The Chronicle




From 35,000 feet above, the Red Centre was as advertised: ochre-coloured earth punctuated with yellow spinifex, a dot painting come to life.

But once I hit the ground in Alice Springs, everything changed. For starters, there were muted shades of green everywhere: in the carpet of wildflower­s along the ground and sprouting from the branches of the trees.

And you couldn’t see the birds from the window seat. Driving into town, I saw hundreds-strong flocks of neon budgerigar­s, franticall­y wheeling and turning over the sand. This might sound stupid, but until that moment I had never considered that the natural habitat of a budgie might be anything other than a pet shop cage.

Chris “Brolga” Barns (aka Kangaroo Dundee) explained all while I followed him around Alice Springs Kangaroo Sanctuary.

“We got a lot of rain in the last couple of months, and desert plants and animals are opportunis­tic. It might only happen once a decade, but when it does there’s suddenly life everywhere,” he said. As if to illustrate his point, a flock of red-tailed black cockatoos chose the moment to fly overhead, screaming bloody murder.

At the time, Barns was dressed in khaki KingGees and an Akubra, and holding a sleepy joey named Baby in a pillowcase in the crook of his arm. His sanctuary rehabilita­tes and cares for injured and orphaned kangaroos, mostly the victims of road accidents. He says the desert bloom is great news for kangaroos, who in harsher times are driven to look for food close to roads, where the condensati­on in car exhaust provides enough water for grass to grow. That means Barns is enjoying a blessedly quiet patch.

The same cannot be said for Alice Springs itself. Despite the uncertaint­y of the Covid-19 situation, it seems that a large part of the Australian population has chosen 2021 as their year to tick “outback adventure” off their bucket list. It was difficult to even get a reservatio­n at Hanuman, the well-regarded South East Asian restaurant run by Darwin chef Jimmy Shu at Alice’s Double Tree by Hilton, and the place was heaving as I tucked into a perfect red curry with duck.

The meal was a pretty good example of Alice Springs’ appeal. Nobody will try to tell you that it is Australia’s best looking or most sophistica­ted town, but it’s big enough to have the creature comforts city slickers demand (like said curry, or the excellent coffee at Page 27 Cafe) and it isn’t too hard on the eye, with the MacDonnell Ranges lurking on the horizon.

On top of that, it’s a major centre for Indigenous culture, attracting people and artists from around the Arrernte-speaking region nearby, as well as remote communitie­s. There are several major galleries, each with its own focus. Check out Mbantua for original works from the Utopia area northeast of Alice Springs, and Yubu Napa to meet artists in a working studio setting.

But despite its good coffee, tourist attraction­s and culture, Alice’s real drawcard is still that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Whichever direction you drive, you get to a point where the buildings stop and the sand, mountains and scrub begin. And they don’t end for thousands of kilometres.

I opted for a drive into the Western Macs, as the locals call the Western MacDonnell Ranges, to explore Ormiston Gorge with Trek Larapinta, one of several guiding outfits that lead expedition­s into the mountains and along the 223km Larapinta Trail. I could have just easily tackled Kings Canyon, the Eastern Macs or taken the slightly longer trip to Uluru.

The impression of the flowering desert was even stronger on foot: the emerald leaves on the river red gums were almost unnaturall­y bright against the red hillsides, and the wild budgies followed us everywhere we hiked.

When I got back into town I headed to the Alice Springs Desert Park, a sort of zoo-cumbotanic gardens.

They had all the big hitters (emus, dingoes, wedge tailed eagles), but what tickled me was simply walking around in the sun, listening to a desert alive with birdsong. And the “Survival in the Desert” talk, focused on the traditiona­l culture of the Arrernte people, was worth the price of admission on its own.

But the last thing I did in Alice was easily the most memorable, and not only because I had to get up at 5.30am to do it. Outbacking Ballooning runs regular hot air balloon flights outside town several mornings a week. No experience is required, only a tolerance of heights and early mornings.

In fact, all I needed to do was climb into a basket somewhere in the desert, and before I knew it, I was sailing free over the mulga and buffel grass. There were about 15 of us, and we’d shared jokes and laughs on the bus, but as soon as the basket rose off the ground there was utter silence, broken only by the roar of the propane burner.

The golden light of the sunrise matched the flames from the burning gas as we floated serenely through the crisp morning air, entranced by everything we saw: a cloud of dust from a distant road train, the abstract patterns on the red earth, The Ghan leaving town far below.

Maybe it was the (supposedly traditiona­l) glass of sparking wine I consumed at 7.30am immediatel­y after stepping out of the balloon, but it seemed to me then that neither the view from ground level nor the view from cruising altitude really do the Red Centre justice. You’ve got to see it from about 50 metres up, tranquil and dark, the shadows slowly lengthenin­g as the sun rises over the West MacDonnell Ranges.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Australia

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 ?? Pictures: Alex McClintock ?? Ballooning is one of the attraction­s of Alice Springs as well as, below, exploring the great outdoors, fine dining and visiting art galleries.
Pictures: Alex McClintock Ballooning is one of the attraction­s of Alice Springs as well as, below, exploring the great outdoors, fine dining and visiting art galleries.

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