The Red Centre

kata tjuta panorama

Welcome to The Red Centre (Alice Springs & Ayers Rock). It is a work in progress as the disabled info is still being compiled (by a great bloke who lives in Alice and gets around in an electric wheelchair) – for now, my take on what to see and do…

Alice Springs

Alice SpringsBacked by the rugged MacDonnell Ranges, Alice Springs sits in the centre of Australia, and is a melting pot of cultures and traditions.

The population fluctuates around the 25,000 mark as people come and go and around 350,000 visitors drop in each year for a short stay. The residents include a large number of Aboriginal people and families descended from pioneers who built The Alice in the late 1800’s.

As an intro to the Territory, a word from my co-songwriting mate, Dave Prior, who grew up there and still visits regularly…

Let me tell you, living in and growing up in the bush is unique, especially on a huge cattle property out of Alice Springs. For a kid it’s simply the most wonderful way of life.

Hamilton DownsWhere else could you be driving an old jeep when you were seven? Where else could you work alongside your dad when you were ten, mustering cattle and riding horses? Where else can you grow up to be twenty when you’re still twelve?

Where else could you experience droughts, floods, bushfires, extreme thirst, heat, flies, booze, fun, poker, as well as teach yourself to play the guitar, read copious amounts of books, fly in the Royal Flying Doctor plane, ride a buck jumper in a rodeo and play with Aboriginal kids. Where else could you eat kangaroo, snake, damper and echidna, as well as drive a tractor and a truck, cart cattle, brand them, castrate a calf and still be under 16? I loved it!

(The photo is Hamilton Downs, where Dave grew up – they now have outback youth camps there)

Royal Flying Doctor ServiceI’ve only visited the Territory a few times, so I’ve seen the sights and heard the sounds. Dave has given me more of a ‘feel’ of what the territory is about.

It’s also been the setting for a number of songs we’ve written together including The One That Got Away, My First Plane Ride (Dave’s first plane ride was in the Flying Doctor Plane after he sucked on a hose and was bitten in the throat by a redback spider) and Our School Yard (Dave did primary school by radio with School of the Air… “Our school yard was 700 square miles…”). You can hear this one at the School of the Air in Alice Springs.

Henley on Todd RegattaThe town that is Alice, being a long way from nowhere, is just a little crazy. Who else would cancel a boat race if it rains?

The Henley-on-Todd Regatta (August) sees grown men and women running, carrying the hulls of boats along the dry, sandy Todd River through town.

Most of the boats are made from beer cans, and tradition insists the crew empty the cans used in the construction. Rain, even if it falls miles away, can turn the Todd into a raging torrent and the last regatta to be cancelled was in 1993.

Alice Springs Camel Cup RacingThe Camel Cup (July) is as also great fun and a major social event. The camel races are followed by camelback polo. The Alice Springs Cup Carnival features horses and is run over six days in April. The locals love a bet and Lasseter’s Casino is open daily. Open since 1981, it was the world’s first government licensed and regulated Internet casino.

There’s an array of restaurants from Asian to Italian, even Swiss, and there are the ubiquitous international fast-food outlets. Some restaurants specialise in Bush Tucker like buffalo, kangaroo or crocodile.

The Alice Springs Desert Park, with 350 plant species and 120 animal species, puts paid to thoughts that deserts are wastelands. You’ll need a few hours to do it justice.

Olive PinkThe Olive Pink Botanical Reserve also has more than 300 local species of plants, and you can sponsor your own ‘family tree’. During her 91 years, Miss Olive Pink (photo) fought hard for Aboriginal rights and set up the flora reserve. She ran it as a fortress, only opening it to invited guests, and named her trees after public figures. If they didn’t live up to her high expectations, she refused to water them. In 1975 she was buried in the Memorial Cemetery in the only grave facing west. It was her wish to always see the sun set over Mount Gillen. Other residents include prospector and optimist, Harold Bell Lasseter; great Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira; and several Afghan cameleers, facing in the direction of Mecca.

camel alice springsIn the late 1800s, hundreds of camels were imported from Afghanistan with their handlers to carry supplies over the harsh, dry, trackless centre of Australia. They were replaced by the internal combustion engine in the 1920s.

Camels were used to carry the supplies during the building of the overland telegraph line that connected Adelaide to Darwin and then to a submarine cable, thus providing a vital communication link with world centres.

I’ve had the thrill of riding a gentle camel up the Todd River. Surprisingly, a bit more predictable than a horse!

Old Telegraph Station Alice SpringsThe telegraph line followed the route of explorer John MacDouall Stuart.

Permanent waterholes, which were named ‘Alice Springs’ (after the wife of South Australia’s Postmaster General), were the reason for the Overland Telegraph Station’s location in the 1870s. It was the seed of a township originally called Stuart, named after the explorer. In 1933, when it was renamed Alice Springs, there were just 400 residents.

The Telegraph Station is now the centre of a historical reserve at the north end of town.

Standley ChasmWest of Alice, and only a short drive from town, is Simpsons Gap, gouged by millions of years of floods from Roe Creek and, at dawn and dusk, black-footed rock-wallabies turn up for a drink at the waterhole.

Standley Chasm (photo) is best visited (but most crowded) at midday, when the sun passes overhead to penetrate the chasm (80 metres high and only 8 metres wide at its narrowest point). It reaslly is quite stunning.  It was named after Ida Standley, the Alice’s first schoolteacher. On the way, on Larapinta Drive, is the grave of John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Even if you only have two or three days in Alice Springs, you will leave with an appreciation of Aboriginal history, European frontier heritage and a dramatic and sometimes unforgiving part of Australia.

BilbyI was going to ‘sign off’ this section with a photo of the striking Sturt Desert Pea in flower but I came across a photo of a vulnerable little bilby… At least we are aware of their potential for extinction, so they may be saved…

Cute little critters aren’t they?

This one was born in the Alice Springs Desert Park – and for overseas readers, a growing tradition around Australia as part of the bilby awareness campaign is having chocolate bilbies at Easter instead of bunnies…

The Centre

Uluru and a HarleyIt’s harsh, it’s remote and awesome in its arid beauty. You could spend months exploring the area, but even a few days makes for an unforgettable experience.

A conventional rental car will take you to national parks and major attractions. The road from Darwin to the Alice and on to Yulara is very good (and very long – around 1400km to Alice and another 450 to The Rock).

You can fly into Yulara to see Ayers Rock and the Olgas, explore on the back of a Harley-Davidson, hire a car or take a coach tour from Alice Springs.

Ayers Rock aka UluruI first visited The Rock in the early 90’s, before digital photography was mainstream. I realised that my photos would have been very similar to other people’s but I reckon the only person who would be blasé about Uluru was the guy who ran that one-hour photo shop in Yulara. Every day he would have seen thousands of amateur shots of the rock, only stopping to wonder if it’s his chemicals or nature that’s making it change colour.

This has to be the one spot in the country deserving a pilgrimage by all Australians, yet the majority of tourists are international. It’s more than an attraction and icon, it’s an experience. It is the largest monolith (single rock) on earth, standing 350 metres above the desert floor with a base perimeter of 9.4 kilometres. And that is just the third above ground.

Uluru Close UpIt’s the spirituality, however, that makes it truly special.  The Rock itself is not a sacred site to the local Anangu people, but many parts of it are.

A guided tour of the base is highly recommended and far more rewarding than a climb to the top, ‘just because it’s there’. You will discover its raw beauty, striking colours and learn of its special place in Aboriginal legend.

If there’s a bit of wind you may also discover a few smashed cameras, sunglasses and hats that have dropped from above!

And remember, as a visitor to respect the landlord.

Arrernte people

Respect the Landlord

The Aboriginal people around Alice Springs are the Arrernte (pronounced ‘ah-runda’), and the Uluru people are Anangu – and there are about a dozen different language groups in the Red Centre. The traditional owners are not a tourist attraction and many still live a semi-traditional life. Some sacred sites are restricted and should be respected. You don’t need a permit to travel on public roads within Aboriginal land, but you shouldn’t go off road or camp without permission. Also ask permission before taking photographs and respect Aboriginal ‘dry areas’ that prohibit alcohol. Many indigenous people, while shy, are happy to share their knowledge and custom. Do your own bit towards true reconciliation.

Having lived in Vanuatu for a few years, I believe the racial harmony there is due to white people having the attitude that they are fortunate to be accepted as visitors/residents by the ni-Vanuatu. It’s a difficult concept for many white Australians to grasp – that they are actually visitors/residents in a country that’s been occupied by the Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years. About half of Central Australia is under custody of Aboriginals, and half of Alice Spring’s economy is dependent on the indigenous community.

Uluru Cultural CentreUluru has a special place in the Anangu’s stories of creation (Tjukurpa). These stories are related by local guides and in displays at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, along with audiovisual presentations of the history of the park and how it is managed.

The centre also operates Maruka Arts and Crafts, an Aboriginal co-operative displaying and selling the works of more than 800 traditional artists from Central and Western Australia.  It is tghe largest cooperative of its kind in Australia and there are some 30,000 pieces of craft in stock at any given time – and they move out the door very quickly!

Uluru Kata Tjuta National ParkKata Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in the Anangu language and is a spectacular group of 36 massive red rock outcrops separated by narrow valleys about 50 kilometres from Uluru. The domes surround Mount Olga, which rises more than 1000 metres above the desert floor and was named after a Spanish Queen.

Many visitors find The Olgas even more inspiring than Ayers Rock. There are walks ranging from an hour to five hours through the gorges and around the outcrops, though restrictions apply when temperatures over 36 degrees C are forecast. The Valley of the Winds tour is arguably the best.

One man-made ‘must’ is a Sounds of Silence dinner.

Ayers Rock Sounds of Silence DinnerThis award-winning attraction has proved so popular it now has four different desert locations. It’s one of those rare, well-oiled attractions that runs like clockwork, yet you never feel rushed or organised. Apart from the dinner (bush tucker is part of the selection) and wine under the stars, there’s a resident astronomer with a laser pointer to guide you through the impressive heavens.

Mind you, you can’t always pick your dining companions. An American tourist with a loud voice and matching shirt, exclaimed, ‘Hey, there’s only two left!’ and took the remaining two nibblies from a plate. The waiter smiled and informed him that more were on their way, to which the American replied, ‘Well that’s more like it,’ and put the two in his hand back on the plate.

Kings CanyonKings Canyon is simply a most spectacular natural amphitheatre with sheer 100-metre to 200-metre rock walls dropping away to the valley below. Here, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, danced along the cliff tops and the Qantas choir stood and sang I Still Call Australia Home. There’s a resort you can stay at, you can take a bus tour and scenic helicopter flights operate. It’s best explored via the Rim Walk of Kings Canyon (6 kilometres) which takes in the prehistoric, lush Garden of Eden, the unusual rock formations of the Lost City and the Southern Wall Lookout for views of the whole gorge and a waterfall if the creek is in flood.

Rock of Ages

Minga on the RockThere are two things to consider before climbing Uluru. The first – while they tolerate climbers – the Aboriginal people don’t actually approve. This part of the rock is sacred and they refer to the stream of people going up and down as ‘minga’ or ants.

Secondly, it can be bloody dangerous! Before climbing, face the rock where the climbing track starts and head right. You will find plaques set into the rock: memorials to those who died attempting the climb. Admittedly, most deaths were due to heart attacks (lack of fitness) or stupidity (people scrambling after a lost hat or a dropped camera), but it’s still a worthwhile warning. If there’s a strong wind, the climb may not be available.

Uluru SunsetThe climb can take a couple of hours, which can be draining in the heat and a waste of time that could be better spent. And, while it’s a bit like not removing your shoes before entering a Buddhist temple, the rock will continue to be climbed and, those who do will return with a sense of achievement, awe and perhaps a bit of guilt. Take a water bottle and take your time.

For those who want a bit each way, walk up as far as ‘Chicken Rock’. The beginning of the track has a chain to assist climbers, then there’s a gap to the next stretch of chain which people have to reach unassisted. The gap is called ‘Chicken Rock’ because this is where would-be-climbers with a fear of heights ‘chicken’ out.

View down from Chicken RockFor those who do hop across the gap (it’s safe, but still can be scary) you will have a bit of an adrenalin rush, know what it would be like to keep climbing and still enjoy the grand view. Then head back down to explore the base.  The photo is what you see looking back down from Chicken Rock.  Yes, yes, alright… I did go this far, but I feel guilty!

Of course, from a distance, the Rock is also spectacular. While the Rock is red ochre, it can appear to change colours dramatically at sunset, from vibrant red to orange to lilac in minutes.  As the NT tourism slogan once said, “You’ll never-never know, if you never-never go.”