Seeing red

Australia’s striking interior boasts a landscape and natural wonders like nowhere else on earth.

Instantly recognisable in photographs and famous around the world, surprisingly few Australians have ever visited the stunning Red Centre of the country.

Brian Johnston

8 February, 2024

Up close, the monolith captures 600 million years of time in its folded, marvellously coloured surface

Australia is startling as you fly towards its Red Centre. The landscape is red with purple shadows, a magnificent abstract canvass of splotched wonder. It’s a bold and intimidating sight, but mesmerising too – its burnt red palette in stark contrast to Australia’s blue sun-kissed coast.

As your plane comes in to land, you’ll see Uluru from the window. If you imagine this great monolith has been tamed by familiar photographs, you’d be wrong. The real rock has a brooding presence that commands attention and simply can’t be appreciated in an image, no matter the skill of the photographer.

Up close, the monolith captures 600 million years of time in its folded, marvellously coloured surface. You might want to return several times, since the shifting sun constantly changes Uluru’s contours and intense colours. Walk the seven-mile base track and you’ll find Uluru’s surface cracked and pockmarked, sculpted by waterfalls and folded like Plasticine.

Join a ranger-led walk to learn how local Anangu people have responded to Uluru’s ageless beauty for thousands of years, detecting a great spiritual presence in this mighty outcrop. They sheltered beneath an overhang at Mala and decorated it with rock art.

Find out more about local indigenous culture and its relationship to Uluru at the Cultural Centre, which covers topics such as storytelling, native ingredients and the distinctive Aboriginal dot paintings through which Anangu people record the legends and landscapes of their creation time.

Thanks to sunrise starts, many people are tucked into bed early in the Red Centre, but stay the course for the chance to stargaze. After dark, the Milky Way is revealed above as you’ve seldom seen it, thanks to a complete absence of light interference. Views of the moon’s surface and Orion Nebula through high-powered telescopes are thrilling.

While Uluru is the key that draws most visitors to the Red Centre, leave time to explore beyond. Nearby Kata Tjuta (formerly The Olgas) is a must. These fabulous orange domes, one of which rises higher than Uluru, have as much power and cultural significance as Uluru itself and some say even greater beauty. 

A walk here will have you mightily impressed. The four-hour Valley of the Winds trail, where finches twitter and budgies flash emerald against red rock, is superb. 

While Uluru is the key that draws most visitors to the Red Centre, leave time to explore beyond

Locals nickname Artilla ‘Fool-uru’ because many tourists mistake it for Uluru

An easier stroll to Walpa Gorge passes between the largest domes and culminates in a wallaby-hopped oasis of trees. The surrounding rocks are a thesaurus of pink, vermilion and copper, making sunset an out-of-world stunner.

This is just the splendid overture to a dramatic opera of landscapes beyond Uluru, however, so get driving. Just 107 kilometres away – a short hop in these parts – is Curtin Springs Station, a working cattle station that sits in a landscape of pinkish salt lakes under the shadow of Artilla (Mt Conner).

Locals nickname Artilla ‘Fool-uru’ because many tourists mistake it for Uluru. It was formed by the same geological process and is similarly sized but, up close, this outcrop has a horseshoe shape and a distinctive, flat-topped sandstone capping.

Northeast lies Watarrka National Park, most famous for the plunging red sandstone of Kings Canyon, which shelters an eruption of cycads and palm trees, vivid green against an orange background. In the wider national park, which also features red sand dunes, you might spot kangaroos, feral camels and shorthorn cattle from nearby ranches. 

The most dramatic hike at Kings Canyon is the four-mile Rim Walk, which takes you through beehive-like sandstone domes, nicknamed The Lost World, for spectacular views into the orange chasm and its shimmering waterholes. With an opening climb nicknamed Heart Attack Hill, this is a strenuous walk and not for the midday heat.

Finke Gorge – for which you’ll need four-wheel drive – combines orange rock piles with cool waterholes and rustling red river gums, cut through by one of the world’s oldest rivers, which for 350 million years has provided sustenance for desert creatures and plants. Remarkably, Palm Valley shelters rare red cabbage palms, last survivors of central Australia’s ancient tropical forests. 

Consider driving the Red Centre Way to Alice Springs in Arrernte country. Alice Springs is an opportunity to find out more about Aboriginal art, the School of the Air by which remote communities learn over the radio and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, whose founder John Flynn is buried under a red granite boulder on the town’s outskirts.

The colours are impossible to appreciate without seeing them in person

The sun has risen and set for 600 million years over these landscapes, teasing out the rock’s splendid colour

The landscape always draws you back, however. There are more great rocks in the eroded, rumpled escarpment of the West MacDonnell Ranges outside Alice Springs, which at Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge are cleaved open to create spectacular, narrow defiles through towering orange cliffs.

Walk through Standley Chasm along a dry creek bed and you’ll find yourself hemmed in by 80-metre walls whose orange rock contrasts dramatically with the silvery bark of ghost gums. These hot, rusting landscapes have the power to make your skin prickle. You can float in a waterhole and gaze through ghost-gum branches towards a cerulean sky and feel like a speck in the eye of the universe.

The sun has risen and set for 600 million years over these landscapes, teasing out the rock’s splendid colour, burnishing it with heat, then sinking it back into star-studded darkness again. It’s hard to fathom the immensity of the outback and the vast eons of time that have carved this mighty land. Yet you’ll also feel exhilarated at being a puny human here, able to appreciate the sheer wonder of the Red Centre.