Australia's North Star: Dreamtime stories in the Northern Territory
Australia's Red Centre
From thorny devils to the ancient philosophy of 'tjukurpa', there's more to Uluru and the Northern Territory than you think.
Water is life in the outback.
Without it, the martian-red landscapes of Australia's desert core are unforgiving and harsh. When we arrive in September, however, exceptional downpours have ensured that the Red Centre is anything but. Good rainfall is life support.
A lush carpet of poached egg daisies, dainty Yellow Tops and purple Parakeelya flowers shimmer in the midday sun, itself sitting high in a cobalt blue sky punctuated by a handful of clouds. In the distance, the road curves to the horizon towards Uluru, Australia's ancient beating heart rising up out of the iron-rich ochre land.
It's a view few get to savour. We're 30km inside Anangu territory, clattering over coarse dirt tracks in our 4x4 minibus. Access to these lands is strictly prohibited unless permission is sought from the local indigenous community.
Fortunately for us, we have elder Sammy Wilson - real name Djama Uluru - accompanying us. His family are the traditional owners of "the Rock" and the surrounding lands; he acts as our pilot as we chart a course into the bush.
We arrived in the Northern Territory the day before. After a night at the luxurious Sails of the Desert Hotel (ayersrockresort.com.au) - part of a self-contained resort 450km from Alice Springs, the nearest town - our day begins just before dawn as we breakfast by the roadside watching sunrise slowly creep over Uluru.
When explorers charting the unknown interior happened upon it in 1873, journalists of the day predicted that this sandstone monolith would go on to become one of Australia's greatest landmarks. It's a divination that has been borne out.
With Uluru in the rearview mirror, our SEIT Outdoors (seitoutbackaustralia.com.au) guide and driver Lachlan Keeley (Lochy) warns about the spectacle which is soon to have us in thrall: "You wait. Once we get out on these dirt tracks, you'll see some of the wild flowers. People are just losing their minds over them."
This abundance of greenery also provides a much-needed lifeline for wildlife populations. Having already made a stop to avoid driving over a thorny devil lizard, we eagerly fix our eyes on the flora and fauna, scanning for the sudden dashes of kangaroos, dingos or perentie lizards.
The bush is a complex eco-system which amazes as well as confounds. The earliest traces of habitation date back 65,000 years, making indigenous Australians the oldest civilisation on earth. The Anangu have lived here for 35,000 years, a testament to the strength of their culture.
"The Anangu have survived out here in the desert region not only by having a deep intrinsic connection with their land", explains Lochy, over the deafening reverberations of the suspension, "but also with their religious philosophy, their belief system. That's known as tjukurpa (pronounced chuck-a-pa)."
"Tjukurpa is really the foundation of life out here. It's their belief. It helps to explain their existence. Tjukurpa is integral to the culture, it dictates right and wrong but it also instills the cultural morals and values deemed to be important. In essence, it teaches them how to be Anangu."
Everything - from the creation of the earth to bush-tucker knowledge - has been passed down orally for thousands of years as 'dreamtime' stories. Incredibly, these stories have equipped the Anangu with the skills to survive - even to distinguish safe plants, berries and seeds to eat that they may never have seen before.
One that is well known, though, is the honey grevillea, which Sammy gleefully spots from a mile away ahead of us. "When we travel on this road, sometimes the kids shout: 'Oi! Pull over, pull over!'" he says.
With his worn brown cap set back slightly on his head, he has one of its flowers pressed to his lips even before the minibus door slides open. On closer inspection, we see what the attraction is: glistening beads of nectar dot the length of its poker-like green and yellow blooms. It's not long before Sammy is manoeuvring from bush to bush sucking up the sugary goodness with the rest of us in hot pursuit imitating him. My own sweet tooth hasn't gone unnoticed. "We've got a Sammy in the making here," Lochy jests. "You can't stop yourself!"
Over the next hour or so, as billy kettles boil on the camp fire, Sammy recounts tales of his ancestors while proudly showing us pictures of his kin. It's a fierce pride for a way of life under threat and encroached on since European settlers first penetrated the interior. Since the area that is now Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was handed back to the Anangu in 1985, however, there has been a renewed appreciation of indigenous culture.
It's hard to ignore the spiritual air to Uluru. The light catching on its rough, pock-marked hide gives it a mystique all of its own. We watch it change colour throughout the day like a chameleon; hues of purple and grey meld into claret. Now, as we take up our posts by the roadside to watch sunset, it emits a russet colour, gilded in the dying glow of the sun.
Around us, dozens gather, paying due reverence to this symbol of Australia, now a shining beacon of its rich indigenous heritage.
An integral part of indigenous culture is art. The Yubu Napa gallery (yubunapa.com) in Alice Springs is a calming space to view or buy eye-catching indigenous artworks. It is also where local artists themselves come to work in the on-site studio, giving you privileged access as they create their canvases.
After getting over the trauma of the initial climb up ‘Heart Attack Hill’, the King’s Canyon Rim Walk is a fascinating 6km hike over rock formations millions of years in the making. Breathtaking views inside the canyon and the surrounding Watarrka National Park aside, the descent into the ‘Garden of Eden’ oasis is a real highlight.
The Red Centre is embracing son et lumière and no production is more spectacular than ‘Parrtjima - A Festival in Light’ (parrtjimaaustralia.com.au) in Alice Springs. The first indigenous festival of its kind, it features Australia’s biggest light show installation, projecting aboriginal art and stories onto a 2.5km stretch of the MacDonnell Ranges.
Australia has a reputation for strict border controls, but it has an efficient electronic visa system for hassle-free travel Down Under. Tourists should apply for a free eVisitor visa online at border.gov.au before travel. Make sure your passport is also valid for at least six months after departure.
SEIT’s Uluru Fork and View dining experience should be on anyone’s bucket list. Served on the top deck of a specially modified double decker bus, the menu is inspired by Australia’s pioneer explorers. Starting with entrées at sunset overlooking Uluru, the final flourish is star-gazing over desert at Mutitjulu Waterhole.
David travelled with Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com), which flies from London Heathrow to Darwin via Singapore from €976 return. Premium Economy offers an eight-inch recline and 38-inch seat pitch. Meals can be reserved ahead using its Book the Cook facility. See also northernterritory.com.