DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
The Red Centre isn’t just for coach tourists – there’s some great off-roading around The Alice.
Everyone knows about Uluru (Ayers Rock), which is one of the world’s best known tourist attractions. However, the Rock is just one of dozens of brilliant sites in Australia’s Red Centre and many 4WD visitors don’t leave themselves enough time to see them all.
We’ve met people on the road who have planned a two-week holiday from the east coast to Alice Springs, expecting to see all the interesting stuff in western Queensland, ‘do’ the entire Red Centre and come home via the Oodnadatta Track and the Flinders Ranges. You need more than a month to do that properly and even then you won’t see anything north of Alice Springs.
Exploration of The Rock, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and East and West MacDonnell Ranges highlights takes around three weeks, and to that you need to add a week’s transit time to get to The Centre and a week to get home.
This suggested trip around Alice Springs assumes two weeks in the area and therefore concentrates on the 550km of roads and tracks between Alice Springs, the West MacDonnells and Yulara. To check out the East MacDonnells properly you’ll need at least an additional week.
The West MacDonnells
We know your suspension lift, off-road tyres, driving lights, aerials, ‘roo bar, roof rack and swing-away rear bar are overkill for the West MacDonnell National Park sites, where you’re just as likely to pull up next to a rented Corolla, but these ‘touristy’ sites are well worth visiting. You can fly through all the bitumen-road sites on Namatjira Drive, out west of Alice Springs in a day, or you can spend three days and see more than you expected.
For example, after stopping off for the short walks to Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole and Serpentine Gorge you can whiz straight to Glen Helen Resort for the night, or you can bush camp at the subtly signposted Serpentine Chalet site.
There’s not much left of the old Ansett Pioneer Serpentine Chalet, but the track that runs past it to a few bush camp sites on the Larapinta Walking Trail is the original route to Ormiston Gorge.
Until the late 1950s, tourists visiting Ormiston Gorge travelled to the end of the sealed road at the Hugh River crossing in conventional buses and then transferred to converted World War II Blitzwagons for the rough-track drive to Ormiston.
Ansett Pioneer built the Chalet in 1958/59 as a half-way house for tourists, but the venue was plagued by lack of water, despite a small dam, as a 10-year drought set in. Its death knell sounded when improved roads to Ormiston and Glen Helen Gorges were built in the mid-1960s.
The chalet was dismantled in 1968, but part of it stands in the Lutheran Mission in Alice Springs. Today, the Chalet track leads to some single and group bush camp sites that have fireplaces, but no facilities.
The Serpentine Chalet track is only a few minutes drive from the Ochre Pits and the next turnoff, to Ormiston Gorge, is a ‘must-drive’. If you walk only one gorge track in the West MacDonnells, the one-hour lookout walk at Ormiston is the one you should do. NP Rangers have made the job easier than before, by installing pre-fab stairs on what used to be a loose, rocky track.
The walk climbs to a prominent lookout, traverses a gentle slope across the Gorge wall and then returns to the parking area via a sandy river bottom.
Ormiston Gorge camping is ‘squeezy’, but there’s an alternative site at the Woodland campground at Redbank Gorge. There are ‘drop’ dunnies here, but no showers, so it’s not as popular as the better-equipped sites.
Only five kilometres from the Rebank Gorge turnoff from Namatjira Drive is an almost hidden sign to Roma Gorge, which isn’t on most maps. The turnoff is easily missed, being on a causeway over a creek bed.
Roma Gorge is at the end of an 8.5km drive up a sandy and stony, dry creek bed. It’s remarkable for having some of the best rock carvings – petroglyphs – in Central Australia. The ‘pecked’ carvings have been dated between 6000 and 8000 years of age and were made by a sharp stone or piece of bone being struck with a hammer-stone.
Some of the rock carvings have obscure meanings, even to today’s Aborigines, but many are well understood.
An oval ring with carved ‘rays’ emanating from it is Itaya (pron: ‘tyre’), the Moon Man, who is said to be ‘shining magically, like a diamond’ and coming to earth ‘like a flying saucer’. The Moon Man is said to come to women, singing a love charm song ‘like an angel’. Once they’ve heard the song, it is said, the women are unable to sleep.
There are many carvings of ‘killer boomerangs’, shaped like a backwards number seven. These weapons, not spears, were used for fighting by the Arrernte men,. Concentric circle carvings usually represent water holes.
The section of the Gorge that’s the most decorated was formerly used for ‘men’s secret business’ – an initiation area whose ritets cannot be divulged to any but initiated Arrernte men. The last recorded initiation ceremony was held at Roma Gorge in the 1920s.
Part of the Gorge is still considered sacred by the local Aboriginal people and is off limits to visitors, but much of the old initiation area is open to visitors’ inspection.
The drive to the Gorge is undemanding for high ground clearance vehicles and meanders along a creek bed, under river red gums. It passes through what appears to be the main gorge en route, but this secondary gorge opens onto a valley, with Roma Gorge visible in the distance.
There’s a small parking area and an information board, guiding visitors to a walking track that leads into the initiation area. The stone carvings are immediately obvious, on free-standing stones and on the Gorge walls, above the normal flood line.
A small pool at the base of a water-scrubbed, rock wall marks the limit of the visitor area and is a fine spot to sit and contemplate the surroundings. Entertainment is provided by zebra finches darting back and forth from nearby branches to have a sip of water.
Red Centre Way
After Roma Gorge it’s only a short bitumen drive to the lookout that provides spectacular views of Tnorala (Gosse Bluff). From this vantage point it’s possible to see the central point of a comet strike that occurred around 142.5 million years ago.
The projecting rocks visible today were originally deep in the earth’s crust and the original crater was 20km across.
The Aboriginal dreamtime belief is that Tnorala was formed in the creation time, when a group of women danced across the sky as the Milky Way.
During this dance, a mother put her child aside, resting in its wooden baby-carrier (a turna). The carrier toppled over the edge of the dancing area and crashed to earth where it was transformed into the circular rock walls of Tnorala. It’s interesting that the dreaming story relates to a strike from space.
The remnants were named Gosse’s Range by the explorer Ernest Giles in 1872 after H Gosse, a fellow of the Royal Society. Title for the Reserve was granted to traditional owners and is now jointly managed by the Parks and Wildlife Service.
The short drive into Gosse Bluff is 4WD only, with corrugations, washaways and stony creek beds along the track.
After Gosse Bluff the road forks, heading west on the Red Centre Way (formerly the Mereenie Loop) for which a $2.20 permit is required and east along Larapinta Drive. It’s now decision time for 4WD trippers and those with time constraints can head east, pop into Palm Valley along the way and be back in The Alice next day.
The more comprehensive route is to head west on the Red Centre Way and aim for Kings Canyon. The Red Centre Way is generally poorly maintained gravel with large corrugations, but from Kings Canyon to Yulara the surface is sealed. There’s no off-roading on this stretch, but there is a brilliant four-hour walk around the rim of Watarrka (Kings Canyon).
Obviously, there’s no off roading near Uluru or Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), but halfway along the return journey north towards Alice Springs there’s a turnoff onto the Ernest Giles Road and that leads 38km to a poorly signposted track to the left. Welcome to Finke Gorge National Park.
There is no more aptly named place in Australia than this sandy valley that has been carved consistently by the Finke River for more years than any other river has run, anywhere in the world. Millions of years of silt deposits have turned many sandy patches into virtual quicksand holes.
The main track is compacted and is also stony in places, so it’s easily driven, but the sandy river banks are fraught with danger. Most people who drive the Finke Gorge track get stuck at some spot or other; usually when looking for a campsite. If you’re travelling in a solo vehicle don’t stray far from the main track when camping.
The Finke River Gorge track runs between rocky walls and the river bed is dotted with permanent water holes. After rain, the river banks and muddy reed beds shoot up stalks two metres and more in height. The track meanders through stands of massive river red gums that look spectacular, but are very dangerous to be near. Don’t camp under the branches of the ‘widow maker’ tree.
The southern approach to Boggy Hole passes through pastoral country and enters gorge country soon after you pass by some old stockyards on the right hand side of the track. The Gorge becomes progressively deeper, as do the waterholes, until you reach Boggy Hole. From there north the Gorge steadily widens and ends near the National Park boundary.
The northern access road intersects Larapinta Drive directly opposite the main street of Hermannsburg. Note there’s no signpost at this intersection.
There’s a very good general store and a servo at Hermannsburg, if you need to top up supplies before heading into nearby Palm Valley. The turnoff is only a few hundred metres to the west, on Larapinta Drive.
The turnoff to Palm Valley is clearly marked and the road is well aligned, but corrugated. From the camping area to Palm Valley itself is a drive along the dry Finke River bed and high ground clearance is absolutely essential. The rocks at Palm Valley are stained with the sump oil of low-clearance 4WDs.
Camping at Palm Valley is well organised, but crowded during the cooler months. There are toilets and showers, but firewood needs to be collected on the way in – well before the entrance to the National Park.
This palm-blessed jewel in the Red Centre is a relic of the time when Australia was covered in tropical vegetation and is a must-see for 4WD visitors to the region. There are essential short and optional long walks from the rocky car park.
From Palm Valley our route now heads east, along the bitumen Larapinta Drive towards Alice Springs, but those who don’t need to restock can swing south just before the town, on a track through Owen Springs Reserve. The track winds through Lawrence Gorge, which cuts through the Waterhouse Range. There’s excellent bush camping on the sandy banks of the Gorge, along a 5.6-kilometre stretch that ensures you can get away from the neighbours.
There’s also bush camping at Birthday Waterhole, in the northern section of the Reserve and at Redbank Waterhole, just six kilometres inside the Reserve’s southern boundary. The track emerges onto the Stuart Highway, just north of Stuarts Well, where there’s camping, a store and a servo.
After you continue south on The Stuart for 40km you take the right turn on Ernest Giles Road that leads past the Henbury Meteorite Crater site, past the Boggy Hole southern entrance and on to the bitumen that leads to Yulara.
Camping at Yulara is always squeezy, uncomfortable, expensive and dusty, but you have to see this most famous Australian landmark. If you can avoid the Voyages campground at Yulara, do so – it’s plain horrible.
In accordance with local Aboriginal wishes there’s no longer a climb Uluru, but a guided walk around some of the Rock’s significant sites is well worth it.
At Kata Tjuta the Valley of the Winds walk is a must.
This Alice to Uluru route takes in the most significant sites west of the town; the east is another story…