8 Exhilarating Ways to Experience the Australian Outback
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Into the Wild
With seemingly endless expansion and development in the world, it's easy to wonder if there are any truly wild places left. Good news: Australia’s Northern Territory fits the bill. Here, the untamed outback spreads out before you. Beyond tiny towns and far-flung way stations, you’re off the grid and away from commerce. But don’t panic: Even remote Alice Springs has a nail salon and Chinese food. To help you make the most of an Australian outback excursion, we’ve rounded up eight exhilarating ways to experience this untamed place, from the heart-stopping extreme to the more languid.
Get Cozy with the Crocs
The Cage of Death, Alice Springs Whet your appetite for crocodiles with a wide-eyed look at Terry, Alice Springs Reptile Centre’s 23-year-old, 11-foot-long, 440-pound saltwater crocodile. (It’s here that owner Rex Neindorf will school you in how to survive a croc attack, should you find yourself swimming in infested waters.) Then, when you arrive in Darwin, the Northern Territory capital, you’ll be ready for a dip in the cheerfully named Cage of Death. Crocosaurus Cove, into which the Cage is suspended, is home to some 200 crocs with cheeky names like William and Kate (after the Royals) and Chopper. Secured within the glass cylinder, you’ll become intimately acquainted with Australia’s biggest saltwater crocodiles.
The outback ballooning adventure starts in the dark of night. Giddy as kids on a field trip, you and your balloon compatriots ride in a minibus out of Alice Springs and toward the desert. As you stand around chitchatting beneath a sky still studded with stars, the hot air balloon is inflated, and then you’re off, cruising over the outback, pointing out kangaroos and wallabies, and posing for selfies unintentionally photobombed by your fellow flyers. Will you be thrilled to get up at 3:30 a.m.? Probably not. But if the tranquil flight over the red-earth desert doesn’t make you happy, the post-flight bush breakfast complete with local bubbly certainly will.
After first conceiving of “a landscape of illuminated stems” on his visit to Uluru/Ayers Rock in 1992, British artist Bruce Munro has brought his vision home. Uluru is known for appearing to change color as the sun rises and sets, taking on a red glow. For his Field of Lightinstallation, Munro put 50,000 lights—frosted-glass spheres atop narrow stems—into the ground. As the sun sets, bathing Uluru in glorious amber light, the surrounding desert begins to glow, and the vista is simply magnificent. The installation runs through March 2017. Tickets are AU$35 (US$27). Guests at the luxe Longitude 131º can wander Field of Light before the hotel’s signature dinner in the desert.
Photo courtesy of Tourism NT
Helicopter Booze Cruise
Heli Pub Tour,Darwin The Northern Territory’s hot, sunny, and alternately dry and humid climate begs for a beer. Although its arid red desert is heavy on scenery, places to imbibe are few and far between. The Heli Pub Tour lets you bar hop in the Northern Territory while getting a bird’s-eye view of the outback. This booze cruise, which departs from just outside Darwin, is guaranteed to make your mates ooze with jealousy. Over five hours, you’ll fly 217 miles and will casually dropping in at five outback watering holes. Down a Victoria Bitter while listening to locals’ tales of encounters with crocs and great white sharks.
Outback Quad Adventures, Alice Springs Quad bike tours are the happy medium between driving in a car (cocooned in air conditioning but removed from nature) and walking (really hot). After driving from Alice Springs, you’ll hop on a quad bike and zoom around ranch Undoolya Station, the oldest working cattle station in the Northern Territory. The cattle ranch is owned by Kath and Robert “Frosty” Frost, and they’ll be your guides on the quad bike tour. Safety is the Frosts’ top priority, so you won’t be careening around the ranch kicking up red dirt, though you’ll certainly end the tour happily covered in it. Quad bike tours of Undoolya combine an interesting lesson in how a rural Australian farm functions with an invigorating ride through the bush.
Photo courtesy of Outback Quad Adventures
Trek the Canyon
Kings Canyon Rim Walk,Watarrka National Park This is more trek than walk, although the toughest part is not the 3.7-mile canyon rim itself but the steep, 500-step climb up to the starting point. The rim walk takes three to four hours to complete, and you’d be wise to start as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day. Kings Canyon is within Watarrka National Park, and the views of the nearly 900-foot-tall sandstone cliffs are memorable. From the rim, climb down into the shockingly verdant Garden of Eden, a complete 180 from the arid canyon rim. Hiding down here is a natural watering hole surrounded by gum trees and enormous ferns. The scenery on this walk is exhilarating, but you’ll enjoy it much more if you bring a mosquito head net to keep away the swarms of black flies (you’ll look goofy—but so will everyone else).
Tjungu Festival,Uluru The Northern Territory is home to most of Australia’s Aboriginals. This festival, held April 22nd-25th near Uluru, is a chance to gain a better understanding of indigenous Australian culture, especially that of the Anangu people. Festival highlights include film screenings, performances by indigenous musicians, and an Anangu dance workshop. A market will be up and running all four days, with Aboriginal artists showcasing their unique work and stalls selling bush tucker (taste crocodile, we dare you). Uluru has tremendous spiritual significance for the Anangu, and after touring Uluru and getting a lesson in Australian Aboriginal mythology, the events of Tjungu Festival make for a fun and interactive complement.
The Ghan, Adelaide, Alice Springs, or Darwin The Ghan is one of Australia’s most iconic train journeys, its name inspired by Afghan camel caravaners who explored the outback in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Running from southern Adelaide all the way up to Darwin (and vice versa), The Ghan cuts through the heart of the outback, covering 3,000 km in 54 hours. The sleeper train is delightfully old school. There is no Internet and limited mobile phone coverage, so passengers pass the time doing what is quickly becoming a quaint anachronism: They talk to each other. Over communal meals or a glass of local port, travelers exchange stories, Aussies filling visitors in on the local history. In the afternoons and at sunset, riders watch the outback landscape fly by, red dirt and scrubby bush gradually giving way to grass and leafy trees as the train nears tropical Darwin. If you have Uluru and Kings Canyon on your itinerary, book one night on The Ghan, board in Darwin or Adelaide, and then disembark in Alice Springs, the jumping-off point for many of the Northern Territory’s main sites.