Story and photography by Nicholas Grundy
Australia’s interior is a seemingly never-ending inhospitable desert. Known locally as the “outback,” this arid expanse makes up nearly 80 percent of the continent, yet less than 10 percent of the population live there. The large majority of Aussies seldom leave the comfort of their cosmopolitan cities. Yes, bustling Melbourne and Sydney are more than worthy of a stopover. However, the real beauty of “Oz” is found in the endless wilderness at its core. As such, before leaving my southern homeland to settle in Ireland with my Irish girlfriend, the desert beckoned one more time. With only weeks to spare, we set off for what was my third—and certainly most ambitious—journey out to Central Australia.
Leaving behind the confines of our tiny Melbourne apartment and heading northwest, greener hues were gradually replaced by dusty shades of brown. Tall, leafy gum trees were succeeded by spindly desert shrubs. As the foliage transformed, so too did the earth. After only a few hundred miles, the soil became a mixture of deep crimson tones as we reached the outback’s edge at the aptly named Little Desert National Park.
The next morning my girlfriend woke refreshed for another day behind the wheel. I was not quite so relaxed. She didn’t yet know, but I’d placed high expectations on our next stopover, a stunning pink salt lake. Its nonperennial drought–flood cycle causes bacteria to stain both the water and the salty lake bed a striking rosé tint. On my last visit, there had been a prolonged drought, and it is far more impressive full of ruby liquid. Rounding a bend my mind was immediately at ease—the dry spell had ended, and the lake looked divine! My heart pounded, and my girlfriend was beginning to wonder why. As we reached the shoreline, I quickly dropped to one knee. I fumbled to produce a ring—complete with outback sapphires I’d mined on a previous desert trip—and she suddenly knew why I’d been a bit preoccupied all morning.
I fumbled to produce a ring—complete with outback sapphires I’d mined on a previous desert trip—and she suddenly knew why I’d been a bit preoccupied all morning.
She exclaimed “Yes!” and my only concern then was helping keep her new ring sand- and dust-free! Shortly after the successful proposal, we heard a funny noise. We pulled over to discover that both back tires were unraveling to expose the steel reinforcement. Requiring a very specific tire size, we scoured the entire state of South Australia looking for spares. By the time we’d left Port Augusta, we’d cleaned out the state of its last two matching tires.
Our route took us to a significantly larger—and white instead of pink—salt lake. Lake Hart rests beside the Stuart Highway, the only sealed roadway bisecting the center of Australia. Atop its crusty surface, you start to feel the vast flatness and solitude “out back.” We continued northward to Coober Pedy. Zealous opal miners flock here from across the globe to dig and fossick for the iconic Australian gemstone. Determined locals live underground to escape the heat, so we took a leaf out of their book and settled into the only underground campsite in the world. It is here that my now-fiancée began to understand why many refer to this part of the country as the Red Center. Nearly every movie depicting the planet Mars was filmed near this desert outpost, so we went off road for the first time to make our maiden voyage to the red planet.
An astounding aspect of driving across the outback is the vast distance between sights. Our next stop was well worth the four-hundred-mile trek. Parting ways with the highway once more, we halted briefly to deflate our tires. No, we hadn’t gone mad. The next stretch of track contained numerous patches of deep sand into which pressurized tires sink immediately. Drifting back and forth on scarlet waves, we eventually reached Rainbow Valley as the setting sun bathed it in golden hues—truly a sight to behold. Up at dawn, the sand was still cool from the winter’s night as we hiked the craggy, multicolored ravine. As the sun’s rays warmed our faces, a curious kangaroo peered down from atop his rocky throne.
At our northernmost point, we reached Alice Springs, the only significant settlement in the middle of the land down under. After a quick resupply, we were back on the open road, rolling westward through the MacDonnell Ranges. This spiny ridgeline juts out of the earth for hundreds of miles. Here we visited rocky lookouts and deep gorges, including Ellery Creek Big Hole, where cool waters provided a refreshing swim. After an invigorating hike around Ormiston Gorge, it was time to undertake the riskiest section of our expedition. The Mereenie Loop is a shortcut that cuts the distance to Watarrka National Park by half. To achieve this, one follows a two-hundred-mile dirt trail through one of the remotest parts of the country. Only a handful of native aboriginals call the region home. With emergency water sloshing behind us, we held tight as we drove over the bumpy earth. The desert winds and loose topsoil create what’s known as road corrugations—ripples of hardened earth that can rattle a vehicle to pieces.
As the sun’s rays warmed our faces, a curious kangaroo peered down from atop his rocky throne.
Having survived unscathed, we veered into Watarrka, also referred to as Kings Canyon. The chasm, carved into the plateau’s edge, boasts soaring sandstone walls and a lush oasis below. As we undertook the gorge rim walk atop the orange escarpment, luxury adventurers buzzed past in chartered helicopter tours. A series of boardwalks provide safe passage all around the massive gorge; however, the more daring explorer can scramble down into secluded water holes. Atop the plateau, we gazed out at the infinite space—nothingness as far as the eye could see. Calling it a day, the blazing red sun set on the distant horizon as tiny silhouettes of tourist choppers fluttered away.
A day’s drive to the southeast took us to our trip’s highlight. After staring at a flat horizon for hours, a small blip emerged in the distance. Driving nearer, the bump jutted ever higher until we recognized Australia’s great icon—the stone monolith of Ayers Rock, now referred to by its indigenous name, Uluru. Watching the sun rise behind the giant mound is an unforgettable experience, and the walk around its base reveals just how enormous this desert anomaly is. However, the main feature in my mind is the nearby Kata Tjuta outcrop, an inland archipelago of towering, domed rock formations. This collection of behemoths provides stunning views of the orange land contrasted against azure skies and attracts tour buses from around the country including nearby Yulara—a traveler’s oasis complete with multiple high-end hotels and even an airport. As we walked through the Valley of the Winds, the tour groups in the distance were completely dwarfed by this strange conglomeration of curved slopes shooting skyward.
After a couple of weeks, it was time to complete the return leg of our more than four-thousand-mile undertaking. Traveling southward, we lay under the stars one last time. Not only did the crystal clear skies show off the Milky Way in all its splendor, but we could even follow satellites as they glided in great arcs across the night sky, interspersed with bright shooting stars.
The next morning gargantuan road trains (multitrailer trucks) hurtled past us, and we sensed something was awry. Even kangaroos came bounding out of the desert at full speed. We pulled back into Lake Hart for a quick lunch stop and soon saw why. The sun disappeared behind a wall of dust and sand, and it was time to hunker down for the night. We threw everything into the car, including ourselves, and huddled until the storm passed. With a thick coating of outback dust and a lifetime of memories, we left behind the beauty of Australia’s beating heart.
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Nicholas Grundy is a travel photographer and writer working for international publications such as the Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, Connemara Life, and VIE. His diverse work experience and background were discussed during his recent TEDx talk in his current hometown of Galway, Ireland. You can find more of his work at NicholasGrundy.com.