. Serving fresh juices, big salads, sandwiches and cakes, this is hearty and healthy breakfast and lunchtime cafe (they close at 2.30pm) located down a leafy green, plant-lined alley off Todd Mall. This is the fresh lunch spot you’ll need before a day out in the desert.
3 Fan Arcade (just off Todd Mall)
Surrounded by palm trees and fronted by a huge outdoor beer garden, Monte’s is easily the most popular bar and music venue in Alice Springs. With a huge selection of beers on tap and cocktails by the jug, it’s a great spot for an afternoon sipper in the sun, or a balmy night outside with pub grub of pizza and burgers. We recommend the roo burger. On Friday nights you’ll see packs of bicycles chained to the fence surrounding the venue as locals and visitors knock off for the week.
Corner Todd Street and Stott Terrace
(08) 8952 4336
Bojangles Saloon Bar
Though pinned as a bit of a tourist trap with outback Aussie paraphernalia of shot-out road signs, cow skulls and horse shoes pinned up around the place, Bojangles is worth visiting. This place gets rowdy at night, but by day you can sit out the back in the sunny beer garden with a $10 jug of NT draught and a bowl of nuts and chat to the locals.
80 Todd Street
(08) 8952 2873
Mbantua Dinner with Bob Taylor
This is one Aussie outback campfire experience that rivals all other dining in town. Local indigenous chef Bob Taylor cooks a traditional desert dinner over an outback bush BBQ. Drive 15 kilometres out of town to a campsite at Simpsons Gap where Bob is set up cooking emu sausages, desert tomatoes, kangaroo fillets and dishes flavoured by native plants, wattle seed, desert mint and bush wattle.
There are an overwhelming number of commercial galleries along the main, pedestrian-only thoroughfare of Todd Mall in Alice Springs, but Pupunya Tula is one you should stop into. Widely known as the ‘first dot painting gallery’, Pupunya Tula was named after an art movement that dates back to the 1970s, when men in the community of Papunya, west of Alice Springs, were encouraged to paint. The gallery is owned and directed completely by Aboriginal people form the Western Desert, and showcases a diverse range of well known and lesser know works by Aboriginal artist from around the country.
63 Todd Mall, Alice Springs
(08) 8952 4731
Araluen Art Centre
This large contemporary gallery is the main art precinct in Alice Springs, located a few minutes out of town. The are four galleries in the centre, featuring a rotating program of Aboriginal and desert artworks. The annual Desert Mob exhibition (6 Sept - 20 Oct, 2013) is one of Australia’s most exciting indigenous art exhibitions, offering a snapshot of what is happening in the contemporary Aboriginal art scene. There is also a cinema, a theatre, and a large outdoor sculpture in the Araluen Art Centre.
61 Larapinta Drive
(08) 8951 1120
Tjanpi Desert Weavers
A non-for-profit Aboriginal social enterprise run by a local women’s council to provide an income source for women living in remote Central Australian communities. Inside this small gallery/shop, whimsical desert creatures – lizards, snakes and strange birds – are available to purchase, made by more than 400 Aboriginal women for 28 remote desert communities. Each one is a unique and intricate piece of fibre art.
3 Wilkinson Street
(08) 8958 2377
Pyndam Camel Tracks
Though perhaps not the most native of the animals in the NT, a camel ride at dusk is a pretty amazing way travel through the desert. The hour-long ride takes you across a desert flat, before climbing a slight include to get sweeping views across the MacDonnell Ranges. Take a hat and a camera.
21259 Jane Road
Hot Air Balloon at sunrise
It’s an early start at 4am, but as the sun rises over the Spinifex covered landscape of the Central Australian desert, it’s all worth it. After 30 mins flying high in a basket, return to land for a champagne breakfast. Take warm clothes, as it gets cold in the desert when it’s dark.
With flat terrain like this, Alice is the perfect spot for off-road cycling. If you’re up for something physical, pedal through the scrub and bush of the desert with a local rider for 15 kilometres. WARNING: it’s pretty hard going, don’t sit down on a prickle bush and take plenty of water.
Drive The Red Centre Way
If you’ve got a day spare, drive The Red Centre Way past Simpsons Gap, and continue towards Ormiston Gorge (you can swim here). After a dip, keep driving until you get to Glen Helen and take a pit stop at the Finke River Bar. It’s the only petrol pump for 87 kilometres, and the only pit stop for food and drink for miles. Prop up at the bar with a beer and order a camel burger or tiger toast (a vegemite and cheese toastie). They also serve frozen yoghurt like you used to get at the school tuckshop and CDs of local musicians (with names like Slim Pickens) who play live at the bar. On your way back to Alice, stop in for another swim at Ellery watering hole and check out the gap at Stanley Chasm.
Broadsheet’s trip to Alice Springs was made possible by Tourism Northern Territory. Book your NT trip at lastminute.com.au