The vast majority of travelers think of The Red Centre as a red dust bowl and a random rock in the middle of nowhere, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Red Centre covers the Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park and if you ask others, also Kings Canyon.
In April 2021, we spent six nights travelling from our base in Mackay via the quaint towns of Charters Towers, Julia Creek, Mount Isa, Barkley Homestead, Devils Marbles, and finally Alice Springs. Our final destination was the Red Centre (Uluru and Kata Tjuta)
The journey by 4WD alone was close to 3,000km each way. This article isn’t about the journey, it’s about the destination. We spent 7 nights in Alice Springs and 3 nights in Uluru.
Parrtjima Festival of Light
We decided to visit between 12th April to 19th April 2021 in order to visit the Parrtjima Festival of Light, an annual indigenous cultural light festival that embraces the beauty of their culture and beliefs. The festival is split across three separate locations (Todd Mall, Araluen Art Centre, and The Alice Springs Desert Park). The theme this year was Future Kulcha.
Parrtjima is the meeting place where old meets new. It is the only authentic Aboriginal light festival of it’s kind, showcasing the oldest continuous culture on earth through the newest technology – all on the 300-million-year-old natural canvas of the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. Each year this free event celebrates the ways in which artists evolve and experiment with different styles and materials, while staying true to Country and culture.
Araluen Art Centre and Todd Mall
The Art Centre houses a diverse range of art that includes water colour paintings, made famous by Albert Namatjira.
Albert Namatjira is one of Australia’s great artists, and perhaps the best known Aboriginal painter. The Art Centre also showcased some wonderful art workshops/talks and the range of contemporary art across their 4 galleries was spectacular.
Todd Mall showcased the Textile Kulcha light exhibits during the Parrtjima Festival. Todd Mall comes to life at night and the vibe was amazing. Local artists, food vendors and market stall holders come together.
Parrtjima is held on Mparntwe (Alice Springs), which is connected to the estates of Mparntwe, Antulye and Irlpme. This also includes a network of people who have connections to these areas; some of whom have established the Parrtjima Festival Reference Group (PFRG) to guide and help create Parrtjima.
Jump onto the Parrtjima website and book for next year. You won’t be dissapointed.
Other interesting attractions
In between the evening light show of Parrtjima, we visited the Reptile Park, Old Telegraph Station, and the Royal Flying Doctors exhibition, all worthwhile attractions. We drove out the the airport to find hundreds of planes grounded due to Covid-19. They are being maintained by a team of avionic experts. You can see planes from New Zealand, Singapore, Britain and the UAE.
Another excursion involved the West MacDonnell ranges, a must-do while in Alice Springs. The short walks to view Standley Chasm and Simpson Gap were worth the day out. The walks themselves are comfortable and safe for most ages. There are designated walking tracks along the way. You may spot rock wallabies at Simpsons Gap so keep a look out on the rock faces, especially at dawn and dusk. A day at the ranges and drive via Hermannsburg will take a full day. If you have a 4WD, drive down the Finke River to Palm Valley.
Tjoritja West MacDonnell National Park stretches for 161 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Explore and appreciate the scenic beauty and history of the area on foot, swim in a waterhole, or pitch a tent for a longer stay.
Take a dip in the cold waters of one the park’s permanent water holes. The larger water holes include Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Redbank Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge.
There are numerous marked walking tracks ranging from leisurely to adventurous. The 223 kilometre Larapinta Trail stretches through the park and offers extended and overnight bushwalks for fit, experienced and well prepared walkers.
The park encompasses an ancient landscape sculpted over time by climatic elements. It is also a refuge for rare and threatened plants as well as wildlife, including the uncommon bird species such as the Peregrine Falcon.
Features of the landscape are significant to the Arrernte people, including the Ochre Pits that have long been a quarry for important ochre pigments.
First of all, understand that the distance between Alice Springs and Yulara (township) adjacent to Uluru is around 450km. Allow a steady 5 hours to get there. The roads are fully sealed and you don’t need a 4WD to see the main attractions of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). Getting to The Red Centre is very easy.
Our first night we drove out to the Sunset Viewing Carpark to watch the sunset behind Uluru. It can get very busy here so we suggest you get there early, take your chairs and a nice bottle of wine (drink responsibly). The colours change almost by the minute as the sunsets in the distance. If you love photography then you’ll love Uluru.
The next morning we got up early and did the sunrise. Note that you have to drive diagonally opposite the sunrise viewing area to reach the sunset viewing area. Again, get there early as the walk to the top of the dunes adds another 15 minutes. Consider the temperate as we traveled in April and it was 6 degrees Celcius at night.
The cultural and arts centre at the base of the rock is well worth a visit. We watched two locals dot painting onto canvas. I’ve always been a fan of dot painting and the dreamtime stories from our first nations people. We have so much to learn and be thankful for.
Sunset Camel Tour
We booked a Sunset Camel Tour which included a short 5 minute bus ride from Yulara out to the Camel Tour base. On arrival you are greeted with a string of placid camels all prepared for their desert journey. The guides are super informative and really passionate about the culture and landscape of the region.
Getting up on a camel is an experience, as is getting down, but inbetween is pure bliss. Our camel was called ‘Archer’, the second tallest camel in the string and it felt along way up too. Archer was very docile and just laboured along at a slowly.
The tour itself takes you across the desert and up onto sand dunes just as the sun is setting behind Uluru. The team stops at the sand dune and takes photos of each guest/group which is memorable. The views are truly magnificent.
On arrival back to base we are greeted by beer, wine, and nibbles which are included in the tour price. No need for your wallet or purse here, but a camera is a must.
Field of Lights
The Field of Lights is by David Munro, the internationally celebrated artist.
The exhibition, aptly named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’ in local Pitjantjatjara is Munro’s largest work to date. From atop the sand dune, the installation spans the equivalent of 7 football fields and includes over 50,000 solar bulbs in an array of colours.
There are three distinct options for the traveller.
The Field of Lights pass allows you to view the lights from the ground, with Uluru in the distance. Note that the view is limiting somewhat.
The Field of Lights Star Pass allows you private access to a raised sand dune where you’ll be greeted by hospitality staff giving you a flute of champagne. During the evening light you can also grab beer, wine or a soft drink as part of the package. A small selection of outback canapes adds to the experience. The view and dining experience is worth the extra fee. At a designated time, you wander down the illuminated path to the field itself before being picked up by your coach driver.
The most expensive tour is the Sounds of Silence Dinner Tour. This tour includes a 3 course meal, a selection of premuim beers and wine, along with a private guide from an astronomer on the stars at night. A private guide will talk you through the Field of Lights as you wander the field installation.
The trip out to Kata Tjuta is approximately 50km from Yulara township and should be tackled early morning. The walks can be challenging and the middle of the day should be avoided. Some say that Kata Tjuta is more visually spectacular than Uluru – I don’t agree, but then again I didn’t walk through the Valley of the Winds.
This gives me an excuse to travel back to The Red Centre again. I missed Hermannsburg, Palm Valley, Kings Canyon, and some other tracks I wanted to drive, but time beat me.