The kids are alright, mate
You can’t really visit Australia without going to take a look at the country’s most famous landmark: Uluru. The drive itself from Alice Springs to Uluru is an adventure – and not for the faint-hearted. It’s 440km along the Stuart and Lasseter Highways, and there are no towns or villages (or houses, as it happens) along the route – just three strategically-placed road houses selling fuel and food. Fill up with fuel before you set off – and take plenty of food and water with you, too.
On the drive you encounter road trains – huge multi-articulated transport lorries – thundering by. Wedge-tailed eagles and whistling kites are also easy to spot, and you may see a wild dingo.
Uluru is a sacred site for the Anangu (Aboriginal) people. They politely request that visitors don’t climb the rock, but many people climb it regardless – and every year there are fatalities (it’s very steep, very high and very hot).
A far more respectful – and interesting – alternative to the climb is to take a walk around the base of the rock. At 10.5km, it’s best done in the cooler winter months – and you’ll need to carry food and water with you. Your efforts will be rewarded with amazing views of Uluru from every angle, and the chance to see some ancient rock art up close.
Top row: walk the path around Uluru; rock art at Uluru
Bottom row: Uluru sunset; Kata Tjuta
Seeing the sun set over the rock is a must. It’s been said many times before, but the rock really does change colour as the light fades, going from blazing orange to rusty red to purple-brown in a matter of minutes.
For a quieter evening experience, try heading to the sunrise viewing platform to see the sun set over Uluru and the Katja Tjuta (also known as The Olgas). There aren’t many people about – they’re all at the sunset viewing platform, of course – and it can be magical: still and quiet, except for the sounds of desert birds and insects.
Kata Tjuta is 50km away from Yulara – the resort located near Uluru – and a must-see when you’re visiting the Rock. It’s a great hiking destination – including some shorter trails that are suitable for children. On the Valley of the Winds walk, look out for wild budgies and zebra finches flitting through the trees.
Wherever you walk in this part of the world, remember that it’s essential to carry plenty of drinking water, and avoid the hottest times of day.
Play: Alice Springs Desert Park is a good place to become acquainted with the many different habitats and varied wildlife of the Red Centre. Don’t miss the guided night tour through a 16-acre enclosure that contains several endangered species of nocturnal Australian animals. Armed with special torches you may spot bilbies, golden bandicoots, and curious-looking – and often curious – echidnas.
Stay: Alice in the Territory is a budget motel with comfortable family rooms. At Uluru, the only accommodation is at the Ayers Rock Resort, at Yulara. Here you can choose from a range of different options, from basic camping to luxury hotels. The Desert Gardens Hotel is a good choice – a mid-range hotel with family rooms. It’s essential to book Uluru accommodation in advance – it’s a long drive back to Alice if there are no rooms available.
Wedge-tailed eagle at Alice Springs Desert Springs; saltwater crocodile
Australia’s biggest national park – Kakadu – is a World Heritage-listed wilderness covering 20,000 square kilometres, with just one small settlement, a couple of holiday lodges and a handful of campsites.
Visiting in winter, during the dry season, is the most comfortable option – even in the cooler months, the mercury can hit over 30 degrees.
One of the reasons for Kakadu’s World Heritage listing is the ancient Aboriginal rock art scattered throughout the park – so
me of it at least 4,000 years old.
At Ubirr – one of the best locations to see rock art – there is a marked trail that leads you past several galleries. In the main gallery, there are drawings high up on the roof of the overhang believed by Aboriginal people to have been painted by Mimi spirits.
Also look out for some beautiful illustrations of fish, turtles and wallabies – and the Rainbow Serpent, one of the oldest artistic symbols in the world.
When you’ve finished admiring the rock art, scramble up to the Nadab Lookout for spectacular views of the surrounding floodplains. There are more spectacular views at Gunwarrdehwarrde, and rock art and a beautiful billabong at Anbangbang.
Rock art at Ubirr; beautiful Anbangbang Billabong
There are wild crocodiles in this part of Australia – you may spot them swimming in the East Alligator River. Saltwater crocodiles will eat you, given half a chance, and there are waterside warning signs everywhere to remind you of the fact. Swimming in these parts is not recommended.
It is possible to get a close up view of the crocs, though – by taking an early morning cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong and South Alligator River with Yellow Water Cruises.
On the cruise you’ll see dozens of crocodiles swimming and lazing on the banks of the river – and even from the safety of the boat, salties are intimidating creatures. The excellent guide’s commentary will leave you in no doubt as to just how dangerous saltwater crocodiles are. Less threatening encounters include white-bellied sea eagles, rainbow bee-eaters, egrets and whistling kites. The river itself is beautiful too.
Play: The Warradjan Cultural Centre, just outside Cooinda, offers a fascinating insight into how Aboriginal people live and care for the land. Also check out the Bowali Visitor Centre near Jabiru. There’s a walk-through display with information about Aboriginal culture and the flora, fauna and geology of the area – including a giant crocodile skeleton!
You’ll pass the Window on the Wetland Visitor Centre on your way into the National Park along the Arnhem Highway – it’s a great place to break the journey, with stunning views across the floodplains, and some fun interactive displays that are great for children.
Stay: Fancy sleeping in a crocodile’s armpit? The Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, Jabiru, is shaped like a crocodile, with huge window-eyes that light up at night. The hotel offers comfortable family rooms, featuring muted earth tones and indigenous art, and an outdoor pool.
The three-star Aurora Kakadu is around three hours drive from Darwin, in the heart of the Kakadu wetlands. There are entertaining flocks of corellas flitting around the grounds – and a shop, restaurant and shaded outdoor pool on site.
Top row: Yellow Water Cruises; baby croc
Bottom row: Gunwarrdehwarrde; white bellied sea eagle; Nadab Lookout
Ride a camel. Camels Australia is a great stop off en-route to Uluru, where kids (and adults!) can take a short camel ride in the paddock for just a few dollars. Longer camel treks also available. www.camels-australia.com.au
Canoe on the Katherine Gorge. Nitmiluk offers canoe hire and boat cruises along the spectacular Katherine River. Dry season only. www.nitmiluktours.com.au
Litchfield National Park. You need at least three days to make a trip to Kakadu – so if you’re short of time, try visiting Litchfield instead. At just 130km from Darwin, it’s possible to take in some of the park’s highlights during a day trip. You’ll see stunning tropical waterfalls, towering termite mounds and a wealth of wildlife.
Coming soon: Part 3 - Queensland
Green Adventures April 2015