Kerry van der Jagt heads into the spiritual heart of the outback along the Red Centre Way.
We have had Cycad Gorge to ourselves for almost two hours, and although the midday sun is a platinum fireball we are well shaded, stretched out under fronds of red cabbage palms that dip and flutter on the breeze like delicate geisha fans.
At our feet small birds gossip in the grass, while overhead crimson cliffs rear against an electric blue sky. Home to cycads, ferns and more than 3000 rare Livistona trees, Palm Valley looks like something from the dinosaur age, a picture scientists and tour guides have been presenting for years.
However, recent DNA testing suggests the palms arrived only some 15,000 years ago, possibly among the foods carried by indigenous people as they settled the area. To the western Arrernte people these palms have always been their ancestors, the fronds representing the flaming hair of their men folk.
It is day two of our three-day (660-kilometre) drive along the Red Centre Way, a little-known back road linking Alice Springs with Uluru. When I first drove this road in 2009 I vowed to return, to take the detours and distractions, and to learn more about an ancient landscape that had been shaped by meteorites, inconceivable geological forces and 40,000 years of indigenous culture.
We begin at Simpsons Gap, just outside Alice Springs, with a bush dinner prepared by chef Bob Taylor, of RT Tours. Taylor, a local Arrernte man, is happy to answer any question we throw at him, from his time in Adelaide as one of the stolen generation, to initiation rites and bush tucker.
As we dine on roasted macadamia, kangaroo fillets and a stew served with yam fritters, Taylor talks about Aboriginal laws and how they give meaning to land and to individual life. "We've got to take care of country," says Taylor. "Because country takes care of us."
Heading west the next morning we are soon swallowed by the red, calloused earth of the West MacDonnell Ranges. It is hard to comprehend that these reptilian ranges, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres either side of Alice Springs, were higher than the Himalayas before time and erosion reduced them to stumps.
We bypass Simpsons Gap and Standley Chasm, having visited before, but detour for Ellery Creek Big Hole, a gap in the ranges that exposes an almost complete sequence of sedimentary rocks laid down over 400 million years.
The water hole is still as a millpond, the morning sun scattering diamonds across its surface. I wade in, first to my knees, to my thighs, to my hips and then I dive, the sudden cold so brutal I think my bones will shatter. People have suffered hypothermia in these circumstances, so I keep moving, striking out for the sandy hollow on the opposite bank.
With the beach to myself I stretch out in the sun, the silent energy of nature flooding my veins. Surrounded by river gums, gentle as grandmothers with their open arms and weathered bark, I feel like I'm finally getting it - a sense of what it means to be connected to the land and to think of it, as Aboriginal people do, as family.
The feeling continues at Glen Helen Resort, where our room looks onto Glen Helen Gorge, a chasm created by the Finke River.
As the setting sun ignites the western wall the outline of a shimmering snake emerges.
"That's the rainbow serpent," an elder from Alice Springs once told me. "He's guardian of the water hole and a reminder to look after the land."
After dinner in the resort's Namatjira Gallery, a plush restaurant serving treats such as crocodile spring rolls, barramundi fillets and chocolate chilli cheesecake, we take the last of our wine outside. In the shadowy darkness I can just make out the sleeping shape of the gorge.
The next morning a big sky opens up over rolling desert as we head deeper into the spiritual heart of the western Arrernte people, making our way along Namatjira Drive to Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) Conservation Reserve.
Though the crater was formed when an asteroid crashed to earth some 140 million years ago, both scientific and Aboriginal interpretation share a celestial origin. To the traditional owners the site marks the spot where a baby fell from the heavens, causing the circle of rocks to be thrown up.
It is believed the morning and evening stars are the mother and father searching endlessly for their fallen child.
Leaving the crater we detour along the unsealed road to Hermannsburg, stopping briefly at Albert Namatjira's house and the Hermannsburg cultural precinct, before setting off on the bumpy, 4WD-only, road to Palm Valley.
We are too lazy to tackle any of the walks, choosing instead to relax in the shade of the red cabbage palms. My husband dozes while I flick through a book by Aboriginal artist Kathleen Wallace, Listen Deeply, Let these Stories in. The only sound is the whisper of wind through the trees.
"Pay attention when you hear the walpa wind," Bob Taylor had said. "That's the breath of the ancestral snake Wanambi."
After a restful two hours we drive back to the start of Mereenie Loop Road, a 130-kilometre unsealed ribbon of red passing through Aboriginal-owned land (permit required, $5).
The first hint that this is no ordinary road comes from road signs painted on 44-gallon drums, from "lift um foot" to "put tum down" and "take a break". Under a cloudless sky we rattle and roll across coarse corrugations and sandy creek beds, alongside wild brumbies, platoons of fluffy desert oaks and termite mounds looking like out-of-place stalagmites.
By 4pm we arrive at Kings Canyon Resort, on the edge of the Watarrka National Park, which offers everything from camping grounds to deluxe spa rooms. From our room we watch storm clouds send a stampede of raindrops across the desert, invigorating the land and releasing a palpable spiritual energy.
The next morning we rise at dawn to tackle the four-hour Kings Canyon rim walk in Watarrka National Park. The walk begins with a leg-busting 500-step climb, but it's worth it to stand on top of a 270-metre precipice, whose walls look like slabs of fudge, to step into the voluptuous Garden of Eden and to walk among weathered domes known as the Lost City.
From Kings Canyon it is an easy four-hour drive to Ayers Rock Resort, with a pit stop at Curtain Springs Station for lunch.
We arrive in time to see a rousing performance by the Wakagetti cultural dancers, a complimentary activity offered by the resort each afternoon. Other free daily activities include guided garden walks, indigenous art markets and dance workshops.
Later that night, stretched out in the desert on a star-gazing tour, we learn that Aboriginal people knew a great deal about astronomy. Recent research has shown that some had a sophisticated numbering system, and navigated using stars and oral maps to open up trade routes across the country.
I think how much we have yet to learn about this ancient culture, staring at the pinpricks until my eyes water and the heavens begin to swirl. There is no sound or movement, just the caress of the walpa wind against my skin.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism NT and Voyages Ayers Rock Resort.
Qantas has a flight to Alice Springs starting at $209 from Sydney or Melbourne and a flight from Uluru to Sydney or Melbourne from $218. All fares are one way including taxes. See qantas.com.au.
A standard motel room at Glen Helen Resort starts from $160 for up to three people. See glenhelen.com.au, phone (08) 8956 7489. A deluxe spa room at Kings Canyon Resort starts from $339, including breakfast for two. See kingscanyonresort.com.au, phone 1300 863 248. Ayers Rock Resort has a superior room at the five-star Sails in the Desert from $460. See ayersrockresort.com.au, phone 1300 134 044.
The Red Centre way is about 660 kilometres, though we covered 832 kilometres with detours. A four-wheel-drive is recommended for the Mereenie Loop section and essential for the Palm Valley and Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) detours. Most car rental companies won't allow vehicles to be driven on unsealed roads. A permit ($5) is required to travel the Mereenie Loop and can be purchased from the Alice Springs Visitor Centre, Glen Helen Resort, Hermannsburg petrol station and Kings Canyon Resort.
FIVE GUIDED DAY TOURS
Half-day Rising Sun tour of Uluru with a local Anangu guide or full day Kings Canyon tour. See aatkings.com.
MBANTUA DINNER TOUR
Bush tucker tour combined with a bush barbecue dinner. See rttoursaustralia.com.au.
WEST MACDONNELL NATIONAL PARK
Program of talks and walks from May to September. See parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au.
KINGS CANYON RESORT
Range of tours including the Rim Walk, South Wall Return or Kings Creek Walk. See kingscanyonresort.com.au.
VOYAGES AYERS ROCK RESORT
Guided treks around the 14-kilometre base of Uluru
or the Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). See ayersrockresort.com.au.