Red Centre Road Trip
Uluru is arguably Australia's most iconic landscape. Red dirt, golden spinifex and blue skies all blend into one ancient scene, the colours of the desert painted in our minds for eternity after setting eyes on the sacred monolith. If you're planning a trip to the Red Centre but not sure where to start then this guide is for you, the following road trip itinerary has been compiled from my favourite spots within the area, get ready for red dirt, stunning scenery, prolific wildlife and ancient cultures...
The best place to start your adventures of the Red Centre is in Alice Springs (Mparntwe) as this is really the only town in the area, from here on out it's roadhouse's, outstations and remote resorts. Prior to covid flights operated from all of the major cities in Australia but I guess things have changed now a bit, I’m certain a quick search on skyscanner would reveal the best options.
There's plenty to do within the town itself but I'd highly recommend checking out the Desert Park. Its Alice Springs version of an open air nature park/zoo. Perfect to get a good idea on the critters you should be looking out for on your trip. It's only a short drive out of town and is an easy way to spend a day getting used to the desert's hot and dry climate. With plenty of interpretive signs and information booths it's well worth the entry price and an easy way to kill a morning in town before leaving on your road trip.
Heading west along the Larapinta Drive will take you through the first couple days of this trip, I’d recommend spending at least 2 days in the West MacDonnell Ranges as there are plenty of sights along the way. Make sure to bring your bathers as this drive is nicknamed “waterhole way” for all its idyllic swimming spots. Keep an eye out for all the wildlife that calls this place home, there are plenty of birds and reptiles along the side of the road and if you're really lucky you might see one of the many dingoes that range throughout the area.
The first stop on the list of your drive through Tjoritja (Arrernte name for West Macs) is a short walk along the dry river bed to Simpsons Gap. A favourite spot of mine to find all sorts of reptiles on a hot night, if you’re interested in seeing any of the beautiful snakes or endemic frogs that call these ranges home then make sure to go for a walk at night with a head torch and see what you can find! I was lucky enough to spot my first Centralian carpet python there along with numerous Stimson's pythons over the space of a couple nights.
There's a brilliant cultural tour offered at Standley Chasm with creation stories and bush tucker secrets shared as you wind your way through the gorge to an impressive ending. Make sure to call ahead and check the times that the tour runs. It’s well worth checking out if you’ve got the time but keep in mind there is an entry price to the private land that is charged at the gate.
Next up on the list is a local favourite and the closest freshwater swimming hole to Alice Springs, Ellery Creek Big Hole. Putting aside the images conjured up with such a name the swimming hole itself is stunning! Giant stepped cliffs, stained red from thousands of years of erosion, part in the middle to give way to a body of cold, fresh water. Swimming is permitted but keep in mind to look out for submerged branches and rocks if you plan on jumping in. It's a great spot to have lunch and offers shaded tables in the car park for families needing a bit more space.
As you head out farther West to find your campsite for the night at the popular Glen Helen Gorge make sure to stop in at the Ochre pits along the way to check out an ancient mining site of Ochre, a crucial ingredient in the rock art "paint" that is used to share stories, ceremonies and other culturally important rituals by the Arrernte (Pronounced a-run-duh) people. It's a super quick walk from the car park and with stunning rock patterns it's sure to amaze.
Glen Helen offers fully functional campsites for your first night of camping but if you’re looking for something slightly more off track then head to “Finke River 2 mile” a favourite amongst the locals and completely free! If you’re lucky you’ll have the place to yourself and with sunrise views of Mount Sonder it's hard to pass up.
The next morning I’d recommend heading to Ormiston Gorge. Perhaps the most scenic of all the waterholes along this drive and most definitely the best for that classic red centre beach shot. The ghost gum hike in Ormiston Gorge is well worth checking out too, it's only a couple kms over the top of a rocky ridge but brings you back down through a dry creek bed lined with deep red cliffs and ghost gums until you arrive at Ormiston Gorge swimming hole for a much welcomed dip. A little warning, the water in these swimming holes is cold, like unnaturally cold. For some reason even though it can be 45+ degrees above its well below that in the water, but trust me it's worth the dip as there is nothing more refreshing on a hot day.
From here it's a 250km drive to the next major stop on the route which is Kings Canyon, most people choose to head there straight away but it's worth noting that Redbank Gorge is on the way and its another beautiful spot for an afternoon dip if you’d like to break up the driving a little. Part of the Mereenie road is dirt, normally it's in pretty good conditions and we did see people in 2wd cars making the journey just fine but keep in mind if there has been rain recently then it will likely be flooded or washed out and should be avoided.
Arriving at Kings Canyon you’ve got two accommodation options, either Kings Canyon Resort or Kings Creek station. We opted for the first due to its proximity to the hike that we were going to attempt at sunrise (the longer in our beds the better). But we have since stayed at both and facilities are similar.
The main attraction of Kings Canyon is its famous rim walk, best done at sunrise due to not only light but the extreme temperatures. This 6km walk takes most people around 3-4 hours to fully enjoy what the area has to offer. It’s like taking a step back in time, with so many relic species of plants here, remnants left over from the time of the dinosaurs it's no wonder this hike is so popular. The hike begins with a short, sharp accent up “heart attack hill” pretty much the only challenging part of the hike, but guaranteed to work up a sweat no matter what the time of day. After that you explore the escarpment from the top, winding your way through ancient fossilized sand dunes resembling some sort of ancient city. Keep your eye out for monitor lizards basking in the morning sun as they are often seen in the cracks of rock. The midpoint of the hike and easily the most rewarding part is the aptly named “Garden of Eden” a giant crack in the bedrock that leads down to a tropical oasis with an impressive array of biodiversity. After a quick stop taking in the sites of the “Garden of Eden” its back up to the escarpment and along the other side of the canyon to take in the panoramic views of the canyon itself.
Next up is an almost 300km drive from Kings Canyon to the small resort village of Yulara. You can base yourself out of here for the next couple days of exploring the mighty Uluru and its less known cousin Kata Tjuta. If you time it right you’ll arrive just in time for your first glimpse of the world famous monolith as the sun is setting on its ancient walls. Nothing prepared me for how huge Uluru actually was, I'd seen hundreds of photos and read plenty of articles on its giant red form towering high above the landscape but it wasn't until I was standing at its base for the first time looking up that I realized it's true size.
Thankfully the climb has been closed for over a year now so walking around its base or taking a scenic flight over the top are the only options to view Uluru. Climbing this sacred site was the same level of disrespect to the Anangu people as climbing on a famous cathedral in some European Country. Not only do the Anangu believe that the monolith itself is sacred but also that the features within it contain evidence (Tjukaritja) of creation stories, some of which are gender specific. Meaning there are plenty of sites along the way that are only available to Anangu women or men. Whilst you are here I highly recommend paying a visit to the interpretive centre as it introduces the Anangu people and their culture brilliantly, telling some of their stories and explaining their connection with the land in much more detail than I could ever hope to. Remember to go for a walk away from the camp lights at night whilst out here, the outback skies are some of the darkest in the world and if you're lucky enough to get a new moon you'll have a clear view of the milky way and its infinite wonders.
Kata Tjuta offers a stunning walk called Valley of the Winds, best done at sunrise to get the best light and temperatures. Its a moderate 5.5km return walk to Karingana lookout, which offers the best views of the area. Keep in mind that this is a sensitive mens site so respect all the signs and follow the guides set in place for photography. If you are looking for a slightly easier walk then perhaps check out the Walpa gorge walk located closer to Uluru.
One your drive back make sure to keep your eyes peeled for one of Australia's weirdest reptiles, the Thorny Devil. These phenomenal lizards survive entirely on a diet of ants, eating over a thousand of them per day and have a unique ability to absorb water through the capillary action of their skin by standing in damp sand. They are often seen sunbaking on the side of the road so drive carefully to avoid hitting them.
I hope this guide to the Red Centre has been of help to you, it is a magical part of the world that is well worth visiting if you are interested in seeing the “real” Australia. Feel free to contact with any questions via my contact form on the website or via my instagram www.instagram.com/huntingforparadise/ This road trip is best done in 5 or more days, keep in mind that the distances in the Red Centre are way bigger than most people expect and that there is often little to no water or fuel available once you leave the small outposts.