Visit Alice Springs. Be surprised by the modern shops and streets… Be charmed by the larrikin humour… Be enlightened by Aboriginal culture… Be enchanted by majestic Uluru…
I don't know about you, but when I pictured Alice Springs in my mind's eye, I saw dusty desert streets, corrugated iron shacks, and saloons full of Crocodile Dundee types throwing their hunting knives at the dart board. This is of course an outdated and totally inaccurate perception of this town in Australia's Northern Territory. Let me tell you about the real Alice Springs, and why it should be on anyone’s places to visit list.
Despite the obvious wilderness setting, any brooding sense of isolation evaporates once you're stood in the middle of town. The wide, pristinely tarmacked streets have suburban saloons passing along them – commuters, school runs, it's all very conventional. The houses are modern and well kept and the streets feature cafés, supermarkets and even a large indoor shopping centre.
The desert life – it does things to you!
The people of Alice Springs take enormous pride in their bushland image, and you are not viewed as a local here until you have seen the Todd River flow twice, which can take decades. It is home to a Camel racing cup, and the only boat race in the world that gets cancelled when the river is actually flowing. The Henley-on-Todd Regatta deliberately makes a mockery of the gloomy formality of British boat races and involves 'rowers' running along the parched bed of the Todd river holding up bottomless 'boats' around them as they go.
Things like this make you wonder if the real Australia has been hiding here all along. Forget Sydney's Opera House and Bondi Beach, never mind Melbourne's classy restaurants and glamorous bars, this is where it's at – in the outback, poking fun at the British, brilliant!
The Aboriginal People
The appalling historical treatment of the indigenous peoples has forever been modern Australia's dark shadow and you don't have to spend long here to see that memories of the past run deep.
Everywhere you go in Australia the people will want to give you their take on the turbulent racial undertones that are still plainly gnawing away at the very fabric of the country even now. Of course, it is always best to see such issues for yourself and learn about them from the people who deal with them on a daily basis.
Nowhere is the relationship between Aboriginals and white Australians more conspicuous than here in Alice Springs. The reality for the most part is uncomfortably tense, though green shoots of co-operation and neighbourly kinship are happily starting to show. All over town, Aboriginal stalls welcome tourists and sell the most beautiful artworks of outback scenes and wildlife. It's always good to buy from the artists themselves rather than a tourist-trap middleman back in one of the major cities.
Whilst here, tourists are likely to only meet urban Aborigional people, yet the majority of the Northern Territory's estimated 65,000 Aborigines are still living their traditional hunter-gatherer lives in peace within federally protected reserves.
In all, the overwhelming feeling is one of optimism. Let's not forget that Aboriginal peoples have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years now, only 200 of which have been spent alongside the 'new' settlers. So it's early days yet, and there's still plenty of time for the old wounds to heal and new bonds to be formed.
This golden nugget of a place is on the outskirts of town. Annie's Place – the hostel we stayed at, organise nightly trips out here at dusk to see something that will plaster a smile all over anyone’s face – the Wallabies!
These perky little chaps hop down from the high rocks of the MacDonnell ranges every evening to the delight of awaiting tourists (and locals). There is even a shop on site that sells food for you to give them. They are totally wild, yet will eat right out of the palm of your hand and they don't mind you stroking them either!
The Journey here
However you get to Alice Springs, your journey will be just as memorable as your stay.
We arrived by train from Adelaide, and not just any train either, The Ghan. This iconic diesel-electric juggernaut is named in honour of the Afghan cameleers who first blazed a trail into Australia's red centre well over a century ago.
The overnight journey of 24 hours whisks you in comfort through a stunning sea of red sandy wilderness, littered with the stumpy remnants of once mighty mountain ranges, weathered down over tens of millions of years to the dusty nubs of today. Marvel at the ancient Finke River – thought to be the oldest in the world, it has been carving its way through these parts for well over 400 million years.
Visitors are spoiled for choice for their obligatory visit to Uluru; luxury outings, budget camping excursions and trips lasting anything from one day to several nights.
We chose the Emu Run (72 Todd Street Tel: 08 8953 7057 $199AUD www.emurun.com.au) back-in-a-day trip. The coach picks you up from your accommodation at 6am sharp before the 280 mile (yep, it's really that far) drive to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
The driver (Mick) was a cheery soul, regaling the yawning punters with stories of the intriguing history of this legendary region, most notably the exploits of pioneering Scotsman John McDouall Stuart. This brilliant explorer led several hugely successful expeditions to survey the breadth of Australia's great red interior. Today's north to south coast Stuart highway is named in his honour.
The drive took us past Mount Connor, a huge stand-alone plateau which is often mistaken for Uluru – so much so that it is dubbed fool-uru by the jesting locals. Mick and his team provided us with breakfast and snacks of fruit on the drive, and before too long we had reached The Olgas (Kata Tjuta).
We were given time to walk right up to this breathtaking and eerily atmospheric monolith. Everyone was quiet as we approached it, feeling the unspoken presence of long-dead minds that have lived out their sacred lives here over the millennia.
After a quick visit to the informative visitors' centre we headed off to the main event – Uluru. Given a choice to either climb it, or take a guided tour around the base, we chose the tour. Although visitors are permitted to climb Uluru, the Aboriginal guardians of the park ask that you don't out of respect – and I'm all for being respectful.
The tour was a tidal wave of information and each section of the walk had a captivating story behind it. The Aborigines believe that Uluru was formed in the dream time, when the world was young and life began. They believe that it was made on a rainy day, by two boys playing in the mud. The boys made a hill of mud, and when it got high enough, they slid back down to the bottom, climbed to the top with more mud, slid back down again and so on. Of course the scientific explaination is somewhat different, but I know which one I prefer.
The walk wrapped up in time for that days jaw-dropping crescendo – the sunset. Mick fired up the barbecue as we grabbed a deckchair and a glass of bubbly each. Then we just sat, overlooking that stunning, iconic landmark as it turned orange and then rich shades of red as the sun set behind us, it couldn't have been better.
You begin to see just why the native people are so protective over this place. It's not just about its aesthetic beauty – it's deeper than that. There are tens of thousands of years of human influence rooted into this land, not in the form of roads or buildings, but in something you can't see with your eyes, you just feel it.
Where to eat
Overlanders Steakhouse 72 Hartley Street Tel 08 8952 2159
On the coast it's all about the sea-food. Here it's all about the outback food. Get down here to enjoy a good bit of bush-tucker, with Kangaroo, Emu and Crocodile meat dishes being the order of the day.
Where to stay
Annie's Place 4 Traeger Street
Operated by a cool guy called Mulga. Great motel style rooms, free train station pick-up, kitchen, free breakfast, on-site restaurant doing $5 AUD meals.
The Ghan accepts the Ausrail Flexi Pass, a great value ticket that gives free reign over Australia's inter-city rail network for 6 months for $890 AUD (www.railaustralia.com.au/flexipass.php).