At the crossroads of the Lasseter Highway and the Stuart Highway sits Erldunda: a two-shop town that claims to be at the very centre of Australia. The claim is cornered on the calculations done by the Scottish explorer, John Stuart. He marked the location over 150 years ago by planting a tree with the British flag attached. In reality, there are more than three different locations that could claim to be the centre of the continent, all based on various mathematical equations. Nevertheless, the Roadhouse– which sells petrol, DVDs, leather belts and groceries - holds tight to the title. Inside we speak to the staff; the majority of them carry thick British accents. We’re interested to hear about what is known of Australia’s ‘Red Centre’ in the Northern Hemisphere. “It’s just the rock,’ says Linda, a twenty-two year-old from Birmingham, ‘all we here about is the rock.’
Setting off from Alice Springs, we had one week and two vehicles for our own exploration of central Australia. Our collective knowledge was minimal; as young Australians we too only associated Australia’s interior with the Uluru. With sourced local knowledge, our plan was to explore the lesser known landscapes of the centre: the gorges and valleys with names that sounded familiar but that we had never seen before.
As those who have driven from Alice through the West MacDonnell ranges will know, the landscapes of the region are stark and diverse. It was not the monotonous plains that I often imagined back on the East Coast. Indeed, the West Macs (as they’re colloquially known) swelter in the day’s heat, but lend themselves to spectacular and almost lunar scenes at dusk.
Our first stop was the Finke Gorge National Park, and more specifically Palm Valley. After having spent some time traveling around the United States, and comparatively little time exploring Australia, I was under the impression that Utah and Arizona were the nearest places for such rock formations. Arches and spires decorate the ring of rock that surrounds the valley. Rock climbing here must be sensational and certainly underexplored. The valley turns into an oasis for the hot and sweaty traveler after the seasonal rains have hit, but we couldn’t wait that long. We knew of another area where we could find the centre’s liquid gold.
We arrive at Redbank Gorge for the day’s last light. With waterholes fenced in by the thirty-metre high walls of the Gorge, Redbank makes for a half day of swimming and scrambling. The site itself is part of the larapinta trail – a twelve day hiking route through the surrounding ranges – but day visitors can access the campsite and a range of day walking trails from the road. Potentially our journey could have been contained to the gorge and Palm Valley given the amount of DIY exploring the area offers. Finke Gorge National Park sits at 460 square kilometres, whilst the West MacDonnell National Park is four times that size. Perhaps it is obvious, but if I had any advice for the central-bound traveler it would be to take time; a reliable car, water and time.
If it was anywhere else in Australia, or just not so close to Uluru, Kings Canyon would dominate the local tourism game. It’s still a big player in Central Australia, but locals lament that tourists fly to the rock, see the rock, and miss the rest of what the centre has to offer. Kings Canyon ruptures the earth 600 kilometres from where Uluru rises from the plains. Its sandstone sides rise over 100 metres from the ground; buttresses and ledges carved from millennia of strong, dry winds. The walk around the canyon takes us three hours and is a shifting spectacle. Rock islands form from large cracks in the stone and sheer drops call for cautionary shuffles. A lush oasis, known as the Garden of Eden, sits in the upper end of the canyon and from the top of the canyon the views stretch as far as the eye can see in each direction. It’s bizarre to think that something as large and commanding as Kings Canyon can go so relatively unnoticed.
We did end up making it to Uluru. Indeed, Uluru is certainly spectacular but, only 40 kilometres away from the great monolith is Kata Jtuta and it’s every bit as grand as the rock itself. The giant dome formations are a playground for adventurers and, given that access to the site is included when visiting Ularu, there are fair share of them. But walking between the giant boulders, I’m a little embarrassed that I had no idea about such a geologically and culturally important site.
Back at the Roadhouse, we get a chance to talk to Pat …. She grew up in Erldunda and, apart from brief stints in Adelaide and Darwin, has lived there her whole life. It doesn’t take us long to realise we’ve barely scratched the surface of the centre. She speaks passionately of horse treks, sand dunes and secret waterholes – places and stories that are only known by those that have committed decades to exploring the land. She says that tourists are losing out; that they’re not seeing the real and expansive red centre. While that hurts her business, you get the feeling that someone like Pat is genuinely concerned that the beauty of the area is being undervalued. She leaves us with a firm conviction, almost a bet: “What we need is for people to come and not just fly into the rock and out again. We need people to drive around. And once you do that it keeps on drawing you back because there is something special about it.”