Travel Guide - Red Center Australian Outback
In this post I'm going to tell you things to see, how to get around, places to stay and general things to consider if you want to visit not just the Outback but more specifically the Red Center featuring Uluru and Kata Tjuta. If you're wondering what's the difference? I'll explain that first.
WHAT EXACTLY IS "THE OUTBACK"?
The Australian Outback is unlike anywhere else on earth, which is exactly why you should go see it! The Outback can be considered a vast area of inland Australia beginning where the population begins to thin out. You may have heard of the area just outside the cities referred to as “the bush”. I’ve asked several Australian’s to explain the difference between the “Bush” and the “Outback.” The main idea I took away is that the Bush is the unpopulated areas of the country that outskirt the towns and cities and it can consist of mountains, forests, lakes, etc. Really any type of terrain.
The Outback, usually begins once the Bush begins to turn into a dry desert landscape. And the limits of these are not exactly defined, it’s more of a feeling that you’ve gone from the Bush to the Outback. In this post I’m going to talk about a specific area of the Outback known as the Red Center. This is the area, you guessed it, in the center of the country. It’s where some of the most famous landmarks of the Outback are located like Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas).
The night sky in the The Outback, is like nothing you've seen before.
WHY SHOULD YOU VISIT?
I was in Australia for a year and I was the only one of my friends to make it to the Red Center. Sadly this is the case for a lot of visitors to Australia for one major reason. It is FAR AWAY. Like really far. You can’t just hop in the car from one of the coasts (where pretty much all Australians live) and take a casual weekend road trip to the center. There are of course flights in and out from the major coastal cities but I wouldn’t call them cheap. However I made a last second decision right before my working holiday visa expired to go, and I am so happy that I did. I made two videos of my experience there if you want to get a sneak peek.
Alright, so why should you make all of this effort? Well, first off, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about Aboriginal culture. I found it to be taught to tourists the most there and in far north Queensland. The reason is most likely because Uluru itself is a very sacred place to the Aboriginals and has been for a long time. Secondly, the landscapes are truly stunning, complete with that famous red dirt, under clear, bright blue skies. The sunrises and sunsets are unreal and light up the entire sky with some pretty spectacular colors.
Another reason, which I thought would be my least favorite part of the experience but turned out to the be the best, is sleeping under the stars in a swag. A swag is a thick bedroll that you can sleep in instead of a tent. The face area is open leaving nothing between you and the stars.
Just so you understand, these are not normal stars. The night sky in the Outback is truly something else. And it’s not just the stars, you can see the milky way clearer than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. Once you lay down and become still, you begin to see a shooting star at least every five minutes. It was hands down the coolest sleeping experience I’ve ever had. And camping out like that really makes you feel like you are on an adventure. An adventure which still has fully powered toilets and showers nearby ;).
While I highly recommend camping even if it’s just for a couple nights to get the true Outback experience, if it’s just not your thing, there are hotels you can stay in.
If you’re reading this thinking, I’d love to camp but I don’t want to buy gear and prepare all of the supplies don’t worry. A lot of people, including myself, opt for a group tour where they supply everything you need. I wrote a post comparing the top rated Outback group tours.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
June - August; Australia is in winter, December - February; they are in summer. The Outback is extreme, meaning very cold nights in the winter and very hot days in the summer.
I recommend going in between those seasons, spring or autumn, so that it’s not boiling hot, but not too cold to swim in the watering holes. Whenever you decide to go, make sure you pack appropriately. Layers in clothes, sturdy shoes you can walk and hike in, a wide brimmed hat for sun protection that can be used as the base for a personal mosquito net in the summer months. Sunscreen and mosquito repellant are a must year round!
HOW DO I GET THERE?
There are flights from Perth, Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne and Alice Springs directly to Uluru (Ayers Rock Airport). From other cities such as Darwin and Brisbane you will have to connect in Alice Springs. There are more flight options going into Alice Springs but honestly I recommend skipping it if possible. The Uluru airport is more central to the major sites you'd want to see and is often cheaper as well.
So here’s the deal on Alice Springs. It’s a town about a 5.5 hour drive from Uluru. Before Uluru had it’s own airport this was the main hub to fly into. It is also close in proximity to the MacDonall Ranges. So if you prefer to stay in hotels instead of camping it can be convenient to stay here for a night before or after visiting them.
Apart from that the place is not worth visiting. I went here out of curiosity with a few other travelers expecting an old American wild west type of vibe. We were wrong. Think more a run-down inner city atmosphere in the middle of nowhere. I was actually told never to walk alone anywhere there at night. Something I had never heard in any other city of Australia for the entire year I lived there.
Have I convinced you yet? Skip Alice Springs. You may see it listed as the start point for some of the group tours I recommend, but most start in Alice Springs and then make the drive straight to Uluru where they will pickup anyone staying there before they begin the tour. So, fly straight into Uluru and save yourself the trouble.
There are also group tours leaving from both Adelaide and Darwin which, if you have t
he time, would be a cool way to get a true feeling of just how expansive the Outback really is. But be prepared for some long hours on the road.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
Hopefully I’ve helped you come to the conclusion to skip Alice Springs, so I’m not going to go into accommodations there. However if you do need to stay there, know there are both hotels and dorm style hostels to fit any budget.
Here is your guide is where to stay around Uluru. All of these accommodations are located in what’s called the Ayers Rock Resort. Which features a small “downtown” area with shops and a supermarket. It is located 20km from Uluru itself. There is a free shuttle connecting all of the accommodations to the Ayers Rock airport. So no matter which you choose to stay at you will be more or less the same distance from Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Ayers Rock Campground - All types of camping from powered camp sites for caravans and motorhomes to air-conditioned cabins. They also have a swimming pool, playground, bbq and an outdoor kitchen
Outback Pioneer Lodge - Budget private rooms with, and without a bathroom as well as hostel dorm accommodation for budget conscious backpackers
Outback Pioneer Hotel - 3.5 star hotel with affordable rooms
Emu Walk Apartments - 4 star one and two bedrooms apartments featuring separate bedroom, living room and kitchen areas
Desert Gardens hotel - 4.5 star hotel offering a large a la carte dining area
Lost Camel Hotel - Contemporary, fun, quirky, boutique-style hotel
Longitude 131 - Luxury boutique resort where you can choose to stay either in a Dune Pavailion, think hotel room with glass windows all around so you can wakeup to a view of Uluru, or experience glamping in one of their luxury tents. Don’t let the world “tent” fool you. This is truly 5 star accommodation.
Sails in the Desert - Another 5 star hotel but with more traditional guest rooms. They have more expansive facilities including board rooms for business meetings and a full sized tennis court
WHAT IS THERE TO DO?
Uluru (Ayers Rock)
Uluru is a world-famous World Heritage Site and sacred landmark in Australian Aboriginal culture. It is one single large sandstone rock standing 348m (1,142ft) high, sitting 863m (2,831 ft) above sea level. It contains several springs, waterholes, rock caves and ancient paintings.
There is a 10k walk around the base of the perimeter where you can really get a feel for the size of this massive rock. It’s beautiful and you’ll get tons of photo opportunities. Near the walk there is a visitors center which is a worthwhile stopover to learn the history of the area. Make sure you see Uluru at sunset, it is truly a once in a lifetime sight. This will be programmed into any tour you take and you can also see it from various lookout points at the different accommodations around Uluru.
Field of Light
After the sun goes down head over to the field of light. Covering almost seven football fields of land area is a beautiful display which comes alive at night. Designed and built by artist Bruce Munro, the fantasy garden is comprised of 50,000 spindles of light, the bulbs and stems slowly changing colors all under the starlit sky. Make sure you book this in advance as it is known to sell out quickly.
Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)
Make sure you are up before the sun at least one day to head to one of the lookout points where you can see the sunrise over both Kata Tjuta and Uluru in the distance, it will probably be crowded but completely worth it. Try to get there a bit early for a good spot. Once the sun is up head over to Kata Tjuta where you can do the most popular 7.4km hike through the “Valley of the Winds.”
Watarrka National Park
This most popular hike in the park is the King’s Canyon Rim Walk. It’s a 6km round trip which kicks off with a steep incline lovingly referred to by the locals as heart attack hill. However, depending on your fitness level this section only takes about 20-30 minutes. Then at the top you are rewarded with some pretty spectacular views. The entire hike will take you around 3-4 hours as you walk through towering walls, crevices and plateaus of red rock.
In one spot the rocks form a natural Amphitheater where you’ll see people yelling into the gorge to hear their voices echoed back to them. You will also pass through Priscilla’s Crack, famous for appearing in the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert. You'll also go through the Lost City, where various sandstone formations look like the ancient ruins of a city. After that you'll descend into the Garden of Eden, where you’ll take a steep staircase from the dry red rock face down to a lush green valley floor complete with a waterfall. It really is a true desert oasis.
Mereenie Loop Road
Is an 337km road, 197km of which is unsealed red dirt. Driving it provides a truly authentic Outback feel. 4WD is required for this road no 2WD allowed and you do need to purchase a permit, which will only run you around $5. It’s more so that the authorities know who is driving it in case something goes wrong and because you will be traveling through Aboriginal land.
The Outback is somewhere you would not want to have car trouble. If you want to take this route make sure you do some research first. If this sounds a bit too extreme for you, there are alternative sealed roads you can take everywhere so not to worry.
Finke Gorge National Park
Finke is most well known for it’s Palm Valley where tall palm trees grow out of a riverbed surrounded by red cliffs. There are a few short walks in the area as well as picnic facilities. This could be a great place to stop and cook up lunch in beautiful surroundings.
West MacDonnell Ranges
Ormison Gorge where you can swim in the rock holes in the summer. Hike the Ghost Gum Walk, which is a 1.5 hour loop which goes along the stunning Ormiston Gorge before ending at the Ormiston Waterhole. Also in the ranges is Ellery Creek Big Home, one of the most picturesque swimming spots in the area. It’s surrounded by high red cliffs and a sandy creek The permanent water here made it a special meeting place for the aboriginals of the area.
As you can tell by now there are quite a few things to do in the area which is why it can be great to join a group tour. That way you can leave the planning to a professional and just enjoy your experience. Again I recommend going with The Rock Tour or Groovy Grape Tours.
HOW TO STAY SAFE IN THE OUTBACK?
No matter where you are traveling I always recommend purchasing travel insurance if you are outside your home country. You never know what could go wrong and you don’t want to get stuck with some huge hospital bill in a foreign country. Personally I always use World Nomads insurance. They are one of the most recognized travel insurance companies and I know several people who’ve had to make claims and they never had an issue.
Always have the necessary amount of water on you while doing any hikes. If you opt for a group tour the leader will tell you the amount you need to bring.
Also make sure to dress appropriately and for the correct season. The Outback can be an unforgiving place, be smart, wear sunscreen and enjoy!