The Outback Made Personal

If Uluru leaves you in awe, Kata Tjuta will envelop you
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The Olgas
En route to the Olgas (courtesy, Tourism Australia)

If the Uluru sunset experience is a civilized affair—champagne and snacks—then the other traditional sun-painted Outback rite of passage is a more rough-and-tumble activity, especially if you imbibed fireside the night before and have to rely on your group's early risers to get things moving.

We begrudgingly broke camp an hour before dawn, tossing our swags onto the top of the 4x4, yawning and shivering in the cold—winter in the Outback, which stretches from June to August, can get downright chilly before the sun's overhead, especially if you’re not prepared. As we drove out of the Ayers Rock Campground, a thin sliver of ethereal, golden light illuminated the horizon. Once again, the Red Center had cast its spell, inspiring eight very tired travelers to forget the warm comfort of our swags and travel 18 miles in order to witness another naturally-lit spectacle known as the Olgas.

The Aboriginal name for the Olgas, Kata Tjuta, translates into "Many Heads," and that's largely what it looks like as you walk along the wood-plank observation platform known as the Kata Tjuta Dome Viewing Area: 36 stout, bald domes flush to the earth, almost like the distended spine of some massive creature long surrendered to gravity.

As with Uluru, the Olgas' enduring character reveals itself as you draw closer. After the sun spilled across the Outback, we hopped back into the 4x4 and lit out for the parking lot, arriving—sadly—the same time as two more massive tour buses pulled up.

"Not to worry," said Jason as we shrugged on our daypacks for the four-hour hike that would take us into the Olgas. "We'll just see which way they go, and we'll go the opposite way. There's no right or wrong direction when you're going in a circle."

So as the group of 20 or so tourists turned to the right, we took the left branch, leaving the crowds and noise behind as we entered a cleft of the Olgas known as the Valley of the Winds. The trail first crawled along at an angle, weaving around scree and scrub brush. A harsh, frigid wind nearly blew us away, dropping the temps back to the pre-dawn frosty chill. But we kept moving, through the rock garden and deeper into the rounded landscape of the Olgas, and soon the sun was warming our faces.

Geologists believe that this region was once part of a massive inland sea, and that the Olgas themselves are the remains of an ancient mountain range. As you walk through the valley, looping around sandstone domes as others rise in the distance, it's easy to imagine that the ground under foot is actually a massive carpet of dust-colored clouds, that you're traversing through the upper reaches of enormous mountains whose conical peaks just penetrate the low-lying cloud cover.

This 4.6-mile hike is considerably more rugged than the walk around the base of Uluru—you dance through rock gardens, slip over water-stained sandstone with a 30-degree pitch, and trudge up well-worn switchbacks. Unlike Uluru, to which you are destined to always be on the outside looking in, the Olgas envelope you as you continue down the trail, an otherworldly sensation that culminated as we approached—and then ascended into—the saddle leading into a gorge marked by the Karingana Lookout.

The gorge lies relatively close to the parking lot, and as such it typically pulls loads of camera-toting tourists—but Jason's suggestion that we take the clockwise route meant that we passed the tour bus group from the parking lot just before we reached the saddle, and just ahead of another batch of hikers. A short, leg-burning push took us into the saddle and up to the lookout, a porcelain-smooth divot of sandstone between two of the Olgas' largest domes, framing the valley we'd just traversed like twin, rust-red pillars. We lingered there, catching our breath, intoxicated by the view, until the next group of hikers approached, disturbing our silence.

But it was time to go anyway. The hypnotic realm of the Outback can leave you frozen in awe for hours if you let it, but we had a long drive back to Alice Springs ahead of us—and if we got moving before midday, Jason promised to show us one more jewel of the Outback. One which, he assured us, would definitely not have hordes of travelers clamoring and climbing all over it.

Hours later, just 47 miles from Alice Springs, Jason took a sharp right onto a rugged 13-mile dirt road, which deposited us in the small parking lot of Rainbow Valley Conservation Park. A short walk led us across a dry, earth-cracked riverbed, our shadows elongated and cartoonish in the late afternoon sun. In the distance, the park's namesake: an austere multi-hued sandstone cliff face, arched like a massive, wide grin with a cascade of stones tumbling from its lower lip.

We spent an hour hiking to the cliff base, marveling at a knot of eucalyptus trees before climbing to the top of the valley via a steep sand dune sloped up against the back end, where we stood, overlooking the lakebed and the Outback's endless horizon. Somewhere to the northeast sat Alice Springs, its legion of hotels and motels, restaurants and pubs. But it was far easier to imagine how Rainbow Valley looked during the summer, when glass-smooth water fills the lakebed to reflect the patina of colors as the sun sets against Rainbow Valley, than it was to surrender to the man-made trappings of airports, four-poster beds, and air-conditioning.

And that, we all agreed, is what travel is all about.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for

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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