The Outback: Australia, desert side

It is called the "red heart". The most desert part of the driest of continents, the'Outback Australian (“hinterland”) unfolds landscapes of barely conceivable excess. Overtaken, the great outdoors of the American West: the XXXL, it's here! A million inhabitants share a territory the size of two thirds of Europe.

Under the eye unfold inexhaustible plains planted with acacias, shrubs or thin brush, or just covered with a shroud of grass in tufts (spinifex). The horizon is lost in the haze of heat or curls as the old massifs of eroded red sandstone approach. Targeted : greatu, the famous Ayers Rock monolith, scratched by time and aboriginal spirits and its alter ego of the Kata Tjuṯa (Olga Mountains).

Along the way, other pearls are added to the necklace, such as McDonnel Ranges, where wallabies emerge from chaos and the “Garden of Eden” from King's canyon. So many oases that sublimate the vastness of Australia.

The Outback, the red hell of the Australian desert

Eyes fixed on the road for hours, the odometer scrolls, mile after mile. Australia never seems so vast as at the heart of the Red Heart, in this Outback where the semi-desert steppe unrolls endlessly its expanses of parchment soil, on which the old mountains have spat out clusters of rocks.

Every stone, every square meter of land here takes on a texture shaped by the millions of years that have passed. Nothing is new in the Australian Outback, everything is old, eroded, worn out. The rains, falling especially during the austral summer, gully the ground. The brush seems burnt in their lifetime. The rivers of old memories evaporated, that only their broken and cracked beds still betray.

From the middle of the night to the peak of the day, the thermometer makes its revolution here every 12 hours, leaving the frost outskirts to prance often above 30 ° C (40 ° C in summer). Who can survive such a thermal amplitude?

- kangaroos and wallabies have their technique: they graze at dawn, when the dew still clouds the meager grassy acres they can find. The wombatsThey dig underground and store their food there, which is filled with relative humidity.

Le dingo himself, under his air of a beaten dog, has adapted. In the middle of the desert, its fur takes on reddish tints and doubles as an insulating layer. Moreover, the more hostile the conditions, the stockier the dingo.

Alice Springs, the capital of the Australian desert

Alice Springs, it is small town Australia in all its splendor: less than 30 inhabitants, 000 shopping centers flocking to those who live within a radius of 3 km, a post where you have to pick up their mail and no skyscrapers for pull the gaze upwards. Here, everything is flat, like the landscape.

Porte de l'Outback, Alice (for those in the know) roasts under the sun 300 days a year. Far from everything, close to nothing, the city is content to play the oases with its driveways licked by date palms and eucalyptus, its motels, its swimming pools, its Aquatic Center, its green and shaved lawns, its golf course and its Foodland where we sell kangaroo tail ...

All thanks to a source discovered in 1871 (now dried up), to which was given the name of the wife of the superintendent of telegraphs.

Le telegraph building is still there, recalling the time of the conquest, that of the gold rush of 1887 and the history of the Afghan camel drivers who made it possible to trace the first tracks and to supply this outback.

There are still dromedaries to walk tourists, but also the very serious Camel Cup (2nd Saturday in July), born out of a bet in the 1970s and today sponsored by the Lion's Club ...

Reptile Center, Alice Springs Desert Park, Museum of Central Australia, aboriginal art galleries… Everything here speaks of the great natural spaces that surround the city and their inhabitants. But the best is still to go and see for yourself.

McDonnell Ranges: wallabies and kangaroos

On Alice Springs' maps, the Todd River launches its bluish trace. Disappointment: 345 days of the year, on average, the stream is dry and dusty.

Going upstream, we quickly saw the peaks of the McDonnell Ranges, a chain stretching over 300 km on both sides of the city. Modeled by time, the rock cracks there with gorges and valleys where, from time to time, natural pools are hollowed out, filled with rainwater. It is the refuge of the endemic Dryopsophus gilleni, a large green frog with its back studded with white dots.

À Simpson's Gap25 km west of Alice Springs, a breach in the reddish rock conceals one of these precious water points, guarded by small rock wallabies. The famous Larapinta Trail, which explores the entire massif for 223 km, goes there from the first day - but you have to continue 2-3 days to immerse yourself in the most beautiful landscapes of the route.

Was the meeting with the wallabies too brief? Don't miss the one of the joeys du Kangaroo Sanctuary. From Tuesday to Friday evening (the time they wake up), for A $ 85, transport included, you will have the opportunity to visit this rehabilitation center for young orphan red kangaroos, installed on an outback section of 76 ha, with hospital and volunteers at the key. Obviously endearing when you drop one of these joeys in your arms, wrapped in its blanket reminding it of its mother's pocket.

King's Canyon, Australian Garden of Eden

The car sped over the tar tape. On these bush lands, the signs are speeding up: 110 km / h. Every now and then, the oncoming road trains move colossal masses of air with their three trailers end to end. Next stop: King's canyon, 460 km southwest of Alice Springs.

Featured Watarrka National Park, the King's Canyon rises up its walls, scarlet in the evening, in an isolated area of ​​mountains torn apart by gorges and water holes - refuges for fauna and flora. After the rains, the desert is covered with purple carpets of Calandrinia balonensis and funny scarlet bouquets of black-lipped swainsonas, emerging from the sand.

We embark there for a beautiful pedestrian cruise along the Rim Walk (6 km). The path rises towards the high banks of the canyon, crossing the collection of eroded domes of the "Lost City", stacked like chipped plates, before plunging down a long wooden staircase into the oasis of the " Garden of Eden ". There, at the bottom, the holes of precious water are surrounded by an abundance - relative - of large endemic cycads and eucalyptus.

Bathing is tempting, but respect requires sticking to sweat. The Aborigines made the Garden of Eden a highly sacred place, emanation of the time of the dream, this forgotten era which saw the shaping of man and his myths. The imagination has always been rife in this country where the vastness of the territory forces us to think big.

Uluṟu, national park and world heritage

Emerging from nothing in the orange light of the early morning or the yellowish purples of twilight, the uluṟu dome imposes itself on the horizon. Long named after the only name of the British governor of South Australia, Ayers Rock finally retrieved its aboriginal toponym.

Geologists speak of inselberg to designate this isolated relief in the plain, the last vestige of a very old mountain to have survived erosion. We could almost speak of an iceberg, so much most of its mass remains buried.

What a vestige in any case! A block of oblong red sandstone 348 m high and 2,5 km long, evoking a whale's back emerging from the sandy waves of the desert… Only a few caves, crevices and folds punctuate its shell.

During the austral summer, Uluṟu becomes a water tower. The rains coagulate there in sublime cascading, nourishing all around the base of the temporary basins and their vegetation. Only the Mutitjulu Waterhole, with placid waters nestled at the very foot of the polished rock, remains year-round. The Anangu people, custodians of the place, have respect for it commensurate with its rarity. It is populated by frogs and, they say, protected by the rainbow serpent Wanampi.

Some offer the complete tour of the rock (9,4 km), others favor walks guided by rangers, an open door to Aboriginal traditions. Fewer and fewer hikers attempt the summit: if it can be a little dangerous, the Anangu would especially like to discourage the ascent because of its sacred nature.

Kata Tjuṯa: the 36 heads of the Australian desert

About thirty kilometers west of Uluṟu, the Kata Tjuṯa (Olga Mountains) are part of the same national park and belong to the same antediluvian rock vein (600 million years ago).

There are 36 elongated monoliths or "domes" here, streaked in places with gray veins and dotted with holes, which are divided by several gorges. Their aboriginal name, meaning "many heads", says it all.

Less geometric, but larger and higher than Uluṟu, the Kata Tjuṯa peak at nearly 600 m above the desert plain, further imposing their colossal character.

An essential site of Anangu beliefs, the area is only partially accessible to walkers. The shorter of the two authorized walks (2,6 km round trip), in the deep funnel of the Walpa Gorge, testifies to the monumentality of the place. Its two enormous opposing walls allowed a thin strip of vegetation to develop, sheltered from the scorching sun. This is where most of the 400 species of plants and 150 species of birds listed.

From the next parking lot, the Valley of the Winds walk (7,4 km the full loop) is aptly named: at times, you can feel the hot desert wind rushing in with power. The hike, sometimes arduous when the mercury borders on 35 ° C (the path is closed above 36 ° C), leads on the northern side of the massif, to the splendid viewpoint of Karingana. In front of you then opens a huge amphitheater of red rock.

Red Center Way: road trip in Australia

There comes a time when crossing the huge 4x4s of Australians clad in gear storming the desert becomes a little frustrating. The tar certainly has advantages over the interminable distances of the Red Center, but it encloses the journey in a straitjacket that leaves little room for adventure.

While exploring the Simpson Desert area requires real off-road driver skills, the Red Center Way (aka Mereenie Loop) draws a nice alternative accessible even to campervans in the dry season.

This 690 km route allows you to return to Alice Springs from Uluṟu via King's Canyon and the West McDonnell Ranges, with just 128 km of (usually) wide track to spice things up. Nothing horribly nasty, but big sections of corrugated iron if the bulldozer hasn't passed for a while, somewhat sandy passages better suited to 4x4s and, as a bonus, a few crossings of fords, stony river beds and large tubs if it rained recently. Without forgetting horses, donkeys and wild dromedaries which are sometimes forgotten in the middle of the road ...

As a bonus, your choice: Ormiston Gorge for those who will join Alice by Route 2, with its large basin nestled at the foot of high cliffs and an overhanging lookout. Or, better yet, the detour from the old Hermannsburg mission (Route 6) via Mpulungkinya, aka Palm valley, where hundreds of large cycads and palm trees thrive. An ultimate oasis to better appreciate these desert immensities which form the basis of the Outback.


Find all the practical information, tips and addresses in Routard Australia in bookstores.

Consult our Australia online guide

How to get there ?

No direct flight between France and Australia. We usually make a stopover in the Gulf countries or Singapore. Find your plane ticket to Australia.

Most visitors first fly to Alice Springs from one of Australia's major metropolises and hire a car there. It's easy thanks to Qantas or Virgin Australia, which is generally cheaper. However, there are also direct flights to Uluṟu from Melbourne, Cairns, Sydney and Alice with Qantas, Virgin and the (almost) low-cost Jetstar.

Alice Springs is on the Greyhound bus route from Adelaide (South Australia) to Darwin (Northern Territories). From Alice, you can also reach Cairns and Brisbane on the Queensland coast, but you have to be patient (54 hours of travel!). Take a look at the Short Hop and Hop on Hop off passes which allow stopovers along the way.

To reach Uluṟu from Alice Springs (or King's Canyon), you can take one of the 2 daily Travel buses (169 A $ one way, or about 115 €) pu, a little cheaper, that of AAT Kings (at from 129 A $, or around 88 €) with a stop in a camel farm.

A first railway line connecting Adelaide to Alice Springs was inaugurated in 1929. In 2004, it was finally extended to Darwin, finally making it possible to cross the island-continent from south to north (or vice versa), over 2979 km. The Ghan (that's the name of the train, very chic) ​​is also available, from May to August, in Ghan Expedition, like a trip organized in 3 nights and 4 days, at prices close to the exorbitant ...

If you're thinking of hiring a car in one of Australia's major metropolises and carving out the road to the Red Center, do your research beforehand. Considering the distances, most companies only allow the use of their vehicles in certain states, or prohibit the tracks (or both). If you exceed, you will not be covered in the event of a problem.


Hot, do you think? Hot, yes, but not only. Scorching (above 40 ° C) during the day from October to March, with violent thunderstorms and rather mild nights. Cool, even cold on winter nights (5-6 ° C at its lowest from May to August), with more temperate days. Regarding precipitation, it never rains more than 3 days per month


Accommodation is expensive in Australia if you want to sleep in a hotel or even a motel (allow a minimum of 100-120 A $, or 68-82 € per night). On the other hand, the Outback offers a sacred pannel of more or less wild or organized campsites. Some, along the slopes, are even free! Otherwise, many backpackers adopt the campervan, a kind of converted van in which you can sleep - a real invitation to nomadism.


Audio Video The Outback: Australia, desert side
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