We at Champion the Wonder recently visited Alice Springs and its ‘nearby’ neighbours. It’s no secret that there’s any number of epic things to see and do in Central Australia. While the extreme climate and vast distances can be a barrier for those thinking about exploring this amazing area if you’ve got a high-clearance 4x4, a sense of adventure and seven days up your sleeve then we’ve got a circuit itinerary that won’t blow the budget.
DAY ONE – Alice Springs and the West MacDonnell Ranges
Especially if you’re flying to the Northern Territory and hiring a car, Alice Springs is the logical place to start the adventure. Don’t leave without stocking up on the food, water and supplies you’ll need to last you the week. Got jerry cans? Fill ‘em up! While diesel was a reasonable $1.61/L in Alice, we saw it as high as $2.15/L elsewhere.
From Alice Springs, its an easy 50km drive to Standley Chasm. Try to arrive when the sun is at its highest, so you can see the walls light up. From Standley it’s a hop, skip and a jump to Ellery Creek Gorge. If you don’t mind swimming in water so cold it burns then by all means, take a dip. We can’t deny it was refreshing!
You can overnight at Ellery Creek for $5pp (toilets and BBQs are available) or find a free camp. We highly recommend backtracking a little way east to Hugh Gorge to escape the crowds. The track in is bumpy but you’ll be rewarded with plenty of campsites to choose from and breathtaking views if you take a sunset walk up one of the ridge lines.
DAY TWO – more of the West MacDonnell Ranges
Get an early start and head west to the Ochre Pits where you can take an easy stroll around the amazing rock formations and learn about the role they play in Aboriginal culture.
Continue west along Namatjira Drive and you’ll come to Ormiston Gorge. As you take the short walk to the swimming hole (not quite as cold as Ellery Creek), put your ear to the largest tree closest to the water on the righthand side of the path and you might be lucky enough to hear it drinking the water! Ormiston Gorge also offers some cool walks and a lookout. At a minimum, we recommend exploring a little way up the gorge as it’s simply beautiful.
Redbank Gorge is next. Unlike Ellery Creek and Ormiston, Redbank requires an upfront commitment from visitors by way of a 30-minute walk (each way). Mostly flat with a marked track to start and some rock clambering at the end, be sure to move quietly and keep your eyes peeled for local black-footed rock wallabies. Camp at Redbank for $5pp (toilets are available) or check out some of the nearby free camps.
DAY THREE – Mereenie Loop and Kings Canyon
Continue heading west on to the very scenic Mereenie Loop (see permit information below). While Mereenie is bumpier than any bitumen alternative, it’s also an absolute scenic treat with varying panoramas and landscapes. Keep your eye out for wild horses, camels and other wildlife as you drive and make a detour at the Gosse Bluff crater impact site if you need a leg stretch.
You should arrive at Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park around lunchtime where you can have a bite to eat before tackling a walk. To avoid the heat of the day we started the 6km canyon rim walk at around 2pm and finished well before sunset including the optional offshoots to Cotterill’s Bridge and the Garden of Eden. We’d heard lots of good things about Kings Canyon and the sheer cliff views didn’t disappoint.
You can find accommodation at the Kings Canyon Resort, down the road at Kings Creek Station, or a free camp outside of the national park if you’re on a budget and can forego another night without a shower.
DAY FOUR – more Kings Canyon plus Uluru
Start your day with an easy walk into Kathleen Springs where you can sit quietly for a few minutes overlooking the water. We loved learning about the Aboriginal hunting methods used in the area which helped to ensure that wildlife would continue to thrive.
Now you’re in for a 300km drive to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (see permit information below). On arrival, the first thing you’ll want to do is get up close and personal with the star of the show. Although it’s possible to climb Uluru until October 2018, we eschewed this in favour of the 10.6km loop walk which took 2.5 hours and really gave context to the sheer breadth of the thing. That said, if you’ve got a bike or spare dollars to hire one, we did envy riders gliding past with the wind in their hair.
Overnight at Uluru Campground in Yulara or head out of town to a free camp. We enjoyed a quiet bev with distant sunset views of the spectacular Uluru.
Handy hint: We were surprised by the limited toilets available in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Be sure to check maps and plan your days accordingly so you don’t get caught out!
DAY FIVE – Kata Tjuta and Walpa Gorge Drag yourself out of bed in darkness and find your way to a sunrise viewing spot. We watched the start of a new day at the Kata Tjuta dune viewing area where the people - shuffling and jostling for the best spots as they held cameras and tablets aloft, and then leaving the second the sun had risen - was almost as entertaining as the views. It was an experience we won’t forget although not for the reasons we expected!
Next up, check out Kata Tjuta at the Valley of the Winds walk. We recommend completing the full 7.4km circuit to escape the crowds as we saw only two other groups on the third section of the walk despite the full carpark. The short 2.6km Walpa Gorge walk is also worthwhile.
Take some time to check out the Cultural Centre before settling in early for a good spot at the Uluru car sunset viewing area. We got there at 3.30pm before anyone else, snagged a good spot and enjoyed some nibbles as the carpark filled up. Seeing Uluru light up as the sun goes down is a truly powerful experience. Choose from the same camping options as last night.
DAY SIX – Ernest Giles Road and Mount Finke National Park
Fuel up before leaving Yulara and make your way onto Ernest Giles Road which we absolutely loved for its roadside scenery and lack of crowds. Make sure you’re well-armed with maps before you enter Boggy Hole Track from the southern side of Mount Finke National Park as we took a wrong turn more than once!
Camping (no facilities) is available in Mount Finke but be sure to stop just outside the entrance to the national park for stunning red cliff views and a beautiful waterway full of wildlife. If we’d had an extra day up our sleeve, this is where we would have spent it.
DAY SEVEN – more Mount Finke and back to Alice Springs
Get an early start as the road out of this section of Mount Finke can’t be taken at speed. You might also want to stop and take a dip in the Finke River where it widens out in sections, especially north of Boggy Hole campground.
When you emerge onto Larapinta Drive turn west and head back into Mount Finke towards Palm Valley. Be warned that many a car has scraped its chassis on the rocky terrain along the last 16km of this track. There’s a couple of cool walks available but if you’re short on time at minimum do the Palm Valley loop and the Kalarranga lookout. Both are well worth the views.
When you’ve finished up at Palm Valley stop in at Hermannsburg, home of Albert Namatjira, for a visit or fuel before heading back to Alice Springs.
Distance travelled: approximately 1,300km
Mereenie Loop permit: $6 per vehicle for three-day access and can’t be purchased online. Buy in advance at the Alice Springs tourist information centre or from Glen Helen just east of Redbank Gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Uluru-Kata-Tjuta National Park pass: $25pp for three-day access. Purchase online at Parks Australia to avoid queues, especially if you’re planning your first entry at a peak, or in person at the national park entrance.