This past late spring, I journeyed down to South Land, Terra Australis, where my heart has been longing to return to and always will. Mind you, it is actually late fall there which is a wonderful time to go. It’s cooler and has less flies. (In the center they never fully go away.) My Australia travel adventure included my arrival into Alice Springs, then onward to Kings Canyon en route to Uluru, then straight up to the Top End to catch a charter flight to remote Arnhemland. Afterwards I went to Darwin, then back to Uluru, and finally ending up in Sydney with VIVID in full swing!
My Australia Travel Adventures Begin in Alice
Off the plane, I jump into a jeep and head straight to get some grub, or tucker, as better known in these local parts. My destination – Yaye’s Café, located at the Araluen Cultural Precinct, had several items to taste test. But the Australian Bush Tomato…it encapsulated the essence of my Australian memories and dreams. The taste quickly conjured up dark mysterious nights with a smoldering fire and had a bitterness that was a welcome, comforting caress like the towering and swaying eucalyptus trees that call to mind quintessential Australiana. It finished like a conversation with the Ancient Ones, who are the bearers of the oldest continuous culture on earth. I shared this profound experience with the Australian Wildfoods Executive Chef Athol Wark and thanked him for his contribution of sharing these foods and experiences. His local produce and native Australian wild foods highlights Central Australia.
Alice Springs is located where the remote Red Centre collides with the MacDonnell Ranges. It has a unique pioneering history and is home to some great traditional and contemporary art, of which I was able to secure a piece for myself.
“Alice” is also the home of the world-first Royal Flying Doctor Service and has a wonderful facility to tour (of course I did this). The School of the Air also started here. These two entities help you understand how massive the expanse is between inhabitants working the land and their commitment to their professions and families. Witnessing a radio that was powered by a child, pedaling like a bike to connect them to their teacher hundreds of miles away displayed the dedication and persistence not only mentally but physically for the purpose of learning! It was so inspiring! If all our kids today could better appreciate our technology! The school continues to operate and serve kids and families in a virtual classroom and I got to witness a lesson happening real time!
The town was started in the 1870s as a central point of the overland telegraph line between Adelaide and Darwin, which runs South to North. The area attracted enterprising and interesting characters, such as Olive Pink, a very colorful pioneering woman. She was an Australian botanical illustrator, anthropologist, gardener, and activist for aboriginal rights. I find a kindred spirit in her. She established a lovely botanical garden here. You can visit, have a meal at the café, and sit among the native flora.
I also visited the Desert Park and Reptile Center to encounter the plants, animals and landscapes of Central Australia’s desert environment. The deserts are teaming with life and the Center showcases three desert habitats. A highlight was being inside an enclosure with Red Kangaroos – the largest of the marsupials and native to this region of Australia.
The Center also has a free-flying birds of prey demonstration. Owls fly directly over your head and you feel winds coming off their wings. The Nocturnal House has rare and endangered mammals such as the bilby, mala and thorny devil to see. The Reptile Center educates the public on the truth of Australian snakes and safety regarding them. There are some frill-neck lizards to touch and sit on your shoulder and goannas to tickle, a saltwater crocodile named Terry you can see up close – behind a glass enclosure of course, and over 100 reptiles to meet!
Some other things to experience locally are the Kangaroo Sanctuary, National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, and the West and East “Macs.” These jagged mountain ranges and gorge-swimming holes are only about 1.5 hours from Alice- an accessible day trip. I visited the West Macs (Stanley Chasm and Simpsons Gap) and walked along the Ghost Gum walk. Central Australia is certainly not flat! There are also several festivals throughout the year-like the Henley on Todd, which is a ‘boat race’ (teams in boats running together to the finish line) in a dry bed river!
Finally, one of my top experiences in Alice was the sunrise hot air balloon ride. As we glided above the ground, we had some curious wild red kangaroos follow us. This image is forever stamped in my memory like a special postcard home you save and visit again and again.
Overland to Uluru via Kings Canyon- Red Centre Way
Venturing into the Watarrka National Park on the drive West (approximately half way between Alice Springs and Uluru), Kings Canyon beckons with ancient sandstone.
I stayed at the Kings Canyon Resort and partook in the “Under the Desert Moon” four-course meal with the Southern Cross and moonlight above and dingos howling close by. Fresh in the morning, it is a straight up trek to the rim at Kings Canyon. Many bluffs and gorges await you and yes, there really are palm trees – large ones – growing in the desert. There are more than 600 species of native plants and animals and many are unique to the area. I did the challenging Kings Canyon Rim Walk, which takes a person 3-4 hours approximately. Other options include Kings Creek Walk at the base and the Giles Track that connects Kings Canyon to Kathleen Springs for the more experienced hiker. Some other activities are quad bike rides, tour a working outback cattle Station, camel rides and helicopter flights.
The Luritja Aboriginal people have called this area home for more than 20,000 years. After the ‘walk’, I visited a local family and their new venture called Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience. There I was provided a one-hour tour showcasing spear and boomerangs and their uses, bush tucker and medicine, and a special moment of being offered a Witchetty Grub to eat. I was the first to take it after it was ‘cooked’ in the ash of a fire. It kind of tasted like buttered popcorn or eggs- yum!
Next, it’s onto Yulara, a town that provides services to locals and those visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuta. I settle into Sails in the Desert briefly and then it is off to another meal under the stars – Sounds of Silence, which is a group outdoor dining experience. The buffet offers multiple items and a range of meat – even kangaroo and barramundi (fish). We all witness sunset over the two landmarks, an aboriginal song and dance and then conclude with an astronomy lesson. The sky is completely clear for a grand showcase of the southern hemisphere stars.
The following day we hike through Kata Tjuta (formally known as The Olgas) and means ‘many heads’ which is a group of large ancient rock formations sacred to men approximately 20 miles from Uluru (formally known as Ayers Rock). There are 36 sandstone domes that spread over approximately 13 miles and it is believed to be around 500 million years old. The Anangu traditional owners have lived in this greater region for 22,000 years and all is sacred. I do the Walpa Gorge walk as I had done the Valley of the Winds walk on a past visit to Australia.
As the sun moves, it paints yellows and reds and all shades in between. The greater Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park is UNESCO World Heritage not only for the natural value to the world but also for its culture. This iconic Australian symbol deserves a visit. Some ways to experience it are by helicopter, hot air balloon, camel, or a Harley Davidson motorcycle ride.
After my hike, I participated in a Maruku Dot Painting Workshop. It’s a special experience with a local Aboriginal artist. She shares what some of the Aboriginal Art symbols stand for and encourages us to make our own creation incorporating some of these symbols into our own story. At the end we each share our stories and each participant’s painting is laid down to form one large ‘painting’. Later that evening, we watch the sunset over Uluru and meet some locals selling their Aboriginal paintings. I added another one to my collection. I finished with Australian BBQ, and as a Texan, I had some good comparing to do.
The following day, I am ready for my sunrise camel ride with Uluru Camel Tours. What a unique vantage point from which to experience Uluru. The Anangu believe their ancestors created the landscape at the beginning of time and thus it is a very sacred place for them and protected. As one gazes on the structure throughout the day, a palette emerges of pinks, purples to reds. Many species of animals, birds (more than 170) and rare plants call this region home. Kangaroos, wallabies, emus and dingos roam wild.
Later, I take a walk in the woods to learn more about bush tucker (food) and traditional medicines. I handle many traditional seeds and see where some locals have dug for ants and Witchetty Grub to eat.
I finish off the day with a sunset viewing of Uluru for a second time and Field of Light tour. Internationally acclaimed artist Bruce Munro made the art installation. He has had installations throughout the world- but his inspiration came originally from a visit to the Red Centre when all the wildflowers were in bloom. He finally was able to realize his inspiration at it source. There are more than 50,000 solar powered stems pulsing, changing colors, and mimicking flowers that start to glow at sunset and throughout the night. It is his largest Field of Light installation to date covering the size of four football fields. The award-winning exhibition opened in April 2017 and was just recently extended to March 31st, 2018 for a second season. Visit soon so you too can experience it!
On my second visit to Uluru on this trip, I stayed at Longitude 131, which is the closest accommodation to Uluru itself and offers spectacular sunrise and sunset views in a stillness I have experienced unique unto its own. Perhaps this is due to the significant spiritual heart of Australia. There are only 15 luxury tents at this five-star tented eco-camp and it’s totally immersed in the Australian Outback. As would luck had it, I got to stay in the signature Olive Pink tent. (Each tent commemorates a significant Australian pioneer.)
The Lodge offers exclusive guided walks and experiences in the region. I partook in the full base walk, which was approximately 4 hours and heard many creation stories and learned of the flora and fauna. Additionally, I did the Mala, Lungkata, Kuniya and Liru Walk, and went to the Mutitjulu waterhole, home to the wanampi – an ancestral water snake.
In the evening I was also able to dine at Table 131, which is the intimate outdoor dining experience with impeccably showcased cuisine. There was actually some rain while I stayed here and heavy clouds which is very unusual this time of year as it is the dry season. Uluru seemed as if she was wearing a white gown preparing for her wedding march.
My Australia Travel Adventure Continues in Top End/Arnhemland
After my visit to Uluru, I head up to the Top End, and specifically the West Arnhemland region, a remote and very sparsely populated region. After my flights from Yulara to Alice Springs and up to Darwin, I board my private charter to West Arnhemland and my destination – Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris.
The charter was like a dream – at this height above the Van Diemen Gulf and Arafura Sea the placid water mesmerized me with its expansive blues in various shades. The dark green land conversed with these waters and snake like rivers reached their destination of water homes. As it was dry season, there were fires dotting the landscape and smoke rising to the heavens performing their cycle of life dance. The dream comes to reality as we approach the dirt landing within a forest of trees. I am greeted via a jeep with no windows and off to the camp – the adventure begins!
I am taken to my private eco cabin, which faces directly east, to drop off my bags and then it is off for a billabong sunset cruise. Brolgas, the Australian crane, abound along with crocodiles taking a rest on the banks. We even spot a water buffalo, which is not too common, so it was special for us to capture. This wilderness area is home to many species (over 275 birds) and also contains a vast amount of Aboriginal rock art in the restricted Mt. Borradaile area.
Davidson’s is on a 270 square miles exclusive lease in northwest Arnhemland escarpment and just shy of an hour’s charter flight from Darwin. It is a registered aboriginal sacred site and the traditional owners have given their blessing to Mr. Davidson and his expertly trained guides to take guests through these sacred areas, which is a unique opportunity and the only one of its kind in Australia.
This wilderness escarpment area has billabongs, flood plains, paper bark swamps, monsoonal rainforests and savannah woodlands. This area has been inhabited for over 50,000 years and has several well-preserved galleries of rock art (ochre paintings) as well as old habitation caves and shelters. There are also occupation and burial sites with artifacts. History of the region is shared through examples of hunting figures and spirit figures and even some ships depicting the evolution of time and arrival of others outside of Australia. One can almost imagine hearing the didgeridoo being played in the wind, as this is the area where it originated.
Morning light awakens me to the day, as well as sounds of wallabies hopping outside my cabin and various birds’ calls. Today we go out for two hikes at Mt. Borradaile to encounter the multitude of rock art available. Hand prints, male and female figures, x-ray animals – crocs, barramundi, wallabies, turtles, snakes. We also visit shelters that house grinding stones. As we hike along, we pass charred spinifex from a fire burn perhaps only from the day before. Our guide shows us the edible ant and how to pick it up to eat it as the Aboriginal children did as treat and vitamin support. It tastes like sour Sweetarts and I am careful not to eat the tiny legs!
We scale some ragged rocks to make our way to the famous 20-foot rainbow serpent on a cave ceiling – it seems as if it is coming down from the sky to greet you with its large fangs. This creation spirit formed the lands in this area.
Our guide sees dark clouds in the distance and shares we may actually have some rain, which does not normally come during this season. Just as we finish making our descent, the rain comes. And it is pouring. We all climb into the open-air jeep, soaked to the bone on our way back to camp. What a treasure to experience such a wet gift from above! Each evening the guests dine together family style and reflect on the day’s happenings.
Some additional; activities you can do are fishing for wild barramundi in Cooper Creek, cooling off in a natural swimming hole, or walk through the catacombs that display ancient mortuary rites. The best time to visit this special area of Australia is April-September, which is the dry season.
Before making my way back to Uluru for my second stay and then on to my final stop in Sydney, I overnight in Darwin. It has had a lot of growth and development in the last few decades. It is tropical, Asian inspired, has great markets (check out Mindil Beach at Sunset along with Parap and Nightcliff), the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory is a great visit – art history and culture. A unique museum is a WWII Oil Storage Tunnels Tour, which I got to do with the founder, sunset sailing with dolphins and learning about Quantas history. There are also some fascinating WWII history tours to take advantage of along with Australian aviation as well.
Conculding My Australia Travel in Sydney
My last stop is Sydney. I’m back to modern civilization and one of the world’s most beautiful natural harbors. Landing in the evening, I make my way to the Shangri-La, well positioned downtown and in the historic ‘The Rocks’ district with stellar harbor views.
Out my window I can see the fantastical VIVID light show projected on the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. It is the world’s largest festival of lights, music and ideas and runs in late May to mid-June each year. Sydney is a canvas for awesome light installations and projections. Top talent performs at the Sydney Opera House and 25 plus other venues throughout Sydney. There is wonderful local fare showcasing more than 50 top chefs, bars and restaurants at the night market at Carriageworks. VIVID Ideas happens concurrently and is an annual celebration of innovation and creativity with more than 200 events and 400 speakers. It brings together the creative industries- design, architecture, film, animation and advertising. The annual event brings more than 2.3 million visitors throughout the festival.
In the morning, I’m ready to go for a full day of touring. I start my day with a must do small group harbor boat cruise. It is a great way to get one’s bearings and see up close all this amazing expansive city has to offer along its harbor coastline. Our two-hour tour takes us on both sides of the harbor bridge and includes morning tea. It hugs the many bays and coves and it enables one to really get a sense for this city’s flair and spirit. Afterwards, I head off to learn in more detail, the history of the original founding area of Sydney called ‘The Rocks.’ Settlement began here. The convict history in this harbor-side quarter filled with cobblestone streets, sandstone terraces and cottages is just 5 minutes from Circular Quay. This historic precinct has many museums and galleries, weekend markets and old pubs.
As I had my legs warmed up from this walking tour, I decided to do the famed BridgeClimb in the evening for fantastic panoramic views and to take in Sydney VIVID even more. I ascended 440 feet above sea level and witnessed the cars and pedestrians walking below. The climb is gradual and when on top we all have a spontaneous dance with a temporary dance floor with colorful lights! Needless to say after all the walking this day- I slept well ahead of my last full day in Australia.
Steve, my guide and I venture off in hard rain for a wet and unique day. We briefly visit Barangaroo Reserve, a new headland park in Sydney Harbour, and then it was off to visit the North Shore. We spent some time in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park and then he took me to West Head Lookout where 5 bodies of water converge. On our way back down to the city, we stop in Manly and finished with an iconic stop in Sydney Harbour National Park at the Georges Head lookout to see the mouth of the harbor and the city inland.
Sydney is a wonderful city for experiencing several festivals, special events and performances throughout the year as well as a plethora of cultural and nature activities within easy reach. My adventure is at an end- for this time- as Australia is a destination, a home, a place that beckons the spirit and heart to venture to more than once.