Alice Springs is almost the geographical centre of Australia, some 1300km from Adelaide and Darwin. It sits on the Stuart Highway, 3000 kilometres of bitumen dissecting Australia from north to south. Its name commemorates the outstanding courage and resilience of John MacDouall Stuart, the first European to traverse Australia.
Its 23,000 inhabitants enjoy a predominantly dry environment and brilliant blue skies, particularly between April and September. The spring it was named after is still there, and it's thanks to that permanent waterhole that the area became the location of an Overland Telegraph Station. Once a remote outpost, it now has all the conveniences of a modern city and is a base for those who wish to explore some of the fascinating attractions of the area the Simpson Desert, MacDonnell Ranges, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Chambers Pillar and Rainbow Valley.
Just 35 kilometres south are the Ewaninga Aboriginal rock carvings in a conservation reserve. The petroglyphs are a valuable link to the activities of early Aboriginal people and feature a great variety of symbols and motifs. The claypan was an occasional source of water for those who occupied the area and made stone implements for hunting.
Rainbow Valley is 80km south of Alice Springs. So beautiful is it that part of Tom Selleck's Quigley, Down Under and Channel 9 mini series The Alice were filmed here. It is in the low dunes and mulga on the eastern edge of the James Ranges and offers some rather spectacular coloured sandstone bluffs and cliffs. They are rich red iron oxide in the upper layers, fading to almost white at the bottom. Up close it seems as though swirls of colour have been stirred with a very large spoon at the time of creation. Clay pans in the foreground create a magnificent mirror image when filled with water and seem to glow at sunset.
This area is important to the southern Arrernte people, who call the large rock massif Ewerre. The south of the reserve is a registered sacred site.
The small camping area has picnic tables, pit toilet and gas barbecues. While it has little shade and no water, it is in just the right place for sunset viewing, particularly if it is full-moon.
Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve, just 160km from Alice Springs, is made up of sandstone pillar towers towering 60m from the surrounding plain. It is all that remains of a layer of sandstone formed around 350 million years ago. The names and visiting dates of early explorers have been carved for posterity, sadly along with those of some thoughtless tourists.
To the Aboriginal people, it is the remains of Itirkawara, a powerful gecko ancestor who killed some of his ancestors and took a girl of the wrong skin group. They were banished to the desert and both turned to stone. The girl became Castle Rock.
The reserve has a camping area in a grove of desert oaks and campers need to take along water and firewood. Pit toilets and fireplaces are there.
The Outback Experience, established by Leigh Goldsmith in 1983, takes groups of up to 13 people to see these wondrous sites.
A 350km round trip by purpose-built, air-conditioned four-wheel drive with forward-facing seats and plenty of cool water takes in Ewaninga, Rainbow Valley, Chambers Pillar, Chambers Pillar, Rainbow Valley, through vast cattle stations following the Old Ghan train tracks and the Overland Telegraph Line, pioneered by Afghan cameleers before the turn of last century.
The tour traverses the Charlotte, Ooraminna and James ranges, past abandoned ruins. You will see marine fossils, windmills, dams and bores and after rain, magnificent wildflowers.