Not only is the Red Centre steeped in human history; it contains distinctive desert fauna and many rare species of mammals, birds, and reptiles ? a distinction that has earned it a place on Australia's list of National Landscapes. Australia currently has only eight National Landscapes, selected for their natural and cultural significance.
The pioneering town of Alice Springs is a great base from which to explore the Red Centre. The town was originally called Stuart, however, the locals called it Alice Springs in honour of the wife of Charles Todd who supervised the building of Australia?s first overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin. The history of ?The Alice?, as it is affectionately known, is populated by a colourful cast of characters that include gold-diggers, outback pioneers and Afghan cameleers.
Wander through Alice Springs and visit the numerous Indigenous art galleries ? excellent places to pick up an authentic piece of unique Aboriginal art. The award-winning Alice Springs Resort is a good base from which to take to the skies on a sunrise hot-air balloon ride or scenic flight. For a taste of a romantic bygone era, join the 1500-kilometre train journey from Alice Springs to Darwin aboard The Ghan.
Caterpillars became mountains?
To the east and west of Alice Springs are the MacDonnell Ranges. This jagged and rocky spine stretches for hundreds of kilometres, harbouring gorges and permanent rock pools carved by prehistoric rivers. The traditional owners of this area, the Arrernte people, believe giant caterpillars called the Yeperenye became the MacDonnell Ranges ? entering this world through one of the dramatic gaps in the escarpment.
The Larapinta Trail walking track extends more than 220-kilometres along the West MacDonnell Ranges, crossing steep ranges and deep chasms. Its changing perspectives are a humbling reminder of being a mere dot in space and time.
Drive 'down the track' to Uluru
A 445km drive ?down the track? from Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway brings visitors to Uluru ? the largest monolith in the world. Almost 10km around and 600 million years old, this sandstone wonder is truly a magnificent sight.
The Anangu do not climb Uluru because of its great spiritual significance and they ask that others respect their law and culture by not climbing it. A better way to experience Uluru is to see it at sunrise or sunset. The colours shift constantly, from pink to blood red to mauve. Each time you turn around there's a different hue.
Other activities at Uluru include star-gazing and Harley-Davidson motorcycle tours. You can learn about Tjukurpa, the traditional law guiding the Anangu people, at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre or you can follow in the footsteps of the ancestral beings and learn about sacred sites and bush tucker from an Aboriginal guide.
A nearby rock formation, Kata Tjuta ('many heads') offers an equally magic experience. This maze of 500-million year-old massive sandstone domes makes a very special early morning or late afternoon excursion.
Park rangers offer guided walks through the Valley of the Winds and Olga Gorge. Like Uluru, the towering sentinels of Kata Tjuta move through their own spectacular colour spectrum and show a different aspect from every angle.
At the Ayers Rock Resort, visitors can enjoy the Sounds of Silence experience. This unique outdoor dining experience takes place under a canopy of stars, with your very own storyteller who shares the tales from the night sky above. A few hundred kilometres north-east of Uluru is the Watarrka National Park, best known as the home of Kings Canyon. The pale orange walls of the sandstone canyon were shaped thousands of years ago.
You can do the one-hour Creek Walk or the four-hour Canyon Walk at Kings Canyon . Waterholes such as the lush Garden of Eden, deep in the gorge, are perfect for a swim to escape the heat of the day. If you?re feeling adventurous, try your hand at becoming a jackaroo or jillaroo at Kings Creek Station, a 1800km? cattle station near the park.
Jagged history at World Heritage Sites
Both the World Heritage-listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Watarrka National Parks have a remarkable geological history. Five hundred million years ago, the entire area was covered by an inland sea. Over many centuries, a spectacular environment of inland lakes and tropical woodlands evolved. Cycad ferns dating back to the time of the dinosaurs thrive here, and its rock holes and gorges provide refuge for more than 600 species of plants and native animals. The Red Centre Way is a magnificent outback drive that links the national parks and many of the heartland's natural wonders.
From the early 1900s, fortune-seekers searched the Central Australia desert for rubies and gold, but treasures of a different kind exist in this ancient natural landscape: you just have to know where to look.