Posts Tagged ‘town camps’

Alice Springs – worth visiting?

June 18, 2009 1 comment

I’ve been reading travel blogs of late. I’m amazed at the poor reviews travellers often give Alice Springs. A major complaint seems to be that the town is boring. Our tourism authorities are obviously not marketing the town as well as they should. Or rather, that marketing is not reaching some of the travellers. When you arrive in Alice pick up some tourist brochures & maps. Available at the airport or the tourist information centre just opposite the Mall on Gregory Tce. Tourism Central Australia’s website allows you to download the current copy of the Central Australia Holiday & Visitor Guide. Very useful booklet. And this url takes you to a lovely site which is a good introduction to the area.

Alice Springs is a friendly and interesting town. There is quite a lot to see in town and the surrounding areas along the MacDonnell Ranges, both East and West. You won’t need to spend a week here but you can easily chew up 3-5 days touring the area if you like spectacular landscapes.

In Town

The Alice Springs Desert Park will walk you through the three main habitats of the desert, Sand Country, Desert Woodlands (yes, trees) and Desert Rivers. There are hundreds of plants and animals to be found in the Central Australian deserts. It’s not all just sand and gibber stones. The Park also features a superb display from free-flying birds of prey. This Park never fails to delight me. Desert Bird Week takes place from 19 September until 4 October this year and is one of many events the Park hosts during the year. You will come away with the knowledge that Australian deserts are complex eco-systems and not the boring monotony you probably envisioned. The Desert Park sits underneath the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges with close views of Mt Gillen. Can easily be reached by a short bike ride along the town’s bike path network.

The old Telegraph Station tells the history of how the town came in to being. Drive the short distance along the North Stuart Hwy to the heritage reserve or, opt for the picturesque walk or ride along the shared pathway from town. The path follows the Todd River (which is usually dry) and is only 4kms from the CBD. There’s a lovely park in which to picnic or have a barbecue. Parks & Wildlife Service of the NT oversee the station, it’s museum and the park. They produce a great 2 page brochure which includes a detailed map and general information.

The Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, located in the Old Alice Springs Gaol is a charming museum. Whilst it’s focus may be on the role of pioneering women in the outback, the museum does show a lot about life in general in old Alice Springs. I like it. Not because I’m a woman, but because I like seeing the stories behind the people who came to settle here, why they came, and how they coped with the searing heat in the days prior to air conditioning and fast transport.

If you’ve not seen a reptile museum, then the Alice Springs Reptile Centre is worthy of a visit. Our local snake catchers work here and they are mighty fine people doing a mighty worthy job. 🙂

Art? Indigenous Art? We have numerous galleries in town, in the Todd Mall, along Gregory Tce and elsewhere in the CBD. The Mbantua Fine Art Gallery includes a Cultural Museum. This is a lovely museum with displays on traditional Indigenous culture. The $1.2 million painting, Earth’s Creation by Emily Kame Kngwarreye is now on display here. It is magnificent! The gallery has guided tours.

School  of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor Service both operate small visitor centres and museums. The RFDS also operate a gorgeous cafe. I love the outdoor eating area. And the food. And the coffee. Very popular with everyone and is family friendly.

The Alice is blessed with many top restaurants and coffee shops. Bluegrass is my personal favourite for evenings. But there are many, many others from which to choose. For lunch in the Todd Mall I like The Lane or Bar Dopio’s. Picolo’s is tucked away inside Springs Plaza off the Mall, and Daily Grind is in Yeperenye shopping centre on Hartley Street. Food courts, McDonalds, Subway, Hungry Jacks etc etc are also prevalent. You won’t go hungry here.

If spending a few days or longer, we have a cinema, theatre, concerts, live music venues, and numerous festivals throughout the year. Think Henley-on-Todd and Camel Cup which until very recent years was sponsored by Minnie Maid, our local escort service, but it was deemed inappropriate. Sad. It was just so Alice Springs. 🙂

Mountains, gorges, chasms and water holes – take a drive, east or west

If you do nothing else here in Alice Springs, do take a half day or full day’s drive along the Western MacDonnell Ranges. Organized tours are available. Drive as far as Glen Helen at least. See NRETA’s map & info on all national parks in and around Alice Springs.

The Western Macs is Namatjira country. If you’re familiar with the late artist Albert Namatjira’s paintings you will recognize the colours out here straight away. Truly magical country. The Larapinta Trail, a 223km walking trail, meanders along and through the ranges out here. John Flynn’s Grave, Simpson’s Gap & Standley Chasm are very close to town. It’s great fun to cycle out to Simpson’s Gap.

Try to time your arrival at Standley Chasm by 11.30am to allow the 20 mins to walk up to the chasm itself. Midday sunlight puts on a lovely display over the rocks. Your children will want to discover their inner mountain goat and climb well out of your reach far too quickly. Let them. Wear practical clothing and walking shoes and do some scrambling up the rocks yourself, it’s a lot of fun. Great exercise, great views.

Further along the range you’ll pass Ellery Rock Hole, the Ochre Pits and Ormiston Pound and Gorge. The Ormiston area, with its walking trails, is incredibly scenic and one of my favourite destinations. Camping is permitted in many areas.

On another day, drive east and do the Eastern Macs. The scenery is different to the Western Macs. I love both, but I think the Eastern Macs are special. Maybe it’s because it’s often quieter along the Ross Highway. I think it is worth driving all the way out to Arltunga, the area’s first official town (borne out of the gold mining boom in the late 1800s). There are only ruins out here now in the Historical Reserve. But they’re fun and interesting to explore. The buildings and old mines are spread out over a very large area (you need to drive between sites). Some great views and interesting history. Pioneer miners walked initially from Oodnadatta (end of the train line) to Alice Springs (about 600 odd kms) and then walked another final 133km to get to the gold fields of Arltunga. Amazing! The desert oaks and cypress trees out here are amongst the finest you’ll see in the wilds.

I haven’t mentioned the Rock yet

The Rock. Formerly known as Ayer’s Rock, now it’s Uluru. Yulara is the resort town next door that provides the very expensive accommodation & food. And no, the Rock isn’t just “down the road” from Alice. It’s over 450kms. That’s a 4.5 – 5 hour drive. There ARE NOW SPEED LIMITS in the NT! Please obey.

In spite of the pricey resort, Uluru is worth visiting for 2-3 days. About 50kms from Uluru stand the magnificent tumble of very big rocks, Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas.) Both have a number of walking trails that are fun and beautiful to explore. I shall leave it up to you whether you should climb the Rock or not. There are signs explaining the requests not to climb, read then decide. I have my own views. If you do decide climbing is okay, be prepared for the climbing route to be closed when you arrive. If the local Indigenous people are in mourning (“sorry business”) then the climb will be closed. If it’s too hot, too wet, likely to be wet but not yet wet, or too windy the climb will be closed. There are huge fines for not complying. Please obey.

Yulara resort, whilst very expensive, is nice. I like the way the buildings, paths and gardens all blend in to the landscape. Nothing stands out garishly until you’re right in the midst of it. Check websites like for cheaper accommodation options, bargains can often be found. Otherwise I recommend either camping (the camping ground is very good) (but not cheap) or taking a cabin (also not cheap but cheaper than a motel room and it’ll have a kitchen so you can DIY meals).

But isn’t the drive from Adelaide to Alice Springs boring?

NO! It isn’t! It may be monotonous for great distances but it’s not boring. All this nothingness. There’s just so much of it and it takes hours and hours of driving to get through it all. I think that’s absolutely amazing! This country is so huge and there’s nothing like a desert drive up the Stuart Hwy to make you feel just how big this land is.

There is stuff to see. Plenty of monster sized wedge-tailed eagles, often eating road kill and refusing to get out of the way. Have a look at the size of those talons! Other birds of prey circling high overhead. Emus are often seen. As are kangaroos (do be careful if driving at “roo time”, dawn and dusk, when roos can present a road hazard) and dingos. Cattle of course, with and without fencing, be careful. Closer to Woomera and Pt Augusta you may even spot sheep flocks which always look odd out amongst the scrub country.

The salt lakes of Lakes Hart & Gairdner have easy access from the highway. Some wonderful viewing areas to see these massive salt pans. Take a scrunchy walk across part of Lake Hart which has a very large rest area, complete with military warning signs on the lake itself and a railway line (do mind the occasional train you might see).

No, it’s definitely not boring. Worth doing at least once in your life. And I’m not the only one who thinks this.

“Social problems”, town camps & Indigenous society

One of the best things you will gain from a visit to Alice Springs is an awareness of the realities of Indigenous life. You will hear them speaking their own languages. You may become aware of there being more than one tribe, that Indigenous people cannot be clumped together as “one people”. They are many peoples. You will see the infamous town camps with their appalling living conditions. You might see people choosing to camp in the sandy bed of the Todd River.

A short visit isn’t long enough to understand the complexities of the social problems here. If you drink alcohol you will come up against our odd laws restricting the times, amounts and types of alcohol that can be bought. The laws apply to everyone. Even tourists.

You might see groups shouting, arguing or even fighting. Mainly at night. Just exercise the same caution you would if you were out very late at night in the city. In the five or six years I’ve been living here I have never felt threatened by any of the Indigenous people. A woman shouted abuse at me one time in the supermarket, but she was shouting at everyone and security and her family led her away quietly. I ignore the begging that sometimes goes on in the Mall. In my years here I have never witnessed police abusing their powers. On the contrary, they are to be congratulated for their patience and positivity.

But you should see this for yourself. To understand that Indigenous life in Central Australia is different to Indigenous life experienced in the cities or other states. Many peoples.

Concluding thoughts

There is much to see in both Alice Springs and Uluru. Both are very worthy of visiting. If you’re doing the driving thing, then the Alice is a great spot to rest and re-stock whilst doing some leisurely sightseeing. The next big town is some distance away, roughly 1500kms whether you travel north or south (Darwin or Adelaide

If time is very short, you’re flying and you have to choose between the Alice or the Rock, then I’d have to say go for the Rock. That really big rock will make an impression, especially at sunset. Or sunrise.

But if time allows a day or two, preferably more, come up and see the Alice too.