Award winning journalist and author, Polly Evans, tells us why the Red Centre of Australiaís Outback Northern Territory is top of her list.
Iíve always preferred journeys that take me into a heart of the place rather than just skim the tourist-tame surface. And so when, this year, I travelled for the first time to Australia, I veered away from the standard coastal itineraries. Instead, I hired a car and journeyed inland, into the very heart of the continent to uncover the real outback.
The distances were long but, although Iím not a natural born driver, I soon found great pleasure in my hours on the road. The Stuart Highway - named after John McDouall Stuart, the first explorer to travel across the length of Australia - runs from Port Augusta in South Australia all the way to tropical, laid-back Darwin on the north coast. Itís a single carriageway highway but itís beautifully wide and smooth; the only real hazards are the kangaroos and other animal life that spring, occasionally, into the road. All around, the expanse of Australiaís outback wilderness stretches seemingly forever. But itís not all the same. Every now and then the rust-red earth with its spatterings of spiky spinifex grass meets a riverbed where the foliage sprouts sappy green. Once, I passed a vast lake that shimmered silver-blue. Thereís wildlife, too: a small flock of emus strutted along the side of the road one day; another, a dingo cavorted before me.
I went to Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, and took a walk around its base while a guide related cultural tales of the landís Aboriginal owners. One of the worldís great travel icons, the rock lived up to its magnificent reputation appearing to change in colour from luminescent red at sunrise to an inky purple at dusk. I drove on to Kings Canyon whose three-hour rim walk offers robust visitors spectacular panoramas, while the shorter Creek walk takes a gentler path beneath the massive red sandstone walls.
At Glen Helen, I sat at sunset on the banks of the Finke River while yet more tremendous red cliffs towered overhead, and the birds and the insects chirruped their pleasure at their spending the evening in a spot as scenic as this. Alice Springs is known particularly for its galleries specialising in Aboriginal painting. My favourite attraction, though, was its restored Telegraph Station: in the early 1870s, an overland telegraph line was constructed from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin; it followed almost exactly Stuartís exploration route (and that of the Stuart Highway today). For the first time, the Australian colonies could transmit messages to London in hours rather than the months that letters had previously taken to arrive by ship.
At Alice Springs, I dropped off my car and continued my journey to Darwin on the Ghan - the train that runs the length of Australia. Itís named after the Afghans whose camel trains supplied the remote outposts of central Australia during the early years of colonisation. My Gold Service cabin was mine alone, together with perhaps the most cleverly compact ensuite bathroom ever designed. It was a comfortable way to travel, and a wonderful vantage point from which to watch Australia roll by.
Shortly before arriving in Darwin, we stopped for three hours in Katherine, where tours included cruises through the famous gorge, nature trips, or canoeing on the Katherine River. I chose the latter. The river was deep jade in colour, and its banks burst with tropical vegetation while pure-white cockatoos squawked and soared overhead. It was a stunning spot, and in the end I gave up paddling, preferring just to lie back in my canoe and gaze. Iíd travelled many miles from the red dust of the centre to the lush landscapes of the north Ė and had seen spectacular sights. It had been the right decision to leave the beaches and reefs to others, and to strike out instead for Australiaís Red Centre.