50 Shades Of Red: The Surprising Outback

26 May 2015

It was the cold that hit me first. I was expecting to feel all kinds of things on my first trip to Uluṟu, but a frigid morning chill wasn't one of them.

A sunrise visit to the spiritual heart of the Red Centre, I now know, can be a chilly experience. When the first of the autumn winds begins to howl across the desert, you'd better make sure you have a jacket on hand.

But once the shock of the cold had worn off, the sheer awe of standing before one of nature's genuine giants began to unveil itself. I'd seen the mighty rock on TV and in photographs but gazing upon it, I couldn't help but feel humbled by its size and scale.

 The distinctive hues of Uluru. (Image: Mike Tuckerman)

Uluṟu, it could be said, has to be seen to be believed. For so long a sacred site to the Anangu people who first called this part of Australia home, the rough-hewn contours and ever-changing colours take on a new dimension in person.

I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite so immense. Uluṟu was, from every angle, an ethereal experience.

On a walking tour around the base of the giant monolith, our guide Ryan pointed out a number of sites sacred to the local Anangu people.

As recently as 70 years ago, the Indigenous community which inhabited what is now the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park created rock art that still adorns the nooks and crevices of Uluṟu.

Some of their paintings and drawings are several thousand years old – a testament to just how ancient this other-worldly landscape truly is.

A 50-kilometre drive from Uluṟu, the 36 domes of Kata Tjuta are just as spectacular as their arguably more famous neighbour to the east.

Long known colloquially as The Olgas, the tallest of these rock formations towers a remarkable 546 metres above the desert plains, ensuring that Kata Tjuta is as visible on the skyline as Uluṟu.

Our early-morning stroll up into the heart of Kata Tjuta was buffeted by strong winds, yet the blustery conditions only added to the sense that the original inhabitants of this hard-scrabble land were an amazingly resilient and resourceful mob.

It's one thing to view Kata Tjuta from a distance, but getting up close to these strange rock formations reveals the extent of the iron oxidisation that gives these towering boulders their distinctive red hue.

 A spectacular early-morning sunrise. (Image: Mike Tuckerman)

It seems everything in the Outback exists on a grand scale and that was certainly the case at Kings Canyon.

Carved out of the earth in the Watarrka National Park and perched along the western edge of the George Gill Range, my first glimpse of the deep gorges and jagged escarpments of the region came at dusk.

With drinks in hand we watched intently as a wan sun slunk slowly beneath the rocky outcrops, casting long shadows over the preternaturally quiet landscape.

The next morning heralded another early start and yet another spectacular sunrise. As beams of sunlight streamed through thin wisps of streaky clouds, the landscape slowly began to reveal itself.

It was, much like Uluṟu and Kata Tjuta, immensely vast. By the time our coach pulled into parking lot at Kings Canyon, it was apparent that this was a space of ample proportions.

So it proved as our group of young, fit and spry hikers – and me – set off on a two-and-a-half hour scenic walk around the rim of Kings Canyon.

The early going was the toughest, but once we'd reached the top it was a simple matter of strolling along and taking in the spectacular views all around.

The canyon itself was deep and suitably dramatic. Little wonder that Ernest Giles, the first European to sight the canyon, wrote of the experience "...could it be transported to any civilised land, it's springs, glens, gorges, ferns, zamias and flowers would charm the eyes and hearts of toil-worn men who are condemned to live and die in crowded towns".

There were no crowded towns in the Northern Territory; no toil-worn men of the sort Giles despaired for in his adopted home town Adelaide.

There was simply a feeling of vastness and a sense that this place was special. My first visit to the Red Centre imbued in me a renewed appreciation for Australia's desolate and deeply beautiful Outback.

I'm glad to have experienced it.

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Mike Tuckerman

From Europe to Asia and many places in between, there's rarely a town or city I've not enjoyed exploring. When I'm not wandering the streets and discovering new destinations, you can usually find me hanging out with the locals at major sporting events.