A police van noses up and down Todd Mall in Alice Springs, past galleries displaying indigenous artworks, past the tourists enjoying dinner alfresco on a balmy spring evening. A group of Aboriginal people are sprawled on a patch of grass, some drinking, some quarrelling. A young police officer jumps out. "Move on," he tells them. "Move on now."
Alice Springs, the geographical and spiritual heart of Australia, is a place of contrasts. The desert scenery surrounding it is achingly beautiful and unforgivingly harsh. In the Aboriginal communities that fan out from it, 60,000-year-old traditions are preserved and some of the worst poverty in the developed world can be found.
The Alice Springs area was the first place I visited on a trip to Australia nine years ago. The following year, I moved from London to Sydney. Since then, I have been drawn back time and again to the "Red Centre" – searching, perhaps, for the key to understanding a country that is now my home, a country both ancient and new, a place of uplifting and painful ambiguities.
The Red Centre, of course, has one of Australia's principal tourist attractions: Uluru, the monolith formerly known as Ayers Rock, which is of deep cultural significance to the local Anangu people. Both Uluru and neighbouring Kata Tjuta, an imposing cluster of massive rocks previously called the Olgas (pictured left), are sights never to be forgotten.
But the traveller who flies to Uluru and then flies out is missing the Red Centre's other attractions: less obvious, but equally memorable. Fly into Alice instead, hire a car and drive to Uluru, stopping at the many places of interest along the way. Then drive back to Alice along a more direct route. The round trip can be comfortably driven in a week.
First, Alice itself is worth lingering in for a couple of days. Tiny, dusty, at first sight unprepossessing, it sneaks up on you, worming itself into your affections. One highlight is the art galleries, selling Aboriginal works from the desert communities. The highly regarded Alice Springs Desert Park, west of the town, contains wildlife and flora within their desert habitats.
But the best thing about Alice Springs, for me, is the sight of the West MacDonnell Ranges, which begin just outside town and debunk the notion of Central Australia as just a vast expanse of flat, red earth. Low-slung but captivating, the ranges offer yellows, greens, oranges, pinks and purples, depending on the time of year.
Heading into the "West Macs" along Larapinta Drive, you pass a series of spectacular gorges and waterholes, beginning with Simpsons Gap, 15 miles west. Ormiston Gorge, another 70 miles on, just off Namatjira Drive, is my favourite spot: the waterhole is heavenly, and the circular walk across adjacent Ormiston Pound is challenging but well worth the effort. Close by is Glen Helen Gorge and a century-old homestead with motel rooms.
You could easily spend a few days in the West Macs. But there is more to see. West of Glen Helen, the bitumen ends and you soon pick up the Mereenie Loop, for which a permit is required. This feels like the real Outback: a ferociously rutted dusty red road bordered by spinifex and saltbush plains. Heading south, the major landmark is Watarrka (or Kings Canyon) National Park. Some rate the canyon, with its 300ft-high sheer walls, as stunning as Uluru. The four-mile walk around its rim is worthwhile, with changing views of the canyon and its sandstone outcrops. You can eat and sleep at the Kings Canyon Resort.
Finally the road descends to Uluru and its nearby resort, Yulara. Half a million people visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park every year, and increasing numbers of them are heeding the Anangu's wishes that the Rock – trodden by their sacred ancestors – not be climbed. Besides, the best views of the Rock are not up high, but on ground level. It takes three to four hours to walk around the perimeter; the monolith looks different from every angle, and the landscape changes subtly all the time. You may not see another soul – and if you don't like crowds, avoid Uluru's specially designated sunset-viewing area, particularly at sunset. Return to Alice Springs along the sealed Lasseter and Stuart Highways; it's an easy trip of about 280 miles.