This section of our trip went above and beyond my expectations – I never thought that I would get so excited at the prospect of red dirt and a giant rock; but the red centre is so much more than that (of course!) This is a plea for anyone out there who thinks the idea of visiting such a remote place could have the potential to be boring or, conversely, too challenging for them because of its isolation. The Red Centre is accessible to everyone and you’ll be surprised how much satisfaction you can get from just being in a place that often feels like the ends of the earth. That being said, there’s plenty to see and do in and around Alice Springs! Read on to find out why our road trip in the Red Centre turned out to be the most memorable part of our journey so far.
Just as a quick prologue to the Red Centre: if you’re driving from the north (i.e. on the road from Mount Isa or Darwin) then you’ll be driving past the Devil’s Marbles, one of the world’s curious natural phenomenons. Although less iconic than its celebrated counterpart Ayer’s Rock, the Devil’s Marbles are impressive in their own right. You’ll be amazed at the vast and various formations that suddenly appear on the dry and arid landscape.
Alice Springs: Then and Now
Alice Springs (or simply ‘Alice’) has an interesting but somewhat troubling history, which dates back over 30,000 years ago when the original Arrernte Aboriginal people based themselves in the Central Australian desert for thousands of years. There is still a strong Aboriginal culture existing in and around Alice Springs today, although tension exists for many reasons.
It wasn’t until the discovery of gold in 1887 that there was any significant European settlement (except for the establishment of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station in 1872). In 1909, when the Stuart Town Gaol was built, there was a European population of only 20 people. Despite this small population, European settlers had the power to incarcerate many aborigines as their first prisoners – a sad part of history that is only the beginning of the white voice overwriting the Aboriginal one during the colonisation of Australia.
Alice became an important World War II staging base, with more than 200,000 people passing through the once barren land. Today, it is a fully facilitated, lively town with a population of 28,000 people (both Aboriginal and Western inhabitants) – there’s a supermarket, restaurants, hotels, a cinema, leisure centre and much more. Sadly, this growth has not always been a peaceful one, but there are visible signs of reconciliation in and around Alice Springs, with various programmes, community workshops and meaningful discussions being enforced.
Given our time restraints, we decided that our purpose in Alice Springs (this time!) didn’t go beyond the practicalities of refuelling and getting the necessary travel permits* before hitting the Red Centre Way. But, if you do have the time, it would definitely be worth spending a day or two here just getting to know the culture of this fascinating place – visit the Aboriginal Australia Culture Centre or the Desert Park to immerse yourself in the history and landscape of Alice Springs and beyond.
*N.B: you officially need to get a (free) travel permit for the Mereenie Loop section of the Red Centre Way. You can get this from the Central Land Council which is just off the main highway as you drive into Alice.
Now I have to give some credit to another blogger here, traveloutbackaustralia, as she did a really thorough article on the Red Centre Way which was completely invaluable to us when it came to doing this drive. It’s written by a former ranger who now lives in Alice Springs, and it’s basically a really detailed description of all the history in the area and goes in depth into all of the potential stops you can do along the drive. One thing that traveloutbackaustralia really recommends (as do I) is to do the Red Centre Way in a 4WD, even though it is accessible to 2WD vehicles. Her main reason is that it is a more comfortable journey because of the corrugated sections, but 4WD will also allow you to do some fantastic little detours (nothing too technical), some of which were the highlights of the journey for us.
So – let’s hit the road!
You don’t have to drive far from Alice Springs to realise how remote you are – just head west down Larapinta Drive and you’ll soon pass the first “Red Centre Way” marker on the side of the road. We drove straight for approx. 46 km until we reached an intersection: turn right onto Namatjira Drive to enter the “outer loop” section of the Red Centre Way rather than sticking on the “inner loop” section straight ahead. There are a couple of free campsites coming up but unless you’re really taking your time then I would press on to the first stop of the day – Ellery Creek Big Hole. It’s only a short drive down a dirt road (2WD no problem) until you arrive at the creek. There is a lovely swimming hole but it is absolutely freezing – and that’s coming from a Scottish girl! We had a lovely walk around though; there are some nice sandy areas and the scenery is stunning. You can also camp here for just $5 pp.
Next, we headed to the Ochre Pits – now if you’re not Australian, you might not be as familiar with ochre. It’s basically a natural pigment that contains iron oxide, which gives the rock a range of rich colours such as those pictured below:
Ochre has been used for thousands of years all over the world for different purposes, ranging from cosmetic to medicinal. In Australia, ochre is particularly important to Aboriginal people for body painting and rock art – the different colours have symbolic meanings, and are often used for ceremonial purposes as well as teaching practices. You cannot touch the ochre when you visit as it is a sacred site that is still used by the local Arrarnta people today. We felt very lucky to be able to visit it and witness the amazing array of colours!
Once you get back on the main road, drive on for about 15km or so to Ormiston Gorge (it’s just gorgeous – ha!) Really though – you’ll want your camera for this one! We took the Ghost Gum trail, which was a short climb to a fantastic lookout. You can take a shorter walk on the flat surface to the gorge itself, but if you’re physically able to I would absolutely recommend the Ghost Gum trail for exceptional views. And remember – as tempting as it might be – don’t try to throw any rocks down into the water as there are people walking around below you!! The geology of Ormiston Gorge is also really interesting even for a non-geologist such as myself, which I’ll try to explain in a (very basic) nutshell: the top layer on the rock (left side) is said to have been thrust from its original location, which was 2km north of here around 400 million years ago, and landed at its current location on top of another slab. That distance seems quite amazing to me, but Phil (the real geologist) said it’s not that uncommon… Geologist or not, I can guarantee that you will love spending time at Ormiston Gorge.
Last stop of the day is a very special campsite for the night – recommended by both traveloutbackaustralia and the ever reliable Wikicamps! This is when a 4WD comes in handy as you can camp at this very peaceful spot, away from the crowds, next to a beautiful river – for free! To access Two Mile campsite, drive just past Glen Helen Resort and take a right down an unsealed road which will lead you to bush camping at its finest. There may be no toilets/showers/drinking water, but if you come prepared to rough it then you’ll soon consider this place a little piece of paradise.
Tip: if you are planning on staying at this campsite, take the right side at the fork in the road to avoid getting bogged in the soft sand areas.
Once you set off from the campsite and get back onto the sealed road, you’ll see a sign for Tyler’s Pass Lookout, which is just a short 200m detour from the main road. You’ll get a great view of a comet crater called Gosse Bluff from here, which is thought to date back over 140 million years ago (wow!) I recommend visiting just after sunrise to appreciate the lovely burnt red glow in the morning sun.
About 15km after Tyler’s Pass, you also have the option to visit the crater up close – if you have a 4WD. There’s a sign saying 4WD only and it’s there for a reason! We unfortunately didn’t have time for this detour, but traveloutbackaustralia writes a great paragraph about Gosse Bluff and its significance to the Aboriginal community.
If you decide to press on like we did, you’ll soon be greeted with the first section of unsealed road and the delightful corrugations that come with it! You do have to be careful driving along here – we saw a number of car wrecks on the side of the road and it can be fairly challenging driving over the corrugations. For our Landcruiser troopy, about 70-80km/h worked best in terms of comfort and control. We weren’t particularly phased by the road conditions, but we did have to pause our music as the sound was quickly drowned out by the road noise! Even if you do find it unbearable, just try to appreciate the scenery around you and enjoy the feeling of entering real outback country! If anything, we found it rather enjoyable (for the first 30 mins…)
There’s not much in the way of places to stop for the next 100km or so, but if you feel like stretching your legs, Ginty’s Lookout is a good place to do so. It is also a free campsite, making it the only one relatively close to King’s Canyon, but it doesn’t have any facilities. Your other options are all paid but include facilities (King’s Canyon Resort or Kings Creek Station) so consider what’s best for you.
Our destination of the day: the epic King’s Canyon. Well, I have to say, this was perhaps even more impressive than Ayer’s Rock itself for me! There were so many fantastic walks to choose from and the canyon itself was immense. I cannot recommend the Canyon Rim Walk highly enough – it takes you through stunning sections of red rock domes, a little paradise called “The Garden of Eden” (waterfalls included) and it gives you somewhat daunting views over the canyon itself. This was quite possibly the highlight of The Red Centre Way for me, as we got so much out of this short 6km walk! It can take anything from 1.5 – 4 hours depending on how often you stop, whether or not you take any detours and of course whatever your pace is. My advice is to just take your time and immerse yourself in this very special place. I think it can be done by anyone with moderate/good fitness – the only really steep section is the first climb with approximately 1000 steps, which is absolutely the toughest part of the walk. Just take this bit as slowly as you need, and the rest is more leisurely from here – I promise!
I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking:
N.B. We were visiting in June, when it was maybe only 21 degrees – but don’t be fooled by the mild temperature –bring sun cream and wear a hat because the sun is strong and relentless out here, with no shade on the walk!
Due to our time limits, we pressed on to a free campsite near Uluru after our walk (which we did early and fairly quickly!) But I would actually recommend spending a night near the Canyon so you can really enjoy Watarrka National Park in all its glory before re-embarking on your journey feeling refreshed in the morning!
We spent 2 nights camping at a very special spot with a phenomenal view over Ayer’s Rock, but I’m going to save talking about Uluru for the next post because there’s a lot to say. For now, I’ll leave you with the lingering ever-enigmatic image that we all know and love…
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog and that it has in some way inspired you to visit the Red Centre!