When I first arrived in Alice Springs in June 2001, I discovered that I didn’t really know the outback at all.
Then I went to the Alice Springs Desert Park.
It completely changed how I thought and felt about the outback.
Years later, it still surprises … no … disturbs me that more people don’t start their own outback journeys at the Desert Park.
More than any other place in Central Australia, the Desert Park is where you can touch, taste, and start to know the outback’s biggest secret:
The outback is a treasure trove of unexpected stories, colour and most of all, life.
I know we’ve said it a lot on our website, but it’s worth repeating again:
Visit the Alice Springs Desert Park before you head off to Uluru, Kings Canyon or the West MacDonnells.
In fact, visit it BEFORE you go anywhere in the outback.
It will change EVERYTHING you know -or thought you knew- about the outback.
Here’s how that first visit to the Desert Park changed me…
How The Desert Park Changed My Outback Forever
I paid my entrance fee and was given a brightly coloured map.
The woman on the counter explained when the Birds of Prey display was on (3pm), and where I could go to meet the Aboriginal guides and try some bush tucker.
“They’ve got Honey Ants today,” she said to me. “You’re really lucky. They don’t get them all the time.”
“And the Nocturnal House is here,” she pointed at the map, somewhere in the middle of the park. “It’s the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Of course, I’d heard about the Desert Park’s Nocturnal House; my new anthropological colleagues described it in hushed tones, like some kind of ultimate shrine: You must go there. Go to the Nocturnal House. You won’t believe your eyes…
Clutching the map, I declined the free guided audio tour, determined to discover this place for myself.
Whilst my first few days living in Alice Springs had already hinted at an outback veneered in layers of culture, time and distance, the Desert Park gave me a lens through which to focus the snippets of information I’d gleaned – another way of seeing.
My first stop was the nature theatre, and a short film that acted as a geological traverse through time, landscape and culture.
At the end of the film, the cinema’s screen disappeared.
The curtains peeled back to reveal massive, cathedral-sized windows and the MacDonnell Ranges directly behind them.
I felt an immediate sense of connection with the landscape as the curtains opened to reveal the ranges.
I was really here; part of this ancient land.
Eager to see more, I left the theatre and walked on.
As the path wound around, the plants and landscape subtly changed. Acacia scrublands gave way to River Red Gums and Coolibahs.
I found myself in the Desert Rivers habitat, walking through an aviary alive with birds, lush plants – even fish.
I came face-to-face with a Stone Curlew (think of the Roadrunner in the cartoons, without his crest or the purple plumes), who eyed me uncertainly whilst protecting its eggs.
There were budgies, Ringneck parrots, colourful finches, and even ducks.
All up close. No screens or glass separating me from them.
I was inside their world, walking amongst them.
There were more birds than I could ever imagine living in the outback, it seemed.
Further on, I left the Desert Rivers habitat and walked into the Sand Country habitat.
Here, I met up with Aboriginal guides who told their stories – not of cultures frozen in the past, but of a people looking forward, using the past as Law and mentor.
And I bit into the sticky, sweet bums of honey ants – my first real bush tucker. (They taste just like honey).
After this, it was on to the nocturnal house.
It did not disappoint.
When I first walked in, I couldn’t see much. The display started with live reptiles (Thorny Devils – everyone’s favourite), but the corridor swept around into inviting darkness.
My eyes could not yet see what lay ahead.
But this -THIS!- place is magic.
As my eyes adjusted, and I walked further in, the building opened out – and there before my eyes was a night time desert absolutely TEAMING with life:
Mala, Antechinus, Red Tailed Phascogale. Bilby. Hopping Mice. Possums. Kowari. Fat-tailed Dunnarts…
All hopping, leaping, jumping and playing in an outback I had no idea existed.
This, truly, was not the dry, dead heart of ignorant city legends; this was a new outback unfolding within and around me: many-coloured and alive.
After the nocturnal house, it was hard to think that the Desert Park could wow me anymore, but there was the Birds of Prey display.
This is where raptors and owls swoop down, right through the audience to their handler.
Some of the time, the are resting up above you in the rafters of amphitheatre, ready to swoop down to their handler’s call.
On the day I was there, there was a Peregrine Falcon and a Boobook Owl strutting their stuff.
They were so close, you could feel the beat of their wings on your skin as they passed you.
The Desert Park now has two Wedge-Tailed Eagles, Aurora and Sonder, who also have also joined the display.
I know I’ve left out the kangaroo, Euro, emu and dingo enclosures – so I’ll let you know that, yes, you can see the outback’s best known animals there, too.
In time, I was fortunate enough to work for the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission and participate in flora and fauna surveys.
I came to know the terrain and what plants, birds and animals to expect where, what would flower and fly in the winter, and to wait for the cries of the storm birds, the Channel-Billed Cuckoos, in late spring.
I came to know that the flock of little brown jokesters in my backyard -the birds who delighted in hanging from the peg basket and swinging for the sheer fun of it- were Grey-Crowned Babblers – surely the outback’s most underrated bird!
Deeper again, I learned the language of the MacDonnell Ranges people, Arrernte, and spent time learning the sacred stories and visiting Dreaming sites with Aboriginal people all around Central Australia.
I’ve been through Aboriginal Women’s Law, a Dreaming that links Uluru to Watarrka and then to Alice Springs and beyond: knowledge that I cannot share with any man.
I have mothers and sisters in ceremony that I’ve danced and sang and laughed and cried with.
I have been truly blessed to live a life such as this – one very different from most Australians.
Yet, it all started with that first deep connection that day at the Desert Park.
It’s cliche to say this, but if there is only ONE place that you have time to go in Alice Springs, make sure it’s the Alice Springs Desert Park.
It will change the way you see the outback forever.
Perhaps it will change you, too.
The Alice Springs Desert Park is located 7km west of the centre of Alice Springs, on Larapinta Drive.
The Desert Park is overseen by the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission, but it’s important to note that it’s separate from the NT Parks & Wildlife Commission and the rangers who run national parks.
The Desert Park offers a range daily activities and displays which are all included within your entrance fee. Check the website or the boards when you enter the park for current details.
The Desert Park now runs some fabulous ‘add-on’ activities, like night mammal stalks, birding tours, oral history sessions with local identities, kids’ holiday activities and even twitchathons. These are advertised on their website here.
There is a cost to enter the Desert Park (see below), but everything is free once you’re inside.
The local Mparntwe people (Arrernte Aboriginal custodians) have had a very significant part in the planning, building and ongoing operations of the Desert Park.
The Desert Park is one of the best places to go to get an understanding of Aboriginal culture.
Every habitat and display -in fact, almost every sign in the park- has something to share about Aboriginal culture. You’ll learn Dreaming stories, see and taste bush tucker, learn about bush medicine and most of all, understand how Aboriginal people thrived in this landscape,
Some Mparntwe people are employed as guides at the Desert Park – so you will be able to meet and talk to Aboriginal people, face to face.
This ALONE is worth the time and money you’ll spend to visit the Desert Park, and will help spread understanding of Aboriginal culture and of the outback’s incredible cultural diversity.
How to get there:
If you’re driving, head to the Stuart Highway-Larapinta Drive intersection (the big intersection where the speed cameras and railway line are), look for the signs to the Desert Park or Hermannsburg and head west.
There is ample parking within the Desert Park.
If you’re cycling, there’s a cycle path that runs all the way along Larapinta Drive.
There is also the Alice Wanderer transfer service which can take you to and from your accommodation to the Desert Park. Call 08 8952 2111 for prices and details.
Costs and opening times:
The Desert Park is open every day except Christmas Day.
Opening hours are 7.30am-6pm.
As there’s LOTS to see and it’s a big place, get there before 4:30pm or you’ll miss out.
Ideally, we recommend getting there before 3pm, so you can go to the Birds of Prey display.
Children (5-15 years): $16
1 adult & 2 children: $54.50
2 adults & up to 4 children: $87
How long do you need?
You’ll need at least 3-4 hours as it’s a big place with many, many things to see and do.
Most of the Desert Park is wheelchair accessible – so much so that one of its most famous and longest serving guides is wheelchair bound and does his job expertly!
There are toilets, baby change, a gift shop and a cafe.
You are able to hire strollers and electric scooters for less able people.
Check the Alice Springs Desert Park’s website for even more information