We fly along as rutted red clay tracks become wide, easy driving unsealed roads. A squadron of budgies swoops past to check us out as we rattle across a cattle grid, the white trunks of ghost gums bright against the clear blue sky in the distance.
We are on our way to a town called Alice. Phones ring out as we reconnect to the outside world. The landscape morphs again, soft green alternating with ochre stone in stripes undulating along the mountain range beside us. Black headed grasses sway in our slipstream.
The roads begin to buck and roll with the mountain ranges, turning our pleasant drive into a fairground roller coaster. I gasp as the ute flies into the dips and over the crests.
The Stuart Highway, the main route from Adelaide through Alice to Darwin, is the first bitumen sealed road surface we have driven on in a week. Culture shock hits us as we turn right on to the road. The Royal Flying Doctor Service Centre passes on the left, a solar power station on the right. We are back in civilisation. It’s not a good feeling. Fences and signs grate on the nerves after the wide open spaces of the desert. We lose our freedom, but gain the benefits of supermarket shopping, hot showers and counter meals. Is it worth the trade?
The entry to Alice from the South is through the Heavitree Gap. This is a natural gap in the Macdonnell Ranges that allows river, road and rail to pass through. The imposing rock faces tower above as we squeeze through the opening and into Alice Springs.
We take the opportunity to stock up on groceries, savour a real coffee and listen to the owner of an indigenous music shop give a sample of throaty didgereedoo music. The shop’s sales of music sticks soar as money changes hands. Everyone enjoys time to do their own thing. I visit an indigenous art gallery. Richard cleans the car from top to bottom, vacuuming out every last speck of red desert dust.
The art gallery has a huge selection of work. Indigenous artists are painting in the studio behind the shop and the owner gives me a tour of the back room full of huge works, intended for corporate foyers or board rooms. The variety and quality is impressive. I am tempted by a cross hatched painting of men fishing in a canoe and a superb dot painting representing the dunes of the Simpson Desert. I will try to find time to return when we come back to Alice later on in the trip.
We overnight in the Heavitree Caravan Park, just outside the gap. It is a pleasant shady camp site, but it is of course close to the road and rail through Alice. The trains seem to go on and on and on as they rattle past early in the morning. Leaving us all bleary eyed through lack of sleep. It was not like this in the Simpson.
A certain competition has grown up over the last week. Who can pack away their tent first? It is not discussed, but furtive looks are cast across the campsite early in the morning. At first light the sound of kettles boiling and tents creaking can be heard. Every morning the camp is packed up earlier and earlier. Hoarse whispers are heard, “What time is it?”. “Brett’s packed away already, I don’t believe it”. The experienced crew start to get twitchy. “Relax, we’ve got plenty of time”. Of course it easy for them, the pop top campers flick away in seconds, leaving their owners to sit relaxing with a cuppa, watching the antics around them. I’m sure we can trim a few more minutes off our pack up time, but it is already down to a fine art.
At 8 o’clock we head off north on the Stuart Highway. Ready for stage two of our red centre adventure.