The crowds gathering to watch by the roadside crane their heads up in envy at our perch rather than watching as the rock changes colours before us like a chameleon. It’s true, there are probably worse ways to spend our first evening in the bush – a beer in one hand and a kangaroo pie in the other – but none come to my mind. Or theirs, probably.
This is the start of the ultimate progressive dinner; stopping at various points in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to eat, course by course on the open-air bus, dishes inspired by the first European explorers in this part of the world. The Red Centre is, after all, frontier country.
After dessert is served, the lights of the re-purposed bus are switched off, leaving the night to engulf us. Creaking cicadas breach the silence as we train our gaze skywards, mouths gaping at the sight of the masses of stars ablaze around the frothy streak of the Milky Way. Beside us, the hulking black silhouette of Uluru looms large.
From every vantage point, this sandstone Goliath – known for 120 years as Ayers Rock – dominates the skyline. Along with its neighbouring rock formation, Kata Tjuta, they form the focal point of hundreds of square miles of land owned by the local indigenous community, the Anangu.
Treasured by the Anangu for the last 35,000 years, Uluru has become the ubiquitous symbol of Australia. Its parched, weathered rock conceals many sacred sites for indigenous men and women, members of the oldest civilisation in the world.
Anangu elder Sammy Wilson – real name Djama Uluru – joins us the next day aboard our minibus with guide Lachlan Keeley. His presence means we can venture into Aboriginal-owned lands, access to which is restricted by the indigenous community. It offers a rare glimpse at the outback untouched by tourists and tour coaches.
Carpets of yellow and purple wildflowers are ablaze thanks to the unusually high rainfall. Here, the pair teach us about “tjukurpa” (pronounced “chuck-a-pa”), the ancient philosophy passed down orally from one generation to the next over 35 millennia that teaches the indigenous community what it is to be Anangu, and more importantly, how to survive the often unforgiving conditions in the outback, including how to suck sweet nectar from honey grevillea bushes.
These days, modern life and conveniences impinge on the ancient way of things somewhat. East of Uluru, the open Lasseter Highway stretches out towards Alice Springs with little or nothing in between but the sweeping flat terrain of lush green foliage and rust-red soil. Road trains – long HGVs hauling two or three trailers – and cattle grates marking the end of one cattle station’s boundary and the beginning of another are the only things to punctuate the otherwise beautiful but desolate panorama. They are also the clearest vestiges of settler influence on the frontier.
After 53 miles or so, we reach one of the largest working stations in the area, Curtin Springs. Peter Severin, his wife Dawn and young son Ashley took over the running of the station in 1956, living first in a wall-less bough shed. These days, Ashley and his wife, Lyndee, maintain a roaming head of over 4,000 cattle on the 1,608 sq mile station.
The station is also a welcome respite from the heat and dust on the road, offering weary travellers hearty meals of steak, a licensed pub to sup in and a place to rest their heads. It’s a small taste of the rustic lifestyle of those persevering in one of the remotest parts of Oz.
Given the dry, dusty conditions of the outback, I’d expected Alice Springs – the gateway to the Red Centre – to be a small one-horse town. It’s a surprise to find a youthful, thriving centre filled with street art and raucous backpacker-friendly watering holes. As an important relay point on the telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin, Alice Springs has grown to be a vital outpost over the better part of the past two centuries.
The historic telegraph station serves as a starting point for many excellent mountain biking routes through the bush and up and down the sandstone outcrops around town. On one such trail, we nearly ride over a perentie lizard – Australia’s largest reptile and one of the Northern Territory’s “Big Five” – scurrying across our path and back into the long grass.
If an adrenalin-charged – and sweaty – outing on two wheels isn’t your bag, there are plenty of other ways to go walkabout around Alice, including four-legged exploration with Pyndan Camel Tracks. Camels were originally brought over by British colonists from Arabia, India and Afghanistan to better equip explorers trying to penetrate Australia’s semi-arid desert core. From the saddle of our slowly plodding steeds, we are able to fix our gaze in amongst the Mulga trees at mobs of kangaroos keenly surveying us in turn.
The brooding cameleer leading the train is owner Marcus Williams, who handled the formerly wild camels on which we are sitting, including my ride, Good Boy. Regarded as the strongman of the team, he thankfully lives up to his name as he leisurely saunters through the clay pans.
In the distance ahead of us, the MacDonnell Ranges stretch out east and west from Alice Springs. Australia has one of the most ancient landscapes in the world and these mountains have endured over 300 million years of erosion by wind and flowing rivers. In clefts in the rock, a small number of permanent waterholes have formed, lifelines for all manner of fish, birds and mammals, like the increasingly rare rock wallaby.
They offer us the perfect excuse for a lazy day as we journey between some of the best examples of waterholes west of Alice Springs; from Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge and onwards to Ellery Creek Big Hole. Towering walls of red, scarred stone parted by a body of still, inviting water are their hallmarks.
Plunging into the cold water for a dip is a welcome respite from the punishing sun beating down, disturbed only by the sound of wind rustling through the reeds and branches of surrounding ghost gum trees. It is hard not to try at least to take stock of time in what feels like a prehistoric time capsule, an ageless place that will continue to thrive long after our visit and my lifetime.
Double rooms at the Sails in the Desert resort at Uluru cost from £210 B&B for a minimum of three nights, ayersrockresort.com.au.
Singapore Airlines fly from London Heathrow to Darwin via Singapore Changi Airport from £846 return, singaporeair.com.
For more information, see northernterritory.com.