“Is that a snake?” said David, a whiny seven year-old who’d tagged onto our tour group with his parents.
“It really looks like a snake.”
Trying to ignore what was his 23rd interruption in five minutes, our tour guide Beavis continued his talk about the geology of Palm Valley, the beautiful palm-treed oasis we were sitting in.
“It is a snake! It is a snake,” shouted David. More to humour the little shit than anything else, Beavis looked to where he was pointing, at a tree about a foot away from our group.
“He’s right, it is a snake – and I suggest we all move away from it now!” he said, with as much urgency as a bloke living a life in the outback can muster.
Turns out the annoying little brat might’ve saved our lives.
The snake in question was a Mulga – or King Brown – whose bite leads to death in about 45 minutes. It’s the second-most poisonous snake in the world and it was none too happy about having a busload of travellers spoiling its mid-afternoon sleep.
We promptly left.
And that’s the wonder of the Northern Territory’s Red Centre – you never know what’s going to be around the next corner.
It might be a cute rock wallaby bounding up a sheer cliff face, an ancient cycad tree which has been around since prehistoric times, or an impressive mountain range which was once the height of the Himalayas. You have to keep your eyes peeled while you’re here, kids – every rock, animal and bush holds an amazing secret and if you don’t look or listen hard enough, you’ll miss it.
Take Gosse Bluff, about 60km from the Aboriginal community of Hermannsburg. To the untrained eye, it looks like an innocuous mountain range in the middle of some very hilly terrain. Wrong. In fact, it’s a 2km-wide crater, formed when a massive comet hit the earth 140 million years ago. The power of the impact was said to be 1000 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the surrounding hills are shockwaves sent out from the epicentre.
See, I told you it’s worth paying attention.
Having never been to the Red Centre before, I’d heard the usual stories of it being just a vast desert with loads of red dust and a few big rocks in the middle of nowhere. If you hear anyone saying that, you have permission to slap them. Hard. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
The first thing that hits you about the region is that it’s so green, with bushes, trees and spinafex grass everywhere you look. The plants have learnt to adapt to living in a harsh climate – actually thriving on the arid conditions.
The smell of burnt wood is also pervasive, with rangers backburning much of the land to prevent fires from getting out of control. Burning of the bush is also used by Aborigines of the area in what is called fire stick farming. Setting alight parts of the land forces the animals in the area to flee, and the hunters lie in wait to catch them. I reckoned it was cheating but I wasn’t going to argue with 20,000 years of tradition – you never know when your tour might run out of coleslaw and sausages.
It’s like a living classroom in the bush and it really pays dividends if you’re on a guided tour. Even if the guides do have weird names – I mean, who calls their kid Beavis? – they certainly know their stuff.
How else was I going to find out that by rubbing the dust off a ghost gum you could use it as sunscreen? That the dried sap from the bloodwood tree can be used as an antiseptic? Or that the water in Ellery Creek Big Hole is bollock-shrinkingly cold because of the cooling effect of the heavy tree quartzite rock beside it? I would’ve been chewing on the bark of various trees and grasses and have put myself on the nearest Flying Doctor within a couple of hours if it wasn’t for them.
If it’s scenery on a vast and mystical scale you’re after, you’ve come to the right place. The geological explanations of the land are almost incomprehensible, with tales of violent plate movements, massive erosion and mountainous formations over 400 million years old. But all this was a bit too scientific for me – I preferred the Aboriginal explanations for how the land was formed.
The Indigenous people believe in Creation Time, where powerful ancestors in the forms of people, plants and animals roamed over a featureless earth and created the wonders we see today. Everything you see in the Red Centre was created by these ancestors and therefore should be treated with the reverence they deserve.
FIT FOR A KING
Probably the most stunning of all the places you can visit in the Red Centre is Kings Canyon in Wattarka National Park. It’s a stunning chasm that will literally take your breath away – but enough about the walk to get you there.
The views across the canyon make all the huffing and puffing worth it. With no fences to spoil the panoramic views, you can poke your legs or head over the edge of the cliff and take in the 180 metre drop in its full glory.
The Lost World is a formation of dozens of domed rocks, which looks like a series of turrets and huts sitting in the vast mountain range. Formed some 400 million years ago, when the plates below were savagely pulled apart, erosion from the wind and sand has done its magic to create this natural miracle. Quick photo tip though – if you’re balding, ginger and sunburnt, don’t bother having your pic taken with it in the background. You’ll just look like one of the domes.
Crossing to the north face through the lush Garden of Eden, you can sit on the edge of the world on a small triangular piece of rock that juts out over the gorge below. Legend has it one slightly unhinged tour guide once did a handstand right on the edge – I thought it more sensible to just take some pictures. Still shat my pants though.
The most amazing fact is this area used to be completely under water millions of years ago, and as you walk across the rocks you can pick out fossils of ancient jellyfish and ripples from the long dry waterbed.
WE WILL ROCK YOU
The reason most people come to the Red Centre is for Uluru – also known as Ayers Rock – the heart and soul of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. As far as icons go, this is the big one and no matter what you’ve heard about it, nothing can prepare you for seeing “The Rock”up close.
Jutting 340 metres out of the ground and 9.4km in circumference, the sheer size of Uluru is mind-boggling – with the earth losing a metre of topsoil every million years, the Rock is well over 350 million years old. The fact the surrounding terrain is flatter than Lara Flynn Boyle’s chest only adds to its magnificence.
Giant ridges and fissures adorn the rock face, with black stains highlighting where natural waterfalls occur during rain. Its colour comes from years of red dust, high in iron, being blown against its exterior – the combination of the dust and rain water on the arcose sandstone means Uluru is actually rusting.
Uluru is a place of great religious significance for the Anangu people of the region. Many Aboriginal ceremonies – or “Inma” – take place around the rock, and much of Uluru is so sacred that photography is banned in certain areas. Creation Time legends are plentiful here – many of the scars and cracks on Uluru are believed to have occurred during this time. The best place to learn more about what the Anangu call “Tjurkupa” – the traditional law which provides answers to important questions, the rules for behaviour and living together – is to visit the excellent Visitor’s Centre.
It’s here you’ll also learn why the Anangu ask tourists not to walk on Uluru. As well as being dangerous due to the heat and high winds in the region, the walk is the traditional route taken by the ancestral Mala men and is of great spiritual significance. Considering the view from the top of the rock – look kids, some desert! – the walk around the base of Uluru is much more fulfilling and culturally respectful.
Also part of the national park is Kata Tjuta – meaning many heads – a formation of 36 domes about 45km from Uluru. There’s a challenging walk to the Valley of the Winds – a steep climb up to the top affords some amazing views of the domed rocks. The best time to view this surreal formation is early morning, when the sun rises over Uluru and bathes the domes in a reddish glow.
For a fair dinkum Aussie experience, you can’t get any better than the Red Centre, mate. Just watch out for those King Browns – if you’d been bitten when you started reading this, you’ve only got about half an hour to live…
The experience: Adventure Tours Australia, Ph: 1300 654 604; Melanka Lodge, Alice Springs, Ph: (08) 8952 2233.