The Outback Made Personal

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wayoutback desert safari
Dawn on the Outback: The Wayoutback truck near the campsite for Kings Canyon (Nathan Borchelt)

When to Go:
The antipodal winter months from June to August are the best time to head into the Red Center. Nights can get chilly, with temps dropping below freezing, but the relentless summer sun of the Outback is considerably muted. In fact, many of the area attractions, like the Valley of the Winds hike in the Olgas and an ascent of Uluru, are closed when temps reach 97 degrees. Unsurprisingly, rain seldom falls across the Outback—but if you’re lucky enough to be near Uluru during a storm, get there fast, as the rock is transformed into a glorious series of undulating waterfalls, a truly rare sight to behold.

Getting There and Around:
If Sydney's labyrinth of islands, coves, bays, and crashing beaches dazzles, then the Outback hypnotizes. The vast terrain looks like a red-hued abstract painting as you fly over it, featureless except for the shadowed remains of what were once deep gorges carved by ancient rivers and the rolling folds of the MacDonnell Range as you go further into the Red Center.

Regardless of whether you hit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park or Kings Canyon first, your first stop in the Outback will likely be Alice Springs, once the main telegraph station in the central Outback and today the region's main tourist hub. There is an airport in Yulara, just outside of Uluru, but flights are typically more expensive and cater to groups more interested in checklist tourism then actually immersing themselves in the region. And anyway, the Alice (as it's affectionately called by locals) warrants at least 24 to 48 hours of your itinerary (for more on Alice Springs, click here).

Only three airlines fly from the United States to Australia: United, Air New Zealand, and Qantas, Australia's national airline. Of the three, Qantas will likely offer the best prices. They'll typically have special-rate package deals, made in consort with Tourism Australia, each catering to a particular travel interest or destination. For example, for $999 you get a round-trip economy ticket between Los Angeles or Honolulu to Sydney and three domestic flights in Australia.

Outfitters:
After touching down in Alice Springs, you have many options to get into the Outback, including vehicle rentals (4x4s are highly advisable) and larger tours. We heartily recommend, however, that you hook up with Wayoutback Desert Safaris (+08.8952.4324; www.wayoutback.com.au), which promises 4x4s, experienced guides, and a low guide-to-customer ratio. This assures a more genuine experience in a realm already heavily trammeled by tourists. Wayoutback currently offers two-, three-, and five-day tours and private charters throughout the central Outback, including the three mainstays (Uluru, Kings Canyon, and the Olgas) and other attractions like Palm Valley and the Western MacDonnell Ranges. Costs vary from AU$260 to $750, and include transport from Alice Springs, all meals, and park entrance fees. You sleep in swags under the stars in private campgrounds, help set up and break camp, and assist in preparing the food—you haven’t visited Australia until you've spread Vegemite on a biscuit.

Self Drive:
It's highly advisable to secure a 4x4 vehicle as it allows for a larger degree of flexibility, including the ability to traverse the off-road access route to Rainbow Valley. From Alice Springs, head south on the Stuart Highway. Follow the 4x4-only Ernest Giles Road east to Kings Canyon, or continue south on Stuart and head east on Lasseter Highway, which eventually leads to Uluru and the Olgas.

Kings Canyon
Lying within 261,931-acre Watarrka National Park , Kings Canyon sits about 280 miles southwest of Alice Springs and is truly a marvel to behold—and because it lies 190 miles north of Uluru, it doesn't pull as big a crowd as Uluru. That said, it can get busy, especially midday and at sunset when the tour buses disgorge and the helicopters take flight. Daytrippers have two choices: the Rim Walk, a 3.5-hour traverse from the parking lot up Cardiac Hill and around the lip of the canyon, or the much shorter—and less demanding—walk through the eucalyptus-dense valley. Trekkers anxious to distance themselves from the crowds should consider an overnight hike on the Giles Track, which links Kings Canyon to Kathleen Springs. The hike runs east-west for just under 14 miles and provides dawn-to-dusk access to the entirety of Kings Canyon.

Lodging/Campground Info:
The up-market Kings Canyon Resort (+61.2.8296.8010; www.kingscanyonresort.com.au) is the only lodging within the park itself, and the on-site camping ground is definitely more "fit 'em all in" than "fit for a king." Kings Creek Station Camp Grounds (+08.8956.7474) offers a more amenable camping experience, and is located just outside the park’s eastern boundary on Ernest Giles Road.

Uluru and the Olgas
Both features reside within 823-square-mile Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (www.deh.gov.au) along Lasseter Highway. Be sure to check out the informative Cultural Center near the park entrance—it'll help you grasp the myriad ways this region is considered sacred by its ancestral landowners. There's a variety of day hikes around Uluru, the most popular being the 5.8-mile route that loops around Uluru. The circumference loop is fairly flat, though temperatures can drop slightly when you're in Uluru's shadow, so bring a hat, wear layers, and use sunscreen. Those determined to climb should be in good shape and have solid hiking boots, sun protection, and plenty of water. Park authorities will close the climb if temperatures exceed 97 degrees or if it's deemed too windy—and yes, people have died while climbing Uluru, much to the sadness of the Anangu Aborigines.

The Olgas have two main hikes, the 4.4-mile circuit hike known as the Valley of the Winds, which leads to both Karu and Karingana lookouts, and the Walpa Gorge Walk, which takes you through the valley between 1,790-foot Mount Olga—the Olgas' tallest mountain—and the slightly shorter Mount Wulpa. Temperatures vary greatly, especially at dawn and dusk. Be sure to pack plenty of water, dress in layers, and wear sunblock.

Lodging/Campground Info:
There's plenty of lodging options to choose from around Uluru, from the five-star Longitude 131° (www.longitude131.com.au) to Ayers Rock Resort (www.ayersrockresort.com.au) to the Ayers Rock Campground (www.ayersrockresort.com.au), all of it settled around the resort town of Yulara, all of them run by Voyages Hotels and Resorts (+61.2.8296.8010; www.voyages.com.au)

Rainbow Valley
This seldom-visited sacred Aboriginal site sits in Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve on a rough 14-mile road that intersects the Stuart Highway 48 miles west of Alice Springs. You must have an off-road vehicle, or you will not reach the parking lot. Camping is primitive, with bbq pits and bathrooms, but nothing else. All food and water must be brought in.


Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 19 Sep 2005 | Last Updated: 6 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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