Tag Archives: Red Centre

Friday, August 30

I awoke well before dawn to the singing of birds. The room was warm, but when I stepped outside, the air was a sweet, gentle cool that never seems to exist any time other than dawn.

I packed quickly, in preparation for my departure, then glanced at my watch and got a shock. I’d set my watch back the 1/2 hour for the Centre’s time zone, but not my travel alarm. No wonder it was still so dark out. Well, better early than late.

Then out the door and out of Alice Springs, on my way to Ross River Homestead, in the East MacDonnell Ranges–new territory for me, as I’ve previously only been in the West MacDonnells. I was pleased that not all the road was sealed. As I noted in my book, a sealed road may be easier to drive, but an unsealed road seems to better suit this place–rougher and more natural.

We drove for about 45 minutes, out along the dry Ross River, with the spinifex, desert oaks, gum trees, and mulgas all around us, and the ragged, red mountains rising up behind. We passed a camel-crossing road sign and several dry creek beds, and then finally pulled in at the Ross River Homestead.

This is paradise.

Ross River Homestead

Ross River Homestead

The only sounds are the wind in the massive desert oaks around the homestead and the cries of the noisy minas and galahs. The hills rise around us, and the fragrance of the bush fills my nostrils and my heart. Kangaroos and camels are about, the sun is shining, and I could stay here forever.

The cabins are wonderful: all wood, with stone floors. They look rather plain from the outside, but are really charming inside.

Cabin interior

Cabin interior

I was given a little tour and introduced to the staff: Burt, Alec, and Jeff, who is the manager, and was then directed to a damper-making lesson given by Alec. Once the damper was made, we enjoyed billy tea and damper around the fire. In any other setting, this might seem touristy, but here, it’s simply perfect. This was followed by whip-cracking and boomerang throwing lessons. After that, we were on our own.

I hiked and photographed till lunch, and then I hiked and photographed until 4:30. The bird life is unbelievable around here: majestic wedge-tailed eagles, tufted pigeons, pied butcherbirds, noisy minas, ruby-breasted mistletoe birds, pink and gray galahs, and splendid, bright green parrots that Jeff, the manager, later told me were Port Lincoln parrots. There were many others I didn’t know, as well. Apparently, the northern and southern bird habitats overlap here, so there are more birds than one might reasonably expect to find.

Port Lincoln Parrot

Port Lincoln Parrot


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The Run for Home

Those of you who have read or are reading the book will know that getting out of Alice Springs proved to be a challenge. The photos below will give you an idea what the roads were still like, even a week after the rains ended. As noted in previous posts, the Red Centre had turned green, but the roads had turned to mush.

Because we’d been detained for so long by the floods, we would be driving straight through to get back to our starting points– almost 2-1/2 days of driving with only occasional breaks for meals and leg stretching. Fortunately, most of the driving was through remote, rugged, and really beautiful landscapes that provided a nearly endless series of memorable images. And as always, the nighttime driving was magic, with stars reaching all the way to the ground on both sides of us. So while it wasn’t easy, it was still fascinating.

Main road still flooded.

Flood-damaged road.

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Alice Sunset

As I mention in the book, rain clouds were gathering again as we enjoyed Alice Springs and vicinity. But clouds do have one glorious advantage — they can make for some really spectacular sunsets. I would soon be saying farewell to the Red Centre, at least for this first grand trip to Australia. I would return, but I couldn’t know that at the time. I love sunsets anytime I see them, but this one seemed to be particularly wonderful, though I know it was tinged with sentiment. The sky went through many changes as I sat on a hillside, watching it. The light show was fairly well along before I shook off the awe just enough to grab my camera and take a photo — but I think the photo will at least hint at how wonderful an evening it was.

Alice Springs Sunset


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The Green Centre

Finally, we made it to Alice Springs. We camped just outside of town for a few days, while we explored the town and the surrounding area. Driving west out of the Alice, we followed the east-west line of the ancient, eroded MacDonnell Ranges. Here, even more than elsewhere, the land seemed to have responded to the recent rain–though perhaps it’s just that it has now had a little more time to move from flooded to well-watered and verdant. One could still see the red earth, but it was blanketed in green. Wildflowers were abundant. It was lovely, though it seemed odd, having fallen in love with a drier version of this area. However, it was wonderful to see, and to be reminded how eager life is. After months and sometimes years of waiting, a bit of rain brings remarkable growth.

The West MacDonnells


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The Finke River

Heading north, we crossed the Finke River. It is said by some geologists that this is the oldest river in the world. It is considered a major river of the Red Centre, but is also generally described as “intermittent.” That is, it’s only sometimes a river. The 400-mile-long river rises in the MacDonnell Ranges and winds down through Palm Valley on its way to South Australia. It was, in fact, along the dry bed of this very river that we drove (bounced, lurched) to reach Palm Valley, back in the winter, when I first visited the Northern Territory.

Not too surprisingly, this time when we crossed the Finke River, it was looking a lot more like a river. It is said that it really only stretches its full length after flooding, and we had certainly seen an abundance of that. Water made the ancient watercourse amazingly lovely.

FInke River

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The Olgas

In the post on Mt. Conner, I mentioned that there are three giants in the Red Centre. However, the third of this group shattered and has weathered into a cluster of domes, rather than offering the monolithic profile of the first two. These are the Olgas, named by explorer Ernest Giles for Queen Olga of Württemberg. To the local Aborigines, they are Kata Tjuta, or “many heads.”

Though broken and worn, the Olgas are still impressive. Mt. Olga, the central and tallest rock in the group, is actually taller than Ayers Rock, rising 1,500 feet above the surrounding plain. The cluster of towering rock domes covers an area of 11 square miles.

I had been to the Olgas on my previous visit to the Red Centre, so I did not join our group for the standard hike into Olga Gorge. Instead, I wandered off on my own, to be alone with my thoughts and the land I had come to love, and to think about what had happened to me, now that my six-months was drawing to a close. It was immensely quiet once I was away from the group, with nothing but the breeze and the rustling of the fragrant brush around me to break the silence. However, I was not so introspective that I failed to examine everything. My camera being one of the ways I try to attach myself to a place, I also took a fair number of “parting shots,” including the one below.

The Olgas/Kata Tjuta


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Our destination was, of course, Ayers Rock, or Uluru, as it is now more commonly known. Perhaps because this was where I first fell in love with the Red Centre, it seemed to be more wonderful to me than it might be to others. Still, it is imposing–far more imposing than you would guess from most photographs, which are usually taken from miles away, to take in the whole rock.

My heart sang as I saw it again. I was only a few weeks away from the end of that first, grand, six-month trip, and so I was moved by more than just the sight of the rock. My love for Australia, and the knowledge that I would soon be leaving, seemed to weigh more heavily on my here.

However, there was more rejoicing than sorrow. I was delighted to see the Rock again. Back then, during that first trip to Australia, we could still climb it. No one is actually forbidden to climb it now, but climbing is now discouraged. There are many reasons, many of them tied up with Aboriginal beliefs about Uluru, but many also tied up in people’s bad behavior.

Sadly, a lot of people over the years have shown, how shall we say it, a lack of sense. People wandering off the designated path or climbing while not adequately fit have increased the number of deaths on the Rock to more than 30. Another major issue is people who feel that it is appropriate to relieve themselves when they reach the top of the rock. Aside from considerations regarding what defecating on the Rock says to the traditional owners, it has created a serious health problem, as E.coli levels have increased in the watering holes around the rock, as rain washes poop down the sides of the imposing monolith. The water is often unfit for humans or animals to drink–and in a land that relies heavily on every water source, that is a big problem.

Unfortunately, the actions of some mean The Climb will no longer be one of the goals to be pursued when visiting the Red Centre. Before long, it is likely that it will not simply be discouraged, but will be illegal. So if you read of my climb in my book, know that it predates these recent concerns — and that I showed the utmost respect to the Rock when I did climb.

There is still the goal of walking around Uluru, a walk of about six miles, with many fascinating things to see, especially if you have a good guide book and can recognize features from Aboriginal stories. The images below show a few sights I saw as I circled the Rock that last time. Of course, the presence of so much water was remarkable, because of the recent rains. But “The Brain,” shown at right, can be seen whenever you visit. As much as it looks like a skull/brain to us, it is Ngoru to the Aborigines, the ritual scars on a young man’s chest.

Water and greenery at Uluru's base.

Mutitjula, aka Maggie Springs

Ngoru, aka The Brain


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Camp Near Glen Helen Gorge

Sunrise at our camp near Glen Helen Gorge. We are nearing the end of our Red Centre tour, and though we have to pack quickly, as there is a full day ahead, we still take time to appreciate our location, with everything painted by the pastel light of the rising sun. Unfortunately, what film doesn’t capture is the coolness of the air, the fragrance of the scrub, the singing of the birds, the absolute wonder of this place and this time of day. It is so peaceful and lovely, so clean and fresh.

Camp near Glen Helen Gorge

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The Rock

I liked Alice Springs, but it was when I reached Ayers Rock, or Uluru, that I began to fall in love with Australia’s Red Centre. It wasn’t just the Rock; there was something about the soft, red earth, the wildflowers and wildlife, the air and sky, the emptiness and openness that captivated me. It made me think of a line from D. H. Lawrence, who wrote that Australia possessed a “strange, as it were, invisible beauty…a sense of subtle, remote, formless beauty more poignant than anything ever experienced before.” This was where my love affair with the Outback began.

And at the center of that wild landscape was Uluru, the towering monolith that is almost a symbol of the Centre. Most photos of Ayers Rock show it from a distance, which has the advantage of showing its isolation and the lovely color changes at sunset. But closer up, the Rock’s size and dynamic nature (creating its own wind storms and ecology) are better appreciated. The photo below is my favorite of the many photos I’ve taken of Uluru, as I think it communicates something of the impressiveness of the monolith.

Uluru/Ayers Rock


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