In Dreamtime folklore, the land of the Arrernte people, surrounding and including Alice Springs (Mparntwe), was built by giant caterpillars. The MacDonnell Ranges, which frame the city to the east and west, have a loping rock formation creeping along the low mountain peaks which call to mind the region’s soft-bodied totem, creating a watchful, protective rim around the town.
A stay in Alice Springs is a rewarding experience, with opportunities to learn about the art of the central desert, and connect to Country in spectacular desert surrounds.
“See the country, then see the art,” says Hetti Perkins, co-curator of Alice Springs’s annual Desert Mob art marketplace. “It puts it all in perspective.”
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Here’s where to stay, what to see and where to eat on a visit to the heart of the outback.
For coffee: The Goods
When Broadsheet asked one local to direct us towards the best coffee in town, she pointed us to The Goods. The baristas have been trained by an Ona barista, who spent two years working at the cafe and training staff. The old green school chairs scattered on the pavement are from the Catholic school across the road, and co-owner Jonny Rowden made the tables himself from reclaimed materials.
“One person told me the experience of coming here is like that of going to a British pub,” Rowden tells Broadsheet. “You can come alone and chat to the barista or a local, and leave with new friends.” Throw in coffee from local roaster, Duyu, and a hearty menu that includes four types of jaffles and a must-have ricotta, chai-roast pear and pistachio on toast, and it’s clear how this locals’ haunt got its name.
For a day trip: Standley Chasm (Angkerle Atwatye)
The quartzite walls of Angkerle Atwatye, an 80-metre high gorge 50 kilometres outside of Alice Springs, were formed by ancient seabeds more than two billion years ago. It is beautiful to visit at any time of day, but if you time your trip for midday, when direct sunlight enters the chasm and lights up its walls for 90 minutes, you will be rewarded with a spectacular natural light show.
For art: Desert Mob
When the gates to the annual Desert Mob marketplace open at Araluen Arts Centre, collectors from interstate and overseas (some have lined up for hours) stampede for the opportunity to buy art from 34 Central Australian art centres. The marketplace and its annual exhibition show pieces from some of Australia’s most respected artists, including intricately painted pots from the renowned Hermannsburg Potters, brightly coloured soft sculptures from Yarrenyty Arltere artists and piles of canvases from the Papunya Tjupi artists.
“This event is for the artists and it’s wonderful to see them all coming together,” Hetti Perkins tells Broadsheet. “When you come to this place you see what a beautiful part of the world it is. And the art reflects that in ways that are often quite unexpected.”
This year marks the second time the three-decade-old event has been led by an entirely Aboriginal team. When buying art at Desert Mob, funds go directly to the remote art centres and the communities they support.
“When an event like this is curated by two Indigenous women from Central Australia you get the cultural connections with the artists,” co-curator Aspen Beattie tells Broadsheet. “From collaborating with the art centres right through to the hanging of the works.”
Desert Mob 2023 runs until October 22.
For recharging: Crowne Plaza Alice Springs Lasseters
This sprawling hotel, a five-minute drive from the centre of town, is set around a large and inviting swimming pool, and has a spa, wading area, cafe and bar, and large fitness centre. Breakfast is served at Tali, where resident chef and omelette savant Owen is both deft on the pans and a keen storyteller. Ask for traditional bush flavours and you might get a slather of his off-menu bush tomato chutney. The air-conditioned guest rooms are capacious (by city standards) and squeaky clean, and make for an excellent base to recharge between outings. Request a room with a view of the surrounding MacDonnell Ranges.
For dining: Bella Alice
Italian chefs Alberto Pasquetti and Antonio Favale started their pizzeria out of their carport. Unable to cope with the demand for their woodfired pizza, made using the Italian biga method (an advanced fermentation technique similar to sourdough), they got themselves a food truck and quickly became the go-to for fresh pasta and pizza in Alice Springs. In 2021 they took over digs in Todd Mall where, when Broadsheet visited, the queue for a table snaked out the door. Mother Earth is their signature pizza, made with a mozzarella base, fresh fior di latte, mushrooms, truffle oil and aged parmesan. Be sure to leave room for tiramisu – it took Pasquetti four years to perfect his method.
For music: Desert Song Festival
Of the many highlights of this year’s Desert Song Festival, which runs for 10 days each September, was watching a group of women from the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir gathered around a campfire singing I am Australian with Pitjantjatjara lyrics – if there was a dry eye in the vicinity, it was well hidden. The annual multicultural music festival has entered its 11th year, with a line-up showcasing Central Australia’s artistic talent and celebrating cultural diversity, with headline acts from across Australia, South Africa, India, Mali and the US.