February 16, 2023
5 mins Read
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Todd Mall is almost deserted. I have arrived into Alice Springs/Mparntwe on a hot Thursday in the aftermath of the last of the COVID lockdowns, and it seems to be taking the Central Australian town, which sits on the Traditional Land of the proud Central Arrernte people, a while to get its mojo back. The international backpackers and modern nomads who swell the population here as they come and go with the seasons haven’t made it back yet, and the pervading vibe on the street is subdued.
I busy myself exploring sites further afield for the next few days, but when I do return to the heart of downtown early on a weekend morning, I am shocked. The pedestrian mall has been transformed, with people browsing market stalls and spilling out of the cluster of cafes housed here.
They line up for takeaway coffees or crowd around shaded tables, eating and chatting and laughing as dogs doze underfoot. I instantly realise that it wasn’t travellers that were missing from the streetscape when I arrived but its residents, who were apparently toiling away in air-conditioned offices and businesses biding their time for the weekend.
Seeing Alice locals interact with their town come Saturday and Sunday is an essential element of any visit, in order to appreciate how an outpost as remote and socially isolated as this fosters a thriving community spirit that passionately embraces its diverse population.
Not to mention a surprisingly dynamic cafe culture that sparks to life when the working weekends. One of the pioneers of the Alice cafe scene is the wonderfully eclectic Page 27, tucked away in a coolly-shaded arcade festooned with potted greenery.
Locals love this place, waiting patiently to score one of its coveted tables – including coffee table and armchair set-ups and a vintage washing machine with high stools – and order favourites like the pesto scramble or doughnut French toast, which arrive piled high on the plate and accompanied by heart-starting coffee.
On the opposite side of Todd Mall, Epilogue Lounge is a cafe-cum-bar that does great juices and plentiful breakfast plates (tapas and live music kick in later in the day and into the evening), which locals enjoy sitting at the outdoor bench tables, waving to friends and watching as artists from the local Central Arrernte community set out displays of large and small artworks on canvas in arresting ochre tones and startlingly modern black-and-white patterns for sale.
The Locals is a relative newcomer, but the location on Todd Mall has been home to a cafe for some 30 years, the last one being Piccolo’s before renovations reinvented the space as a cafe and licensed restaurant.
As the name suggests, the feel is familiar and welcoming with a huge breakfast menu including generous servings of corn fritters with eggs perched on top and a smear of whipped feta and fresh salsa at the edges of the plate (my personal recommendation) and a vegan brekkie plate; order an iced coffee to go to ward off the heat as you browse the markets stalls.
And as city dwellers are well aware, no cafe strip is complete without a gourmet bakery, and Alice has its own in the eponymously named The Bakery.
The large, colourful mural of a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo on the outer wall is the guidepost to follow to find all manner of crusty confections, from chewy sourdoughs and artisan breads to pastries, pies and handmade doughnuts with sweet fillings that are perfectly contrasted with locally roasted coffee.
Gawking out the window as we descend for landing into Alice Springs/Mparntwe, I am astounded at how much greenery I can see dotting the outback landscape; my mind’s eye had imagined something much more barren and rusty.
On the taxi ride into town my chatty driver explains that the rains were prolific this year, swelling the usually dry Todd River that sits at the edge of the downtown cluster and drenching the towering Tjoritja West MacDonnell Ranges.
While it may be a big ask to time a visit to Alice based on the notoriously fickle outback rains – sometimes they don’t come at all, for years – when the waters do arrive in abundance here the landscape is transformed, presenting a different outback experience from the parched stereotype.
Driving out of town towards wonders such as Standley Chasm-Angkerle Atwatye, the spine-like ridge of the ranges is coated in scrubby grasses that wax and wane from washed-out khaki to surprisingly vibrant emerald tones, while waterholes are fresh and full.
At Ellery Creek the hot sands dip into cool, bracken-coloured waters that are perfect for soaking in or as locals do, sprawling out on lilos; at Simpsons Gap the water’s glassy surface reflects back a mirror image of its bulging red rock walls and the endless blue skies above.
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