If you want to learn more about the Aboriginal culture, you MUST visit Alice Springs and Central Australia! 25% of the population in the Northern Territory is of Aboriginal descent, which makes this part of the country the place with the biggest number of local indigenous representation. Read on to find out how you can experience Aboriginal culture in Alice Springs and Central Australia.
You need to come to the Territory in order to understand the oldest, still living culture in the world. Alice Springs and Central Australia are where the traditional lifestyle of the Aboriginal people is most preserved. They are also home to the largest Aboriginal groups (also known as nations) in Australia – Pitjantjatjara, Arrernte, Luritja, and Warlpiri.
For Aboriginal people, every place, every rock, and every tree or bird is important and takes a very important part in their traditional beliefs. As you will see further, each of the natural formations and places mentioned in this article has an Aboriginal name and is connected to the Dreamtime, the unwritten Aboriginal ‘Bible’.
Several things make Alice Springs a very interesting place to visit. At first glance, it is a small town in the middle of the vast red desert that Central Australia is. It is known that its main industry is tourism but that’s not the whole truth. Its main industry is the Aboriginal Industry.
What is called ‘Aboriginal industry’ consists of all supporting services that the Central Australian Aboriginal population receives from the government. Before I arrived, Australians from the East Coast were all telling me “When you go to Alice, you will see Aboriginals.” They were right. There is no other place in Australia where you can see such a big presence of the ‘traditional owners of the land’, as they are officially recognized.
In Alice Springs you will find many Aboriginal art galleries but also there are Aboriginal people sitting in Todd Mall every day, selling their paintings. In the museum shops and in art galleries in nearby towns you will find more items designed around the stories of the Dreamtime.
Aboriginal Rock Art Sites You Can Visit from Alice Springs
The Aboriginal people that live in and around Alice Springs are from the Arrernte nation. They are one of the hundreds of Aboriginal nations that live nowadays in Australia.
Yeperenye (Emily and Jessie Gaps)
These are the two closest to the town sites where you can see Aboriginal rock art. They are located just several kilometres on Ross Highway, in the direction of East McDonell Ranges. Both are part of the Caterpillar Trail. “Dreaming Trails’ are places associated with the same Dreamtime story in the Aboriginal culture. At Emily Gap, you can see a large caterpillar painting and the gap is a registered sacred site for the local Eastern Arrernte Aboriginal people.
These are not as interesting as other of the sites listed below but if you are passing by, it is worth visiting them.
One of the surprises of Central Australia. The place is not spectacular at the first sight but once you start walking the path, it reveals its treasures. It is situated approximately 90 km east of Alice Springs, and not far from Ross River Homestead.
Do an effort and go see this site. It represents one of the oldest Aboriginal art forms that are not impressive with sophistication but are covering a huge area. The site contains almost 6000 rock engravings, called petroglyphs. There are of two styles – finely pecked and pounded – they are believed to represent two time periods. The oldest is believed to be 10 000 years old.
Just walk around and look for the small forms covering almost all the rocks around you. Follow the marked track, the walk takes approximately 1 h. Read the signs along the path. They explain some of the petroglyphs but also some of the rare vegetation of the region. The magnificent hues of Central Australian nature will make this walk very special and memorable.
You need a 4WD to reach the gorge. The road from Alice Springs to Ross River Resort is sealed. The turn-off to the gorge is 500 m before the resort and from there you have 11 km of offroad track that crosses the Ross River several times and when there are heavy rains it is impossible to pass. Check the weather and road conditions in advance (consider the latter as general advice for the whole of Central Australia).
It is possible to camp at the entrance of the park, but there is no water there and you need to pay a camping fee (at the site).
Napwerte/Ewaninga Rock Carvings Conservation Reserve
This site is in close vicinity of Alice Springs (35 km). Here you will find one of the largest concentrations and a great variety of ancient Aboriginal petroglyphs. This is a sacred man’s site and Aboriginal women from the local Arrernte tribe are not allowed to be here. Don’t worry, this doesn’t apply to non-Aboriginal people. A marked walking track will bring you through the sandstones where you can see some of the most interesting rock engravings of this Aboriginal site.
Good to know
The best time to visit is early morning or late afternoon because the engravings look more spectacular under the light at these times of the day.
Plan your trip wisely, because camping is not allowed in this Reserve and you need to find another place or go back to Alice Springs for the night.
The Ochre Pits
The pits are located 110 km from Alice Springs. This is a very important place for the Aboriginal Arrernte people and a registered sacred site. From here, they take the ochre that plays an integral part in the Aboriginal ceremonies. To this day, ochre is still used for barter and traded across the country among the Aboriginal nations in Australia.
The ochre found here is known to be one of the best on the continent as it has a glimmering, silken texture. The several layers of different colours of rock provide a rainbow-like experience to the one walking around.
This is a sacred site and every interference with it is punishable. And yes, you are not allowed even to touch it!
This is a women-only Aboriginal cultural site, which means Aboriginal men cannot visit it. However, nothing stops you from taking the short walk among Cycads, White Cypress Pines, River Red Gums, Mistletoes, Tee Trees, and (my favourite) Ghost Gums. The beautiful path ends up at the chasm, created by floods for millions of years.
The site is located only 50 km from Alice Springs and the best time to see the chasm at its best is one hour before or after noon. I visited it at sunset and although the red-orange glory of the rocks was not as sheer as at noon, it was still impressive.
Entrance fees and more
Check Central Australia’s tourist website for practical information about visiting Standley Chasm and the fees that apply.
Aboriginal Art Galleries in Alice Springs
Yubu Napa at 65 Hartley Street is an art gallery and gift shop.
Mbantua Gallery at 64 Todd Mall is an art gallery representing mostly women artists from the lands northeast of Alice Springs. One of the most renowned art galleries in town.
Tangentyere Artists is an Aboriginal-owned and not-for-profit art centre. There will find artwork of Aboriginal people living in Alice Springs. The address is 16 Fogarty Street.
Talapi Art Gallery showcases artworks from remote Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. You will find it at 45 Todd Mall.
More about Indigenous art in Central Australia, you can learn if you download the free app Red Centre Art Trails , part of which is the Alice Springs Art Trail.
We can learn so much about who we are as Humans and about our Planet from the older cultures that still exist in the world. And as theirs is the oldest of all, experiencing the Aboriginal culture in Alice Springs and Central Australia is a journey you will never forget.