One Per­fect Week­end

Rev­el­ling in the old and new spirit of Alice Springs

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YOU DON’T “visit” or “ar­rive in” Alice Springs, you make it to Alice Springs. And if this im­plies an ad­ven­ture­some achieve­ment, it’s for good rea­son.

The Alice is al­most with­out par­al­lel, lo­cated about 1200 kilo­me­tres from the near­est ur­ban cen­tre, Kather­ine, and

sur­rounded by not one but five

deserts. Not even Tim­buktu in West Africa can match it for arid iso­la­tion.

It is, of course, ge­o­graph­i­cally (and sym­bol­i­cally) at the heart of Aus­tralia and also cul­tur­ally

sig­nif­i­cant. For the Ar­rernte

peo­ple, Alice Springs is en­cir­cled by their an­ces­tral be­ings, who formed the spec­tac­u­lar MacDon­nell Ranges. Wher­ever you go in the city, the ranges look down at you, their mood de­pen­dent on the light.

For the Euro­pean set­tlers,

the town be­came the stag­ing post that over­threw the tyranny of dis­tance. The Alice, as well as morse code and rail­ways, made it eas­ier to tame the in­te­rior.

To­day, many of its 24,700 res­i­dents have come from some­where else. It’s home to a youth­ful pop­u­la­tion com­pris­ing pro­fes­sion­als, pro­gres­sives and those pur­su­ing al­ter­na­tive life­styles. “It’s By­ron with­out the bay,” as one café owner claims.

Day 1 PM

Wher­ever you’ve flown in from, you’ll likely land about mid­day. So col­lect your hire car and make the short 15-minute drive into town (para­dox­i­cally, nowhere in this far-flung city is very far at all).

By now you will have been over­awed by “the Macs”, which stretch for hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres both east and west. Though mod­est in height, these moun­tains seem sub­stan­tial, in­tense and un­nat­u­rally close. They also part like cur­tains at Heav­it­ree Gap, al­low­ing you your first glimpse of Alice Springs.

Ease your­self into the land­scape and lifestyle at Olive Pink Botanic Gar­den (, stop­ping for lunch at the on-site Bean Tree Café. A cheer­fully up­cy­cled trea­sure, this shady eatery serves lus­cious burg­ers by chef Ma’oz, who rec­om­mends the juice made from desert-grown beet­roots. (Ma’oz, an Is­raeli trav­eller, in­tended to skip through town but ended up stay­ing, at­tracted by po­etry read­ings, jam ses­sions and the friendly vibe. You’ll hear sto­ries like his a lot here.)

Take the easy walk up An­nie Myers Hill among pink­ish rocks and ochre-coloured sands for views of the Alice and a sense of be­ing em­braced by the MacDon­nell Ranges. Be­fore you leave, peer be­tween the aca­cia trees be­side the café, where a bower­bird has lit­tered his per­fect U-shaped bower with trin­kets.

At 5pm it’s time to throw your leg over a camel and lope into the sun­set with Pyn­dan Camel Tracks (cameltracks. com). On the 45-minute ride, you’ll hear birdlife and savour the smell of desert dew on buf­fel grass. As you ap­proach the dusty camel yards upon your re­turn, you’ll be given a price­less wel­come by a 70-year-old cock­a­too that screeches: “They’re com­ing back! They’re com­ing back!”

Af­ter the ride, cameleer Mar­cus Wil­liams ex­plains how the desert in­te­rior was opened up by trains of up to 70 camels cart­ing loads of about 18 tonnes.


The Dou­bleTree by Hil­ton Ho­tel Alice Springs (ho­tel.qan­­ble­treeal­ice­springs) sits be­side the broad, dry Todd River, which runs through the town. It’s an ex­pan­sive re­sort-style ho­tel, com­plete with a swim­ming pool.

Have din­ner in-house at Hanu­man, a pan-Asian fine-diner set up by Dar­win doyen Jimmy Shu and con­sid­ered one of the town’s best restau­rants. The menu is rich with clas­sic cur­ries from Thai­land and In­dia, though small plates (such as soft-shell crab with tamarind sauce) are hard to pass up.

Af­ter din­ner, head down­town for a fix of the bur­geon­ing boho scene at Monte’s ( au), a sprawl­ing, swirling carousel of cir­cus-themed bon­homie built around an old house. Alice Springs has taken this place to heart, prob­a­bly be­cause it em­bod­ies the town’s new spirit: young, colour­ful and con­tent in its own skin. Day 2 AM Af­ter throw­ing your­self into the prodi­gious break­fast spread at the Dou­bleTree ho­tel (the freshly baked sweet treats are es­pe­cially good), swing by Todd Mall. Note the flour­ish­ing cof­fee cul­ture and the galleries sell­ing Abo­rig­i­nal art, in­clud­ing Pa­punya Tula (papun­y­at­, the artist col­lec­tive that first com­mit­ted Abo­rig­i­nal iconog­ra­phy to can­vas in the 1970s.

In nearby Hart­ley Street you’ll find Alice Texas, a fab­u­lous vin­tage store with an en­tire wall ded­i­cated to sec­ond-hand leather cow­boy boots. As the shop as­sis­tant says, “They’re just how you want them – al­ready bro­ken in.”

Across the road at Yubu Napa (, be­hind the de­cep­tively small shopfront, is a huge gallery with can­vases priced up to $80,000. Co-owner Karl Ba­jzik has a strict “all wel­come” pol­icy. “It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re a re­tiree on hol­i­day or a cor­po­rate buyer. We’re a pub­lic gallery so ev­ery­one can view the art and, most im­por­tantly, meet the Abo­rig­i­nal artists.”

Alice Springs has taken Monte’s to heart. It em­bod­ies the town’s new spirit: young, colour­ful and con­tent in its own skin.

Day 2 PM

Time to go bush. Drive 50 kilo­me­tres west along Lara­p­inta Drive to Angk­erle At­watye/Stan­d­ley Chasm (stan­d­l­ey­, where the tra­di­tional own­ers run a friendly café and camp­ing area. Lunch on a for­ti­fy­ing pie and salad and, if you have room, the damper scones.

At the end of a 10-minute walk, the chasm nar­rows to five me­tres, with walls soar­ing 80 me­tres on ei­ther side. If you’re feel­ing game, climb the rocky stair­case marked for stout-hearted walk­ers of the 223-kilo­me­tre-long Lara­p­inta Trail; within min­utes you’ll get a sense of a land­scape so vast that it in­stils awe and a lit­tle fear.

On the re­turn trip to town, stop at Tjoritja/Simp­sons Gap ( Chances are you’ll be alone on the short stroll to the wa­ter­hole (20 min­utes re­turn) so soak up the soli­tude in a land­scape formed by the Ar­rernte’s per­en­tie (goanna) an­ces­tors. If you sit still for a few min­utes, rare black­footed wal­la­bies may re­veal them­selves.

Af­ter dark

On the 40-hectare prop­erty known as the Earth Sanc­tu­ary, (earth-sanc­tu­, the Fal­zon fam­ily have spent 17 years de­vel­op­ing a sus­tain­able desert ex­is­tence. Check out the ge­o­desic so­lar-pow­ered homes then grab a sun­set beer named the Red Devil (flavoured with the Fal­zons’ own quan­dongs), be­fore join­ing Dan Fal­zon on a tour of the night sky.

The high­light is when he opens the roof of his ob­ser­va­tory, which houses a deep-space tele­scope. Lay­ing eyes on Saturn’s rings and moons – a mere 1.6 bil­lion kilo­me­tres away – makes for a pow­er­ful mo­ment. “Look­ing at the stars re­cal­i­brates peo­ple’s minds,” says Fal­zon. “It makes them un­der­stand how spe­cial our own planet is and, hope­fully, gets them think­ing about how we can look af­ter it bet­ter.”

Pon­der fur­ther over din­ner at Epi­logue Lounge (0429 003 874) in Todd Mall. This vi­va­cious bar/ café is eclec­tic in dé­cor, clien­tele and menu, which in­cludes Thai yel­low curry, lamb shanks and house­made fet­tuc­cine. Over­head is a rooftop bar where you can hoist a cock­tail or two be­neath the desert stars.

Day 3 AM

Test out your new stargaz­ing knowl­edge when you wake up around 5am and drive to your pre­ar­ranged spot for pick-up by Out­back Bal­loon­ing (out­back­bal­loon­ The ex­pe­ri­ence be­gins with near-freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, noise and fire and ends with a flute full of bub­bles in the scrub some­where, warmed by a desert dawn. In be­tween, your half-hour hot air bal­loon flight will give you an an­gelic view of the ex­pan­sive Macs and, with any luck, there’ll be an­other bal­loon aloft – a softly-lit orb float­ing sweetly over the desert plains.

Have break­fast at The Water­tank Cafe (0408 854 472) – a hip­pie, happy shed serv­ing spe­cialty cof­fee and a vegie brekkie of eggs dusted with dukkah, avo dipped in chia seeds and house­made baked beans. Then end your visit where the Euro­pean set­tle­ment be­gan, at the Alice Springs Telegraph Sta­tion (al­ice­spring­stele­graph sta­ This lovely stone home­stead, on the north­ern edge of the town, runs reg­u­lar tours that re­veal en­gag­ing sto­ries like this one...

The sta­tion is lo­cated on the orig­i­nal Alice Springs, a wa­ter­hole cho­sen as the site for the Telegraph Sta­tion in 1871 and named for the wife of Sir Charles Todd, ar­chi­tect of the over­land telegraph.

The town that grew along­side it was ac­tu­ally named Stu­art (af­ter the in­es­timable Scot­tish ex­plorer who fi­nally crossed the in­te­rior). Since the “springs” turned out to be run-off, the water didn’t hang around. The name, how­ever, did: “Alice Springs” was of­fi­cially adopted by the set­tle­ment 62 years later.

And here it re­mains – still one of the most evoca­tive names on the broad map of Aus­tralia.

Mil­lions of years in the mak­ing, the MacDon­nell Ranges dom­i­nate Alice Springs’ land­scape (op­po­site); cameleer Mor­gan Richards with Pixie (top); the Bean Tree Café at Olive Pink Botanic Gar­den

A sun­set trek with Pyn­dan Camel Tracks (top); Monte’s (right); Alice Texas’s preloved cow­boy boots

(Clock­wise from top left) Todd Mall; bar­man Alessan­dro Mar­ciano at Epi­logue Lounge; Alice Springs Telegraph Sta­tion; ex­plore the area sur­round­ing the his­toric precinct by bike

The hip Water­tank Cafe serves cof­fee made from lo­cally roasted beans

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