Things to Do in Alice Springs
These days it’s commonplace for many schools to offer programs online, where you can receive a degree without ever seeing a teacher. Well, before the age of the internet, there was radio-- the means of how School of the Air in Alice Springs, Australia, nobly pioneered the idea to reach out to kids in obscure destinations without proper schools. One visit to the school premises, which is now complete with its own Visitor Center, and you can share a moving experience that shows how the utilization of technology we take for granted has not only brought people together, but shaped lives.
Teaching primary and secondary level students since the 50’s, today students are outstretched as far as 502,000 square miles from the school. You can watch a film about the history of this truly unique school, and even listen in on live classes, which have since switched from the radio era to a highly more modernized and efficient broadband internet model.
In the heart of Australia’s Red Centre lie the Western MacDonnell ranges. 1,500 kilometres south of Darwin and just west of the infamous Alice Springs, the western MacDonnell Ranges offer an enchanting look into an ancient culture and an even older landscape.
The best ways to explore the often rugged territory are by 4WD, motor-home, or even on bike -a mode of transport that is surprisingly well catered for, with even the famous Simpson’s Gap providing a seven kilometre section of sealed bike track. Covering an area of just over 2,000 square kilometres, the canyons, gorges, and waterholes in the National Park area provide a stunning and insightful backdrop for any number of outdoor activities, including camping, swimming, and hiking, to name a few. Hiking enthusiasts should consider the 250 kilometre Larapinta Trail, which traverses the ranges from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder.
Standley Chasm, also known as Angkerle, is a place of great significance to the local Aboriginal people. A spectacular slot gorge, the deep, narrow chasm cuts through the tough quartzite of the native stone and puts on a magnificent display of color and form as the sun passes through the sky.
Surrounding the chasm is a lush valley and an abundance of walking trails. A short walk from the kiosk to the chasm is particularly rewarding at midday when the sun shines directly overhead. Another walk from the kiosk heads west and climbs to a saddle with views of the area's mountains and valleys. For more avid hikers, sections 3 and 4 of the Larapinta Trail meet at Standley Chasm and can be hiked as either long day trips or overnight hikes. Standley Chasm is the easiest place to access the Chewings Ranges for those who do not wish to hike the Larapinta Trail. The Chewings Ranges are home to some of the most rare and threatened wildlife of the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Simpsons Gap is one of the most prominent areas in the West MacDonnell Ranges, home to one of the most well-known waterholes of the Alice Springs region.
There are a few bush walks nearby, including the short Ghost Gum Walk and longer Cassia Hill Walk, which takes one hour each way. Longer walks around Simpsons Gap include the Woodland Trail, which connects Simpsons Gap with Bond Gap on an 11-mile (17-km) return track, and sections one and two of the Larapinta Trail. Visitors also have the opportunity to picnic at Simpsons Gap, with gas barbecues available for free use, or opt for a bicycle ride along a sealed track. The rare black-footed rock wallaby is often seen at Simpsons Gap, best seen in the early morning or late afternoon. The wallaby is one of several creatures unique to Australia’s Red Centre.
Hermannsburg, known in the local language as Ntaria, is an Aboriginal community approximately 80 miles (131 km) southwest of Alice Springs. The town began life as an Aboriginal mission in 1877, established by missionaries traveling from Germany. When they left in 1891, the settlement remained, undergoing several influencing leaderships until the land was returned to the traditional owners in 1982. These days, the town is named the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct and included on the Australian National Heritage List.
Hermannsburg is famous as the home of Albert Namatjira, an Aboriginal landscape watercolor artist. His house is open to visitors and serves as a gallery. Many buildings here are historical reminders of early colonists, and the Kata Anga Tea Rooms serve homemade meals to visitors. Also of note within the town are the Hermannsburg Potters, whose handmade terracotta pots are beautifully decorated and available for sale.
Located in the West MacDonnell Ranges, Ormiston Gorge showcases the amazing geology and landforms of the area. Along with a near-permanent waterhole estimated to be up to 45 feet (14 meters) deep, Ormiston Gorge shows towering walls of red earth iconic to the Australian outback.
The gorge is an important wildlife refuge, a status cemented when the long-tailed dunnart and central rock rat were rediscovered in the area after it was thought they had died out. The site is ideal for swimming, though visitors should note that the water temperature can be at odds with the heat of the Australian desert, and hypothermia can result from prolonged exposure. The most popular activity at Ormiston Gorge is walking. The five-minute Waterhole Walk and the 20-minute Ghost Gum Lookout walk are the two most popular trails.
The Alice Springs Reptile Centre is the largest collection of reptiles in the Northern Territory. Focusing its collection on indigenous reptiles, the center prides itself on its conservation practices and its showcase of reptiles native to Australia’s Red Centre. More than 50 different species are kept here, making up a collection of over 100 animals. Favorites include a saltwater crocodile, a gecko house with natural exhibits for geckos from the surrounding area and the wacky-looking thorny devil.
Along with the reptile displays, the Alice Springs Reptile Centre is heavily involved in local wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. It is home to Wildcare, an initiative that cares for sick and injured Australian wildlife, rehabilitating and releasing them back into the wild.
The Alice Springs Desert Park offers the opportunity to experience the main desert environments in Australia. Wander through sand, woodland and river deserts and learn about their different plant and animal inhabitants. You will also learn about the traditional owners of the land, the Arrernte.
Animals rarely seen in the wild are on display in the nocturnal house which mimics the night desert offering a peek at rare and endangered animals that only come out in the dark like bilbies and carnivorous ghost bats.
The aquarium offers you a look at the animals you might find in a waterhole including fish, yabbies, burrowing frogs and turtles.
The Royal Flying Doctors Service is the largest air medical response team in the world. The doctors fly an average of 40,000 miles (65,000 kilometers) a day attending to sick people in the remote outback of Australia. They have 53 aircraft operating out of 21 bases with 964 staff and attend to around 750 patients a day.
Alice Springs houses the Central Operations of the service and at the visitors center you can learn all about the incredible history of the RFDS and how it has shaped life in the outback. There is an interactive museum where you can find out what it is like inside the planes, you can even fly one in the flight simulator. Experience life in the early days of the service and try your hand at the Traegar pedal-powered radio which was the primary means of communication for many years.
More Things to Do in Alice Springs
Anzac Hill is a lookout and war memorial with views over the entire township.
The Anzac Hill Monument has graced the top of Anzac Hill since 1934, when it was unveiled during Anzac Day events on the 25th April. The monument was designed by Reverend Harry Griffiths, who was president of the Returned Soldiers League at the time, as a commemoration of the lives of soldiers who gave their lives for Australia.
Anzac Hill offers some of the best views of Alice Springs. The hill is just off the Stuart Highway, to the north of the main township. It’s a popular spot for visitors wishing to watch the sun rise or set.
One of the twelve stops along the overland telegraph route the Alice Spring Telegraph Station Historical Reserve is a great place for a picnic. The reserve has walking tracks, swimming holes, a cycle path and shady spots to rest. There are also free electric barbeques. Several colonies of rock wallabies share the reserve with plenty of other native wildlife and some pet camels.
Many of the buildings in the old Telegraph station have been restored and offer a look at how messages were sent across Australia in the days when the trip took weeks by horse. In the Post and Telegraph Room you can still post a letter and send a telegram (email) to a friend. In the cooler months (May - Oct) the wood-fired oven is lit and damper ('outback bread') and scones are served.
Covering 177 square miles (46,000 hectares) and including a very surprising palm population. Finke Gorge National Park is not to be missed. The park is noted for its Aboriginal cultural sites and its ancient palms, which sit in an impressive desert oasis known as Palm Valley. The only site where the Central Australian cabbage palm can be found growing wild, Palm Valley is known for its rare and unique plants. The area is reminiscent of the ancient rainforests that once covered Australia.
Also of note within the park are the stunning and strange sandstone formations found in the Amphitheatre, a natural formation well worth a visit. A number of walking tracks can be found in the area, from the easy 45-minute return track to Kalaranga Lookout to the Mpaara and Mpulungkinya walks, each covering about three miles (5 km) and take about 2 hours to complete.
Tnorala, or Gosse Bluff, Conservation Reserve is a site of great cultural significance to the local Western Arrernte Aboriginal people. According to belief, the low, circular range of mountains was formed when a woman put her baby in a wooden cradle while she danced across the sky as part of the Milky Way. Forgotten, the carrier toppled to earth and was transformed into the circular rock walls of Tnorala. Scientists believe that the formation occurred when a comet crashed to earth and hardened the land for a six-mile (20 km) diameter before the surrounding earth eroded over time.
Whichever story you believe, visiting Tnorala is an awesome sight. A short walk to a lookout on an adjacent ridge gives views into the crater, while a longer loop walk takes visitors higher still to get an even more expansive view. As the traditional owners manage Tnorala, access to the site is in accordance to their wishes. Visitors are not permitted to enter the crater or walk along its rim.
Running from Alice Springs to Mt Sonder, the 139-mile (223-km) Larapinta Trail is one of Australia’s Great Walks and connects some of the West MacDonnell Ranges’ biggest attractions, including Simpson’s Gap, the Finke River, Glen Helen Gorge and the landmark known as Ochre Pits. While the entirety takes several days to hike, the trail is divided into 12 sections, each of which can be completed as a day or overnight hike.
Accommodation along the Larapinta Trail comes in the form of campsites, many offering picnic tables and level ground. Campsites at trailheads also have permanent water supplies and free gas barbecues, while also usually having toilets.
Mount Gillen is located within John Flynn’s Grave Historical Reserve, which was named to commemorate Reverend John Flynn, who established the lifesaving Royal Flying Doctor Service. The grave is a memorial to both the man and the bridging of the gap between outback communities.
The Flynn’s Grave memorial lies at the foot of Mount Gillen, where an informal and unposted trail leads to the summit. Although not an officially recognized track, it is a popular one and is quite well worn. A walkers’ gate approximately 150 feet (50 meters) from the Flynn’s Grave memorial marks the beginning of the track.
The Mbantua Aboriginal Art Gallery opened in 1992 to promote authentic Australian Aboriginal art, and its name of Mbantua comes from the Aboriginal word “Mparntwe,” or Mparnte. This means “this place” in Arrernte, the local language spoken in Alice Springs.
The gallery celebrates the work of local artists, most of whom use acrylic paints on canvas. Art from more than 50 artists is sold here, with some notable contributors being Dolly Mills, known for her participation in the "Utopia, A Picture Story" collection of silk batiks; Minnie Pwerle, whose art reflects some of the oldest designs in the world; and Anna Price Petyarre, who paints much sought-after work including the Atnwelarre Dreamtime.
The idyllic Olive Pink Botanical Gardens were named for Olive Pink, the botanical illustrator and anthropologist who campaigned for Aboriginal rights long before it was fashionable and also persuaded the government to set aside land for a flora reserve. The reserve features plants native to the area including a number of bushfood plants which the traditional owners of the land eat and use for medicines, including the native lemongrass that is used to relieve colds and flu and the bush tomato used to treat toothaches.