Rocky Road : With the Help of a Land Cruiser, the Outback Opens Up Into a Wonderland of Rock Art, Oases and Dramatic Canyons

Clambering up into our four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser on the first day of our Australian self-drive desert exploration, we felt like characters in a Mel Gibson "Road Warrior" movie: There was nothing between us and the harsh outback but our machine .

We named the thing Tonka. On the dry, paved roads of Alice Springs, frankly, it was hard to imagine that we'd ever need such a monster. Gigantic tractors have smaller tires; earthmovers have fewer controls. We were told that the "bull bar" bolted to the front was protection in case we hit any water buffaloes. Any what ?

Later, though, deep in the outback, we grew to appreciate our substantial, hard-working friend.

When we decided on a self-guided, four-wheel-drive adventure into Australia's red center, it was obvious that the outback capital of Alice Springs (pop. 25,000) in the Northern Territory was the perfect jumping-off point. Located near the exact center of Australia, and the only major town for 500 miles in any direction, Alice offered not only a good base for our projected explorations, but a major tourist attraction--Ayers Rock--within a day's drive.

While Ayers Rock (which the Aborigines call Uluru) and its companion massive rock formation, the Olgas (Kata Tjuta), lived up to their advance billing, what really made our vacation memorable was our "discovery" of three other special places, accessible only by four-wheel-drive: the lush, prehistoric Palm Valley; the peaceful setting of the Ewaninga Aboriginal rock carvings, and the dramatic cliffs of Kings Canyon.

We started our four-wheel-drive adventure with a bold first stop: Alice Springs' visitors' center. It's a must for self-drivers, not just for detailed maps but for information on current road conditions, which can change quickly in this region--sometimes with dire consequences for the unprepared.

Our first foray into the outback was a day trip to Palm Valley, about 100 miles southwest of Alice. Starting on a paved road--Aussies call it bitumen (pronounced "bitch-a-men")--we soon got the hang of driving on the left and shifting with the left hand.

The countryside, with its scrub trees and bushes, distant buttes and multicolored mesas, reminded us of New Mexico and Arizona, but here the palette was a fiery red soil, forged in a climatological furnace that can reach 120 degrees. Sixty miles from Alice, the pavement faded to a wide, relatively smooth dirt road. At Hermannsburg--an Aboriginal community with facilities for travelers--a sign warned "4WDs Only." The road narrowed after that to what looked like an abandoned animal track, and Tonka rarely got out of first or second gear. As he clawed his way over boulders, we hung on rather helplessly, tossed from side to side like balls in a particularly fierce pinball game.

At one point, we came to a narrow, fast-moving stream where a rock ledge submerged in knee-high water was the only way across. Deeper water on both sides of this natural bridge made it a tightrope fording. As I slowly pulled out onto the ledge, the water grabbed at the tires; one careless move on my part and Tonka would have been a houseboat.

When we reached Palm Valley, which is part of Finke Gorge National Park, we found it startling--a tropical oasis in the heart of a desert. Permanent underground water and protective cliffs have nurtured and sheltered remnants of a prehistoric rain forest here--mostly red cabbage palms (the seedlings resemble cabbages) and palm-like cycads.

We parked Tonka and set off to explore on foot. Flat river rock, worn smooth by eons of seasonal flooding, offered us natural pathways past reflective pools and through thick stands of palms, ferns and wild grasses. We hiked until we were tired, had a picnic beside the stream, then returned to our vehicle and drove back to Alice at a leisurely pace.

The next day we headed southeast on another four-wheel-drive-only track. This time there were no boulders to climb, no rivers to ford--just a wide dirt swath of washboard ruts and mudholes. Twenty-five miles down the line we found the Ewaninga rock carvings, one of the highlights of our entire trip.

Here, the flat desert was broken by a ring of rock outcroppings that suggested tired old giants hunched around a fire. Nearby, a small pond had become a haven for life. Maroon and yellow wildflowers danced merrily around tufts of prickly spinifex grass. Blue mallee bushes and pine-tree-like desert oaks shaded small rodents and lizards.

We were greeted by the chattering of swallows, wrens and martins, welcomed by the throb of crickets. We could almost imagine the light breeze whispering tales of the 300 generations of nomadic Aborigines who had lived and died here. Wrapped around everything was a sense of ageless peace, as solid as the rocks, as ethereal as the clouds.

And then there were the paintings: Scattered around the outcroppings were well-preserved works by ancient artists. The abstract carvings included concentric circles, wavy lines and animal tracks. Thousands of years old, these haunting symbols, and their peaceful home, held us in their magic for nearly half a day.

The next day, we headed to Kings Canyon, part of Watarrka National Park. The canyon, about a four-hour drive from Alice, takes at least a day to see even partially. An easy, scenic hour's walk winds through the canyon; a truly spectacular but much harder four-hour trail goes to the top of the canyon and around the rim. We tried the longer trek, heeding numerous warning signs and taking along hats, sun block, food and water. The hike was difficult at times (it's not for the old at heart), but requires only average fitness and a relaxed pace to be accomplished. It helps that the rock is in layered formations, like steppingstones.

The hardest going is at the beginning, when the trail snakes up a rugged, rubble-strewn hillside to the top of the canyon. This portion of the climb gave us great views of the surrounding desert, but was also a constant reminder that we were 40 years old.

Reaching the top of the cliff, we found the trail well-marked by unobtrusive blue arrows and enhanced with good interpretive signs. After catching our breath, we headed off into the eerie "Lost City," with its post-holocaust-like sandstone "buildings."

The trail then wound toward the cliff rim, where the canyon walls are so sheer they look as if they've been sliced by a giant cleaver. With no guard rails, and a breeze nearly always blowing, most people lie on their stomachs and inch toward the edge to peer over into the canyon. An added benefit is that you're already prone if you faint from fright.

We could have spent an entire day wandering around the canyon's sandstone domes or just sitting near the rim and scaring ourselves to death. Instead, we continued on to Ayers Rock and the Olgas.

Back in Alice Springs a few days later, after more four-wheel explorations, we bid farewell to Tonka. Our muscular friend had been intimidating at first, but we had soon grown fond of him. Without him, we realized, we would have worried constantly. For such peace of mind, it seemed a small price to pay that, for weeks after the trip, we talked in manly grunts and dreamed about torque, r.p.m.s and gear ratios.

GUIDEBOOK: The Outback on Wheels

Getting there: There is daily air service to Alice Springs from Sydney, Adelaide and other Australian cities on Australian Airlines and Ansett Australia. Round-trip fares from Sydney begin at about $400, from Adelaide at about $270.

Getting around: Four-wheel-drive vehicles may be rented from numerous car rental agencies in Alice Springs, including representatives of Hertz, Avis, National and other international companies. Depending on season, type of vehicle and length of rental, rates range from about $60 to $100 per day. Gasoline is expensive in Australia; filling a four-wheel-drive tank can cost $45-$60. Note: There are basic safety rules that any four-wheel-drive traveler in the outback should learn and follow. Among them: It is essential to take along ample food, water and protective clothing (including sun hats), even on short trips, and if a breakdown should occur, it is vital to stay with your vehicle. It is also advisable not to drive after sunset, when animals on the roads become serious hazards. Rental car agencies and the Alice Springs tourist center will provide more specific information.

Where to stay: Alice Springs is a major tourist destination, and as such has numerous hotels, motels and resorts at all levels and prices. Two recommended establishments: Alice Springs Pacific Resort, 34 Stott Terrace, centrally located, with a pool and restaurant. Rates: about $85 for two; tel. 011-61-89- 526-699 (from the United States), fax 011-61-89-530-995. Melia Alice Springs, Barrett Drive, the fanciest place in town (actually just outside the city), a former Sheraton now Spanish-owned, with a golf course, tennis courts, pool and several bars and restaurants. Rates: about $110-$140; for reservations, tel. 011-61-89-528-000.

For more information: Contact the Australian Tourist Commission, 2121 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 1200, Los Angeles 90067, (310) 552-1988.

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