Travel: Australia - Deep purple and kind of blue

Changing light, gaping chasms, vast silent spaces... could Australia's MacDonnell mountains be heaven?
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The roar grew deafening as I approached the verandah. Turning the corner, I saw a ferociously tattooed man with spiky grey hair bent over a growling Harley Davidson. He straightened up and wiped his hands on his torn singlet. "Hey, girl," he said, by way of greeting. "You all right for tucker?"

Well, as a matter of fact, no, I wasn't. It was Boxing Day and I hadn't eaten since setting off from Alice Springs that morning for a three-day drive through the West MacDonnell Ranges. The plan had been to stock up on provisions along the way and spend the first night at Glen Helen Homestead, a former cattle station 85 miles west of Alice.

As it turned out, there was not a single shop en route, not even a roadhouse selling fuel and stale sandwiches - often the only option in the Australian outback. And at Glen Helen, the restaurant was closed for refurbishment, I now learnt. "No worries," said Danny, the manager, and owner of the Harley. "You'll join us for a plate of cold turkey and pumpkin."

The homestead, which has been dispensing hospitality to travellers since the 1950s, stands in the shadow of the red sandstone walls of Glen Helen Gorge, one of the most scenic spots in the West MacDonnells. A short walk from the lodge is a tranquil waterhole that is a haven for native birds and other wildlife.

The "West Macs" - often overlooked by tourists in the Northern Territory, who hurry between Ayers Rock and Alice Springs - are part of an ancient mountain range of quartzite rock that ripples across the central Australian desert. Its twisted ridges are punctuated by spectacular gaps and gorges sculpted over millions of years by rivers long ago run dry.

Much of this harsh and sun-bleached landscape lies within a national park containing picnic areas, walking trails and camping facilities. The park begins just west of Alice; 15 miles out of town is Simpsons Gap, a deep cleft framed by towering cliffs. The energetic approach is via a bicycle path that meanders through arid bushland scenery.

Another 18 miles on is Standley Chasm, a narrow crevice - just 10 yards wide - whose tall, sheer walls glow a vivid red at midday. The rocky trail to the chasm is lined with acacias and cypress pines, as well as rare cycad palms, survivors of the rainforest flora that covered the region aeons ago.

Those were moister times; nowadays, a baking 40C-plus heat is not uncommon in summer. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to cool off in the West Macs, including Ellery Creek Big Hole, which - as its name suggests - is a large expanse of water, shaded by groves of river red gums.

The loveliest spot is Ormiston Gorge. Here, the waterhole - fringed by banks of white sand - has an impossibly picturesque setting, with silver- barked eucalyptus trees silhouetted against the orange cliffs of the gorge. Float on your back in the deep pool and gaze up at the turquoise skies; you could be in heaven.

Walking trails of varying lengths offer a more intimate acquaintance with the area. One of the best, a five-mile loop, climbs a gentle slope before dropping into the flat bowl of Ormiston Pound. From the pound, there are fabulous views of the ranges: sometimes blue, sometimes purple, depending on the light, carpeted with coarse spinifex grass and the occasional desert oak. In the gorge I saw two black-footed rock wallabies, bouncing along the boulders that litter the creekbed. Flocks of Port Lincoln parrots flew past in a blur of green and yellow.

Glen Helen, seven miles from Ormiston, is a perfect base for exploring the West Macs. The homestead, built in the early 1900s, has a campground and motel-style rooms. But at Glen Helen, you don't just get a bed for the night. You get Danny, who runs the place on a lease, and "JC", his friend - a pair of wisecracking, grizzled ex-hippy bikers.

As dusk descends, they tell stories from a colourful past. Danny has worked, variously, as a stockman, perch diver and rock band roadie. JC was once a cowboy in the Kimberleys, in Western Australia, and had a part in one of the Mad Max films. During one memorable era, when Danny was involved in the Alice nightclub scene, he employed JC to perform a striptease act astride his Harley Davidson. "Fair dinkum, sweetheart," says JC, deadpan. "You know any other way to make $150 in three minutes?"

Just past Glen Helen, the bitumen ends abruptly, giving way to a rutted track of sand and gravel. This is the start of the recently opened Mereenie Loop, an unsealed road that runs 160 miles to Kings Canyon - another of the natural wonders of the Northern Territory - before joining the highway that leads to Ayers Rock. You need a permit for this route, since it passes through Aboriginal land.

The bureaucracy is the easy part; this is not a road for the faint-hearted. Pitted with potholes, strewn with rocks and, in some places, simply washed away by rain, it is not a road in the conventional sense. But it offers an unforgettable experience: a bone-shaking, nerve-jangling ride through the red sand dunes of the Australian desert and a taste of the vast, silent spaces of the outback.

A branch of the Mereenie Loop takes you to Hermannsburg, site of a Lutheran mission that was home to Albert Namatjira, the late Aboriginal artist noted for his watercolours of the West Macs. Nearby is the turn-off to Palm Valley, an otherworldly botanical paradise accessible only by four- wheel-drive.

There are plans to upgrade the Loop this year, a prospect welcomed by Danny, who intends to introduce Harley tours of the area. But JC is less happy.

"There's a sense of adventure, of romance, about a dirt road," he says. "Too much civilisation is not a good thing."

Fact File

Getting there: You should not have to pay much more than pounds 500 for a scheduled flight at any time of the year - besides December.

For the absolute lowest prices to Australia before Easter, call Austravel (0171-734 7755) to check late-availability fares on charters. For scheduled flights, ask a range of discount agents for the best deal. Korean Airlines is selling tickets via Seoul for well below pounds 500. From April to June, expect some even better bargains to Australasia.

Getting in: You need either a visitor visa stamped in your passport, or an electronic travel advice (ETA) issued and held on computer. Most agents and airlines will issue the electronic version, though usually there is a fee of pounds 10-pounds 20. Alternatively, call BP Travel Trade on 01233 211800, which issues visas by phone for pounds 20. Call the premium-rate advice line, 0891 600333 for more information.

Getting around: Ansett and Qantas operate airpass schemes within Australia. With the Qantas Boomerang Pass, for example, you pay pounds 110 for each flight (with a minimum of two sectors, and an extra pounds 25 for particularly long flights).

Greyhound Pioneer (01342 317317) sells bus passes, such as 2,000km of travel for pounds 74 or an all-Australian pass - a year's unlimited travel for pounds 622. YHA members get a discount of 15 per cent on these prices.

For details of rail passes contact Leisurail (01733 335599).

Getting information: Australian Tourist Commission, Gemini House, 10- 18 Putney Hill, London SW15 (0181-780 2227).