Start family holidays in the Northern Territory with a camel ride in the desert. Before railways and roads, the Red Centre was travelled by camels, which were imported to Australia in the 19th century and now count more than 200,000 wild specimens. If you base yourself in Alice Springs as a launching pad for Uluru, Kings Canyon and Kata Tjuta, your hotel or the visitor centre will recommend an operator. Or if you choose to stay near the rock, the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort (see Accommodation tab) runs 45-minute sunrise and sunset tours by camel for ages six and up.
Uluru, Kings Canyon and Kata Tjuta are often put together in 2- or 3-day package tours because of their relative proximity and great natural beauty. Uluru is beyond words – it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen 100 postcards of it or if you’re surrounded by other gobstruck and camera-happy humans, being here is utterly different and utterly moving. If your children have sturdy legs and constitutions, walk the base and feel mundane reality slip away with every hypnotic step. This is sacred land and if you stay quiet enough you can feel something deep and true and as old as the beginning of time (even if you’re only to be broken out of the spell with a “Mum! Dad! I’m hungry/need the toilet!”).
The rock formation of Kings Canyon with its dramatic vertical walls and gullies exploding with vegetation is in the Watarrka National Park, a rich and ancient ecosystem with fossils etched in seabeds dating back millions of years. It’s home to the alluringly named Garden of Eden – a lush waterhole at the base of the 300-million-year-old rock formation, where those with older kids might like to take a refreshing swim. There are lots of walks with varying degrees of length and difficulty, one of them culminating at the waterhole.
Kata Tjuta, otherwise known as The Olgas, are 36 rock domes that take the cake for old things to see and marvel at. More than 500 million years old, they emerge from the land like the elusive gifts of mysterious and magical forces.
Discover Darwin – closer to Asia than Sydney, and host to Mindil Beach Night Markets (every Thursday and Sunday night in the Dry season) filled with the joyous aromas of Thai spices and the rich colours of Papua New Guinean textiles. For a kid-centred day catch the number 9 bus from Casuarina or Palmerston to the free-entry playground and waterpark with its skate and bike ramps, outdoor pools and water slides and BBQ facilities.
Use Darwin as a base to explore the Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, a place brimming with Aboriginal culture, ancient rocks, wildlife and unique flora. Your options here include a 2hr cruise through the gorge and overnight treks that include camping beneath a billion stars.
Darwin is also a handy base for venturing into Kakadu National Park, home to a third of Australia’s bird species and UNESCO World Heritage listed for both its natural and cultural values. The traditional owners of the land are the Mirrar, and its significance is heightened by the fact that both Aboriginal and white Australians fought for its preservation and safety against the hands of uranium-mining leaseholders who proposed production in nearby Jabiluka. Show your kids this natural wonderland before places like it disappear forever…