It’s just a big, red rock, right? Wrong. And it takes being in the presence of Uluru to make you realise just why people travel halfway across a continent to see it. From afar, it’s the colours that give it a special aura. The gatherings at the sunrise and sunset viewing areas are treated to a light show, as the shifting sun brings different pinks, oranges and reds to the fore.
But up close, it’s the detail that surprises. This is partly because everyone knows Uluru taken from one angle. Start walking around it, and it becomes clear that there’s so much more to it. There are pockmarks, gullies where vegetation gets a fighting chance at life and blackened stripes where the water channels during a rainstorm. Certain caves are roped off — reserved for traditional men’s or women’s business by the local indigenous peoples.
Of course walking isn’t the only way to experience Uluru: what about from the back of a Harley Davidson, or a camel? From above in a helicopter, or a fixed-wing plane? And don’t forget Bruce Munro’s Field of Light installation — 50,000 ‘stems’ of light — has been extended until March 2018.
The big rocks tend to be the focus of the Red Centre, but Kings Canyon offers something both very different and more representative. It’s the most spectacular canyon in a bare, rumpled range of many, and it’s worth taking a helicopter flight over the top to see just how stark and scarred the surrounding region is.
The Kings Creek walk follows the path along the creek bed, surrounded by the canyon rim. But the truly special walk is along said canyon rim, looking down into the surprisingly lush hidey holes full of cycads and calm pools, then heading through a maze of beehive-esque rock domes. The only problem is getting up there, which means tackling the aptly named Heart Attack Hill at the start. On searingly hot days (and there are lots in these parts), the rim walk is only possible early in the morning — once the mercury creeps too high, the entrance to Heart Attack Hill is roped off.
What started as a humble telegraph station has become Central Australia’s hub town, a cultural hotspot with an ability to laugh at itself — as the annual Henley-on-Todd Regatta, set in the dry Todd River would testify. It has art galleries and a hip cafe culture, but Alice’s appeal as a destination in its own right lies largely in its history and its status as the Outback’s nerve centre. The Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historic Reserve takes care of the former, while the Royal Flying Doctor Service Base offers a brilliant insight into how medical treatment is provided for remote communities. It charts the history of the Flying Doctors — which lands planes on rough-and-ready airstrips in the middle of nowhere on a daily basis — and allows a peek into the operations room.
Daly Waters is where the road heading west hits the Stuart Highway going north. And it is the only place you’ll see a traffic light for a long, long way either side. That light is outside the Daly Waters Pub, and it is permanently set to red in a bid to get people to stay there longer than anticipated. In fairness, though, most don’t need much persuasion. This is that classic Outback pub, covered in banknotes from all over the world and underwear kindly donated by previous patrons. Coins are tossed to see whether the round of drinks is free, the band strikes up in the yard, and barbecued steak and barramundi make an attempt to soak up the prodigious amount of beer being swilled.
Daly Waters is likely to provide your biggest hangover on a drive through the Outback, and that’ll be viewed in these parts as a golden badge of pride. dalywaterspub.com
The Devil’s Marbles
Sixty-five miles before Tennant Creek, the only sizable town between Alice Springs and Katherine, is Karlu Karlu. This series of weirdly smooth boulders balanced in precarious piles is better known as the Devil’s Marbles. The boring explanation is they’re the remnants of a layer of granite eroded over the millennia. The more interesting is that they’re the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent, the ancestral being said to have carved out much of the landscape. Nearby is Wycliffe Well, one of many quirky Outback roadhouses. Full of fibreglass aliens and Elvises, it claims to be Australia’s UFO capital.
The Katherine River — the first permanent flowing water source encountered on leaving the South Australian coast — has cut a series of 13 gorges through the sandstone of the Nitmiluk National Park; best tackled by cruise boat or kayak, they’re the main draw here.
In the town itself, the Katherine School of the Air Tourist Rooms shows how Outback kids are educated remotely. Lessons once done by phone are now conducted via the internet. What’s striking is that despite the vast distances between classmates, it all still feels like a conventional classroom environment.
Kakadu National Park
Unlike many national parks, Kakadu lacks a stand-out attraction; it’s a slow-burner, best tackled over two or three days, to fully appreciate its vastness and the varied ecosystems of the Alligator Rivers Region.
Crocodile-filled billabongs, the dramatic Jim Jim and Twin Falls waterfalls, the sprawling flood plains and the monsoon forest all play a part, as do vast sandstone escarpments.
There’s a cultural element too. Some of Australia’s most important indigenous artwork has been found and preserved at Nourlangie and Ubirr — with some of the paintings said to be up to 25,000 years old. Continuing on from the rock art gallery at Ubirr to the top of the Nardab Lookout gives a phenomenal panoramic view out over the lush floodplain of the East Alligator River.
Litchfield National Park
Often billed as a smaller, more accessible Kakadu, Litchfield has a different set of strengths. It’s certainly a better bet for bushwalking, with sections of the Tabletop Track easily doable in a day, but the scenery is different too. The highlights generally involve water cascading off the large plateau, forming swimming holes such as those at Wangi Falls and Florence Falls. Don’t worry — it’s too far inland and high up for the salties to make an unwelcome appearance; you can splash around to your heart’s content without becoming prey.
But Litchfield also has the weird factor, with the landscape punctuated by giant termite mounds, taking the rough shape of crooked, crumpled witches hats.
Published in the Australia 2017 guide, distributed with the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).