Getting to Know Alice
In the beginning, there was…not much, other than the 250-mile stretch of the MacDonnell Range rising up from the expansive, semi-arid realm of Australia, all of it stained an earthy red from the oxidized iron in the soil. Little did anyone anticipate—neither the Arrente Aborigines that still inhabit this area nor Charles Todd, the first British settler in the region and superintendent of the telegraph station built in 1872 just outside of town—that this little brushfire of a settlement would blossom into a 28,000-strong community. Hardly a "big smoke" when compared to Sydney or Melbourne, but considering that the nearest town is over 310 miles away, Alice Springs qualifies as the Outback's true metropolis.
Many of the people who stomp its red-soil-stained streets today, however, see Alice Springs mainly as a launching point to the famous triumvirate of Aboriginal landscapes—Uluru, King's Canyon, and Kata Tjuta, arguably the Outback's signature attractions. Tourism is the town's largest economy, and it shows. The main streets of the Alice (as locals affectionately call it) are lined with a variety of tourist staples: accommodations of all types, regional outfitters specializing in tours of the aforementioned national parks, tourist shops hawking Aboriginal artwork and such oddball tourist items as a kangaroo scrotum lighter holder, and the requisite, woeful Outback-themed bars and restaurants that typically fill up with the young tourist crowds, downing schooners of beer before or after their trip to Uluru.
A good friend and fellow traveler once said you've not really been to a country unless you've stood in a native's kitchen. Use that as guiide to touring Alice Springs (rather than following the tourist rush from the airport to bed to a pre-dawn departure for Uluru) and you'll discover a world you scarcely realized was there. The town itself reflects the full, complicated expanse of Australia's history, from its rugged pre-industrial days to the abhorrent treatment of Aborigines and their current status as soon-to-be-champions of the art world to the country's involvement in World War II.
Here, we offer a glimpse into the real Alice Springs by profiling three different types of lodging options, from the truly rugged to the quaint. Loosen your definition of kitchen to include a roaring campfire under the Southern Cross, a rowdy dinner table with locals who've lived on the land for six generations, or a quiet breakfast nook with fresh-squeezed orange juice, and you'll have arrived.
A Few Highlights of the Alice
To witness Alice Spring's vibrant history, visit the Telegraph Station, which sits a few miles north of Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway. Built in 1872, it relayed messages from Darwin to Adelaide and was in operation for 60 years before becoming a school for Aboriginal children. During 1943, it served as a World War II military camp, and later housed the "half-casts," a so-called "class" of children that were the offspring of British and Aborigines, "rescued" (read: abducted) from Aboriginal settlements and "educated" to be proper British citizens. (To learn more about this practice, watch the film Rabbit-Proof Fence).
The Aboriginal Australian Art and Culture Centre, 100-percent Aborigine owned and operated, has a spectacular display of native crafts, paintings, jewelry, musical instruments, and more on display (both permanent and rotating exhibits, including the Beanie Festival each July, where local artisans make inventive hats and compete for prizes). This is also a good place to purchase Aboriginal artifacts, though there are stores through the Alice that sell everything from didgeridoos to both traditional and modern Aboriginal paintings.
School of the Air allows you to see how the Outback's infinite distances don't stand in the way of a good education. During the school year you can observe locals attending class by listening to lessons broadcasted over the radio. The Desert Park, meanwhile, is a spectacular living museum that puts the entirety of desert life on display via traditional exhibits and an educational desert-walk path.
Cabs and car rentals are available, but if you're there during the cooler months, you can easily walk to most of the locations. A saner alternative, especially if you only have one day, is to rent a bike. The Alice is easy to navigate—the Todd River (which hasn't run since February 2003) serves as a central landmark, and most hostels and hotels can equip you with a map, bike, and lock for AUS$10 a day. The ambitious should contemplate a push up Anzac Hill, which offers views of the entire town, the surrounding MacDonnell Range, and one of the best places to watch the sunrise over the semi-arid Outback.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication