Think of Australia and you’ll inevitably think of beaches, sunshine, and Kylie Minogue’s derriere. But nothing is more synonymous with the land Down Under than Uluru: Australia’s geographic and cultural heart. Even though it’s in the middle of nowhere and notoriously difficult to get to, this tiny pebble – geographically speaking – attracts tourists by the plane load, so I headed to Alice Springs to see what else the Red Centre has to offer.

In case you hadn’t realised, Australia is big. Alice Springs is 450km away from Uluru but is still its closest major settlement. I had always assumed Alice to be the sort of place that’s fun to leave, but it’s a surprisingly pleasant town in a striking location and well worth a few days of history and histrionics. The Flying Doctors and McLeod’s Daughters all started life here and are worth a certain level of probing – but most exciting of all is that in Alice you can hire a car with more guts than a back alley stir-fry and tear along roads without the risk of being fined.

Stunning Secret
I got to the agency late, however, and ended up hiring a car with a hairdryer engine and rolled past the West MacDonnell Ranges on a highway carpeted with roadkill, stopping sporadically to enjoy the attractions of a range that once stood taller than the Himalayas. Australians have a frustrating habit of keeping the best bits of the country to themselves, so I’d never realised how beautiful the desert around Alice Springs actually is, especially at sunrise when the earth glows red.

Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge are all beautiful spots, but let’s be honest, everyone goes to Alice to see the Rock, so I headed back to town and booked a two-day tour. 

Size Matters
We left before sunrise and headed south through acres of spinifex and emu farms to Erldunda where road trains sat cloaked in red dust like something from Mad Max.

Driving in the Northern Territory is not for the faint- hearted as out here size really matters – some of the road trains are up to 50 metres long, they rule the highways and will happily pebbledash smaller vehicles with dust and stones before casually tossing them into the bush.

With a reheated pie sitting heavy in my belly, I slept across the aisle of the bus and woke to find us lost in a vicious red dust storm as we pulled into Watarrka National Park, home to the Northern Territory’s most underrated attraction: the Kings Canyon. 

Red Rim
Most people bypass the canyon in their haste to reach Uluru, but at midday when the mercury tops 41°C and the canyon walls burn bright red, it has to be seen to be believed.

The 6km rim walk through the beehive-shaped domes of the Lost City and the incongruously lush Garden of Eden is like something from The Lost World. Prehistoric ferns and cycads grow stubbornly from cracks in the rock and bright orange skinks race to find shade. The area was once under the ocean and is etched with ripples and fossils, but the highlight is a stunning 180m high viewpoint where I re-adjusted my underwear after peering over the edge, then spent a good hour losing friends as I pretended to push people off.

Rock Star
By mid afternoon, clouds had rolled in and our guide was salivating at the prospect of seeing waterfalls on Uluru. To me this would be like bumping into a movie star in Woolies and finding them without make up or a push-up bra, so initially I couldn’t share their enthusiasm. But asthe sun dipped behind the desert and purple lightning cracked over the rock’s silhouette, I realised that if a guide was excited then I would be too.

We camped at Yulara, 20km from Uluru, and woke to a sky as clear and star-filled as Hugh Heffner’s swimming pool. There was an eerie hush around the campsite, more because of the4am start than any spiritual reason, but after a breakfast of caffeine and adrenalin, I had my head out of the bus window, tongue and ears flapping in the wind, for the short ride to Uluru.

Culture Trail
Since coming to Australia I had spent New Year in Sydney Harbour, driven the Great Ocean Road in Victoria and dived on the Barrier Reef, but nothing comes 
close to sunrise on Uluru. It is just so quintessentially Australian, so beautiful and 
so incredibly unique, and the fact that Uluru is sacred to the local Anangu people means that you are not just visiting the world’s largest monolith, but a living cultural experience.

My first sight of the rock came as the sky lightened behind it, creating a mighty silhouette. It was hardly a unique experience as I shared it with hundreds of others who picnicked in thecrisp air or watched with cameras poised on campervan roofs. But Uluru’s colour changes are legendary, so I watched in awe as the sun burned through the desert haze and ripened therock from black to brown, to pink then red in a few short seconds.

Seeing Red
I avoided the rock climb and instead braved the flies and wild dogs on the 9.4km base walk. It’s a misconception that Uluru rises from an empty red desert as the land is carpeted with ghost gums and wild flowers and everything is vibrantly colourful. The sky is impossibly blue,the vegetation is lush, and the earth burns redder than a Barmy Army beer-gut. The rock itself is pitted with caves and scars and weathering has left it looking like a huge red skate park, butthe Aboriginal culture is very much alive in the rock paintings and caves and it’s simply amazing to think that more than two-thirds of the rock is still underground.

All On Ceremony
Just 30km from Uluru, Kata Tjuta (meaning ‘many heads’ in the local Pitjantjatjara language) is an impressive gathering of 36 red domes that, although taller and in many ways more impressive than Uluru, receives far less attention. Climbing the domes is strictly forbidden so instead I walked amongst a rock formation nearly two billion years old and was blown away bythe colours and culture.

Rites are still performed here, meaning that Kata Tjuta is one of the planet’s oldest ceremonial sites in constant use, but our time was short so I retreated to the air conditioned comfort of thebus and headed back to Alice Springs, stopping briefly at Mt Connor, which in any other country would be a must-see on any ‘to-do’ list.

Back in Alice, I washed the desert from my hair and shared a pitcher with one of my tour buddies.
“So what did you think,” I asked between gulps.
“Not bad,” came the reply. “But it’s still no pop star’s backside.”