Australia’s centre is its heart and soul dressed in red. A massive aorta that tirelessly pumps blood consisting of warm sand and soft dust. The country’s core, also known as the Red Centre, is a difficult and inhospitable part of the Northern Territory. A dry and hot landmass spreading out as far as the eyes can reach. The vegetation is sparse, and only the most persistent and toughest variants can survive. Rain is unusual and falls in minimal quantities most of the year. The sun’s rays cuts through the thin ozone layer to immediately burn the skin. Winding gravel roads continue kilometre after kilometre, only lined with hardy Eucalyptus trees. A veil of red-brown dust is constantly hanging in the air, quietly sweeping through the expanses. In the Red Centre, time seems to stand still. Minutes turns into hours and stress is a foreign concept. This is also sacred land for the indigenous people, making it an excellent place to learn more about Aboriginal culture and history. For over 40,000 years, Aboriginal people have lived in harmony with nature in these areas.
The main attraction of the area is the iconic Uluru (wotif.com/discover/australia/northern-territory/petermann/uluru.d6054666), the massive sandstone monolith that rises 348 m from the otherwise flat Simpson desert. Tourists pilgrimage here to see the wonders of nature and it is easy to admire the majestic surroundings. You’ll want to bring out the camera, but keep in mind that this is a spiritual place and it’s important to show great respect as you travel in these areas. If you think that only desert and sunrays is to be found, you will be surprised. Out of nowhere, the mountains of the MacDonnell Range rise like a jagged spine compared to the flat landscape. Lush groves with green palm trees and refreshing waterholes hide among its deep ravines that runs in a crisscross pattern. Spend a day or two here walking through the gorges and seek the coolness of the cold lakes. Then head to the lonesome desert city, Alice Springs (wotif.com/discover/australia/northern-territory/alice-springs.d6052510), to admire Aboriginal works from local artists. The Red Centre offers both magnificent scenery and a rich culture that gives a deeper understanding of the indigenous peoples and their traditions. Here is a mix of rolling sand dunes, wild camels and twinkling stars. Old stories and fascinating encounters. Australia’s centre takes you on an exciting journey through the country’s ancient history, leaving no one indifferent.
During a visit to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre (parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/plan/cultural-centre.html) near Uluru you can learn about the area’s history. They have educational videos and the entry is free. Guided tours start from here and there is an associated shop selling souvenirs. Westwards in Watarrka National Park lies Kings Canyon, which is not as commercial and exploited as Uluru. You can either follow the mountain crest or take the shorter and lighter trail into the bottom of the gorge. For an unbeatable view of the national park, you must endure the 500 steps leading up to the edge of the gorge and then follow the signs leading you forward. The hike is six kilometres, takes about three and a half hours and is suitable for those who are accustomed to exercise. You can experience MacDonnell Range gorges in the east or west, of which the western ones are more frequented visited. Wander parts of, or all, of the 223 km Larapinta Trail (larapintatrail.com.au) for a unique experience of central Australia. The trail starts north of Alice Springs and winds along the western part of the MacDonell Range. It ends at the top of Mount Sonder. About 50 km from Uluru lies the sandstone formations Kata Tjuta, which means many heads. Don’t miss to come here when you are in the area. There are two trails with two difficulty levels to choose on. Kata Tjuta is not as well-visited as Uluru and is therefore quieter. With plenty of time you can follow The Valley Of The Winds Trail of seven kilometres that goes past two fantastic vantage points.
Majestic Uluru is the reason why many get this far inland. Once in place you will notice that you are far from alone in admiring the gigantic red rock. It takes up to four hours to walk around the entire monolith. Do not climb up Uluru even though it is possible, because besides being dangerous it is disrespectful to the Aboriginals, for this is a sacred place. From October 2019 it is forbidden to climb Uluru. The monolith is especially beautiful in sunrise and sunset when the colour shifts in soft shades. The mysterious Karlu Karlu, also known as the Devils Marbles, are scattered like tall oversized stone bullets 400 km north of Alice Springs along the Stuart Highway. The giant red granite boulders have been formed by erosion and are available in varying sizes, the largest of which are over five meters wide. Some of them are stacked on one another, others have cracked open. In addition to wandering among the unusual boulders, keep your eyes open for any of the many animals living here.
The extensive Simpson Desert with its high sand dunes and ghostly emptiness is 176,500 square kilometres big. Wild camels and dromedaries live in the desert, offspring from the animals that were imported from Asia during the 1800s. When you travel through the desert, the chances of seeing them as they slowly stroll around are high. About 75 km south of Alice Springs is the Rainbow Valley, which is a beautiful valley with rough, jagged rocks in different colours. Nature photographers are very fond of seeing the rocks shift in shades during the morning and evening sun. A four-wheel drive car is required to get here.
Planning and preparation
Avoid coming here during the summer. Baking temperatures, irritating flies and a burning sun, not to recommended. Instead, come here during spring, winter or autumn, which falls between April and October. Remember to protect yourself from the sun. All the time. Cover yourself in sunscreen with a high SPF and preferably wear a sun hat covering your neck. Buy and bring plenty of water as it is far between shops and gas stations. Use a pair of shoes with sturdy soles to avoid getting hurt while walking on uneven surfaces. Let the car stay parked after sunset when Kangaroos arrive, accidents are common during the evenings. Also, take caution when meeting with wide trucks on the roads.
There is a wide range of arranged trips of varying length and budget for those who prefer to travel with a tour operator. Choose between camping tours, guided helicopter, bus, bike or camel riding and balloon rides around Alice Springs (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Alice%20Springs,%20Northern%20Territory) and Uluru-Kata Howl National Park (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Uluru-Kata%20Tjuta%20National%20Park).
Travelling around the Red Centre is not easy and requires planning. If you have the opportunity, you should consider hiring a car. However, make sure to choose a car with a four-wheel drive. Smaller roads are rarely paved in remote areas which can result in damaging the undercarriage if you drive too fast. Several car rentals companies are located in Alice Springs (wotif.com/Car-Hire). Or, you can join in on a bus tour. Most bus companies drive to Uluru, including the AAT Kings buses that drive back and forth between Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon (wotif.com/things-to-do/shared-shuttle-ayers-rock-kings-canyon.a224331.activity-details). Then there is backpacker friendly OzExperience (ozexperience.com) who has hop-on, hop-off options. Several airlines fly from Ayers Rock Airport, which is located six kilometres from the town of Yulara. Qantas also operates flights from Alice Springs to destinations in all directions (wotif.com/Flights). You can also take the famous train The Ghan (greatsouthernrail.com.au) that crosses the country when it runs between Darwin and Adelaide, making stops in Alice Springs and Katherine.
If you want to discover more than one side of the Red Centre, take at least four days to do this. Distances are long and the roads are not always in top condition. Alice Springs is a great starting point for exploring the area. There are several car rentals to choose from and you can purchase food and supplies before you set off. Alice Springs is quite small, so a longer visit is not necessary to discover the town. However, don’t miss to look for Aboriginal artwork that comes in high doses here. Then drive out to the Simpson Gap where two gorges meet up in western MacDonnell Ranges. Come here in the early morning or the late evening when black-footed rock wallabies are active and can be seen scampering around.
Take the bumpy Mereenie Loop Road towards Watarrka National Park and spend a night at Kings Canyon Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Kings_Canyon_Resort.htm) before you dedicate a full day to explore the wide gorge. Bring your swimwear, comfy shoes and a bottle of water and follow the trail that follows the mountain crest. Start walking in the morning before the sun stands too high. After an hour’s walk you will arrive at The Garden of Eden where a small waterhole is located. Take a dip before continuing the trail. When you feel satisfied with Kings Canyon, drive towards Uluru. In Yulara you can replenish your supplies and shop at the town’s well-stocked supermarket. You will also find all kinds of accommodation options in Yulara, from camping areas to real luxury options. Choose an option that suits you and rest to charge your batteries for the next day.
Go up in time to see the colours shift as the sun rises over Uluru. Then visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre to learn about the area’s ancient history. Follow a guided tour to the monolith or walk around on your own. Then continue to Kata Tjuta to stroll around among the many sandstone rocks. As the day starts to come to its end, return to Uluru to see the last of the sunlight change its colours in a majestic display before you spend another night in Yulara.