As my client* likes to say, "You haven't been down under until you've been outback." And after visiting Australia's Northern Territory, I couldn't agree more. Though admittedly, the outback isn't necessarily easy to get to - but don't let that deter you. Australia's big cities and welcoming coasts are beautiful, clean and accessible, but the outback is true Australia. It's not to be missed.
First, where you fly into depends on how much time you have available. Almost all flights from the U.S. will connect in a coastal city, like Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. From there, if you only have 2-3 days to spend in the Northern Territory (NT), fly into Ayers Rock (AYQ). The airport is small and only has a few flights a day, but it's practically in the shadow of Uluru (Ayers Rock), so you're just a short drive away from the hotels and main attraction. If you've got a bit more time to spend in the Northern Territory (NT), cruise on into Alice Springs (ASP) and take a day or two to explore the outback town before driving down to Uluru.
What are the NT highlights? There are plenty, but here's a few of my personal favorites:
Uluru. Let's be real, this geological wonder is the reason why most people make the trek to the outback. Previously called "Ayers Rock," the government and national park system have returned the land to its Aboriginal owners and thus have reverted to its original name. This sandstone formation rises out of the brush like an red-orange beacon, demanding attention as the sun's rays alter the appearance of the rock from dark brown to bright tangerine. For thousands of years, Uluru has been a sacred site for the local Anangu people, and after visiting and listening to their songline stories, I've begun to understand why. It's also important to understand that because of this spiritual importance to the local people, it's incredibly disrespectful to climb the rock, though it has been done as a tourist attraction for decades. Please keep this in mind should you decide to visit Uluru - you wouldn't want someone climbing on top of your church or temple altar!
The night before we were set to head north from Uluru, the area was pummeled with a relentless rainstorm, which is an extremely rare occurrence in the outback. The next morning we stood in awe of the resulting waterfalls - yes, waterfalls plummeting from the foggy top of Uluru. This is a phenomenon that happens perhaps once every decade, and I'm so thankful that I was able to witness such a spectacular event. Photos of the waterfalls (and more from my Australia trip can be found here)!
Kata-Tjuta. This nearby, lesser-known rock formation (formerly known as "The Olgas") lends its name to the latter part of the national park which encompasses both rock formations called Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park. In the local Pitjantjatjara language, Kata Juta means "many heads." From a distance, this massive rock formation looks like a gathering of god-sized heads peeking out over the horizon. Like Uluru, seeing the icon from a distance allows you to appreciate the sheer size and impact of the formation on the landscape, but a truly different experience is had when walking alongside the ancient sandstone walls.
King's Canyon. This hiker's paradise is situated between Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park and Alice Springs, and with most visitors flying between the two locations, the ancient canyon is far less visited than than some of the NT's other attractions. The loop hike covers just a little more than four miles, dipping into the lush and green "Garden of Eden" where wooden stairs descend to the cool and covered gorge floor. The sandstone rock formations appear other-worldly, and sometimes feels more like hiking on Mars than on our own planet. Arrive before the sunrise for spectacular views over the canyon as you make the climb.
Culture. Countless times I've heard people say, "I've never really felt a draw to go to Australia - isn't it more or less just like the U.S.?" In a lot of ways, sure. The cities are modern and everyone speaks English (though with a delightful accent). Aside from the fact that Australians drive on the left side of the road, cities like Sydney and Brisbane could very well exist in the United States in a parallel universe. That all being said, the Northern Territory has such a unique culture of it's own, and so much of it relates to the local Aboriginal cultures of the original land owners within the NT.
The surviving Aboriginal cultures of Australia are the oldest on earth - dating back at least 50,000 years, if not more. There were more than 600 distinct tribes or clans in Australia before the Europeans arrived, may with different languages, cultures and beliefs. The surviving cultures have clung tightly to their traditions and "songlines" (stories passed down from one generation to another orally, and often relate to the connection of people to the natural surroundings). The Northern Territory is one place where these cultures have continued to thrive, even while adapting to modern technologies. From original land owners I learned about traditional weapons and tools, popular songlines, Aboriginal artwork and bush tucker food and medicine (I even tasted a witchetty grub)!
For those interested in learning from other cultures while they travel, I highly recommend visiting the Northern Territory. And for those interested in history, particularly in the perils of early America, I urge you to read into Australian history and the European conquest of the continent, as I'm sure you'll see many parallels between our two nations' sometimes shameful early years.
The Kangaroo Sanctuary. Any animal lover need visit The Kangaroo Sanctuary in Alice Springs. The shelter was first established in 2005 as a place to nurse baby joeys back to health after their mothers were killed in automobile accidents. Kangaroo in the NT are quite like deer in the Midwestern U.S. - seemingly everywhere and somewhat of a nuisance to drivers. But Brolga, the sanctuary founder, didn't see any reason why these little joeys didn't deserve another chance at life.
Now, the shelter includes baby joeys being rehabilitated for release back into the wild, as well as a reserve for kangaroos that have had too much human interaction to be reintroduced into their natural habitat. While the large male kangaroos are kept in an enclosed area, guests can wader around the acres and acres of reserve, meandering among curious (or perhaps just hungry) smaller kangaroos. Guests are educated about how to check for a baby joey in an injured or dead mother's pouch, and what to do if they ever find one (statistics say it's about 20% of the time). And let's be real - the opportunity to cradle a little baby joey in your arms is enough of a draw to visit.
My trip to the Northern Territory was absolutely magical. It's such a unique place, so connected to the environment and rich in local culture. It's remote and rugged, but entirely rewarding and worth the extra travel. If you're going down under - do the outback! You won't regret it.
*Disclaimer: I work as the PR Manager for Tourism Northern Territory. While this trip was work-sponsored, I was not paid for this blog post and all opinions are my own.