Centred in the desert

Daniel Scott sleeps under the stars, eats bush tucker and meditates on an outback journey of self-discovery.

It's 2am at the Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge, 300 kilometres north-east of Uluru, and my attempts at getting centred in the Red Centre are not progressing well. I've lain awake inside my tented cabin for four hours, troubled by the wind rasping through the desert scrub, by the baying of dingoes and by what sounds like a collective of hobnail-booted imps scuttling across the canvas roof.

Finally, I sink into an agitated slumber. In my dreams I'm running across a vast, arid plain pursued by a pack of wild dogs. The vision is so vivid and the scratching around the tent so insistent I'm soon convinced a snarling dingo is on top of me. Shoving it away violently, I wake the occupants of neighbouring cabins with my cries.

It's still pitch dark when, a few hours later, our small group assembles at the beginning the Kings Canyon rim walk in nearby Watarrka National Park. The last time I tackled this six-kilometre loop, when young and stupid, was in the middle of a January day and the temperature reached 51 degrees. Though I am sleep deprived, I'm grateful for the early start, especially as it begins with a steep half-hour slog.

By the time we reach the top, the sun is rising over the surrounding George Gill Range in a veil of burgundy-coloured cloud. The canyon, though, remains in shadow and, as we pick our way along the rim, it is disturbingly quiet. Strange shapes loom out of the sandstone plateau above the canyon. One outcrop looks like a camel's head. Another precariously balanced rock is eroded into a jagged replica of a map of Britain.

When sunlight reaches Kings Canyon it seems to set its corrugated walls on fire, an orange flame travelling fast across the rocks. I squint across the burnished central Australian desert and feel like I'm witnessing a continent waking up. If I knew how, and I've been assured I will before long, this would be the perfect time to perform a yogic sun salutation.

It's now three days since I left my family on the east coast to join this Red Centre journey that promises pampering, yoga and sleeping under the stars. Led by Tourism NT, our group will take in some iconic rock formations, spend a night camping at an Aboriginal community and then head into Alice Springs for a personal development workshop. Although not a bookable tour, each activity can be undertaken individually.

We begin by popping in on the region's icons: Uluru (a big, red, oblong rock), Kata Tjuta (a collection of big, red, round rocks, aka the Olgas), Mount Conner (a big, red, rectangular rock) and now Kings Canyon (a big hole in a red rock).

"You can really sense the spirituality here," muses a companion as we peer down 150 metres into Kings Canyon from Cotterills Lookout. "It's incredibly strong." It's true that we're standing above an area of deep significance to the Luritja Aborigines. But my spirituality radar doesn't appear to be functioning properly.

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As we descend inside the gorge to a place called the Garden of Eden, I'm beginning to wonder what's wrong with me. We're beside the gently flowing Kings Creek, surrounded by ancient rock walls and an explosion of desert greenery and all that's going through my head are the words of the 1980s Ultravox hit, Vienna: "This means nothing to me."

It's then that I have a tiny epiphany. Getting centred, I realise, isn't something that just happens to you. You need to concentrate your mind on it. I vow to try harder.

Later that day I have a chance to put my new regime into action when we arrive at the remote Oak Valley Aboriginal community, 110 kilometres south of Alice Springs. Tonight we will be sleeping in swags around a campfire on Craig Le Rossignol's property.

Camping at Oak Valley is more than a simple outback experience because Le Rossignol - from the local Arrernte people but with French ancestry - is the most passionate sharer of indigenous culture and beliefs I've met.

Once Le Rossignol joins us to prepare a kangaroo tail appetiser on the campfire, he begins chatting and barely draws breath for three hours. It's a gripping discourse but one that also allows for plenty of questions about indigenous spirituality.

That night, while dingoes lurk in the surrounding scrub, I fall asleep instantly in my swag and am only woken by the bar-room squawk of corellas heralding a new day.

During the morning Le Rossignol takes us on a tour of Oak Valley. We begin by driving into the nearby sandstone hills. Here, on what used to be the seabed, we find nautiloid and trilobite fossils from the Precambrian period, 4.5 billion to 500 million years ago. Later we go for a walk in the valley full of desert oaks from which the community gets its name.

"This has been a place of abundance for the Arrernte for possibly 40,000 years," Le Rossignol says as he recounts his people's creation story. To illustrate the story, he traces a map, covering 700 kilometres of central Australia, in the valley's red dirt, describing how song lines link that story from one area to another.

As he speaks I feel like I'm finally getting it - a strong sense of the other-worldliness all around me. It's a feeling driven home when we climb into some caves adorned with ancient paintings. Mysteriously, in a Picnic at Hanging Rock-type moment, one of our group goes missing here for nearly an hour. She's eventually discovered, still sitting in a cave, apparently oblivious to the passage of time.

You could sit and talk with Le Rossignol for days and not exhaust his cultural sharing but we have an appointment with another spiritual guru in Alice Springs.

When I first meet moon-faced yoga practitioner and counsellor Kalikamurti Suich, who's adopted name comes from an Indian deity and means "destroyer of illusion", I find her a tad fierce. But, as we begin her one-day Taking Charge of Life workshop with a spine-twisting yoga session, I concentrate hard on letting myself relax.

Perhaps I relax too much. During meditation at the end of yoga I fall asleep and have visions of Uluru against a deep blue sky and of Kata Tjuta from high above. Finally, I feel myself flying, hurtling high above the desert.

"Now," Suich is saying when I come to, "we're moving on to a series of activities and visualisations designed to help you realise the quality of life you want."

For the next few hours, working in pairs in Suich's garden, we examine our lives and determine how to change them for the better. It's the usual wish list: lose weight, be a better partner, make more personal time, and so on. But in the context of this spiritual journey, it seems real and achievable. We end with more yoga, in the gentle dru (meaning "still point") style. By now, Suich doesn't seem remotely fierce and I'm feeling positively chilled in the hot Red Centre.

Happily, tonight's Mbantua dinner tour, hosted by Aboriginal chef Bob Taylor at nearby Simpsons Gap, matches my mood. Like Le Rossignol, Taylor, who's worked all over Australia and in Europe, is a great talker. But his prime concern is that we enjoy the enveloping dusk while he prepares a feast, using native ingredients, on a mulga-wood campfire.

The treats begin with a bush tomato and native basil dukkah dip, continue with barbecued kangaroo fillet and conclude with white chocolate and wattle-seed steamed puddings. It's so delicious it takes us a while to notice the Milky Way emerging above.

The galaxy is still visible at 4.30am the next day, when we assemble in the desert to go hot-air ballooning.

After being bundled into the basket of a large balloon, we watch several blasts of its fiery burner fill its envelope. Then, as the sun rises over the desert plain, our balloon eases skyward.

Before long, with a fat, red sun illuminating the nearby MacDonnell Ranges, we are travelling at speed through the cool dawn. As I look down on the landscape racing by, it's a strangely familiar scene. It's exactly what I saw during meditation yesterday.

As the thrilling flight continues, I'm filled with contentment and optimism about the coming year. Perhaps there's something to this getting-centred business.

Then, just as we are coming in to land, crosswinds blow the balloon off course. We just miss the Adelaide-to-Darwin train line and narrowly avoid a mob of emus.

Coming down to Earth with a hefty bump, we spill out of the basket in a heap, leaving me hoping that life after this Red Centre trip doesn't follow suit.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop to Alice Springs from Melbourne (2hr 30min, about $246) and Sydney (2hr 40min, about $281). Qantas ($264) and Virgin Blue ($198) fly non-stop from Sydney to Uluru. Tiger flies non-stop from Melbourne to Alice Springs (about $100). All fares are one way including tax.

Staying there

Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge has luxury (airconditioned) tented cabins from $350 a person, twin share, including dinner and breakfast. Phone 1800 891 121, see aptouring.com.au/Tour/KCWLS1.

Oak Valley Aboriginal community is in remote desert. The easiest way to visit is with Wayoutback Safaris. A two-day tour costs $595 a person. Phone (08) 8952 4324, see wayoutback.com.au.

Quest Apartments, 9 South Terrace, Alice Springs, has rooms from $190. Phone (08) 8959 0000, see questapartments.com.au.

Relaxing there

Kalikamurti Suich runs a one-day well-being workshop in Alice Springs for $350, with lunch and morning/afternoon teas. Yoga from $135 a day. Minimum group size of six. Phone (08) 8952 3638, see beyondbreathingspace.com.

Red Ochre Spa at Ayers Rock Resort has a range of treatments, including a 30-minute massage for $65. Phone (08) 8957 7036, see ayersrockresort.com.au/red-ochre-spa.

Bob Taylor's Mbantua dinners at Simpsons Gap cost $150 a person.

Phone (08) 8952 0327, see rttoursaustralia.com.au.

Outback Ballooning in Alice Springs has 30-minute flights from $275 an adult, 20 per cent less for children aged six to 16. Phone 1800 809 790, see outbackballooning.com.au.

More information

See en.travelnt.com/red-centre.aspx.

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