by Jennifer Thiele.
Mention Australia's Red Centre to anyone that's been there and you'll see amazing memories flitter across their faces; mention the same words to anyone who wants to go and you'll see a sense of anticipation and excitement. It's an incredible part of the world and one that in my former life as a tour leader, I was lucky enough to drive and guide tours through almost 50 times - and I can honestly say that even after all those trips, the magic of the region never faded.
Starting your Red Centre adventure from Hong Kong or Shanghai can be done with relative ease; Qantas connects Adelaide, Melbourne, Darwin, Cairns, Perth and Sydney at least once a day to Alice Springs, and from Brisbane a couple of times each week. The best time to visit is April to September, to avoid the full brunt of the heat.
You should plan to spend at least four to five full days in Red Centre to get a true feeling for the region without feeling too rushed. After settling into your hotel, I'd recommend the Alice Springs Desert Park as your first stop. It's a fantastic educational park that will introduce you to the plants, animals and people of the desert; if you can time it well, don't miss the Eagle Encounter there - it's AWESOME!
Whether you drive yourself or opt for a guided tour of the region, you'll need to get up early on your second day; head 199km south on the Stuart Highway, before turning right at Erldunda Roadhouse for a further 244km on the Lassiter Highway towards the region's most famous icon and one of Australia's biggest draw cards - the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Whilst flying from Melbourne or Sydney directly to Ayers Rock is possible (with Virgin Australia or Jetstar), I'd highly recommend travelling overland instead. It gives you so much more perspective of the distances explorers travelled back in the day, and also gives you much more opportunity to see the region's incredible flora and fauna. The iron-coated red sand and native grasses, flowers and trees are simply breathtaking contrasted against the deep blue sky that rolls on for what seems like ever and ever. Look out for the spinifex grasses, mulga trees, goanna lizards, snakes, spiders, wedge-tailed eagles, kites and budgies, to name but a few of the incredible animals you're likely to encounter in the region - and definitely keep your eyes peeled for my favourites, the hopping mouse and incredibly adorable thorny devil lizard too!
On this amazing drive, you'll also catch sight of "Fool-Uru" - otherwise known as Mt Connor. This breathtaking flat-topped, sandstone-capped mountain is often mistaken for Uluru due to its size. It's on private property so only accessible on selected tours, but it's still an impressive sight even at a distance. Travel over just a few more sand dunes and you'll get your first glimpses of Uluru from almost 100km away - and now you'll really understand why I recommend travelling overland rather than flying!
On arrival at Yulara, a little village that's about 18km away from Uluru, you'll find everything you need for your stay, including multiple accommodation options. No matter your travel style, you'll find it here: from camping grounds right through to the luxury of the Longitude 131 boutique hotel. Be sure to book your accommodation well in advance though, as this isn't the kind of place you can just rock up to and hope for the best!
Once you've settled into your accommodation, you'll need (and want!) to head into the National Park to find out what all the fuss is about. Your first stop should be the Cultural Centre inside the park; this is where you can pick up your visitor's guide and learn more about the area, including how Uluru was formed, plus fill up on food and drink, and get all your general safety information. This part of the world gets extremely hot in summer (with temperatures often reaching over 40°C) so remember to carry plenty of fresh water with you at all times. Safety really needs to be taken seriously out here!
By this stage, you'll no doubt be itching to get up close and personal with the world's largest monolith. Standing at 348m high, 3.6km long and 1.9km wide, Uluru really is an impressive sigh - but if time permits, I'd suggest heading out to Kata Tjuta first.
Kata Tjuta is the lesser-known but equally incredible group of ancient domed rock formations that lies about 25km east of Uluru; getting there requires a really beautiful two-and-a-half hour hike through the Valley Of The Winds to the Karingana Lookout. This was without a doubt my absolute highlight of the park and the view is forever imprinted into my memory. You'll need plenty of water and sturdy shoes along with the normal sunscreen and hat - and don't forget to always wear closed-toe shoes throughout your trip, as you're never sure what wildlife you'll encounter! If long walks aren't your thing, you can still experience the magnificence of Kata Tjuta on the Karu Lookout track instead; this one is a relatively easy one-hour, 3.3km return trip.
Once you've finished your walk, make your way back closer to Uluru and find the sunset viewing area. Get ready for a real visual treat watching the sun go down over the rock and seeing all the changing colours of both Uluru and the big sky that surrounds it.
After such a huge day, be sure to get to bed early so you can wake up and head to the park early enough for yet another unmissable sight - Uluru's world-famous sunrise and all the glorious colours that go along with it.
If you've still got the energy, make your way to the base of Uluru and meet up with one of the park rangers, who offer a guided walk along the rock's Mala section every morning. This will help you learn more about the Anangu people (local Aborigines), mala creatures (also known as the rufous hare-wallaby), the historic rock art at Uluru, and the way the park is managed. After this, you can continue the rest of the way around the base (a 10km walk in total) and explore all the other nooks and crannies along the flat path. Do remember that whilst climbing the rock isn't prohibited, traditional law urges you not to do so. It's a very dangerous climb and often closed for safety reasons; the Anangu people get very anxious for people's safety even when the weather conditions are fine.
After lunch, start the three-hour drive to either Kings Creek Station or Kings Canyon itself to visit yet another impressive national park - Watarrka. Kings Creek Station is about 30km from the national park itself, but it's a great place to stay and experience a working cattle and camel station. It offers both fixed accommodation and plenty of space to camp, plus you can also enjoy fun quad bike, helicopter or camel rides! If you prefer a little more luxury, Kings Canyon resort is the place to stay. Along with the basic cabins and a camping ground, there is also a good hotel. Once again, all the accommodation options here are limited, so be sure to book well ahead.
Wherever you choose to stay, spend the evening relaxing and preparing yourself for another amazing day in the Red Centre. If you like walking, you'll need to be up early the next day to avoid the heat (the walk is closed from 9am onward when temperatures reach over 36°C). I always used to take my tour groups on the Kings Canyon Rim Walk at first light; it's a 6km round trip, with the first part of the hike being the hardest. You'll have to ascend what is affectionately known as 'heart attack hill" but don't worry, once you're at the top, it is worth every single moment! After that, most of the walk is pretty undulating until you reach the "Garden of Eden" in the middle of the canyon, where there are a few more up-and-down sections.
Whilst this walk is considered strenuous and shouldn't be undertaken by those without good fitness levels, it is absolutely INCREDIBLE. You'll see stunning colours, amazing wildlife, beautiful rock formations and incredible views out into the never-ending space - and nothing quite beats the feeling of hiking somewhere that genuinely feels so prehistoric. If you're unable to make it up the hill or are time-poor or heat-restricted, there are other walking options, including one to a lookout point in the middle of the canyon that is much more shaded and and far less strenuous. This also gives you a real sense of the area's size and is well worth doing.
Once you've finished your hike, it's time to make your way back toward Alice Springs. On sealed roads, the trip is about 460km; your journey time can be shortened by travelling on unsealed roads but before choosing this option, make sure you check both your car hire restrictions and the road conditions, as you'd be heading into very remote territory that's not frequented by much traffic.
Back in Alice Springs, you'll probably need a bit of time to relax after your adventure in the Red Centre but if time permits, there is still plenty more to do! A couple of highlights here include the old telegraph station, Royal Flying Doctors Service Tourist Facility, School of the Air Visitors Centre, a day trip to the Western Macdonnell Ranges or my personal favourite, the Eastern Macdonnell Ranges.
The vibrant colours and incredible sense of space in the Red Centre region really is hard to beat - a true bucket list destination, for sure!