The 36 sandstone domes that make up Kata Tjuta bubble suddenly out of the deep red sands of the Northern Territory outback as the bus swings out of our campsite in Yulara onto the Lasseter Highway. From a distance they look strange, alien even, in the way they seem to have been dolloped on the horizon, growing larger and larger in the bus windscreen.

All 23 of us in the tour group find ourselves turning and twisting in our seats, struggling to decide whether to focus solely on the lofty peak of Mt Olga and Kata Tjuta growing steadily in front of us, or the hulking, sandstone monolith of Uluru disappearing into the distance behind. 

This is my first time in the Northern Territory and we have only been in the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park for a few hours, but already I am in awe of the landscape around me. There is surely no place on Earth quite like it, certainly not anywhere I’ve ever been to before anyway.

Valley of the Winds

Each armed with a water bottle, hat, enclosed walking shoes and a camera we clamber off the bus and stand at the entrance to the Valley of the Winds walk, a fairly gentle 7.2km hike taking in a few beautiful lookouts surrounded on all sides by the magnificent rising domes of Kata Tjuta.

We follow one of our guides, Doc, into the valley, picking our way slowly down the ancient rocky trail. On this terrain one quickly learns not to try and take photographs while walking at the same time. The loose shale of the hiking track is dotted with hundreds of rocks and stones buried in the ground, all of which seem perfectly designed for catching a trailing foot.

Once in the valley proper I am amazed at how green it is. There are trees, scrubby bushes and a few patches of greenish, tussocky looking grass jutting out of the red desert sands. There is even a body of slowly moving water that warrants fording via a bridge. Desert finches are in full voice as the morning sun climbs high in the sky and the temperature as we walk is warm without being too hot. In short, it is perfect hiking weather.

In a stretched out column we move through the thin trail, periodically stopping to take photos of particularly distinct formations in the sacred rocks including one that looks remarkably like an elephant’s head. None of us are quite prepared for what is waiting at the top of the final look out though.

Framed on either side by two giant rocky shapes, one bathed in sunlight the other in dark shadow, a reddish green carpet of scrub grass and stunted desert pines stretch luxuriously out in front of us towards a further outlying crop of Kata Tjuta, more red-rock sandstone domes standing proudly in the distance.

It is beautiful in a rugged, hard sort of way and we are all loathed to get back on the bus, even with the promise of champagne and an Uluru sunset ahead of us.

Uluru sunset

After the beauty of Kata Tjuta, Doc and our other tour guide, Clark, whisk us back on to the bus and we begin the drive back to the Uluru sunset viewing area to try and beat the tourist rush. Doc assures us that he knows of a special spot, his particular favourite and promises us that nobody else will be there.

Sure enough, as the sun begins to dip, we arrive at the viewing area. The number of buses already parked about the place looks to be quite alarming. Trestle tables covered in white sheets and champagne glasses have sprouted up everywhere and the whir of closing camera shutters and the chatter of hundreds of people from half the countries in the world fill the air.

We follow Doc and Clark up a sandy path carrying an Esky full of sparkling wine, boxes of nibbles (an assorted variety of Shapes) and some plastic tubs of dip and take up residence on a bit of high ground. It is relatively tourist-free, and to the right, the red rock is darkening in front of us.

It is a unique experience watching Uluru’s hue change in the setting sun, turning from the usual, famous rust-red colour most people associate the place with, through to darker shades of vermillion, brown and finally a deep purple as the last light fails. It is quite a haunting moment and even those in the group who have seen the same spectacle before fall silent as we watch intently. 

Back at camp we learn that it is one of the girls in the groups’ birthday (why she didn’t mention it earlier, I’ll never know) and so we cap the night off with a few (too many) beers. Tired as I was and with a 5am wake up call ahead, I spend quite some time lying in my swag after everyone has gone to bed staring up at the thousands of stars, so many tiny pinpricks of light in a sky black as ink.

Morning base walk around the rock

The next morning, we are woken with stars still in the sky and after a bracing cup of coffee, drive to the start of the 10km Uluru base walk in the morning gloom. Even in the half-light of dawn the immensity of the rock is breathtaking, a hulking shadow looming over us the closer we get to it, dark against the crimson desert horizon. Having only seen Uluru from a distance the day before, I am struck by how large it is up close and as I climb off the bus and gaze up at a section of it in the twilight I can almost feel the immenseness of the ancient stone pushing down on me like a weight.

We all set off in the gloom, Clark leading us at a leisurely pace around the rock, pausing every now and then to tell us snippets of creation stories from the local Anangu people and facts about the local fauna, flora and the composition of the mighty rock itself.

The rock is very sacred to the Anangu, and in many parts, photography is forbidden. In Anangu culture, men and women could not visit or even look upon some sacred sites without being punished.  

While the rock itself is beautiful up close, it’s the stories and history of the people who used to live in its shadow that make Uluru one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Even though the Anangu have only disclosed a fraction of their creation stories concerning Uluru, they are still fascinating and represent something unique to Australian indigenous culture. Each story represents tens of thousands of years worth of living history, passed down from person to person over the millennia. It is stunning to think that anything at all managed to live and flourish in such a stark, desolate and harsh environment as this, let alone a society as ancient as any on Earth.

We finish our day at Uluru with a guided tour of some of the most ancient and sacred sites around the area with an Anangu guide, Sarah, and her interpreter, John. Speaking in the local Pitjantjatjara language she explains to us the story of the ancient Mala people who had once called Uluru their home. It is a wonderful experience and one I cannot recommend highly enough.

Kings Canyon

After all the excitement of the previous two days and another beautiful night spent under the stars listening to the dingoes howling at the new moon, the prospect of a second 5am wake up call in a row and another long hike isn’t exactly appealing. Doc and Clark keep repeating over and over that if we don’t have a minimum of a litre and a half of water on us for the next trek we might die, which does little to ease my tired mind and weary legs.

Thankfully though, my reservations are quickly dispelled when we arrive at the start of the beautiful Kings Canyon circle walk. It would seem that the way Clark and Doc had staggered the trip meant that they had saved the very best place until last.

There is no other word to describe Kings Canyon other than staggering. Sure it’s nowhere near as cavernous or famous as the Grand Canyon, but like everywhere else in the Northern Territory, it is completely unique.

Millions of years ago it was a giant seabed and the stone of the canyon’s walls appear cut sheer and flat along the sides as they fall away into the heavily foliaged floor. On the walking trails, however, the surface is anything but smooth with angular crags and ziggurat like domes erupting out of the jagged rock like the remnants of some ancient, abandoned city.

Clark occasionally stops to point out the fossilised remains of trilobites (prehistoric crustaceans) who had pulled themselves across the ground when it had been the bottom of a primeval waterway aeons ago. Today they are forever preserved in the living rock.

After a few kilometers of walking we come to the ‘Garden of Eden’, a kind of oasis in the canyon proper, where there is constantly shade and water (a great rarity in the semi-arid country around us). We stop briefly there by a great stagnant pool and listen to the call of the birds and the splashing of a touring group of school kids swimming around in the murky-looking water.

The walk through the Canyon is easily my favourite part of the whole trip, a place of rare and terrible beauty all of its own. The 7km trek is challenging in parts (the very start of the walk is a steep stone stairway cut into the rock that Doc colourfully refers to as “Heart Attack Hill”) but it isn’t so hard that you have to be a seasoned nature hiker or phenomenally fit to enjoy it, and the vistas are absolutely incredible to behold.

After a quick lunch we find ourselves back on the bus heading towards Alice Springs and I can’t help but feel sad at the trip’s imminent end. The Red Centre is a diverse, harsh and beautiful place, unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, and my visit was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. If you’ve never been – you should go there immediately!

Damage and details:  Adventure Tours Australia (adventuretours.com.au) run three day guided tours of Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon starting from $355.