Nothing prepares you for the astonishing redness of Australia’s Red Centre. The sand is red. The rocks are red. The sunrises and sunsets are red. The unsealed roads are red.
And in contrast, emphasising all this redness, there’s the intense blue of the endless sky – the chalk-white trunks and limbs of roadside eucalypts – the blackened branches of fire-charred desert oaks – the straw-yellow of spinifex – and the olive-green depths of a waterhole.
Then there are the icons – Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the West MacDonnell Ranges. Their colours change with the time of day – black, dusky-orange, red, purple, black again.
On the Red Centre Way, a self-drive route that links Alice Springs, Yulara, Kings Canyon and the Namatjira Way back to Alice, I make an unforgettable journey through all the colours and experiences of Central Australia.
In the cool of a very early Yulara morning – it’s 5am – I’m on the way to see the sunrise colours on Kata Tjuta. Travelling with a small group on a SEIT Outback Australia tour, I arrive when the rounded domes are still black against the sky.
The light broadens and before we walk up towards the dramatic entrance to the Valley of the Winds, our guide Luke explains the complex geological origins of the rock formations in a clever and memorable way.
Sketching on the hard, gravelly ground with a stick, he shows how a massive ancient mountain range was weathered away, its pebbles, gravel and sand deposited in a shallow alluvial basin. Over hundreds of millions of years, the eroded sediments were crushed by pressure and heat into a new conglomerate rock, then thrust up in a later period of mountain building. Long ages of erosion followed, with water and wind shaping the mountains we see today.
Well, I’m pretty sure that was the general story – although the Aboriginal owners’ explanation, part of which involves the sinuous twistings of the great snake Wanambi, has another kind of storytelling appeal, equally amazing.
That same evening, I see the Kata Tjuta skyline resting along the western horizon at sunset. Shafts of light pierce clouds and as the light fades, I join a table of new acquaintances at the Sounds of Silence dinner.
The conversation ranges from Glasgow to Hobart, from North Queensland to New Zealand’s North Island, from the vineyards of Tuscany to the peaks of Hokkaido. Around us is the red desert, now black in the night – above us, the Milky Way blazes across the canopy of the sky.
There’s another 5am start next morning, for the short drive to a vantage point near Uluru. Sipping coffee, I look beyond sand and spinifex to watch the folds, creases and crevices of the rock emerging from shadows in the sunrise.
Then it’s time for a closer encounter. Our group is one of the first on the track this morning and it’s good to approach the Mutitjulu Waterhole, soon to become a much-frequented place, in relative calm and silence.
It’s a surprise to find water in this arid landscape, although white-trunked river red gums give away its presence. Scoops, dips, saucers and runnels, all bone-dry, lead from high on the rock down to the dark surface of the water.
Our guide tells us that when rare rainstorms send waterfalls cascading from Uluru, the Yulara village empties, as everyone who can get away from work heads out to see the awesome spectacle.
In the early afternoon, after watching a free performance by the Wakagetti Cultural Dancers, I join another small SEIT group for the longer excursion to Mt Conner, the least-known of Central Australia’s three geological giants. The focus of this tour is the pastoral heritage of the region and we take a break at Curtin Springs Station, to meet members of the pioneering Severin family, enjoy their Outback hospitality and hear some of the stories of their million-acre property.
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Then we leave the highway and bump over sandy tracks to explore the dunes, salt lakes and scrubland on the station, and to circumnavigate the mountain that is sometimes called ‘Fooluru’ (tourists driving from Alice Springs occasionally mistake it for Uluru, which is 100 kilometres further down the Lasseter Highway.)
It’s a 300-kilometre drive from Yulara to Kings Creek Station. I arrive in mid-afternoon in time for a helicopter tour over Kings Canyon. When the chopper lifts off, there’s a cooling breeze in the cabin as we swoop along the George Gill Range towards the canyon, to gaze down on the maze of sandstone domes capping the crest, then deeper into the green-fringed depths.
I spot tiny figures on the famous Rim Walk and I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity to see Kings Canyon from such an impressive vantage point. Back at Kings Creek Station, I’ve missed a camel ride but it’s a privilege to meet owners Ian and Lyn Conway and to learn about Conway’s Kids, the foundation they established to ensure that Aboriginal children from remote homelands in the Kings Canyon area have the same educational opportunities as young people anywhere in Australia.
Working closely with Prince Alfred College and Westminster School in Adelaide, Ian and Lyn have helped a number of local Aboriginal children to reach their full life-potential through education.
Kings Canyon Resort is a short drive further on and it’s my destination for the night. A highlight of the stay is the four-course tasting menu, with matched wines, in the ‘Under a Desert Moon’ Outback dining experience.
As the sun sets, flames from a circle of flares flicker on the ring of tables set around the central (but smokeless) firepit. It’s a brilliant meal in an unforgettable location.
With two more days to spend in the Red Centre, I set out early from Kings Canyon to travel the Namatjira Way, a 300-kilometre drive on unsealed and sealed roads, through the West MacDonnell Ranges to Alice Springs.
Corrugated red gravel eventually gives way to smooth bitumen and I pause at the Ellery Creek Big Hole for a swim, arriving in the Alice in time to catch the free-flight presentation in the Nature Theatre at the Alice Springs Desert Park.
I marvel at the way the guide introduces the native birds of the Red Centre, calling them in from the sky. A magpie, masked owl, boobook, black kite and whistling kite all glide in and around us – and a long-legged bush stone-curlew walks among the audience, stepping daintily around my feet.
Before I leave Alice Springs I visit the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, both of which are based here. They are powerful reminders of the challenges and difficulties of Outback life in the remote red heart of our ancient continent.
As a Tasmanian, I’m used to landscapes with rivers, lakes, tall forests, fertile farmland and seas bursting with marine life. I’m familiar with mild sunshine and gentle rain. My island is green. I’d once thought of the Central Australian desert as lifeless and barren. But after close encounters with its rich and infinitely-varied flora and fauna, I’ve learned I was wrong.
EXPLORING THE RED CENTRE WAY
This 1,135 kilometre, 5-7 day self-drive loop takes in Alice Springs, the West MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and the iconic national parks near Yulara. I drove the route in October and I loved the heat and clear skies, the spectacular landscapes, the abundant life of the desert, the waterholes in the West MacDonnells for a cooling swim, the sunset and sunrise colours on the rock of Uluru and Kata Tjuta – and the friendly Outback characters I met along the way. If you’ve never experienced this unique part of our country, the Red Centre Way is definitely the way to go.
WHERE TO STAY
Eighteen kilometres from Uluru, and 55 kilometres from Kata Tjuta, the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara offers a variety of accommodation options, from an unpowered tent site in a caravan park to the 5-star rooms of Sails in the Desert.
Kings Canyon Resort is a short drive from the walking tracks that lead into the canyon and up to the rim. It also has a range of accommodation, including top-of-the-range spa rooms with private views to the rocky escarpment.
In Alice Springs, Lasseters Hotel Casino is a good base in the Outback town. Close to the almost-always dry bed of the Todd River, the hotel offers comfortable accommodation, a wonderful pool and a variety of dining options.
HOW TO GET THERE
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly to Uluru Ayers Rock Airport, near Yulara. It’s possible to explore the Red Centre Way on sealed roads by using the Stuart and Lasseter Highways, but the Namatjira Drive from Kings Canyon and through the West MacDonnell Ranges to Alice Springs is a more scenic route. After Kings Canyon, there is a 180-kilometre unsealed section, so it’s advisable to hire a 4WD, because insurance for conventional hire cars may be void on non-bitumen roads. Permits may be required to pass through some parts of the route.