Five wonders of the Red Center, the heart of Australia

The Red Center of Australia is filled with miles of vast, dry land that stretch out to the horizon in an endless sea of red sand, spinifex, and scrub brush. We drove through flood planes, flat and dry, devoid of anything taller than my waist. We crossed riverbeds that spoke of raging streams that once rushed through there. Now, they are just a memory etched into winding sandy beds. 

The landscape continually changed. There was the Tanami desert with as many as 800 termite towers per hectare (300 per acre). It is like a vast miniature city of skyscrapers of red towers rising above golden grasslands scattered across a flat plane. The roadside is filled with them and people have taken to putting shirts or other articles of clothing over them so they look like shoulder-less non-pedestrians as we drove by.

The drive, with no turns for hundreds of kilometers, somehow defies monotony. Even the roadkill is a thing of curiosity ranging from flattened wallabies to bloated full-sized cows. There’s even the occasional dead car in varying states of deterioration abandoned on the roadside.

Eventually, the terrain changed to a plane of spinifex which look like orbs of spiky grass. Within an hour small trees appeared which were barely taller than Lil’ Beaut. Then we crossed a dry riverbed and found another spinifex plane dotted with low brush. 

Our journey into the red center of Australia was filled with fascinating wonders.

Massive natural stone wall in MacDonnell NP in the red center
Natural stone wall in the MacDonnell Range

1) Devil’s Marbles

“Look at that,” Trin said pointing to a boulder ahead of us that seemed to come from nowhere. After spotting the first boulder about a third of our horizon became covered with what looked like round balls dropped from the sky.

Massive, spherical granite rocks bigger than houses sat on top of the ground. It was as if they were left there after a game of marbles played by giants. The area is appropriately named Devil’s Marbles.

We pulled off the highway and walked through the trails that wound around in and over these granite wonders. Some of the marbles sat alone, a solitary round mass. Other boulders were cracked or broken as if from a great fall.

It was a good place to stretch our legs before continuing the journey down Stuart highway to the heart of the Red Center.

Trin beside one of the large granite boulders of Devils Marbles in the red center of the Northern Territory
Trin beside one of the devil’s marbles.

2) Mohawks of the MacDonnell Ranges

In the heart of the red center stretches the MacDonnell Mountain Range. This range is the second highest range on this continent, but its highest peak is only 1,531 m (5022 feet). What it lacks in height it more than makes up for in its unique structure.

The range is a long line of rugged parallel ridges. Never before have I “driven through” a mountain range on a long straight almost flat road. 

The mountain ridges beside us looked like the heads of ancient warriors standing at attention, back to front, all facing west. Each one of them sported ridges that look like mohawks with smaller shaved lines on the side of their heads. 

The earth’s crust here has been broken, turned on its side, and thrust upwards. Softer, sedimentary layers have washed away. What is left behind are walls of quartzite standing erect as if an ancient city once dominated the center of the Australian continent. It is easy to see how legends could be made out of these geological formations with very little imagination. 

The faults in one exposed wall were so precise that we both almost simultaneously said, “It looks like Saqsaywaman!”

In between what looked like the heads of warriors with these mohawk-like walls were dips. These splits in the ridges were often abrupt creating canyons that could shelter patches of ground from the intense sun of the Red Center. The sedimentary layers also soak up water during the wet and slowly release it over time.

Some of these canyons support permanent water holes. These water holes create little mini-ecosystems that hold remnants of the rainforest that once covered this continent.

One such canyon is called Palm Valley. In this valley grows a unique cabbage palm that is found nowhere else in the world.

Approaching the MacDonnell Range in the red center
Approaching the MacDonnell Range

3) Unpredictable Desert 

The center of Australia is a region of deserts. It receives an average of 10 inches (250 mm) of rain a year. Unlike other deserts, it is unpredictable. Rain comes in a deluge sometimes flooding the planes for months. During the floods, the population of plants and animals explodes as birth rates skyrocket. They feast on the ecological system that, in unison, thrives on the life-giving water. 

If the flood season is great enough the Fink River might even flow far enough to reach Lake Eyre, the lowest depression in the Red Center. Only three times in the last century has Lake Eyre been actually filled to capacity. During the dry season, Lake Eyre is a vast salt pan. Usually, even during the rains, the Finke River never completes its journey to Lake Eyre. Instead, it disappears into the red sand dunes of the Simpson desert. After the rain stops the river recedes to just a few waterholes. 

The floods can be followed by years of drought. In other deserts, succulent plants can store moisture to sustain them through hot, dry summers. The droughts in the Red Center are too long and surpass the storage ability of the succulents to sustain life.

Yet within this harsh region lives more bird species than the whole of Britain.

A waterhole in the shelter of a canyon in the MacDonnell Range
A waterhole in the shelter of a canyon in the MacDonnell Range

4) Kings Canyon

There is a place of dreaming deep in the fissure of Kings Canyon. Nestled in the George Gill Range just southwest of the Greater MacDonnell Ranges is an oasis that rests at the end of a valley called the Garden of Eden. This place of dreaming is sacred to the Watarrka people. Much of the ceremonial practices of the dreaming remain a secret of the Watarrka men.

Kings Canyon itself is a large slice or crack in the Mereenie Sandstone blocks. Trin and I hiked down through a portion called the Garden of Eden. It is a narrow valley still flowing with a small stream and lush greenery that could only survive in a sheltered valley. At the end of the garden, the narrow crevice turns sharply at a 90-degree angle. After this turn, the fissure widens and deepens to walls that are over 100 meters deep (328 feet). The place of dreaming is in the 90-degree turn. Trin and I silently ate our lunch here enjoying the shelter from intense sun rays and the still pool before us. 

What is so unique about Kings Canyon is the smooth, perpendicular walls. The last landslide sheared off a large section with the precision of a builder spackling a wall on one side. On the opposite canyon wall, it was as if an artist pulled brush strokes through colored sand and set them up in a perpendicular position.

Looking up Kings Canyon towards the place of dreaming
The sheer cliffs and painted wall of Kings Canyon

5) Uluru & Kata Tjuta

The ultimate destination for most who venture into the Red Center is Uluru (aka Ayers Rock). Uluru is an experience all its own, walking around her circumference seeing her many faces and touching her cool surface. 

Kata Tjuta (aka The Olgas), the sister site to Uluru, rises from the flat plan 63 km (40 miles) from Uluru. But instead of one large monolith, it is a group of large, domed rock formations. The surface of Kata Tjuta has the same rusty scales that cover Uluru, both glow in the sunlight. Unlike Uluru which is solid sandstone, Kata Tjuta/Olga is like a rock pudding with sandstone holding together stones of granite and basalt.

The paths that wander through the Olgas lead us into narrow valleys squeezed between boulders. The conglomerate sits by itself out on the otherwise flat landscape in the region. Only Uluru rises from the horizon in the distance.

Trin between two of the boulders at Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). The sun reflecting off the red surface.
Trin in a valley of Kata Tjuta.

Alice Springs

In the center of all these great wonders is the town of Alice Springs with a population of about 30,000 people. The closest towns of larger population are Darwin directly north and Adelaide directly south. Both Darwin and Adalaide are approximately 1,500 kilometers (almost 1,000 miles) away. Darwin and Adalaide sit on opposite ends of the continent. One long highway connects them. It is the only paved road to run through the center of the continent. Alice Springs lies at its center.

Alice Springs is the central spot for tours to some of the most magnificent wonders of the red center of Australia. 

Dashed expectations

Early explorers ventured into the heart of Australia looking for an inland sea. Disappointed with the lack of water, one explorer referred to it as the dead heart of Australia. It is a statement of dashed hopes after a difficult and hot journey. They were longing for an oasis. It was not what they expected, but it is far from dead. 

Sometimes holding too close to our expectations, we miss the wonder that the journey leads us to. The red center is rife with life, just not the kind they were expecting. It is a beautiful heart that beats with fervor during the wet season. Then she hibernates, hanging on with determination to its life until the next explosion of rain.

Maybe your blue door is something other than what’s expected, but just as or even more rewarding.

Green birdflower scientific name Crotalaria cunninghamii. The flower of this plant looks like hummingbirds.
The green birdflower in the red center.

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