The Red Centre
For a travelling photographer, particularly one who has chosen to bring or hire his or her own vehicle, the biggest problem that you will confront in the Red Centre is time management. If you have plenty of time, you will be in heaven, because pulling yourself away from any one of the primary areas can be extremely difficult. If you have restricted time, then I suggest that you make careful plans.
Apart from photographing people, wildlife, plant close-ups and smaller details, overcast weather can be limiting, especially if it is windy. So what is the right time of year? Perhaps it is best to eliminate the October to February period because of the excessive heat, and then flip a coin for the best time to go. Personally, I would only visit this part of the world when there had been heavy rains and, therefore, a likelihood of spring flowers. The blooms can occur anytime from around July onward and they do make a tremendous difference for both landscape and bird photography. In terms of landscapes, I love clouds, although you are often confronted with white or very pale blue skies, in which case landscape shots are best with high horizons.
If you stick to the main roads, even if they are dirt, then you will not require a 4WD; however, if you venture off the beaten track, or cross-country, a 4WD and safety precautions are essential.
Red Centre Regional Photo Tips
Seasons of the Red Centre
The desert landscape around Uluru–Kata Tjuta changes dramatically according to the time of year. Anangu people define their seasons by the effect the changing climate has on the region’s plants and animals.
Aug–Sept Piriyakutu/piriya piriya
Dry with warm winds. Plants flower. Animals breed and reptiles abound.
Nov–Dec Mai wiyaringkupai/kuli
Hot, dry and stormy. Little food from plants.
Hot, cloudy and rainy. Food plants in flower.
Cooler and drier. Reptiles hibernate.
Cool nights and frosty mornings. Dry.
West MacDonnell Ranges
This ancient geological formation is one of the most visually appealing ranges in Australia, and there are numerous localities where excellent images can be obtained. As you travel along the road you will see that all the primary gorges have been well sign-posted and, overall, the distances between them are minimal.
• Time all travel to be in the early and late hours of each day; rest up during the heat of the day. A cool pool with a big gum tree is a good spot in which to snooze away.
• Glen Helen Gorge at dawn and Ormiston Gorge during the late afternoon are stunning. They are close together and easily worked.
East MacDonnell Ranges
Arltunga Historical Reserve:
The abandoned ruins of central Australia’s original gold town, Arltunga, form the centrepiece of this fascinating reserve. After the discovery of gold in a nearby creek bed in 1887, the area was flooded with prospectors, who often travelled the 600 km from Oodnadatta railhead by foot. Most of the gold was quickly exhausted but the construction of a government battery in 1896 saw the town last another 20 years. Many of Arltunga’s stone buildings (including the battery, police station and gaol) are well preserved. There are also several residences, mines and cemeteries in the area. Tours are run from the visitor centre during peak tourist periods
Trephina Gorge Nature Park:
This picturesque park is one of the most popular destinations in the East MacDonnell Ranges. Picnic along the sandy, eucalypt-lined creek bed at Trephina Gorge or walk to John Hayes Rockhole with its stunning sheer cliffs. The waterholes and ridges are a great place to see the Black-footed Rock-wallaby. The park is also home to the Red Centre’s tallest Ghost Gum.
- There are five walks in the park ranging from 45 minutes to over six hours. The 6.5-hour Trephina Ridge Top Trail leads across the hilly country to John Hayes Rockhole (also accessible by 4WD). Guided walks are available from June to August (contact ranger).
- Don’t miss the bird life around the camping area.
- There are a series of very beautiful isolate Ghost gums to the right as you enter the park. One is recorded as the tallest Ghost gum recorded in Australia.
Finke Gorge National Park
The most popular (and most easily reached) section of the park is Palm Valley with its impressive stands of rare Red Cabbage Palms.
Scenic photo walks
There are numerous walks off Palm Valley Road. From the Kalaranga car park take the 45-minute return track to the lookout with its glorious views over a natural rock amphitheatre. Two tracks lead through Palm Valley — the Arankaia Walk (2 km, 1 hr return) and the longer Mpulungkinya Walk (5 km, 2 hr return).
Watarka National Park
Protecting spectacular gorges at the western end of the George Gill Range, Watarrka National Park’s sheltered gullies are also a refuge for plants and animals. The 100 m deep Kings Canyon offers the most vertigo-inducing views, but there are also several excellent walks leading to permanent waterholes and leafy glades. The park is open all year round, but the cooler months (April to September) are more comfortable for walking.
Scenic photo walks
The two most popular scenic walks are the Canyon Walk, around the rim of Kings Canyon, (6 km, 3–4 hr return) and the Kings Creek Walk (2.6 km, 1 hr return). Check the temperature gauge at the start of these tracks before setting out and follow the markers — orange for the creek walk and blue for the rim walk. The Kathleen Springs Walk in the east of the park is an easy 1.5 hour return walk to a spring-fed waterhole. The nearby Giles Track (22 km) follows the top of the range to Kings Canyon and takes two days to complete. It should only be attempted by experienced, fit bushwalkers. Helicopter and motorcycle tours of the park are available from Kings Creek Station (helicopter tours, Ph: (08) 8956 7474; Chrome Saddle Tours, Ph: (08) 8955 8082).
Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve
The main features of the Rainbow Valley area are the scenic sandstone bluffs and cliffs. These freestanding cliffs form part of the James Range and are particularly attractive in the early morning and late afternoon when the rainbow-like bands in the rock are highlighted. If you are lucky enough to arrive after heavy rain, when the water lies in the claypans by the bluffs, you will be able to obtain remarkable images of reflections.
Aboriginal carvings and paintings are found around the range. A large rock outcrop (known as Ewerre) to the south of the main bluffs is an Aboriginal sacred site. The black rocks at the base of the northern section of the main formation are also a significant site to the southern Arrente people and should not be moved.
- Best photographed in the afternoon light and you need to pray for clouds which can really help make this landscape stunning. Examine the escarpment close up to find sandstone outcrops beautifully sculpted by wind and rain.
- Blowflies can abound, so I suggest you take a head net.
- There is a walking track to Mushroom Rock, a sandstone formation that is home to Fairy Martins — white-breasted birds that feed on flying insects and build their nests in the cliff crevices. There are unmarked trails around the bluff and into the James Range but extreme caution should be taken when moving away from the main reserve areas.
Ewraninga Rock Carvings
These remarkable age-old petroglyphs (rock engravings) feature a wide variety of symbols and motifs created by Arrernte people. They have been carved in soft sandstone near a claypan that once served as a watering hole and refuge for desert wildlife. The meaning of the petroglyphs is considered by Arrernte elders to be too sacred and dangerous to reveal to those not initiated into Aboriginal law. The rock carvings are a short stop-over on the way south from Alice Springs to Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve.
Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve
Chambers Pillar, a 50 m sandstone tower rising out of plains 160 km south of Alice Springs, was used by early explorers as a navigational landmark. Stuart named the pillar for one of his expedition patrons, James Chambers, and numerous 19th-century explorers etched their names into the soft rockface. The reserve is accessible only by 4WD from the Maryvale turn-off.
The Stuart’s Desert pea, the floral emblem of South Australia, was named in honour of Stuart.
- There are walking tracks around Chambers Pillar and Castle Rock. A viewing platform has been established at the base of the pillar to protect the rock from damage or erosion.
- Ideal in all lighting conditions, morning or afternoon.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
There can be few Australian experiences to rival viewing Uluru and Kata Tjuta for the first time. It is not only the incredible spectacle of these unique geological features rising out of the red desert sand that has such an impact, but also the knowledge that they have played a vital role in the beliefs of their traditional Indigenous owners for tens of thousands of years. The Yankuntajatjara and Pitjantjatjara peoples (known collectively as Anangu) perceive themselves as direct descendants of the very beings who created the land during the Tjukurpa (creation time). After nearly 30 years of government control of the Uluru–Kata Tjuta region, and increasing pressure from Aboriginal leaders, the title deeds were handed back to the Anangu by Australia’s governor-general in 1985. They subsequently leased the land back to the federal government for 99 years and a joint management scheme was initiated between the Anangu and Parks Australia, which continues today. The cultural and natural values of the entire national park were recognised in its listing as a World Heritage Area in 1987. Visit the Cultural Centre at Uluru before travelling further into the national park — it will only enhance your understanding of the region’s significance and will definitely increase your enjoyment in exploring Uluru Kata-Tjuta (13 km inside the park entrance, open daily, 7 am – 6 pm)
- When photographing both Uluru and Kata Tjuta at sunset, do not leave until some 20 minutes after the sun has sunk over the horizon. It is during this twilight period, especially if there are clouds, that the monoliths are most likely to glow bright red.
- When photographing sunrises and sunsets it is a good idea to use a tripod and maintain your composition while recording the changing colours.
- Start to examine the desert areas 30 kilometres outside the park’s eastern entrance. These dune systems are excellent for wildflowers, small reptiles, insects and small bush birds; this may vary seasonally.