In the middle of the Australian continent lies the iconic heart of Australia, the red stone landmark of Uluru. But the monolith of Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, is just a rock after all, so travellers looking for the true beating heart and living centre of the Outback are best advised to look for it in Alice Springs. The town called Alice is the place where the rugged spirit of the early explorers was shaped by the ancient culture of the first peoples, and so created the modern mythos of the outback so central to Australian nationhood.
The traditional owners of the lands of the Red Centre are the Arrernte people, who called the place Mpwante. The Arrernte have lived in central Australia for thousands of years, and according to their ancient stories the landscapes and mountain ranges around Alice Springs were formed and shaped in the Dreamtime by totemic caterpillars, wild dogs, wallaroos and mythical ancestral figures.
The Heart of the Outback
For any traveller wishing to experience the full flavour and rhythms of Australia’s true Outback, Alice Springs is the destination hub where explorations of the Northern Territory’s Red Centre should begin and end. From here visitors can explore the ecology of boundless desert landscapes, hike mountain chains pocked with cavernous gorges, discover hidden waterholes of unparalleled beauty or visit remote Aboriginal communities where the living history of Australia’s first peoples can be experienced first-hand.
Alice itself is a place of quirks and character that grew from a simple telegraph station in the 1870s. The town has grown over the years and today is the cultural, administrative and economic centre for a vast area. The quirks and character are still there, however, as no other place boasts such things as a yacht club with no lake or ocean to yacht on, an annual boat race on a dry riverbed and a knitting and beanie festival in one of the hottest and driest places on earth.
Things to Do in Alice
Alice Springs is certainly not a large city by world standards, with an approximate population of just under 30,000, but it does have plenty of attractions, accommodations, shopping and services. Below are listed some of the top cultural attractions, events and venues in and around the town.
Cultural Attractions and Sights
- Telegraph Station Historical Reserve — The original stone-built telegraph station provides a fascinating glimpse of the town’s beginnings. The station operated from the 1870s until 1932, and nearby is the original “Alice’s spring”, a semi-permanent water hole in the normally dry Todd River watercourse.
- Museum of Central Australia — the museum’s natural history displays bring to life a time when the now-arid deserts of central Australia were covered with lush tropical rainforests and wombats the size of hippos roamed the land beside nine-foot tall flightless birds. There is also an extensive collection of Aboriginal artefacts documenting the cultural legacy of the Arrernte people.
- Reptile Centre — for those not so interested in boring history or stuffy museums, the Reptile Centre offers an up-close look at a host of slithery scaled reptile beasties.
- Alice Springs Desert Park — An ideal attraction for those interested in the ecology of the Red Centre lands, featuring hundreds of species of plants and animals housed in specially recreated habitats.
Events in Alice
- Finke Desert Race — Every June on the Queen’s birthday motorsports enthusiasts flood into Alice for the running of “The Finke,” a cross-country rally race from Alice Springs to the small community of Aputula.
- The Camel Cup — Every July since 1970 the most unique racing event in Australia is held in Alice with the running of the camels. This fun event draws entrants and visitors from around the world and helps raise funds for various community groups.
- Henley-On-Todd Regatta — this iconic event has been poking fun at the stuffy British tradition of boat racing since 1962. Hilarity ensues every year in late August as teams in homemade “boats” take to the sands of the dry bed of the Todd River to have a race.
Shopping, Food and Entertainment
Alice has a variety of restaurants and clubs to suit almost any taste and budget, from fast food fare to fine dining. Some eateries and clubs of note include: Bojangles, a popular spot for backpackers and local station ringers; Todd Tavern, a classic Aussie pub with pokies and slots, a busy bar, good grub and live music on weekends; Overlander’s Steakhouse known for classic outback steaks with samplings of crocodile, emu, camel and kangaroo on the menu.
- Todd Mall Market — Set up along the main shopping strip in the centre of town. The Todd Mall Market features local vendor stalls, plenty of deals and is held on alternate Sundays from May to December. When the market is not in session, Todd Mall features a variety of retail outlets, galleries and eateries.
- Heavitree Gap Market — Situated just on the far side of Heavitree Gap from the town centre, this market is held on alternate Sundays to the Todd Mall Market and is a bit less formal and pricey.
- Aboriginal Art World — Located along Todd Mall, this shop deserves mention for showcasing traditional artworks from across central Australia.
Exploring the Alice Region
From Alice Springs the entire Red Centre is open for the visitor to explore, with any number of adventures to be had to make a memorable holiday. There are numerous tour operators to help arrange activities from fossicking for gems in the North of Alice to ballooning, trekking, camping and four wheeling expeditions. Day trips to the Simpson Desert to experience the life ways of the Arrernte people can be arranged, and guided tours from half-day trips to four-day junkets can be planned to view the spectacular vistas of the MacDonnell Ranges.
In short, there’s a bit of everything for everybody and too many sights and activities to list.