Exploring the Red Centre of Australia
I’m ashamed to admit that it took a pandemic to get me to the red centre of Australia! Not that it hasn’t been on the bucket list FOREVER, but, like many avid travellers, there were so many other options, particularly across the seas in exotic faraway lands, to distract me from visiting the beating heart of my homeland.
The upside of travel plans being much curtailed during COVID-19 is that we get to discover our own backyard, and when opportunity knocked (that is, a group of 16 friends had planned a mini-break and someone dropped out at the last minute so there was a spare spot for my husband and I!) we jumped at it.
So, complete with facemasks, hand sanitiser and border passes, we eagerly hopped on our flight from Brisbane to Yulara, in anticipation of discovering the real Aussie outback.
And what a revelation it was! Hot – yes; flies – yes (well, we did visit in November) – but sooo much more than that.
But, not to overwhelm you, but instead help you to design your own ultimate itinerary, here are my top tips:
First, some outback history
I always feel it is more meaningful to do a bit of research about a destination before I travel there. If you are an even more diligent human being, you could source some relevant non-fiction to include as your holiday reading material. A good place to start is understanding some Aboriginal history, such as Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu , Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why or Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country, the latter which will not only give you an overview of Indigenous culture in Central Australia, but also across the entire continent. If fiction is more your thing, then I’m thinking something Tim Winton, like Dirt Music, although set in Western Australia, is still on the ‘hot and dusty’ theme. Or, Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, set in Alice Springs. Particularly if you have seen the movie featuring a hot and sweaty Brian Brown and Rachel Ward (who later married due to their steamy experience on set) then you know it will be a rollicking read.
But back to the history of this unique and time-honoured place. The famous rocks – Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) – seemed small from the air as we glided into Yulara, the nearest town. However, as we approached at ground level, the realisation of their magnificence was quite overwhelming. They are believed to have started forming about 550 million years ago when the area was covered by sea, followed by movement of the earth’s tectonic plates when the sea disappeared 400 million years ago, and finally, with the falling away of softer rocks 300 million years ago, emerging as sandstone and conglomerate rock monoliths. The area is a sacred site for Australia’s Indigenous peoples and the feeling that you are in the presence of something very special is all-pervading. Uluru and the 36 rocks that make up Kata Tjuta stand proud and looming within the UNESCO World Heritage listed site of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, home to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, otherwise known as Anangu (pronounced arn-ung-oo), for over 60,000 years.
Hiking around Uluru and Kata Tjuta
Walking around the rocks are a must, or there are also bike and Segway options. However, I feel that taking it slowly and peacefully is much more appropriate – breathing in the serenity and allowing yourself to be present and feel the significance of where you are. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are sacred sites for Aboriginal people as they are believed to have been formed by ancestral beings during The Dreaming, and are also the resting place of ancient spirits. Many sacred rituals have been performed in their caves and you can see the evidence through drawings and paintings. In many areas, it is forbidden to take photos, in respect of the ancient traditions. Depending on the time of year you travel, walking may be limited to early in the day, before the sun’s heat makes it unbearable, and unsafe, to walk amongst the hot rocks, so plan for some early starts!
Sunrise and sunset spectaculars
Experiencing the rocks at both sunrise and sunset are quite spectacular and there are a number of ways to do this. We opted for a Sunset Camel Tour through Uluru Camel Tours on our first evening, which was a quirky intro to the outback, complete with dry Aussie commentary, snorting though well-behaved animals, and bush tucker-inspired drinks and nibbles.
On our second evening we enjoyed the Sounds of Silence Dinner which really is a ‘must do’. Sipping champers as the sun dips below the horizon, transforming the landscape into a rusty golden cocoon is nothing short of stunning. Dinner under the stars, accompanied by an explanation of the myriad of bright and soft lights overhead is educational and memorable. As with these sorts of experiences, don’t expect the food to be the highlight when you are in the presence of unspeakable beauty.
A 4.30am start to immerse ourselves in Bruce Munro’s Field of Light was definitely worth the effort. Covering an area of over seven football fields, the 50,000 solar-powered lights that change colour and create a grounded reflection of the light-sprinkled vista above, as well as a metaphor for sprouting seeds into blossoms, has been met with some controversy around its impact on the environment. However, the installation, initially a temporary fixture, but now in place indefinitely, creates another opportunity for visitors to marvel at the expansive and magical landscape of the red centre.
There are numerous viewing platforms if you want to do your own thing with a picnic and cocktails at sunset or sunrise, as well as Indigenous bush tucker and educational experiences, helicopter flights as well as concerts and opera throughout 2021.
Where to stay at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Our group stayed at the Sails in the Desert Resort, part of Ayers Rock Resort, which dominates the township of Yulara, and, having undergone a makeover in recent years, boasts stylish interiors featuring Indigenous artworks and the rich hues of mustard, deep crimson, burnt orange, and the browns so typical of the surrounding landscape. The resort offers a number of free included activities such as a Bush Food Experience, guided nature walks, a Didgeridoo Workshop, Bush Yarns and Capturing the Cosmos astronomy experience.
Of course, if your budget can stretch to the ultimate in luxury then Longitude 131 is definitely worth considering.
Outback weddings or special milestone occasions
Nothing says ‘quintessential Australian’ more than an outback wedding! The backdrop of a stunning landscape, combined with a unique experience for you and your guests is something that would be truly magical. Something to think about now that Tuscany is off the agenda! You could combine your special ceremony with a truly memorable honeymoon or extended holiday exploring the red centre – certainly an unrepeatable experience!
What to pack for the outback
Regardless of what time of year you visit, checking the weather forecast is important. While the desert can be exceedingly hot during the day, the night-time temperatures can plummet significantly. If you visit during the summer months (December/January/February) as we did, ensure you take long-sleeved shirts in natural fibres (cotton or linen are best), as well as sunscreen, to protect you from the scorching sun. A hat and sunglasses are essential, as are fly nets during this dry season. Lip balm, a water bottle and sturdy walking shoes are also important. The red dirt of the outback, while giving a rich, vibrant hue to the landscape, is also anathema to white!
What Indigenous souvenirs to buy
There are plenty of opportunities to buy quality Indigenous artwork and souvenirs in the outback. Walkatjara Art is the Aboriginal owned not-for-profit art centre belonging to the Mutitjulu community at Uluru, as well as the Maruku Arts where you can buy a myriad of Indigenous paintings and traditional artworks. You can also participate in art experiences. Trust me, you will be so seduced by the colours and contours of the landscape and the artwork that embraces and celebrates it so beautifully, you won’t be able to resist!