Don't stop at Uluru and Alice

JENNY TABAKOFF
Last updated 05:00 29/08/2013
Alice Springs Landscape
Getty Images

WEST MACS: A wide view of the West MacDonnell Ranges in Alice Springs.

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The big rocks get all the attention, but there's more to Central Australia than Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

Visitors flying into Alice Springs over the MacDonnell Ranges glimpse some of those other wonders.

Don't shortchange yourself.

Get out into this jawdropping landscape that once contained seabeds, alluvial plains and mountain ranges as high as the Himalayas. Today the "West Macs", the George Gill Range and the rest are worn down into chains of stripy hummocks that lie on the earth like knuckles on a table.

If Uluru is the Red Centre's heart, Alice Springs is its hub, with enough glitz and action to keep urbanites entertained.

But now you've come all this way, make sure you see more than the rock and the town. Central Australia was shaped over hundreds of millions of years: give it a week to work its magic on you.

Kings Canyon (Watarrka), a cleft in the southern end of the George Gill Range, is about five hours' drive southwest of Alice.

Did I mention the flies? No? Before you leave Alice, buy a fly hat. You'll be grateful for its gauze that separates you from the insects that swarm determinedly into eyes, nose and mouth.

Fly hat on, you're ready to begin the easy creek walk into Kings Canyon.

It follows a dry watercourse but there's moisture underground, as evidenced by the multitude of trees and plants - relics from an ancient time when all the rivers ran in this part of the world.

Before long you'll reach a raised platform, ideal for dramatic shots of the canyon's rim that yawns 270 metres overhead.

Those with energy and half a day can climb the stairs to the Rim Walk. The initial steep ascent leads to a path that skirts the canyon's rim towards the "Garden of Eden", where emerald cycads surround a natural pool. Cue photos of red cliffs, green vegetation and bright blue skies.

You might think that once you've seen one gorge you've seen them all, but each is different. Standley Chasm (known as Angkerle to the Aboriginals), created by ancient floodwaters churning through a mountain, is a narrow alley that lights up when the sun is directly overhead. Make sure you're inside at noon.

Simpsons Gap is a V-shaped chink in the West Macs. A short walk takes you into its heart between soaring red sandstone walls.

The waterhole looks tempting - and was a lifeline to hot and bothered Aborigines and early European explorers - but it's a sacred spot and swimming is prohibited.

If all the gentle walks into gorgeous gorges with waterholes (Ormiston and Glen Helen are two more) give you a taste for more extensive outback treks, note that the 223km Larapinta Trail winds past Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm. Maybe next time ...

Even in winter the days get warm, so swim where cultural sensitivities allow. Ellery Creek Big Hole is an expansive waterhole, surrounded by yet more battered cliffs, that is fed by Ellery Creek, a tributary of Finke River. A dip in the surprisingly cold water will remove that film of red dust.

As you drive along the Larapinta Highway, or the 220km Mereenie Loop dirt road, the desert oaks and hummocky mountains may seem familiar.

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That's because this is Albert Namatjira country: the Aboriginal artist from Hermannsburg, who mastered European watercolour techniques in the 1930s, precisely recreated the landscape's reds, khakis and purples.

About 130km west of Alice Springs is Mt Sonder, the Territory's fourth highest (but possibly loveliest) peak. There's a Creation story about its ragged outline - but then, there's a story about virtually every landmark.

After a couple of days out here it's easy to see brothers, sisters, snakes and lizards in the natural formations, and the patterns of indigenous art in the desert oaks, spinifex and dust.

You can drive yourself through the Red Centre, of course, but a four-wheel-drive tour booked through professionals is good value (especially considering the cost of fuel here) and takes away the hassle and fear-factor. It can also get you to places that are either inaccessible to the public or involve some degree of difficulty.

Wayoutback Desert Safaris promises "authentic outback experiences" in 4WD trucks with a guide/driver, staying at remote sites where you can sleep in a bed in a permanent tent, or outdoors in a swag.

Passengers travel in small groups with good food and creature comforts, but no pampering: for instance, you'll probably find yourself helping to gather mulga-wood for the evening campfire. It's fun - and to understand this place you have to get your hands dusty.

The guide is a hard-working mine of information, capable of driving a gaggle of city-slickers hundreds of kilometres, walking in and out of canyons, standing on the roof of the truck to stack firewood, and superintending a three-course campfire meal while talking about the stars and the medicinal uses of local plants.

Dinner is a delicious stew and a fruity dessert damper, both cooked in camp ovens over glowing mulga coals.

As the lavender twilight turns to velvety black, a dingo howls in the distance.

It's time to wander down a track to the corrugated-iron shower with a bang-on view of the Southern Cross.

Then just curl up in your swag and sleep easy in the red dust under a glittering chandelier of stars.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Tigerair flies into Alice Springs from Sydney and Melbourne.

STAYING THERE: If you're self-driving around Central Australia, most places to stop have campgrounds or offer permanent tents (with beds) or backpacker or motel-style rooms.

At Kings Creek Station, you can set up your tent and self-cater for A$38 ($43.8) a night, or sleep on a bed in a safari tent, and get a cooked breakfast, for A$82.50 ($95) (per person, twin-share) or A$102.50 ($118) (single).

There are camping/accommodation options at places such as Kings Canyon Resort and Glen Helen Resort.

Uluru's resort town of Yulara has accommodation including a campground and four and five-star hotels.

Alice Springs' wide range of accommodation includes the Lasseters casino hotel.               

PLAYING THERE: Wayoutback Safaris run two, three and five-day 4WD tours in Central Australia, with stops in safari tents at its own campsites. A three-day Goanna Dreaming tour costs A$675 ($777.6).

Tourism NT website has plenty of "things to do" ideas, ranging from the Larapinta Trail to hot-air ballooning.

The Mereenie Loop is an unsealed scenic road connecting Kings Canyon to the Western MacDonnell Ranges and Alice Springs.

4WDs are recommended but generally not necessary. Because the loop crosses Aboriginal land, a permit is required: these cost A$2.20 and can be bought on the day of travel at Kings Canyon Resort, Glen Helen Resort, Hermannsburg and Alice Springs Tourist Office.         

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism NT, Tiger Airways and Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.

- AAP

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