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There is plenty to dive into in the land around the Alice; you just need to know where to look
Words and Images by: Jimmy Cocking, ARID LANDS ENVIRONMENT CENTRE (ALEC)

West MacDonnell Ranges after rain Photo: David Morris

The arid lands of Central Australia capture the imagination and remind us of the sparseness of this continent we call home. Alice Springs, the capital of desert Australia is home to around 28,000 people and a cultural hub with a strong arts community with a full calendar of festivals, art exhibitions and other events. The surrounding landscape includes the majestic West and East MacDonnell ranges with meandering networks of river systems that are dry for most of the time but identified by the river red gums that tap the water underground. The heart of the country appears rugged but it is vulnerable to the impacts of humans and introduced species. The key to having a good time is to be aware and be prepared. If you’re ready for it, the outback will open your mind to the possibilities of peace and tranquility by connecting you to the cultural and natural landscape of desert Australia. The red centre and the deserts that surround it are still occupied by the original people. The songs and stories that connect the people to the landscape are still being sung and told in the languages that have been spoken for thousands of years. The dreaming is still very much alive in the arid heart of Australia but development pressures, introduced species and urban drift threaten the connectedness of the landscape and its people.

Ormiston gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges Photo: David Morris


The Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) is Central Australia’s own environmental organisation ( Founded in the late 1970s, and incorporated in 1980, ALEC has been standing up for the rights of the plants, animals and people of the arid lands from its base in Alice Springs since then. ALEC’s vision of ‘healthy futures for arid lands and people’ sees the organisation working on a number of fronts. ALEC is a frontline organisation opposing polluting industries including uranium mining and radioactive waste, shale gas exploration using fracking and other projects that will increase environmental risks and reduce our capacity  to adapt to climate change. Despite ALEC being a strong advocate for the region, it has also established a range of local sustainability and conservation initiatives that is empowering and enabling the community to take action.


The Alice Springs Community Garden ( is located in Frances Smith Park in Eastside. The community garden is a project of ALEC that is managed by a volunteer committee. The last five years have seen the area develop from a bare and neglected section of the park, to a thriving and productive community space. Now more than 35 families and households have plots in the garden with more becoming available in 2015. The community garden is a place for gardening, learning, meditating, meeting, socialising and having fun. The community garden is open to the public on the fi rst and third Sunday of every month for a working bee. All are welcome to attend and get their hands dirty but please wear covered shoes.


The Territory Landcare Award-winning program, Biodiversity Matters is a collaborative project established by ALEC. A wide range of conservation groups are involved including Land for Wildlife Central Australia, Parks and Wildlife Commission, Alice Springs Desert Park, Olive Pink Botanic Gardens and the Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club. The volunteer program engages participants in hands-on conservation projects that connect people to the amazing biodiversity of Central Australia. Field trips to Palm Valley in Finke Gorge National Park; walks and talks with ecologists, botanists and naturalists; getting behind the scenes at the Alice Springs Desert Park; working to support data collection with scientists on threatened species; spraying weeds, making fire breaks and other supportive land  management tasks – it’s a diverse and fun program. The 2015 program should be running at least monthly from mid-May to late September. Check in at or like Biodiversity Matters on Facebook to keep up with the latest. Email for details.

 Biodiversity Matters volunteers at Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Newhaven Sanctuary after counting threatened great desert skink burrows


The desert SMART EcoFair ( will be celebrating its seventh year at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens from August 7-9, 2015. Part sustainable living festival, part science fair – EcoFair is the Northern Territory’s largest National Science Week event. This international year of soil and light will see ants, solar energy and plant life being a focus of the event. Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis is an ambassador for the EcoFair and he will be returning to Alice Springs for the duration of the event.

Biodiversity Matters volunteers learning how to measure the height of threatened red cabbage palms at Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

On Friday August 7, the EcoScience Schools Day will see around 200 local and remote students participate in hands-on science and sustainability workshops. This will be followed by the local ABC 783 Alice Springs broadcasting from the gardens from 4-6pm with up to 400 people expected to attend the Alice Springs Bicycle Film Festival – that’s right, a short film festival pedalling local, interstate and international films about bikes – an iconic event.

On Saturday August 8, after the Old Timers Market, the Alice Springs Community Garden will be hosting Costa’s Science of Soil Workshop, while Olive Pink will be hosting guided tours for the afternoon.

On Sunday, from 9am – workshops, forums, special guests and eco-market stalls and delicious local food will be on show. The EcoFair’s motto is ‘participate, learn and create’ and there are ample opportunities for all to do so.

The EcoFair showcases the science, innovation and community spirit that Central Australia is built on – it’s definitely worth the trip. Potential volunteers and other interested people are encouraged to visit the website to apply.

Biodiversity Matters field trips are held annually at the beautiful Palm Valley within the Finke Gorge National Park


The Sustainable Science Trail is an initiative ALEC developed through the Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia program. The Trail includes a number of sites around Alice Springs that showcase sustainability and scientific achievement. The Trail includes the Alice Springs Desert Park, Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, the Alice Springs Community Garden, Desert Knowledge Solar Centre and Adelaide House in the Todd Mall. An application for iPhone, iPad and Android devices will be available for download from App stores in April. The App allows visitors to test their knowledge, record data and participate in  citizen science projects. This innovative tourism trail is looking for people to test it out.Go to:  Email for details

Alice Springs Community Garden volunteers moving mulch to a new garden bed


The desert is a place of rugged beauty. The ranges, the dunefields, dry river systems and stunning gorges and waterholes define this region. However, the ecosystems of Central Australia are under attack from buffel grass Cenchrus ciliaris. Buffel grass was introduced as a pasture grass and soil stabiliser in the 1960s. It has since hybridised (genes crossed) and spread across the landscape. Rivers, hills, ranges, floodplains and sacred sites are now covered by this grass that not only out competes everything in the growth stakes, but also burns hotter and higher than native grasses leading to a rapid transformation of shrub and mulga woodlands into monocultures of buffel grass.

Every time rain falls in the centre, it turns bright green. Tourists and newcomers to Alice Springs remark on the greenness of the region. However, it is not something to be celebrated as the biomass quickly dries and becomes a potential fire threat. ALEC has been working with the Alice Springs Landcare group and others to raise awareness of the buffelthreat (See Fifty Shades of Green A buffel-busting group is starting to form with volunteers meeting weekly to protect the old trees and sacred red river gums in the Todd River from the buffel fire threat. If you’re interested in joining in, contact ALEC at 08 8952 2497 for details.

Crowds gathered at the Learning Space as part of the desertSMART EcoFair

Shale gas fracking is becoming a big issue in Central Australia. The controversial method involves pumping tens of millions of litres of water mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure to crack the shale rock layer and extract shale gas from kilometres below the surface is becoming a big issue  in the Northern Territory. Pastoralists, Indigenous Traditional Owners and conservationists are concerned by the Northern Territory government’s ‘open for business’ approach to the industry. Ninety percent of the Northern Territory’s landmass is dependent on groundwater. Almost 90 percent of the NT is under petroleum exploration licence application with 35 percent of the NT being drilled and seismically tested for oil and gas. ALEC is a strong voice for the protection of the groundwater and long-term impacts of fracking. For more information:

EcoScience Schools Day students testing water as part of the desertSMART EcoFair

ALEC is also working on a regional scale through coordinating the Ten Deserts Initiative ( to support collaborative land management across the arid lands of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. This exciting project is less than a year old but it is hoped that through bringing together a wide range of people living remotely from urban centres, we can create opportunities for building support and raising awareness of the challenges faced out here.


If you’re travelling to the heart of Australia it’s important to know a few things:

  • Don’t use soaps, sunscreens or insect repellent if you’re swimming in waterholes – they are closed ecosystems and these chemicals can build up in them;
  • Use wood conservatively through having small fires;
  • Be weed aware and look for buffel grass and other seeds in mud guards, radiator grilles and clothing;
  • Be understanding of the recent history impacting on Indigenous people and be polite to people;
  • When camping, don’t leave food out, even in plastic bags. Crows and dingoes can very easily tear a rubbish bag apart;
  • Stay on tracks and be aware of your own physical limitations – your pain and suffering on traditional lands causes pain and suffering to the traditional owners and custodians;
  • Be aware of sacred and cultural sites, if in doubt, be respectful, don’t take artifacts;
  • Be prepared, it is a long-way between stops – ensure you have adequate fuel, water, food, spare tyres and first aid;
  • Enjoy it, take it easy and if staying around for a while, get involved in the place. There are countless stories of people who came for a week and stayed for years; you never know until you try it.

The Arid Lands Environment Centre ( is Central Australia’s own environmental organisation. Our vision is ‘healthy futures for arid lands and people’. Recent cuts to funding and projects have significantly reduced our capacity to do our job. We are increasingly reliant on our Desert Defenders for regular donations and volunteers to fill the capacity gaps. Please check the ALEC website for updates, like us on Facebook and get involved in building a resilient and sustainable future in Central Australia.

If you can help out in any way, please contact

Alice Springs Community Garden plot-holders getting into it



Tags: Alice Springs NT Northern Territory Olve Pink Botanic Gardens Desert Park
Category: Features
Written: Fri 01 May 2015
Printed: May, 2015
Published By:

Article Information

Costa Georgiadis and local gardening identity Geoff Miers at the Alice Springs Community Garden


While you’re here, and interested in learning about arid ecology, sustainable living and desert culture check out:

• Alice Springs Desert Park

• Olive Pink Botanic Gardens

• Uterne Solar Farm

• Desert Knowledge Solar Centre

• Earth Sanctuary

Biodiversity Matters volunteer measuring the height of the palms at Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park