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Palya to six days in the spiritual heart of Australia

Updated: May 29, 2023

Palya, pronounced Pahl-yah encapsulates a number of different greetings in the Aṉangu language, in this case - Welcome.

Peering out from the window of the Qantas jet as we flew over the northern end of South Australia it was hard to miss seeing Australia’s largest salt lake with its shimmering white salt pan stretching out into the distance. Rare glimpses of water in Lake Eyre is a reminder that Australia once had a huge inland sea, the lake being located at Australia’s lowest point, 15 metres below sea level, and its drainage basin covering 15 percent of the continent. From the air it is evident that Lake Eyre is actually two lakes, connected by the Goyder Channel which is itself 15 kms long. The view of the lake soon gives way to the Simpson desert and it’s not too long before the MacDonnell Ranges surrounding Alice Springs come into view and we have a gentle landing at the airport, the gateway to what will be a fabulous week in Australia’s spiritual heartland.

If there was one tourist venture I wasn’t expecting to see in Australia’s Northern Territory, it was Australia’s largest Covid airplane graveyard in Alice Springs. Alice Springs dry arid climate has proven ideal for aircraft storage and preservation and has resulted in a ‘carpark’ of 140 aircraft being housed alongside the tarmac. Word on the ground has it that it costs around $3000 per week to house a plane in the aircraft boneyard.

Beyond the baggage collection carousel we were welcomed by Bill who would be our driver for the first few days. We were embarking on a first for us, a small group tour of only eight people, a litmus test to see whether we liked ‘group’ travel. Spoiler alert, we didn’t!!!!! Waiting alongside Bill were another couple, Sue and Steve who had arrived on the same plane, traveling via Sydney from Melbourne. It became immediately obvious that Sue liked to be the centre of attention with an air of self-entitlement and this proved to be a fairly accurate summation as the days moved on. Leaving the airport we headed to the historic Telegraph Station where we would meet the other two couples in the group.

The Telegraph Station was a wonderful place to visit, not least of all because it was the birthplace of Alice Springs township. A waterhole residing at the back of the station on the otherwise dry Todd River was mistaken for an underground spring. It was not a spring but a depression in the river bed where water was trapped on top of a layer of impenetrable granite. Alice was the wife of Charles Todd, the postmaster general who was largely responsible for the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, and hence the origin of the name, Alice Springs.

The location of the waterhole mistaken for a spring, Alice Springs

Following in the footsteps of Australia’s preeminent explorer McDouall Stuart who led an expedition through the centre of Australia navigating and mapping the country for European settlement, the South Australian government allocated a quarter of a million dollars for the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line in October 1870. The line was to extend through the middle of Australia from Port Augusta to Darwin and by December in the following year, the first Morse Code signals were being sent along the southern section of the line, and by August,1872 the southern section was joined with the central and northern sections. The Telegraph Station was only one of 12 stations that operated along the 3000 km line. When it ceased operating as a telegraph station the site converted to an education facility called The Bungalow, for mixed race children, many taken by force from their Aboriginal mothers, which is why the Bungalow is also referred to as the Stolen Generation site.

Long before the word TeleHealth became part of the modern day vernacular, one could reasonably argue that the Royal Flying Doctor Service was the pioneer of remote health care in Australia, albeit using much less sophisticated technology. Whilst today we have access to zoom meetings with our practitioners over the internet, the Royal Flying Doctor Service conducted health consultations with much less sophisticated technology. In the mid-1920s John Flynn collaborated with Alfred Traeger to replace the complicated means of communication by telegraph and the pedal radio was born. These were distributed to remote stations and missions around Conclurry, the base site for the wireless transmitter, and enabled isolated outposts to contact a centralized medical base. Qantas supplied the first aircraft dubbed Victory and within two days of receiving it the first official flight was made to Julia Creek. With the success of its operations in Conclurry, a national network of flying doctors opened up with bases across the country including at Alice Springs. In the 1960s, flying sisters became a regular part of the service, and these nurses were responsible for important innovations including the incorporation in the RFDS medical chests of a body chart, an anatomical representation of the human body with each area clearly numbered to assist the remote doctors in identifying the area where pain is felt. The medicines contained in the chests were similarly numbered for ease in communicating medical instructions. I can’t help but wonder how useful these numbered body charts would be if they were incorporated into modern day Telehealth care.

Sample body chart

On the way to our hotel we stopped by Anzac Hill to take in the views over Alice Springs and the surrounding MacDonnell Ranges. I was particularly taken by how green the sports oval Traeger Park was, which was in stark contrast to the brown dusty streets throughout the rest of the town.

In the evening we dined at our hotel, where I enjoyed a ham hock terrine with native bush foods including quandong and bush tomato, and a rich creme brûlée with lemon myrtle.

Our first morning in Alice Springs was one of many early starts we would encounter over the following days. Sunrise and sunset are the times when the colours of the unique central outback come to life and leave one gasping in disbelief at its unsurpassed beauty. Down the dirt road of a cattle station just outside Alice, a deflated shape was beginning to rise out of the dark and the blast of a blue jet flame cut through the silence. Fabric ripples to life. In the middle of a paddock we piled into the basket and as our pilot Duncan provided a few blasts from the propane burner, the hot air balloon gently left the earth where we would experience a birds-eye view of the landscape below. It was surprisingly much greener than I had anticipated, the habitat dotted with majestic desert oak trees, glimmering yellow acacias and shrubs, spectacular wildflowers, and spinifex grasses. Wild life was scarce, an occasional sighting of a few camels and some farmed cattle was all that we saw. Not a kangaroo anywhere, apparently the drought had drastically culled back the numbers. Peering from above the path of the Overland Telegraph Line sat side by side with the Ghan railway track and continued for as far as the eye could see. At around 3000 feet we were in a prime position to take in the imminent sunrise. The vibrant sun radiated golden fingers of sunlight from the horizon and cast a rosy hue across the morning sky. The landscape evolved in the changing light; the sun casting long shadows over the trees. After about 90 minutes in the air, our balloon pilot Duncan Matheson, a very accredited operator skilfully executed a perfect landing beside a picnic table that had been set up with champagne and pastries for breakfast. We later learnt that Duncan was flying out that morning to New Zealand where he would be competing in a ballooning competition. We had always been in safe hands.

Firing up the hot air balloon

Back at the hotel, Bill was waiting for us to pack up our luggage and board the bus to travel first to the Desert Park for an informative bird show and then to jump back on board to settle in for the five hour journey to our next destination at Kings Canyon.

We arrived at Kings Canyon as the light was fading from the sky. With no time to check into our glamping tents at Kings Canyon Resort, we scurried across the road and down a path that would lead us to the new Frank Munro exhibition, Light -Towers. In prime seating with an uninterrupted view of the exhibition we were served canapés with a native influence, think seared kangaroo with horseradish, or blue cheese tartlets with green ants, and drinks of our choice, before being introduced to the artists vision for the exhibit by a local guide. It was here that I first tasted a locally brewed alcoholic ginger beer, Oh Ginger, made at a brewery in Alice Springs. I enjoyed it so much that our driver Bill said he would organize to have some shipped to my home address. In the meantime, I may have brought back a can or two in my luggage.

With the spectacular Kings Canyon as a backdrop, Light-Towers is a collection of 69 two metre high towers made out of bottles and arranged in a circular pattern. At the core is the belief that the heart of the earth has a natural pulse that beats at 69 beats per day. Each tower is illuminated in an ever changing rainbow of colours swapping their tones in response to music by Orlando Gough that echoes from within each structure. It is an immersive art piece with the participant wandering through the exhibition in an anti-clockwise direction towards the centre. With a galaxy of stars sprinkling down from above the artwork exudes a meditative feeling of synaesthesia, a connection and healing where one becomes devoid of external distractions and becomes one with the art piece, taking a moment to bathe in its serenity. The feeling it evokes is quite a calming, contemplative experience that works its magic softly and seeks to complement but never upstage, the astounding natural environment it rests within. A perfect night cap that precedes a peaceful slumber in our glamping tent.

The next morning we are up again in the dark, and soon find ourselves heading out early to catch the sunrise over the sheer sandstone cliffs of Kings Canyon, as they turn a stunning array of oranges and reds. From here we will embark upon a guided scenic rim walk where we will tread lightly on half billion year old rocks during a six kilometre hike, whilst soaking up the spectacular views of the gorge and surrounding landscapes.The walk starts with a steep climb up about 500 wooden steps. At the top we are rewarded with the most magical views which continue as we move around the rim. Our next stop is at Priscilla’s Crack, made famous by the movie, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Here we encounter a group of private school girls from Melbourne as they are posing precariously across the narrow passageway. Beyond Priscilla’s Crack the walk flattens out and in this section of the trail is a collection of banded rock domes that characterize the north side of the walk. These domes are known as The Lost City. From here you can see the sheer 150 metre tall canyon walls leading down to the floor of the canyon. It is at this point that I start to wonder how we will get from one side of the canyon to the other. Through a scraggly crevice we start to descend down to a wooden platform which connects to a steep set of stairs that take us further down and along the side of the gorge. A narrow wooden bridge connects us from one side of the canyon to the other, and as we cross the bridge we have a panoramic view of the cycads growing out of the rocks as we look back down the gully. We traverse along the southern edge of the canyon before descending down further to the peaceful waterhole located in the Garden of Eden. The lush green of the trees and cycads provides a striking contrast against the greys and reds of the surrounding rocks. The ascent to the top of the south rim of the canyon leaves me breathless, literally, however knowing that we will soon be traversing down towards the car park is enough to propel me towards the finish line. What a wonderful, wonderful experience.

The sheer walls of Kings Canyon

In the afternoon some wild dingoes circled by as we boarded our helicopter for a scenic flight over the canyon, Petermen, and the surrounding districts. We shared the flight with our new found buddies from Perth, Julie and Mark. Looking down we see the abstract patterns cast from the land and we all marvel at how clever we have been to have completed the strenuous rim walk. From the helicopter we catch our first glimpse of a silhouette of Uluṟu sitting faintly in the distance on the far horizon.

On our final evening in Kings Canyon, we savour a delicious five course dinner under the stars whilst sitting around the campfire sharing stories and laughter.

The next morning we are given the opportunity for a sleep in, that is to say we don’t have to set off before sunrise. It has been suggested we be ready to depart by half past eight as we have a four to five hour trip to reach our next destination at the foot of Uluṟu.

Along the way we would be stopping at Curtin Springs, a sustainable cattle station that has been in the Severin family since 1956. Curtin Springs is located about an hour out from Uluṟu in the shadow of another monolith, Mount Conner which is often mistaken for Uluṟu, so much so that it has been given the name Fooluluru. The Severin family run conservative cattle numbers so that they can best manage disasters such as fires and drought, with water for the station pumped from underground. Cattle watering points are located in yards so they may be passively mustered through the use of water trapping. Over the years they have diversified the business to offer accommodation and tours and a paper making business where they make paper products and artworks by pulping the fibres of various native grasses. After an introduction to the paper making process we are treated to a traditional Aussie style BBQ lunch with sausages, camel meat patties, salads and potato bake.

Mid afternoon we arrived at our final destination, the luxurious lodge, Longitude 131. As we bid farewell to our driver Bill, our arrival was somewhat overshadowed by the kerfuffle created by Sue whose husband Steve has been feeling poorly since we departed Kings Canyon. Whilst he was being ferried off to a medical centre, we were being warmly welcomed by the staff in the Dune House with warm towels perfumed with Lemon Myrtle, a freshly prepared charcuterie board and a Green Ant Gin and Tonic.

Our host William escorted us to our beautiful safari style luxury tent, Eyre, where we had an uninterrupted view of Uluṟu from the bottom of our bed.

Room with a view at Longitude 131, Uluṟu with Desert Oaks dotted across the landscape

In the evening we ventured out into the field, a glass of bubbles and canapés in hand whilst taking in a classic picture postcard sunset over Uluṟu. The intense orange illuminating the sandstone walls of the ancient monolith was only surpassed in its beauty by the blue hour, when just after sunset the Belt of Venus, an atmospheric phenomenon that is so dramatic at Uluṟu, created a pink band in the sky, falling between the Earth’s shadow and the blue sky. As we turn around we see the vivid orange sun kissing the outback horizon beside Kata Tjuṯa (The Olga’s).

As darkness falls and Uluṟu goes to sleep, we stop off for a wander through the Frank Munro Field of Lights, a fantasy garden of 50,000 spindles of light, symbolic of the regeneration of seeds springing back to life after the rain, the stems swaying through a sympathetic desert spectrum of gentle ochres, deep violet, soft electric blues and limes, and spectral whites. By daylight you realize that this most modern of art installations is not just sitting alone on the red dirt, but actually on the cusp of a monumental outdoor gallery. We savour this thought and the delicious four course bush food Table 131 dinner, whilst sitting under the stars and perched atop the sand dunes, as we settle back and listen to a rendition of Dorothea McKellar’s, I Love a Sunburnt Country before we are further regaled by the resident astronomer as he decodes the southern night sky. Returning to our lodge, our swags are set up for us on the deck outside our rooms, where with cognac in hand and our feet firmly placed on our hot water bottles, we can lay in silence and continue our star gazing.

The next morning, another pre-dawn start involves a forty five minute drive and a hike to see Kata Tjuṯa from the ground. The terrain in the Valley of the Winds is rocky and as we take a guided walk through Waḻpa Gorge with its sheer rock walls rising obliquely on either side, and we gently rise up to a seasonal stream, we see wildflowers, including the inedible bush tomato, flocks of zebra finches, ring necked parrots and budgies. Kata Tjuṯa is a special place sacred to Aṉangu men and we learn more about this on our visit to the Cultural Centre and Art Gallery.

After a morning exploring, we enjoy lunch in the Dune House prepared by world renowned chef Ryan Ward who has a passion for bringing seasonal fresh produce infused with local bush ingredients to the table. I settled for this succulent seared kangaroo and heirloom beetroot salad.

Lunch served in the Dune House, Longitude 131

After a relaxed afternoon exploring the facilities at the resort it’s time to get up close and personal with the rock as we take an escorted evening stroll along the base around the Mala section as our guide retells creation stories that the land’s traditional Aṉangu owners are willing to share as the rock itself reveals surprises - nooks, crannies, one such cranny nicknamed Mick Jaggers lips, because of its shape, sacred caves, rock paintings and waterholes. We finish the evening walk at the peaceful Kantju Gorge, the sunset turning the towering walls overhead a vivid shade of orange as we sip our champagne.

We hear the melodic sounds of a lone didgeridoo player as we return to the lodge for our final dinner in the Dune House. We clink our glasses, a negroni is our cocktail of choice, made by the cutest Balinese smiling assassin, the bright orange of the negroni, a nod to the colours of the Uluṟu landscape at sunset. After a fun night we return to our comfy king size Baillie beds, warmed by hot water bottles tucked below our pillows, and handmade fine couverture chocolate boomerangs to enjoy before falling off into an exhausted slumber.

When we arrived in the reception area on our final morning at Longitude 131, there was a buzz in the air as the Saudi Royal family were staying in the house. With our guide we headed out for a base walk through acacia woodlands and grassed claypans on the eastern side of Uluṟu before arriving at the sacred and peaceful Muṯitjulu waterhole, which is home to a community of around 300 Aboriginal people. Here you can see Aboriginal Rock Art which has been created and preserved by the Aboriginal peoples over millions of years as our wonderful guide Chris told us stories of the presence of two ancestral beings, Kuniya, the woma python, and Liru, the venomous snake. The Kuniya and Lira story occurs on different sides of Uluṟu, but their deadly battle took place near Muṯitjulu Waterhole. You can learn more about The Kuniya and Lira story here.

Rock art on the underside of a cave near Muṯitjulu waterhole, Uluṟu

Today we bid farewell to our time in outback Australia and our travel buddies. After our final morning excursion to Uluṟu, we are welcomed back to the lodge with a warming cup of pumpkin, ginger and coconut soup, before devouring a sumptuous hot breakfast. The first class hospitality we have enjoyed at Longitude 131 continues right up until the time we say goodbye to our driver Chris who has escorted us to Uluṟu airport. As we step onto the footpath he hands us a little bag containing a packed lunch with a tartlet, fresh fruit, coconut water and treats for us to enjoy on the flight home. We have truly been spoilt during our time in Australia’s spiritual heartland.

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