I know what you’re thinking, ‘Oh yeah The Red Centre, Uluru is cool, but what else is out there besides red dirt desert and a big rock?’. Valid question. 

I’m not here to tell you that red dirt is actually cool or that Uluṟu is bigger than you could imagine. I’m not here to tell you that a trip to The Red Centre is one of the best holidays you’ll ever have in Australia. 

I’m here to help you realise that The Red Centre isn’t just a place you visit, it’s a place you feel. It’s guttural, it brings emotions right to the surface, like seeds in the desert after long-awaited rain.

Along with photographer Renae Saxby, I spent five days in The Red Centre, packed full to the brim with dirt roads, electrifying sunsets, quiet campgrounds, moments of reflection, pure awe, laughter – and lots of red, red rock.

Life on the Open Road

I’m in the passenger seat of our 4WD, Renae’s behind the wheel. We’ve just left the bustle of Alice Springs and hit the open road – Uluṟu here we come!

We’re in for a 4.5 hour drive so I’ve come prepared. Water bottles topped, snacks stocked, fuel tank full, podcasts and music downloaded

I press play on the first episode of an eight-part series about an unsolved disappearance and we both immediately fall under its spell. Our chattering dies down as we listen intently. 

We’re bumping along the Stuart Highway, the NT’s main artery that links Darwin to Adelaide by around 3000km of tarmac. Out here the speed limit is 130km an hour and overtaking road trains is a sport. 

Every so often we pass a sign that piques my interest; Owen Springs Reserve, Rainbow Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

A part of me wants to take every dusty turnoff and make our way towards the horizon out of sheer curiosity. But we’re on a mission – Uluṟu for sunset. I take a mental note for next time. 

We’ve been chugging along for two hours when Erldunda Roadhouse appears – the last petrol station before Uluṟu and our signpost to turn off the Stuart Highway. 

I turn to Renae, ‘Ice cream?’.

‘Ice cream!’ 

She pulls the car in and we jump out to sort through the goodies at the roadhouse (and pay a visit to the resident mob of emus round the back). 


Hi there! | Photo thanks to Tourism NT/Matt Glastonbury


I slurp down my ice cream before the blazing sun has a chance to drip it down my hands and slide into the driver’s seat. It’s my turn behind the wheel now, let’s go!

I start the engine and steer the car due west, straight onto the Lasseter Highway and towards the sun. I flick down my sunnies and the visor. It’s bright out here. 

The voice of an Alice Springs local plays over in my mind, ‘Don’t get tricked by Fool-uru!’. The other great monolith along this road, Mt Conner, has been known to make a fool out of many tourists as they spot the mammoth rock erupting from the flat desert and prematurely call out, ‘There it is! Uluṟu!’. 

But this isn’t Renae’s or my first visit so we know what we’re looking for. Rather, the mystery of Mt Conner has us confused. 

‘How do you get there?’
‘It’s so huge, how is it not a big tourist destination?’
‘I wonder if it holds significance for the local Aboriginal people?’ 

Renae whips out her phone. 

‘Huh, seems like you need to take a private tour to get there!’ 

We keep on trucking along as Mt Conner passes by the window. Next time. 

It’s about 40 minutes later when I spot Uluṟu, for real. And yes, I say it.

‘There it is!’ 

Then we spot Kata Tjuṯa on the horizon as the setting sun starts to play with the colour of the desert surrounding us. I feel a swell in my chest. 

Kata Tjuṯa on the horizon


‘I’ve got a playlist for moments like this,’ I tell Renae, and line up a playlist called ‘Golden Hour Gliding’. Shark Smile by Big Thief thrums through the car speakers.

The sun’s descending fast now and we’re still a fair way from the rock. We arrive on the outskirts of Yulara and I start heading towards Kata Tjuṯa and the western horizon instead. 

Before the light fades too much, I stop the car, Renae grabs the camera and we jump out. 

It feels dark by now but the bulging silhouette of Kata Tjuṯa stands stark against the blazing colours and layers of light thrown up by the now set sun.

We made it. 

We wait for the sky to completely darken before jumping back in the car and rolling on round to Ayers Rock Campground to settle into our camp for the night.

Experiencing a Living History

I’m sitting on the stone floor of Kulpi Minymaku / Kitchen Cave, a light layer of sandstone dust covers the ground and undoubtedly my behind, but I’m relieved to be seated for a moment, in the cooling shade of the overhang. 

Through the cave, the deep, hearty voice of Adam Hill echos, one of the park rangers who’s been working for Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park for seven years. Adam tells me he used to work in mines in South Australia, but since working to protect country as a ranger, his karma is starting to even out.


Guided Mala walk with Ranger Adam, Uluṟu


I’m part of a small group who all woke up in time to join the Mala Walk, a daily guided hike along the first kilometre or so of the Uluṟu Base Walk, that takes in a number of caves that were used by the Mala people for cooking, resting, teaching, and ceremony. 

I realise everyone who visits Uluṟu needs to start with the Mala walk. It sets the scene for this spectacular place. 

Adam points out places on the floor where the rock has been smoothed and tells us it’s caused by women pounding seeds with round stones to make flour for bread.

He tells us about the 50 million year-long geological history of Uluṟu – yes the rock is that old. But he really comes to life when he chats to the kids, and using the analogy of a sponge cake and a Christmas pudding, explains the geological differences between Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa. 

Along the walk, Adam’s been sharing with us the Dreamtime stories of Uluṟu, and how their impacts can be seen across the different faces of the rock. He showed us a wall of rock art and compared it to a school chalkboard, filled with teachings and lessons. 


Kulpi Watiku | The men’s cave, Uluṟu


The guided part of the walk wraps up so Renae and I wander a little further up the track to Kantju Gorge, and in my opinion the most mesmerising spot around all of Uluṟu. 

Wandering into Kantju Gorge feels like stumbling across a secret. This place demands reverence, stillness, and silence. 

This is the second time I’ve had the honour of visiting Kantju Gorge and just like the first, I’m overcome with the desire to lie down on the bench and peer upwards, allowing the arching curves of Uluṟu and the crisp, blue sky to fill my vision. I have no choice but to just be still and let the flurry of chirping birds fill the silence. 

As it’s still mid-morning, this side of the rock is yet to be hit with the full-force of the sun. The shade the rock provides, along with the enclosing gorge walls, blossoming trees, and the small pool of freshwater, make me feel safe and protected from the outside world. 

It’s little wonder why Kantju Gorge has played such a crucial role in the lives of the Mala people for tens of thousands of years. 


Kantju Gorge, Uluṟu

Find Your Own Space, Go Your Own Pace

It’s mid-afternoon on a Sunday and Renae and I have made our way back from Uluṟu and are rolling into Trephina Gorge Nature Park in the East MacDonnell Ranges – the lesser-explored side of Alice Spring and The Red Centre.  

Read more: Why The East Macs are The Red Centre’s Best Kept Secret

I bump our 4WD through a sandy riverbed crossing and we begin to round a bend, when our windscreen is suddenly filled with illuminated orange rock soaring into the starkly contrasting sky above.

‘Oh wow, that’s beautiful’, Renae says under her breath. 

I slow right down to a roll and then stop so we can both take in the sight of it. We’ve managed to time it spectacularly, catching the golden hour glow on this mighty tor before the sun slips behind the nearby range, way before dusk is due. 

I drive on a little further and we roll right into Bluff Campground and I can’t quite believe my eyes. The Red Centre has had a drenching recently and dry, dusty campsites are overrun with lush green native grass. I pull up at one of the sites and marvel at the scene in front of me. 

The sun sparkles through the tops of River Red gums, trees sacred to this region, as they line a soft sandy creek bed that despite the recent rain, has already run dry. On the other side, a grassy hill gives way to the towering tor we were just admiring. And there’s not another soul in sight. 

I jump out of the car and sit on a picnic table staring up in awe. And then I tune into the twittering. Scores of bright, buzzing Budgies are flitting between the branches of the gums, sitting pretty in pairs, ducking in and out of hollows in the trunks. They look like they’re whispering secrets to each other, probably about Renae and I, wondering what we’re doing intruding on their slice of paradise. 

We quickly set up our camp and grab the kit we need for a sunset hike.

We begin the Trephina Gorge Walk about an hour before sunset is due and pay witness to the power of the sun to bring a landscape to life. 



The track takes us along the edge of the gorge before winding back down onto the creek bed that lines the gorge floor. 

We follow the sandy trail back to our camp, watching the darkness fall over us and stars beginning to twinkle, one by one, across the night sky. 

And still, not another soul in sight. 


Stars from Bluff Campground


I realise that no matter where I find myself in The Red Centre, whether at the icons that make the name, or the hidden gems along the way, something shifts in me every time I step foot on that red, red dirt. 

Photos thanks to @renaesaxby


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