I’m in a cab, heading out to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport in an early morning foggy haze – both on the ground and in my head.

But it’s worth it. After a three hour Tiger Airways flight I look out the window as the plane touches down in the red dirt of Central Australia. I could not be further from where my alarm broke my sleep this morning and I’m loving it. Welcome to the real Australia!

Before white settlement, the area was inhabited by the Arrernte Aboriginal people. Known as Mparntwe (m-barn-tway) by the Arrernte people, their creation story shares that the area was created by the caterpillar beings, Ayepe-arenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrengatye. When you see the MacDonnell Ranges, it becomes obvious why it’s thought caterpillars were involved.  

Alice Springs as we know it today, sprung in 1862 when explorer John McDouall Stuart’s made his final expedition through the red centre – he’s now remembered in the much easier route of the Stuart Highway. The Afghan cameleers then opened the area up by providing transport links, albeit slow ones, to central Australia in the form of camel trains.

Until the 1930’s the town was called Stuart and the local waterhole was Alice Springs after the superintendent’s wife Alice Todd, but in 1933, after much confusion, the latter won out and Alice Springs was officially born.

First stop is to learn about local Aboriginal art and the best place in town is Muk Muk Fine Art (mukmuk.com). While you may not be able to splash your cash on a big artwork, you’ll learn so much here about the origins and hallmarks of Aboriginal and contemporary Australian art – they even have artists working in the studio space, so you can watch the art come to life.

Gallery owner, Sharon Mitchell takes me through the finer points of the artwork from emerging and established names like Margaret Loy Pula, Walala Tjapaltjarri and Minnie Pwerle. With Aboriginal people, their history is learned through song, dance and storytelling rather than the Western way through reading and going to school. 

Traditionally all the storytelling was done in the sand and on the body for ceremony. The iconography that was painted on the body is now painted onto canvas. It began in the Sixties when an art teacher was invited to Papunya, a community outside Alice Springs. He saw men drawing in the sand but it would blow away, so he invited them to paint a mural at his school and they enjoyed it so much they started painting on anything – car bonnets, car doors, bits of board. It migrated to canvases and the world stage where Aboriginal artwork commands big bucks – the current record is $2.4m, paid at auction for a work by artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.

The most iconic sound, which is playing around Alice this morning, is the didgeridoo. You can learn to play at Sounds of Starlight in the Todd Mall, so I take a seat at their free workshop. It comes with a warning though – if a woman plays the didge, they are said to either wind up in jail or pregnant.

I throw caution to the wind and have a blow anyway. It’s harder than I thought, but amazing to hear about different techniques and instruments from internationally acclaimed player Andrew Langford. There are a few blowouts in class, and it all ends with a great performance from Andrew, who shows what the didge can really do.

The camels are calling, so my next stop is a camel ride with Marcus ‘The Camel Man’ from Pyndan Camel Tracks. He’s been a ‘camel wrangler’ for over thirty years, and his rugged, outback look befits his profession. I opt for the one hour tour ($50) and before I know it, I’m on my camel, Saleh, ready for the heave up. With the camels in procession we head out through the Iron Bark and Mulga trees into an expanse of red dirt, with views to the beautiful West MacDonnell Ranges.

The camel sways so gently I can see why the early pioneers of the outback used camels to go long distances, might also have something to do with the fact they only need a bucket of water every ten days or so! 

My stomach is now yelling for some real food. I’d heard about a wonderful local initiative, called IAD, the Institute for Aboriginal Development, where local Aboriginal youth train to be chefs and the general public can stop in for coffee, breakfast and lunch. Sitting out on the deck, overlooking the sandy riverbed (which is way more attractive than it sounds!), I enjoy a great turkey salad sandwich, while my friends tuck into tom yum soup and a divine smelling chicken curry.

To really see what a town has to offer, get on a bike. I head over to the YHA  where there is an Outback Cycling tour leaving at 3pm. I’m greeted by Clarke, today’s guide, who happens to be a geophysicist. The value of this becomes clear as we are hurtling over the rocky single track and he stops to point out incredible rock formations and why they look the way they do. It’s fascinating.

Two and half hours of challenging, but not ridiculous, mountain biking later, we arrive at the Telegraph Station, where the bush telegraph providing communication all the way to Darwin and beyond, started from. Clarke takes us out to the middle of the dry riverbed and starts digging. A group of five curious little locals are looking on in anticipation. Clarke explains the riverbed isn’t as dry as it looks and about half a metre down, there’s water. The kids playfully jump around the water, blissfully unaware of their audience of 10 bike riders. 

I‘m back in town just in time to scoot to the top of Anzac Hill and catch the last remnants of a bright pink and orange sunset. Heaps of people are watching on – photographers, backpackers, grey nomads, people enjoying a drink or two – and it’s a great way to put the town into perspective with 360degree views.

But Alice Springs isn’t only fun during the day. Word on the street is that eclectic Monte’s is the place to be on Thursday night for their legendary Parmigiana and trivia night, and it doesn’t disappoint. There are four choices of parma topping, much needed sustenance after an active day, Little Creatures on tap, a big range of beers, and an awesome beer garden. The Juicy Rump at Lasseters Casino is worth the visit, if only for the Neighbours connection (for those not in the know, Lasseters is the hotel in Neighbours where villain Paul made his moula).

The steaks are juicy as the name suggests and it’s also where parts of Priscilla Queen of the Desert was filmed. For a night out, locals start at the Rock Bar, with live music, move on to Bojangles or Montes, then kick on till the wee hours at Lasseters, where they have a live DJ from Thursday to Saturday. 

I’m up early this morning, partly to see the spectacular sunrise, and partly because I’ve booked a tour of the West MacDonnell Ranges with Emu Run tours (day tour is $120 and include lunch and snacks). Our guide Clive greets me outside the hotel and is full of jokes from the start.

First stop is Simpson’s Gap, an important spiritual site for local Aboriginal people and a place to spot cute Black-footed Rock wallabies. The towering red cliffs are impressive as the wind whistles through the gap.

Next stop is Standley Chasm, where I learn about namesake Ida Stanley, who was the first European female school teacher in the area. Surging flood waters over thousands of years have cut through the tough quartzite to form a picturesque natural alleyway. The sheer walls that rise up are truly beautiful. Back to the bus Clive has set up morning tea, with the requisite tea in tin mugs and Arnott’s biscuits to bring out the bushie in us all. 

Heading to our next stop, Clive shares his knowledge of everything from buffle grass (from Rhodesia like Clive, great for cattle but bad for our native flora and burns at incredible 300 degrees), to Pine Gap (a secretive US and Australian air base near Alice Springs where most employees tell you they are either a cleaner or an electrician then swiftly end the conversation, nudge, nudge, wink, wink) through to kangaroo tails (they are high in fat and sold frozen in the local IGA…fact!) and witchetty grubs (eat them headfirst so they can’t crawl out, eww).

When Aboriginal men perform ceremonies, they paint their body with traditional iconography, using paint from the Ochre Pits, our next stop. The ochre is crushed and mixed with water. The site is so sacred and protected, a $5000 fine exists for people who take pieces of the ochre. Clive’s local knowledge is second to none and he is really making the day a fun one. 

After lunch we take the rocky track to the top of the Ormiston Gorge lookout, which has breathtaking views over the gorge, the waterhole (where daring people can swim in the always freezing water!) and an eyeful of the West Macs.

Now we are in for a shot of adrenalin. Emu Run have teamed up with Alice Springs Helicopters to give guests the option of a helicopter ride over the ranges at Glen Helen. I must admit, helicopters aren’t my favourite thing, but in the interests of a good story, dear readers, I’m getting up there.

Before take off Clive introduces the pilot “This is the ace pilot” and one of my fellow travellers asks, “Did you say the 8th pilot?!” Everyone is a bit nervy! The chopper is tiny, with no sides and nothing to hang on to – it becomes a game of trust.

As the chopper takes off, there’s a whole lot of “faaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrr out” going on, but it’s worth it. The view is incredible – I can see why the West Macs are likened to caterpillars! Our quick loop takes in views of Mount Sonder in the distance and puts into perspective the true majesty of the outback. 

If I had more time I’d hike up Mount Sonder for sunrise, watch the infamous Henley on Todd (like the real Henley in the UK, but sandier!) and the Camel Cup (yes, they race camels here) or perhaps even come back for the Beanie Festival in June, where the whole town knits up a storm.

It’s a quirky place this Alice Springs, but she definitely pulls it off. From a couple of days to a couple of weeks, there really is so much to explore, you just have to get out here.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Central Australia.

Photos: Autumn Mooney

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