Walking on Mars The Red Centre

When we first started thinking about visiting Australia, the outback wasn’t on our ‘must see’ list. How interesting can one rock really be? But on the recommendation of numerous friends and family (thanks Kate and Janet) and thanks to some birthday funds (thanks mum and dad), we decided to go for it. I’m so glad we did.

I had always imagined Ayers Rock/Uluru as a solitary lump in an otherwise flat and barren landscape, but actually as you fly into the airport, there was a decent game of ‘spot the rock’ as plane passengers perked up excitedly each time one of a series of hilly lumps came into view. But when you do see the real thing, there’s no doubting it – it is such a familiar shape from years of movies, royal visits and tourism posters.

We took a three day tour with some 20-odd other people from all over Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Netherlands, UK and some USA thrown in, though no actual Australians. Our American tour guide was hugely energetic and turned out to be a botany and geology enthusiast, making for some interesting insights throughout the trip. Did you know that ghost gum trees are so well adapted to the arid environment that when they’re short on water they just cut off the circulation to a branch or two and let them wither for a few months. Then, when the water supply improves, they wrap around the dead branch and continue to grow. Nature is clever.

Our first tour activity was a walk around the base of Uluru, avoiding the controversy associated with the summit climb. The local aboriginal communities request that tourists don’t climb their sacred site, but when tourism took off in the 1980s, it was the climb that drew the crowds (“I conquered the rock” t-shirts and all that jazz). Today, the government remains reluctant to close the route completely, despite its more recent respectful stance towards aboriginal culture.

During the base walk, we had the chance to see up close the remarkable features of the sandstone rock, which was formed from rivers dropping sediment in a big lake in the centre of Australia some 400 million years ago. Time and pressure turned the sand and grit into giant rock formations. Various unique markings on the rockface have inspired traditional aboriginal legends – for example, a curve in the rock is described as a snake, whose nephew was killed and she lashed out angrily, leaving behind three gashes in the wall.

Aside from the impressive geology, the other noticeable phenomenon was the overwhelming number of flies buzzing around your eyes, ears, mouth, t-shirt, hair. ALL THE TIME. Joe looked pretty silly in his bee-keepers hat, but he was also pretty smug as the rest of us developed RSI from all the swatting. Now, I had expected a trip into the outback to involve some undesirable Australian wildlife, especially sleeping out under the stars. But the wonderful thing about all that arid landscape is that it is very inhospitable for all things six-legged. Except flies, apparently.

As the sun descended, it was time to score another tick on the Uluru tourist trail and head to a sunset viewing spot. And wow, it really was spectacular. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 360 degree sunset, where the ground is so flat you can literally see the circle of the horizon and watch the sky gradually turn from blue to orange, pink, purple, black. Just stunning, as the photos prove!

After dark, it was back to camp for some kangaroo spag bol (tasty, lean and extremely low cholesterol, apparently) and a night under the stars in a ‘swag’, which is basically a one-man roofless tent, like a giant sleeping bag. With very few humans for miles around (it’s 1500km to Darwin, 1500km to Adelaide, 2000km to Perth and 3000km to Brisbane), the stars are incredible and we could clearly see endless clouds of milky way.

Day two began with a 4.45am wake up call so we would be packed and breakfasted before a beautiful sunrise over Ayers Rock. Then it was off to Big Rock No. 2, aka Kata-Tjuta National Park (technically lots of big rocks). Despite being located quite close to Uluru, the rock formation here is surprisingly different, with bulbous faces and rounded edges compared to Uluru’s sharp angles. Kata-Tjuta is actually substantially larger than Uluru, and again holds special significance for the aboriginal tribes. When we asked why Uluru is the iconic image and not its bigger sister Kata-Tjuta, we were told it basically just came down to the marketing. The power of PR.

After a loooong bus ride and another night under the stars, we made it to King’s Canyon on day three. The remarkably steep opening climb is named Heart-Attack Hill, and one of the plumper members of our group nearly found out why. After that exertion, we were rewarded with spectacular views over the outback expanse in one direction, a mini mountain range in the other, and the ‘Garden of Eden’ in between – an oasis of water and plantlife that must have seemed almost like a mirage for aboriginal travellers. The rocks on top of the canyon have been eroded into a strange criss-cross of towers – almost like lots of little Angkor Wats everywhere – which the locals describe as the lost city (cue the Indiana Jones theme tune again). With the dark red colouring, rocky landscape and burning sun, I think it’s the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing life on Mars.

The red centre was fantastic. It is so wholly different from anywhere else, so utterly remote. Although we stayed firmly on the tourist trail, the numbers of visitors are low enough, thanks to the cost and the distance, that it still feels natural and relatively untouched. There are just small pockets of basic amenities around to make the experience a little easier on the visitors, including a single tarmaced road that cuts a straight line through the outback for some 800km from Uluru to Alice Springs. Highly recommended.