The colour and diversity of Alice Springs makes it a great place to explore. Lee Atkinson discovers the best of the outback centre.
1. GET RED SAND ON YOUR SHOES
Just 10 minutes from the centre of town, the Alice Springs Desert Park is much more than just a wildlife park. Grab the free audio guide and take a guided walk through the desert woodlands, sand country and river-land habitats. Wander among birds and kangaroos and don't miss seeing birds of prey swoop out of the sky twice a day. The best time to go is early in the morning before it gets too hot (gates open at 7.30am). alicespringsdesertpark.com.au.
2. STROLL THE DESERT GARDEN PATH
One of the red centre's most colourful characters, Miss Pink was a bit of a troublemaker, fighting for Aboriginal rights in the 1930s and making friends (and enemies) with all the wrong people along the way. Her enduring legacy, beyond a collection of tall tales, is the beautiful Olive Pink Botanic Garden, which she founded in 1956, at the ripe old age of 72. The gardens feature more than 2500 plantings of almost 500 central Australian plants, as well as a sculpture trail. It's a great spot for a picnic or birdwatching and it has a nice little cafe. opbg.com.au.
3. RISE ABOVE IT ALL
Get a bird's eye view of the desert on a hot-air-balloon flight. It's a cold, early-morning start, but once you're up it's a magical way to watch the sun rise over the endless desert plains. There's a choice of half-hour and hour-long flights, and a picnic breakfast and celebratory bubbly wine is included. Don't wear white: you'll be expected to help cram the balloon back in its sack at the end of the flight and it's dusty work. outbackballooning.com.au.
4. MEET KANGAROO DUNDEE
Since appearing on the top-rating BBC television series Kangaroo Dundee, Brolga, aka Chris Barnes, and his kangaroo sanctuary about 20 minutes' drive from Alice Springs, has become the must-visit item on the list of almost every British tourist. Brolga's busy shooting a second series of the show, but still has time to welcome guests to his outback shack every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evening. Tours last about 2½ hours and you can meet many of the resident mob of orphaned joeys. kangaroosanctuary.com.
5. SEE DESERT ART
Alice Springs has some fabulous art galleries specialising in indigenous art. The Araluen Arts Centre (artsandmuseums.nt.gov.au) has several galleries of central Australian Aboriginal art as well as one of the country's largest collection of works by Albert Namatjira. Commercial galleries worth dropping into include Muk Muk in Lindsay Avenue (mukmuk.com), Papunya Tula Artists (papunyatula.com.au) and Mbantua Gallery (mbantua.com.au), both in Todd Mall. Mbantua is home to Emily Kame Kngwarreye's Earth's Creation, which sold for $1,056,000 in 2007, the highest price at that time paid for a work of Australian Aboriginal art and the highest price to date for a female artist in this country.
6. LEARN ABOUT ABORIGINAL CULTURE
It's a bit messy and crammed but Mbantua Gallery (see above) has a great little museum at the back that focuses on Aboriginal culture. There's a collection of shields, dancing sticks, coolamons, boomerangs, clubs and other weapons, and storyboards tell about initiation rites, taboos, death and marriage, black magic and bush foods.
7. DISCOVER CATERPILLAR DREAMING
The area around Alice Springs is associated with the Caterpillar Dreaming (Yeperenye) creation story and there are several sacred sites, including the caterpillar rock art at Emily Gap, 15 kilometres east of town along the Ross Highway. For a deeper understanding of how the caterpillar shaped the land, walk through the Yeperenye Sculpture in the gardens at the Araluen Arts Centre on Larapinta Drive. artsandmuseums.nt.gov.au.
8. GET A DECENT COFFEE
The outback is not renowned for its coffee, but those served up at Page 27 are the exception that proves the rule. Tucked down an alleyway arcade off Todd Mall, it serves hearty breakfasts and a range of light lunches. It's cash only and you'll probably need to line up. Every day except Monday in Fan Arcade.
9. VISIT THE WORLD'S LARGEST CLASSROOM
The School of the Air had its beginnings in Alice Springs in 1951 and has about 120 students in an area that covers more than a million square kilometres. You can watch a live lesson between 8am and 3pm on school days. assoa.nt.edu.au.
10. SEE THE FLYING DOCTOR
Every year the Royal Flying Doctor Service helps more than 270,000 patients across remote Australia, transporting more than 40,000 sick and injured in 61 planes, flying more than 26 million kilometres. Its new visitors' centre includes a museum with historic radios, medical equipment and a replica fuselage you can enter. flyingdoctor.org.au.
11. PICNIC BESIDE THE ORIGINAL ALICE SPRINGS
Before there was Alice Springs there was Stuart - the town's name was changed in 1933 - but before there was Stuart there was Alice Springs, the name given to the waterhole on the Todd River beside the telegraph station that was the first European settlement in the area. Founded in 1871, the telegraph station operated for 60 years. The historic stone buildings are open for tours, and there are barbecues and picnic tables beside the waterhole. parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au.
12. CYCLE ALONG TO THE GORGE
About 25 kilometres from Alice Springs (along Larapinta Drive) is Simpsons Gap, a stunning gorge with a permanent waterhole at its base. You can drive there, but it's more fun to ride the sealed Simpsons Gap Bike Path. The path meanders cross-country with generally easy grades. You can hire bikes from Longhorn Bikes and pick them up at many hotels. 0439 860 735.
13. RIDE THE OLD GHAN
The first Ghan train left Adelaide for Alice Springs on August 4, 1929. It was often late - sometimes up to six weeks. The intense heat buckled the steel rails, termites ate the timber sleepers, bridges were washed away by flash floods. It was replaced by the new Ghan in 1980 on a different track, but you can revisit the train's glory days at the Old Ghan Heritage Railway Museum next door to the National Road Transport Hall of Fame. roadtransporthall.com.
14. RIDE A CAMEL
There are more than a million wild camels roaming central Australia, and no trip to the red centre is complete without a camel ride. There are a number of camel farms that offer rides (and camel burgers), but the best around Alice is Pyndan Camel Tracks. Tours range from half-day morning rides to one-hour rides throughout the afternoon, although the best time to go if you want to see the red desert at its most vibrant is at sunset. cameltracks.com.
15. FIND THE LOST CROCS OF CENTRAL AUSTRALIA
If you think Darwin has pretty big crocs, they're small fry compared with the fossilised crocs at the Museum of Central Australia in the Araluen Cultural Precinct. The Lost Crocs of Central Australia exhibition features the skull of Sarcosuchus, a 12-metre, eight-tonne giant from the age of the dinosaurs. It's on until the end of July, but if you miss it there's a skull of a giant freshwater crocodile found at the Alcoota fossil site 200 kilometres from Alice Springs, as well as the skeleton of one of the largest birds that lived, on permanent display. artsandmuseums.nt.gov.au.
16. EAT A TWO-KILO STEAK
The Overlanders Steakhouse is a bit of an institution in Alice Springs, famous for its oversize steaks. The biggest of them all is the "Ringers Reward", a two-kilo piece of rump. So far, only a handful of hungry diners have managed to get through it all, and those who do are immortalised on the restaurant's website along with the time it took them to work their way through so much cow. Just so you know, the record is 22 minutes and 14 seconds, held by the former butcher Alan Rowe. overlanders.com.au.
17. BARRA MOOLIE
Chef Jimmy Shu's exotic and spicy mix of Thai, Indian and nonya dishes at the Hanuman Restaurant, which is in the DoubleTree by Hilton, is the best food in town. Signature dishes include his prawns cooked in coconut, wild ginger and curry; and oysters with lemongrass, basil, chilli and coriander. However, the one you really must try is the "meen moolie" of wild barramundi fillets cooked with turmeric, fresh curry leaf and coconut. hanuman.com.au.
18. LEARN HOW TO PLAY THE DIDGERIDOO
Didgeridoo player Andrew Langford, who performs a 90-minute evening show called Didgeridoo Show Outback on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights (more frequently in June, July and August), runs didgeridoo-playing workshops on weekdays at 10.30am and 2.30pm in his Sounds of Starlight Theatre, on Todd Mall. The workshops are free and it is not necessary to book. soundsofstarlight.com.
19. EXPLORE THE EAST MACS
The rocky ramparts and spectacular gorges of the West MacDonnell Ranges, known as the West Macs, are one of the most popular day trips from Alice, but the East Macs, which are largely overlooked by most travellers, are every bit as spectacular. Emily Gap (see No. 7) and Jesse Gap are only a short drive from town and are great picnic spots. Trephina Gorge, 75 kilometres east of Alice on a sealed road (the last five kilometres are unsealed but fine for two-wheel-drives), has fantastic walking trails along the bottom and around the rim of the large semicircular canyon. Twelve kilometres further on, the Ross River Resort serves up a monster-size burger for lunch.
20. LOOK GOOD IN A BEANIE
It gets cold in the desert in winter so you'll need a beanie, especially if you are in town during the annual Beanie Festival in June, when competition to see who can create the funniest, wildest and wackiest is fierce. Beanies are shown at the Araluen Arts Centre each year. beaniefest.org.
The writer was the guest of Tiger Airways and Tourism NT.