Australia’s fabled red heart is a place rich in indigenous culture, and sun-seared natural icons like Uluru, Kata Tjuta, the West MacDonnell Ranges and Kings Canyon – and one of Australia’s 16 Ultimate Escapes
Australia’s red centre is often referred to as the spiritual heart of Australia, a living landscape of breathtaking beauty that encompasses the World Heritage-listed Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park, Alice Springs, the ancient West MacDonnell Ranges and Watarrka National Park. The traditional custodians, the Anangu, believe the Central Australian landscape was created at the beginning of time by their ancestors. Their descendants have protected these sacred lands for thousands of generations since.
In its midst, the red rock Uluru (Ayers Rock) is one of the world’s most recognisable natural icons – a towering sentinel rising proudly from the red earth. No matter how many photographs you’ve seen, nothing does this majestic rock justice. See it on a motorcycle, from the back of a camel or from above, on a scenic helicopter flight. Uluru is far from the only wondrous site in this region. To the north-east, the mighty Kings Canyon cleaves deep into the earth. Trek to the rim for views across the bluffs and gorges of Watarrka National Park, or through the West MacDonnell Ranges, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres, harbouring gorges and rock pools. Walk arund the mysterious red domes of Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) sacred under Tjukurpa law, the foundation of Anangu culture. Or from Alice Springs, join a camel trek across the Simpson Desert.
Come to the Red Centre to appreciate Australia’s metaphoric soul. Walk the Larapinta Trail with an Aboriginal guide, sleep in a swag under the stars, swim in refreshingly cool waterholes and discover the ancient culture of Australia’s indigenous people.
Luxury: tented luxury at Longitude
If a view of Uluru from your king-sized bed doesn’t win you over, something else is bound to at luxury resort Longitude 131° (02 9918 4355). Fitted with antique trinkets and earthly furnishings, the 15 tented pavilions take the concept of camping to another stratosphere. Guided tours included in the tariff give guests exclusive access to parts of the national park, and your Uluru experience can be as leisurely or intrepid as you like. Gaze at the ochre rock at sunset with a glass of bubbly, or follow the route of the ancestors on a guided, pre-dawn walk around its base.
Food: a fine desert feast
Fact: food always tastes better outdoors, but when it’s eaten beneath a twinkling canopy of stars in the outback, it’s truly unforgettable. The Tali Wiru (phone: 02 8296 8010) experience will see you feasting on four courses paired with fine Aussie wine, with a magical Uluru and Kata Tjuta domes backdrop. The cuisine is distinctly Australian – think tender Darling Downs wagyu and wattleseed rubbed kangaroo carpaccio. After the meal, diners are treated to tales told by an indigenous storyteller.
Explore: tour Kata Tjuta domes
The rust-red 36 boulders of Kata Tjuta are a majestic sight. In fact, the largest rock, Mt Olga, is even taller than Uluru. These surreal, dome-like structures have deep cultural significance as a sacred Aboriginal men’s ceremonial site, so stick to marked trails. Surrounded by gorges, they offer some of the most rewarding walking opportunities in the park. Explore the 7.4-kilometre Valley of the Winds walk (which has one- to four-hour loops) or the guided one-hour Walpa Gorge trail that follows a path between two of the ancient domes. More: SEIT Outback Australia (phone: 08 8956 3156).
Indigenous: dinner with a bush chef
Bush tucker is not all witchety grubs, although Bob (Penunka) Taylor knows a way or two with those. Bob, an Arrernte man, will open your eyes to gourmet bush tucker. A descendant of the traditional owners of the Rainbow Valley and son of a renowned watercolour artist, Bob spent 26 years working as a chef here and abroad. Now running RT Tours (08 8952 0327), his dinners in the West MacDonnell Ranges combine three-course meals with a convivial chat about Aboriginal culture. His culinary background means you can expect some real bush delicacies. Bob cooks with ingredients like kangaroo, wattleseed and quandong, and fires up the oven with mulga wood, a type of desert acacia widely used in Aboriginal culture.
Adventure: Discover the unexpected
The show-stealing Uluru tends to get most of the attention in the Red Centre, but The Rock is just the icing on the outback cake. A three-day Goanna Dreaming 4WD safari unveils some of the lesser-known sights, like working cattle station Kings Creek (don’t forget to try the famous camel burger!) and Mt Conner – seen on the road from Alice Springs, it’s often mistaken for Uluru because of its similar, flat-topped shape. Or walk through Kings Canyon, with sandstone bluffs, cavernous gorges and a shaded waterhole known as the Garden of Eden. See: Way Outback safaris; 1300 551 510.
Walks: trek the Larapinta Trail
The Larapinta Trail, amid the splendid isolation of the West MacDonnell Ranges, is regarded as one of the greatest walks in the country. The 223-kilometre trail follows the high ridge lines of the West Macs, a landscape of deep gorges, dried creek beds and spinifex-covered plains dotted with termite mounds. Highlights include the mighty Simpsons Gap and clambering to the summit of Mt Sonder. On a six-day, fully guided trek, walkers stop to swim in waterholes, and bed down at night at semi-permanent bush camps, where hot showers and fireside meals await. See: World Expeditions; 1300 720 000.
Family: ride a camel at sunset
You might not go as far as Robyn Davidson, the Tracks writer who rode camels across 2700 kilometres of Aussie desert, but you can lope along the dunes for an hour, watching the sunset blaze across Uluru and Kata Tjuta. With dewy eyes framed by luscious lashes, the camels are gentle, friendly creatures, with an undulating, slow-paced gait. Saddle up at a farm at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort just before sunset or sunrise, enjoy the view and return to the farm to munch on freshly baked beer damper. See: Uluru Camel Tours; 08 8956 3333.
Getting there: Fly to Ayers Rock Airport from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane (all around three hours) Cairns and Alice Springs. Flights to Darwin from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane take around 4 – 4.5 hours. The trip from Alice Springs is one hour, or about 4.5 hours if you’re driving.
Eating there: There’s plenty of fare in the outback. Don’t miss campfire dinners, classic outback cuisine like camel burgers and roo steak. Grill your own bush tucker at the Pioneer Barbecue; enjoy ﬁne dining at Kuniya inside Sails in the Desert; or dine outdoors, in view of Uluru, at the famous Sounds of Silence dinner.
Staying there: From unpowered camp sites up to the 15 luxury pavilions at Longitude 131°, there’s something to suit every budget. Tourist town Yulara has it all – pitch a tent or motorhome or book a room at one of the numerous hotels, hostels, resorts and self-contained apartments with pools.