Alice Springs

Alice Springs from Anzac Hill

Alice Springs is the heart of Central Australia and is comprised of cavernous gorges, boundless desert landscapes, remote Aboriginal communities and a charming pioneering history. It embodies the hardy outback of the Northern Territory's Red Centre, and is a travel hub for sights and hikes in the region, such as Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas) and Kings Canyon. Since the start of the tourist boom in the early eighties, the population has substantially grown to about 28,000. Although surface water is a scarce commodity in the region, there's plenty underground! It is a great town and well worth a visit.


Alice Springs is located 1500 km from the nearest major city, being Darwin to the north or Adelaide to the south. As a result, the people that inhabit the town are often quite ingenious when it comes to making things last!

Also, due to this distance, you may find that some things can cost more than in the cities, such as fruit and veg, and some clothing (if you forgot to pack your singlet or jacket!). Over all, however, the town isn't too expensive when it comes to the necessary requirements and it is much cheaper than smaller outback towns, making it an ideal place to stock up before heading to more remote areas.

Something else to remember is that hotels in Alice Springs are rated slightly different to those in European or American countries - as hotels are rated on their facilities rather than the actual rooms. The reason for that is due to the distance that Alice Springs is from anywhere and the difficulties involved in getting building materials. Mind you, the star ratings reflect the quality of the establishment.


Indigenous History

The Arrernte (pronounced Arrenda) Aboriginal people have made their home in the Central Australian desert in and around Alice Springs for more than 50,000 years. The Aboriginal name for Alice Springs is Mparntwe. Three major groups Western, Eastern and Central Arrernte people live in Central Australia, their traditional land including the area of Alice Springs and East/West MacDonnell Ranges. They are also referred to as Aranda, Arrarnta, Arunta, and other similar spellings.

Arrernte country is rich with mountain ranges, waterholes, and gorges; as a result the Arrernte people set aside 'conservation areas' in which various species are protected. According to the Arrernte traditional stories, in the desert surrounding Alice Springs, the landscape was shaped by caterpillars, wild dogs, travelling boys, sisters, euros (Kangaroo-like creatures) and other ancestral figures.

There are many sites of traditional importance in and around Alice Springs, such as Anthwerrke (Emily Gap), Akeyulerre (Billy Goat Hill), Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap), Atnelkentyarliweke (Anzac Hill), and Alhekulyele (Mt. Gillen). Many Arrernte people also live in communities outside of Alice Springs.

Pronunciation of these Arrernte words can be very difficult. The reason for that is that Arrernte, and indeed every indigenous language of Australia, was not written. When Europeans arrived with their missions to convert people to Christianity, they felt the need to have the language written, and using their own languages put the written form to the language. As a result of the missionaries being mostly German, they used their own language to develop the Arrernte written language.

Don't worry if you can't pronounce it; everyone in town knows the places by their European names.

Modern History

In 1862, John McDouall Stuart led an expedition into Central Australia and the area where Alice Springs is located. Until the 1930s, however, the town was known as Stuart. The Overland Telegraph Line linking Adelaide to Darwin and Great Britain was completed in 1872. It traced Stuart’s route and opened up the interior for permanent settlement. It wasn’t until alluvial gold was discovered at Arltunga, 100 km east of Alice Springs, in 1887 that any significant settlement occurred.

The telegraph station was sited near what was thought to be a permanent waterhole in the normally dry Todd River and was optimistically named Alice Springs after the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd. The Todd River was named after Sir Charles himself. The original mode of transportation in the outback were camel trains, operated by immigrants from Pathan tribes in the North-West frontier of the then British India and Pakistan who were misnamed ‘Afghan’ Camellers.

Cattle Stations opened up the interior of Australia, with stations the size of small European Countries running mostly Cattle. Camels were (and still are) farmed in Central Australia - and the exporting of Camels to the Middle East is a fast developing industry. This is because the Australian Camels are a purebred of camel, and often free from the diseases which can be prevalent in the Middle Eastern countries.

During World War 2, Alice Springs was an important location for the Northern defense of Australia, and was a staging point for the allies movements to defeat the Japanese Imperial forces. Alice Springs' importance grew when it was established that coastal shipments to Darwin were no longer safe. Lots of relics from World War Two are still in use today in Alice Springs, primarily the Alice Springs Airport, which was constructed as a result of the War.

After the conclusion of the war, there was still a large American influence in the town, and as a result, a number of covert locations were set up in and around Alice Springs to monitor world events. One of these was a Seismic Vault, which was a bunker of sorts, dug into a mound, and which held instruments such as seismographs and other instruments to detect the ground movements of possible nuclear testing in the (at the time) USSR. One of these bunkers was recently 'discovered' and is now heritage listed.

The 1960s saw the establishment of the Joint Defence Space Research Facility, or as it's locally known, "Pine Gap". The facility was established in the 1970s and is the only area in Australia with Prohibited airspace - so forget about seeing it up close. You may, however, see it on approach or departure from Alice Springs Airport.


Tourism is a major industry in Alice Springs, with well developed facilities for travelers. Visit the Alice Springs Visitor Centre , located at 60 Gregory Terrace, at the south end of Todd Mall, for Visitor Guides, maps, tour and accommodation bookings, and suggested itineraries. You can even download or view the latest Visitor Guide for Central Australia on their website.


 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Daily highs (°C) 36.4 35.0 32.6 28.2 23.0 19.8 19.7 22.6 27.2 30.9 33.6 35.4
Nightly lows (°C) 21.5 20.7 17.5 12.6 8.2 5.0 4.1 6.0 10.3 14.8 17.8 20.2
Precipitation (mm) 38.8 44.2 32.4 16.5 18.8 14.0 15.2 9.3 8.5 21.7 28.9 37.1


Almost in the exact centre of the continent, Alice Springs is some 1200 km from the nearest ocean and 1500 km from the nearest major cities, Darwin and Adelaide. Alice Springs is the midpoint of the Adelaide–Darwin Railway.

To the south are the imposing McDonnell Ranges, with all transport links to the south using "Heavitree Gap" - a distinctive narrow gap in the range where the railway, highway and Todd River run through without any climb required. Heavitree Gap was named by William Mills, a surveyor of the Overland Telegraph line. He named it in honour of his former School in Devon (UK).

The roads around Alice Springs are generally flat and tend to skirt a lot of the hills, some of which are sacred sites to the local Indigenous people.

Get in

By plane

There is an airport in Alice Springs. The airport doesn't have air bridges, so that passengers need to use stairs to get in/out of planes. Currently Qantas has connecting flights to Darwin, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Cairns and Perth. There is a flying shuttle to Uluru also (but Uluru has an airport too, so if you're just flying in to see the rock, you don't have to stop off at Alice). Hire cars are available at the airport.

By train

The Ghan is a private tourist train covering the vast distance from Adelaide to Darwin stopping in Alice. Expect to pay a premium over the airfare, even for a sitting seat. You can put your car on the train.

By car

Alice Springs is 17 hours drive from Darwin, and 18 hours drive from Adelaide. The Stuart Highway from Adelaide is well-maintained and goes right through Coober Pedy, an underground town famous also for being the opal capital of the world (and therefore well worth stopping off for a visit on the way). It continues through Tennant Creek and Katherine all the way up to Darwin.

If you are driving on the main sealed routes from other Australian Capital cities, you will likely not be driving on remote roads, and provided you do not take side trips, there will likely be passing traffic. It is worthwhile reading the safety tips for Driving in Australia and always carrying water and ensuring you know the location and opening hours of your fuel and food stops. Mobile phone reception is limited to a few of the larger townships along the Stuart Highway, so be prepared to go for long distances without coverage.

Read the rental car conditions carefully. Rental cars in Alice Springs may not offer unlimited free kilometres and do not cover you if you take your vehicle on unsealed roads. Rental cars hired outside of the Northern Territory may not be able to be driven into it. Driving after dark outside of the city limits may be prohibited. Rental companies in AC do not offer hand-controls for the handicapped.

The official visitor information centre has access to unlimited kilometre rates, so it's worth getting in touch with them if you are going to clock up the Kms on the car!

By bus

Greyhound ply the route to Alice Springs from the north and the south.

Get around


Alice Springs has quite a few interesting things to see; one of them happens every night. If you don't get out of town and watch a sunset, even just sitting off the main highway, you've missed something special. Other than that:


Alice Springs Camel Cup

For a detailed and up-to-date calendar of events in Alice Springs, go to the Alice Springs Town Council website.


A Thorny devil, similar to the ones in the Alice Springs Desert Park Reptile Exhibit
Sunset near Alice Springs




Hot Air Ballooning in the Red Centre
Camel Riding in the Red Centre


History and Culture


Gem fossicking


Because of the large tourism industry and the small population Alice Springs is an easy place for anyone to find work. Many companies will employ travelers, and wages are comparable to, if not higher than, other parts of Australia.

The big thing to be aware of is that long term accommodation is very scarce, and backpackers/travellers are usually at the bottom of the list for long term accommodation. Renting is very expensive, as there is a high demand for housing in the town, and house shares are not common. If you are looking to stay for 6 months or more, you will probably need to rent a house. It's easiest to find rental accommodation in December/ January and June/ July as people tend to leave during these periods.

During the off tourist season (October - March/April) the hostels will do a good deal on long stay accommodation, but during the busy time (April–October) they will charge their normal rates.



Despite its small size, Alice has a good and varied restaurant scene.

Fast food

There are a fair few options here in Alice Springs for tucker (dinner). McDonald's, KFC, Hungry Jacks (Burger King), and Red Rooster (Australian made KFC) are the main take away chains, but there are also your small family take aways, such as Big Al's, East Side Fish and Chips and Scoff.

Additionally, there are some great Pizza Shops in town, La Casalinga is a great feed. It's on Gregory Terrace, and it's got a really nice old school atmosphere about it. Has not changed for 20 years, and won't in the near future!

Vegetarian and vegan food

Drinks and light meals, cafe style

Sit-down meals

On the Todd Mall:

Other locations around town:


Alice Springs, like most of the Northern Territory, has tough liquor laws. It is illegal to drink in Public places (Parks, Streets, etc). The Telegraph Station to the North of the town permits drinking and a lot of families go there for a BBQ and a relax. Regardless of how sorry you may feel, don't purchase alcohol on behalf of people you don't know - if they can't buy it themselves, then there's a reason for that.

Outside the Todd Mall





Stay safe

Alice Springs suffers from a relatively high crime rate. Socio-economic tensions which stem from Australia's colonial history have led to the development of impoverished Indigenous communities, known as 'camps', in and around the town, and alcohol-fuelled violence remains a significant problem in the community. Exercise extreme caution when walking around after 10pm, as large groups of inebriated Indigenous youths are notorious for causing trouble in the city. Todd Street is nauseatingly well-policed, so problems in the CBD are less of an issue than they were previously.

From time to time you may be asked for money or other items while in Alice Springs. According to Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, the organisation which represents the Native Title Holders of Alice Springs, this is not acceptable behaviour, and giving handouts only encourages a begging culture when there is no need for it to exist. Don't give money, cigarettes or food to those who ask. There is a chance that you will get yelled at and cursed at for not giving a handout but ignore this and keep walking. They will have forgotten you in 30 seconds anyway.

Go next

Rough Map of Local Points of Interest

There are four main roads leaving Alice Springs: the Stuart Highway, which runs north to Darwin and south to Port Augusta; Larapinta Drive which runs West and splits off to the Namatjira road; and the Ross Highway, which runs East. The Stuart Highway (highway 87) is sealed all the way; this means it's got tarmac and is passable using a normal car. Larapinta Drive and Ross Highway are sealed for a couple hundred kilometers in each direction, but after that they convert to dirt roads which you will need a 4x4 vehicle to access.

There is a web of dirt trails - sometimes called unsealed roads - which surrounds Alice Springs, and some of the nicest places within a few hours drive will require a four-wheel drive vehicle (4x4) to get to. There are two ways to go south. The first is the Stuart Highway, which is sealed and frequently traveled. The second is a dirt track which leads off the Stuart Highway; it's called the Old South Road. A dirt track connects the Old South Road to the modern Stuart Highway, from a point north of the aboriginal community of Titjikala.

On the side of the old South Road, you will see a narrow track that follows the road - this is the track of the Finke Desert Race which is held every year on the Queens Birthday Long Weekend in June. Best to just view the track though and not drive on it as it is VERY tough going, even at low speeds. If you are game and drive on it, have a think about how the competitors race along it at speeds in excess of 150 km/h on race weekend.

Around Alice Springs

Further South

Further North

Routes through Alice Springs

Darwin Tennant Creek, Katherine  N  S  Kulgera, Chandler, Marla Port Augusta
Tennant Creek Wycliffe Well  N                            S  Marla Port Augusta

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, December 14, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.