Words & Photography: Jessica Palmer, travel 3Sixty° travelsmith
Can you imagine an area the size of seven football fields filled with more than 50,000 solar powered light stems, topped with frosted-glass spheres that light up when the sun goes down? Can you imagine this again with Australia’s well known icon Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the background?
Artist Bruce Munro not only imagined this art installation, he went ahead and brought the idea to fruition. The ‘Field of Light’ exhibition, also named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’ in the local Pitjantjatjara aboriginal language, was originally planned to run for only one season. Due to its popularity, this has been extended until 31st December 2020.
Viewing this installation is through a tour only. Never fear, there is an option to suit every budget with the lowest cost ticket allowing you to walk through and amongst the ever-changing coloured lights. The most expensive option includes a helicopter ride over the installation, complete with sparkling wine and canapes on a hilltop viewing area.
Walking through this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition is a fantastic finish to my week-long adventure, driving from Alice Springs to Uluru via a well-known back route known as ‘The Red Centre Way’.
In the last week I have stood in a crater, swam in three outback waterholes and spotted wild horses. I have narrowly missed hitting a camel with my car, walked around the rim of a canyon and even stood in a glowing orange chasm.
I also managed to tick of some bucket list items by running my hands over Uluru, trekking through the great domes of Kata-Tjuta and seeing the outback night-time sky in all of its glory.
You will need to hire a 4WD to attempt this journey from Alice Springs. You can of course bring a vehicle from other cities if you have an extra week to make the long drive into the middle of Australia.
Heading west from Alice Springs, it wasn’t long before I spotted the sign for Standley Chasm. The chasm was created by floods that, over millions of years, resulted in a deep cleft in the craggy 80m high slopes.
Usually, the walls of the chasm are an earthy brown. However, pure magic happens if you arrive at either side of noon when the sun is directly above. The chasm walls begin to glow bright orange as the sun touches it.
A further 40-minute drive down the road will find you at Ellery Creek Big Hole, an outback waterhole popular with both locals and visitors.
My first impression is one of surprise. Surprise at the amount of sand and the way the water cuts through the West MacDonnell ranges. Surprise at how deep and cold the water is.
I am surprised yet again by the natural beauty I find at the next waterhole, Ormiston Gorge.
A few visitors are lying on towels, making the most of the soft sand and shade provided by the trees. I took an enjoyable moment to sit down, feel the sun, and breathe in the fresh air of this serene environment.
After a fiery sunset and a great night sleep at Glen Helen Homestead Lodge and Campgrounds, I woke up excited for the last waterhole, Redbank Gorge. Whilst not quite as photogenic as Ormiston Gorge, it comes very close. The short 30-minute hike in through the outback landscape and along a dry sandy creek bed was just as enjoyable as the waterhole itself.
The fun surprise here is that if you have carried in an inner tube or flotation device, you can actually wade up the narrow gorge through the water and float back down.
Not long after leaving Redbank Gorge, I spotted a dirt road and a sign that simply stated, ‘Tnorala’ and decided to check it out. Within 30 minutes, I found myself standing in a crater, surrounded by green trees, colourful wildflowers and of course, red dirt.
The short hike up a rocky hill on the edge of Tnorala, the aboriginal name for this crater, left me short of breath. I guess I could have chosen the easier option of a 452km sealed highway all the way through to Uluru, but the lure of seeing all of this natural beauty was too great.
After passing small herds of wild horses grazing on the side of the road, and nearly hitting a camel which loped dangerously in front of my car; I eventually made it to Kings Canyon Resort and Camp Grounds.
You mustn’t forget to charge your camera batteries if you stay here. The sunset viewing platform located near the camp grounds provides great photo opportunities of the canyon. However, get in early as all the good seats fill up fast.
Standing at the bottom of Kings Canyon the next day, looking up at the steep ascent in front of me, I started to regret my decision to do the well-known 6km scenic rim walk.
It is fairly easy going after the initial hike up and the unique geological features of the landscape up there feel right at home in a science fiction movie. Standing on the edge looking over to the other side of the canyon is a memorable experience.
Amongst this barren landscape on top of Kings Canyon, is a secret known as the ‘Garden of Eden’. Stairs lead down into this hidden oasis complete with flowing water, palm trees, ghost gums, and all sorts of beautiful greenery. It’s a great spot to rest weary legs before completing the last half of the walk.
The next leg of the journey is sealed highway, all the way through to the final destination, Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park.
When I finally saw Uluru, at first just a hazy brown blemish on the horizon, I was beyond excited. Even from afar, it dominates the flat landscape. At 348m high, it is higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You can’t help but feel that this monolith is literally, the heart of Australia.
Up close, Uluru is full of crevasses, lumps, bumps and small caves. The texture is perfect in its imperfections and varies depending at which point of it 9.4km circumference you are standing next to.
Even though everyone else has the same idea, you cannot miss the spectacular show that is sunset at Uluru. As the sun moves closer to the horizon, the rock gradually changes from an earthy brown to a glowing orange. When the sun is right on the horizon, Uluru is fiery red in all its glory.
If you can’t get a spot at the sunset viewing platform, the sunrise viewing platform is just as spectacular. It ensures that Uluru is viewed in silhouette as the sun goes down behind it.
Even though I came here to see Uluru, I actually fell in love with Kata-Tjuta, 35km away. Kata-Tjuta consists of 36 sandstone domes, of which the highest at 546 metres, towers above Uluru.
I attempted the well-known 7.4km circuit walk known as the ‘valley of the winds’ here. However, after misjudging how much water I required, I only made it to the second lookout before turning back.
Unlike the easy tracks around Uluru, this walk is extremely rocky underfoot and the landscape is far from flat. In fact, I am amazed that I made it to the second lookout and back without rolling an ankle.
Unfortunately for this traveller, I must head home to reality. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to cross so many Australian bucket list items off my list and to have witnessed the once in a lifetime ‘Field of Light’ installation out here in the heart of Australia.
From there, Alice Springs is accessible by air or by land to the centre of Australia. You can hire a 4WD and travel the same route that I did; or you can hire a standard vehicle or campervan and travel on sealed highways bypassing Stanley Chasm, the outback waterholes and Tnoralla.
If you are really short for time, you can fly to Yulara, the small town that services Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park. From here you can take a tour into the park, and of course the wonderful ‘Field of Light’ art installation.
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