If the idea of following an adventurous arts trail by day and falling asleep in luxury accommodation overnight appeals, then the Red Centre Arts Trail around the heart of Northern Territory’s wilderness is an experience not to be missed.
In the hands of multi-talented Indigenous artist Christine Breaden, the seeds of the native trees are used to make necklaces and bracelets.
Visitors to the Red Centre learn how seeds like this become striking pieces of jewellery on a tour with Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience & Tours. It’s just one of the many rewarding lessons in Indigenous culture that can be learned as you journey along the Red Centre Arts Trail.
Breaden, a Luritja woman, and her partner Peter Abbott, a Western Aranda/Pertame (Southern Aranda) man, live on the land of their ancestors in the Aboriginal community of Wanmarra (population 10), just inside Kings Canyon/Watarrka National Park.
The couple’s tours introduce visitors to their ancient culture and creation story, in part through art, as Breaden explains that the cultural symbols and shapes – circles, U-shapes, C-shapes and lines – found in dot painting have complex and sometimes sacred meanings not revealed to others.
Today, the Central Desert region is nationally and internationally acclaimed for producing some of Australia’s biggest names in Indigenous art, and a journey through the Red Centre offers both a wealth of art and cultural experiences and accommodation with a distinct Northern Territory accent to boot.
Seek out Alice Springs’ many galleries
Start in Alice Springs, with a base at the Crown Plaza Alice Springs in the Lasseters Hotel Casino complex. The deluxe suites here have walls adorned with Indigenous art and views of the MacDonnell Ranges.
Seek out Tjanpi Desert Weavers, a social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council, one of the many small galleries showcasing Indigenous art in the Alice Springs town centre. Tjanpi represents more than 400 Aboriginal women artists from remote communities who create beautiful contemporary fibre art from native grasses: baskets, sculptures and jewellery.
The development of contemporary Aboriginal art is showcased at the Araluen Galleries in the Araluen Cultural Precinct. The Araluen Art Collection focuses on works by Central Australian artists from the early 1930s onwards, including one of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal painters, the late Albert Namatjira, as well as artists from the Papunya community, who rose to prominence in the 1970s.
Explore the West MacDonnell Ranges in ‘Namatjira Country’
A day trip from ‘the Alice’ to the spectacular West MacDonnell Ranges reveals the country that inspired some of Namatjira’s most famous watercolours. The National Trust-listed Hermannsburg Historic Precinct, where Namatjira lived, is only 130 kilometres from Alice Springs and is rich in history as well as art.
The white-washed German-style former mission buildings have been restored and now house a cafe, museum and the Namatjira Gallery, which also has works by the Hermannsburg Potters. The red river gums and date palms that feature in many of Namatjira’s paintings are all around.
Another worthwhile and easily accessible stop in the ‘West Macs’ is the Kathleen Buzzacott Art Studio, which is just a 20-minute drive outside Alice Springs. You can meet Buzzacott at her studio as she works on her bold, bright dot paintings, which feature native animals and hunting and gathering stories inspired by her childhood memories.
Buzzacott’s collection also includes painted ceramic pieces, homewares and seed jewellery. Perhaps you’ll take home a piece, as the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William did when they visited the Red Centre in 2014. Buzzacott Art Studio is open by appointment only.
Enjoy desert luxury at Uluru
Uluru is nature’s masterpiece in the red heart of Central Australia and the inspiration for many artists. From a luxury base at Ayers Rock Resort’s desert camp, Longitude 131º, there is much to explore.
With uninterrupted views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) in the distance, this glamourous ultra-luxe camp comprises 16 tented pavilions connected to the red earth of the Central Desert.
Here, too, the interiors are a testament to the talents of Indigenous artists, complemented by custom-designed Australian furniture and relics of European explorers. Longitude 131º works closely with Ernabella Arts, the oldest continuously running Indigenous arts centre in Australia, and also has an artist-in-residence program. Expect to see paintings, wooden carvings and spears, and woven birds and baskets.
At Yulara, where Ayers Rock Resort’s five-star Sails in the Desert hotel is another option for visitors seeking a luxury stay at Uluru, the not-for-profit Maruku collective runs a market stall in the town square.
Maruku represents about 900 artists from 20 remote communities and also has a retail gallery at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre. Visitors can also take tours, watch demonstrations by artists and try their own hands at dot painting in daily workshops that provide a fun introduction to Western Desert art.
As the sun sets, there is still much to experience around Uluru. Book a table at Tali Wiru for a magical evening of fine dining under the stars. Here, at Tali Wiru, which means ‘beautiful dune’ in the local Angangu language, a four-course dinner featuring native ingredients awaits. The menu may include pressed wallaby with fermented quandong, or a chocolate dessert enhanced with Davidson plum, lemon myrtle and quandong.
Indigenous storytelling, stargazing, fine Australian wines, and the stillness of the desert night combine to create an evening to remember.
Lighting up the night at Uluru
The incredible Field of Light, an installation of 50,000 glass spheres created by artist Bruce Munro, has now been extended indefinitely at Uluru. sunset, wander through the ‘field’ under a star-studded desert sky.
For those who can’t get enough of the illumination of the desert, a visit to the Red Centre should be timed for Parrtjima, a festival of light staged in Alice Springs from April 9 to 18.
This free event showcases Indigenous culture through contemporary eyes and new technology, projected onto the 300-million-year-old walls of the MacDonnell Ranges/Yeperenye. A spectacular nightly light and sound show at Alice Springs Desert Park takes visitors on a guided journey into the Spirit of Arrernte Kultcha, complemented by a program of performance, interactive workshops, music, film and talks.
As part of the festival, the Todd Mall in Alice Springs’ city heart will showcase the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and designers on illuminated fabric prints.
Glamping in style near Kings Canyon
Beyond Uluru, you can either drive or fly into the luxury Dreamtime Escarpment retreat at Kings Creek Station, about 300 kilometres from Yulara (or from Alice Springs via the Mereenie Loop Road). Set among desert oak trees, this working cattle station and camel farm offers an escape like no other, just 36 kilometres from the majestic Watarrka/Kings Canyon.
In true glamping style, the luxurious tents have en suite bathrooms, air conditioning (or heating), king-size or twin beds and all the amenities you’d expect. There’s also the glamping tents at Kings Canyon Resort & Holiday Park, which feature premium linen, a modern lounge area, dining space, outdoor deck with seating, private en suite bathroom and split air-conditioning system.
Spend the afternoon on a tour with Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience and Tours, one of the highlights of the Red Centre Arts Trail and, after a dip in the pool, an outback barbecue is ready to be cooked before the stars come out.
One thing is certain: walking on the ochre earth of the Red Centre as you explore and learn about the art and culture of Indigenous Australians will bring you closer to this ancient land. It’s an experience that enriches and rewards anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of the land we live on.
Go there as soon as you can.