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7 amazing things to do around Alice Springs

Alice Springs is the perfect base from which to explore the Red Centre.

The only city in the Red Centre, Alice Springs is in the middle of some of Australia's most awe-inspiring landscapes. Surrounded by deserts and ancient mountain ranges with rocky gorges and hidden waterholes, rich in Aboriginal sacred sites and home to a thriving indigenous art scene, it's one of Australia’s most fascinating Outback destinations. Here are seven of the most amazing things to do around Alice Springs.

Go myth busting at Alice Springs Desert Park

Alice Springs Desert Park, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Bust the myth that the desert is the "dead" heart of Australia at the Desert Park on the outskirts of Alice Springs. This stunning park – part wildlife sanctuary, part botanic garden – is a mix of carefully re-created desert habitats (sand, woodland and desert rivers) and is bursting with life. Get up close to kangaroos, watch birds of prey in free flight, walk through aviaries, see snakes and animals that normally only make an appearance after dark and marvel at delicate desert wildflowers. For an after-dark adventure join a guided nocturnal tour (AUD$44) to see rare and endangered animals by spotlight.

Take to the skies in a hot air balloon

Outback Ballooning, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Get a bird's-eye view of the desert on a hot air balloon flight. Flights take off before dawn, but once you're up this is a magical way to watch the sun rise over the vast spinifex-studded desert plains that surround Alice Springs. From the air, the landscape looks just like the dot paintings hanging in the art galleries in town. Choose from half hour and one-hour flights. A picnic breakfast and celebratory sparkling wine are included in the price. Wear a warm jacket and a hat – it can be cold in the desert at night.

Meet Kangaroo Dundee

The Kangaroo Sanctuary, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

A baby kangaroo is called a joey, and it's almost impossible not to fall in love at first sight with the adorable orphaned joeys being cared for by Chris Barnes (better known as "Brolga", star of the hit television series, Kangaroo Dundee). Chris's kangaroo sanctuary is about a 20 minute drive from Alice Springs, and open for tours every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evening. Tours, which depart from Alice Springs, last about 2 1/2 hours and cost AUD$85. Depending on his filming schedule, you might even get to meet Kangaroo Dundee himself.

Follow the Desert Art Trail

Mbantua Gallery, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Learn about Aboriginal art by visiting the art galleries of Alice Springs. Start at the Araluen Arts Centre on the edge of town. It has several galleries of Central Australian Aboriginal art as well as one of the country's largest collection of works by the renowned Albert Namatjira. It also hosts the annual Desert Mob exhibition in September and October, showing works from desert communities across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. The Tjanpi Desert Weavers in Wilkinson Street – a group of more than 400 women artists from 26 remote communities – make beautiful baskets adorned with seeds and feathers, as well as quirky fibre sculptures of dogs and desert animals. Tangentyere Artists (16 Fogarty Street) also produces quirky sculptures as well as beautiful fabrics, blankets and jewellery, all made from recycled metal and wood and abandoned objects found in and around the town camps. In Todd Mall, the pedestrianised shopping strip of Alice Springs, Papunya Tula Artists and Mbantua Gallery (which also has a small museum that focuses on Aboriginal culture) are good places to buy beautiful painted canvases to take home.

Find ancient rock art at Emily Gap

The MacDonnell Ranges, Red Centre, Northern Territory

The area around Alice Springs is associated with the Caterpillar Dreaming (Yeperenye) creation story that tells how the MacDonnell Ranges were formed by great mounds of caterpillars, killed in a battle with their enemies, the stink bugs. The gaps in the ranges, including the one at the southern entrance to Alice Springs, were made when the heads of the caterpillars were bitten off. There are several sacred sites around town, but the most impressive is the caterpillar rock art that covers the rock walls at Emily Gap, 10 kilometres (six miles) east of town along the Ross Highway. You can drive, cycle or join a tour.

Cycle to Simpsons Gap

Simpsons Gap, MacDonnell Ranges, Red Centre, Northern Territory

Floating in a refreshing, natural plunge pool in the middle of the desert is one of Outback Australia's most memorable experiences, and a great way to cool off after a bike ride through the desert. Just 18 kilometres (11 miles) from Alice Springs along Larapinta Drive is Simpsons Gap, a spectacular gorge with a permanent waterhole at its base. You can drive there, but it's much more fun to bike it along the sealed Simpsons Gap Bike Path. Mountain bike hire costs AUD$65 for a full day.

Walk the Larapinta Trail

Larapinta Trail, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

The 223 kilometre (139 mile) Larapinta Trail is one of the world’s great long distance hikes. Snaking along the backbone of the spectacular West MacDonnell Ranges between Alice Springs and Kings Canyon, it's an adventure like no other. To do the whole thing takes at least 12 days, but there is an easier way. Adventure travel company World Expeditions runs six day walking holidays that take in all the highlights of the trail with overnight stays in three luxury safari camps, complete with hot showers and camp cooks who whip up tasty meals while you relax. With no need to haul a heavy pack, it's the best way to walk the desert in style.