ALICE SPRINGS, Australia — It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a spectacular sight. The dry landscape of central Australia, sometimes called the Red Centre for the colour of its soil, has turned lush and green — thanks to record rainfall in 2010 that ended a long drought.
Another good reason to visit now is the weather. It’s the dry season in the Northern Territory — home to such natural attractions as Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), Kings Canyon and Kakadu National Park. In May and June, temperatures are not yet scorching and humidity is lower.
Here are four possibilities, for exploring, each with their own vantage point:
Perhaps no other natural landmark defines Australia like Uluru, the 348-metre-high monolithic rock in the country’s remote Red Centre.
Climbing the rock is physically demanding and potentially dangerous (at least 35 people have died attempting to reach the top). There is no official ban against climbing but it is strongly discouraged by the Anangu Aborigines who consider it a sacred site.
A good alternative is to walk around the base on a 12-km trail. Seit Outback Australia has a six-hour guided Uluru Trek that leaves in the early morning before it’s hot and in time to watch the rock change colour as the sun rises. Trekkers visit waterholes, rock art sites, and learn aboriginal creation stories.
Having once travelled around Australia for a year by road, I felt I knew the country well. That is until a recent Quantas flight from Queensland to the Northern Territory, where I saw the interior for the first time from the air. Looking down on the vast, flat, arid landscape was a revelation.
Hooked on seeing the “Lucky Country” from the air, I signed up for another, slightly different experience — this time a hot air balloon ride from Alice Springs.
Outback Ballooning picks you up before dawn, and drives you to the launch site where the balloon is inflated. Minutes later you’re airborne, just in time to see the sun rise and illuminate the desert below and MacDonnell Ranges in the distance. We saw Red Kangaroos (a common sight), and hundreds of parakeets. Thirty minutes later our basket landed bump free.
After a light breakfast, you’re deposited back at your hotel by 9 a.m. with a full day still ahead for sightseeing.
Outback Ballooning also operates in Uluru and Flinders Ranges in South Australia. See outbackballooning.com.au.
Another way to appreciate the landscape is on a camel ride. You can go out for as little 10 minutes. The 45-minute-long sunrise or sunset tours are popular, and set against the backdrop of two of the country’s iconic landmarks — Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Watch as the rocks turn shades of purple, orange and brown with the changing light.
Uluru Camel Tours farm has 35 camels and many have fascinating histories. Ned (a lead camel named after infamous bush ranger Ned Kelly) had a small role in the 2008 film Australia; and Apollo crossed Australia from west to east (a distance of over 5,000 km) in 1999.
At the end of the tour there are displays on the history of camels in Australia, and samples of local foods — beer, damper (bread), Kutjera Relish (a bush tomato) and Dukkah (a nut-seed-herb-spice mixture).
The farm is in Yulara. See ulurucameltours.com.au
If you have limited time, Tailormade Tours’ West MacDonnell Ranges and Desert Park excursion is a good way to see Alice Springs.
It starts with a trip up Anzac Hill for a panoramic view of Alice Springs and beyond. Then it’s on to Rev. John Flynn’s grave (one of Australia’s heroes), and natural attractions of Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm — both part of the MacDonnell Ranges. After a picnic lunch and “billy” tea, you’re dropped off (and picked up later) for the afternoon at Alice Springs Desert Park, home to rare animals and quirky critters like the thorny devil.
Those who prefer, can skip the park and continue with the guide to the School of the Air, the Mbantua Aboriginal Cultural Museum, the Royal Flying Doctor Service Base, and the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve. See tailormadetours.com.au.
NEED TO KNOW
For tourism information, check Australia.com.