Surrounded by seemingly endless red rock and spiky spinifex grass, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the desolate beauty of the Australian Outback. Fortune-seeking adventurers have long braved the treacherous interior region, but today’s visitors seek a different kind of rush. Instead of gold, they’re coming to the Northern Territory for epic single-track mountain-bike trails and long-distance hiking routes in a rugged, mostly untrodden land.
For more than a half-century, the so-called Red Centre remained a mystery to the European settlers who colonized Australia. Eventually the magnetic draw of the Outback (and a need for a cross-continental telegraph line) proved too strong. But white adventurers, such as the ill-fated Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, never sought the wisdom of the indigenous Arrernte people who had learned to thrive in the harsh environment. According to biographer Peter Fitzsimons, Burke and Wills’s infamous expedition set off from Melbourne in 1860 with an estimated 20 tons of supplies, but was plagued by one self-inflicted mishap after another. Only one of the original 19 men successfully completed the passage and returned home.
The “quirky, unique, and sometimes brutal history of the Outback” is a key part of its appeal, says Marty Krieg, a senior planner for the Northern Territory Department for Tourism and Culture. But although officials want to capitalize on the area’s renown for adventure, they also want keep all their tourists alive.
A new age of adventure
How serious is the Australian government about growing safe adventure tourism? Within the last year, it has earmarked more than $12 million dollars for a mammoth new bikepacking (backpacking by bike) trail called the Red Centre Adventure Ride, Krieg says. The 125-mile trail will head west from Alice Springs to the gorgeous Glen Helen Gorge, with small campgrounds and sleeping huts along the way. The government also plans to improve the existing single-track and signage heading out of Alice Springs, which is poised to become the adventure capital of the Outback.
According to Kreig, although all-terrain vehicles have been popular in the area for years, mountain bikes started gaining traction recently after new, world-class trails transformed Tasmania and Victoria into bucket-list destinations for riders. Winter is low season in both places, and Krieg hopes that as the Alice Springs trail-building ramps up, more riders will make their way north during those months. Indeed, over the past two years, new gear shops have opened downtown, and dozens of outfitters such as Adventure Tours Australia and Wayoutback Australian Safaris now offer guided treks through the bush.
“People are looking for excitement and adventure in a world where their needs are always catered to,” Clarke Petrick, Alice Springs resident and owner of Outback Cycling, told me on my recent trip to the area. “The Outback is a place where people can test themselves and experience some self-inflicted hardship.”
That thought intrigued me, so Petrick agreed to take me on an overnight bush tour, to give me a taste of what the Outback has to offer.
Into the Red Centre
Locals joke that the Outback has two seasons: winter and unbearably hot. It was early spring when I visited, and the temperature was already touching 90 degrees as we rolled out from the shop at midday with local riders Cody Goodwin and Travis Bettineski. We were hoping to log at least 25 miles before nightfall, a healthy distance for a mountain-bike ride in the heat.
In the summer, local riders typically go out in the very early morning or at night, when the temperature drops. Night riding adds a completely different dimension to the single-track adventure, Petrick explained, as the desert suddenly becomes a more active place. As evening approaches, wild animals emerge from their daylong siestas in search of food and water.
A mile out of town, I lost all my bearings. The bush trails—many of which were ’roo trails before being overrun by knobby tires or boot treads—are currently poorly marked, so a guide is essential. Although we were never more than 10 or so miles from Alice Springs, there were stretches along which I would have ended up hopelessly lost without an experienced local leading the way.
Luckily, I managed to stay with the group all the way to our camp spot for the night. Camping is permitted almost everywhere in the bush, but some spots, like our home for the evening, have outhouses and water basins. Access to water is all-important in this unforgiving landscape. We unfurled our Aussie swags—heavy-duty sleeping bags that left us somewhat exposed to the elements—and fell asleep under the clearest night skies I’ve ever seen.
The next morning, to finish our excursion, we pedaled to Simpsons Gap, a stunning natural gorge in Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park, where we spied dozens of hikers of all ages and ability levels scrambling along the red-rock towers. A few were certainly in the middle of completing the 139-mile Larapinta Trail, which follows the Western MacDonnell Range from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder. The popular route is broken up into a dozen, often challenging, sections, each with camping areas and access to stocked tanks of fresh water.
My ride may have been over, but clearly, my choices for adventure were not.
Growing the options
Rainbow Valley and Standley Chasm Angkerle Atwatye are two other popular hikes, each located within about an hour’s drive of Alice Springs. Both offer relatively short treks with spectacular views. Starting from a paved trail, visitors to the Aboriginal-owned Standley Chasm Angkerle Atwatye hike a (mostly) dry creekbed about a mile into a red sandstone canyon. Rainbow Valley, another impressive rock formation, is estimated to be about 350 million years old and spans 10 square miles. The most popular path takes hikers less than a mile to Mushroom Rock, a huge boulder that has eroded into a toadstool shape over millions of years.
And of course, Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) stands nearly 300 miles south of Alice Springs. The massive, 600 million-year-old monolith unexpectedly juts up 1,150 feet from the ground and makes a spectacular backdrop for any hike. The trail around Uluru is about six miles, and you can often find park rangers leading tours that offer insight the geological history of the rock as well as summaries of the sacred tales about it from the local Anangu community. Most of the Anangu’s folklore revolves around the massive mountain, which they consider holy ground.
Krieg notes that while there are some climbers in the area, unlike hiking and biking, rock climbing is dying here for both cultural and environmental reasons, especially at Uluru. The Anangu hate seeing it “treated as a theme park,” Sammy Wilson, Uluru’s chairman of the park board, told Australian media outlet The Conversation. Climbing will be officially banned at Uluru beginning this October.
Following the expansion of the adventure travel industry in the Outback and the continued popularity of the Larapinta Trail, the Australian government’s commitment to the 125-mile Red Centre Adventure Ride is an important show of faith for this up-and-coming adventure destination. Officials expect to complete the trail within the next two years.
And it’s a conscious and collaborative move, too. Groups are working together to create a sustainable future that not only protects and celebrates the Outback but also provides economic benefits to the surrounding communities. Krieg says that they plan to work with the traditional Aboriginal landowners to create a trail that offers cultural experiences with “a soft-adventure experience that anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and ability to ride a bike can safely enjoy.” If only the trail had been around for Burke and Wills.
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to The Northern Territory