The Outback, Australia: Three Ways to the Red Centre

King’s Canyon is a study in Australia’s geological history
Photographer: HASHIM BADANI

Take a hike in King’s Canyon, take a flight over Darwin or take a train from Adelaide to Perth – we’ve lined up three fantastic ways by which to experience the Australian Outback in all its glory


The land below is a blazing yellow with little black dots of desert oak scattered everywhere. It’s incredible; far more stunning than any of the images I’ve seen while looking up the Outback. Utterly delighted, I look over to the other aisle to see if Hashim’s expression matches mine and find that he’s fast asleep. He stays asleep even as we drop altitude and the plane hits the tarmac with a light thud. Oh well.

He might have missed the aerial view, but that’s just the start. From the moment we step out of the airport, we know we’re in the wild. Alice Springs sits in a gap between the east and west MacDonnell Ranges, surrounded by a land covered in vegetation that’s designed to survive in some of the toughest, most arid soil on the planet.

And it’s stunning. We’re going to see the many hues of the desert on this trip, going from the pure gold of the bush to the fiery red soil symbolic of the Outback and to the blue bush-dotted, mind-bendingly vast Nullarbor Plains. We’re going to do this in three ways: by hiking up King’s Canyon, gliding over Darwin’s bushland in a floatplane, and cutting through the desert on the Indian Pacific train.

While The Alice, as it’s fondly referred to by the locals, has gained a reputation for being a gateway town to popular sights like Uluru, it’s more than that. For a small town, it sure has a busy social calendar of festivals and a flourishing arts scene, thanks mostly to the aboriginals. In fact, this is a great place to learn about and interact with the Arrernte people, the traditional inhabitants of Alice Springs. With distinctive features – the broad nose, the large eyes and the unruly curls – they’re easy to spot on the streets. We’re told that the younger generation, especially now, is trying hard to integrate into the mainstream, and you’ll see them sporting T-shirts, jeans and shoes that just don’t seem to fit as well as their bare-all traditional costumes. It’s a discomfiting feeling – it seems wrong to expect people to be stuck in the past, but the Arrernte seem like people of the land more than anything else.

Cut off from the rest of the country and the world, news and letters from England reached The Alice after two months on a ship. This obviously had an impact on trade, and the British decided to overcome this hurdle by laying a 3,200km line of wire through Central Australia and the Overland Telegraph Line came into being. Based on the mapping done by John McDouall Stuart, after whom the Stuart Highway – connecting the north and south of the continent – is named, it opened up a whole new world of communication for this tiny town. Using Morse code, messages were relayed much faster and Alice Springs began to bloom. You can pop over to the old telegraph station to see how these messages were sent. Close to this station lies the ‘spring’ after which the town was named. It was during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line that the town was discovered by one of the surveyors. It must have seemed a bit of a stretch calling it a ‘town’ – Alice Springs was the name given to a small water body after the superintendent’s wife.

King’s Canyon: Take a Hike
Every tree is a lavatory,” says our guide, looking pretty pleased with himself when he sees our bemused expressions. We’re in the middle of the desert, and he’s right: there is no restaurant, no hotel; heck, even the trees are few and far between. As we set off from Alice Springs, leaving the sprawling MacDonnell Ranges behind, a small bubble of excitement builds within me. We’re heading to the gorgeous King’s Canyon, part of the Watarrka National Park, where we’ll hike right up to the rim. But before that, we have this incredible drive ahead of us, and we plan to make many stops to explore the land and to unearth some of the stories buried beneath its soil.

The first opportunity presents itself fairly quickly. John Flynn’s Grave Historical Reserve (7km) is a memorial to the eminent Reverend John Flynn who was noted for founding the Royal Flying Doctors Service as well as for his contribution to the welfare of those living in the Outback. This is a great spot from which to admire the Mt Gillen Ranges, too. Then, there’s Standley’s Chasm, an alleyway formed out of a massive quartzite mountain, which looks right out of a scene from the movie 127 Hours, with slices of sunlight lighting up the floor, and highlighting the folds of the mountain and the jagged lines of its walls. As we make our way down to the chasm for a closer look, we pass curious “no swimming” signboards sticking out of the completely dry riverbed. I’m not surprised. This is, after all, a place that holds regattas on barren riverbeds. How, you ask? Why by simply cutting out the bottom of a boat, sticking your legs through it, and, like the Flintstones, running with the boat, of course (no jokes – look up ‘Henley on Todd regattas’, if you don’t believe me). Australians sure enjoy a good laugh.

They also enjoy a good picnic and a swim, and the road to King’s Canyon has many stops at which you can stretch your legs and explore the hidey holes in the desert. Like Simpsons Gap, a lovely little watering hole and residence of wallabies, barely 18km from Alice Springs, or Ellery Creek Big Hole, a natural pool where locals head on the weekends for a swim, or the lovely purple and yellow Ochre Pits from which aboriginals still use ochre for ceremonies. My favourite stop, though, has to be the Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) Conservation Reserve, which, according to scientists, is the site of impact of a comet. When you look at the size of the shock waves, you realise the extent of the force with which it must have hit Earth. According to the aboriginals, though, this is a site where a baby and crib fell from the arms of a celestial woman when she was dancing in the sky.

This is an ancient land, geologically as well as culturally, and we find many such stories hovering in the air. We push the pedal to the floor, zooming down the highway past truly fascinating landscape with herds of camel (who were imported for transport, but bred like rabbits) and chestnut horses, and the odd kangaroo poking its head out from behind a tree. Soon, we leave the tarred road behind, and the yellow landscape stands out in sharp contrast to the burnt sienna that is the dirt road.

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