The sensation of a plane taking off is one of my favourite things in the world.
It is a physical rush, like the plunge of a roller coaster. When the plane leaves the ground and I get those few seconds of weightlessness my body tingles in anticipation. I know something good is coming.
Bright morning sunshine pours through the airplane windows, making my closed eyelids translucent. We are leaving Melbourne behind and entering a completely different world.
As we took off, I watched the sun’s rays reflect off each lake and pond one by one, making them flash like tiny round mirrors woven into a quilt. After several months of traveling around Australia’s lush coastal edges, it was time to plunge deep into it’s hot, dry heart. The Red Centre Australia is vast, wild and spectacular and we had signed ourselves up for a three day camping trip so we could experience it fully.
We arrived at tiny Ayers Rock airport and as soon as we stepped off the plane there it was – Uluru squatting on the horizon – a heavy, silent shape that drew our eyes like a magnet. We had arrived in the Red Centre Australia. I could already feel that there was something special about this place.
Ashleigh, our tour guide, picked us up at the airport. Bubbly, blonde and full of energy, she set the tone on a high note by blasting “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root as we rumbled out of the car park and onto a long, straight, dusty road.
Our Trip to the Red Centre Australia
Uluru Cultural Centre
The first stop on the tour of the Red Centre Australia is the Uluru Cultural Centre. I have no photos from this part of the tour, as photography is not allowed within the cultural centre. Please respect the aboriginal culture and don’t bring your camera in or try to sneak a photo – instead just take the time to read the stories, watch the video and learn as much as you can.
You’ll learn about the history of the people, the land and the rules and traditions. You might notice that some of the photos have been covered up. This is because in Aboriginal culture, once someone dies it is taboo to mention their name or show a photo of them. The centre is also home to an art gallery, where you could see aboriginal artists working on their paintings. The paintings are beautiful and almost hypnotic in their bright, flat simplicity. They are made up of multiple thick dots of paint in rich shades such as ochre, rust red, indigo, sunset pink and deep green.
One of the displays I found incredibly fascinating was about how the centre has received many packages in the mail containing rocks and soil from Uluru, known as “Sorry Rocks”. These packages come with heartfelt and apologetic notes from tourists who visited the site many years ago and took the rocks as a souvenir – not realising how disrespectful they were being to a sacred spot. The park receives about 365 packages per year, approximately one per day. Most are small enough to fit in your hand, but the largest was a 32 kilogram rock returned by a couple from Adelaide.
Some of the letter-writers even said that they have felt cursed with bad luck ever since they removed the rocks and are desperate to give them back. It is impossible for the park staff to know where each of the rocks was taken from, so they use them to repair erosion within the park. I shouldn’t have to tell you this – but obviously DO NOT remove any rocks from Uluru as a souvenir! Not only is it totally disrespectful, but you could also be charged with a $8,500 fine.
Red Centre Australia Base Walk – Seeing Uluru Up Close
Speaking of paint, you know when you have a watercolour paint set and you let it dry out – and the pigments deepen and crack? That’s what Uluru looked like to me as we approached it, like parched red watercolour pigment dried and caked together.
The blazing cloudless cobalt sky looked extra blue above it and the bright sunlight made shadows in the indents of the rock’s surface – pockmarks like in photographs of the moon. The rock is red because it contains iron – it’s surface is rusting away.
In fact, the entire landscape of the Red Centre Australia feels like it was painted by a first-grader. The shrubs are that too-bright yellow green, the sky a bright Crayola blue. The colours are caricatures, pantomime versions of themselves in the garish sun. Later on during our sunset viewing the shades became more nuanced and subtle, but in the sunshine they are unabashedly primary.
In some of the cool, shaded pockets where the rock overhangs you can see aboriginal paintings made with ochre rock mixed with water. Because these water-based pigment images are so temporary they are hard to identify, preserve and date. The rains wash away history.
It rained so much two weeks ago that Ashleigh saw waterfalls cascading down Uluru. Now the only evidence this happened is the black smears that run down the sides of the rock. The moisture caused the algae to grow, when then dried black.
The rains quenched the thirst of the parched red earth and caused the grasses to flourish. “We’ve been calling it the Green Centre of Australia” said Ashleigh – gesturing to the expanse of swaying grasses where there would usually be bare red soil.
Sunset View of Uluru
“Here’s another bloody lookout.” – Ashleigh.
We arrived at Uluru for our sunset dinner during the golden hour – when the sun was low on the horizon and illuminating the rock with a warm, orange glow. I gazed at the rock as Ashleigh cooked curry stir fry for 17 on an enormous iron wok.
As the sun disappeared below the horizon, Uluru did a fantastic costume change. Over 15 minutes it faded from bright orange to deep purple-brown as the sky around it changed from glowing pale blue to pink. The bright primary school colours of the strong sunlight were gone – the diffused light made them more subtle and complex.
The most interesting moments here are in the transitions. The burning red orb of the sun coming up beside Uluru, squeezing over the horizon like being born. The daily cycle between the furnace-like heat of the afternoons and the chill of the evenings. The short window at sunset where the rock glows and fades. The landscape is ancient, but always changing.
Camping in a Swag
It was dark when we got to camp and although it was only around 8pm, it was time to get ready for bed because had plans to watch the sunrise the next morning. This was the full Outback Red Centre Australia camping experience, so there were no tents or cabins – we slept in swags.
A swag is a bedroll with a mattress on the bottom and a thick canvas cover with a flap you can fold over your head. You can line the inside with a sleeping bag for added warmth and comfort. It’s somewhat like folding yourself into a canvas envelope or rolling yourself in a fabric burrito. The top flap can be pulled over your head to protect you from spiders, snakes, dingos, drop bears and other wild Australian creatures.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when sleeping in a swag, but it was surprisingly comfortable. Although it wasn’t the best bed I have ever slept in, it was certainly the bed with the most incredible view.
Gazing up at the night sky was simply breathtaking. I could see the dusty white sweep of the milky way and the twinkling lights of thousands of stars. Everytime I see the dark night sky, somewhere far from light pollution, it makes me realise how most of the time I only see a fraction of the stars. The palest, dimmest stars are hidden from me, washed out of my vision by street lights, billboards and neon signs.
Those stars are always there, but you have to go out into the middle of nowhere to see them. They are like tiny voices shouting down to me, that I need to go into the complete quiet and stillness to hear. Lee pointed out that if I focused my eyes on the dimmest star I could see, I would be able to see more. I tried it and as my eyes adjust, more stars became visible.
I awoke, swaddled in my swag, at 4:30am. For a moment I had that traveller’s amnesia – that moment when you wake up where you can’t remember where the hell you are. Then, as soon as I rolled over and looked up at the canopy of stars, I remembered. The milky way had shifted six hours to the left, giving me a strange physical sensation of how much the earth had moved in my sleep – something I am not often aware of.
Uluru at Sunrise
We rolled up our swags by torchlight and left camp just as the pale blue light of dawn was starting to creep under the edges of the horizon.
It was still dark when we were having our breakfast at the lookout point. I filled up an enamel bowl with yogurt and muesli and poured myself a coffee. I was tramping across the gravel to the wooden picnic table when it felt like someone had kicked my feet out from under me. I tumbled, landed on my chest with a thud and flung coffee and muesli into the red dirt. I had walked into a ledge designed for sitting on, around knee height and the same colour as the ground. If I could provide one suggestion – it would be for more lights illuminating the darkness at breakfast time.
I made myself a second breakfast and sipped my instant coffee as the sun started to emerge from behind Uluru. Of course, Ashleigh always has the best song for any moment. She played “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles as the sky began to lighten and then the song from the opening credits of the Lion King just as the burning hot sun squeezed over the horizon.
I felt the heat of the rising sun starting to warm my skin as the long rays stretched across the desert. Not bad for a Monday morning.
Kata Tjuta Hike
As soon as that burning orange orb poked it’s head out over the landscape, we knew that the countdown had begun. We only had a short window of time to complete our Kata Tjuta hike, or the heat would become too much to handle. Even at 6:30am sweat was beginning to trickle down my back.
We scrambled on loose scree through the red rock and then stopped under a tree as Ashleigh explained the geology of the area. Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta were created by the tectonic plates being pushed together, similar to the way that you would push up sections of a mango when cutting it. This is known as an erogeny.
The name Kata Tjuta means “many heads” because the bare domes of these rocks look like several huge bald heads.
The alternative name of Kata Tjuta is “The Olgas,” named after Queen Olga of Wurttemberg. The actual fresh rock that makes up Kata Tjuta (and Uluru) is dark gray in colour – but it develops a orange-red patina of rust due to the iron oxide in the rock.
We don’t know a lot about the aboriginal mythology of this site, as the information is not divulged to outsiders.
However, we do know about the legends of the great snake king Wanambi, who lives on the summit and only comes down during the dry season. We didn’t see any ancient snake kings, but we did have an amazing hike.
Mount Conner – aka Fooluru
After the Kata Tjuta hike we had driven for quite some time out of the National Park, so I was surprised and confused to see a familiar-looking monolith appear on the horizon. How was Uluru in front of us when I thought we had left it behind?
I chalked it up to my bad sense of direction, until Ashleigh explained that it was Mount Conner – an Uluru look-alike. Apparently it tricks so many visitors that it is known as “Fool-uru.” However, it only resembles Urulu on one side. It is wedge shaped and the other side is not flat. Also, it’s two metres shorter than the real thing – so don’t be fooled!
We had a great view of Mount Conner when we pulled up at Curtin Springs station and paid a ridiculous amount of money for some wine to drink later at the campsite. I guess when you have the only bottle shop in the middle of bloody nowhere, you can charge what you want.
Our next stop was a dried up salt lake, a cracked red crust baking in the sun and covered in salt crystals. It looked like dog shit under a dusting of fresh snow – or gingerbread dough rolled in flour (or in some areas, baked to hardness and dusted with grains of sugar.)
A miniature version of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, this is a great place to get forced perspective photos. You know, the kind of silly photos where it looks like you are holding your tiny friend in your hand, or you are being crushed by an enormous shoe.
Or, like a group of tourists are running into an enormous jar of Vegemite.
I felt a bit ridiculous running around on the dried salt doing ridiculous poses – but I think the results were worth it.
Second Night of Camping
On the way to the second camp in the Red Centre Australia we stopped to collect firewood. I left the side of the road and traipsed into the bush, dry grasses and dead sticks crunching under my feet. I managed to get a few sticks, but then had a moment of panic as I walked between two trees and felt the wispy strands of a spider web wrap around my face and arms.
I yelped and brushed away the web. I was fine, so I thought, but a few minutes later I looked down at my arm. On my inner forearm there was a raised swelling the size of an Australian 50 cent coin and the rest of my arm was turning red and starting to puff up. It felt hot to the touch and itched like mad. I showed Ashleigh and she told me to put ice on it right away and keep it on until we got back to camp.
Of course, at that point I assumed that I was about to die.
We’ve all heard of poisonous spiders in Red Centre Australia, right? I figured that these were to be my last moments – speeding down a long straight dry highway in the Outback scrub, listening to “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry and holding a plastic bag full of ice on my throbbing arm. At least I would die in the middle of an adventure, which is all anyone can ask for.
However, I got lucky. Obviously I am still here and writing this, so whatever bit me in the bush was one of those rare Australian creatures that are NOT trying to kill you at any opportunity. Eventually the swelling in my arm died down and I lived to see another day (plus I had a great excuse to get out of collecting firewood!).
We made it to the second camp, which had a lot more facilities than the first camp – including a swimming pool and a fire pit. The pool was small but it was shady and cool and felt amazing after a long hot day in the desert.
We made a fire and cooked chili con carne and damper – which is a homemade bread with beer, garlic and cheese cooked in a wrought iron pot on the hot coals of the fire.
We listened to music on a portable speaker and watched the stars while sharing stories with the others on the tour – a couple of Swedish girls, a couple of young German guys, an older Croatian guy and a Korean guy. We were all a bit nervous because we had spotted a deadly brown snake in a bush nearby to the camp, but we slipped into our swags hoping that the snake would leave us alone.
The Red Centre Australia absorbs heat quickly from the blazing sun all day, then releases it slowly at night. When we went to bed at 10pm the ground was still warm and I didn’t need my sleeping bag. However, the coldest hour is around 3 or 4 in the morning and I woke up shivering and pulled the sleeping bag up around me. That was nearly the time to get up anyway – the sunrise waits for no one.
Waking up at 4:30am every morning is strange. You can have breakfast and go on a morning hike and you’ll feel like you have done so much, then you’ll look at your watch and realise it’s only 8:45 am. On an ordinary morning I would just be making my first cup of coffee by then.
King’s Canyon Hike
The King’s Canyon Hike was one of my favourite experiences of the tour – a gorgeous hike through the surreal undulating red rock of the canyon. A sun-baked moonscape.
The Aboriginal people have not decided to share any information yet about the history, the meaning or the significance of the canyon. However, there are plenty of interesting geological aspects to learn about. There are areas where the rock held the pattern of ripples from the water of an ancient sea, a fossil shell embedded in stone, a crystal pine with menthol-scented sap and 900 year old ferns.
Frustratingly, the hike was delayed before we started due to people not having enough water. This was despite the fact that Ashleigh had told us several times that we all need to have three litres of water each. It’s a legal requirement to have one litre per person, per hour you will be on the trail. She can lose her job if she is caught letting visitors hike without enough water. So, don’t hold up your group – be prepared with the right amount of water and you can hit the trail right away.
Speaking of listening to tour guides – another incredibly important guideline Ashleigh set right away is that you are not allowed to go within two metres of the cliff edge. I glanced over at the sheer rock face that dropped off abruptly into nothing and I immediately complied. Even getting close to the edge made my insides contract and my nerves twitch – my instincts sensed the inherent danger in the endless drop.
Still, that didn’t stop the German guys on our tour from asking Ashleigh if she would take a photo of them with their legs dangling over the edge. She just squinted at them, incredulously, and said, “Did you guys just seriously ask me that?”
We stayed a safe distance back from the bare edge of the cliff and shouted “Coo-Eee” as loud as we could. A few seconds later, a chorus of voices came echoing across the canyon back to us, a ghost version of our shouting bouncing off the stone.
When we returned to the car park a dingo was slinking around between the parked cars. I tried to get a photo of it and gave up, frustrated. Then, I realised that one of the shots I had hurriedly snapped had actually caught the dingo – I just needed to zoom in. Sometimes this is why it’s worth investing in a good camera!
The Centre of Australia
After lunch at a station along the highway, we stopped at the geographical centre of Australia. That might sound cool, but it was the least interesting stop on the tour. It is simply a marker point with a petrol station. Like when we visited the equator in Ecuador, aside from the fact that you can say you have been there – it’s not that exciting.
We carried on toward our last stop – the camel farm. I sat at the front of the bus with Ashleigh for a while, singing cheesy songs and chatting about her life. Like the chase scenes in old cartoons, the Red Centre Australia scenery repeats outside the window in a loop – red dust, pale green grass, burnt-grey trees and the sky that same simple ceramic blue.
At 22, Ashleigh has found her calling. It is a tough job but she handles it with grace and humour. She has a passion and energy for it.
Her superpower is her playlist – the personal touch that she adds to the tour. She doesn’t have to curate such a collection of songs, but she has taken it upon herself to choose the perfect music for every part of the tour. It’s an element of creative expression she has added to a job she clearly loves.
Her playlist includes a steady stream of those songs that everyone loves to hum along to – Steamboat Mark, Build Me Up Buttercup, You Make My Dreams Come True. Happy, familiar and with a bouncy, driving beat – the perfect soundtrack as the van speeds down a long straight scar of a road across the barren surface of Red Centre Australia.
Riding a Camel
Camels are pretty strange creatures. They are known as the “Ship of the Desert” because of how long they can go without water over long distances. Camels might be more associated with Egypt, India or Afghanistan, but surprisingly the Red Centre Australia is actually home to the world’s largest herd of camels.
These creatures were imported to Australia in the 19th century, as they were ideally suited to heavy work and transport in the Red Centre Australia However, when cars were invented and they were no longer necessary, they were released into the wild outback.
They have no natural predators, so they have flourished in the vast wilderness. This has actually caused problems in the Australian ecosystem, as they drink large amounts of water at a time, draining waterholes that are used for farm stock or that belong to the Aborigines. They also break fences, pipes and tanks and destroy the habitat of native Australian species. This is a prime example of when introducing a non-native species to a new habitat is a short term solution with long lasting side effects.
Some of the camels have been rounded up on farms, where they give rides to tourists. We got a chance to take a short camel ride at a farm on our way to Alice Springs. The ride itself only lasted five minutes, but our young camel handler (A backpacking Brit on a working holiday) tested us by making the camel run as fast as she could. We held on tight as we bounced on the saddle, perched high atop it’s humps.
Our Journey Ends: Alice Springs
With red dust on our shoes and the smell of campfire on our clothes, we finally rolled into Alice Springs at the end of our three day journey across the Red Centre Australia. This sleepy oasis town in the middle of the Outback is small and quiet, but has all of the essentials you might need – a supermarket, a Kmart, a few hotels and hostels and a handful of bars.
We checked into our hostel and took a much-needed shower before meeting the tour group at the bar for a “goodbye” drink. After waking up at 4:30am no one had the energy for a big night of drinking, but we had a few hours of tired, happy, drunken conversation and exchanging of email addresses and Facebook friend requests.
It was nice to return from the Red Centre Australia to the world of mobile phone reception, shopping malls and sleeping with a roof over our heads – but I still miss that dazzling canopy of stars. I know it is there, hidden from my eyes, waiting for me the next time I venture into the great dark middle of nowhere and look up at the sky.
Red Centre Australia Safety Tips and Things to Know
- The heat in the Red Centre Australia will make you tired and dehydrated. Drink more water than you think you need. If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
- When you hike on the trails you need to have one litre of water per person, per hour of hiking. This is a legal requirement and your tour guide will check and will not let you hike until you are carrying the specified amount of water. There are plenty of water spouts at the trailheads where you can fill up, so just make sure you have enough bottles.
- Wear sunscreen. The sun is hot and in Australia the ozone layer is weaker, so you will burn faster.
- Don’t forget about your lips. Mine got very chapped from the dry weather and the sun. Bring along a moisturising chapstick with SPF.
- If you are hiking on your own, always tell someone where you are going. In case of emergency, they will be able to alert the authorities and they will know where to start looking for you.
- If you plan to drive it on your own, avoid driving in the dark. Kangaroos and emus are known to jump across the roads and can cause accidents.
- Pay attention to where you are allowed to take photos. Some places and sections of the trails in the Red Centre Australia are sacred Aboriginal spots and photos are not allowed.
- Hike early in the morning to avoid the extreme heat. Some trails will be closed after 11am, because they get dangerously hot in the middle of the day in the Red Centre Australia.
- When you enter the National Park, you will need to pay a fee which is currently $25 AUD per person. You will receive a ticket and you should keep the ticket on you at all times, in case a park ranger wants to check it.