Alice Springs Desert Park

Story and Photography by On The Road

Alice Springs Desert Park offers all the mystic charm and fascinating wildlife of Australia’s unique desert.

Central Australia’s Outback is mystically alluring to many travellers. Part of the mystery for me is how this harsh, arid region – of ragged mountains, gum-lined rivers, and red deserts, with its unpredictable weather and rainfall patterns – can sustain any wildlife?

The desert alive 

Yet it does. In fact, it supports a startling array of plants and animals in rich and complex eco-systems.

So how does any traveller enhance their understanding of this truly unique environment? The answer is simpler than packing a library of natural history books and having the Bush Tucker Man and Sir David Attenborough along for the ride. Just take Sir David’s advice and visit the Alice Springs Desert Park.

As its name suggests, the park is near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. What makes it different from any other zoo, botanical garden, museum or cultural centre is that it is a combination of all four.

The Desert Park recognises that no individual component of climate, geology, flora or fauna exists singly to create the distinct environments of an arid region. And to extend this picture to its true dimensions, of what we see in Central Australia today, the impact of human intervention must also be added. All these factors have been brought together to create this world-class attraction.
Unique Australian flora

The park has recreated three habitats usually found in this arid region: Sand Country, Woodlands and Desert Rivers. Inside these habitats, the animals, reptiles, insects and plants native to these areas are integrated with their traditional uses and management by Australia’s desert people.

A good place to start a visit is the Exhibition Centre, not far from the entrance gate. This building houses galleries and interactive displays on Central Australian history, life cycles of animals and plants, Aboriginal culture and the effects of changing seasons on the landscapes – to name but a few.

Best of all is the centre’s theatre, where for 20 minutes visitors watch a beautifully crafted film showing the 4500-million-year evolution of our desert landscape. Even more dramatic, actually giving me a goosebump attack, is what happens after the film. The huge 17-metre-wide screen descends, slowly revealing the red-rock horizon of the stunning MacDonnell Ranges.

Near the exit of the Exhibition Centre kids will enjoy meeting the three mascots, each representing one of the habitats. Press a button and Spencer the burrowing frog (Desert Rivers), Chilpa the western quoll (Woodlands), and Alexis the spinifex hopping mouse (Sand Country) will either tell a story or sing a song.

Twice a day in the Nature Theatre, birds of prey are put through their paces by their handlers. Barn owls are the first to make an appearance, then black kites (cleverly catching morsels of food thrown up into the air), a dainty brown falcon and finally the king of the birds, the wedge-tailed eagle, glides majestically into view. It’s all open-mouth stuff.
Dinner time?

To continue on the circuit of walking tracks will bring you to the Woodlands Habitat. Each habitat has an interpretive shelter housing several displays, some electronic and/or mechanical and featuring animal characters, in this case, Chilpa.

Some of the animals and birds protected by the enclosures in this section are kangaroos, emus, scarlet-chested parrots, kingfishers and rainbow bee-eaters. Vegetation fringing paths and shading enclosures includes lemon grass, Australian bluebells and bloodwood trees.

In the Sand Country habitat, examples of some of the vegetation and birds include desert oaks, mulgas, wattles, ruby saltbush, spinifex, chats, quails and spinifex pigeons.

Desert Rivers features doves, finches, bush stone curlews, river red gums bush bananas and saltbushes. One aviary is of particular interest. Protruding from a solid wall, inside this huge, walk-through birdhouse, is part of a Toyota four-wheel drive with an occupant.

Press a button and “Leo” the stockman will recount his childhood memories of collecting bush tucker. This aviary with its shady pools is a wonderful spot to take a break. But if a squad of kids troop in, be warned: They’ll all want to hear what Leo has to say... over and over again.

In all, the park has more than 300 plant species and over 100 animal species, too many, you’ll agree, to list separately. Most plants near paths are labelled with their common and botanical names and sometimes bush medicine uses. To find some of the mammals and reptiles from these three areas look in the fabulous Nocturnal House.

Here day suddenly becomes night. Chances are most of the plants and animals encountered on your progress around the park you’ll have seen before. Let’s face it – kangaroos, emus and cockatoos are not exactly rare but how many of us have seen western quolls, numbats, ghost bats, bilbies or even thorny devils?

The Nocturnal House has them all. Along with the Exhibition Centre this was the highlight of our visit. To actually see bilbies (and yes, they are active, not just curled up asleep in their burrows), quolls, malas, kowaris and the vast array of lizards, including a Lake Eyre dragon, is a very special experience.

Not only is the lighting in the Nocturnal Hose designed to turn day into night but the duration of light emulates seasonal changes. In this way normal life cycles such as breeding, are disrupted as little as possible. Another plus is that photography is allowed. Keepers assured us the flash doesn’t disturb the animals at all.

Behind the scenes, important research, breeding and propagation programs are in progress. Success stories include breeding the extremely rare rock rat, as well as red-tailed phascogales, greater stick-nest rats, plains rats, malas, and bilbies.

The rock rat had not been sighted for 30 years until three were brought to the park in 1996.

Spinifex, an important part of desert ecology, has been difficult to reproduce and it now has a well-established propagation program. Anyone who has accidentally sat on these spiky chunks of needles must surely appreciate some of the pitfalls horticulturalists must have experienced.

Technology is an amazing tool that’s applied throughout the park, even with plant placement. GPS gear is used to map out the precise co-ordinates of all plants. All details including origins, position and history are then entered into a comprehensive database.

Special events such as talks by zookeepers and horticulturists, discussions on bush medicines and bush tucker, happen at regular intervals during the day.

One of the keepers told us a charming story of captive birds swapping their food through the wire of their aviaries with their unfettered counterparts.

The effects of our visit were far reaching. Immediately after we were able to recognise more plant species, names of lizards were instantly to hand and during desert travel, tracks left by night were investigated to discern what animal or reptile had been busy.

What was truly amazing was our football-crazy, 10-year-old son saying: “Look, there goes a scarlet-chested parrot,” and our seven-year-old son correcting a teacher’s description of a mulga snake.

Alice Springs Desert Park  clearly demonstrates how the elements, animal, botanical and human, link together in the endless ecological chain of this arid region.

But there is a lot more than just this simple study of habitat.

Take a walk in the park to find out for yourself.

Alice Springs Desert Park Facts

Location: 

On Larapinta Drive 6km west of Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: 

From April to September. The Park recommends at least three hours for a visit but I would advise longer, perhaps a full day.

Facilities: 

Restaurant/cafe supplying meals, snacks, cold drinks, coffee and tea at reasonable rates; gift shop featuring local art and craft; shelters throughout the park with seats and water fountains; education centre for specialist groups by arrangement; wheelchair access and hire.

Admission Fees: 

Adult $12; child (5-16 years) $6; family (2 adults/4 kids) $30; student/pensioner $6.


More Information: 

Alice Springs Desert Park, PO Box 1046, Alice Springs NT 0871. Phone (08) 8951 8788, fax (08) 8951 8720.