As one of the leading backpacker tour operators, taking 18-30somethings to incredible destinations all over the world, I was so happy to finally get my hands on an opportunity to travel with Topdeck and to experience one of their tours first hand.
As I stepped out on the ‘Uluru Discovery’ 5 day, 4 night Topdeck tour – I embarked on my first ever experience of the Australian outback.
I hadn’t prioritised a Red Centre adventure on my previous three trips to Australia because doing so requires an additional 2/3 hour flight from the East Coast and visiting here is also not the cheapest to travel to / through. In fact, the Red Centre is considered one of the most expensive places in Australia because of how remote and popular the location is.
I was also completely clueless prior to this trip as to how stunning the landscapes were out here.
I can confirm the scenes you set your eyes on are unrivaled when you compare them to the rest of Australia, so if you’re looking to add a bit of diversity to your adventures down under – the Red Centre will certainly cater for that.
Only in the Nevada desert (Burning Man) have I ever experienced sunrises and sunsets like quite like these and trust me, I’ve seen a fair few!
Let me tell you a little about the Topdeck ‘Uluru Discovery’ tour…
The Uluru Discovery tour with Topdeck runs for 5 days (4 nights) for which you will fly into, start and finish up in Alice Springs.
Note: I flew to Alice Springs direct from Sydney with Qantas which took 2.5 hours.
Around 10 of the 18 people on our tour had already spent two weeks together exploring the East Coast, so this 5 day trip in the outback concluded their 20 day ‘Beach and Bush’ experience together. If you’re keen to experience the East Coast too, this extended trip may be something to consider.
Note: The Topdeck bus which you can see pictured above seats a maximum of 24 pax. This gives you an idea of the potential group size, though the head count in our group (end of Jan) was 18.
Exploring the outback requires a tolerance to hot desert heat, long monotonous driving and very early starts.
I think the outback is the one location in Australia in which I would personally choose a group tour over a self navigated adventure. The points of interest are pretty specific out here, the inclusion of an air-conditioned bus and a driver means the drives are done for you, snoozes en route to sunrise destinations are totally okay and upon arrival back from the day hikes, the A/C will be running and ready for you.
You simply have to turn up, keep yourself hydrated and enjoy the ride!
What to expect on your Red Centre adventure…
Located in the Outback, the Red Centre is considered the ‘real experience’ of Australia. It’s here that all your wildest spider, insect and desert heat dreams come true.
Lol joking, it’s not THAT bad but you will definitely notice the difference between here in the outback and the likes of Sydney / East Coast.
The biggest difference and most important thing I found to adjust to was the temperature. From the moment I landed in Alice Springs until the moment I left, the daytime temperature averaged a good 42degrees. (I visited 22-27th Jan 2018).
There’s no doubt about it. It’s freaking hot in the Northern Territory and at times there’s no breeze in sight so you seriously need to make sure you drink water continuously, eat well and avoid the midday heat.
Luckily on the Topdeck tour, the bus is stocked with water and all the hikes are planned early in the morning to avoid those unbearable midday conditions.
The sweat is real.
The Uluru Discovery itinerary…
You will meet your Topdeck tour squad and your tour leader for 7am at the Ibis Styles Hotel in Alice Springs. Because of the early start and limited availability of flights into Alice Springs, you will most likely need to book a nights accommodation prior to the trip start date. Doing so also means you can head to Woolworths in the town to get yourself some food / any last minutes supplies the night before.
On Day 1 you’ll drive 5 hours into the desert to place yourselves at a closer proximity to the beautiful rock formations that are about to grace your adventure.
I think we arrived around 1/2pm to the Pioneer Outback Lodge where we had time to check out the pool before meeting the group again at sunset for dips, nibbles and sparking wine over looking our first sighting of Uluru.
Top tip: As the popular tourist destination it is, bus tours will lines up by the bucket load to catch the Uluru sunsets. This can take away from the feeling of ‘discovery’ so I suggest you walk to the right of everyone down this path to get a slice of Uluru at golden hour to yourself.
Adventures in the Red Centre are all about the sunrises, sunsets and making the most of the light and low temperatures before the sun blinds you (and cooks you).
On day 2 we rose at 5am to arrive at Uluru for the 6.20am sunrise before continuing closer to the sacred rock and completing a mini base walk where we we weaved in and out of the rock caves as our tour guide, Ronald, told us of the aboriginal history.
This evening we had dinner included at the Outback Pioneer lodge which was definitely the best (and only) substantial meal included in the trip. Choose your meat or veggie stir fry and DIY BBQ it on their cookers with a buffet of salads, veggies and roasties!
After our group dinner, Ronald our driver then took us out on an optional sunrise mission this evening to one of his favorite spots.
Every new perspective we got of the vast landscapes and Uluru combined, seemed simply more magical than the last.
If you want to make the most of the insane sunrises on your doorstep, you’ll want to agree to the sunrise option this morning where you’ll see the sun peer above the horizon and another new perspective of Uluru. Despite the spotlight Uluru gets worldwide, it’s not the only rock formation out here.
My favourite, I’ve decided, is the Kata Tjuta (The Olga’s) – a collection of 36 ‘sandstone giants’ that remind me of the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, Philippines. When lit by the sunrise / sunset – you’re in for a viewing and a half!
You’ll catch sight of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta on day 3’s sunrise mission and then straight after breakfast (back at the bus) you’ll head over to complete the ‘Valley of the winds’ 7.4km hike which will take you on an adventure through Kata Tjuta.
Here they are in all their glory…
After a midday shower and check out you’ll pass through Watarrka National Park and arrive to your milky way experience, which perhaps sounds more exotic than it is. Regardless, you’re here for an adventure right? Adventure it most certainly is!
Time to tuck up in a swag for the night, right after you build a fire and toast some marshmallows on it!
Top tip: Set up your bed away from the fire otherwise when you try to sleep and the fires still going – you’ll experience life in an oven! The extra heat is certainly not welcome.
It feels so good to get the extra hour in bed this morning!
Awake at 6am for a breakfast with the team before leaving at 6.30am for Kings Canyon.
Today’s there’s another incredible hike on the agenda (6km) which starts with ‘heart attack hill’. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this part is going to leave you a little breathless but don’t let the initial sight of it put you off taking the longer trail.
I think there’s a short option that goes for around 1.5-2km but honestly once you’re up the ‘heart attack hill’ you’ll be at the top of the canyon and the rest is a walk in the park. Or a walk in the canyon.
Top tip: Though the walk isn’t ‘difficult’ it doesn’t have official paths the whole way so you’ll be climbing through rocks and on rubble at times I’d definitely take your comfy trainers / walking shoes to avoid ankle twists and broken thongs!
After completing the hike it will be time for a picnic lunch of wraps (provided by Topdeck) before you have a chance to shower and pack up the bus.
The afternoon will be taken up by the 5 hour drive back to Alice Springs where you’ll check into the Ibis Styles.
If you can dig deep and muster the energy for one last sunrise wake up call, this mornings schedule has been left free, giving you the option to book onto a sunrise Hot Air Balloon with Outback Ballooning.
I took up the opportunity, rose for the 4.55am pick up and watched the golden sun peer over the horizon in a perfect manner one last time.
Should you opt for the balloon flight, you’ll arrive back in time for the breakfast included in your overnight stay at Ibis Styles (6-9am) and will have an hour to shower / change before you head off on one last Topdeck adventure at 10am.
To finish up the Topdeck adventure, you have the opportunity to soak up views of the West Macdonald ranges, Simpons Gap and Stanley Chasm. Get your cameras at the ready for the final snaps…
Your Topdeck Uluru Discovery trip is now complete!!!
The tour concludes around 4pm, though as there are minimal flights heading out of Alice Springs (it’s a small airport) everyone on our tour booked an extra night which allowed for an evening of drinks before we went our separate ways.
Note: If you book your extra night at Ibis Styles Alice Springs you… A. Won’t have to move your luggage and B. Will have access to the poolside BBQ’s to cook your dinner!
Things to note when booking this tour with Topdeck…
Everything mentioned above is included in the price of the Uluru Discovery tour, barre the Hot Air Balloon flight. Throughout the itinerary there are gaps for you to either kick back and relax by one of the hotel pools OR you can opt and pay for an additional adventure.
These additional adventures include the likes of: Skydive over the Red Centre, Field of Lights tour, Quad biking, Camel riding and so much more. You tour guide will give you all the options and information when you start the tour!
The accommodation included…
The accommodation included is basic – a pretty standard set up if you’re used to hostel life. You have what you need, and not too much more (in terms of the rooms anyway). You can always choose the option to upgrade your room on booking. For the first two nights you’ll stay at the Outback Pioneer lodge in shared rooms. Our room was super small with four of us in it but great news… THERE’S AIR-CONDITIONING. Honestly, this is all you need and you’ll be SO grateful for it.
Bathrooms and showers are separate and there’s a communal kitchen too to cook meals yourself with food you buy at the supermarket.
On top of that there’s a swimming pool to use and a really lovely bar area where they have live music and bbq food options.
The third night is even more basic as mentioned in the itinerary. You sleep in ‘swags’ which is pretty much a sleeping bag on the floor. But great news, the stars are worth every single second and if you find yourself unable to sleep… you’ve got a great view of the milky way to keep you company.
The last night brings a welcomed bed to sleep in back at the Ibis Style Hotel. The perfect last nights sleep before you continue off on your next adventure.
The food included…
The food again was basic.
The only significant meal included was the BBQ night at the Pioneer Lodge where we got a good piece of meat (tofu stir fry available too) and all the buffet salads and sides you wish.
Unfortunately I have to say this was the downfall of the trip for me. The breakfasts were minimal. Three of them were set up besides the bus after sunrise missions and consisted of bread, all the spreads (pb, jam, nutella etc) and then 3-4 types of cereal and milk. Coffee and tea also, but again nothing special. We had a couple of lunches included which were basic wraps with salads and cold meats.
I think as a backpacker on this trip you wouldn’t mind, but as I spent my life on the road, I have developed a preference for something a little more substantial. Call me fussy but I have to be honest.
I think fuelling yourself right when exercising and in this kind of heat is essential and so important so I would definitely suggest picking up some bananas / extra nuts / snacks from the supermarket to keep you going throughout the trip.
I guess the main reason it is this way is because of the heat. Transporting food in these temperatures and for these distances can become tricky.
The driver / guide…
For the duration of your trip you will have a bus driver that doubles up as a tour guide. I totally appreciate how much work this was for our guide Ronald who took on up to 5/6 hour drives at a time whilst talking through the Red Centre history with us.
It’s so great to have someone with experience to show you around the sites and walks during the trip. Having a guide takes the adventure to a deeper level and the knowledge shared allows for a greater appreciation of the sacred sites you visit.
My top tips when booking this tour:
THE FLIES ARE REAL.
Get yourself a net ($10 if you leave it til the tourist shops, $5-6 if you get it from woolys or coles!). There’s no such thing as being too cool for a fly net, it will be the best purchase you ever make. The flies are relentless!!!!!!
You can buy food / essentials along the way…
You pretty much have the opportunity to stop at a supermarket every day on the tour so don’t worry if you forget bits, you can get on route.
Supermarkets / cafes are pricer than you’d expect…
Supermarkets are accessible but due to the low supply and high demand out here in the desert – prices are pretty expensive. Try and think ahead for what you can and buy it back in Sydney / precious destination.
There’s WIFI on the Topdeck bus
If the bus driver switches it on, and so long as there’s signal. A lot of the distance you’ll be driving in the Outback drops you out of signal.
WIFI at the Outback Pioneer lodge (where you stay for your two nights in the Red Centre) is $5 for half hour, $10 for 24hrs or $20 for 3 days. Paying for WIFI access on your Australian adventure can seriously add up. I know you shouldn’t be on your phone all the time when you’re travelling, but if you’re buying wifi more than 5 times, you may as well get a sim card for $30 before you head out to the Red Centre.
Bring your portable charger as the bus has no power points or USB chargers!
Bring some headphones
Bring some headphones and pop some music on your phone to pass the long drives. That is – when you’re not conversating with your new found friends! The bus we were on actually had a fold down screen at the front and the driver had some movies ready on it! So you can always watch a film with your Topdeck squad.
Bring a jumper to double up as a pillow on the ‘swag night’
There’s no pillows so it will give you some elevation.
Bring trainers / comfy shoes for the hikes
You’ll do a 7.4km and a 6km and both are technical (rocky) so you’ll appreciate the support and protection. People that wore sandals / uncomfy trainers got some serious blisters.
DRINK WATER WATER AND WATER. All the water.
Within an hour of the drive from Alice Springs out to the Red Centre one girl has to make the decision to turn back as she felt very ill. We think she picked up a bug somewhere along the way but regardless, being placed in 40+ degree heat takes some adjusting to. You’ll need to keep seriously hydrated.
Take a cap
Looking after yourself in the sun extends to taking a hat and shading yourself wherever possible. Feeling ill or getting a headache is going to be far from ideal out here and could ruin your trip.
Make sure you have travel insurance.
Not because it’s ‘dangerous’ out here but because the conditions in the summer months are extreme and if you need help then it’s so remote it’s going to be very expensive. Helicopter rescue central!
My Uluru discovery highlight:
Definitely the Kata Ajuta Valley Of The Winds walk. The scenery blew my mind and the presence of this rock formation was a total surprise as all i’d known previously about the outback was ‘Uluru’ – that big red rock!
If you are keen to check out the Red Centre Topdeck style-y and would like to see the official itinerary, browse prices and date options…
Have you been on a Topdeck tour?
What did you think? Where did you go? I’d love to know! 🙂
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