Graham Simmons puts his best foot forward on a walking tour of the lush surrounds of a rain-refreshed central Australia.
THIS doesn't feel like central Australia. Following heavy rains in February and March, the usually parched landscape of brilliant cobalt skies over oxide-red earth is softened with swathes of new plant-shoots. The air is redolent with the honey-sweet aroma of pukara (desert heath myrtle) and a vast nature-bouquet of other wildflowers.
I'm witnessing the desert's rebirth on a Park Trek walking trip. This Melbourne-based company has been running bushwalking trips for 10 years and has developed some expertise in the field. At the same time, I want to gauge whether the trips are aimed solely at diehard bushwalkers, or also at novice walkers like myself.
At the start, things aren't looking so promising. Nearly half the group are from a single bushwalking club - diehards indeed - and the oldest member of the club, 82-year-old Pat, looks as though she could outwalk people half her age. We have the services of three expert guides - Bjorn, Markus and Park Trek founder Alan Fenner, who cracks the whip in the most jovial possible manner.
The Ghost Gum Walk, near Ormiston Gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges about 90 kilometres west of Alice Springs, seems a fitting start. A solitary ghost gum atop a rise dominates the countryside, its base bedecked with yellow daisy flowers. From there we head up along the Pound Walk, section nine of the famous Larapinta Trail, where Sturt's Desert Rose blooms trackside.
Due to flooding in Ormiston Gorge, we have to detour up to a saddle and onto a ridge, sliding and scrambling over slithery shale. "This isn't a very long walk but I'd rate it medium to hard," Pat says. By now, my calves are hurting, so it's with relief that the walk ends and I join the others with a glass of excellent red while taking in the sunset over Mount Sonder.
The next day, after a hearty breakfast washed down with fresh plunger coffee, it's time to decide on one of two hiking options. The first option, the Sepentine Chalet Gorge Walk, starts with a steep ascent and then heads along part of the Larapinta Trail - a total of about 16 kilometres. The easier option is a shorter section of this walk followed by a visit to the Ochre Pits - striking 10-metre-high cliffs exposing swirls of white kaolin, yellow clay-ochre and deep red oxidised iron. To the local Luritja people, these cliffs have been a source of ochres for ceremonial purposes for hundreds of years.
I opt for the easier option, first of all taking in the cool waters of Serpentine Gorge. The spectacular pink mulla mulla flower pokes its head above the stony soil, with the lime-green stalks of the caustic vine (a traditional Aboriginal remedy for wounds and abrasions) adding a counterpoint. "I don't know why everyone's hurrying to complete the long walk," group member Helen says. "I'd rather just relax and appreciate the surroundings."
"Depending on how many guides we have along, it's usually possible to offer at least a couple of hiking options most days," Alan says. "Or if you just want to take the whole day off and do nothing at all, that's OK, too." But with the spectacular scenery on offer in these parts, I can't help thinking that a total chillout would be something of a copout.
A backtrack to Alice Springs is then called for. After a sensational visit to Trephina Gorge in the East MacDonnells the following day, we board an all-wheel-drive people-mover for a day visit to Palm Valley (Mpulungkinya), with its red-cabbage palms, and the spectacular Kalarranga Lookout in Finke Gorge National Park. With the Finke said to be the world's oldest river, a few hours backtracking is neither here nor there. Jenny, our guide for the day, is an expert on the flora of the region, which includes the silver indigo plant and the yellow-flowered dead finish, said to out-survive every other desert plant during drought.
We continue to Kings Canyon in Wartarrka National Park, via Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse and with a walking detour to Kathleen Gorge. The Luritja people believe that the waterhole at the head of Kathleen Gorge is the abode of a rainbow serpent that guards the area.
The following day we take in sections of the Giles Track. When explorer Ernest Giles visited this area in 1874, he stated that it was the finest country that he had encountered in the interior - and not many present-day visitors would disagree with him. But the highlights of Kings Canyon are the challenging Kings Canyon Rim Walk and the easier Kings Creek Walk, offering superb views of the sheer canyon walls and the lush vegetation at their base.
Finally, it's time for the big event: the pilgrimage to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. After a day's exploring the trails of Kata Tjuta, I'm looking forward to the walk around the base of Uluru. But to my chagrin, I don't get to complete the full circuit.
When Stanley Breeden, the author of Looking after Uluru-Kata Tjuta - the Anangu Way made this circuit, it took him a full day, from dawn until late afternoon. But we have just three hours to charge around the base, like runners on steroids. And then we're poured, hot and sweaty, into the plane. "Not another group from Park Trek!" I can imagine the flight attendant groaning underneath her breath.
The writer was a guest of Park Trek.
Qantas flies into Alice Springs and Qantas and Virgin Australia fly out of Yulara.
After more good rains this month and even more expected, the desert is expected to be green well into the middle of next year. Park Trek will run two Central Australia trips from May 26 to June 3 and June 16 to 24, priced from $2750 a person including two nights at All Seasons Resort in Alice Springs, two nights in cabins at Glen Helen Resort, two nights at Kings Canyon Resort, one night at Curtin Springs and one night's cabin accommodation at the Outback Pioneer Hotel at Yulara's Ayers Rock Resort. (03) 9877 9540, parktrek.com.au.