Trains, planes and hot air balloons: Simon Calder explores Alice Springs in style

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The best way to arrive in Alice Springs? On the Ghan train. Until a couple of decades ago, the central Australian town was the end of the line from Adelaide. Then, in 2004, the first game-changing rail project of the 21st century anywhere worldwide connected the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory to the Red Centre.

Now Alice Springs is the halfway point on the great transcontinental railway linking South Australia with Darwin, the Northern Territory capital. And I urge you to step away from the train to immerse yourself in a strange and wonderful part of the world.

To appreciate fully the scale and beauty of central Australia – the only way is up. As the world awakes, you can drift across a landscape on a sunrise hot-air balloon trip.

“It’s just the beauty of the Outback and the isolation here,” balloon pilot Duncan Matheson told me as we drifted with the breeze.

The sun was clambering above the horizon, bringing the serrated ridge of the MacDonnell Ranges into sharp focus.

“I’ve flown in places all over the world, but there’s something special about here – clear skies, watching the sun rise every morning, that keeps me coming back.”

As an airborne experience hot-air ballooning is unbeatable. Besides 360-degree visibility of the sun-baked terrain, you marvel at the silence – punctuated now and again by the noise of propane burners.

Back on ground level, Alice Springs – the de facto capital of central Australia – makes an excellent base for exploring the surroundings. I am particularly fond of the Desert Park, just 6km from the centre by road or hiking/biking trail, and providing an insight into the life of the Red Centre.

A gentle half-hour walk from the desert park brings you to the grave of John Flynn. Flynn of the Inland, as he was known, brought medicine to the Outback. The concept of providing life-saving health care to those in remote areas began in 1928 when John Flynn founded the Australian Inland Mission – known today as the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Back in town, there’s a museum where you can step aboard a flying ambulance, and understand the motto of the service: “The furthest corner. The finest care.”

Ahead of an adventure in the Centre, the town’s Anzac Hill is the place to get your bearings. You can see how Alice Springs fills the valley – and survey the MacDonnell Ranges that sweep across the horizon. It’s said they were once mountains to rival the Himalayas.

The Red Centre Way winds west from Alice Springs, shadowing the rust-coloured ridges of the West MacDonnell Ranges. The first part of the road journey is called Namatjira Drive, named after the celebrated Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. It leads west, past grass the colour of pale gold and stands of deep green trees, beneath a blue sky flecked with cloud.

The range is perforated by gorges sculpted by the ages. Just 20km outside Alice Springs you reach Simpson’s Gap. This narrow passage through the mountains, and the surrounding area, comprise an important spiritual site to the Arrernte Aboriginal people – known as Tjoritja.

Next on a best-of-the-west tour: Standley Chasm, a central Australian icon. Over the course of millions of years, water has carved this gorge 80 metres deep. The traditional name is Angkerle Atwatye, meaning “Gap of Water”.

The European name honours Mrs Ida Standley, the first school teacher in Alice Springs – but the site is Aboriginal owned and operated. The general manager, Nova Pomare, told me: “It’s our custodial land, that we’re not owners but caretakers of. It represents who we are as a family. It has our stories. It has our dreamings. It has our totems. So it means everything to us. It means that we’re connected always.”

My final stop on the Red Centre Way was Ormiston Gorge, where a lake filled with clear, crystal water – and fringed by a beach – was simply too tempting. Even though the nearest sea is 1,500km away in either direction, there is nothing to beat the feeling of the sand beneath your toes and the fresh, cool water.

Life reduced to the basics: sky, rock, water and joy.

From rich culture and history to stunning landscapes and wildlife, a holiday in the Northern Territory is an experience like no other. For ideas on what to do, where to stay or to start planning a trip, visit Freedom Destinations, the Territory travel experts.

Take one of the world’s most iconic train journeys on The Ghan Expedition tour.

For more travel inspo visit Northern Territory

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