Alice Springs is increasingly out there when it comes to matters gay and lesbian. Despite being a mere dot on the Central Australian landscape, its modest population of 27,000 includes as much diversity as any cosmopolitan metropolis. Included are some 4,000 Aborigines, 1,500 Americans (mostly based at the nearby military base of Pine Gap) and reputedly more police than any other town in Australia.

Although the Alice is first and foremost a tourist town, it’s also possible to find an indigenous identity through the culture of the Arrernte -“ the original Aboriginal owners of the Alice Springs area. Their presence is most noticeably invested in the landscape around town. A visit to the local lookout known to Europeans as Anzac Hill is also a visit to Untyeye Artwilye -“ from which one of the most important places of creation Anthwerrke (or Emily Gap) can be seen.

As a Sydneysider, I flew in to Alice Springs with outdated images of a dusty and hot one-horse town crowding my mind. As I flew out a week later, I took with me some great memories of a bustling dynamic centre -“ with some of the best lesbian caf?on the western side of the Great Dividing Range.

There’s a fine range of things to see and do in Alice Springs and my advice would be to spend at least a few days there before heading to the tourist magnet of Uluru/Ayres Rock. Getting around the Alice is easy. Most attractions are within walking distance of the compact town centre and the flat locale also makes it a breeze for bike riders.

Most visitors start their exploration of the Alice with a stroll along Todd Mall. This pleasant pedestrian plaza features most of the tourist essentials -“ restaurants, souvenir shops and banks. The well-stocked Big Kangaroo Books (Reg Harris Lane, Todd Mall) offers you the chance to read up on the local area and Aboriginal culture.

Parallel to Todd Mall, a walk -“ or a romantic sunset camel ride -“ along the usually dry riverbed of the Todd River is recommended. Also, take time to experience the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens -“ far quieter than the much hyped Alice Springs Desert Park and also more centrally located. On Stuart Terrace is the Central Australian Headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The museum attached to this charming art deco building is well worth visiting.

My favourite spot in Alice was the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct. A short walk west of the town centre, it offers seven attractions for a single $7 entrance fee. Here you can find the Araluen Galleries with their collection of painters from the Hermannsburg School (including the Albert Namatjira wing) and early works from Papunya Tula. Other attractions include the recently built Museum of Central Australia, an aviation museum and a variety of reasonably priced craft galleries.

Four kilometres to the north of town lies the Old Telegraph Station. A collection of heritage buildings clustered around the original Alice Springs waterhole, it’s an atmospheric and slightly spooky place -“ especially around dusk when the tourists vanish and the kangaroos emerge from the surrounding bush.

Be warned -“ food is expensive in Alice Springs compared to other urban areas of Australia. Also beware the service received in restaurants staffed by Scottish and Irish backpackers on working holidays. However, there are no such problems in an Alice Springs institution: Bar Doppio in Fan Arcade (off Todd Mall). It’s on the expensive side for a hippie caf?but a good place to have lunch while watching the local wildlife go past. On the other side of the Mall (in Reg Harris Lane), Di-dees Caf?ffers hearty lunchtime fare with a friendly lesbian ambience (look for the rainbow flags outside).

For Australian outback cuisine, the up-market tourist choice is undoubtedly Red Ochre Grill. Here you can munch on our national emblem while watching the passing parade in Todd Mall (including half-hourly police patrols). For more relaxing colour and movement I’d recommend Sultans on the corner of Gregory Terrace and Hartley Streets. It boasts inexpensive Turkish cuisine plus a mother and daughter belly-dancing team on Friday and Saturday nights. What more could you ask for in the desert?

For a town that apparently consumes more alcohol than any other of its size in Australia, the selection of pubs and bars in the Alice is limited. For the local gay and lesbian community, the venue du jour is the Alice Springs Resort at 34 Stott Terrace. Alice’s swishest hotel has poolside drinks from around six to eight on Friday evening in the Gum Tree Lounge. While it’s a long way from throbbing tea-dance territory, it’s an oasis for queer folk in town.

For more real-life action, you could try the Todd Tavern (a.k.a. The Toddie). At the northern end of Todd Mall, it’s really rough, but with some real live Territorians on display. It features cover bands in the main bar on weekends and the photos of Miss Territory 1996 are a must-see.

Bojangles Saloon Bar on Gap Road is the backpackers’ favourite. It has nightly live music and a constant parade of cute, inebriated twenty-something backpackers. The party continues down the road at the bar of the Melanka Lodge Backpacker Resort after Bo’s closes.

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