Home to one of the world’s most infamous tourist destinations, Australia’s Northern Territory has many more spectacular locations scattered amidst its outback, enough to keep any outdoor photographer happy.
Australia is a vast and surprisingly diverse country, but the landscape of the Northern Territory is true outback, vast panoramas of red and blue making it the ideal location for a three-week vacation. I often think that a mistake people make when visiting ‘down under’ is trying to visit too large an area. In a limited time span this is quite unrealistic, unless you are prepared to spend many days on the road, cover thousand of kilometres and generally not relax! All of Australia’s six states and two territories have something to offer the photographer but only one is home to the Red centre.
This area certainly lives up to its name, gaining its reputation due to the colour of the desert sands, however I prefer to think that it has gained this title due to the deep red hues of the rising and setting sun. The often clear outback skies accentuating the colours of the weak yet unbelievably powerful sun as it continually paints the landscape a deep golden colour which is only to be found in Australia. I sometimes wonder if Australian photographers realise how lucky they are? For the most part they have sunshine on a tap, although, typical Australia, when it does rain, it certainly rains!
My partner and myself planned to enter the Northern Territory in late may. This was mainly to avoid the end of the wet season, which would have made travel in our two wheeled drive van almost impossible. Due to flooding it can take months for some of the roads to be passable. Our aim was to spend three weeks in the territory before continuing on to Queensland. We travelled and slept in a second hand van and cooked all meals on our little camp stove and occasionally using the barbecues to found at some areas where camping is permitted.
My photography kit comprised of two Canon Eos bodies, a 24mm wide-angle lens and a standard zoom lens. A telephoto lens would be a godsend here, especially if nature photography is your forte. My choices of filters were limited, with a polariser being the only one used regularly. Finally, I couldn’t even begin to contemplate image composition without my trusty Manfrotto tripod, which always finds a place in my camera kit! (A quick note regarding gear; I visited this part of Australia back in 2001, long before the days of digital and at the start of my photography career. If I was to return now (and I have returned to Australia a couple of times since) I would be tempted to take a single mirrorless camera and two zooms (24-70 & 70-200 35mm equivalent).
Entering the territory from the state of Western Australia, the first national park we were to visit was Keep River National Park. Something of a scaled down ‘Bungle Bungles’, however the park is definitely more accessible than its Western Australian counterpart. There were good walks to be found here and our first sighting of a poisonous Brown snake. There are also some great landscapes to be photographed, with the Boab tree often seen hugging the dry creek beds. The Boab tree is most prolific in northern Western Australia and the neighbouring areas of the Northern Territory. It is unusual that it is only found in Africa and Australia, indicating that it must have evolved before the split of the super continent of Gondawanna land. A split which formed, amongst others, the modern day land masses of Australia, New Zealand and Africa. The people of the Australian aboriginal are also quite unique in appearance, again gently suggesting that Australia is one of the oldest landscapes to be found on the planet.
The beliefs of the Aboriginal people are still strong, with some areas of the Northern Territory being inaccessible to the general public, including the sacred area bordering Keep River National Park. In other Aboriginal sites, such as Uluru, photography is forbidden due to cultural beliefs, and breaking the law could result in a heavy fine, as well as being seen as an insult to the Aboriginal tribes who still live of these lands.
As we began to head south towards the tropic of Capricorn, the landscape continued to unfold into stereotypical Australian outback. The gorges, rivers and fertile soils of the tropical north making way to kilometre after kilometre of flat bush land, the only prominent features being the deep red termite mounds and the occasional tree, managing to survive in what has to be one of the harshest environments on the planet.
The spectacular Devils Marbles were to be our next point of call. It is easy to understand how these photographic gems obtained there somewhat fearful name, enormous boulders scattered throughout a small area in the otherwise flat outback, almost as if Beelzebub dropped them there himself! But this is my kind of photographic heaven, the huge expanse of surrounding outback making both sunrise and sunset photography possible. Of course, this also means that the sun is very low on the horizon, making the first and last rays a deep, crimson red. Another bonus is that you can choose to illuminate your chosen subject, or simply compose an image with the silhouette, meaning yet more photographic opportunities. There is also a permitted camping area here that makes photographing this location even easier. No need for a long pre-dawn drive, you just need to stumble out of your tent and you’re there!
As we crossed the tropic of Capricorn, thoughts of Uluru came to mind, a location which I have always dreamt about and one that I was finally about to see, in just over 1000 kilometres! It took us two days to reach the true red centre, nothing preparing me for the first sighting of Uluru on the horizon.
Unfortunately, as we were now far south of the tropics, we were also vulnerable to normal seasons, in particular winter. I never imagined this area to be cold but we did have to resort to thermals, hats, gloves etc. Items that had been packed away since our time spent in the alpine areas of New Zealand. This was unbelievable and to make matters worse the sky was overcast. The dreary white colour that photographers hate. I was still hopeful that I would capture a classic changing colour image of Uluru, but not entirely convinced!
Time was against us. We could only spend two days at Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park before we had to leave and start heading north towards Queensland, there was however going to be another photographic location on route, one which proved to be something of a finale to our time in the Northern Territory.
The route was simple. We would head north via sealed road to the Kings Canyon National Park, where we would obtain a permit to take the unsealed road across aboriginal land to the West MacDonnell National Park. In practise all was not so simple with the unsealed road being one of the worst that we have experienced. There is something quite disenchanting about driving 300 kilometres on a badly corrugated road that is barely suitable for a 2 wheeled drive vehicle. As is always the case with these kinds of trips, it took us longer than expected to reach the camping area at Ormiston gorge, with us arriving at our destination well after sunset.
We were to be rewarded in the morning with a wonderful sight. The West MacDonnell National Park is located within the MacDonnell ranges, the largest string of mountains to be found within the Northern Territory, and one that I was determined to explore – by foot! Hiking in Australia is hard work. Due to the heat, there is a need to carry large amounts of water, especially as there are very few lakes, streams or water holes to find water. Also, there are not many official tracks but many rough routes, making map reading skills essential and the desire for a light backpack all the more critical.
We planned an overnight trip following the dry creek upstream towards Mt Giles. We found a suitable camping area next to a billabong (waterhole) and began to enjoy the sunset, however the clouds started to move in and we were about to experience a full-blown storm, miles away from civilisation and any sign of people. We couldn’t be more alone!
The storm, which seemed to last a lifetime, blew over after three long hours. The tent was flattened, we were soaked and I didn’t even get to photograph the lightning! But this is Australia, and soon we had forgotten the storm (probably due to the howls of the Dingoes!) and actually started to relax.
The next day saw us returning to our starting point via a different route. We chose to hike down Ormiston Gorge itself. We had heard that it was spectacular but you do have to see it to believe it. This is Mother Nature at her strangest, huge blocks of red quartzite organised in almost impossible formations. The finishing touches are the lonely ghost gums clinging to the rocks, again proving how versatile the Australian flora has to be to survive.
For the photographer, there are still many more locations to visit in the Northern Territory and each one would stimulate their creative ambitions beyond their imagination. Due to time restrictions, we continued north-east to the state of Queensland and the tropical rainforests which form part of its world heritage area, and provide a home to its numerous leeches, but that is a another story….
This article was first published on Telephoto.com.