The far-flung township of Alice Springs is a trifling 1,500 kilometres from the nearest city.
You could not pick a better place to feel what it means to be in Australia’s Red Centre.
The Arrernte Aboriginal people have made it work for tens of thousands of years, and discovering their culture and age-old survival methods is integral to the Alice Springs experience.
The scenery meanwhile is out of this world, in the limitless desertscapes, the sandstone wonders at Uluru and Kings Canyon or the soaring ridges and profound gorges of the MacDonnell Ranges.
It’s almost dizzying now that international fast food chains like McDonalds have made it to Alice Springs, and museums and historical sites will show just how this remote spot was knitted into the rest of the world in the 19th and 20th century.
1. Alice Springs Desert Park
A big patch of desert west of Alice Springs has been turned into a park where you can fully appreciate the beauty, natural diversity and adventurous spirit of the outback.
Among the botanical beds there are enclosures for kangaroos and emus, as well as a nocturnal house home to reptiles, mammals, invertebrates and birds that come out at night.
You’ll discover just how the Arrernte Aboriginal people have survived in such a hostile environment for thousands of years, watching sand drawing and learning about their methods for gathering water and food.
At the Nature Theatre you can catch dazzling wildlife presentations, including a free-flight bird of prey show, and you can sign up for a nocturnal tour for a spotlighting tour to see nocturnal animals in their natural habitat on the foothills of the MacDonnell Ranges.
2. The Kangaroo Sanctuary
The conservation work of Alice Springs’ Chris “Brolga” Barns reached a wide audience in 2013 with the BBC documentary Kangaroo Dundee.
Barns’ 188-acre sanctuary is devoted to an icon of the outback, the red kangaroo.
Stirred into action by his discovery and rescue of a live joey from the pouch of a mother killed on a local road, Barns opened a baby kangaroo rescue centre in 2005. That was followed by this sanctuary in 2011 and at the time of writing in 2020, work on Central Australia’s first wildlife hospital was underway.
You can head to the sanctuary Tuesday to Friday for a guided sunset tour, lasting between two and three hours.
Bring water, a hat and closed shoes and you’ll be treated to an up close look at kangaroos, getting to interact with the few residents that won’t be able to return to the wild.
You’ll also be shown what you have to do to save a joey if you ever come across a dead kangaroo by the road.
3. Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum
The RFDS base in Alice Springs opened in 1939, and there’s a great interactive museum on the original site in the former Radio Station House.
Inside you’ll find about the creativity and pioneering spirit of early figures like the first RFDS pilot, Arthur Affleck, or inventor Alfred Traeger.
Affleck crossed the endless expanse of the outback in an open cockpit using landmarks for navigation, while Traeger’s pedal radio made communication possible in the most remote parts of Australia.
You can browse a big display of historic radios and medical equipment, and see models of the planes in the service’s fleet.
You can sit in the cockpit of a modern aircraft and take a peek inside a faithful replica of a Pilatus PC12. A highlight is a holographic representation of the service’s founder, John Flynn (1880-19510.
4. Alice Springs School of the Air (ASSOA)
Another organisation that provides a vital service to people across the vastness of the outback is the Alice Springs School of the Air, reaching students with distance learning across a “classroom” 1.3 million square kilometres in size.
A lot of this learning is done in online classes, which are then complemented by activities with parents.
From 1951 to the early 2000s, lessons were broadcast by radio, until the arrival of satellite internet and broadband.
The visitor centre in Alice Springs has been around since 1996 and explains this resource and the women who first made it possible.
Guides explain the inventive techniques used to educate children in implausibly remote places, and you can observe a typical lesson, either recorded or live.
All funds raised at the visitor centre go straight back into the organisation.
5. Alice Springs Reptile Centre
Not simply a zoo for reptiles, this centre rescues snakes and lizards from areas that are about to be systematically burned to prevent bushfires, and also sends staff out to homes to remove venomous snakes.
Where possible these animals are relocated to uninhabited spaces.
As it is, the Alice Springs Reptile Centre holds the largest array of reptiles in the Northern Territory.
There’s a giant saltwater crocodile in a glass pool, allowing you to view him from below.
You can check out the little lizards native to the area at the Gecko Cave, as well as some amazing exhibits like the perentie, the fourth-largest living lizard on the planet, and the distinctive frill-necked lizard.
Some of the most venomous snakes in the world are on show, from death adders to inland taipans, while you’ll be able to handle a less dangerous python.
6. Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve
A few minutes up from the centre of the modern town is the site of the first European settlement in central Australia.
The township of Stuart was established in 1872, around one of the 12 stations for the Overland Telegraph.
This was an astonishing feat of 19th-century ingenuity, connecting Port Augusta in South Australia with Darwin 3,200 kilometres to the north, allowing quick communication between Australia and the rest of the world.
The site was declared a Historical Reserve in 1963, and you can take a guided tour of the historic stone buildings, furnished with decoration and artefacts from the 19th century.
A network of cycling and walking trails sets off from the reserve, some short and some very long, like the Larapinta Trail, which we’ll come to later.
7. Anzac Hill
An unmistakable part of the Alice Springs townscape is the 608-metre hill framing the CBD to the north.
One great way to spend a fresh morning or evening is to take the Lions Walk to the top for glorious sunrises and sunsets.
This trail was first laid down in the 1970s, rewarding you with an all-encompassing view of the township.
You can also circle the summit to contemplate the MacDonnell Ranges to the west.
The hill’s name comes from a memorial placed here in 1934 to commemorate Australian and New Zealand Army Corps members who lost their lives in the First World War.
This was subsequently adapted with plaques for all wars involving Australian troops.
8. The Larapinta Trail
The walk of a lifetime begins at Telegraph Station and snakes off along the ridges of the West MacDonnell Ranges.
In all, the Larapinta Trail is 223 kilometres, broken into 12 sections, and because of the extreme summer temperatures this is a hike that can only be attempted in the winter months.
So while the thought of venturing into rugged, deserted bush inhabited by venomous snakes might put most people off, many wonders like gorges and remote waterholes await you on the journey.
There are more than 600 plant species flanking the trail, which carries you across some of the oldest igneous and metamorphic rock on the planet.
The trail’s infrastructure is also surprisingly accommodating.
There are kilometre posts marking the total distance left, as well as the distance to the next campsite or section.
In the evenings the skies are ablaze with more stars than you’ve ever seen, and campsites come with a water supply, picnic tables and even gas barbecues.
9. Ormiston Gorge
The trailhead for sections 9 and 10 of the Larapinta Trail lies 135 kilometres west of Alice Springs at a place of uncommon natural beauty.
Half a kilometre from the visitor centre is a waterhole at the foot of the gorge’s massive walls.
There you can take one of the world’s extraordinary wild swims.
Without straying too far from the waterhole, you can climb to get a sense of the landscape on the Ghost Gum Lookout.
Or, if you’re up for a trek, there’s the Ormiston Pound Walk, taking up to four hours and beckoning you out to the flat centre of the Pound’s vast ring of mountains and then back through the gorge.
10. Women’s Museum of Australia and Old Gaol
After it outgrew Alice Springs former courthouse, the Women’s Museum of Australia moved into the town’s Old Gaol (1938) in 2007. This gives the attraction a dual appeal.
The Women’s Museum celebrates and preserves women’s role in Australia’s story.
The permanent exhibition Women at the Heart presents the resourceful women of the Australian outback, outlining the hardships they endured but also their successes in some of the remotest places in the world.
Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives celebrates the contributions of Australian women in fields as diverse as mining, finance, law, gastronomy, sport, aviation and activism.
Meanwhile, the gaol exhibition is a series of interactive and immersive experiences located across the women’s and men’s cell blocks, relating the history of the facility from 1938 until it closed in 1996.
11. Araluen Cultural Precinct
Culturally-minded visitors could come to the Araluen Cultural Precinct in the west of the town and easily spend a whole day.
For a brief run-down of the institutions here there’s the contemporary crafts centre Central Craft, the Museum of Central Australia, the Strehlow Research Centre for Aboriginal Culture, the Central Australia Aviation Museum and finally the Araluen Arts Centre.
The latter holds four galleries and a theatre.
Surely the high point of these is the Albert Namatjira Gallery, dedicated to the work of the namesake Arrernte artist (1902-1959). The Art Centre’s own collection has more than 1,000 works, rich with Aboriginal and contemporary painting, prints, photography and sculpture.
Outside you can amble in a sculpture garden centred on a 300-year-old corkwood tree, while the proscenium arch theatre seats 500 and has a program bursting with dance, drama, comedy, opera, children’s theatre and more.
12. Finke Gorge National Park
Only accessible by 4WD, this 46,000-hectare park on the way to Uluru holds some extraordinary features.
The Finke River for one is claimed to have the oldest catchment in the world, with elements dating back 350 million years.
A beloved area within the park is Palm Valley, the only place in the world where the Central Australian cabbage palm grows – at the last count there were 3,000 adult palms and many more juveniles for this highly sensitive species.
If you’re prepared there’s a network of walking trails to take on.
Possibly the most rewarding is rocky staircase to the Kalarranga Lookout where you can size up the tortured sandstone outcrops that encircle some of the old bed of Palm Creek.
The park is also crucial to the Western Arrernte Aboriginal People, and you can trace their culture and dreaming story on the Mpaara Walk.
13. Olive Pink Botanic Garden
If you want to see what kind of plants are supported by the arid conditions in Australia’s immense interior there’s a botanic garden in 16 hectares on the east bank of the Todd River.
This was founded in 1956 and named for its first honorary curator, Olive Pink, an artist, anthropologist, gardener and advocate for Aboriginal people.
Along those lines, the garden contains the rise, Tharrarltneme (Annie Meyer Hill), a sacred site for the Arrernte People.
There are more than 600 different labelled plants in the garden, 145 of which occur naturally and 40 of which are rare or threatened (marked by two horizontal lines). You can view them on a tangle of walking trails, offering views of the town, the MacDonnell Ranges and the Todd River.
14. Road Transport Hall of Fame
What will grab you about the heavy machinery at this museum is how weathered it all looks.
That’s because, as a true document for road freight and transport, the vehicles have been left as they were when they opened up big swathes of Australia to development and industry.
The rarest of these is a 1930s, AEC eight-wheel Roadtrain, one of only three ever built.
Other trucks retain the modifications, like bull bars and winches, by bush mechanics and engineers to adapt them for the unique demands of the Australian landscape.
There are cars, vans and trucks from more than 60 manufacturers on show.
These go back to a 1911 Model T Ford, and count a number of classic B-model Macks, credited with changing road transport in Australia forever.