Venturing deep into Australia’s Red Centre, Jennifer Thiele gets her fill of never-ending desert landscapes, mighty rock formations and big skies.
Rather than flying into Ayers Rock Airport, you’re better off making Alice Springs your gateway into the Red Centre. Some 460 kilometres from Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and halfway between Darwin and Adelaide, both 1,500 kilometres away, it’s one of the most remote towns in the Australian outback, bursting with history, indigenous art and wilderness adventure.
The area around Alice Springs is known as Mparntwe to its original inhabitants, the Arrernte Aboriginal people, who have lived in the Central Australian desert for over 20,000 years. The white settlement was founded in the late 1800s with the coming of the Overland Telegraph Line, and named after Alice Todd, the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia.
Outback road trip
The five-hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park opens up an extraordinary landscape of desert plains, mountain ranges, waterholes and gorges. The iron-coated red sand is set against a deep blue sky that seems to roll on forever. Hidden in the Spinifex grasses and Mulga trees, you’ll spot goannas, snakes, eagles, kites, budgies and, of course, kangaroos.
On the amazing drive through Arrernte country, you catch sight of flat-topped, sandstone-capped Mount Conner, known locally as Fool-uru since tourists often mistake it for mighty Uluru (Ayers Rock). Mount Conner sits on private land, so if you want to do more than admire it from a distance you need to book a tour through Curtin Springs Station. You can also view Lake Swanson, one of seven salt lakes on the property. This arid salt mass stretches to the horizon – it’s not the place for a swim.
Travelling on, you get your first glimpse of Uluru from almost 100 kilometres away. At that moment, as you stand in awe before the world’s largest monolith, you’ll understand why I recommend you journey into the Red Centre from Alice.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
On arrival at Yulara, a little village about 18 kilometres from Uluru, you’ll find multiple accommodation options, varying from camping grounds to the luxury Longitude 131 resort. Be sure to book well in advance as Yulara is not the sort of place where you can just rock up and hope for the best.
Before you head into the park, make the time to gen up on general safety information. Likely you’ll be vacationing in the Australian winter (from April to September) thus avoiding the 40°C summer temperatures, regardless, you should always carry a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water. And if you’re planning on going walkabout, be sure to wear closed-toe shoes. Stop by the Cultural Centre to pick up your visitor’s guide, get a feel for how the park is managed and learn about its iconic rock.
Standing at 348 metres high, 3.6 kilometres long and 1.9 kilometres wide, Uluru is considered one of the great wonders of the world. You’ve travelled a long way to explore it. But if you can bear the suspense, I’d advise you to head out to Kata Tjuta (The Olgars) first of all. Kata Tjuta is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘many heads’, and this incredible rock formation comprises 36 sandstone domes spread over an area of more than 20 kilometres.
To fully appreciate the magnificence of Kata Tjuta, there is a beautiful two-and-a-half-hour hike through the Valley of the Winds to Karingana Lookout. The breath-taking views afforded by this trek are without doubt my highlight of the park.
Come dusk and again at dawn, you’ll want to head to the viewing area to watch the sun go down over Uluru. As the rock changes colour, mirroring the sky around it, you’ll appreciate why Uluru is a sacred part of Aboriginal creation mythology, or dreamtime – reality being a dream.
While climbing Uluru is not prohibited, traditional law urges you not to do so. The Arrernte fear for climbers’ safety even if weather conditions are fine, so the best way to explore it is by walking its perimeter. Every morning park rangers guide a flat 10-kilometre teaching walk along the base.
Watarrka National Park
From Yulara, it’s just a three- hour drive to Kings Canyon and another impressive national park – Watarrka, home to the Luritja Aboriginal people for more than 20,000 years. You can learn about their role in shaping the area and about the more than 600 species of native plants and animals that live there, on one of many guided tours.
There are plenty of trails to explore but if you are up to it, Kings Canyon Rim Walk at first light is a must. It’s a 6-kilometre round trip, with the first part of the hike – up ‘heart attack hill’ – being the hardest. After taking in the sublime views, a series of wooden steps lead you to the shady, verdant glades of the Garden of Eden, a hidden oasis at the bottom of the canyon.
If time permits, stay a few nights at Kings Creek Station, some 30 kilometres from the park. There’s some fixed accommodation and plenty of space to camp, and you can explore the surrounding sand dunes by quad bike or camel. To end your trip on a high note, take a helicopter tour of the canyon, taking in Carmichael Crag, the Garden of Eden and Kathleen Springs.
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