Well what can I say – I didn’t hate Alice Springs.
I went there fully expecting to. I had heard pretty much all bad things so my expectations were extremely low.
As I have mentioned before, I am not that into desert landscapes so Alice Springs simply wasn’t that appealing to me. But when my brother Robbie got a job as a tour guide to Uluru based out of Alice Springs, I decided to give this dry and desolate region of Australia a chance to wow me.
And wow me it did.
I have already shared my experience about the Uluru, Kings Canyon and Kata Tjuta Tour so now I want to share my thoughts on Alice Springs and why I kinda ended up really liking the place, despite its bad reputation.
Alice Springs didn’t turn out to be the barren desert town that I had envisioned. There are actually a lot of trees dotted around town as well as numerous green spaces, although it is still pretty dusty.
Alice is surrounded on one side by the craggy MacDonnell Ranges, so it isn’t flat like I thought it would be either. The town straddles the Todd river which is as dry as a bone for about 90% of the time, just a sandy squiggle lined by trees.
The area where Alice Springs is now located has been settled for over 30,000 years by the Arrernte aboriginal people. The town itself started off as a Telegraph Station in 1872, named after the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd. It wasn’t until the train line to Alice was built in 1929 that the town’s European population began to grow.
The Todd Mall is the heart of Alice Springs. A shaded pedestrian street lined with Cafes, Art Galleries and Souvenir shops, it is alive with the sound of live music from the numerous buskers performing along the Mall. Al fresco dining options line the street and it buzzes with people.
We had brunch at Establishment on the Mall my first morning in Alice and I was really impressed. It was just as good as my regular brunches in Sydney. The coffee was amazing too. Sitting outside in the sunshine, surrounded by people, I was surprised how vibrant and chic Alice could be.
There are a number of bars and restaurants including my favourite, Monte’s. With its extensive craft beer selection, delicious menu and fun circus décor, it is the place to go out in Alice. They also have live music and other special events on a regular basis. The Rock bar is a good spot for a fun night out too and they do a ripper Aussie burger. We went there on the last night of our tour and there was a live band then a DJ played in the beer garden later in the evening.
The absolute highlight of my time in Alice was feeding the black footed Rock Wallabies at Heavitree Gap, a Resort and Camping Ground just out of town. They come down from the rocky hillside where they live around sunset. We purchased a bag of Wallaby food from Reception and these little furry T-Rexes with their adorably stumpy arms, came right up to us to get some delicious pellets.
They are less than a metre tall and very eager to be fed. They clung on to my hand when they were feeding and pawed at my knees, begging for more.
A couple of them even had tiny little joeys in their pouches.
They raised their short little arms like they were reaching out to hug me.
Well I would like to think that that is what they were doing.
Cutest Australian animal in existence? I think so.
I was interested in visiting another Australian cutie, the bilby, an endangered desert dweller that can be found in the Alice Springs Desert Park. It is a nocturnal creature, similar to a bandicoot but with longer rabbit-like ears. The park does night tours where it would be likely to see a bilby, but unfortunately only in summer so I didn’t end up visiting the park.
Alice Springs has a full schedule of quirky festivals and events such as the Finke Desert race, which was on when I was there. A two day off-road race for cars, bike, buggies and quads, people camp out in the desert to watch the vehicles go past. This would only take a few minutes so not sure what they would do the rest of the time, guess they probably get drunk. There is also a Beanie Festival, the Camel Cup (camel racing) and my personal favourite, the Henley-On-Todd Regatta.
The Regatta involves a boat race on the Todd River. As I said earlier, the Todd very rarely has any water in it so this boat race is comprised of bottomless boats, with competitors running along the sandy riverbed to victory. It had to be cancelled a few times when there was actually water in the river!
The Alice locals are an interesting bunch. The isolation that is part and parcel of living in the middle of a largely uninhabited desert attracts all sorts of people including hippies, backpackers, entrepreneurs, hipsters and bikers. Coupled with the large Arrernte aboriginal population, it makes for an interesting mash up of cultures and personalities.
I think that is another reason why I liked the place. It feels like anything is possible out there, so far removed from the rest of civilisation.
A popular spot to watch the sunset is atop Anzac Hill in town. We went up there about a half hour before the sunset so as not to have to scoot back in the dark on the scooters we borrowed from Robbie’s flatmates. It is only a 5 minute walk to the top but it is a pleasant view over town and out to the MacDonnell Ranges.
For a waaaay more impressive view, we drove the scooters out to hike up Mount Gillen, the highest point in the MacDonnell Ranges. We started the hike at the boulder marked grave of Rev. John Flynn, who founded what became the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The walk wasn’t signposted but we managed to find the trail fairly quickly, just to the right of the grave.
It took us just under 90 minutes return and was hard going. The path was steep and gravelly and as we got closer to the top the heat intensified. I couldn’t even imagine doing it in summer! I quickly drunk most of my water and my throat was dry and parched.
The last stretch involved scrambling and pulling ourselves up onto large boulders before finally reaching the top.
It was definitely worth the pain.
The incredible views over the mountain range as it stretched in a long, curved line. The low buildings of Alice dotted over the burnt sienna desert. Straggly, green trees floating in the rocky landscape. More shades of orange than I have ever seen. I found the colours warm and comforting. It was truly quite stunning.
Hiking back down had its own risks, namely the loose gravel which kept me on high alert for slips as I slowly edged my way sideways down the steeper sections of the track.
This hike was a close second of my favourite Alice experiences, after the mini Wallabies. Nothing could beat their stumpy-armed cuteness.
The biggest downside to Alice is the alcohol abuse problem faced by a number of the local Arrernte people, and the violence that comes from it. This makes the downtown a dangerous place to walk around at night, and even in the day sometimes. With a lot of the hostels about a 20-30 minute walk out of town, taxis are a must after dark to ensure you get back safely from town.
My time in Alice turned out to be far more exciting than I had ever expected: Visiting a cool circus bar, hand feeding cute wallabies, a desert/mountain hike with amazing views and scooting around town on borrowed scooters with my brother.
I really enjoyed myself.
I don’t know if I could live out there but I loved discovering a uniquely different part of Australia, far removed from life in Sydney.
Alice Springs is an outback town with a lot of soul. And a lot of characters.