It’s rare that a town with a population under 30,000 is known by everyone in a country as big as Australia. But Alice Springs is no ordinary town. It’s defined less by its size and more by its location and quirky nature. Known colloquially as just Alice, the town is considered the capital of Centralia (the efficient abbreviation for Central Australia). If you’re going to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), or anywhere else in the Red Center, odds are you will be starting or ending your journey in Alice Springs. How does a tiny outpost in the middle of the desert become known the world over? By doing everything the hard way and with a big smile.
Alice Springs is an Outback town, plain and simple. It’s 1,500km from Darwin and Adelaide and almost 2,500km from Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It is in the middle of one humongous country. It has survived and thrived for decades, however, thanks to ingenuity, creativity and, in recent years, a tourism industry that has capitalized on those traits.
So, you’ve found yourself in the middle of Australia with a few days to kill. Now what? Well, expect plenty of fun, for one thing, and some of the most breathtaking views you’ve ever seen.
- Palm Valley Tours – A bumpy 130km drive to the southwest of Alice is an amazing natural wonder that will make you believe that your eyes are deceiving you. In the middle of Finke Gorge National Park, in what appears to be a wide expanse the barren Outback, is a valley filled with lush, healthy palm trees. Relying on underground water supplies and only minimal amounts of rainfall, these palms have flourished for thousands of years. The tour bus takes you along unsealed, rugged roads and through some of the most striking landscapes in the entire Territory.
- Alice Springs School of the Air – Since when is a school a tourist destinations? Since this became the first school to communicate with students in remote areas via peddle-powered radios. The Northern Territory was, and still is, a region built around cattle stations and massive, remote plots of land occupied by very few people. As such, children are often hundreds of kilometers from the nearest school. The Alice Springs School of the Air was the first school to connect students and teachers utilizing the technology of the day. They have since upgraded to computers, webcams and chatrooms to allow students to attend classes with their peers who are scattered throughout the Territory. The visitors center shares the fantastic history of the school’s growth, development and the many innovations that have allowed it to educate the youth of rural Australia for decades.
- Royal Flying Doctor Service – Think setting up education in an area as remote as as the Northern Territory is difficult, try providing medical service to those sequestered locations. What do you do if you’re injured on a farm that’s 1,000km from the nearest town or hospital. You call the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was founded in Alice in 1928. The visitor center in Alice is also the dispatch office, where people with medical situations can call for a doctor to be flown out to treat anything from traumatic injuries to flu outbreaks to childbirths. You can see the history of the RFDS, as well as how calls are processed and proceeds from sales in the gift shop help keep this essential service operating.
- Outback Ballooning – I’d always been curious about flying in a hot air balloon but turned off by the high price of the experience. Also, while I’m not afraid of heights, I am a firm believer that only fruit should be collected in a basket. People deserve a metal casing. But after watching the sunrise over the Outback on the outskirts of Alice while floating several hundred feet above the ground, I realized that ballooning is the only way to travel. Or, the only way to see the majesty of an amazingly desolate yet beautiful landscape seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And the champagne breakfast afterward is sure to settle the nerves of anyone who was left jelly-legged from the ride.
- Anzac Hill – Apparently, every single destination in the Northern Territory has a “perfect” spot to watch the sunset. In Alice, there is no better place than Anzac Hill (partially because there is no other place – Alice is flat other than this one bump). Atop the hill sits a war memorial (ANZAC stands for Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) and a remarkable 360° view of the little town that could. Wrap up your trip to the Red Center by watching the sun sink behind the MacDonnell Ranges that lurk in the distance.
Alice is home to countless indigenous art galleries and plenty of pubs and restaurants serving bush tucker ranging from yams to wallaby. It’s also the only city in Centralia with an airport that hosts flights from virtually any other city in Australia that you may be coming from or going to.
You may have noticed that Uluru is noticeably absent from this list. The rock is nearly 500km from Alice and is by no means a day trip. While Alice is the closest city to Uluru, they are neighbors in the sense that anything within 1,000km is your closest neighbor when you’re in the Outback. If you’re planning a trip to Alice and Uluru, expect one of your days to be spent in transit from one to the other.
In a quirky country like Australia, it takes a lot for a small town to stand out. Alice Springs has done more than that. It has prospered and evolved from a tiny outpost in the bush to a popular tourist destination for people the world over. And there’s one event that draws the biggest crowds to this little hamlet. A regatta in the town’s dry river bed. Confused? Well, check back tomorrow to learn more.
Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.