Tracks in the heart
The author Bill Bryson has wryly observed that Alice Springs manages to earn a lot of money by pretending it is close to Uluru, when it is actually a five- to six-hour drive on a sealed road.
The best time to see Uluru is at sunrise or sunset, when soft light paints the desert landscape in shades of red and purple. Exploring the walking tracks that wind around the base of the majestic domes of Kata Tjuta is also a must.
But it doesn't stop there. Other great day trips beckon from Alice Springs.
Alice Springs Desert Park
About 10 minutes from "the Alice" along Larapinta Drive, the desert park is a combination of zoo, botanic garden and museum wrapped in a superbly arid landscape.
More than 120 species of animals and 350 species of plants attract the likes of Sir David Attenborough, who filmed a documentary here in 2006.
Park highlights include free-flying bird demonstrations and visiting the nocturnal house to see the reptiles and small marsupials that roam through the desert after dark.
The Alice Springs Desert Park is open daily, 7.30am-6pm. Entry $30.5 adults, $15.3 children. alicespringsdesertpark.com.au.
The West Macs
To the west of Alice Springs rise the breathtakingly beautiful West MacDonnell Ranges (West Macs), where you'll find some of the country's best gorge scenery. From the Alice, head west on Larapinta Drive (also known as the Red Centre Way).
The landscape here is all about colour: rich, vibrant and primary red rocks and sand, blue sky, yellow spinifex and purple hills. About 23 kilometres from town is Simpsons Gap, a spectacular cleft in the range. About 40 kilometres further on is Standley Chasm, less than nine metres wide and towering to a height of 80 metres. The best time to see it is at noon, when the sun is directly overhead, lighting the chasm's walls and floor.
Another 40 kilometres along is Ellery Creek Big Hole, a beautiful permanent swimming hole surrounded by towering cliffs. Many travellers don't venture this far, even though it is less than 100 kilometres from Alice Springs, so chances are you will have the place to yourself. The water is ice-cold, no matter how hot the day.
From Alice Springs, the sealed Simpsons Gap Bike Path is an alternative way to travel. A map is at nretas.nt.gov.au. Entry to all gorges is free except for Standley Chasm, which is on Aboriginal land; entry $12/$8. standleychasm.com.au.
Glen Helen Gorge
The Finke River has carved a path through the sandstone ridges of the West Macs. Glen Helen Gorge, another permanent waterhole, forms part of the river system. It is about 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs on Namatjira Drive, which spears off Larapinta Drive.
The gorge is a beautiful spot, especially in the late afternoon when the sun lights its walls and throws reflections onto the inky black water below. Because the water is permanent, the birdlife is prolific and you may see egrets and other wading birds in the shallows.
The area's traditional owners believe the gorge is the home of an ancient and powerful Rainbow Serpent so swimming there is off limits.
The nearby Glen Helen Resort (glenhelen.com.au) has a bar, restaurant and fabulous views. Across the road is the turn-off to Ormiston Gorge (about 10 kilometres), another beautiful swimming hole.
Entry to both gorges is free. travelnt.com.
When travelling through the West Macs, it can sometimes feel as though you have stepped inside the frame of one of Australia's famous landscape paintings. Indeed, the former Lutheran mission Hermannsburg, the birthplace and home of the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, is just on the other side of the ranges, 125 kilometres west of Alice Springs.
This is Western Aranda country, where travellers can see some of Namatjira's artwork and that of his relatives at a small gallery.
Historic buildings open to the public include a school, mess house, manse and quarters for the former missionaries, as well as the church, which is now a museum. You can also visit Namatjira's tiny two-room house, just a few kilometres west of the old mission.
The historic Hermannsburg precinct is open daily, 11am-4pm. Entry costs $12/$6. hermannsburg.com.au.
Finke Gorge National Park
If you have a four-wheel-drive and are up for some adventure, this beautiful but remote national park, 138 kilometres west of Alice Springs via Hermannsburg, is home to Palm Valley, an oasis-like pocket of about 3000 red cabbage palm trees. The last 16 kilometres of the drive to Finke Gorge follows the sandy bed of the usually dry Finke River, which means it may be inaccessible after heavy rains. It is for experienced four-wheel-drivers only, with high-clearance vehicles.
One of the region's best lookouts is here, as is the Mpaara Walk. Park at the Kalarranga car park and walk the Mpaara for its view of an ancient rock amphitheatre - and for the storyboards built along the way, which introduce travellers to Arrernte legends. The walk takes about two hours return. The Kalarranga Lookout walk takes about 45 minutes return.
In nearby Palm Valley, you can walk among stands of palm trees and cycads on the two-hour Mpulungkinya Walk or the one-hour Arankaia Walk.
Entry to the national park is free.
Sydney Morning Herald