20 August 2018
BY ALAN YUEN
If you have the time to take in the full grandeur and adventures of the Northern Territory, then this 14-day itinerary shows you the best of the rest. From the Top End of NT, continue on your journey to Alice Springs and Uluru in the Red Centre.
Getting there and getting around
There are several ways to get to Alice Springs; the most direct is a two-hour flight.
The first of two scenic routes is a 16-hour drive down Stuart Highway, with pit stops in small towns such as Daly Waters for overnight stays.
Second is on board The Ghan, a legendary 2,979km rail journey that spans the entire north to South Australia. The train departs Darwin at 10am, and stops in Katherine for an afternoon excursion before arriving in Alice Springs the next day at 9am. The Ghan, painted a deep red, looks like a 19th century freight train, which belies its plush interior. As the train chugs down the harsh desert backdrop, it looks like a scene straight out of a steampunk post-apocalyptic movie.
To get around the Red Centre, go on a self-drive and take in the thrilling, scenic views!
Day 8 & 9: Alice Springs
Your foray into the Outback begins at the School of the Air. Dubbed the “The World’s Largest Classroom” using radio broadcast, classes are now conducted via satellite technology and that covers 1.3 million square kilometers of the Northern Territory. A visit sheds light on Outback life and how education is provided to children who live in remote places.
Next, visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary, a place to see the animals in their natural habitat. With the ever-effusive Chris Barns as your guide – whose passion led to his nickname Kangaroo Dundee – go on a sunset tour to see and hold baby kangaroos.
An upside to being in the middle of nowhere is the fantastic opportunities for stargazing. The Earth Sanctuary, an independent family operated business, prides itself as a model of ecotourism and an advocate of astronomy. Without the glare of city lights, the stars come alive and light up the sky.
Few things rival the majesty of the spectacle, except maybe watching dawn break over the Red Centre from high up. Hot air balloons provide a unique vantage point that highlights the sheer vastness of the land that is difficult to comprehend from the ground.
There’s much more to deserts than meets the eye! Visit Alice Springs Desert Park at the base of the spectacular West MacDonnell Ranges. Just a 10-minute drive from downtown Alice Springs, you will be astonished by the life and beauty of the desert at the Park. The Desert Park is closely connected to the local Aboriginal people. Their stories and history, together with the plants and animals they are responsible for, are told through the interpretation and creation of distinct desert habitats in the Park.
Annually, over a period of 10 nights, Parrtjima – A Festival in Light illuminate the epic MacDonnell Ranges and spilling into Alice Springs Desert Park. Parrtjima (pronounced pah-chee-ma), a free event, is the only authentic Aboriginal light festival of its kind and showcases the oldest continuous culture on earth through the newest technology, on a 300-million-year-old natural canvas – the MacDonnell Ranges. It is a breathtaking outdoor gallery experience presenting local artwork, culture and stories, with interactive installations the whole family can enjoy.
The West MacDonnell National Park stretches for 161km and the Ormiston Gorge is arguably its most scenic and accessible stretch. Its waterholes are a great place for a swim and spectacular geology and wildlife are on display too. The Pound Walk is a pleasant 7km walk that can be completed in three to four hours.
About 30km from Uluru, Kata Tjuta is another must see attraction of the Red Centre. The challenging but rewarding way to see it is on 7km Valley of the Winds hike. The walk, which takes about three hours to complete, has several lookout points with stunning views of the 500 million year old rock formations.
The area, known as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, is sacred to the Aboriginal people. At the Cultural Centre, you can learn on an interactive walk how Aboriginal people used natural resources for food and medicine. It’s also a good place to learn about the deep traditions and folklore behind the legends surrounding the site.
End the day by driving about 50km to Yulura. Ayers Rock Resort provides some degree of comfort to living in a desert and offers a good selection of accommodation types to choose from. It is also the closest base for exploring the park.
A popular night time activity is visiting the Field of Light, a solar installation of 50,000 fiber optic cables and glass bulbs that covers seven football fields. The bulbs light up with Uluru as a backdrop, and the installation’s ethereal quality in many ways mirrors the spirituality of the land. It has been so popular that the installation’s run was extended from 2017 to Dec 31, 2020.
Before heading to the big rock, start your day with dot painting at Maraku Arts. Aboriginal artists from Anangu, the local Aboriginal group, will lead you on an art experience to learn about the traditional art and craft. Anangu art is a conduit to understanding the culture and history of the people, as it features symbols that depict Dreamtime stories. You will also get to create your own painting to take home.
After that, a Camel Tour is your best bet for a unique experience of seeing Uluru. The owner operated tour offers a variety of options, including a sunset experience. The 2.5-hour tour takes you through a spectacular desert landscape, where you will learn more about the territory. You will stop at a vantage point to watch the sunset with Uluru and Kata Tjuta in full view.
The next day, take your pick of the many ways to explore Uluru. The more intrepid can go on a 10.6km loop walk around the base of the rock, which gives an even better appreciation of its staggering size. Alternatively, take to the sky with Ayers Rock Helicopters to get unparalleled panoramic views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
If you haven’t gotten enough of watching beautiful sunsets, the Sounds of Silence is an experience that combines sumptuous food with amazing views. Canapes and chilled sparkling wine are served as you watch the dusk fall with Uluru in the background. Under the starry night, dig into a buffet inspired by bush tucker ingredients such as saltbush and desert lime.
Ayers Rock Airport, a 10-minute drive from Yulura, is a convenient way to get back to Darwin.