A six-day, self-guided driving tour of Australia’s Red Center in the Northern Territory
As far as the eye can see, a vast expanse of red earth rolls out like a carpet eventually sprawling to reach the sky. This is Australia’s Red Center and only a small part of the vast expanse known as the outback. It’s a road-trippers dream and a luxury hotel lover’s nightmare as the distances to reach a “destination” are great and the services are extremely limited. In fact, you’ll drive hundreds of kilometers to reach some of the Red Center’s greatest attractions including Uluru/Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon, The MacDonnell Ranges, Palm Valley, etc. To fully relax into exploring the area around the center’s largest town, Alice Springs, you’ll need at least a week; but, it can be done in less depending on what you want to see and do. Most people traverse the Red Center in a 4wheel drive camper or if you plan to stay to main, paved roadways – a camper van. Free campsites line the main highways and cheap sites can be found within some of the parks nearby. Here’s your itinerary for your five day driving tour of the beautiful Red Center including FREE camping sites, where to get water and great hikes along the way..
As you arrive in Alice Springs you’ll notice two things – the stinging heat and the nagging flies. The desert sun can be strong, and water isn’t readily available so ensure you are well stocked before leaving the city. There is a Cole’s and a Woolworths in the center of town, and have everything you need except a solid map and fly nets. Pick up your map of the Red Center at Barbecues Galore and your protective fly nets at The Royal Flying Doctor’s Service both near the center of town. The latest regional map of the Red Center costs $9.90 AU, but is well worth it as this is not an area in which you want to get lost. Again, the lack of services including gas and water means it’s dangerous to drive without clear direction. The latest regional map (5th edition) is slightly out of date as one of the service stations is now closed, which we know from experience has caught a few tourists. In fact, we had to give a ride to a couple who ran out of gas after assuming the Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse was open. It closed more than a month ago after falling into dire financial straights, and employees at the “nearby” Stuarts Well told us it’s unlikely the station will reopen. The map, however, is a great tool. It details which roads recommend or require 4wheel drive as well as which areas you’ll need an aboriginal permit to cross (none of those areas are on this particular tour).
Once you’re prepared to go, hopefully by early to mid afternoon, head south from Alice on Stuart Highway (Hwy. 87). The dry, grey roadway literally rolls through the desert, leaving your camper to roll along with it. If you have a looser suspension make sure to hold on tight – it will be a little bit of a rough ride. If you need a break, pull over for a bit at the Mt. Polhill rest area. If you don’t have time to drive the the remaining 47 kilometers to our destination – you can camp here for free. Water is available and there are picnic tables but no bathrooms. 75 kilometers south of Alice Springs is the turn off for our first stop and night of camping. Turn left off the pavement and plow through the loose red sand toward Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve. 4wheel drive is recommended for the 22 kilometer drive to Rainbow Valley, but Britz and Apollo camper vans and other 2wheel drive cars can make the trip with little difficulty. The road is extremely washboard in places, and although you’ll feel as if your rattled to your core upon arrival, it’s well worth the trip.
Rainbow Valley’s beautiful sandstone bluffs are quintessentially Australia outback. They shoot from the red, dry earth creating a spectacular sight. A short walk (30minutes or so) around the base of the bluffs takes you to Mushroom rock, which is impressive in it’s own right. If you set out from Alice in the afternoon, you should catch Rainbow Valley just before sunset – the most beautiful time of day to photograph the scenery. Reminder: Don’t forget your fly nets before hopping out of the car – here, they’ll swarm you from the moment you get out!
Camping within Rainbow Valley Conservation Area costs a measly $3.00 AU per person and is payable at a self-serve kiosk at the campground. Two bathrooms and numerous spots with BBQ pits are available, but there is no water.
After what was hopefully a relaxing evening beneath the beautiful Australian stars, pack up camp and hit the road. You’ll make rattle your way back along the 22km unsealed road back to Stewarts Highway where you’ll turn left and continue heading South. Once you are back on Stewart’s Highway, you’re next stop will be the Stuarts Well Roadhouse (it’s located 80km south of Alice Springs). You can pay for showers here, grab a cold drink or any grocery items you missed in Alice Springs from a limited supply and fill up with gas. While we were here, there was a $30.00 AU limit on gas purchases, but again – because the distances without services are so great you need to keep as full a tank as possible.
Stuarts Well is also the home of Dinky the Singing Dingo, but if you were looking forward to watching the ‘dog’ break out into song, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Dinky now suffers from arthritis and is no longer taking the stage, however, his owner Jim Cotterill will be happy to show you a video of the famous dingo from his high-note heyday.
Once you’re refreshed, continue your drive south. 5km from Stuarts Well is the Cannonball Run Memorial. If you’re interested stop for a quick picture and learn about what happened at the site. In brief, a Ferrari plowed through a check point during a certified race killing the Japanese driving team and two crew members.
There are at least three more ‘rest stops’ with water that allow for free overnight camping before you reach the Lassiter Highway – keep these in mind in case you want to stay there on your return trip. 130 kilometers south of Alice is the Finke River Rest stop, located right above the Finke River. It’s a great place to stay the night as is the Desert Oaks Rest Area where this driving tour stops for the night on the way back to Alice Springs.
Continue on to the Erldunda Roadhouse just before the turn for Lasseter Highway to Uluru. Erldunda has restrooms, a bar, a cafe and all services including gas. Fill up here before heading on. Turn right onto the Lasseter Highway and continue the 230 kilometers to Uluru or Ayers rock. There are several stops to make along the way including Mt. Conner Look out and Curtain Springs service station and camp ground (showers available here).
You should arrive at Uluru in early afternoon. It will cost you $25.00 per person to enter Uluru Kata Tjuta National park, but you’ll receive a three day, unlimited entry pass. Spend the afternoon exploring the cultural center and learning about the Anangu people and, if you’d like, book a tour for the following the day.
Watch the sunset bask the beautiful rock in a fiery glow, and quickly head back out of the park toward the closest rest stop for free camping. It’s about 30 kilometers back out of the park on the right. Here you can find water, but no bathroom. There are tracks leading over a small hill from the rest stop – follow those down to great camping spots off the road.
Wake up EARLY..well before sunrise and head back into the park to watch the sunrise either with your tour or on your own. During our full day in the park we joined the 8am FREE ranger-guided Mala walk. You’ll see the meeting point sign at the base of Uluru from the Mala car park. The free tour will walk along the Mala trail and finish at the Kanjutu Gorge. It’s here you can continue on to complete the 10 kilometer Uluru Base Walk. You should finish the walk easily by noon before grabbing lunch while letting your feet rest in the camper. Next, drive the more 50 kilometers to Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas. Here you’ll have the afternoon to traverse the 7.4 kilometer Valley of the Winds walk. It’s a gorgeous, but slightly difficult, walk through the beautiful rock formations and valley beyond. You can stay and watch the sunset from here or head back out of the park – tired but happily overwhelmed by the beauty and culture of Uluru/Kata Tjuta.
We continued back along the Lasseter Highway to the Mt. Conner Lookout rest area, which is not necessarily designed for camping. I suggest driving to the rest stop beyond. With that being said, if it is ever getting too dark or you feel uncomfortable – stop driving. Driving in the outback is extremely dangerous at dusk and dawn and driving at night seems to be reserved only for the unstoppable road trains. Kangaroos, Camels, Emus and Cattle are all over the roadway, and risking your life and your rental car just isn’t worth the extra time on the road.
Head back east along the Lasseter Highway until you reach the Curtain Springs Roadhouse again. Fill up here before continuing until you reach Luritja Road. Turn left. This sealed road will lead you to Kings Canyon for a fabulous hike. Kings Canyon while unassuming on approach is a breathtaking and awe inspiring canyon cut deep into the red rock. The Kings Canyon Rim Walk is now on the top of my list of favorite hikes. While it’s not long, it is demanding in spots as you’ll traverse a rocky and often steep surface for 6 kilometers. The hike takes about 3 to 4 hours to complete so plan to reach the canyon by 11am to ensure plenty of time for the hike and the partial drive back. Keep in mind if the temperature reaches above a certain point, the walk is closed. Check at the roadhouse stops along the way for information. For planning purposes to reach Kings Canyon from Uluru is a 314 kilometer drive or 471 kilometers from Alice Springs. You’ll most likely need to stop for gas at Kings Creek – a working cattle farm and service station. It’s here you can try the “famous” Kings Creek camel burger.
Once you’ve completed your walk and your fueled up, drive back south on Luritja Road to Lasseter Highway. You’re now heading back toward Alice Springs to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges. We were able to make it to the Desert Oaks rest stop and camping area located north of the Lasseter Highway-Stuart Highway intersection. Here you’ll find water and two bathrooms, plus a great place to camp for the night.
Once again, you’re up early and on the road (I hope you have a great MP3 playlist for this road trip)! Make the drive back into Alice Springs where you can spend several hours exploring the town including Todd Mall and the surrounding shops.
In early afternoon, it’s time to set out for the West MacDonnell ranges. You’ll leave Alice Springs via Larapinta Drive headed west. The West Mac ranges run right into Alice Springs and you’re only minutes away from some of the attractions. There are two free rest areas for camping along this drive; one is located just over 75 kilometers from Alice and the other just more than 105 kilometers. However, camping is better at some of the places inside West Mac National park for a nominal fee.
Your first stop will be Simpson Gap. It’s only 11 kilometers from Alice and offers great views of a beautiful gap cut through the West Macs. It’s a very short walk from the car park to the gap itself. This is a popular place for locals who often picnic or relax in the shade of the gorge. It’s here you’ll be able to see the Black-Footed Rock Wallabies hiding in the rocks alongside the gap. Services here include bathrooms, water, tables and gas BBQs but no camping is allowed.
Continue west following Namatjira Drive (don’t follow Larapinta) to the turn off for Ellery Creek Big Hole. It’s a couple kilometers from the road on unsealed roadway, but it’s easily passable. It’s on of the largest permanent waterholes in the region, but before you let the guidebooks convince you it’s a great place for a swim – check the water for yourself. If it hasn’t rained in awhile the freezing cold water become stagnant and green. Most tourists pop on their swimsuits and walk to the water hole excited to dive in only to realize they wouldn’t touch the water with a 10-foot pole! Still, it’s a great place to camp, so stop for the night! The fee is $5.00 per person and the camp ground had nice bathroom facilities – but no water. While chatting with new friends around a roaring fire – make sure to listen up for the wild dingos howling around the camp!
Today, you’ll finish exploring the West MacDonnell Ranges. By now you’ve probably figured out they don’t hold a candle to Uluru, Kata Tjuta or Kings Canyon, but they are beautiful in their own right. Once you leave Ellery Creek Big Hole continue west on Namatjira Drive to the nearby Serpentine Gorge. It’s here you can take a short but steep hike up the side of the gorge for fabulous views of the outback. Once your done, keep going west to Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge.
If you have time in the morning you can camp for free along the West Macs and return to Alice in the morning, however, with an early flight to catch we headed back to Alice and stayed in a camper van park near the Britz return center.
This is a whirlwind tour of the Red Center but overall it hits the highlights. If you do have a 4wheel drive vehicle you may be much more willing to explore some of the amazing off-road sites including the highly-touted Palm Valley.
Keep in mind:
Animals are present during the day, but don’t drive at dawn or dusk to avoid an accident
Gas is hard to come by – we had to rescue two tourists who ran out so prepare ahead – it’s best to top off your at every opportunity
You may want to boil the water you get from roadside tanks before drinking, but it’s fine to cook with, bathe in, etc.
Get a map – it’s the best 10 bucks you’ll spend as you definitely don’t want to get lost in the outback
Overall, the Red Center is by far my favorite place in Australia, but it takes a certain kind to fall in love with the place. If you don’t like the outdoor and your not necessarily adventurous, it may not be your favorite place but at least take time to appreciate it’s wild and mostly untouched beauty.