This doesn’t feel like Central Australia. Following heavy rains in February-March and again in mid-July, the usually parched landscape of brilliant cobalt skies over oxide-red earth is softened with swathes of new plant shoots. The air is redolent with the honey-sweet aroma of pukara (desert heath-myrtle – Thryptomene maisonneuvei) and a bouquet of other wild flowers.
I’m privileged to experience the desert’s rebirth on a walking trip by Park Trek, a Melbourne-based company that has been running bushwalking trips for over 10 years. But I also want to gauge whether the trips are aimed solely at diehard bushwalkers, or are also suitable for complete novices like me.
At the start, things aren’t looking promising. Nearly half the group are from a single bushwalking club – diehards indeed – and the oldest, 82 year-old Pat, looks as though she could outwalk people half her age. But the whole group turns out to be delightful company.
The Ghost Gum Walk, near Ormiston Gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges about 90km west of Alice Springs, seems a fitting start. A solitary ghost gum atop a rise dominates the surrounding countryside, its base bedecked with the blooms of Sturt’s desert rose (Gossypium sturtianum). Then, because of flooding in Ormiston Gorge, we detour up a saddle and onto a ridge, sliding and scrambling over slithery shale. “This isn’t a very long walk, but I’d rate it medium to hard,” says Pat.
The next day there are two hiking options. The first, the Serpentine Chalet Gorge Walk, starts with a steep ascent, then heads along part of the famous Larapinta Trail – around 16km. The easier option is a shorter section of this walk followed by a visit to the Ochre Pits – striking 10m-high cliffs exposing swirls of white kaolin, yellow clay-ochre and deep-red oxidised iron.
“Depending on how many guides we have along, it’s usually possible to offer at least a couple of hiking options most days,” says Park Trek founder and chief whip-cracker Alan Fenner. “Or if you just want to take the day off and do nothing at all, that’s okay, too.” But with the spectacular scenery all around, I can’t help thinking a chill-out would be a cop-out.
After a sensational visit to Trephina Gorge in the East MacDonnells, we board an all-wheel-drive people-mover for a day’s visit to Palm Valley (Mpulungkinya), with its red cabbage palms, and the spectacular Kalarranga Lookout, in Finke Gorge National Park. Our guide Jenny is an expert on the region’s flora, including the striking silver indigo plant (Indigofera leucotricha).
And then it’s on to Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, via Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse and with a walking detour to Kathleen Gorge. The local Luritja people believe the waterhole at the head of the gorge is the abode of a rainbow serpent that guards the whole area – hopefully including us. But the highlights of Kings Canyon are undoubtedly the challenging Kings Canyon Rim Walk and the easier Kings Creek Walk, offering superb views of the sheer canyon walls.
Finally, it’s time for the big event: the pilgrimage to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. After a day spent exploring the trails of Kata Tjuta, I’m looking forward to the walk around the base of Uluru. However, much to my chagrin, I don’t get to complete the full circuit.
But in retrospect, I’m pleased I was pushed (okay – not too hard) and challenged a little. My self-imposed maximum 200m walk to the supermarket is no longer a fixed limit – I might even have to move further away! If only there were wild flowers along the Woolworths Trail.