Big Rocks and Starry Skies

Discovering the Red Centre of Australia.

There are many iconic locations in Australia for photography; few are as challenging and rewarding as the Outback, especially the Red Centre.

DSC_3335-EditAbout the Red Centre

A short flight from most Australian major cities lands you in the heart of Australia, figuratively and literally. Just stepping off the plane is an assault on the senses. You climb down the ladder onto the tarmac and all you see before you is an endless panorama of red sand and blue sky. There are no large trees, only small desert oak, grasses and spinifex bushes everywhere. This desert is teeming with life.

Nestled between sand dunes is the Ayers Rock Resort: base camp. It is a thriving community of residents and guests which is the mainstay for the hotels, cafes and such. Of course most tourists come for the Big Rock formations, but the surrounding area of Yulara and the Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park have the most rarefied, cleanest air in the world – no air pollution and no light pollution. Night Watchers of all kinds come to see the night sky, as it is truly unique and there are but only a few places like this in the entire world.

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Unique must see locations in the Red Centre

There are three main rock formations which are iconic for photography: Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. Other sights well worth photographing include Curtain Springs, Mount Conner, and the extensive salt plains.

DSC_3610-EditUluru is the largest monolith in the world. It stands three hundred forty eight metres above the desert floor and has a circumference of nine and half kilometres. Uluru was created by nature some five hundred and fifty million years ago. To stand at the base of something so huge, so ancient, is rare and humbling. To reach out and touch this piece of living history and to feel what time has formed is awe inspiring.

Uluru is renowned for its changing colours. Depending on where you are standing and the time of the day the rock can change from shades of red and orange to tones of mauve. At sunrise and sunset such changes of colour can occur in mere minutes, so you should arrive early to photograph the colour changes as they happen. Setting up for a time lapse can reveal the stunning variations and moods of the rock.

The sun hitting Uluru from the sunrise viewing area is spectacular, but the sun coming up from behind the rock has to be seen to be believed and vice versa for sunset. So consider going to the ‘wrong’ side of the Rock for each occasion, to get a different perspective and near isolation while shooting.

Kata Tjuta has 36 domes of ancient rock formations. You can take a walk through the Valley of the Winds and the Walpa Gorge. Both offer beautiful vistas and towering rock walls of natural gorges. Being much further to travel to than Uluru, it is less frequented by tourists.

DSC_3789Sunrise from the Kata Tjuta viewing platform is stunning, and because crowds are usually more interested in the more famous Uluru, you find yourself in near isolation. You can actually shoot both rock formations from the same sunrise viewing area at Kata Tjuta.

DSC_4527King’s Canyon is an oasis in the desert, some four hours by coach or car from Uluru. A mini version of the Grand Canyon, its’ walls soar over one hundred metres up from the canyon floor. There are several hikes to explore both the rim and creek bed. You can choose to take the very demanding Rim Walk with hundreds of rock steps, or the Creek Walk.

The Rim walk is only for the brave and extremely fit; the climb from the valley floor up hundreds of rock stairs is known as heart attack hill. The Creek Walk is more commonly done by many and offers spectacular views of the Canyon walls and oasis close up. Consider a one hour guided walk; pointing out various trees, rock formations and photographic wonders of the area, as well as native flora and fauna.

Something else to consider is a Helicopter flight. This is highly recommended to photograph or even video the entire area in all its majesty. A short flight takes you over the surrounding area; taking in King’s Canyon, Mount Conner and Kata Tjuta in the distance.

Shooting the night skies

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Wherever you find yourself in the Red Centre, the night skies are a unique spectacle. In this dark and clear sky, the Milky Way is easily spotted with the naked eye. It is mesmerising in its colour and intensity, making each photograph a joy. Shooting stars are frequently seen, but often difficult to capture.

There are various sand dunes away from the main resort, which allow complete darkness. These can only be accessed by foot. There are paths just off the main road, near the Park Entrance, with fabulous dead trees to add interest to night shots, and a great location for some light painting. Climbing the nearby sand dune, you can see Uluru silhouetted in the distance, just below the Milky Way.

The best time of year for night shoots is in winter, particularly in August. With no humidity, cold clear air, minimal to no clouds at all, the Zodiacal light is at its peak and best captured just after sunset. This area is known to be among the best viewpoints in the world to see this and to view the Southern Cross. O’Brien’s Belt and the Seven Sisters can be viewed very early in the morning in winter, or early evening in summer. For the best Milky Way images, avoid the sun’s after-glow, and aim to shoot two to three hours after sunset and during a new moon.

Challenges you will encounter

The crowds

There are designated viewing areas for sunrise and sunset, but there are usually so many tourists, you need to become creative. Many people are drawn to Uluru at sunset, and the trick is to find areas away from the main hub of tourists. Having your own vehicle can help in getting off the beaten track. It can allow you to arrive before the tourists and linger long after they have left.

Difficult Terrain

At all of these locations, the walks can be quite difficult and treacherous under foot, with uneven surfaces, loose pebbles and rocks. They can be exhausting, especially lugging around a backpack full of camera gear; but the views are worth it.

Due to the remoteness and desolation of the area, long drives are hazardous. Native animals and cattle frequent the roads, as well as the occasional road trains; these are huge trucks pulling several trailers, resembling a train. Driving long stretches of empty straight road, with bright shimmering mirages after long exhausting walks can also be a danger and a factor in many road accidents in the area.

The hazards of climbing the sand dunes at night are many and take their toll on knees and ankles, when a drift may suddenly give way beneath you. The Spinifex grasses which dot the landscape are spiky and stab you as you pass by; they grab your pants and can cut you wherever you are unprotected.

The climatic conditions

It is recommended to travel early in the day, as there is little shelter from the sun. You must take your own food and water as there is nothing available nearby. It is recommended to carry and drink, one litre of water per hour in summer, half a litre in winter.

While the temperature during the day in winter can be quite pleasant [20 – 25C], at night it can drop to freezing and occasionally below freezing. During the summer months, temperatures can reach extremes during the day [45-50C]. Bright blue skies and deep shady spots, heat waves rippling off the ancient rock, make photographing the area challenging to say the least.

DSC_3434-EditThe wildlife

The desert at night is often teaming with bats, huge barking spiders, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes and giant lizards, although rarely seen during the colder winter months. So care when walking is a must, as is checking where you place your gear. There are also many rabbit, mouse and bilby holes in the ground, waiting to catch unwary feet.

 Essential Gear

If you can, it is handy to carry a small range of lenses or some very versatile ones. You may find one minute you need a wide angle to capture the vastness of the panorama before you, and the next you need your zoom for a lizard on a distant ledge, or an eagle in flight. Then you turn around and see some delicate desert bloom behind you in the sand, begging for a macro lens.

Don’t forget your remote shutter release, plenty of SD Cards, your battery charger and spare batteries, lens cleaning equipment, filters. A UV Filter, if nothing else can protect your lens from a gritty sand blasting. A circular Polarisation filter is also great due to high UV and extremely bright sunlight. Pack your tripod (and head mount), a head lamp or torch for night shoots.

A good backpack is essential for carrying all your gear, as are good sturdy walking shoes, especially at night. A solid hiking or walking stick is extremely useful. Other items should include sunscreen, insect repellent and a sun hat. In winter, especially at night, a scarf, mittens, woolen beanie and warm jacket are essential.

In Conclusion

A trip to the Red Centre is a challenging photographic journey into some fascinating arid landscapes, as well as diverse native flora and fauna. To experience Uluru and Kata Tjuta as well King’s Canyon in all their glory, to photograph the night sky; the shooting stars, zodiacal light and the Milky Way as never before, will leave you exhilarated and content in knowing you have captured a region of Australia, unlike anywhere else in the world.