Home to an Earth Sanctuary, a Kangaroo Sanctuary and enough gaps, gorges and chasms to leave you properly gapped out, Alice is an outback surprise worth sticking around for.
A lone cow wanders back and forth along the clearing on the far side of the gorge. Me: I’m a lizard, perched on a toasty rock with toes dipped in the glacial-cold water at Glen Helen Gorge. I’m on day four of my five-day tour of Alice Springs and at peak relaxation, gorge-hopping in the nearby West MacDonnell Ranges. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have guessed would be on the agenda; although I must admit, I did little to no research on Alice Springs before I arrived. My unfounded expectation consisted of visions of pancake-flat terrain, tumbleweed town centres and the experiences of Guy and Hugo in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Oh, how wrong I was.
Flanked by the rugged and rocky East and West Macs, surrounded by gaps, gorges and chasms and packed with hip cafes, galleries and stays, Alice really is the Queen of the Desert. Here’s how to spend five days here.
Start the day sipping on a single-origin espresso al fresco at Page 27 in the Todd Mall Arcade (it’s an Alice institution). Down the street, you’ll find a string of worthy cafe contenders including cafe-cum-live music venue Epilogue Lounge, The Bakery and The Goods – known for its bottomless batch brew and a smashed avo to rival Melbourne’s best.
After a caffeine-fuelled walk up to Anzac Hill, make your way to the Kangaroo Sanctuary for a sunset tour of 76-hectare wildlife reserve. The tour follows Chris ‘Brolga’ Barnes – star of the BBC’s Kangaroo Dundee series – and his kanga-cohorts on their evening rounds, bottle-feeding orphaned joeys and caring for injured adult red ’roos.
Who knew there was a mountain biking mecca in the middle of the Central Australian desert? Certainly not me: at least not before this sunrise outing with Outback Cycling. I’m equally flabbergasted and flailing trying to navigate the twisty-turny labyrinth of singletrack my guide – Canadian-born Jen Rajher – is leading me up and down… and up and down. She’s showing me a tiny section of the hand-built track, which spans 150 kilometres around the town’s boundary and includes a litany of unmarked tracks.
The early-morning adrenaline calls for a calmer afternoon at Alice Springs Desert Park watching birds of prey free-fly overhead at the Nature Theatre’s daily show and wandering the park’s carefully recreated desert habitats. Stay for the Nocturnal Tour to spot foraging bilbies, malas and echidnas.
Take it easy today exploring Alice’s many art galleries. Start at the Araluen Arts Centre – home to several galleries of Central Australian Aboriginal art and the largest collection of works by the legendary Albert Namatjira. Todd Mall houses several more galleries, namely Papunya Tula Artists and Mbantua Gallery, while Tjanpi Desert Weavers and Tangentyere Artists sell beautiful handmade baskets, blankets, fabrics and jewellery.
Afterwards, treat yourself to the slow-cooked Madras goat curry with house-made garam masala at popular Hanuman.
You’ll need a whole day to explore the majestic West MacDonnell Ranges National Park, which stretches 160 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Plan to arrive at Simpsons Gap for sunrise to see the rocky peaks turn 100 shades of red and purple before making your way to Standley Chasm to meander through the alleyway cut into the quartzite rock. Continue on to Ellery Creek Big Hole for a gasp-inducing dip in its icy waters, then waterhole-hop from here to Redbank Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge and Ormiston Gorge before looping back to Alice Springs.
Your final morning takes you 15 kilometres south of town for a hot-air balloon adventure with Outback Ballooning. A bucket-list experience worthy of your final day here, you’ll drift peacefully over the historic Owen Springs Reserve and alongside the rugged caterpillar ranges, with infinite views of the red-dirt and spinifex-tufted desert carpet below.
By nightfall, head to the Earth Sanctuary to drink in the impossibly clear night sky on its award-winning Astronomy Tour. Orient yourself with help from its experienced ‘sky guides’, spotting constellations of the zodiac, and spiral and dwarf galaxies light years away, before taking a closer look at the planets in one of the sanctuary’s intergalactic geodesic domes.