Alice Springs: Through the looking glass

Sep 19, 2008


Never far from national headlines, it’s no longer the shimmering mirage of an outback town that Nevil Shute summed up in a sentence or two in his book A Town Like Alice. Yet Alice Springs continues to intrigue Australia’s coastal dwellers and international travellers in search of the unique. And why wouldn’t it? Apart from knowing you’re smack in the middle of the great southern land, where else could you hear half-a-dozen languages in the main street – and know that several of them are uniquely Australian?

The place goes back a long way – well before Shute or the equally English Charles Todd, who named the telegraph station he built there after his wife, Alice. This cultured pearl in the clasp of the ancient MacDonnell Ranges has been a meeting place for millennia, where desert tribes gathered at shady oases in the land of the Arrernte people to trade stories and goods. In fact, they still call it just that: Mparntwe, or meeting place.

Now, in this “mythical landscape” – as German filmmaker Wim Wenders saw it – the rest of the world is taking part in a new chapter of a long story.

To understand Australia, of course, you have to go to the centre, described by writer Xavier Herbert as the “the stage where the great themes of Australian life are played out”. In Herbert’s Alice – where he died in 1984 – one of the world’s oldest cultures struggled to find its ground in a dynamic global mix, while “newcomers” sought to place their own stamp on the land.

With the world watching, the process has been difficult and often painful. But there have been many triumphant moments of cross-cultural collaboration, including the Western Desert Art Movement, started almost four decades ago by a white teacher at the Papunya community.

With more than a dozen Aboriginal art galleries, and painters often working in the Todd Mall, the streets of Alice Springs proclaim the power of the Aboriginal world view, once considered to be facing extinction.

And yet art is only one of many cultural phenomena in a town that offers the traveller an insight into Australia’s Red Centre, or “the great mystery” as Herbert referred to it. Ancient songlines and dreamings crisscross the town, borne by ancestral beings such as caterpillars and thylacines during Dreamtime (creation). Powerful stories of contact and post-contact days share the townscape: the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame in the old jail, Heritage-listed and still barbwired on the outside, inside festooned with wall-sized Namatjira-style landscapes painted by homesick inmates.

The Strehlow Centre at the Museum of Central Australia tells the compelling story of the Lutheran missionary family from Germany, whose members ultimately became champions of Arrernte traditions. Then there’s the Old Telegraph Station, site of the original Alice Springs, which linked an international communications network and later became the site of the Bungalow, a home for Aboriginal children. Flying doctors have a base here. Schools once run with high-frequency radios are now floating in cyberspace. There are rodeos, camel races and the ultimate in dry humour: the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, in which landlubbers race up the usually arid riverbed in bottomless boats.

The best way to go is slow, on foot or by bike. Try a camel ride or hot-air balloon to get you in the mood. Take time to appreciate the mountains that surround the town, the stately red gums of the Todd River that winds through it, the date palms, planted by Afghan pioneers who crossed the desert on camels, and the wildlife that cohabits with humans. After a while, the stories will start to find you.

If you hanker for more, there’s the West MacDonnell National Park, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon and the rest of central Australia. Just don’t forget your hat.


Aurora Alice Springs
11 Leichhardt Terrace.

Crowne Plaza

82 Barratt Drive.

Quest Alice Springs
9-10 South Terrace.

Todd Tavern
Wills Terrace & Todd Mall.

Eat & Drink

Afghan Traders
9/7 Leichhardt Plaza.
+61 8 8955 5560.

Dusit Thai
Gap Road.
+61 8 8952 8882.

20 Gregory Terrace.
+61 8 8952 3188.

The Lane
58 Todd Mall.
+61 8 8952 5522.

1/86 Todd Mall.
+61 8 8953 0930.

Tinh & Lan Vietnamese Restaurant
Lot 1900 Heffernan Road.
+61 8 8952 8396.

See & Do

Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre
125 Todd Street.
+61 8 8952 3408.

Alice Springs Reptile Centre
9 Stuart Terrace.
+61 8 8952 8900.

Desert Park
Larapinta Drive.
+61 8 8951 8788.

Foot Falcon
+61 427 569 531.

Institute for Aboriginal Development Press
3 South Terrace.
+61 8 8951 1334.

Olive Pink Botanic Garden
Tuncks Road.
+61 8 8952 2154.

Created by a true eccentric who championed the rights of Aborigines when the cause was unfashionable. Too old to stay in the desert with the Warlpiri people, Miss Pink, as she was known, moved to town, a thorn in the side of bureaucrats and politicians, but protected by powerful friends such as Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck. Besides leaving a treasure trove of stories about her exploits, she fashioned Australia’s first arid zone botanic garden, now home to hundreds of desert dwellers, including the rare acacia peuce. Birds love it here.

Outback Ballooning
1800 809 790 (Toll-free Australia only).
Bring extra layers – it’s cold up there. But the views, which may remind you of dot paintings, are worth it. Outback Ballooning will get you quietly high for either half-an-hour or an hour. $240/$360 plus $25 insurance.

Pyndan Camel Tracks
+61 416 170 164.
Now considered a scourge in the bush, camels when tamed are the most graceful means of travel through arid lands. Rides on the outskirts of town for one hour ($40 adult/$20 child) or overnight ($245).

RT Tours
+61 8 8952 0327.
Bob Taylor was taken from his Aboriginal mother as a boy, but came back to the centre to start his own tour company, in which he is a genial host, guide and chef specialising in campfire cuisine. Tours range from a few hours in the town talking history and culture, and sampling bush tucker, to nine-day sweeps of the centre’s major landmarks and, for the fit, fully catered walks along the Larapinta Trail in the MacDonnell Ranges.

+61 428 993 361.
Heavenly bodies are as thick in the Centralian sky as human beings are thin on the ground. Andrew Fitzgerald, well known to locals for his regular stargazing segments on ABC local radio, knows the names and habits of many.


Alice Springs Cultural Precinct
Larapinta Drive.
+61 8 8951 1122.

Here you’ll find the Museum of Central Australia and several excellent exhibition galleries. See the foundation works of contemporary Aboriginal art: a wide selection of Namatjiras, and the unguarded revelations of the first Western Desert artists, which provoked uproar among some Aboriginal groups when they were first displayed.

Mbantua Gallery
71 Gregory Terrace.
+61 8 8952 5571.
Mbantua represents artists from the cluster of outstations known as Utopia. The style is markedly different from Western Desert art, reflecting the community’s early preoccupation with batik design. The vivid and free-flowing colours of the fabrics are now on canvas, most famously in the work of the late Emily Kngwarreye, whose Earth’s Creation sold in 2007 for a then-record $1 million to Mbantua owner, Tim Jennings.

Papunya Tula
63 Todd Mall.
+61 8 8952 4731.

You can’t beat this gallery’s pedigree. It is owned by the cooperative that started the Western Desert Art Movement by supplying a handful of senior Pintupi men with masonite boards and acrylic paints. At first it had trouble giving away the results; even the National Gallery declined. Now the annual special exhibition draws international collectors.

Studio 12
Reg Harris Lane (off Todd Mall).
+61 8 8952 5021.
Alice has long been a magnet for painters and sculptors inspired by the same brilliant landscape that informs Aboriginal artists. Some come for a holiday and stay a lifetime. This gallery, a cooperative of 15 artists, displays some of the best including Iain Campbell and Deborah Clarke. Rod Moss also features; his depictions of his Arrernte friends on the outskirts of town offer a striking insight.

Yanda Aboriginal Art
Shop 7 Gregory House, Gregory Terrace.
+61 8 8953 6668.

Chris Symons grew up with Aboriginal people on a cattle station. They inspired his fascination with Aboriginal ethnography and gave him an eye for the genuine article. Symons and his partners have a close relationship with these mostly Western Desert artists, many of whom stay and paint on an acreage close to Alice Springs. Travellers can now meet the artists, including the brilliant Mrs Bennett (Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa).

Source: Qantas The Australian Way September 2008

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