Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park & MacDonnell Ranges

The 36 conglomerate domes of Kata Tjuta rise up to 1,791 feet and have been called extraordinary freaks or convulsions of nature. However, the formation has immense spiritual significance to the local people. Much of Kata Tjuta is associated with sacred stories and rituals that are the exclusive knowledge of initiated men. Consequently, no Tjukurpa stories can be passed on to the general public. However, Kata Tjuta's natural wonders are on open display and best viewed on the two walks that depart from the parking lot.

During the warmer months, discerning observers may spot superbly camouflaged earless dragons and perenties, at up to six and a half feet long Australia's largest lizards, on the stony slopes. Bird life is prolific here: seed-eaters such as zebra finches, crested pigeons, and budgerigars flit in and out of the forested valleys; magpies, gray shrike-thrushes, and pied butcherbirds burst into sporadic song; singing and gray-headed honeyeaters forage for insects among the foliage; and kestrels nest in rocky hollows high up on the domes.

In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, nature has stripped away the fat of the land to reveal the bare and beautiful bones of one of her most spectacular desert environments. Time spent here, no matter how brief, instills a sense of wonder, for the limitless plains, the massive, sometimes surreal formations, the remarkable plants and wildlife, and the rich indigenous culture that binds them all together.

The MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Viewed from the quartzite ridge at Counts Point, the MacDonnell Ranges extend from the eastern horizon to the west, their great folds and ridges falling and rising, seemingly without end. A series of parallel ranges rather than a single chain, the mountains stretch out across Australia's arid heart like great stone lizards basking in the sun. The slopes are sparsely covered with cypress pine, spinifex grass, and mulga bush, and their rocky outlines and warm shades of red, gold, and brown stand out boldly in the clear desert air which seems to shimmer in the hot mid day sunshine. To the northwest, the tallest peak in the MacDonnells, Mount Zeil, is clearly visible; even more impressive is its neighbor, Mount Sonder, with its mauve coloring and majestic lines. Between the ranges, dark-green mulga bushes dot broad valleys of red earth, and the white-sand beds of watercourses, fringed by red gum trees, wend their way across the flats. These rivers have not seen a permanent flow of water for thousands of years, but over eons they have cut deep gorges through the iron-stained ranges. In their cool shadows grow ferns and mosses, and palmlike cycads that are relics of a past age when the rain forests of Central Australia spread down to the shores of an ancient sea.

Known to the local Arrernte people as Altjira, the MacDonnell Ranges extend 90 miles on either side of Alice Springs. Tropical and temperate climates mingle over the MacDonnells, producing wide variations in rainfall. Combined with the diverse landforms, this gives the mountains a much greater range of environments than the surrounding desert plains.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - The MacDonnell Ranges

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