Uluru to Alice Springs: Exploring Australia's otherworldly Red Centre

Rock up to Oz – for an experience like nowhere else on Earth! Discovering the otherworldly majesty of Australia’s Red Centre. It’ll leave you spellbound

  • Fiona McIntosh visits the ‘extraordinary’ Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is now known by its Aboriginal name
  • She learns about the natural wonder on a walking tour around the base of The Rock with an indigenous guide  
  • For an ‘insanely luxurious’ break in the area, she recommends Longitude 131 – ‘one of Australia’s finest hotels’

When you land at Ayers Rock Airport, in the burning red heart of Australia, there is only one road out.

‘You can drive that-away for three days and hit Darwin,’ explained our driver as he waved his bush hat vaguely northwards.

‘Or you can drive that-away for two and a half days and hit Adelaide,’ he said waving south. ‘But you won’t find anything along the way.’

Pride of Australia: Fiona McIntosh visits Australia’s most iconic landmark, Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is now known by its Aboriginal name. ‘It is one of the most extraordinary natural wonders of the world,’ she observes 

One of the guest rooms at Longitude 131, the insanely luxurious five-star resort overlooking Uluru 

Even though the temperature outside is pushing 40c (104f), you still can’t help shivering a little at the thought of all of that . . . space. It’s the colour of the dust swirling around you that gives it an otherworldliness. It is a deep, ochre red that burns against a violently blue sky.

This isn’t just another country. Surely we’ve landed on another planet?

The reason we left the chic civilisation of harbourside Sydney to take the three-hour flight to Ayers Rock Airport, is so we could experience Australia at its most raw and challenging. This is the Outback of legend and horror films, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see, feel and taste (yes, that dust flies into your mouth) the vast Central Australian Desert or ‘Red Centre’ as the locals call it.

Of course, the gem in this desert dust, is Australia’s most iconic landmark, Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is now known by its Aboriginal name. It is one of the most extraordinary natural wonders of the world.

Yet when you first spot it in the distance it looks entirely unnatural, as if it has been created by some sort of special-effects wizardry. It’s the scale of the thing that hits you first, a vast chunk of sandstone rising nearly 3,000 ft from the flat desert scrubland around it. Yet there is more to Uluru than just a geological landmark. It is mesmerisingly beautiful, particularly at dawn or dusk when the light casts a crimson glow across the rock face, like a burning ember in the desert.

The open road: Driving through the Outback. Fiona describes this part of the country as Australia ‘at its most raw and challenging’ 

Native kangaroos have returned to feed by Uluru now that the climbing crowds have gone – climbing the rock was banned in 2019 as a show of respect to the Aboriginal people, who regard it as one of the most spiritually significant sites in Australia (file photo) 

Climbing the rock was banned in 2019 as a show of respect to the Aboriginal people who regard it as one of the most spiritually significant sites in Australia. The ban was also enforced to help curb dangerous overcrowding. Before the ban, 500 people queued daily to climb Uluru, scaling it in packs, eight-people deep.

It also means that a visit to ‘the rock’ is now a much calmer experience. You can take your time to explore it along a new, signposted boardwalk, or cycle, Segway or even camel trek around the six-mile base, past caves and watering holes where native kangaroos and birdlife have returned to feed now that the climbing crowds have gone.

You soon realise you don’t need to conquer Uluru to feel its power. I am a tough old cynic, but I can tell you that when I placed my hands against the warm surface of the rock I could almost feel it hum beneath my fingers.

The woman standing beside me actually started to weep when she touched it, quickly apologising as she didn’t quite know what had come over her. It really does seem to have some sort of unexplainable life force.

You definitely need to spend at least three days to get to grips with this extraordinary landscape. At first glance the bush around Uluru looks so barren and inhospitable, you can’t imagine how anyone could have survived here.

But on a walking tour around the base of The Rock with an indigenous guide, we learned how the seeds of the spinifex plant could be ground into flour to make bread, where we could forage for sweet bush tomatoes and desert plums and for the brave, where to find the fat, white grubs you could pop in your mouth and crunch.

We also spent a surprisingly therapeutic two hours sitting beneath a canopy in the middle of the Bush learning how to create our own traditional Aboriginal paintings, charting our lives through a series of dots and symbols on a small, black canvas.

At sunset we returned to watch Uluru’s famous shifting colours, from red to orange, purple and mauve while we sipped a gin and tonic, and ate canapes from a makeshift Bush bar.

Later, we went to see a manmade light show, the artist Bruce Munro’s Field Of Light, a fairytale landscape of 50,000 coloured lights you can wander around in the cooler evening air.

If you are feeling energetic, take a short drive out to the rock dome formation Kata Tjuta, meaning ‘many heads’ and tackle the 4.6-mile Valley of the Winds trail, which loops through a cavernous gorge leading into an unexpectedly lush, grassy valley.

For a more action-packed day, you can rise early and take a three-hour drive to the spectacular Kings Canyon, a soaring red sandstone bluff with a green oasis buried in its belly.

If you like an action-packed holiday, Fiona recommends embarking on a hike through the ‘spectacular’ Kings Canyon (above)  

If you tackle the challenging 3.5-hour hike to the top of the bluff, you will be rewarded with breathtaking, panoramic views from the summit over bushland, forests and waterholes. Then make the descent into the verdant Garden of Eden, dipping in the springs and fern-fringed pools on the way down.

If you have the time, extend your Outback trip to Alice Springs, the desert outpost 213 miles (or a four-hour 40-minute drive) from Uluru where you can take four-wheel-drive excursions into the spectacular MacDonnell Ranges.

Or you could, like us, just stay put in the Ayers Rock Resort, a cluster of stylish hotels and cabins, where we returned each evening for a swim in the pool, a massage in the spa and some fabulous food.

To see more of central Australia, extend your Outback trip to Alice Springs (above), the desert outpost 213 miles (or a four-hour 40-minute drive) from Uluru

Thankfully, Australians now take their grub as seriously as their Aussie Rules Football, so the days of a bacon sarnie (and not a lot else) at the local pub are now long gone.

At Longitude 131, the insanely luxurious five-star resort overlooking Uluru, you can dine on kangaroo carpaccio and saltbush barramundi with the best Petaluma Chardonnay surrounded by millions of dollars worth of Australian art. 

But even the mid-range hotels offer excellent bistro food, swimming pools, super comfortable beds and many varied excursions and day trips to join.

A couple relax at the Longitude 131 hotel, which boasts a pool, five-star spa and award-winning food and wine

Travellers enjoy one of the ‘Signature Experiences’ offered by Longitude 131

The days of daring yourself to climb Ayers Rock may be over but, thankfully, so are the days of pitching a tent in the dust and hoping for the best. This may well be the most remote adventure you will ever have . . . but with all the comforts of home.

HOW TO GET THERE

Qantas flies from London to Sydney starting from £1,100 return. Jetstar flies directly from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport in two hours 50 mins (starting from £230 return).

WHEN TO GO

The best time to visit is between May and September when weather is milder — between 20c (68f) and 30c (86f).

WHERE TO STAY

MONEYSAVER: The well-appointed Ayers Rock Campground has air-conditioned cabins sleeping up to six people from £24 to £105 a night.

MID-RANGE: Sails In The Desert resort offers super comfortable suites, fine dining, a pool and spa from £194 a night for two sharing.

SPLURGE: Longitude 131 is one of Australia’s finest and most iconic hotels. Stay in luxurious tented lodges with views of Uluru, a pool, five-star spa and award-winning food and wine for an all-inclusive price from £970 per night based on two people sharing. Minimum stay of two nights. For more accommodation options go to northernterritory.com/plan/accommodation.

OR TAKE A TOUR: Freedom Destinations offers a Red Centre self-drive which includes Uluru, Kings Canyon and also Alice Springs over four days.

THAT’S WHAT I CALL DOWN UNDER 

By Jeremy Clarke 

Ninety minutes out from Brisbane, we touched down on the tiny tropical Hamilton Island, the southernmost of the 74 Whitsundays islands.

I stepped off the plane and on to a luxurious speedboat — and a gin and tonic was placed in my hand. Our resort destination was the northernmost Whitsundays island, called Hayman.

Halfway down the second gin, I realised that the Whitsundays had been devastated by a hurricane. The sea was invitingly pellucid and wide white beaches dazzled in the sunshine.

On a tour of Australia’s Whitsundays islands, Jeremy Clarke stayed in an underwater bedroom (stock image) with glass walls at Reef Suites. ‘You could lie on the bed and watch the fish watching you,’ he says

Then we headed to our luxury island resort. There, somebody insane with friendliness led us to our beach-front villa with its indoor and outdoor pool — and very nice they were, too.

From here, we flew north again to the town of Airlie Beach and then bounced for two hours across the Pacific Ocean in a ferry to a sea platform above the famous Great Barrier Reef, where I checked into Reef Suites. I was led down into an underwater bedroom (pictured above) with glass walls for the night. You could lie on the bed and watch the fish watching you.

Wonderful. After two fallow, tourist-free years, the coral has perked up. Those clever marine biologists have encouraged it by playing Pink Floyd, Beethoven and Crowded House. That must be music to the ears of anyone who cares about this beautifully important part of the world.

  • Travel Facts: Double rooms from £560 per night, including all meals and drinks (cruisewhitsundays.com).

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