Springs eternal: mountain biking, Alice Springs. Photo: Tourism NT/Paddy Palin
There's action aplenty, as Kerry van der Jagt discovers in our unofficial capital.
It takes blood, sweat and the legs of a Lance Armstrong to ride a mountain bike in the deserts around Alice Springs. I possess no such legs and think it will all end in tears. Mine.
I'm a regular visitor to Alice Springs, a city that has lately added "adventure capital" to its list of attractions. The trouble is, my bike-riding ability is more trained circus bear than Tour de France and now I'm silently wishing I was at a day spa.
Day spas are still a bit light on the ground in Alice, but Lasseters Hotel Casino has invested in a $35 million revamp, the central business district and Todd Mall have undergone a $5 million upgrade, last year saw the city host the inaugural Mbantua Festival, and the central cafe scene is blooming.
Combined with a raft of new adventures and less obvious attractions to be discovered, it makes Alice Springs a destination in its own right, rather than a support act to Uluru.
Outback Cycling tours range from mountain biking to the Simpsons Gap bike path. The region has high-quality trails, unique terrain, access to town and predictable weather, says Clarke Petrick, the owner and founder of Outback Cycling. "There are more than 200 kilometres of trails around Alice, and our guides can take visitors to places known only to locals," he says.
I opt for a 15-kilometre mountain bike tour, round-trip from the Alice Springs YHA. It's mid-afternoon, and as we follow the banks of the dry Todd River, we pass grey kangaroos stretched out like lazy teenagers and mobs of pink galahs cheering us on from the treetops. Leaving the river, the track gets rocky and steep. This is when I start dreaming of spa treatments, whereas others see me bucketing along like Wile E. Coyote strapped to a rocket. See outbackcycling.com
DON'T MISS The five-day Ingkerreke Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro, held in May. See icme.com.au
The spines of the East and West MacDonnell Ranges stretch for hundreds of kilometres on either side of Alice Springs, and both have hiking trails, swimming holes and some of the country's best gorge scenery.
The West Macs is home to Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm, but swimmers should push on a bit further to Ellery Creek Big Hole, a permanent and icy-cold swimming hole surrounded by towering red cliffs.
For serious walkers, there's the 223-kilometre Larapinta Trail, which stretches from Alice Springs to the summit of Mount Sonder. World Expeditions has a range of trips to the region, including a six-day Classic Larapinta Trek, during which walkers stay overnight in a new, semi-permanent campsite. See worldexpeditions.com.au
The East Macs are often overlooked by travellers, yet host both walking trails and spectacular rock art. At Emily Gap, red-ochre and white-lime rock paintings depict the creation story of the ancestral caterpillar beings of Mparntwe (Alice Springs), while further afield, Trephine Gorge has walking trails around the rim of a large semicircular canyon.
DON'T MISS Floating across the desert in a hot-air balloon, where you'll see that the ranges really do resemble a line of marching caterpillars. See outbackballooning.com.au
DINING WITH A DIFFERENCE
Circus, cabaret, sideshow. It's all that and more at Alice Springs' newest bar, Monte's Lounge, on Todd Street. With its Barnum-style posters, striped curtains and slot-machine rides, the circus really has come to town. Set in the gardens of a character-filled heritage-listed building, Monte's is a charmingly unexpected restaurant. This is Alice, but not as you know it. See montes.net.au
Other surprises include Page 27, a cute cafe on Fan Arcade that wouldn't be out of place in one of Melbourne's city laneways. With its mismatched furniture, piles of old books and vintage typewriters, Page 27 captures the simplicity of a writers' retreat. It's the kind of place in which you could pen a classic or spend the morning curled in a corner reading Nevil Shute's epic A Town Like Alice. The cafe serves the best brunch in town, so try the eggs benedict or go the "full chapter" with eggs, bacon, rosti, chorizo, tomato, mushroom and toast.
For an East-meets-(far) West experience, head to the Tea Shrine on Todd Street. In a meat-mad town (think buffalo steaks as big as your head and "feral" food platters), this vegan Asian cafe is a gentle alternative. Serving a fusion of Singaporean, Malaysian and Thai dishes, yum cha and fresh noodle salads, diners can eat in or take away, and enjoy a pot of tea in the courtyard. See teashrine.com
DON'T MISS The vanilla slice from Casa Nostra Pizza and Spaghetti House. Nona's homemade dessert is legendary, so the only way to secure a slice is to order one when making a reservation. Phone 08 8952 6749
Alice is a place of contrasts, not just of geography and distance, climate and colour, but also of culture. Racial divides exist and finding ways to cross these barriers may be challenging, so introduce yourself to the locals.
Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjarra, Many Hands Art Centre, is Aboriginal-owned and supports more than 300 artists from the region, many of whom paint in the tradition of their famous grandfather, Albert Namatjira. I first visited in 2009 when the centre was in the industrial part of the city. Today, the centre occupies new premises at the entrance to the Alice Springs Desert Park. Browse the gallery, watch the artists at work or join a dot-painting workshop. See ngurart.com.au
Bob (Penunka) Taylor, the owner and operator of RT Tours, offers travellers a glimpse into local life through his Mbantua dinner tours, held at the foot of the West MacDonnell Ranges. I've travelled with Taylor many times and his tours really are the best in the business, having won both the 2012 Brolga Award and the 2012 Australian Tourism Award for indigenous tourism.
An Arrernte man, Taylor chats while he cooks: about bush tucker, about his childhood in Adelaide as one of the stolen generation, his time working as a chef in Holland, and about his father, a renowned watercolour artist from Rainbow Valley. You may dine on roasted macadamia with wattle seed, tender kangaroo fillets, a traditional beef stew with yam fritters, and a quandong, white chocolate, apricot and wattle seed steamed pudding. See rttoursaustralia.com.au
DON'T MISS The bookshop, library and cafe at the Institute of Aboriginal Development (IAD). See iad.edu.au
IN ANY EVENT
From the Henley-on-Todd Regatta to the Camel Cup to the Bangtail Muster to the Beanie Festival, Alice Springs is the queen of festivals (see below). The latest on the calendar is the biennial Mbantua Festival - Awakening the Desert. Held in October 2013, the five-day festival celebrated the beauty, significance and power of Central Australian Aboriginal cultures through music, dance, film, food and art.
DON'T MISS Building your Alice itinerary around a key festival.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism NT.
Qantas flies non-stop from Melbourne for about $275 and about $295 non-stop from Sydney. Tigerair flies non-stop from Melbourne for about $130 and about $140 from Sydney. Flying time from Melbourne is 2hr 55min and from Sydney 3hr 20min. All fares are one way including tax (any fees not included). See qantas.com; tigerair.com
A premium room at Lasseters Hotel Casino is from $180 a night. See lasseters.com.au, (08) 8950 7777.
FIVE KEY CENTRE FESTIVALS
BANGTAIL MUSTER PARADE
An annual street parade of weird and wonderful floats. May 5, 2014. See alicespringsrotary.org
ALICE SPRINGS BEANIE FESTIVAL
More than 5000 beanies of every shape, colour and design. June 20-23, 2014. See beaniefest.org
Along with racing is the Honeymoon Handicap, rickshaw races, Kids Kamel Dapers and Mr and Miss Camel Cup. July 12, 2014. See camelcup.com.au
This waterless boat race has been sailing annually since 1962. August 16, 2014. See henleyontodd.com.au
ALICE DESERT FESTIVAL
Central Australia's premier arts and cultural festival. September 10-14, 2014. See alicedesertfestival.com.au