It’s taken me 29 years to reach the wild, red heart of my home country. Undoubtedly, there are many Aussies in a similar boat – they’ve kept putting the journey off, hoping they might see Uluru one day. Central Australia is just so darn remote, and a little tough on the hip pocket, too. But, if the awe-inspiring Nat Geo photos and timeless bush poems are anything to go by, this mystical desert-scape must be witnessed. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for locals and international visitors alike. Here’s how to make the most of the Red Centre and guarantee the adventure is one you’ll never forget!
RUN A MARATHON IN THE RED CENTRE
Imagine going on a morning run, where the harsh asphalt has been replaced with soft red earth, concrete buildings have morphed into iconic rock formations, and the sound of traffic has been muted to silence. Such is the promise of the Australian Outback Marathon, one of the world’s most unique and remote running events.
Not only is the Australian Outback Marathon a unique way to experience the Red Centre (and the perfect excuse to do so), it’s also the stuff of marathon runners’ dreams – especially first-timers like me. The course is off-the-beaten track and relatively flat, with a few gruelling sand dunes thrown in for good measure. As you watch the kilometres tick by, you’re treated to sunrise views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. It’s surreal. It’s extraordinary.
Beyond the incredible setting and rugged course, the Australian Outback Marathon wins points for its intimate, friendly vibe. Accepting no more than 500 entrants, the event attracts runners of all fitness levels, cultural backgrounds and ages (43 being the average in 2016). Extracurricular activities run seamlessly over a long weekend, with itineraries being designed to suit all budgets and travel plans. The total experience is more like a group adventure than a race amongst strangers. The Australian Outback Marathon community is truly special, making the mighty task of tackling a marathon a lot less intimidating.
DINE IN THE DESERT & UNDER THE STARS
The best social event on the Australian Outback Marathon calendar has to be the Sounds of Silence Dinner. Serving up the best of the Red Centre distilled into four magical hours, it’s not your typical restaurant experience (to say the least). The evening kicks off with canapés and chilled sparkling wine overlooking the Uluru-Kata-Tjuta National Park. As the sun drifts below the horizon and darkness descends, it’s time for the real festivities to begin.
Once guests have taken their seats under the stars – the red earth at their feet – they’re treated to a bush tucker bash like no other. The three-course buffet incorporates native ingredients (Crocodile Caesar Salad anyone?) and comes with a bottomless supply of Australian beer and wine. Diners are also treated to a live didgeridoo performance, the beautifully untamed beats and gravelly hums amplifying the outback experience and deepening the audience’s immersion in nature.
Then comes the star-gazing lesson, when guests learn to decode the southern night sky and locate the Southern Cross, Milky Way, signs of the zodiac, planets and galaxies. With barely a blip of manmade light in sight, the world beyond our world is disarmingly visible. Just in case you want to take a closer look, there are telescopes on hand. Catching a glimpse of Saturn’s icy rings is a moment I’ll never forget.
SEE THE SUNRISE ATOP A CAMEL
This bucket list moment is worth getting up early for. There’s nothing quite like a crack of dawn stroll through the country – especially when it’s atop a camel. Watch the Australian outback come to life, as the sun’s gentle rays bathe nature in a “Good morning!” glow. Fresh air filtering through your lungs, sunshine on your skin, and World Heritage sites in perfect view – it’s pretty spectacular, really.
As your sleepy steed swaggers through fields of wildflowers and over sand dunes, you’ll learn about the Red Centre’s unique flora and fauna. Your guide will also share the story of Australia’s 130-year history with camels and the Afghan cameleers who played a vital role in opening up the outback.
Once your ride comes to an end, you’ll get a chance to explore the largest camel farm in the Southern Hemisphere – freshly baked damper and cup of tea in hand. I was particularly excited to discover a resident buffalo – my favourite animal in the world. If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with the property’s legendary camel races, a mad and unforgettable site!
DISCOVER ULURU’S MYSTERIES AT SUNSET
While photographers have captured the visual grandeur of Uluru a thousand times over, there’s nothing quite like a firsthand view of Australia’s most spiritually profound and culturally significant monolith. It needs to be seen up close to be fully appreciated.
SEIT provides travellers with the ultimate introduction to Uluru. Their tours allow you to explore her honeycomb hollows, marvel at her rusty skin and photograph her best angles. More importantly, they provide a unique glimpse into the local indigenous community (Anangu) and its deep, 22,000-year connection with this national icon.
As you approach the Mutitjulu Waterhole, an eerie sanctuary nestled in the contours of Uluru, your guide will share the Anangu’s stories about Creation. Reiterated by the well-preserved rock art of the ancients, these tales highlight the Anangu’s enduring and inextricable bond with the land.
As the tour comes to a close, you’ll adjourn to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area and enjoy an uninterrupted sunset view of Uluru. Rising from the sand dunes like a blazing red flame, holiday-goers surrender to her powerful presence as they sip on sparkling wine. Uluru’s natural beauty and spiritual mystery will keep them enchanted long after they’ve left the Red Centre.
HIKE AMONGST MANY HEADS
After Uluru comes Kata Tjuta, the Yulara region’s second biggest drawcard. Unlike its monolith sister, this geological phenomenon is made up of 36 rock domes, dating back 500 million years. I repeat: 500 million years!
Aptly named “Many Heads” in the Anangu language, it’s a sacred place of knowledge and considered to be very powerful by the local indigenous community. Much of the wisdom, stories and rules of Anangu life remain sacred and can’t be retold to those outside the community; but a knowledgeable local guide can certainly provide a glimpse into the geological, spiritual and cultural significance of Kata Tjuta.
I explored the region with the help of AAT Kings. Their tour starts with a quick photo stop, so you can take in the majesty of Kata Tjuta from a distance and enjoy panoramic views of the domes. Experience their grand scale up close on the Walpa Gorge and Valley of the Winds walks. During the hot gold hush of noon, the serene wilderness is truly invigorating.
GET LOST IN A FIELD OF LIGHT
Once darkness falls on the Red Centre and Uluru is thrown into silhouette, the Field of Light illuminates. As far as the eye can see, gentle rhythms of colour light up the desert floor like a galaxy mirrored by the night sky; 50,000 slender stems crowned with frosted-glass spheres bloom in the darkness, paying homage to the moon. It’s easy to see why this unparalleled art installation has become a global phenomenon – a must-see spectacle. Aptly named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku (“Looking at lots of beautiful lights”) by the local indigenous community, it will be in place until the 31st of March, 2017. So, get in quick and experience the magic for yourself.
FLY HIGH – IT’S THE BEST GOODBYE
Once you’ve run around it, ridden a camel over it, walked through it and photographed the heck out of it, there’s one thing left for you to do – fly over it! A trip to the Red Centre is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure after all, so you may as well make the most of it.
While the views of outback Australia are pretty epic from a plane, the smudged windows and strict flight path don’t make for a perfect photo shoot. Get the best seat in the sky with Professional Helicopter Services, and explore your perfect menu of sites with a side serving of adrenalin.
Pilots can take you past Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Lake Amadeus, Walpa Gorge, Mt Conner and beyond. Enjoy panoramic views of this sunburnt desert-scape, a land of sweeping plains and raw natural beauty. Get your heart racing, as your pilot manoeuvres the helicopter to get the best photo opportunities. Avoid ground-based touring restrictions and see the Legends of the Outback in all of their glory.
SLEEP AT SAILS IN THE DESERT
If you’re looking for somewhere special to stay during your holiday in the Red Centre, I highly recommend Sails in the Desert. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to recuperate in between late night finishes, early morning starts and Australian Outback Marathon activities. The customer service was delightful, the location was convenient, the rooms were ultra-comfy and the food was gloriously decadent (big shout out to Lazarus, who makes the best pancakes and eggs benedict in the outback). A stay at Sails in the Desert is memorable for all the right reasons (phone: +61 8 8957 7888).
Hopefully, by now, I’ve inspired you to plan a trip to Australia’s spiritual heartland. There’s nothing quite like the Red Centre, where magic, beauty and adventure awaits. If you follow my lead, you’ll leave with lifelong memories – the stuff of other people’s dreams.