The heart of Australia: from Darwin to Alice Springs
This is the pay-off used by the Australian tourism board to promote the Country. I can confirm it’s true!
Australia is a huge Country offering so much to see and an incredible variety of landscapes from the rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef to the red desert.
But if you travel there for the first time, you definetely have to go to the Red Centre, the vibrant heart of Australia. So it was for me, after I moved to Sydney and worked for few months, my first trip across the Country was a 9-day backpacking tour from Darwin to Alice Springs with the Oz company Adventure Tours.
I heard the experience of my father, who had come to visit me just few months earlier when I had booked him on the same exact tour (though he was not really a young backpacker and couldn’t speak a word of English) and he absolutely loved it!
The itinerary included 3 days in the rainforest and wetlands of Kakadu and Lichtfield Parks (near Darwin), 3 days on the road to cross the red desert to get to the Red Centre, where Uluru – the icon of Australia, is.
The heart of Australia: Kakadu and Lichtfield National Park
Who hasn’t watched the 90’s movie Crocodile Dundee set in the Northern Territory of Australia?
I had seen it probably hundreds of times before visiting the Northern Territory myself, but only after I’ve been there, I could watch it again and fully understand where it comes from. I am not sure it was filmed exactly here, but the Kakadu National Park makes you feel as part of the movie.
I’ve visited this area on a 9-day backpacking tour with Adventure Tours travelling from Darwin to Alice Springs.
Being a backpacker trip, our minibus carried all food provisions and each night the group had to take turn in the cooking and doing the washing up, which was nice to create a team-work atmosphere and to taste different international dishes from burritos to pasta.
Each night we sat around a bonfire to tell stories and learn more about each other. Overnight was in permanent tented camps, very basic but furnished with beds.
Kakadu and Lichtfield have been a real taste of adventure!
Lichtfield : natural pools & Mary river wetlands
We were picked up at our hostel at 6:30 am by our guide Dingo (never knew his real name), who travelling by a 4×4 minibus collected a total of 16 young international backpackers. First day, we headed to Lichtfield National Park.
We first stopped to see huge termite mounds 100 year old on our way to the rainforest.
Once we reached the Park, we hiked in the forest to get to the Florence Falls, then to swim in the natural crystal pools Buley Rockholes and the Wangi Falls.
In the afternoon, we continued to the Mary River wetlands where we took a boat tour to spot birds and crocodiles. We were explained how to recognize a salt water crocodile (apparently the only one dangerous for humans, that here are also the biggest in the world 🙂 who are bigger and flat-headed, from a freshwater, that is smaller with narrow head and nose.
Kakadu National Park: aboriginal rock works and spectacular waterfalls
Day 2 of our itinerary was in the Unesco word heritage Kakadu National Park, that not only boasts an incredible natural landscape made of lush rainforest and waterfalls, but also was home of ancient aboriginal people living here 50,000 years ago.
We kicked off the day with a visit to Ubirr to see ancient rock paintings, before refreshing in spectacular pools in the Barramundi Gorge.
But the best waterfalls ever, are the ones we visited on day 3. After the first surprise in finding the Twin Falls completely dry due to the season, we got overwhelmed by the Jim Jim falls, with their 200m tall rock walls.
The heart of Australia: from Darwin to Alice Springs
Most people visit either the Kakadu area and/or the Red Centre flying from Darwin to Alice Springs. Only a few adventures, drive from North to South, exploring this remote red desert area.
That’s what we did on our 9-day adventure tour from Darwin to Alice Springs.
However, there are also some oasis in the desert, like Katherine Gorge, where we took an exciting kayak trip among the 70m high sandstone walls, hoping not to be eaten by crocodiles who come to lay their eggs on the small inlets 🙂
Or the Bitter Springs, natural 34 °C hot pools of deep blue colour and nasty sulfur smell (mind the current that, without you even notice, drifts you away).
There are also interesting places such as the Daly Waters Pub on the road to Tennant Creek, where each traveller who stops by leaves a souvenir on the wall (picture, flip flop and even a bra :). There is nothing around, only a straight road, a bunch of houses, a pub and an abandoned tiny airport used during the Second WW.
The last day we stopped at a camel’s farm where we cuddled these cute animals without taking a ride as we found the place too touristy and didn’t like the idea to ride animals closed into enclosures.
The highlight of this desert crossing towards Alice Springs, was definetely the Devil Marbles, as big as 6-metre granite boulders that pop up in the middle of the desert, considered by the aboriginal legend as eggs of the Rainbow Snake that can disorientate you until you get lost.
This three days certainly do not appear as exciting as the other parts of the trip, but have nonetheless being extremely interesting, an immersion in the aboriginal culture and in the authentic remoteness of Australia.
Sleeping in swags (sort of big sleeping bags with thin mattress inside) under the stars and listening to our half-Aboriginal guide Wazza playing the didgeridoo in front of a bonfire, have been unique experiences I will treasure forever.
The heart of Australia: the Red Centre
I usually don’t like to go back to the same Country because I prefer to always discover new destinations, but the Red Centre is one of the few places I was happy to return to twice!
I fell in love with it the first time on my 9-day adventure tour from Darwin to Alice Springs and enjoyed to travel by camper van with my friend Laura, who came to visit me a couple of years later, just before I left Australia to come back to Italy (read more about why I came back and my life in Tuscany).
The Red Centre is so called because it is a desert of red sand dotted with some green bush. In fact, contrary to our usual imaginary of desert, the Park hosts hundreds of different species of plants and birds!
The main highlight is the world-popular Uluru (named in English as Ayers Rock). However, this is not the only sight of this area, Kata Tjuta and the Kings Canyon are also pretty spectacular.
Kings Canyon Rim Walk and the Garden of Eden
North America has the Grand Canyon, Australia has the Kings Canyon.
I know, they are not exactly comparable, but still this was one of the highlights of my trip in the Red Centre.
It is part of the Watarrka National Park, located approximately 100 km from Uluru & Kata Tjuta Park.
The red sandstone walls rise for 100 metres and you can hike the 6km Rim Walk. It is not a strenuous walk, but still there are some steep steps to reach the top and you have to be aware of the heat as of course there is no shade, so better to go early morning.
Also, better to avoid taking people who suffer from vertigo, otherwise you happen to walk on the edge with your friend firmly attached to your arm, as I did with my friend Laura, who I ignored had this fear before we got to the canyon 😉 Anyway, we managed to walk the whole of it and it was an even more rewarding experience.
The views from the top are spectacular but it is also very nice to walk inside the canyon where the Garden of Eden, a water hole surrounded by lush vegetation, is.
Not far from the canyon is a camping area where we stopped with our backpacker van.
Kata Tjuta: the many heads beyond Uluru
Also known as The Olgas, Kata Tjuta in aboriginal languages means “many heads”. In fact, these 36 mysterious domes formed 500 millions years ago, stand 20 km from Uluru and are part of the same national park.
I found them as impressive as Uluru, probably because I didn’t expect them, but it is worth taking some time to walk one of its circuit: the short one called Walpa Gorge is only 2,6 Km or the Valley of the Winds, that through a 7,4 km path takes you at the heart of the site.
Uluru (Ayers Rock): not just a “big rock”
Uluru is unmistakably the icon of Australia, the heart of the Aborigine culture, a place hard to describe with words or a picture because it is so much more than a “big rock” as it may appear to many.
My first encounter with Uluru was pretty magical. The group woke up at 3:30 am to be sure we got there before sunrise. On the minibus the guide played some aboriginal music which made the whole atmosphere even more romantic.
It was pitch black and I was leaning my head against the window, when I turned around and saw a huge profile right next to me. At that moment I felt very emotional.
We waited until the sun painted Uluru with light colors. It’s incredible how different it looks from different point of views and time of the day.
When I came back 2 years later with Laura, we stopped here both at sunrise and sunset because it really is a magical moment to enjoy it. We actually took a camel ride at sunset, but unfortunately I have no picture because Laura erased accidentally all photos from her camera at the airport on our way back 🙂
Uluru is a rock, not a mountain, so it develops for several kilometers underground, “only” 348 in height and 9 km of circumference.
When I visited, lots of people were climbing the rock, despite the signs posted by the local community Anangu clearly asked to avoid doing so, since this is considered a special sacred place for their culture. I was not interested in climbing because I am always careful to respect the local culture and traditions. Only recently, I was glad to learn that the Government eventually decided to forbid the hike to the top.
Both times I visited I walked the whole 10 km path all around the monolith, along which you can see the various rock shelters and rock art, testimony of the ancient culture of the aboriginal people, who are believed to have lived here for more than 30,000 years.
A magical place where I experienced spiritual vibes that can be compared to those I felt entering the Convent of Christ in Tomar (Portugal), the Big Mosque of Casablanca (Morocco) or listening to the monks prayers at Doi Suthep Temple in Chiangmai (Thailand).
Each culture has its own spirituality and traditions that we have the chance to discover traveling so it is important that we learn to respect all of them.
Notes on the Aborigines
You are not allowed in certain areas of the Park as they are reserved today to the Aborigines, that’s the way the Australian government recognized the ownership on the indigenous people over these lands that for centuries had been taken from them.
The Aboriginal issue has represented for years a hot topic and only in relatively recent years this people has gained their rights back. You can hardly see them around, especially in the cities. When I was living in Sydney I only met two, one performing at the harbor in Circular Quay and the other one owner of a shop at Darling Harbor selling souvenirs.
They are mainly concentrated in these so-called “reserved” areas, you happen to meet some in Alice Springs and Darwin, but you can tell they live on the border of society.
A controversial matter that found its worst peak until the ’70s with the “stolen generation”, entire generations of aborigine children taken away from their families and put into Institutes or white families to be raised according to the “white” culture. A sad page in the Australian history.