Surrounded by desert plain as far as the eye can see and flanked by the MacDonnell Ranges to the east and the west, Australia’s most famous Outback town is right smack bang in the middle of, well, pretty much nowhere.
Distances in Central Australia are huge, you have to drive for hours to get to the next town and most visitors to Alice use it as an access point for Uluru even though the big rock is a further 462km down the road.
Alice Springs is a quirky place, no doubt about it. Eccentric yet laidback, the Royal Flying Doctors base and School of the Air are reminders of how remote the town is despite its shopping malls and fast food outlets.
The town is full of character (for starters it has the only Swiss-Indian restaurant in the world) and, more interestingly, characters who more often than not are keen to share their colourful life stories with you.
Despite the harsh landscape, this is cattle country. And cattle stations need cowboys.
Come Friday night these cowboys head into Alice Springs for a night out, wearing full cowboy get-up: hat, boots and checked shirt.
But for some odd reason these cowboys aren’t overly impressed when you politely ask them if they’re off to a fancy dress party.
Seeing as I was standing in a Western-themed bar at the time, I don’t think I was that out of line. But my young cowboy friends were not amused.
So to lighten the somewhat strained mood I asked them what they thought of Brokeback Mountain.
Let’s just say that despite the male to female ratio being very much in my favour, a welcome novelty after Sydney, I was not a popular girl.
The next day I headed out to a cattle station to spend a couple of hours whizzing around on a quadbike, with over 3000sq km of seemingly unending desert plain and tracks zigzagging through the sand just waiting for me.
When I’d told my friends that I was going quadbiking, they almost wet themselves.
Allegedly, balance is not my strong point and neither is listening to directions. Ha, I’ll show them.
After a safety briefing by our guide (falling off the bike is not encouraged, avoid collisions with wire fences, that kind of thing) and a demonstration (accelerator and brake on the same handlebar, easy, wait what was that last thing he just said? Er, I’m sure it’s not that important), we did a few practice loops to get a feel for the bikes.
I pushed down on the accelerator, and I was off.
Red dust flying out behind me. I was pushing the accelerator as far as it would go and I was seriously considering a change of career – quadbiking was clearly my calling in life, no one had ever flown across the desert with such skill and speed before… and then I was overtaken. By a 60-year-old man. Oh well, helmet hair isn’t a good look for me anyway.
As I came to a stop I realised that the raised resting spot where my right foot had made itself comfy was in fact the foot brake. Damn, I knew I should have paid more attention.
So the strained noise my bike had been making was not from the insane speed I was hurtling through the desert at, but the fact that I was accelerating and braking simultaneously.
With my cheeks burning, we set off into the desert with our guide leading the way through a mix of well worn tracks, deep sand, sharp turns and even a couple of slopes.
This may be desert, but it’s semi-arid desert which means a surprising amount of bright green shrubs and trees dotting the landscape.
Two hours of quadbiking later, my face was still red, but by now it was just from all the red dust and I decided not to change my career after all. I was happy to be a roving travel writer and general annoyer of cowboys.
The damage: Quadbiking with Outback Quad Adventures from $115; beds at Toddy’s Backpackers from $18.
Our editor is so full of the hot stuff we sent him up in an Alice Springs hot air balloon (and hoped he’d never come back…)
The mood changes suddenly. Frans, our Dutch pilot and owner of the world’s bushiest moustache, has just made two announcements.
Firstly, “every hot air balloon landing is officially classified as an emergency landing”, followed closely by, “assume your landing positions”.
The cloud of bliss shared by 12 new balloonists evaporates, replaced by hushed anxiety. I had wanted to go ballooning in the Outback ever since the Observer Sport Monthly made it one of their “50 sporting things you must do before you die”. It was either that, or streak. Plus Richard Branson makes it look easy.
Frans said ballooning is like politics. “It takes hard work to get high up, but once there, you can stay there on hot air alone.” (Like editing TNT as well then.)
We climb fast. Up above the trees… up, up… up into the empty expanse. It’s a completely new sensation; the tranquillity of floating, a sense of weightlessness – it’s surprisingly unscary.
The views are magical. We see the Ghan railway, Pine Gap (a US surveillance base) and Alice – all insignificant next to the MacDonnell Ranges and the glorious Outback. The sky, growing more orange by the second, explodes into rampant fire as the sun leaps up over the horizon.
For a split second, everyone is wrapped in an awed, spellbound silence…
A kangaroo hops leisurely through the bush, stopping when it spots us, gawping in bemusement. We must be the roo equivalent of a UFO. His mates’ll think he’s loopy if he tells them.
We’ve been ballooning for 30 truly wonderful minutes when Frans makes his announcements. We squat and hold on tight. Frans can control height, but not direction… The ground is coming closer… The closer we get, the faster we seem to be going… Teeth clenched… Buttocks likewise… We scuff the floor, take a couple of roo-like hops, and settle.
For the second time in my life I know what it feels like to be Richard Branson (the other being when I grew a really bad beard). DH
The damage: Outback Ballooning from $240.
The details: Freephone: 1800 809 790; or visit www.outbackballooning.com.au