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Red Centre Local's Tips: The Alice Springs Desert Park

Deserts - with their big skies, breathtaking colours, flora and fauna unlike anything you ordinarily see - are one of the earth’s most breathtaking environments. The problem is getting up close and personal with that astonishing yet forbidding world.

Which is why any journey to the Red Centre should begin with a visit to the Alice Springs Desert Park, a carefully constructed and curated “sampler” of the magical realm beyond that is conveniently located just seven kilometres from the centre of Alice Springs.

Visitors to the sanctuary will be able to walk on the famed red desert sands, take in the exact vegetation you’d see in a desert environment (all introduced species have been removed), enjoy a spectacular show put on by the animal trainers and the legendary free-flying birds of Central Australia and learn a thing or two about what you’re looking at as you travel through the desert terrain.

“The Desert Park is the perfect way to begin your Red Centre adventure, whether you’re driving out to Uluru, Kings Canyon or sticking close to Alice Springs,” says zookeeper and animal trainer James Ross.

“If you’re venturing into the desert you’ll get a great preview of what lays ahead. And after experiencing our educational talks you’ll know a thing or two about what you’re going to be seeing,” says the Alice Springs-born ten-year Desert Park veteran.

“If you are staying close to town, the Alice Springs Desert Park gives you a vivid picture of what’s out there. We work hard to keep the environment as authentic as possible and our indigenous guides give the perspective of people who’ve lived on the land for 60,000 years.”

The Desert Park’s eagles rock

One of the biggest attractions at the Desert Park is the bird-life. There are eight aviaries spread out over the park’s 128 acres, three of which visitors can walk through. This means you’ll be experiencing Australia’s amazing birds in ways you wouldn’t in a regular zoo.

“Central Australia has a vast array of birdlife. It’s a magnet for ‘birdos’ and ‘twitchers’ [slang for bird lovers]. As Australia was settled so late it means that the animal population hasn’t gone into decline as it has in other places, like Europe,” explains James.

At ten o’clock and 3.30pm each day several of the birds take part in a show in the Nature Theatre, with trainer and animal striking a harmony that never fails to thrill park visitors of all ages.

“Audiences love the wedge tail eagle. They’re just so magisterial. But what really excites audiences is the barn owl. For some reason everyone loves owls. I’m not sure if it’s Harry Potter or its wise look but our barn owl never fails to astonish. She’s the one that gets the big ‘wow!’.”

A unique insight into the desert

Central to the Desert Park experience is the encounter with Aboriginal culture, which is deeply connected to the land — so much so that indigenous Australians say they don’t own the land, the land owns them.

“It’s the oldest living culture in the world, so it is incredibly complex. Our First Nations staff members introduce their culture to visitors. Every day there is a survival talk in which visitors get to learn about hunting and gathering from either the male or the female perspective. You see and hold and, in some cases, eat bush tucker,” says James.

“And when our indigenous staff members talk about the plants or the wildlife they’re able to provide insights our non-indigenous staff can’t. For example, they can tell audiences where the dingo fits in the Dreamtime stories or into everyday life.”

The cultural talks are arguably the most popular part of the Desert Park experience. “It’s one of the main reasons why people come to Central Australia. Visitors get a wonderful introduction to the place of the natural world in Aboriginal culture before heading to Uluru. It provides the context that enhances and enriches the visit to Central Australia.”

An oasis for wildlife

The park attracts a lot of animals (especially bird life) because it is a sanctuary. “At the moment we have a scarlet-chested parrot hanging around because it’s been so dry. Our water means we always have a huge bird population beyond those in our aviaries.”

The park’s conservation program is also playing a vital role in protecting endangered species, such as rufous hare-wallabies (or mala in the dialect of the local Arrernte people).

“The problem for the survival of the mala are predators, such as feral cats. When the cats started to spread from the cities to the country they decimated the mala population. We have created a predator-proof enclosure and we now have over 500 rufous hare-wallabies. It’s been a huge success.”

Surprises even for locals

The Desert Park, according to James, offers different but equally intriguing experiences for visitors from Australia and around the world. “For many international tourists what they see in the Desert Park is really new. You can see it in their faces when they are confronted with a kangaroo or an emu or a thorny devil for the first time. Their faces just light up,” he says.

“For Australians who are familiar with our iconic creatures there are many aspects of the outback that they haven’t encountered before. Most Australians know what a bilby is (they are a member of the bandicoot family but look like a bunny) but very few have actually seen one. We have them here at the Alice Springs Desert Park.”

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