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Tales from the NT

Huge sunny skies, some of Australia’s greatest natural wonders and a luminous art scene make the Northern Territory the perfect playground for families, as Aleney de Winter discovers.

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pre-dawn start means we’re all half asleep, and not nearly caffeinated enough to be conscious, when we set off in the inky blackness to a designated viewing area inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. But as the sun rises over Australia’s most famous rock star, the punch-in-the-gut impact of Uluru as she emerges from the shadows, turning from grey to ochre-brown to orange in a matter of moments, has me wide awake.

Science tells us that Uluru thrust itself out of the earth around 600 million years ago (give or take a birthday candle or two) but this morning I prefer the elaborate creation stories of the local Anangu people. They believe Uluru was created by a group of 10 ancestral spirits (including Kuniya the python woman and Liru the venomous snake men) who emerged from the void during the period of Tjukurpa: The Dreamtime.

Happily there is ample opportunity to hear this and other fascinating tales of local lore as we enjoy a guided Desert Awakenings Tour of the base of Uluru, marvelling at the shapes, shadows and sheer enormity of the beautiful monolith along the way.

Rocking the Resort

We return to Voyages Ayers Rock Resort in the township of Yulara a little more enlightened and utterly wowed by our morning adventures.

While the resort offers a range of accommodation for all budgets, from camping to five-star, we’re staying at Sails in the Desert, the resort’s premium offering which provides a modern sanctuary with local design elements woven in to highlight the mystery, colour and wisdom of the thriving local Aboriginal culture.

The resort also boasts an enormous pool and a day spa to reinvigorate weary travellers. Another highlight of a stay at Sails in the Desert is the free activities programme, which includes fantastic guided cultural walks, a Bush Tucker Experience, Indigenous storytelling that enchants the kids and the chance to get up close with some unique creatures at the Red Desert Reptiles Show.

Of course, there are other ways to get to know Uluru. An enlightening dot painting workshop with Maruku Arts, a not-for-profit art collective owned and operated by the Anangu, is a must for visitors who wish to learn more about the ancient symbols used in their art and teachings. But perhaps the most fun way to explore it is as the early pioneers did: on the back of a camel. If you prefer your transport with wheels, and a little less on the smelly side, we suggest renting bicycles to explore The Rock’s 9.4-kilometre circumference.

If you’d prefer not to go it alone, AAT Kings’ Uluru Family Shindig offers some truly epic guided experinces with a four-day Alice Springs highlights tour incorporating Kata Tjuta, Uluru, camel riding and more. It also has Top End Tours for those trekking further north.

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Night Moves

After Uluru performs its spectacular sunset dance of many colours, the outback sky takes centre stage as billions of stars paint the sky. The resort offers spellbound kids the chance to join its resident astronomer on a Family Astro Tour, to hear how ancient cultures used the night sky for orientation and as the basis for their mythology. But those blazing stars aren’t the only thing lighting up the Uluru night.

As darkness falls over Australia’s spiritual heartland, Field of Light, or Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku, illuminates the desert at the base of Australia’s most iconic monolith. In local Pitjantjatjara it means “looking at lots of beautiful lights” and, with more than 50,000 slender stems crowned with radiant glass spheres over an area the size of seven football fields, that is exactly what visitors will be doing, with unbridled awe, as they are drawn into Bruce Munro’s enchanting installation.

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The Alice Illuminates

Uluru doesn’t have the monopoly on light, with Alice Springs, some 450 kilometres away, also set to glow with Parrtjima – A Festival in Light, from 22 September to 1 October 2017.

“After sunset, the outback sky takes centre stage as billions of stars paint the sky.”

The jaw-dropping free public event is the first authentic Indigenous light festival of its kind and showcases the oldest continuous culture, using the MacDonnell Ranges as a backdrop.

Alice Springs or, as locals simply refer to it, ‘the Alice’, is just as inspiring by day. Alice Springs Desert Park, around 10 minutes from the city, is a great place for kids to learn about Central Australia’s diversity of life. A visit to “The World’s Largest Classroom”, The Alice Springs School of the Air Visitor Centre, is another must. Kids can see how radios and internet help overcome the odds of educating children across an enormous area. Then there is Earth Sanctuary, around 15 minutes south of Alice Springs, an innovative eco-tourism attraction offering both day and night tours of the outback for families. Its brilliant Earth’s Cool tour has been especially designed for kids, focusing on the sustainability of the Earth’s resources and teaching them how to reduce their impact on the planet.

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Gorgeous Katherine

We head further north to Katherine, gateway to Nitmiluk National Park, where Katherine Gorge and its staggering network of gorges leave us wonderstruck. We wind our way along the Katherine River through ancient sandstone walls by canoe, spotting the area's diverse wildlife along the way. At the end of the day we join Nitmiluk Tours on a dinner cruise to discover the stories and ways of the area's traditional owners, the Jawoyn, as the magnificent Nitmiluk Gorge changes colour with the setting sun.

A place where the outback meets the tropics, visitors to Katherine can swim in refreshing waterholes or soak in the spring-fed Katherine Hot Spring. Kids will enjoy learning about local Indigenous culture, how to make fire with sticks, and throw boomerangs and spears with Top Didj, or a camp dinner under starlight with bush games and stories around the campfire.

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The Call of Kakadu

No visit to the Top End is complete without a visit to Kakadu National Park, around an hour-and-a-half from Darwin by coach or car. Australia's largest national park on dry land, it is a natural wonderland for kids, bursting with stunning rocky ridges, flood plains, billabongs and estuaries teeming with animal and bird life.

Kakadu has been home to Aboriginal people continuously for over 50,000 years, something that is evident throughout the park with many sacred sites and awe-inspiring ancient Aboriginal rock drawings. We explore Ubirr, one of Kakadu National Park's most famous Aboriginal rock art galleries, which can be reached along an easy circular walking track.

On the gentle Bardedjilidji walking track we view sandstone rock formations beside the East Alligator River, spot more incredible Aboriginal stone art and spy local wildlife. We see first-hand the land of Dreamtime ancestors, the Namarrgarn Sisters and the magnificent Rainbow Serpent, depicted in the ancient artworks.

About one-third of Australia's bird species live in biodiverse Kakadu National Park, as well as a croc or 10,000. We head out on a cruise of Yellow Water Billabong, Kakadu's most famous wetland where, along with the squawking cries of thousands of birds, we hear how the local Bininj people use the river to support their way of life. We also spot plenty of the famously toothy locals, lurking on the water surface.

Later as we cool off at Gunlom Falls, nature's own infinity pool, I'm visualising those beady eyes protruding from the surface. Part of Waterfall Creek, this is a popular swim spot with locals and visitors to Kakadu, and though it is considered safe, you swim at your own risk. If you are worried about crocs just head 85 metres up to the smaller swimming holes at the top of the falls like I did, because crocs aren't known for their pole-vaulting skills.

The only croc I want to end up in the belly of is the Indigenous-owned Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, which, while shaped like a croc, proves to be a cool, inviting haven for us after a day of Top End family fun.

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Information

www.northernterritory.com

Getting there

Flights to and from Darwin, Alice Springs and Uluru are available from most capital cities.



This article appeared in volume 52 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.



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