Tourism in Central Australia is growing with many foreign and interstate travelers placing the outback and our National Parks on the “To do” list.
But a quick review of park infrastructure around the MacDonald Ranges and King's Canyon shows that some remote areas are sore lacking in facilities. Some areas currently have no public toilets, potable water, BBQ facilities or shade structures. The lack of facilities may be excused due to the extreme remoteness of many National Parks and tourist destinations under traditional ownership. Excellent facilities make the tourist experience a positive reputation and are fundamental to the drivers of future tourism growth.
The local economy and traditional owners benefit from economic engagement and the servicing of tourism. Considering the importance of tourism to regional development in Australia, a charter should be considered for all our places of significant heritage, to ensure our park facilities are world class, and to protect the environment for the future. The Federal government, state and territory governments, local governments, community organisations and Traditional Owners should be encouraged to maintain and improve facilities, and to fund excellent facilities as an economic and environmental imperative.
A lack of facilities at Ularu meant that with no toilet facilities in the 1960s and early 1970s, visitors were forced to take relieve themselves on and near our national treasure and national icon. Traditional Owners remain resentful of the contamination of their natural watercourses, and of the environmental damage because human waste was not removed and treated.
Most National Parks which tourists and Australian citizens have access to are on land which has been returned to the oversight of their Traditional Owners. These lands are at the heart of Traditional Owners' spiritual connection to their homelands, and are significant cultural assets.
Much of Central Australia was, many millions of years ago, a shallow sea. Sand dunes around the inland sea, and the floor of the sea have transformed with iron oxides and other minerals into a vast natural concrete escarpment. The landscape shaped over eons, with the Fink River being the oldest river in the world, following its ancient course. Traditional Owners and Australia's broader community, consider our Central Australian Outback landscape to be natural treasures worthy of the highest priority for preservation as is their unique ecology and environmental value.
The Northern Territory government has, along with local councils and the Traditional Owners, upgraded infrastructure and facilities for our national parks and traditional homelands. Thousands of kilometres of rough desert tracks have been sealed and graded to improve access for locals and visitors. Tourism to Australia's national parks and nature reserves create jobs for locals and have extensive economic benefits. Many Traditional Owners have been trained as rangers and work in facilities maintenance.
Our Central Australian National Parks have some incredibly rich experiences for those who enjoy the outdoors. International tourists do a natural pilgrimage to Central Australia's Uluru and King's Canyon, and often travel to the great Sand Islands of Queensland, Carnarvon Gorge, Kondalilla Falls, Purlingbrook Falls and the Barrier Reef. Kakadu NT, Tasmania's vast Forests and WA's Eucalypt forests, the Blue Mountains, Victoria's Snowy Mountains Australia, SA's Lake Eyre. These are a paradise for nature lovers, trekkers and bush walkers.
What makes for a great experience for tourists once they arrive at our national parks and nature reserves? Firstly, good signage, including some information on the relationship of the landscape to the Traditional Owners, perhaps some information on the European pioneers and history, first contact and the frontier wars, at the laydown and entry areas.
Well-designed vehicle access and parking for RVs, caravans and vehicles with trailers. Well-planned shade and use of mature trees. BBQ and eating facilities with potable water and waste disposal and storage. Shelters providing shade and seating, and most important toilet facilities, ablutions, including environmentally sensitive sewer treatment, lighting. In central and outback Australia, emergency communications to rangers and other services. An area for helicopter landing to fight fires and for emergency evacuation. Waste removal may require heavy goods vehicle access and traverse.
Many remote facilities have no access to an electric grid, and must have an independent power supply, usually photovoltaic solar panels and battery storage. There may be a ranger station with a first aid room, and accommodation for rangers and maintenance staff.
What makes for a terrible national park experience? Filthy toilets, graffiti, no toilet paper, waterless urinals, poor maintenance, poor or damaged signage, insecure parking large amounts of human waste and garbage which has obviously not been collected in a long time.
Waste areas which invite wild dogs and scavenging native animals to invade the facilities and turn it into a trash site, damaged ecology and a lack of control of visitor impacts on the environment and natural landscape, poor maintenance of tracks including fallen trees and unrepaired walkways after extreme weather.
If you have visited a reserve or national park, you have an inventory of facilities which improve or degrade your experience. The last impression you want after getting to the outback at great expense is to have to use filthy toilets and BBQ areas.
The demographic of visitors to national parks is changing with the "Grey Nomad" invasion of the cooler months being well documented. Visitors who are over 55 make up a greater proportion of visitors than previously, and catering to them has been the focus of some visitor facilities. Many visitors are ambulant disabled, and for those with impaired mobility or sight, there should be suitable toilet facilities and ramped access, alternate pathways suitable for older and less agile participants.
An example of a reserve which has made an effort to improve disabled access is at Standley chasm, around 30 minutes' drive in a Westerly direction from Alice Springs. Yash Sivarista from the Centre For Appropriate Technology was tasked with designing walkways and signage for the Chasm.
"The Elders and Traditional Owners of Standley Chasm wanted to improve access to the natural features, and to protect the ecology and landscape adjacent the walkways," Saravista said.
"We included walkways from the entry and Kiosk area through to the Chasm which are suitable for ambulant disabled and disabled in wheelchairs or mobility devices. We have provided handrails and balustrades to pathway edges and designed these not to intrude on the natural experience and to do this sensitively so we protect the ecology and the delicate landscape. Many older Traditional Owners have been able to access the chasm which previously they could not due to mobility issues."
Peter Renehan, who represented the Traditional Elders, has said the improvements have made a great impact for older people who enjoy the gradual incline and are now able to have the same experience as younger and able bodied people.
"The balustrades and walkways had a dual purpose, to improve access and safety for walkers enjoying the Chasm, and to keep pedestrians separated from sensitive ecology which was being damaged before the improvements, we used many indigenous people for this work, and the result exceeded our expectations, our visitor numbers are up and we have had a lot of positive feedback on the way we have integrated balustrades, light inclines to pathways without imposing on visitor experience of the Chasm," he said.
Another great example of Traditional Owners providing excellent and world class facilities and pathways is at Kings Canyon, around 280 kilometres by road, some of which is unsealed, and a similar distance from Ularu.
A sculptural steel entry canopy greats the visitor once one leaves the car park - a structure which reminds one of the mega fauna and dinosaurs which would have roamed central Australia. The initial climb on the circuit path is a "stairway to heaven" with stairs made from the existing rock escarpment. The visitor experiences an incredible Mars-like landscape of eroded ancient sand dunes which have solidified. Desert ghost gums bound to the Martian landscape from another world. Timber walkways and stairs cling precariously to the entry with elevated platforms to "The Garden of Eden." A marvel of engineering, one wonders how the construction crew were able to erect a bridge over a canyon, where there is no road access.
Ormiston Gorge is another national treasure which is creating disabled access through to the Billabong, which makes for excellent swimming in the warmer months. The public toilets are typically excellent, clean and well maintained.
Ormiston has a steel viewing platform on a precipice on a strategic cliff overlooking the gorge. Again, this has been designed not to intrude on viewing from below. Once there, one can stand on the edge of an ancient landscape overlooking the imperious gorge with water filled creek and billabong below. Ormiston is a favourite swimming hole for locals in the region. Non-Indigenous people are not permitted to fish in the gorge and the health of the ecosystem is by all accounts in excellent condition.
Australians and the Traditional Owners who support public access to National Heritage sites should be applauded for their efforts to provide excellent park facilities and tourist destinations. The parks are being upgraded with local labour with a high content of traditional people's content. A high proportion of the friendly rangers are also local Traditional Owners.
Investing in improving and maintaining our national parks and engagement with Traditional ownership and governance should remain a high priority for the Northern territory and Australian Governments. Tourism to Central Australia is an economic imperative, and we should emulate the best practice at King's Canyon, Ormiston and Standley Chasm.