Travel – Road tripping across the Australian Northern Territory Outback

I love a sunburnt country / a land of sweeping plains / of ragged mountain ranges / of droughts and flooding rains / I love her far horizons / I love her jewel-sea / Her beauty and her terror / the wide brown land for me!”

‘My Country’ by Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar OBE

These are the images and words that conjured up in my mind whilst driving around the Northern Territory amongst the red dirt, ancient colossal rocks, camels, dingoes, expansive desert plains, and an exorbitant number of flies. The outback is for the adventurous and fit, but not so suitable if you’re scared of the creepy crawlies; you will encounter more bugs and animals, as we did, than you can imagine. If you’re not scared of heights and bugs then this is the trip for you. My English travel buddy Saneeta and I encountered a scorpion, a mouse, rabbits, dingoes, stink beetles, flies, mosquitoes, lizards, stick insects, grasshoppers and moths and probably other creatures we couldn’t identify.

The vibrant red dirt and ancient colossal rock - Photograph taken by Saneeta Mandil
The vibrant red dirt and ancient colossal rock – Photograph taken by Saneeta Mandil

The best way to experience Australia’s historical land is to hire a car or drive your own vehicle. However there are other options: for a more scenic and awe-inspiring route you can catch the Great Southern Rail’s The Ghan which takes different routes between Darwin, Alice Springs and Adelaide. There are also many bus tour packages available.

We opted for the car hire option as it allowed us to explore the outback at our own pace. Due to the summer heat we decided to go more days rather than less because we knew we had to wake up early to finish up our outdoor activities before the heat was too unbearable. If you’re planning to go, the best time of the year would be winter as you will be able to spend more time outdoors allowing you to fit more into your day. The week before we went the weather was lingering in the mid 40s. In winter the average is low-to-mid 20s. Despite the extreme heat and desert conditions, it actually snowed on Uluru in 1997!

One of the first things I noticed, even before I stepped off the plane, was the the red dirt. Dubbed the ‘red centre’, the vibrancy of the land is just mesmerising and made the long drives across the arid land a less monotonous journey. Seeing Uluru in the flesh, however, is definitely worth the drive. From afar the monolithic ancient rock just didn’t seem real, just like when I saw mountains for the first time in New Zealand last year. As we edged closer to the land that was once only inhabited by Australia’s Aboriginal people, the world’s longest living culture dating back 50-75,000 years ago, we started to see the holes and discoloured surfaces that have appeared over the years on the ageing rock. Access to the rock by tourists was only introduced in the 1930s as access to the rock was a fairly difficult journey prior.

Is this thing real? - Photograph by Saneeta Mandil
Is this thing real? – Photograph by Saneeta Mandil
A holey rock - Photograph by Lillian Altman
A holey rock – Photograph by Lillian Altman
A nature walk - Photograph by Lillian Altman
A nature walk – Photograph by Lillian Altman

Located in the Kata-Tjuta National Park, Uluru was formed millions of years ago rising from the earth, is nearly 400 metres high and hidden approximately 6 kilometres below ground level. This geological natural masterpiece arose out of the ground, according to our Mala walk guide, as the result of an earthquake. You can choose to walk around the rock on your own accord,  a 10 ½ km hike all the way around, or you can join a free ranger-guided Mala Walk (or any other organised tour) available each morning at different times depending on the time of year. We got to Uluru just in time to join the Mala walk. Over the next 2 ½ hours our guide educated us on the ancient stories of the rock, introduced us to survival tools the Aboriginals make by nature and pointed out bush tucker growing on the land and drawings the elders taught the young’uns with. Once the tour was over it became too hot for us to continue the walk around the entire rock, so we headed off to check out Kata Tjuta.

Bush tucker - Photograph by Lillian Altman
Bush tucker – Photograph by Lillian Altman
The ancient drawings - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The ancient drawings – Photograph by Lillian Altman

There has been much debate as to whether tourists should/shouldn’t climb Uluru. However, at the moment access to the climb is still available, which during the summer months is completely closed due to health and safety concerns. The climb is strenuous and only recommended for those who are really fit. There are plans to close and ban the climb by 2020. On the day we went, the climb was closed. I still haven’t decided whether I would have climbed or not if it were open. The are various issues surrounding the reasons as to why the ban should be in place; respecting the original owners of the land, the Anangu people and their traditional law, Tjukurpa and the risk and harm it can have to your health. 35 people have died while participating in the climb, mostly from heart attacks, however the statistic may be higher as records began 20 years after tourists started visiting the rock.

The climb and the do not climb sign - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The climb and the do not climb sign – Photograph by Lillian Altman

Another amazing rock to ogle at is the Kata Tjuta’s//Mount Olga/The Olgas. From afar, as the locals told us while riding some camels, the rock formations make out the shape of Homer Simpson lying down. Up close the ageing lines reminded me of the age ringlets inside of ancient tree trunks. It was too late in the day for us to hike around after Uluru, so we decided to eat lunch there while admiring the rock formations. Unfortunately there were too many flies buzzing around so we had to resort to eating our meals in the car.

The visible 'ageing' lines - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The visible ‘ageing’ lines – Photograph by Lillian Altman

Taking a break from the hiking and walking around, we participated in some less strenuous activities. Australia Day couldn’t have gotten any better than riding a camel towards the pink and orange sunset whilst staring at one of Australia’s most remarkable and recognisable landmarks. In the days following we also became night owls to check out the night sky’s stars and watched the Australian Open tennis but unfortunately did not get to join in in cultural activities.

The camels pre-tour - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The camels pre-tour – Photograph by Lillian Altman
The Olgas and Uluru - Photograph by Lillian Altman
Uluru and The Olgas- Photograph by Lillian Altman
The camels - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The camels – Photograph by Lillian Altman
An outback sunset - Photograph by Lillian Altman
An outback sunset – Photograph by Lillian Altman

There is no better place in Australia to view the nights shining stars and planets than the spacious outback without the disturbance of city lights. Unfortunately the clouds were aplenty so our astronomy tour was postponed/cancelled twice. We were lucky enough that it was back on the last night of our trip. The Astro Tour is undertaken in the Ayers Rock Resort city centre a couple of hours after sunset. Despite being able to see many constellations with the naked eye, the informative guides used high tech telescopes to allow the participants to have a closer to at the stars, planets and galaxies. If you’re not so knowledgeable about the galaxy you will definitely learn a lot. The girls who looked after our group were able to answer every single question asked of them, including one about UFOs! Through the telescopes we got to view Jupiter and the Moon close up (the images still etched in my mind), jumping and coloured stars, milky way and a star with a prism shining through it. We were also shown a cool iPad app that you point at the sky (or the ground for the Northern Hemisphere) and it will tell you what constellation you are looking at!

The moon - up close
The moon – up close

All rested up we drove approximately 306kms to Kings Canyon. The canyon was difficult and exhausting to climb, but when we completed the hike, we felt proud of our achievement to conquer and complete it. There are three levels of difficulty with the climbs: the Kings Creek Walk and the Kathleen Springs Walk are just an easy leisurely couple of kilometres respectively. We opted for the more difficult Kings Canyon Rim Walk, which literally has you edging towards the rim but not too far to fall off the edge of the cliff. This track seemed like a cool 6km easy peasy quick walk until we realised it took us over 3 hours to complete. As we ascended the initial 500 steps – it actually feels like a lot less – to the top of the mountain we were left a bit breathless but once up top, the walk was relatively easy. There were plenty of different types of textured rock to explore and learn about (there are signs bearing information about the rocks and different areas of the canyon). If you’re up for this hike but scared of being stranded up there in an emergency, don’t worry, there are plenty of emergency phones and first aid boxes strategically placed. The canyon is U shaped and gives you the opportunity to climb down some stairs towards the Garden of Eden, where hikers used to be able to swim away the sweat of the summer heat. Unfortunately you can no longer swim in the lake before you head back up to the top of the canyon. And if one day isn’t a long enough hike for you there is also a multiple day track available. If you choose this option make sure you’re well equipped!

The ascent to pure natural beauty - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The ascent to pure natural beauty – Photograph by Lillian Altman
Top view - Photograph by Lillian Altman
Top view – Photograph by Lillian Altman
Above the Garden of Eden - Photograph by Lillian Altman
Above the Garden of Eden – Photograph by Lillian Altman
The highest point of the canyon I reached - Photograph by Saneeta Mandil
The highest point of the canyon I reached – Photograph by Saneeta Mandil

We didn’t do any other exploring of the town, however, this is where we encountered the brunt of the creepy crawlies. We had something unidentifiable in our room, maybe a mouse or a lizard, so we upgraded to another room. We even put a towel at the bottom of the door to keep things out! As we took our belongings to the car to relocate we spotted a scorpion outside the room next to us. We could not, however, get away from the bugs. Grasshoppers and stick insects were surrounding the door of our new room and we left the door open for too long as we ran inside that we now had to battle with some moths, stink bugs and grasshoppers. When we finally drummed up the courage to go to sleep, we were kept awake for another two hours as we heard a scratching sound outside……

Another 460kms and we were onto the last part of the trip. We spent one day in Alice Springs before heading back to Uluru to fly home. Alice is a pretty small town so we were able to fit everything we wanted to do into one day.

First off we visited the Todd River, which runs along the main streets of Alice. The river was so dried up that we were able to walk through the ‘river’; we only spotted small puddles of water in the embankment. However, just weeks before our visit the river was reported in the news as having flooded. One of the locals at our hostel explained to us that it didn’t flood but in fact the river was just full of water and that the whole town had been down there during the floods to marvel at its fullness.

The Todd River - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The Todd River – Photograph by Lillian Altman
The part of the Todd River you can walk through - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The part of the Todd River you can walk through – Photograph by Lillian Altman

A short drive around town and we had moved onto the Alice Springs Reptile Centre to check out some of Australia’s native reptilians, including snakes, lizards and resident crocodile Terry, who has resided at the centre for 13 years. Run by local reptile man Rex Neindorf, we were given a tour of the premises given talks about the reptiles residing at the centre. The most valuable lesson we learnt from this tour was what type of snakes in Australia and overseas can and cannot lethally bite you and how to avoid being bitten.

Across the road and we were at the Royal Flying Doctor Service headquarters. The museum section was pitiful however the pre-museum tour film was informative giving the viewer some light on what the air emergency service does through stories of remote residents who have been treated or had their lives saved by Flying Doctor nurses and doctors.

Between the reptile centre and the museum a statue of explorer John McDouall Stuart, an early explorer of Australia, was being erected. On later research I found out that the statue was not new, but in fact was being turned around due to the safety of tourists taking photos of it from the traffic island in the middle of the road. According to Neindorf in an article by ABC, tourists safety was being compromised as people were edging towards the road and oncoming traffic to position themselves to take snapshots of the towering statue. This was a good option as Saneeta and I discovered that the cars in Alice won’t slow down or stop for you to cross unless you’re at a traffic light.

Our final stop was the Alice Springs Desert Park, which mainly housed birds in the spaced out open planned zoo. If you haven’t been lucky enough to encounter a dingo at any of your accommodations, this is the place to see one. The coolest section of the park was the kangaroo enclosure. There was no fence between the kangaroos and us, so we were within patting distance as we watched them bask in the sun. Unfortunately we weren’t as a sign instructed us to stay on the path. There isn’t a lot to see there but it was a relaxing nature walk. Like us, you might even be lucky enough to sit next to a lizard as you relax on a bench.

The native animals sanctuary - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The native animals sanctuary – Photograph by Lillian Altman
Keeping cool after a feed - Photograph by Lillian Altman
Keeping cool after a feed – Photograph by Lillian Altman
Teaching the tourists to stay in the shade - Photograph by Lillian Altman
Teaching the tourists to stay in the shade – Photograph by Lillian Altman

There’s plenty to see between the major towns, which made the boring drive for us (I was the sole driver for the entire 1400kms I clocked up over the 6 day trip) more enjoyable. Between Uluru and Kings Canyon we stopped off at Curtin Springs for a toilet break and a petrol fill up. Not wanting to be one with the nature I didn’t end up going to the bathroom as I saw a goanna try to slip into the outdoor bathrooms. The next toilet I tried to use at the MacDonnell Ranges Mt Connor viewing point had an unbearable smell to it. Let’s just say it was a few hundred kilometres before I finally got to go to the toilet. Between Kings Canyon and Alice Springs we stopped off at a roadhouse with an extremely inflated priced Petrol station called the Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse. Situated within the roadhouse is the Imanpa Gallery, showcasing work done by the local Aboriginal artists who also run the roadhouse.

The view of Mt Connor from the lookout point - Photograph by Lillian Altman
The view of Mt Connor from the lookout point – Photograph by Lillian Altman

It was amazing gracing the land and seeing the sites that the explorers in the book that I’m reading, Tim Flannery’s The Explorers, had seen which were once only inhabited by the Aboriginals. This trip has inspired me to want to explore more ancient landmarks and great natural wonders of Australia including Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands, the Kimberley’s, Kakadu National Park, the colourful coral and fish of the Great Barrier Reef, the greenery of Tasmania and the sights from aboard the The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin.

I initially wanted to go all over NT and into Western Australia but whilst researching trip ideas realised we’d be driving thousands and thousands of kms. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to fit that all in. If you’re keen to see the whole territory you’d probably need at least three weeks, maybe even a couple of months, to see everything. Alternatively you can take the less scenic, cheaper and quicker route of a flight.

Flies are aplenty so the best advice I can be give for a trip to the red centre is investing in a fly swatter or face net, otherwise you’ll be putting the Aussie fly salute into action more times than you can bear to put up with. Before embarking on the trip many people told me it’s really expensive to travel there however Saneeta and I were able to do the near week trip on a tight budget. We flew via Jetstar when the flights were on sale and were able to find budget/’hostel’ type accommodation within the same complexes of the more expensive accommodation. Food-wise, we went to the supermarket and only ate out a few times to reduce the cost we were spending on meals plus there’s plenty of activities you can do for free including local cultural activities and hikes.

As we jetted off on our way home, we could see Uluru fading away but the redness of the dirt has stuck in my mind well after returning home. This is the real Australia.

Goodbye Uluru - Photography by Lillian Altman
Goodbye Uluru – Photograph by Lillian Altman
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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Matt says:

    I’m insanely jealous of you seeing what must have been an incredible night sky. I can’t wait to travel around Australia – even if only for the stargazing opportunities.

    1. I’m so glad we ended up getting to do that. Who would’ve thought that in summer it’d be too cloudy! What we saw was so vivid it stays etched in your mind, just like when I went to a worm cave in New Zealand.
      It was really cool using an iPad app to see what constellations we were looking at and it even lets you see what’s on the other side of the world if you point it to the ground!

    2. It was well worth the money that I used for that trip instead of saving it for England. You should go soon!

    3. Let’s road trip around Australia when we I have money!

  2. It was definitely hard to deal with, makes you appreciate living in the city more!

  3. Which parts of Australia did you get to see when you were down there?

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