On the edge of the outback, CALM CAN BE FOUND in the most ADVENTUROUS OF PLACES – think mountain bike trails, a balloon basket, a rather chilly creek and A TOWN CALLED ALICE.
‘SECOND BEST COFFEE IN ALICE’ reads a sign perched on the footpath near Todd St Mall, leading locals and blow-ins such as myself to a cafe crowded with film memorabilia and pint-sized figurines. “This place sure has a sense of humour,” my travel mate whispers. Alice Springs is a tiny town with a titanic personality. It’s a place loaded with contrasts. Hip, even hipster, cafes are dotted throughout its centre; while looming large over the township are the majestic MacDonnell Ranges – one of the most peaceful, awe-inspiring and gentle landscapes our country has to offer. After sitting in bustling cafe Page 27, a cosy spot for breakfast we discovered after wandering around town some more – we begin with a trip out to the site that, by proxy, gave the town its name. Four kilometres north of the CBD lies the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. Built in 1872, it served as the region’s first European settlement, later becoming an Aboriginal school called The Bungalow. Essentially, the town in its present form owes its bricks and mortar to Australia’s expanding telegraph network. As such, Alice Springs is named after Alice Todd, wife to the former South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs. We’ve got energy to burn after our big breakfast, so after browsing the old station’s collection of stone buildings – set in a pretty parcel of bush dotted with ghost gums – we hire mountain bikes from the kiosk. Local rangers cut a new series of winding bike trails through the backcountry here a few years ago and they remain in pristine condition. We spot a wallaby or five on our two-wheeled travels. With appetites now whet for more local fauna, we return to town via Alice Springs Desert Park. It’s teeming with dingoes, princess parrots and near-extinct Australian marsupials, such as the 30-centimetre-tall mala, a shaggy-haired, tiny kangaroo that nearly crushes me with its cuteness. To really drink in the beauty of the outback, however, you need to see it from up high. At 5am, we wait in the cool morning air for our shuttle bus to pick us up from our accommodation, and soon enough we’re rocketing 15-kilometres south of town on a dusty track to start our ride, which will take us over Owen Springs Reserve The balloon flight is surprisingly peaceful and meditative, allowing ample time to breathe in the vast, art canvas-style landscapes below. I’m surprised by the silence in the air. My ears fill with just the low-fi hum, a huge gas flame above-head. I keep my gaze peeled for passing clouds of fluorescent budgies and red kangaroos leaping through the mulga scrub and spinifex below. At last, we spot some; then we spot some more. I feel every muscle relax and my eyes open like a camera lens. I’ve forgotten my own camera but that turns out to be a gift. I find I’m fully present in the moment. Once we’ve returned to solid ground, our host and ballooning guide pops a bottle of Champagne. I’m perplexed; it’s only 7am. But he swiftly explains that the French, who invented ballooning, traditionally carried bottles of bubbly to gift to farmers should the balloons make a surprise landing in their paddocks. In that case, I approve. By mid-morning, we’re spinning out of town and soaking up the landscape from ground level. Here, 80 kilometres west of town, local swimming spot Ellery Creek Big Hole pools through a gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges. The scenery en route recalls the paintings of Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira. As the escarpments enfold us and the town disappears from view, we’re mesmerised by an expanse of ochre soil, soft green eucalypts and skies ribbed in royal blue. The water is surprising cool, but we dive in regardless. It hits me then that this, right here, is desert life to a tee: free, brazen and a tiny bit loco, too. I immerse myself in the water, taking respite from the midday heat. Then, with a splash, I plunge beneath the creek’s surface into the earthy, cool deep.
I KEEP MY GAZE PEELED FOR CLOUDS OF FLUORESCENT BUDGIES AND KANGAROOS LEAPING THROUGH THE MULGA SCRUB.
THIS PAGE FROM TOP: Take a trip just outside of town to the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station, built in 1872; A cool swimming spot to beat the midday heat in the West MacDonnell Ranges. OPPOSITE: Looking out over Alice Springs at sunset.