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Ancient Desert, Modern Comforts: In the Heart of Australia's Outback

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

In 1997 there was a flood in Central Australia. The Todd River, which is normally a dust dry bed that snakes through Alice Springs, suddenly had water flowing in it. This happens about once every ten years. The locals couldn't believe their eyes and the word went around town "We'll have to cancel the "Henley-on-Todd" boat race because the river has water in it!"

The "Henley-on-Todd" is the only boat race in the world that does not need water. The humor in the outback is about as dry as the climate, and many years ago someone decided to have a dig at the British and their very pukka old school-tie boat races by having a hyphenated-title race in a dried up river bed. The entrants have to construct their own boat shells out of whatever materials they can find, leaving room for their legs to stick out of their bottomless "craft." Then, at the crack of the starter's pistol the competitors would run for their lives holding their boats around them. The only things wet at this boat race each year are the copious quantities of beer consumed by the thousands who turn up to cheer the "boat crews" on.

This "boat race" is just a wacky modern bonus to the many natural wonders that attract over half a million tourists to Central Australia each year. Alice Springs is the starting point for people offering tours to Ayers Rock, now known by its Aboriginal name of Uluru, and to the Olgas, the other intriguing sandstone formation made when the world was very young. And then there are the McDonnell Ranges, Stanley Chasm, Aboriginal corroborees and exploring around Alice Springs itself. The visitor is offered a number of ways of seeing the sights and sounds of Central Australia. There are camel rides, 4WD outback safaris and helicopter tours to broaden one's Central Australian experiences. There is even a hot air balloon tour to give the perspective from above.

Alice Springs is not only in the geographical center of Australia but also the center of the area's white settlement. "The Alice" as the locals call the town, is an oasis surrounded by primeval, rugged beauty, and vast distances. Its strange emptiness is accentuated by a population so sparse that in many areas you can drive 161 kilometers (100 miles) without encountering a soul. The soil here has a chameleon-like quality, its haunting red hue changes color and intensity as the early daylight strengthens and then fades again towards dusk.

If rain has fallen, the land abounds in varied and beautiful wildflowers which can be seen at their best in September. In winter the desert plants get much of their moisture from the dew that forms on the cold nights, and it is hard to realize that the surprisingly plentiful vegetation, gets so little actual rainfall.

There are no permanent rivers in this area, which averages a rainfall of ten inches (25 cms) per annum -- in a good year -- and is sometimes as little as two inches (5 cms) per annum. The 22 native species of animals recorded in the Uluru-Kata Tjula National Park include dingoes (the wild dogs native to Australia), small kangaroos, lizards and snakes. All have developed dry-area survival techniques.

Natural oddities abound in Central Australia, proving that Mother Nature is very canny indeed. A species of frogs has evolved a survival technique by covering themselves with mucous -- they then bury themselves in the sand where they live in a form of suspended animation which can last for years. They await the next rains and when these arrive, the frogs revive. Coming out of their mucous coating, they breed in the temporary creeks, puddles and waterholes that form after the rains, then go into hibernation, with the next generation of frogs going through the same cycle after the next downpour, even though this may not come for years.

Another incredible phenomenon can be found on Ayers Rock itself. A pre-historic variety of tiny freshwater crustaceans known as "fairy" shrimp and "shield" shrimp enjoy their short lifecycle in the puddles that form on Ayers Rock after "rain," laying eggs which can last for many years. The eggs are impervious to the dry and heat. When the rare rains come to Central Australia forming water puddles in the crevices of the giant monolith, the shrimp eggs hatch out, beginning a frenzied life-cycle which again terminates as the water dries up. Scientists have discovered that these species have not altered in 150 million years.

Alice Springs has become the jumping off point for all the fascinating desert trips made by tourists. The town itself is a far cry from the hardship post it was during its early settlement. Lovely gardens, shady eucalyptus trees known as "ghost gums," and unique scenery delight visitors and residents alike.

Up until the early 1980's Alice Springs could not boast more than a few motels. Then with the advent of expanded air services, things began to change. First came a hotel complex with a Casino. Then The Plaza Alice Springs Hotel opened in 1986. Once world standard hotels started to operate in Central Australia, international tourism also began to boom. Tour operators and airlines responded, increasing flights and facilities combining them with convenient package holidays.

Today all the 20th century urban luxuries such as ice cream parlors, take-away pizzas and a two hour photographic development service are available in "Alice." This town unashamedly courts the tourist, even boasting a small winery, producing surprisingly drinkable wine in small quantities for local and tourist consumption.

Though Central Australia is arid and very hot in summer, the heat is dry, and with air-conditioned coaches, discomfort is minimized. Climatic seasons are broadly divided into Summer (November - March) and Winter (April - October). Summer temperatures are in the high 90's (30 degrees Celsius) or 100 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) during the day and low 60's (15 degrees Celsius) during the night. Winter days are in the low 60's (15 degrees Celsius) with a minimum of a few degrees above freezing at night.

Until the end of World War II, the Australian inland had a very different image. In the 1930's, before Neville Shute wrote the book A Town Like Alice, Central Australia was a place where a handful of Europeans and Australian Aborigines lived in harsh, primitive conditions.

At that time, the predominantly male European population of this part of Central Australia contained more than its share of misfits and miscreants -- men who were on the run from family responsibilities or who were wanted by big-city police.

The town, if you could call it such, owed its existence to the telegraph station that had been built in 1872. What is today a historic relic of the past was then the focus of settlement for Central Australia.

Its construction at the time not only provided the communication link between Adelaide and Darwin, but revolutionized news exchange with Europe, helping to put Australia's major cities within seven hours contact with London. (Till then the fastest way of communicating had been a three months journey by ship.)

Up to the 1920's only explorers, surveyors and scientists, traveling by camel or horse, had visited these parts.

As in America's West, it was the arrival of the railway -- in 1929 -- that brought the first major change to Central Australia. The advent of the Ghan, (the train named after the handful of Afghan camel drivers who were the transport system for the early explorers and later the first hardy European settlers), brought supplies and a relative comfort of travel to this almost unknown corner of the world.

1930 saw the first airplane land beside Ayers Rock. Soon cars, trucks and motorcycles started to push their way into the area over the roughest of tracks, in spite of the distances and appalling conditions. Even before that, a handful of adventurous tourists started to arrive at Alice Springs, having braved the almost insurmountable obstacles of discomfort and distance.

Those intrepid travelers who had the courage to make the journey spread the word about the huge, arid Australian inland and the enormous rock formations with their awe inspiring, rugged beauty. Geologists among the explorers were puzzled by these giant sandstones that loomed above the vast, flat plain. They concluded that these were the tips of huge mountains, formed 500 million years ago during the Cambrian Era when Central Australia was a huge inland sea. Today it is believed that these mountains extend as deep as 4,953 meters (16,250 feet) below the sandy surface.

Ayers Rock is impressive indeed! It is the world's largest monolith, a staggering 349 meters (1144 feet) high with a 14 kilometers (8.8 miles) circumference. Today, marked walking tracks extend around the base of the rock. Energetic visitors can climb the steep sides, taking care on the smooth surface caused by countless centuries of erosion. Those who make it are rewarded by an unforgettable view across the colorful desert plain.

Though many people, both in Australia and overseas, had heard or read about Ayers Rock and dreamt of visiting Australia's center, most were thwarted by the awesome transportation problems and lack of accommodation. It was not until the late 1950's that visitors started to arrive in any numbers at all. In 1958, 2,300 tourists came. By 1969 the numbers were still only 23,000.

In the last few years all this has changed -- visitors by the thousands are flocking to Central Australia, drawn by its natural wonders ability to now travel in style and stay in luxurious comfort. In 1984, 106,000 came. By 1985 the figure was 136,000, and today exceeds 500,000!

This dramatic change was partly brought about by the Northern Territory attaining Australian self-government in 1978. Its new government commissioned a feasibility study to pinpoint potential areas for economic growth. The three that were identified as the showing the most promise were cattle-raising, mining, and -- most of all -- tourism.

As a result of the findings, a modern jetport was built at Alice Springs, new track was laid to upgrade the Ghan train and the roads were improved. But most impressive of all was the new resort, called Yulara, built within striking distance of Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Being so remote, the logistical problems involved in building the Yulara complex were immense. All components and building materials had to be brought from Adelaide. There is no river in the area and water had to be pumped from deep artesian wells, then treated at the desalination plant, Australia's largest. Telephone transmission systems were installed at the cost of US$3 million, and sewage treatment plants and power stations constructed.

If you have the chance to fly to Yulara from Alice Springs, you will be rewarded with the sight of Uluru looming majestically through the haze on the horizon.

Usually the plane circles the red sandstone giant to give visitors a sense of the size and majesty of the world's largest naturally formed stone monolith. As you land at Connellan Airport a short time later, it is a sobering thought to realize you are now some 459 kilometers (285 miles) from Alice Springs, deep in the heart of the driest continent on earth.

Yulara Resort is huge in scope, brilliant in layout, and was specifically designed to make a minimal impact on the region's frail ecology.

Built in the middle of the red-sand desert to service the Uluru National Park, yet with easy access to Ayers Rock and the Olgas, it was seen as a high-risk investment of A$164 million because nothing like this had ever been attempted in such a desolate part of Australia. There was no infrastructure, just desert in every direction. Ayers Rock, (Uluru) was the lure that would draw the tourists.

Guests relax around the swimming pool when not out exploring the fascinating Red Center. The water in the pool comes from underground springs and the next nearest swimming pool is actually around 482 kilometers (300 miles) away at Alice Springs. Underground water is the secret to the location of many homesteads and towns in the outback. Beneath the dry desert are enormous artesian bores which make life possible.

Completed in November 1984, The Yulara Resort provides accommodation ranging from modern camp sites to the "Sails in the Desert," a luxurious five star hotel complex of the highest international standard. Yulara is able to cater up to 5000 visitors a day and was designed to make Central Australia an easily accessible and comfortable destination for overseas and Australian tourists alike.

All aspects of this resort have created an oasis of comfort and elegance where, only a few short years ago nothing like this would have been possible. "Sails in the Desert" features polished pink marble floors, reflecting pools, and the famous white "sails" -- each segment imported from Switzerland at a cost of A$4,700 to cleverly provide shade from the fierce Australian sun.

The roof of the hotel building is completely covered by Australia's largest installation of solar panels, using the very latest technology. These panels not only provide shade, and so minimize heat buildup in the living areas underneath, but generate a considerable proportion of the electricity requirements of the complex.

And what a complex it is. No longer could you ever consider this is the "back of beyond." Here there is not only outstanding accommodations, but also lecture theaters, shopping and convention areas, an information center, tennis courts, police and fire services, a gas station, and expert-guided tours by air-conditioned bus or light aircraft, helicopter or even by motorbike.

Because of its isolation, every morsel of food and almost every item for residents and tourists has to come by refrigerated truck or aircraft from Adelaide, the capital of South Australia situated over 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) to the south. But to the diner savoring the cuisine in the various dining areas there is no discernible difference to dining in the most cosmopolitan of cities.

To teach the visitor about the fascinating ecology of the unique area, there is an information center with displays that detail everything from native flora and fauna to the lifestyle of the Aborigines. The tourist has the choice of movies and audio/video shows in the lecture theaters, coming away with a new understanding of the area.

After learning about all these aspects, it is a good idea to gain some "eyes on" experience of the featured flora in its natural desert habitat. To untrained eyes, the outback seems as though there is little of interest growing or living in it. With the knowledge imparted by the well-trained guides, visitors begin to understand how the aborigines have managed to live in this desert for possibly up to 40,000 years, finding food and water where, to foreign eyes, there is just red desert and dust. Plants not easily found in natural conditions have been thoughtfully planted out in display around the hotel, and these are greatly admired by visitors.

Anyone seeking to understand the remarkable indigenous peoples of Australia will also want to visit the Cultural Center in the Uluru-Kata Tjula National Park. The original design concept for the center began as images traced in the sand by the Aboriginal people of Uluru. From these sand sketches and paintings a unique complex has been created. The two main buildings are both curved to resemble the shape of ancestral snakes, Kuniya (python) and Liru (poisonous snake).

The center's walls are constructed of mud-brick, an ideal medium for a building in the dry desert heat, and there is a copper and shingle roof representing the snake's spine and scaly backs. The roof and verandah overhangs are supported by massive tree trunks and are reminiscent of the simple temporary structures that aborigines build when they rest between "walkabouts."

The "Dreamtime" is the folklore which explains the reasons of existence, and why flora and fauna is the way it is. The Tjukurpa is their creation law and the foundation of aboriginal life. These stories are told through paintings directly applied to the walls of the center, and the impact of audio recordings by elder Anangu people is further accentuated by the descriptive panels of transcribed conversations.

There are also illustrations, displays and videos that try to give an insight into the life of Anangu people. Burnt designs on wood, carvings, glass panels and beautifully illustrated floor tiles impress visitors. This is a highly creative and expressive culture which until recently, has been little understood.

The Australian desert is as close as many 20th century people will ever get to feeling and seeing the primeval roots of mankind's existence. Yulara, Alice Springs and the various tourist and cattle grazing outposts are tributes to man's triumph over the elements in this unique and fascinating continent, the mysterious Terra Australis, the "Great South Land."

Australia offers a vast spectrum of impressions, from the Great Barrier Reef to the large modern cities with their vast, urban sprawl. But for those who really want to know what the Australian Outback and its indigenous culture is all about, no visit will be complete until it includes a trip to Uluru and "The Alice." If you never, never go, you'll never, never know!

Getting there
There are regular jet services to both Alice Springs and Ayers Rock airports from all major capital cities.

Best time to go
It can get very hot in Central Australia during the Aussie summer. Unless you like extreme heat that can reach century temperatures, we suggest the Australian winter -- between Easter and October -- as the best time to go.

Comfortable resort-style clothes (preferably cotton), sturdy walking shoes and, if you plan to climb Ayers Rock, non-slip climbing-style boots, swimsuit, plenty of sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. Also take adequate supplies of any medication you may need. There are many pharmacies in Alice Springs, but they may not have your specialty requirements. At Ayers Rock you will certainly need to bring your own medication.

Package Tours

Abercrombie & Kent (Australia) Pty Ltd.
Level 3
290 Coventry Street
South Melbourne Victoria 3205

Phone: +613 9536 1800
Toll Free: 1300 851 800 (Australia); 800 4747 7700 (within Asia)
and 00 800 610 1015 (within India)
Website: www.abercrombiekent.com.au
Email: contact@abercrombiekent.com.au

Abercrombie & Kent USA, LLC
1411 Opus Place
Executive Towers West II, Suite 300
Downers Grove, IL 60515-1182, USA
Tel. 800. 554. 7016 or 630. 725. 3400
Website: www.abercrombiekent.com

Other great package tours are available through Air New Zealand
and Qantas.
Check with your travel agent.

You can also get excellent information on Central Australia from the
Northern Territory Tourist Organization's website: http://www.nttc.com.au/

Yet more information and brochures are available from the Australian
Tourist Commission offices:

Australian Tourist Commission,
FAX: 02.9331.3385 PH: 02.9360.1111
Websites: http://www.australia.com or

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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