It was August 2003. We were in what felt like the middle of nowhere in the thriving, spirited outback centre of Alice Springs.
Some of you may know Alice from the 1950 novel by Nevil Shute or the subsequent film ‘A Town Like Alice’. We were there to set off on an adventure into the deep centre – to the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park about 463 kms direct by road from Alice in the Northern Territory of Australia.
It is one of those iconic places that you fear will not live up to the hype. That you will arrive and be disappointed. And it was a long drive to be disappointed at the end of it.
Setting out in our hired Toyota Land cruiser (a giant beast that was total overkill as there was only the two of us, but the smaller Rav4 was unavailable) we headed for our first stop in Kings Canyon.
Feeling adventurous I decided that we would travel west through the West MacDonnell Ranges to Glen Helen, along the Mereenie Loop Road which is unsealed most of the way but passes incredible places along the way like Standley Chasm, Palm Valley and the Glen Helen Outback resort (all of which we had explored during the two previous days.) Nowadays I believe you need to purchase a permit to travel along part of this route, but then it was not required. And it is now known as the Red Centre Way. You cannot travel on an unsealed road in Australia in an ordinary hire car so make sure if you want to follow this route that you book a 4WD. All you have to deal with are pretty bad corrugations in places which take some adjustment in finding the optimum speed where you are not shaking the teeth out of your head, nor going so slow that you feel every bump! It is a lovely drive through some beautiful desert country, certainly more appealing than the much longer detour along the sealed highway.
If you don’t make any stops along the route the drive to the Kings Canyon resort is around 3 1/2 hours. There you will find 300 metre sheer cliff faces and a palm-fringed swimming hole and you can take the Kings Canyon Rim Walk for breathtaking views over the red landscape. We stayed in a basic cabin and enjoyed a walk in the valley before heading to the restaurant for barbecued steaks and a live country music band who invited people to get up and dance. Of course things will have changed since this trip and you can now have an ‘Under a Desert Moon Fine Dining Experience‘ which will more than likely set you back a whole lot more than what we paid for the entire trip!
Leaving Kings Canyon the following day (though I would recommend spending two nights at the resort if you can as there is much to see) we continued south along the Luritja highway for 300km to Uluru which is a huge monolith created some 600 million years ago. As we reached the Lasseter Highway we could see the third largest monolith in the distance – Mount Connor – (located 100 kms east of Uluru) which never gets much of a mention, but is quite a sight, rising up in the middle of the desert. You can book a 4WD day trip from the Ayers Rock resort which includes dinner at the Curtin Springs Station’ homestead and provides you with a quintessential Aussie Outback experience.
So on to the main event – Uluru. If I had thought that Mount Connor looked impressive I was totally astounded by this rock which is accepted as the largest Monolith in Australia and claims to be the largest monolith in the world. After dropping off bags in our accommodation in the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge, we set off for the base of the monolith to have a walk and then to get into position to see the sunset.
You don’t have to spend a fortune when visiting this part of the world (which is now rated to be the third most expensive resort to visit) as you can camp or stay in cabins and drive around yourself taking in the views and the park, and walk around the base (9 km) or in Kata-Tutja. Of course if you want 5* luxury spa hotels, flights over the rock, rides on camels or Harley Davidsons and dine outside under the stars with gourmet dining, then you can. But we didn’t.
The next day we got up early to watch the sun rise. The rock really does glow and there is something very magical about it. Its history, its significance in Aboriginal culture, its location, the peacefulness. Even with the crowds it still feels special. We carried on to the Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) which are further on into the park and where there are two walks open to everyone: The Valley of the Winds, a 7 km beauty that makes a loop to two spectacular lookout points, takes about three hours and is easy-going. Do it in the early morning to avoid the crowds and the Walpa Gorge Walk, an easier 2.6 km stroll that takes in a nice representative of the native wildlife and plants of the park.
I can’t recall which trail we followed, but walking between the steep walls of red sandstone, listening to flocks of finches, looking at the wild flora, and above all, the feeling of space and no crowds of people, was my favourite part of the trip. Like Ayers Rock, these rock formations are most spectacular at sunrise and sunset when the light seems to give them a magical red glow.
Returning to Alice along the Luritja Road we turned off onto Ernest Giles Road (unsealed for about 70 km) for a ride on a rich red and dusty road – take care though, as this is the one and only time that I literally took off! Driving too fast over a hidden dip, the land cruiser flew through the air before landing somewhat shakily on the other side, after that I took things a little more slowly.
A few kilometres before the road joins the Stuart Highway leading back to Alice we passed the Henbury Meteorite Conservation reserve where we stopped for a stretch of legs and a walk around this unusual site. Henbury Meteorites Conservation Reserve contains 12 craters which were formed when a meteor hit the earth’s surface 4,700 years ago. The Henbury Meteor, weighing several tonnes and accelerating to over 40,000 km per hour, disintegrated before impact and the fragments formed the craters.
Uluru was even better than I had imagined, despite the amount of tourism (and I suspect it has increased over the past 10 years) and unexpectedly the walk in Kata Tjuta and the drives on those mystical red dusty roads through the Outback were additional highlights for me.
Have you visited an iconic site? And if so did it live up to your expectations or were you left feeling a little bit cheated?