The train rolled in to Alice Springs, Australia’s iconic outback town in the Northern Territory. Dusty outcrops and sprawling desert had made up the sparse journey from Adelaide, and suddenly being in a vibrant city we had heard so much about was incredibly splendid.
The first day on The Ghan had been a relaxed affair; conversations with the other passengers flowed as smoothly as the drinks from the open bar. This 3-day train ride from Adelaide to Darwin dissects the nation’s centre, and has been attracting travellers from around the world for years. Now it was our turn, and we happily embraced the impeccable experience.
A few hours earlier we had welcomed the new day during our sunrise breakfast in Marla, the tiny outback station in the middle of South Australia. To break up the 54-hour ride, Great Southern Rail include a number of opportunities to disembark. We had already fallen in love with Rawlinna when we crossed Australia from east to west on the Indian Pacific, and couldn’t wait to reach Marla.
Sipping on coffees and snacking on bacon and egg sliders by an open fire was the perfect way to wake up. We watched as the thick blackness of day transformed into dawn, the never-ending sky opening up as the sun made its way towards the horizon. The time went by quickly before we jumped back on board for the stretch to Alice Springs.
After a proper breakfast in the dining cart we retired to our cabin to gaze out the window at Australia’s infinite landscape. Just after lunch we crossed into the Northern Territory and arrived in Alice Springs.
We had 4 hours to enjoy the city, with a range of off-train excursions available to the passengers. Some had opted for a city tour, while others chose to visit the Alice Springs Desert Park, boasting a hands-on experience to learn about life in the desert. Being more drawn to nature and hiking, we skipped these two options and immediately signed up for the Simpsons Gap Discovery Walk.
Just outside of Alice Springs is one of the region’s most important watering holes. A number of towering cliffs carve their way through the West MacDonnell Ranges, forming spectacular splits in the rocks. Simpsons Gap, only 18km from the city, is the most popular and arguably the most impressive of these formations.
Our group of active hikers loaded up the bus and traversed our way towards the national park. At the entrance was a ranger’s station and the start of an informative walk that ventured between the soaring ghost gums the area is famous for.
These magnificent trees stand tall over the terrain, nourishing the surrounding flora and fauna. A licensed guide accompanied us, explaining the difference in the plants and the importance of each one to the local Arrernte Aboriginals, the area’s traditional land owners. The entire circuit only took 15 minutes, and we jumped back on the bus to head for a more challenging trail.
The Cassia Hill Walk is a steady loop of 1.5km, following creek beds before eventually climbing to the top of a small hill for unparalleled vistas of the West MacDonnell Ranges. This required a bit more effort, and while far from being strenuous the pounding heat in the middle of the day ensured everyone took their time.
Watching our footing on the uneven ground we marched to the viewpoint and basked in our first glimpses of true Northern Territory splendour. While Australia is a truly diverse nation, there’s something special about being in the Red Centre, enveloped with rising gorges and peppered in resilient flora.
Soon enough we made it back to the bus, taking a small water break before heading for the day’s real highlight – Simpsons Gap.
The rest of the tour was taken at our own leisure, and Alesha and I trekked straight into the heart of Simpsons Gap. Roe Creek trickled its way through the centre, the source of the natural carvings that had been occurring for millennia.
Rock Wallabies leaped between boulders high above us, curiously watching our every step. Far from being barren, shrubs and trees flourished in the Gap, casting shadows and creating a lush ambiance on the edge of the creek.
It only took 15 minutes or so to reach the end of the trail in Simpsons Gap. Here Roe Creek took up the entire width of the gorge, blocking any further casual access. We snapped our photos and quickly retreated, escaping the bombardment of mosquitos in the stagnant water.
By the time we made it back to the bus it was time to return to Alice Springs and embark on the rest of our journey towards Darwin. Before we made it back to The Ghan one final stop was calling – a brief detour to Anzac Hill, the historic viewpoint that looked out over the city.
For a city that is essentially remote and quite literally in the middle of nowhere, we couldn’t believe just how sprawling and bustling Alice Springs was. 1200km from the nearest ocean and 1500km from the two closest capital cities, Alice Springs is located almost in the exact centre of Australia.
The Arrernte Aboriginal people have called Alice Springs home for thousands of years, with Europeans only moving in during the mid-19th century.
Originally founded as a telegraph station, over the years Alice Springs has developed on the back of communications, mining, and most recently tourism. Travellers flock to the desert town to experience a destination that is booming, despite being in an apparently inhospitable region.
The sun was beginning to set and we returned to the glistening train. We still had over 24 hours before The Ghan would arrive in Darwin on the far north coast, and we couldn’t wait to make the most of the onboard luxury.
The wheels started turning and the tracks led us out Alice Springs. Simpsons Gap would soon be a fond memory, and proved to be a marvellous first experience of the Northern Territory. Great Southern Rail’s amazing staff entertained and cared for us the rest of the way, and we gorged ourselves on the tasty delicacies from the local area. The impeccable service continued and made the journey all that more comfortable.
Culture and nature had come together in perfect harmony during our Simpsons Gap Discovery Walk. The ability to explore one of Central Australia’s most spectacular sights was deeply appreciated by everyone who ventured there. All that was left to do now was sit back, relax and watch the rest of Australia pass us by…
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