A Town Like Alice: The Ultimate Guide to Alice Springs
As far away from Darwin as it is from Adelaide, Alice Springs has played a starring role in Australian mythology, thanks, in part, to its proximity to Uluru. But the legendary outback town, encircled by the ancient MacDonnell Ranges and cloaked in a dusty light that glows the colour of Fanta during sunrise and sunset, is home to a lot more than endless sky and a local love of Akubra.
In Alice Springs, which is divided by the Todd — a mostly dry riverbed scattered with 100-year-old River Red Gums — the undulating desert landscape and relative isolation has lured an expat community of artists, scientists and adventurers. This has given rise to a crowded cultural calendar that includes everything from Wide Open Space, a three-day music and culture festival near N’Dhala Gorge, about 83 kilometres east of Alice to Desert Song, a yearly celebration of Central Australian music to Parrtjima, a September festival that sees the mountains become a canvas for the country’s largest light installation.
Alice Springs or Mparntwe, home, for 30,000 years to the Arrernte (pronounced Arunda) people is also a heartland for Aboriginal Australia. This fact is reflected in the living presence of Indigenous languages to the countless world-class galleries featuring traditional and contemporary works from Aboriginal artists, makers and artisans based in communities around the town. Although it’s worth hiring a car if you plan to visit the gorges and watering holes that dot the region, Alice Springs is relatively easy to navigate by foot or mountain bike. Here’s our guide to what you should see, eat and explore.
Put a spring in your step
Alice Springs is a fascinating mix of nature and culture. Olive Pink Botanic Garden is a case in point. This 16-hectare public garden, which was founded in 1956 by the botanist and activist Olive Muriel Pink on the eastern banks of the Todd, is a masterclass in desert flora — it’s lined with towering mulga, cassia trees and bright-yellow wattle. It’s also home to the Bean Tree Café, where you can savour shakshouka and buttermilk pancakes, in the desert sunlight, after a morning walk.
In town, you’ll find your best breakfast hit off a Todd Mall laneway at Page 27, a local hangout that’s home to up-cycled furniture, indoor greenery and an all-day brunch menu heavy on seasonal produce and vegetarian options. Order the donut French toast (it’s crowned with mascarpone and fresh peaches) or if your appetite warrants it, The Full Chapter, a foolproof combination of eggs, rosti and chorizo.
If you’re serious about your short blacks, you can’t go past The Goods — a buzzy, retro-chic caffeine joint where the coffee comes courtesy of Alice Springs roasters Duyu. While you’re in the area, pick up an apricot and macadamia scroll at The Bakery, a local baked-goods institution. Then, make a pit stop at Red Kangaroo Books, where the shelves are lined with classic novels and hard-to-find titles with a focus on the literature of the Red Centre.
Art with heart
Alice Springs plays host to more galleries per capita than anywhere else in the country — and you don’t have to look far to encounter mind-bending art. On Todd Mall, Papunya Tula Artists has been showcasing art from the Western Desert since the early ‘70s. Visit the airy, minimalist space for dazzling, large-scale paintings — in orange, ochre and sandstone — from artists like Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and George Tjungurrayi before stopping off at nearby Desart, where you can catch a revolving roster of exhibitions featuring work from communities around the region.
A short bike ride outside the city, the Araluen Cultural Centre is the heart of the Alice Springs art scene, thanks to its 1,100-strong collection spanning landscape painting, installation and everything in between. Catch show such as the Alice Prize, an annual blockbuster featuring work from contemporary Australian artists around the country — this year’s highlights include Hunting at Haasts Bluff by Doris Bush Nungarrayi and RED, a film by art-world luminary Del Kathryn Barton. While you’re here, swing by the Albert Namitjira Gallery, a tribute to the Australian art legend who grew up in nearby Hermannsburg.
If you could cross a country pub with a travelling circus, the result would come close to Monte’s Lounge. At this much-loved Alice Springs drinking hole, which attracts a bohemian crowd of locals and out-of-town eccentrics, it’s all about the leafy beer garden — the perfect place for sampling a local brew and enjoying the late-afternoon sun, with a side of live jazz.
For dinner, , on the bottom floor of the Double Tree by Hilton should be top of your list. The acclaimed pan-Asian restaurant, the handiwork of Jimmy Shu, an award-winning Sri Lankan-born restaurateur, serves small and large plates laced with fiery Thai and Indian flavours — think wild barramundi cooked with turmeric and Goat Rogan Josh. Or head to the Crowne Plaza next door for Tali, a sleek fine diner where you can linger over twice-cooked pork belly and a glass of pinot. End your evening back in town at Epilogue, where you can sip a spiced orange mojito on the rooftop under the star-filled outback sky.
(Lead image: Stuart Highway Aerial, Alice Springs Region Photo: Sam Earp/Tourism NT)
Published 23 May, 2018