Journey From the Red Centre to the Top End
by Escape Artist Tyler Davis
If I were to poll a bunch of strangers (or at least a group of people who don’t hear me talk about Australia all the time) to name five icons in Australia, chances are Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) would come in the top three, right behind Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, so popular are these three destinations, that many Aussie Specialists consider the “Sydney, Rock, and Reef” itinerary to be their bread and butter.
So, how is it that it took me 6 trips and more than 8 collective months in Australia to finally see this heralded icon in person?
Well, I’ll be completely honest . . . until recently, I had this perception of Uluru being overwhelmingly touristy, offering underwhelming experiences. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in Uluru, but . . . to me, there was just SO much else to see and experience in Australia, an area roughly the size of the contiguous United States, that why would I make a big rock in the middle of the desert a priority?
How ignorant was I! After two weeks exclusively exploring the Northern Territory, from the “Red Centre” (where Uluru is) to the “Top End” (Darwin & surrounds), I’ve come away with a profound appreciation for the NT – including that “big rock” in the middle of nowhere. Below, I’ve listed some of the highlights of my adventures (in chronological order).
My journey started in the quaint town of Alice Springs which, at fewer than 30,000 residents, is still the third largest town in the entire NT (really the second, if you consider Palmerston to essentially be an extension of Darwin). Hopefully this gives you an idea of the population density of this part of the continent.
Fondly referred to simply as “Alice” by locals, this is the primary point of entry for exploring the Red Centre, and deserves a couple days’ visit in its own right. In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised by the richness of this isolated, remote Outback town, between its fascinating cultural history (both ancient and more modern), as well as its striking landscapes and natural history. Highlights here include:
- School of the Air – a correspondence school service delivering education to children in remote areas via radio (historically) and internet (today) for more than 60 years
- Royal Flying Doctor Service – the first and one of the most comprehensive aeromedical organizations in the world, with over 60 planes servicing remote areas throughout Australia for medical emergencies, primary health care, and patient transportation
- Telegraph Station Historical Reserve – the first European settlement in the area and home to the most well-preserved telegraph station of the Overland Telegraph Line, one of the greatest engineering feats of 19th-century Australia, connecting Adelaide to Darwin and, ultimately, the rest of the world
- West MacDonnell Ranges – the western portion of a 400-mile mountain range characterized by parallel ridges that create many spectacular gaps and gorges, such as the iconic Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm, and is rife with Aboriginal culture and history
- Others – other places worth visiting in town include the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens, Alice Springs Reptile Park, and Anzac Hill
- Food – Hanuman (located in the Double Tree) is an excellent restaurant serving Asian-inspired dishes, and the Overlander Steakhouse is hard to beat for a quintessential Aussie pub experience and lively rustic atmosphere
Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)
About 150 miles southeast of Alice Springs (at least, the way the crow flies) is Watarrka National Park, home of renowned Kings Canyon. It’s a bit of a drive off the main drag between Alice and Yulara (the town nearest Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park), but well worth the side-trip: while it can be busy, it’s never as crowded as Uluru, and there is some great trekking with dramatic landscapes to be enjoyed.
In particular, the 3.5-mile Kings Canyon Rim Walk boasts beautiful views and stunning scenery, including a mix of canyon walls 100+ meters high, Dr. Seuss-like sandstone domes, and other impressive geologic formations and history. We began our trek early in the morning, key to avoiding the mid-day heat that has the potential to be crippling, or even deadly, as the sun beats down from above and the sandstone radiates from below. A short but steep hike up Heartbreak Hill, half-jokingly also known as “Heart Attack Hill,” gave our internal engines quite a jumpstart at the early hour, and left most of us catching our breath at the top, but wide awake and wide-eyed, taking in the surroundings.
From the top of Heartbreak Hill, it’s all gravy and a whole lot of fun: winding in between sandstone domes, up and down through gaps, and across small chasms, soaking in the views of the canyon and Outback from the rail-less edge of breath-taking cliffs. Halfway along the hike, a quick side-trip descends to the Garden of Eden, a grotto with permanent water and lush vegetation – the perfect place for a picnic break in the shade.
The entire trek is deserving of your patience to marvel at the rock formations and the processes that made them, and to appreciate the tens of thousands of years’ worth of footsteps that have preceded yours. Because, while only 3.5 miles, the adventure warrants at least 3-4 hours – any quicker than that, and you’re likely to watch your feet more than your surroundings.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
My first impression upon seeing Uluru was “Wow.” That’s it. A primal, authentic “wow.” I was genuinely impressed. And then I noticed . . . I was smiling.
I’m not sure I can explain exactly why, other than there is simply a “wow factor” with seeing something like Uluru in person. All these years of looking at photos in books or on the internet, and I was completely unprepared for having my expectations exceeded – for it is so much more than a big rock in the middle of nowhere. With its hundreds of millions of years of geologic history, it is remarkable; with its 10,000+ years of Aboriginal Dreamtime, it is sacred; and with its mysterious iceberg-like qualities, drifting in an arid desert of a sea, it is magical.
Even more magical are the experiences you can enjoy in its shadow: watching the rock come alive at sunrise from atop a friendly ambling camel, gradually illuminating from a dark silhouette to a fiery glow. Or, with a glass of champagne in hand, marvel as it melts from bright orange to ochre, to red, to brick, and eventually to a subdued violet as the sun sets at your back. Follow that glass of bubbly with an exceptional dinner experience under the stars, complete with a didjeridoo, Aboriginal dance-driven storytelling, and a local astronomer to guide you through a heavenly journey as he describes the constellations above, tying it all in with the folklore of the land’s traditional owners. This is the Sounds of Silence, and it is inimitable.
Equally as impressive (to some, even more so), is Kata Tjuta, also known as “The Olgas.” This group of 36 conglomerate “bornhardts,” or large, steep-sided, bald domes, creates an intriguing network of crevices, gaps, and chasms. At more than 600 million years old, some geologists believe that Kata Tjuta may have been a bigger singular rock than Uluru (its highest point is still higher than its monolithic cousin), until millions of years of weather eroded it into what it is today. Other geologists believe it is connected to Uluru underground, more than 20 miles away, although this has never been confirmed.
Exploring Kata Tjuta and Uluru also offers an opportunity to learn about the Anangu, the land’s traditional owners, and their history. While only the very basics of a very few legends are ever told beyond the elders (for the stories are considered as sacred as the land they are about), it is nonetheless fascinating to listen to and visualize these “children’s versions” of Aboriginal Dreamtime while taking note of the inspiration for such legends in the shapes, striations, and blemishes in the rock. For instance, a recurring theme is that of the Kuniya, the region’s ancestral non-venomous snake-people who eventually became the features of the landscape.
While watching Uluru transform at sunset one evening, I noticed a local Anangu woman selling her artwork and decided to have a look. One of her small dot paintings, about an 8×12″ canvas, depicted a snake – Kuniya. At $30 it was much cheaper, and to me much more authentic, than buying it from a store or gallery – and it will forever remind me of the Anangu and their beautiful and sacred homeland.
After my time in the Red Centre, I flew north to the NT’s capital of Darwin, the main port of entry for exploring the “Top End.”
While the daylight hours I spent in Darwin were few, I did take a nice long stroll through town upon arrival. I spent the majority of my evening urban walkabout exploring the George Brown Botanic Gardens. While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I find a city can often be judged by its botanic gardens, and I was impressed with Darwin’s – well-designed and rife with birdlife. Also impressive was the sunset as I walked Mindil Beach, home to a lively evening market every Thursday and Sunday. As I wandered back to my hotel on the main drag in town, I enjoyed seeing dozens of people out walking, jogging, and picnicking along the Esplanade, with scores of Red-collared Lorikeets exchanging roosts with impressively large flying foxes (fruit bats) overhead.
I wish I had more time to explore the city, as there’s quite a bit to discover, from the touristy yet thrilling Crocosaurus Cove to the wealth of museums dedicated to aviation history, World War II, and local art and culture. But, I’ll have to save that for my next trip, as I’m here to head off into the bush . . .
Litchfield National Park (with Indigenous NT Tours)
Most adventure travelers arriving in the Top End head straight for the world-famous Kakadu National Park, and for good reason – it is World Heritage-listed, impressively scenic, and chockablock full of fascinating flora and fauna, including quite an array of waterbirds. Unfortunately, that means many people miss the smaller National Park just a short two hours south of Darwin: Litchfield.
I had the good fortune of hooking up with Northern Territory Indigenous Tours for the day, a wholly indigenous – owned and – operated venture founded by Darwin-born Tess Atie, an Aboriginal woman eager to share and teach anyone who is interested about her culture and family history.
I quickly learned that Tess spent most of her formative years in the area that is now the National Park. It was here that she traveled and camped with her family, learning about and living off the land, before heading off to Victoria to attend middle school. After wrapping up her formal education, she began a career as a park ranger and wildlife guide, and eventually recognized that she wanted to be an advocate for her people (or “mob” as she says) and her country, and to teach visitors about the land and its traditional owners.
A mid-morning tea stop in a lovely shaded grove of monsoon rainforest alongside crystal clear Woolaning Spring added more insight into Tess’s background – it was here, in 1949, where Tess’s grandparents settled and established a sawmill operation. These days, the sawmill is long gone and only fascinating relics remain (large rusty circular blades, ancient engine blocks, and an old burnt-out VW bus), but the residence has been grandfathered into the National Park and two small schools have been built nearby for local Aboriginal children.
After tea and biscuits, we found ourselves at Wangi Falls where, after succumbing to my compulsiveness of not being able to pass up an opportunity to take a dip in a new body of water, I took a dip in a new body of water. Good choice – it was a refreshing respite from the Top End heat, and a great swim out to the waterfall and back. And, as it turned out, not my only revitalizing plunge of the day – after a 20-minute hike, we enjoyed another wonderful swim in a deep, clear pool at the base of a stunning waterfall, returning to the carpark to find a picnic lunch waiting for us: barramundi, kangaroo, and crocodile as the main course!
Characterized by stunning waterfalls, verdant woodlands and rainforest, spectacular termite mounds, and refreshing natural plunge pools, Litchfield is well worth the trip – especially if you can join Tess and NT Indigenous Tours.
Perhaps the highlight that I was most looking forward to experiencing in the Top End, the remote luxury camp that is Bamurru Plains certainly did not disappoint.
A member of the Wild Bush Luxury Collection (along with the renowned Sal Salis in Western Australia and Arkaba Station in South Australia), Bamurru Plains can be found adjacent to the western border of Kakadu National Park on the Mary River floodplains. While most clients enjoy a dramatic scenic flight from either Darwin or Jabiru, I elected to drive, passing through a number of rugged cattle and buffalo stations en route to the distant and removed slice of luxury.
At a pre-arranged point, I met Bamurru’s manager John Cooper and stashed my vehicle behind some trees near a water hole complete with a couple enormous, wallowing water buffalo to stand guard. We drove the last several miles to camp in an open safari-style vehicle, and I enjoyed picking John’s brain about the area along the way. Originally from Queensland, John has been in the Northern Territory for the last 13 years, and is one of the region’s most accomplished fishermen (between the months of February and April, Bamurru is an exclusive barramundi-fishing lodge). He is also an exceptionally nice guy, excellent host, and knows how to show off this unique corner of Australia quite well.
John can also be commended for assembling a terrific team of young, personable, and knowledgeable staff and guides. From the outset, they were friendly and helpful, eager to make me feel at home and share their enthusiasm for the bush. It was pleasure getting to know them.
I was also happy to discover that the simple rustic elegance I was expecting does indeed characterize Bamurru. Perched at the edge of the floodplain, the main lodge is constructed from reclaimed materials and emulates an Africa safari lodge, but with Australian cattle station flare. The spacious central area boasts an open bar, beautiful long communal dining table, various station and Aboriginal artifacts on display, and a lovely verandah and pool.
But it’s the individual safari bungalows that are truly outstanding. Set atop raised platforms with corrugated iron siding and a plywood roof, they are uniquely designed so that the canvass walls are angled outwards, allowing you to see out, but no one to see in. This creates an open-air effect that is great for watching the roaming water buffalo, grazing Agile Wallabies, and raucous cockatoos. A large bathroom with a wonderful “bush-style” overhead shower ties it all together.
In the late afternoon, I joined John and the only other couple in camp for the night, and set out for an afternoon drive to the far side of the floodplain. Along the way, we stopped to admire both water and riverine buffalo, brumbies (feral horses), wallabies, and birds – including a spectacular White-bellied Sea-Eagle perched high in a snag. We stopped in a grove of pandanus trees at the edge of the floodplain which, together with the scattered termite mounds, created a real-world Dr. Seuss landscape. It was an idyllic stop for sundowners, quietly watching the milling buffalo and flocks of waterfowl, before heading back to camp for a refreshing shower and an exquisite duck confit dinner diligently created by a young Frenchmen named Cedric. All in all, the afternoon was a brilliant introduction to Bamurru, its style, and all it has to offer. Truly lovely.
The following morning I enjoyed another safari drive through the property, this time to the Mary River. And while we didn’t see any “salties” (Saltwater Crocodiles), we
knew that they were there – this stretch of river boasts the highest concentration of crocodiles anywhere in the world. We did, however, see a wealth of interesting birds, including Brolgas (a species of crane), Australian Bustards, and 7 species of raptor. Then, in the afternoon, we jumped in an airboat and raced across the floodplain, dodging Comb-crested Jacanas and flocks of Magpie Geese, stopping to enjoy some sparkling wine and canapes in a swath of flooded paperbark forest.
I feel privileged to have spent two nights at Bamurru Plains and experienced its noteworthy hospitality, excellent food, and rustic luxury. It is the type of place where you envy the staff for being able to live and work in such a beautiful and remote locale, immersed and in touch with nature; it is the type of place that elicits a bittersweet goodbye when you have to leave, for you leave relaxed and satisfied, yet yearning for more.
But that’s Australia for you.