How to visit the Alice Desert Festival

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Alice Springs claims to be 'the biggest little town in Australia'. And it's true. Ask most locals and they'll tell you it's just a Northern Territory country town; but, given its outsized reputation and complex community dynamic, there's lots more than meets the eye. That too sums up the kaleidoscopic Alice Desert Festival (alicedesertfestival.com.au), attracting more than 50,000 people to experience its local and national music, dance and culture.

Why go?

Now in its 12th year, the Alice Desert Festival is already Central Australia's premier celebration of arts and culture, inspired by the desert and its rich cultural landscape. Not long ago, the Alice Desert Festival was an add-on experience for visitors. In transit between Darwin, Katherine and Kakadu National Park in the north and Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon to Alice Springs' southwest, lucky travellers were treated to a desert hoedown extravaganza.

But nowadays, many people come to Alice specifically for the festival. The intimate and inspiring setting is a far cry from concert venues in Australia's major city centres, and plenty of travellers go on to visit the classic Red Centre or Top End attractions too.

What to expect

The 2012 Alice Desert Festival program of events – many free, all priced to sell – boasts nearly 40 performances and over 60 events involving more than 1000 artists. Find the 2012 program in full here.

During the peak season, the two primary venues are the HUB, which takes over Anzac Oval (off Wills Terrace) just north of the small downtown area, and the Festival Club Big Top, located in Olive Pink Botanic Garden, on Tuncks Road just southeast of the centre.

The HUB, focal point of the peak period's opening weekend, is the main stage for the biggest events, including the Bush Bands Bash, one of the Australia's largest indigenous music events and an all-too-rare coming-together of people of all cultures for a good time; and two evenings of local and national artists, including some of star standing, like Bart Willoughby, a top Australian Aboriginal performer, Shane Howard, a highly acclaimed songwriter, and Catherine Satour, a leading indigenous artist.

The Festival Club offers an eclectic mix of major and up-and-coming artists across many genres, like comedy (the hilarious Frank Woodley headlines) and music styles from ambient soul and folk to cabaret and dance.

Throughout the festival, there's dancing in the streets and the Alice On The Menu spotlight on restaurants using local produce and native bush foods.

When to go

The festival is already underway (the official start was 10 August 2012), but the ten-day peak season doesn't begin until 7 September.

On peak-season opening weekend, the HUB hosts a free-of-charge Common Ground, as well as a kids' day, while the Desert Mob Exhibition, a survey of Australia’s premier Indigenous art, joins other installations around town.

Make it happen

For tickets, book online ahead of time, as many events are expected to sell out.

To get more involved, the festival eagerly welcomes volunteers, even travellers in town for just a few days.

Ethan Gelber is a writer/editor of long standing with a passion for responsible, sustainable and local travel. Follow along @thetravelword.