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Red Centre - A self-drive guide

The Northern Territory

Captivated by the wild beauty of our country’s heart, Natarsha Brown shares why your next family getaway should be on the road in Australia’s outback.

The intrepid writer Jack Kerouac once penned: “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars”, and as the never-ending horizons of the Northern Territory’s Red Centre stretched out from my dashboard, I finally understood.

The allure of the outback is in its mystery, its remoteness and the sense of awe you cannot help but feel in the heart of our sunburnt country; and there is no better way for families to explore its wonders than from behind the wheel of your very own 4WD.

Uluru, Ayers Rock- Australia’s outback icon

Rising from the spinifex-clad floodplains like a blazing terracotta beacon, Uluru is the Aussie outback icon. The sacred rock’s mercurial kaleidoscopes of colour are a photographer’s dream, with sunrises and sunsets something of a local ritual. There are two designated viewing platforms for photographing the rock, one for the morning and one for the evening, and a newly installed platform, Talinguru Nyakunytjaku, meaning “place to look from the sand dune.”

The 8.6-square-kilometre rock marks the place where Creation began and the area holds deep cultural significance to the local Anungu people. Ayers Rock Resort organises an array of ‘Indigenous experiences from dot painting workshops (especially popular with the little ones) to bush tucker guided tours where families can interact with Uluru’s Indigenous heritage.

Make like the original outback pioneers and explore the surrounding sands by camelback. With the mystical backdrop of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, a tour with the award-winning sunset Uluru Camel Tours, based at the resort, will leave all ages beguiled, and no doubt in hysterics, as you watch one another attempt to mount your new furry friends.

Alternatively, take in the colossus by foot, with the 10-kilometre base trail mostly flat and kid-friendly but remember to pack plenty of water and sugar treats to keep the energy up!

2016 is anticipated to be the year to visit the World Heritage-listed site with Bruce Munro's solar-powered art installation Field of Light opening on the 1 April and illuminating the desert until March 2017. Munro and his team will plant 50,000 stems crowned with frosted glass spheres in front of the rock, which will bloom with the fall of darkness, creating a land of stars to complement the constellations above.

The 36 bumps of Kata Tjuta

Just 40 kilometres west of Uluru, the 36 bumps of Kata Tjuta appear in the distance like a lopsided mirage, looking both grandiose and just a little bit wacky. A collection of rock formations weathered over more than 500 million years, the ochre-coloured domes are as mesmerising as Uluru, and similarly, experiencing a sunset or sunrise at this ever-changing landscape is simply majestic.

You can choose from a number of walking trails, with the two most popular being the seven-kilometre Valley of the Winds Circuit and the 2.6-kilometre Walpa Gorge Walk, the latter the most suitable for little legs.

The gorgeous West MacDonnell Ranges

Stretching for hundreds of kilometres on both sides of Alice Springs, the East and West MacDonnell Ranges are a hidden gem of gorges, wildlife and are of great Indigenous significance. An adventure-seeker’s playground, the ranges have hiking trails and swimming holes galore and walking one of the 12 sections of the world-renowned Larapinta Trail is a must-do.

If you feel overwhelmed tackling it on your own, there are an array of guided tours that do kid-friendly hikes of varying lengths. Alternatively, in Alice Springs there are options to take it all in atop a camel, get a birds-eye view from a hot air balloon or simply wheel your way to 4WD accessible areas.

A valley of palms

Just two hours from Alice Springs, the Finke Gorge National Park is famous for its top attraction – Palm Valley – a natural desert oasis that was once a prehistoric inland sea (be sure to keep an eye out for one of the rarest trees in the world: the red cabbage palm). Like many families before you, it may be hard to pull yourself away from the picture-book beauty of the valley, so spend the night at the campground. No booking is necessary, the camping fee is only $6.60 per person and onsite amenities include toilets, hot showers, BBQs and communal fire pits so you don’t have to rough it.

A journey to Kings Canyon

A little off the beaten track, but more than worth it, Kings Canyon is a vast sandstone chasm and its sheer splendour seems made to make you aware of your very own insignificance in the best way possible!

As its name suggests, the three-hour Rim Walk skirts the sheer cliffs of the canyon allowing for the stark vistas and colours of this desert palette to truly resonate, before descending into the forests of the Garden of Eden and the unusual rock formations of The Lost City below. A fear of heights didn’t stop the kids in my family from over-excitingly peering over the edges, so be sure to keep a close eye on everyone once you reach the top.

Alternatively, explore the canyon floor on the 2.6-kilometre Kings Creek Walk, a shadier and easier hike for young families.

Kings Canyon Resort offers an array of accommodation choices, from camping to deluxe spa rooms, and as a halfway point between Alice Springs and Uluru it is the perfect spot for an overnighter. My family and I choose yet another evening underneath the stars. The night skies here have no equal, a Van Gogh canvas before our very eyes, and as we nestle into our swags, surrounded by the soundtrack of the outback, I know I have finally tasted true Australiana.

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