In the commodity supermarket that is today's tourism experience, Uluru is right there by the door near the trolleys. Japanese "weekenders" will fly to Queensland for a quick snorkel, dash over to the Rock for sunset, and breakfast next day by Sydney's Harbour before flying home. But what few globetrotting shoppers realise is that between Alice Springs and the Rock, some 220 miles to the south west, lie a range of equally impressive, if less well known natural spectacles.
More than anywhere else in Australia, you can't separate this land from the Aboriginal people who've occupied it for centuries; the latest estimate has recently broken the five-figure barrier. Only one per cent of Australia's 17 million live in the Northern Territory, most of them in Darwin or Alice. A third of that tiny population are blacks, themselves living in remote outstations rarely visited by tourists. We all know the grim legacy of Australia's colonial occupation, but many visitors are shocked by the sight of Alice's fringe-dwelling drunks and dropouts. They are in fact a conspicuous minority, the result of a catastrophic cultural clash which, in Central Australia, was just a generation ago.
Because of this brief exposure, as well as the necessary harshness of desert tribal laws, Aboriginal identity is stronger and more accessible here than anywhere else in Australia; the place where Bruce Chatwin based his semi-fictional nomadic treatise, The Songlines. And the action starts right on Alice's doorstep, a small, modern town that's long since outgrown the dusty, brawling descriptions of Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice or Robyn Davidson's Tracks.
"The Alice" straddles a strategic gap which breaks the crumpled ridges of the MacDonnell Range which ripple across the Centralian landscape for 300 miles from west to east. Years of weathering have carved narrow chasms, gaps or broad gorges, some of which held water, enabling the survival of the desert nomads. Larapinta Drive winds between the ranges west of town to the new Alice Springs Desert Park, a state-of-the-art interpretive centre that informs visitors about the highly adapted ecology of the arid centre with a number of replicated habitats, walk-in aviaries and a huge nocturnal house. This, after all, is the Western Desert, where rivers run for a few days every decade, the winter nights freeze and summer days bake regularly at 45 C.
Beyond the park you turn onto Namatjira Drive, where the cinnamon ranges close in and powder-barked ghost gums line the creek beds. It commemorates Albert Namatjira, an Aborigine mission boy from nearby Hermmansburg whose watercolour landscapes of his ancestral country are now keenly collected and much copied. In 1956 Namatjira was the first black Australian to gain citizenship, granted so he could legally leave his reservation to attend sell-out exhibitions of his work down south.
Ellery Big Hole, a popular swimming hole for heatstruck coach parties, breaks the ranges and a few miles on is Serpentine Gorge, in which cleft resides a mythical serpent still feared by Namatjira's Aranda tribe. No Aranda dare swim here and visitors are asked to respect the custom.
Many water holes in the Centre possess similar myths to discourage abuse of the vital resource to which sparse game would gravitate during times of drought.
The next stop along the ranges is the multichrome Ochre Pits; a mini Alum May of banded yellow and maroon rock which has long been a precious trading commodity for ceremonial paintings. No one, certainly no Aborigine, will tell you much about the mysterious cult of Red Ochre Men who periodically roam the desert (these days in Toyota Land Cruisers), dispensing justice and punishment for transgression of tribal law.
With a hat, sunscreen and water you can take the hour's walk from the Pits to Inarlanga Pass. There's no pool here, sacred or otherwise, just banded strata of acutely-folded rock and stands of palm-like cycads, a plant unchanged since prehistoric times.
It is another 20 minutes drive to Ormiston Gorge, the biggest in the West Macs, 90 miles from Alice, and the source of the Finke, the world's oldest river. The Finke flows so rarely along its full 600-mile length to Lake Eyre in South Australia, that its course hasn't changed for millions of years. Some hardy fish and hibernating toads manage to survive in its muddy billabongs, and black swans paddle across Ormiston's waterhole, but canoeing down to South Australia is a once-a-century experience.
Down the road, the bar at Glen Helen Lodge offers an unusually cosy place for a break, and if you want, overnight lodgings. From here the Tarmac ends, and it's the end of the road for conventional rental cars too. With something more robust you can continue across Aboriginal land, and in a 4WD you can visit the botanical Lost World of Palm Valley or track the bed of the ancient Finke to Kings Canyon.
West of Glen Helen the corrugations past Mount Sonder (a famous Namatjira silhouette) will test your patience and suspension, but by Tylers Pass the worst is behind you. Ahead you'll see an incongruous lone ridge: Gosses Bluff (or Tnorula to the Aranda). It is in fact a ring of hills five miles in diameter, the much denuded 140-million-year-old remnant of an impact by a kilometre-wide comet. With an easily-gained permit you can drive into the actual crater and wonder whether this was not the site of the prehistoric blast which dislodged the world's climate and ended the dinosaur era. After mineral exploration failed, the Bluff was generously returned to Aboriginal custody (a typical story) and today much of the crater's interior, once a sacred site of male initiations, is out of bounds.
Beyond the Bluff, the sandy track reaches a junction, left takes you back to Alice Springs via Hermannsburg, a Lutheran mission set up over a century ago. Son of one of the pastors and Aranda-initiate, Ted Strehlow became a controversial figure in the study of Aborigines. His ideas preceded Levi-Strauss' observations by 20 years, but his arrogant conviction about "what was best for the Aborigines" saw him clash with liberals in the Sixties. In Alice Springs the research centre carrying his name fills out the story. At the town's Historic Precinct you'll get a chance to view Strehlow's early home and some Namatjira originals.
A right turn at that junction takes you onto the Mereenie Loop Road, now open to tourists with a $2 permit. If you own a sturdy car, it'll easily make the 125 miles to Kings Canyon Resort, despite what they tell you at the tourist office in Alice; just expect plenty of dust and a damn good shaking.
Kings Canyon is fast catching up with Ayers Rock in visitor numbers and offers one of the most memorable walks in the Centre. Cut into the side of the Carmichael Ranges, the three-hour trail ascends the rim where the closing gorge sides are bridged to return along the south wall made famous at the climax of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Prongs of rock jut out over the abyss, offering a lurid photo-opportunity for the steel-nerved, and at the throat of the widening canyon a shady swimming hole cools off the halfway point.
Which brings you the long way round to a no-less-impressive finale: Uluru, the Rock.
After a troubled beginning, Ayers Rock Resort (none of that "Uluru" to die-hard Territorians) has finally matured into an international-standard resort to serve its 250,000 annual visitors. Two thirds come to make the 1100m ascent, about half make it and once a year someone dies. One annual fatality will seem rather conservative as you grope along the chained handrail; the steepness and exposure are extreme for a quarter of the hour-long climb, but on top the mood is one of self-congratulatory euphoria.
The Anangu owners prefer you to focus on more cultural facets of Uluru; it's no cardinal shrine to an Aboriginal god, just a key landmark, water source and junction of important dreaming trails; Chatwin's "songlines". In any case the summit view is nothing special and a three-hour stroll around the Rock's base is more rewarding and less crowded.
Nearby a new cultural centre offers visitors some watered-down aspects of Anangu life: "dreamtime" legends and bush tucker. Aborigines no longer live as they once did, but like the true meanings of the dot paintings in the souvenir shop, they'll never tell you the full story.
Chris Scott is the author of Desert Travels (published by Travellers' Bookshop, pounds 6.99)
Europeans can have a tough time on Australia's many dirt roads and today's tinny rental cars fare little better. The combination frequently ends in tears. The answer is simple: keep your speed down to 50mph (80kph), carry enough fuel and spare water, and be ready for anything: kamikaze kangaroos, 200 road trains towing a tornado of dust, unexpected dips and potholes, and car trouble. Overworked tyres frequently blow out - anyone who's anyone on the dirt always carries two spares and a reliable jack.
Some even carry a radio tuned to the flying doctor service, but for tourists these are unnecessary. Penguin's new Explore Australia by Four-Wheel Drive (pounds 29.95) leaves no stone unturned.
The tour described in this piece covers around 800 miles and could be completed in four days: Territory Rent-a-Car (08-8952 9999) can supply a GLX Land Cruiser (Toyota's Range Rover) for pounds 90/day with a roof tent, camping gear and unlimited mileage; Centre Car Rentals (1800 652 133 1495) provide a less comfy Suzuki for around half that. Fuel is around 40p/litre and your AA or RAC membership will entitle you to reciprocal assistance from the Automobile Association of the Northern Territory (AANT; 8953 1322).
If you don't want to drive Sahara (08-8953 0881) or Trek-About (08-8953 0714) you can see it all on a five-day 4WD camping tour for around pounds 240. Rod Steinert's half-day Aboriginal Dreamtime Tour (8952 1700; pounds 25) mixes tribal "entertainment" with thought-provoking insights.
Information in the UK
Australian Tourist Commission (0181-780 2227).
Northern Territory Tourist Commission (0181-944 2992).
Internet: www.world.net/Travel/Australia/NT_info/NTTC/Reuse content