We all know this title has probably been used dozens of times before as a heading, but I just couldn’t resist using it again… and be warned ‘don’t call this city in the outback ‘The Alice’… it’s ‘Alice’ or ‘Alice Springs’ as we were told by many locals!
We had rung ahead while heading off the Tanami to book Harry Hilux in for a service… but booking a caravan park close to town was slightly harder with school holidays and the grey nomad season in full swing.
We were desperately in need of a shower and access to a laundry… and while free camping is our preferred option, we do occasionally need to pull into a caravan park!
Caravan parks are serious business in Australia and they’re invariably set up with a camp kitchen equipped with all our needs – ovens, hot plates, fridges, kettles, toasters, sinks, undercover area, Wi-Fi and usually a TV to catch up on the news… and sometimes it nice just to kick back and relax with a few mod cons!
If there’s one thing that Alice Springs does well in terms of accommodation – it’s the caravan parks. There are eight caravan parks to choose from in and around the city and we usually set up camp at the ‘BIG4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park’.
It’s a great park situated in a great location and the ideal spot for us to just hop on our bikes and ride.
Surrounded by the rugged MacDonnell Mountain Range it guarantees very friendly staff, great facilities, and incredible sunsets… but unfortunately for us, it was all booked out this time!
Arriving at Alice Springs around mid-afternoon we checked into the ‘Heritage Caravan Park’ for 4 nights. Just 5-kilometres from the city on the southern side of Heavitree Gap and the entrance to the city, it was an ideal place for us to set up camp and explore!
The ‘Heritage Caravan Park’ offers cabins, grassy powered and unpowered sites, a great open-air camp kitchen, clean amenities, bush camping amongst the lemon scented gums and is dog friendly… but in contrast to the park over the road it was a little tired and very much in need of some tender loving care. Regardless it met all our needs and we had a great couple of days in ‘Alice’!
Alice Springs is a remote city in Australia’s Northern Territory, located halfway between Adelaide and Darwin in the heart of the ‘Red Centre’.
For many it is only a stop on the way to Uluru or Darwin, but this city is worth spending a day or two… or even three or four just to look around.
It has grown up around the MacDonnell Ranges and is the heart, soul, and the centre of the outback… and if you’re thinking this outback capital is going to be a dry, dusty little town surrounded by desert with only a few facilities and not much to see and do… then you’d better think again!
With its gorgeous surroundings both within the city and the surrounding areas it is a mecca, surrounded by harsh, yet spectacular landscapes, rich ancient Aboriginal culture, and fascinating history… just waiting to be explored!
Today, there are many suburbs in the sprawling city each having their own shopping centre, supermarkets, and modern conveniences… and everywhere you go you are reminded of the early pioneers and its history.
Welcome to Alice Springs…
The area is known as ‘Mparntwe’ to its original inhabitants, the Arrernte, who have lived in the Central Australian desert in and around Alice Springs for tens of thousands of years.
John McDougall Stuart led an expedition through Central Australia in 1861–62, to the west of what later became Alice Springs, establishing a route from the south of the continent to the north.
A white settlement sprung up ten years later with the construction of a repeater station on the Australian Overland Telegraph and between 1871 and 1933 this small township was known as ‘Stuart’ (named after John Stuart) with Alice Springs simply the name of a waterhole adjacent to the telegraph station and named after Alice Todd, wife of Sir Charles Todd.
It wasn’t until 1933, after decades of confusion over its name (the town informally called ‘Alice Springs’), that the township of Stuart was finally gazetted and changed to reflect its true name today.
Like Halls Creek, gold was discovered in the region in1887 and it was then, this now city, experienced its first major population boom with ‘gold fever’ and settlers arriving from all corners of the world to try their luck at finding riches in the hills.
Afghan cameleers also forged a place in Australia’s history, driving their camel trains laden with supplies through this unforgiving desert in scorching heat.
In 1878 cameleers were mostly replaced by train that travelled from Adelaide to Alice Spring and although always intended to connect with Darwin ‘The Ghan’ (originally known as the ‘Afghan Express’) line was not actually completed until 2004.
Today, the Ghan offers the ultimate rail journey across the continent travelling through the heart of Australia and following the route taken all those years ago by these early Afghanistan camel importers. It also proudly displays the emblem of a camel being ridden by an Afghan as a testament to the harsh conditions these pioneers faced.
Then came World War II, which brought significant changes to Alice Springs.
Prior to the war, Alice Springs was an extremely isolated settlement of fewer than 500 people but during the war the town became an extremely active staging base, known as No. 9 Australian Staging Camp, and a depot base for the long four-day trip to Darwin.
The railway hub in Alice Springs was taken over by military operations and the number of soldiers posted in Alice Springs grew rapidly, as did the number of personnel passing through.
With the history lesson now complete, allow us to take you on a brief tour of the area…
… and if you are interested in finding out more on the surrounds of ‘Alice’ and the ‘Red Centre’ including ‘Kings Canyon and Uluru, jump to our previous blogs at…
First up we’ll take a stroll to the Telegraph Station and the site of this first European settlement in the area.
Here you will find an historic museum precinct with indoor and outdoor displays and the story of the connection of Australia to the rest of the world through Telegraph Communication in 1871. This station was established as a mid-point for the new telegraph, linking the southern city of Adelaide to the northern city of Darwin.
We’ll also add ‘Flynn’s Grave’ to our list of things to see. At the foot of the MacDonnell Ranges is the final resting place of John Flynn’s ashes (25 November 1880 – 5 May 1951).
This Australian Presbyterian minister was the founder of the Australian Inland Mission, which later divided into Frontier Services and the Presbyterian Inland Mission. He was also founder of what became the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the world’s first air ambulance.
Leaving there we will duck over to the Royal Flying Doctor Service headquarters (RFDS) to pay homage to the man and see the original working base which commenced in 1939. Here, through film, display boards, interactive technology and even a replica RFDS you will be given the opportunity to see how people lived and still live in the remote Australian outback, and how they receive medical treatment. There is also a great art gallery and cafe to stop for a coffee!
The ‘Alice Springs School of the Air’, located a few kilometres out of town is also worth a trip.
Established in 1951 it provides an education to children living in remote central Australia. Here you will see, and experience recorded and real time classes and film that allows you to acquire a feel for what remote education is really like.
In the middle of the city itself is the ‘Araluen Cultural Centre’ where you’ll find paintings by Albert Namatjira (1902–1959), one of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal artist who became renowned for his ability to personify his country using watercolours.
The ‘Museum of Central Australia’ tells the story of the region’s unique natural history, following the evolution of the landscape and the fascinating creatures that inhabited it.
We’ll also drop into the ‘Connellan Aircraft Museum’ dedicated to E J Connellan who was an aviation pioneer in the Northern Territory (NT).
He established Alice Springs’ first aerodrome on the current precinct site in 1939 and Connellan Airways (Connair) operated aircraft for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The use of aircraft to deliver mail and supplies was a major factor in opening the Territory.
The famous Todd Mall is the hub of this city where you will find Aboriginal art shops, amazing alfresco cafes… and a great Tourist Information Centre.
And of course, you can’t visit Alice Springs without a trip to ANZAC` Hill for the best view in town!
This would have to be the most visited landmark in Alice and one of the best settings for a cenotaph to honour our soldiers.
At the summit is a memorial dedicated to all those who have served in the defence of their country during all wars in which Australia has participated and is an easy ride, walk or drive from the town centre.
On the southern side of the hill, stairs lead to the summit from the highway, while on the north western side a road winds past cleverly assembled banners recognising the various conflicts of our country. Lining both sides of the road – the left-hand side on the drive to the top… then on the right-hand side on way down, they are not to be missed!
At 608-metres the cenotaph overlooks Alice and is the ideal spot to view Heavitree Gap and the beautiful surrounding ranges.
Heavitree Gap is the significant gap in the MacDonnell Ranges and in addition to the dry Todd River, is also the main entrance for road and rail, through the city.
When Europeans arrived it was named ‘Heavitree Gap’ by William Mills, an Overland Telegraph line surveyor who discovered the location and called it after his former school in Heavitree, Devon.
It is also an important hallowed site for the Arrernte people and is known as Ntaripe in their language.
On top of ANZAC Hill and facing the ‘Gap’ are detailed local Arrentte people’s creation stories featuring the Yeperenye Caterpillar of the MacDonnell Ranges and Mparntwe (Alice Springs).
The area in and around Alice Springs is one of the most densely populated with sacred sites in the Northern Territory and was once an important ceremonial area where different song lines converged – two of those song lines relating to important ancestral figures… the caterpillar and the dog.
This city is surrounded by three prominent hills, each of them sacred to its traditional custodians.
The Arrernte’s name for ANZAC Hill is Atnelkentyarliweke (alternatively known as Untyeyetwelye or ‘Billy Goat Hill) and it may well be an important place for our ANZACs, but it is also a sacred place of gathering and healing for these people.
The view from ANZAC Hill is especially beautiful to the west, into the broad Larapinta Valley where the ranges rise toward the peak known as Mount Gillen (Alhekulyele). Mount Gillen is sacred to the Arrernte people, embodying the ancestral wild dog.
Across the river from ANZAC Hill and a little to the south is another hill known as Tharrarltneme (Annie Meyer Hill) but apart from its protection of sacred sites this hill is mostly land of the Olive Pink Botanic Garden.
There are also numerous historic buildings and sights located around town – The Residency, the Old Courthouse, the Old Stuart Town Gaol, Adelaide House, Old Hartley St School, the Heenan Building and the former Wallis Fogarty Store. On the southwest side of ‘The Gap’ is the historic Heavitree Gap Police Station and the River Red Gum is not to be missed. This is the last River Red Gum to survive in the town centre and is evidence of past river flood levels. It is sacred to the Arrernte people and consequently protected!
If your visiting at the right time this city also has some great cultural festivals and quirky events such as the ‘Camel Cup’ or the whacky ‘Henley on Todd Regatta’ – a boat race in a river with no water that has been happening for over 60 year!
Parrtjima is a free 10-night festival in light held each year and is the meeting place where old meets new. It is the only authentic Aboriginal festival of its kind, showcasing the oldest continuous culture on earth through the newest technology – all on the 300-million-year-old natural canvas of the MacDonnell Ranges.
On the outskirts of town is the Alice Springs Desert Park that takes you on your very own journey of central Australia’s many different natural habitats.
This park is set over 50 hectares in a desert environment and is divided up into several main areas, which are home to over 200 desert animals and 400 plants – kangaroos, emus, birds of prey and cute furry animals like Malas and Antechinus that we never knew existed!
Located just outside the city centre is a fantastic little Reptile Centre featuring over 100 reptiles of 60 different varieties including saltwater crocodiles, snakes, lizards, massive goannas, spiked Thorny Devils and Frill-necked Lizards.
The Kangaroo Sanctuary is a popular choice to visit too. This 188-acre wildlife reserve is the home of rescued and orphaned baby kangaroos and adult kangaroos.
Journey with us through the East and West MacDonnells…
Further afield are the East and West MacDonnell Ranges (East Macs and West Macs as the locals call them), that definitely should be on your to-do-list!
Each has its own unique character and scenery and whilst the East MacDonnell Ranges are not as well known as the West MacDonnell Ranges they are worthy of a day trip and can easily be accessed along the sealed Ross Highway.
There are four main features in this area with some sites containing interesting rock art that are important spiritual sites to the Eastern Arrernte Aboriginal people of the region.
Emily and Jessie Gaps Nature Park are only a short distance from Alice (14 and 21-kilometres respectively) and an easy day trip.
Emily Gap is home to some pretty amazing Aboriginal rock paintings that are easily accessed on the eastern wall of the gap. Here you will find the caterpillar dreaming, which to the Eastern Arrernte people depicts where the caterpillar beings of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) originated. They believe the caterpillars formed Emily Gap and many of the topographic features around Alice Springs before spreading out to the edge of the Simpson Desert.
Follow the creek bed between the hills at Jessie Gap and read the interpretive signage along the way that tell more stories of more rock art.
Further on stop at the outback camel farm, you might even like to be a little bit daring and enjoy a camel ride!
21-kilometres along the road from Emily and Jessie Gaps, it’s not easy to miss Corroboree Rock from the road.
This dolomite outcrop rises high above the surrounding flat land and is part of the Perentie Dreaming site.
A walking track surrounds the rock, providing different views of the formation then passes through open scrub and up a small hill.
The turnoff to Trephina Gorge is another 27- kilometres on from Corroboree Rock Conservation Reserve, then another nine-kilometres in from the highway along a short section of gravel road.
There are two gorges within this park, Trephina Gorge and the John Hayes Rockhole, the latter accessible only by 4WD or a poorly signposted 10-kilometre walking track.
From the carpark a walking track leaves the valley floor (in either direction) and follows up to the rim of Trephina Gorge. Enjoy the incredible views here before descending back down a steep track to a large, sandy, dry creek bed.
Alternatively, if you feeling energetic, follow the rough track to the John Hayes Rock Hole.
Standing solitary in the creek bed, flanked by the sheer cliffs dotted with gums, the contrast between the pale trunks of the white river gums , the green foliage and the red- orange gorge walls is quite stunning and make for a great photo opportunity. You might even spot some rock wallabies!
While your out this way visit Arltunga, a ghost town that was the site of a gold rush in the 1930’s. Today you can explore the historic and cultural aspects of the Reserve.
Some of the road to this site is gravel and although camping facilities are not available here or Emily or Jesse Gorge you can camp at Trephina Gorge if you would prefer to sleep out under the stars while on this trip.
Sounds good… then read my blog to learn more… https://tassiesnowbirds.com/2019/01/21/the-road-to-alice-springs-and-the-west-and-east-macdonnell-ranges/
The West MacDonnell Ranges are also easily accessible and for the next 150 or so kilometres, following Larapinta and Namatjira Drives, we’ll wind in and out of the gorges in the West MacDonnell National Park. I recommend a couple of days just to explore and enjoy this area. There are accommodation options and camping facilities in this park.
For those seriously into bushwalking, the Larapinta Trail, voted by National Geographic as one of ‘the top 20 trekking experiences’, offers a great walking trail into the West MacDonnell Ranges and is usually completed over 7 days . This trail commences at the Telegraph Station and ends 231- kilometres west at Mt Sonder.
There are 12 individual sections along the trail so you can complete as few or as many as you like and all sections can be reached by 4WD drive so you can join or leave wherever you like.
The main attractions along this trail include Simpsons Gap, and the waterholes at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Serpentine Gorge and Glen Helen.
Simpsons Gap is one of the most prominent gaps in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Located 18-kilometres from Alice Springs it features the towering cliffs of Simpsons Range, beautiful scenery, a permanent waterhole and many short walks.
Standley Chasm (50-kilometres from Alice) is surrounded on either side by craggy slopes that rise 80-metres above the floor and is a striking geological formation that cuts through the quartzite to form a natural passageway.
Here you can take a 1.2-kilometre walk from the car park but it’s a good idea to time your walk (preferably an hour either side of noon) when the quartzite walls glow from reflected sunlight.
Ellery Creek Big Hole further on is a large waterhole surrounded by high red cliffs, a sandy creek and fringed by gums. It makes for an awesome stop for photos and is a great place for a dip (albeit I was the only one in in this photo)! There is a great campground here, and a 3-kilometre walk if you feel inclined to explore the area.
Serpentine Gorge is our next stop. This narrow gap in the ranges is the site of the ‘Carpet Snake Dreaming’ with some areas in the gorge and along western cliffs of special significance to the Western Arrernte custodians.
There are many well-marked paths through the cool shade of river red gums
climbing up to the lookout above the cliffs where the views over a series of semi-permanent
waterholes and the geology of the rugged MacDonnell Ranges is quite incredible.
In between Serpentine and Ormiston Gorge the Ochre Pits are a nice surprise!
After a short walk from a car park over rocks and sand you come to cliff faces no more than 5 to 10-metres high. Adorned with white and colourful yellow and red layers of ochre they create a magnificent picture, especially in the intricate shadows of the white gums.
Interpretation signs tell of how the Aboriginals mined the ochre for ceremonies and trading… and how they still use this site to collect the different colours for their ceremonies today.
There is also another walk branching off this main path and if you feel inclined for a bit of a stroll for a further 4-kilometres make the trek to Inarlanga Pass where you will be rewarded with a wonderful view of Mt Sonder.
Next is Ormiston Gorge, some 135-kilometres from the city.
With its towering red walls this is another place to swim, camp or to just take a couple of short walks… and if you’re feeling energetic like we were, then the 3-4 hour trek via the Ormiston Pound Walk will certainly get your heart pumping… just make sure you have a hat, blockout, plenty of water, something to nibble on and good walking boots!
Finally, last but not least, Glen Helen Gorge! The landscape around Glen Helen is spectacular with a towering sandstone wall the first thing that grabs your attention as you arrive.
Here the ranges part to make way for the Finke River as it makes its way on to the Simpson Desert.
This permanent waterhole is an important refuge in the hot summer months, for fish and migrating waterbirds and the traditional owners believe this inviting swimming spot is the home of an ancient and powerful Rainbow Serpent, and regard it as off limits.
This area also includes views of Mount Sonder, one of the highest points in Central Australia, which changes colours with the light.
Back in Alice we were super excited to arrive in town after two days on the dusty, corrugated Tanami Road, and keen to freshen up, get our bikes down and check out the sights.
Over the next 4 days while we waited for Harry Hilux to be serviced, we started each day with a sunrise spin around town then caught up on a few chores before checking out the bike tracks.
This town is spread out over a wide area and we were surprised to see so much work had been done since our last visit to create a fabulous network of cycle trails.
The famous Todd River at the eastern end of the central business district has a great shared walking/cycle path, which follows the riverbank right through to the ‘Telegraph Station’. On this ride we even got to see the actual Alice ‘very dry spring’ the town is named for.
In many cases old kangaroo tracks have become the base for these mountain bike trails that branch out from the town, traversing the hills and valleys through the desert brush within the national park area. These shared tracks wind their way in and out and around the most remote, dry and picturesque country.
Maps are available from the Trail Station café or can be downloaded at https://nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/162670/alice-springs-cycling-walking-map.pdf … and you’ll never get lost in the desert with the TRAILFORKS App…. a world-wide app with trails mapped in over 100 countries that allows you to track your rides as well as access points of interest, trail popularity, routes, trail conditions, photos, videos and so much more.
There’s nothing quite like experiencing the Australian Outback on two wheels and we had a fabulous four days exploring Alice and the surrounds… but now having stocked up on groceries and fuel we were ready to head off once again on our next big and exciting adventure!
We had farewelled Renate and Martin (the couple we met on the Tanami) the previous day as they made their way to Mt Dare before heading to the West MacDonnell Ranges and we were unsure if we would catch up with them again before the East Coast… but on our last night in Alice an unexpected call came via the sat phone confirming they had arrived at Mt Dare – and their plans had changed!
They told us if we could make it through the last 40-kilometres of bulldust to Mt Dare they would do the ‘Simpson Desert’ with us!
Crossing the Simpson had been a constant worry for us. It is a remote 4WD challenging region and it is recommended that you travel in convoy with at least one other vehicle.
There were a few people we knew, or met up with earlier in the trip who were happy to do it with us… but when one pulled out, another was tied up with school holidays, and our timing wasn’t right for the others, we were left to make it to Dalhousie Springs and hope there was someone we could tag along with!
Crossing the Simpson was high on our ‘really-want-to-do-list’ but what lay ahead was unknown and we knew that as well as being aunique opportunity to traverse this desert region and explore an unforgiving landscape that few are privileged enough to see, it was going to be a challenge.
Straddling three states, the Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri National Park) is the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world. More than 1,100 dunes, shaped into long red waves by westerly winds, roll from Birdsville in outback Queensland west towards Alice Springs across the top of South Australia.
Next morning, excited to have our travel companions join us once again and with the sun up and the day heating up, we left Alice and set off on another remote drive… we had no qualms about making it through the bulldust!
The road from Alice to Old Andado and through to Mt Dare was open… and so, another fun adventure was about to begin.