Planning a trip to the centre? This list will help you out.
ULURU AND KATA TJUTA
The accessibility of the very heart of Australia these days doesn’t detract from its mystery or the mecca-like effect that it has on the hearts of every red-blooded Australian.
Gone are the days when one had to endure the Stuart Highway as a never-ending straight stretch of corrugations and dead kangaroos. The evidence of progress, and the dues one pays for the easy journey today, are the busloads of tourists piling out of massive A-class diesel monsters.
Those brand new tourists will see Uluru at sunset, just like you will. They will pay $15 for a bag of ice at Yulara, the ‘resort’ ensconced on the eastern flank of ‘the rock’.
But the swimming holes hidden between ochre massifs in the West MacDonnell Ranges, and the much more mysterious Kata Tjuta site to the west of Uluru, these are sites these tourists will probably never see.
To do that requires more than just money. It demands a sense of adventure, a love of the stars as one’s ceiling and, more often than not, a 4WD.
Kata Tjuta, to the west, is no great journey from Yulara. Its beauty is not as refined as Uluru’s, and it is this wildness that draws me each time I visit this part of the world.
If Uluru is the main man, the god of landforms, then the rounded hills of Kata Tjuta are the gods men are allowed to pray to. Anthropomorphic shapes in the rock call us to identify with this place in a way that Uluru doesn’t. The huddled stone hills of Kata Tjuta are carved, like soap, by the rains that come rarely, but hard.
Delicate water fountains pour from rounded hole to hole down the faces of these rocks, each basin a navel in the great bellies of these red mounds.
Around two hours north of Adelaide, the scrub country and salt plains are abruptly broken by the first jagged spines of the massive Flinders Ranges, which rise out of this dry country and extend nearly 400km.
There are many ways to explore the geological time capsule that this country represents. The National Park is always a good place to start, and the road through Bunyeroo Valley is as iconic a destination as any other track in Australia, but if you really want to get the Flinders under your fingernails, it pays to get in touch with some of the private properties that have self-drive tours in the area.
Wilpena Pound is probably the first place you’ll visit in the park, and it is where you can pick up your camping permits. There are two types of camping in the park. The sites at Wilpena have facilities, but also crowds.
Further afield in the park, especially if you stay away from peak tourist seasons, you can have a slice of paradise all to yourself without having to do any real 4WDing.
The main track through the park shoots north from Wilpena Pound through the Bunyeroo Valley. If you can drive past the lookout here without stopping, you’re blind, and probably shouldn’t be driving in the first place.
The track through Brachina Gorge takes in some amazing geology, with layers upon layers of ancient stone exposed in a cross section that takes in millions of years.
There are two sad things about the Tanami Road: one, Rabbit Flat is closed now, and it was always quite an experience running into Bruce there.
Two, people insist on calling it the longest shortcut in the world, but this completely demeans the Tanami Desert as a quietly beautiful place, and a unique habitat for the plants and animals that call it home.
The fact that this red dirt country seems to go on forever makes it easy to forget about what’s outside the windows and just plunge on to see if you can make the other end of this corrugated road in one day (you can, but it isn’t pleasant).
The real secret to understanding the Tanami Desert is to sleep out under the stars here. You’ll see what I mean when you do, because there seem to be more stars here than over any other spot in Australia. And with the wind the only sound to break the silence, this is a really unique place that captures perfectly what we imagine we mean when we say ‘outback’.
ROMA TO WINTON
The country west of Roma and north, all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria, is homogenously known as ‘outback Queensland’. But as you travel through it, traversing channel country and heading north into the drier climate around Winton, the only thing that is homogenous is the kindness of the people you meet.
The pubs scattered around this part of the country aren’t just watering holes, they sometimes act as police stations, information centres, restaurants, PTA meetings and just about everything else.
The country as you drive through is flat, broken by the dry riverbeds of the channel country or seeming to run on endlessly across flat plains, the sun’s swollen light melting into the horizon, unbroken by trees.
Longreach is the home of Qantas, as well as the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. Both are must-see destinations around here.
Winton hosts an Outback Festival every year around springtime, which is for the visitor with limited time, the perfect way to immerse yourself in this culture completely.
Kings Canyon seems like it was created as nothing more than a vast stage for us to project our Eden fantasy upon.
Cool, green pools of water hide within crevices deep enough that no sunlight ever directly hits the surface of the water. And the red and ochre brimstone that the Canyon is carved out of catches those same sunbeams and retains their heat long into the night, as if they are glowing within.
Located just over 300km southwest of Alice Springs, Kings Canyon is a massive raised plateau carved out quite spectacularly by Kings Creek. The sandstone has the strange property of cleaving off in perfect vertical sheets, so that the canyon walls are long, polished walls that drop to the floor, a few hundred metres below.
Heart Attack Hill is what visitors have come to call the initial scramble up to the top of the plateau from the parking lot, but once you overcome this quick test, Kings Canyon offers one constant and ever changing views out over the surrounding countryside, and into the canyon itself.
At the end of the rim walk, you can drop down into the canyon and follow the creek bed as it cuts even deeper into the rock towards a hidden swimming hole. If you’re lucky enough to find it full of fresh water on a hot day, it is a perfect simulacrum of that Eden myth, and usually ice cold.