If you want to get to the very heart of Australia, the Red Centre is the place to go. The settlement of Alice Springs has been and will always be remote, give its location right in the centre of this vast continent. Surrounded by desert and dry bush land, it is hard to imagine life out here. Visiting the area certainly gives you a deep respect for the Aboriginal people, who have managed to survive in the desert here for hundreds of years, living sustainably off the land, knowing where to find bush tucker and most importantly, water. It is an eye-opening experience and I would highly recommend a holiday to this area for overseas visitors and Australian tourists alike.
I arrived in Alice Springs by bus, after an extremely long and tedious overnight journey from Darwin, in 2013. The only reason I would recommend taking bus transport, or indeed the train, would be in order to get an idea of the enormous size of the country. There is very little between Darwin and Alice Springs, aside from the odd roadhouse selling overpriced, dry sausage rolls and chocolate milk. In all honesty, I would take a flight next time (both cheaper and faster). Nonetheless, I arrived at 10 am the following morning and carted my heavy backpack to the hostel, before heading out to explore Alice Springs. I had a day in this town before taking a tour to Uluru and I wanted to make the most of my time.
I expected Alice Springs to be a small country town, with limited services. Surprisingly, on arrival into this remote place, I was to find the opposite, no doubt because it is the only large settlement within thousands of kilometres! I was particularly impressed to find a number of historic houses, maintained by the National Trust and run by volunteers.
Adelaide House was the first hospital in town. Designed by reverend John Flynn (who also established the Royal Flying Doctor Service, amongst other achievements), Adelaide House was the only hospital until 1939. It was initially run by 2 nurses, as the nearest doctor was 1500 km away in Darwin. Any advice would have to be communicated via telegram. I cannot imagine a worse place to get sick in those days!
Old Hartley Street School (1930 – 1965) with its unique octagonal kindergarten extension, is also a fascinating place to visit. The school room is set up as it would have been back in the day, along with lots of information on old-fashioned schooling.
The Residency During the brief time period of 1926 – 1931, Central Australia was an independent administrative area separate from the Northern Territory. Built in 1928, the Residency was the official home for the first government resident, John Cawood. Over the years it has been occupied by significant individuals of the town and has hosted visiting dignitaries, such as Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh!
From Alice Springs you can take a tour or hire a car to drive the further 462km (5-6 hours) to Uluru and its surrounding attractions. As mentioned earlier, the distances around here are huge, in which case, you really need to allow at least 3-4 days. I would recommend a week, so you have time to explore Alice Springs as well. The following attractions were included in my three day tour of the Red Centre:
There are several walks to be done here, but we took on ‘Heart Attack Hill,’ named because of its extremely long, steep set of stone stairs leading up to the top of the canyon. Was it worth it? Absolutely! Fantastic views over the desert as far as the eye could see. In the centre of the Gorge can be found the ‘Garden of Eden,’ a water hole surrounded by rich plant life. Parts of the gorge are sacred to the Aboriginal people, however if you stick to the walking tracks, you will be doing no harm.
Kata Tjuta National Park
These incredible ancient rock formations consist of 36 domes, the highest point being 1066 metres above sea level! The enormity of the rocks can be seen as you take the walking tracks through Kata Tjuta. There is a majestic beauty about this area. There are many legends associated with Kata Tjuta and the area is sacred for men in the Anangu Aboriginal culture, so a lot of the legends are kept secret from the women (and from tourists).
Uluru is a huge sandstone rock formation in the middle of the desert. From a distance, the rock is a natural beauty, especially as the light changes from dawn to dusk. Throughout the day, it appears to change colour with the sun. Hundreds of tourists set up each evening to watch the sunset, taking thousands of photos, which simply cannot capture the magic of the moment. But it is when you get up close to this monolith and take a walk around the base that you really appreciate why the Aboriginal people regard it as sacred. Aside from its size (taking 3.5 hours to walk the whole way around), there are so many different views, crevices and formations, each with a different legend, stretching back into the dreamtime.
It is also a great source of life in desert, with many native animals making it their home and wild flowers surrounding the base. As tempting as it might be, please respect the Aboriginal law and do NOT climb Uluru. Even though it is still officially allowed by the government for tourism purposes (and will not stop until the climbers drop below a certain percentage), it is considered deeply disrespectful. I am astounded that people still climb the rock, despite the clear signage and express wishes of the traditional custodians against it. Aside from anything, there have been many deaths over the years and it is simply not safe.
On the way back to Alice Springs, you will come across a magnificent salt lake, Lake Amadeus, in the middle of the desert. As fate would have it, I coincidentally bumped into an old friend at the picnic area here. Sometimes, it feels like a very small world, despite the fact that this landscape is so overbearingly HUGE!
The Camel Cup Arena
Alice Springs is famous for its Camel Cup, a camel race held each year in the middle of the desert! Whilst I was not there for the event itself, I was lucky enough to pay $5 for a short ride on a camel. I went galloping up and down the paddock, feeling like a sack of potatoes, but it was great fun! Later, I checked out the memorabilia, trophies and information inside. Did you know that the first camel in Australia was imported from the Canary Islands in 1840 by a man named Horrick? The next batch were imported for the Burke and Wills expedition and later, these animals were used to help in the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, as they were much better suited to work in the desert than horses. These days, a lot of camels run wild in central Australia, though obviously there are still plenty of camel farms and, it seems, racing camels!
When you return to Alice Springs, be sure to check out the unexpectedly vibrant night life. A night out here in central Australia can turn a bit rough and tumble, as you can see by the beverages they serve in the local pub, but with a good live band and some friends, it all adds to the adventure. Just watch your back as you’re walking home at night.
Have you been to Central Australia? What were your highlights? Are there any attractions I’ve yet to explore?