Despite its remoteness, central Australia is the perfect location for a newbie road trip for those who have their outback training wheels still on. It’s just a three-hour drive on sealed roads from Uluru and Kata Tjuta to Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, and around four hours up to Alice Springs. In all, it makes for a cruisy week-long outback adventure along what’s known as the Red Centre Way.
The game, while staying near Uluru, is to see it at sunrise and sunset from as many locations as possible, which means rising before dawn and a 20-minute drive out to the Rock. Yet, I discover one of the easiest views is on a small hill in the centre of Ayers Rock Resort, at the Imalung Lookout. We look one way to see the sun roasting Uluru blood red, then turn 180 degrees to see its often overlooked sister, Kata Tjuta, hiding in the shadows.
Kata Tjuta has always played the lesser-known sister to her more famous sibling but while Uluru is a single piece of stone, sprawling Kata Tjuta’s 36 domes are a more arresting sight, even if she’s harder to fit in the frame.
While you can jog the 10.6km Base Walk around the circumference of Uluru, it’s the quiet, secretive Valley of the Winds walk amidst Kata Tjuta’s inspiring domes that has me lacing my walking shoes. It’s possible to do the walk in stages, taking an hour, two hours or the full four-hour circuit. I take the middle option and the path to Karu, the first lookout, is a slow, low, easy climb and I’m cruising along in good time, with plenty of walking companions. But on the second leg to Karingana Lookout, all the walkers disappear and suddenly I’m alone with no sound but the wailing wind and wittering wrens.
Suddenly all those Dreamtime stories I heard from the local Anangu people, back in the security of the resort, come flooding back. The wind really is the breath of a vengeful snake, Wanambi, and it’s getting stronger, so I pick up the pace until I’m trotting the rough path back to my car like some crazy desert runner.
There’s no rest for overworked thighs on this trip – the next afternoon I’m up and astride a camel in a short chain. Hot-breathed Murphy, the last camel bringing up the rear, occasionally leans his great head in my lap, breathing heavily. Once, he was one of the estimated half-million wild camels running amok in the centre of the country. Now, he’s a thorough gentleman and takes even the most fearful tourists out into the dunes.
Tonight, we’re aiming for the most unlikely of settings, the Field of Light, an art installation by British artist Bruce Munro which will remain in place until the end of 2020. About 50,000 light bulbs are planted into the red earth and glow unearthly shades as the sun drops below the horizon. Murphy and his friends deposit me atop a dune where a charming girl waits with a tray filled with glasses of sparkling wine, a prelude to the Night at the Field of Light dinner and a walk between the bulbs, beneath the stars and the black night.
There has been plenty of rain in central Australia before my visit so the roadside has been transformed into fields of multi-coloured wildflowers and impromptu rock pools of fresh rainwater that catch the sky, reflecting it like a mirror.
Turning north off Lasseter’s Highway, it’s only a couple of hours on to our next digs at Kings Canyon Resort and we pass just a handful of cars. Scarcity brings camaraderie and we exchange cheery, open-handed waves through windscreens.
The tourist scene around Watarrke, or Kings Canyon, is as unstructured as Ayers Rock Resort is organised, with a handful of accommodation scattered on the fringe of the George Gill Range, of which the canyon is part. At Kings Creek Station I spy basic camping spots and pop in to pat a baby camel at the working cattle and camel station. There’s a special coo of admiration at the station’s new glamping tents, complete with a pool made with outback innovation and an old shipping container.
Twenty minutes away, at Kings Canyon Resort, we throw our bags in a comfortable, newly renovated motel-style room. Its little veranda faces onto bushland sparkling with flowering shrubs, filled with trills of native birdsong.
The resort is the closest accommodation to the canyon and the next morning, in the cool of the desert dawn, I start the 6km Rim Walk around the canyon. The track starts with a steep climb up a rock staircase and later spirals back down, down, down into the Garden of Eden, a waterhole amidst the ancient rock – a rich, green oasis hemmed in by high walls of orange stone.
The canyon is capped with beehive-like rock formations known as the Lost City – they resemble an ancient civilisation, abandoned and slowly sinking back into the ground from which they were born. The geologists put the canyon at 440 million years old and the local Luritja people have lived at its fringe for 20,000 years, as Luritja woman Christine, at the Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience, told me while skilfully toasting a witchetty grub. (“Buttery, nutty, these are the best,” she promises. And they are.)
After a hot climb back down the canyon’s ridge, heaven is found in the resort’s freshwater pool and the slow swimmer shares the water with bright, tiny birds that dive for insects on the pool’s cusp. The best viewing spot for sunset over the George Gill Range is also the easiest to find – we just look for the drinks trolley set on a wooden platform at the resort. With a chilled glass in hand, we join the crowds to watch the range roll through the colour wheel from bright orange to dark purples and into a soft dove grey as night closes in.
Back on the road, Central Australia’s most famous outpost is the town of Alice Springs, a four-hour drive – give or take how much you like to stickybeak. The day we hit town, all the talk is about Parrtjima, the town’s annual Indigenous art festival (end of September), which projects light shows along 2.5km of the beautiful West MacDonnell Ranges. Most exciting for me, visitors to the festival can design their own light show and see it displayed on this 300 million-year-old canvas.
The mountain range was made famous by Australia’s most beloved Indigenous painter, Albert Namitjira, who lived and painted their beautiful faces. His descendants, of which there are many, all seem to have been born with a paintbrush in hand to form what’s now called the Hermannsburg School, and we meet them at work in their Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Arts Centre.
Alice has grown up in the years since I last visited, with a healthy café culture on its central strip, Todd Mall. Fancy a spiced chai latte? Or perhaps an avocado smash? The cafés oblige. They’re interspersed with shops selling Indigenous art from the surrounding regions.
After nearly a week in central Australia, I can appreciate that those seemingly empty stretches of desert are the source of inspiration for the beauty found in Alice’s galleries. The carvings, weavings and canvases are drawn from remote Indigenous artist centres scattered across four states, unhindered by such bureaucratic constructs as borders. Red earth, blue sky, a sea of golden wildflowers and the rich orange cliffs that the sun uses as its canvas. It’s an ancient story, but one I’ll never tire of hearing.
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