Apollo Campervans have some 4×4 options for Australia. This ‘high wheel clearance’ vehicle is required to access real 4×4 tracks. You can explore this region using a standard van but you have to stay on the sealed roads, of which there are many.
Arrival to Alice Springs airport has one of the world’s more interesting landing approaches, from the perspective of the view and uniqueness of the terrain. Winter means less heat and therefore less thermal activity, all making for much smoother landings which, of course. An interesting point to note here is that during the hot months – that should read REALLY hot months – flights take off and land (or should do so) early morning and early evening, or at night. This means you have more dense air, shorter take off runs, less fuel burned and heat thermals are less, which minimises the chance of a bumpy ride, making for that much desired ‘less bumpy ride’.
Making your way from the airport to the town itself is easy, either by taxi or shuttle bus. Whilst a taxi is only a bit more expensive than the shuttle it can be quicker if your drop off point is towards the end of the shuttles set stop off list! However, the advantage of being bottom of the list is that you get a ‘mini city’ tour, exploring areas you potentially will not see. My thoughts are, shuttle upon arrival and taxi for departure, best of both worlds.
It is a pity that Alice does not have an Alice’s restaurant, but a search for a takeaway does result in a ‘Noodle Outlet’, next to a kebab shop proving that Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines find their way to the most isolated towns. Yes, we also noted an Indian restaurant.
Shopping for food supplies presents a few peculiarities different for us southerners. The buying of alcohol requires an I.D. to be scanned and checked against the ‘banned drinkers’ list. One couldn’t get baskets to walk around the wine shop as none were provided, due to all previous stock having been stolen, i.e. not returned.
Some prices are noticeably more expensive as one always understands the fact that haulage is a significant cost, but to find asparagus at half the cost of our local supermarket in Melbourne was a mystery.
Winter months, which are the best to tour in, do come with lower night time temperatures, Brisk it most certainly is! Alice Springs is at 2000meters altitude, on a plateau and in the centre of a massive continent. Students of geography will recognise why this desert environment is so cold at night, not dissimilar to other such geographical areas like the Sahara.
With thermals, bed socks and my ‘old faithful’ 1979 Fairydown sleeping bag (proper duck feathers), I was snug as that proverbial ‘bug in a rug’. The chilly dawn broke after our first night in the ‘Centre’. A brisk run to the amenities block rid one of any lingering sleepiness. Coffee – one must – so out slid the side kitchen unit and after some confusion related to the water connection I soon had the little espresso unit bubbling away. Wheat Bix (cereals) with seriously cold milk and yogurt were the order of the moment.
Our first ‘pack-up’ meant we took more time than normal, but were soon on the road, ‘Heading out of Alice’. I enjoyed that first experience of the road sign indicating that we must turn right for ‘Uluru’! Immediately, we were greeted with wonderfully different flora, indeed we were travelling through a new land!
Long straight roads were the order of the day. To our ‘new chum’ eyes this was indeed a fascinating environment. Driving in central Australia means long distances, but to our eyes, new colours, aspects and contrasts make it seem like we are in another country, or could it be another planet?
Our first deviation from track was to some ancient meteoroid craters ……………………. It seems that some NASA Astronauts were brought to this place in the 1960’s as part of their ‘Lunar Training’. Setting aside this rather recent historical event, the feeling of standing amongst the results of an ancient astronomical event, upon an even more ancient environment ,was thought provoking.
You can understand how tourists, that have not put in advance research, could be fooled into thinking Mt Connor, which is on route, was Uluru. A spectacular sight in its own right and a good gate keeper to what will come. There is a rest stop, which does allow overnight free camping if so desired, although being so close to the road perhaps not so quiet. Besides a wonderful view of Mt Connor one can wander across the road, scamper up a small sand dune to be rewarded with a view of a small salt lake. Anticipation is in the air as the kilometres count down towards Uluru. At around 55km out you first note the massive rock that is not only the image of the Red Centre, but considered by many to be the centre and metaphorical heart of the continent.
You arrive to a contained environment known at the Uluru Resort, home to the hotels, campgrounds residents accommodation, shops and services, all neatly packaged in a controlled format, eminently suited to such a special National Park – but ‘at a price’. This would have to be one of the most expensive plots of land to camp on and would benefit from another controlled camp ground to bring a bit of competition to the fore!
As you check in the importance of ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ times and weather updates to ones stay become apparent. No holiday lie-ins here as one is up well before dawn to make the viewing areas in time for dawn, this being for both Uluru and the Olgas (45 mins drive from the camp/hotel compound).
The number of vehicles and resultant people, can be quite surprising. Coach parking areas are separate to cars and campervans. It does pay to be early if you want that fence side position with camp table adorned with cheese, nibbles and ones wine glass. Early nights and early mornings are your routine for at least two days.
Camp ground facilities are very good with adequate hot water, good BBQ amenities and whilst the camp ground says it has patrols for noisy guests this seemed to fail on the first night only.
Yulara is contained to a small area that encompasses a small range of shops, including the supermarket. You can top up supplies here, but at a price premium reflective of the transport costs and lack of competition. The range is good and has obviously been refined over the years from travellers requests. We found the meat department of particular interest. Staring back at us were wrapped packets of, Camel Roast, Camel Chuck Steak and most enticing of all, Camel and Date sausages!!! These are a winner and added to this is the satisfaction that we were assisting with the control of feral camels. I described this delicacy of the region to an Egyptian/Australian friend of mine and his comment sums up this item of cuisine, ‘Ahh a blend of two elements of the desert’. I am currently investigating a way to ‘import’ some of these to Victoria and my afore mentioned friend has asked for supplies for himself. This could catch on!!
Our plans of buying as much as we could at Alice Springs and then topping up with some perishable items at Yulara worked well and our small fridge freezer was bulging as we departed this area.
The free walks guided by a ranger are recommended. You meet at a set location and begin an easy walk following the rocks base track. Your ranger details many points of aboriginal and natural history. If time and energy permits you can walk the entire circumference of the rock. With regard to climbing up the rock this is still possible, but we did not do this. Traditional owners frown upon this practice, considering the rock sacred.
Whilst Uluru is the ‘star’ attraction of the region the Olgas are, in my opinion, the romantic understudy who shines. Whereas the Uluru walk just circuits the rock at the Olgas you can move amongst, around and over small parts. The ‘Valley of the Winds’ is a spectacular hike and we look forward to doing it again one day. At every stage there are visual encounters, many natural alters to sit down upon, gaze around from, with colours made vivid by the crisp desert light.
This has to be one of the most exciting areas of Australia, if not the world, to make such a flight. We chose the longer two hour flight which encompassed, Lake Amadeus (NT’s largest salt lake), the MacDonnell Ranges, then sunsets over the Olgas and Uluru! Our aircraft was a high wing twin engine rather than a helicopter. Being an amateur pilot I like the idea of two engines when flying over rugged country and fixed wing is also a lot cheaper than a helicopter, hence the two hours rather than a shorter flight.
After take-off we headed northeast towards Lake Amadeus. The white mass of a salt lake soon became evident and the pilot descended to 500 feet for the ‘fly over and fly around’. This is a great height to observe things as we wove and circled, up down and around this massive salt lake. The contrast in colours between the desert ‘shore’ and white of the salt was absorbing to my eye.
“Look just ahead” said the pilot. “see the dark dots in a row, they are dead camels. They became stuck as they tried to walk over the salt crust”. Sure enough, as we neared the spot seven recently deceased camels became evident with their distinctive shape. Our flight now departed the lake shore and whilst still at 500 feet we flew north in the direction of Kings Canyon. We could maintain this low height, as there was no turbulence, this being yet another indicator showing that wintertime is a great time to visit. Normally, in hot environments, as the land heats up the warm air rising induces increased thermal turbulence. Most pilots will fly either early morning or late afternoon as these are the periods of potential lowest temperatures and consequently less turbulence. Note the use of the word ‘potential’.
As we skimmed across the enthralling landscape the obvious escarpment of Kings Canyon loomed closer on the horizon. At the same time our pilot gave interesting commentary about what was below and around us. We were told that we had just left national park land and were over the Kings Creek Station, famous for recently rounding up 300 feral camels for export to the Moroccan Army!!! Not to ride, this is the 21st century, but for ‘rations’!! Feral camels are a well documented problem and this was certainly a good way to rid the land of some. We saw the ‘clay pan’ that signified the end of the meandering creek system known as Kings Creek, the creek runs from the rocks of Kings Canyon itself.
Our aircraft was soon skimming over the top of the rock escarpment known as Kings Canyon, then tight turning back around to afford us stunning visuals of this popular natural wonder. We could see the small figures of hikers and the unusual rock shapes so common to deserts, not only in Australia but, around the world were evident. Our pilot now headed into a wide low desert valley and we flew up the centre with the canyon “escarpment” walls on either side. After some time zig zagging we departed this region with a course set for the Olgas, climbing to 7000 feet to afford a more extensive birds eye view of the country around us. The distant shapes of Uluru and the Olgas were easy to note due to their large mass thrust up out of an otherwise flat landscape.
The light changes, due to an impending sunset, became move evident as we moved closer. Real chatter on the radio increased as various pilots let each other know they were taking off loaded with the many who take just sunset flights. Our pilot now descended as we made the perfectly timed run into the Olgas – I think he had flown this route a few times!! Now the true desert theatre really came into play with some superb work by natures lighting technicians! I would imagine many readers will have seen TV, or movie segments showing sunsets and sunrises on both the Olgas and Uluru, but it seems different when you are actually there absorbing this yourself – well I think so. It helps me want to go back and do it all again! Our pilot had his timings down perfect as we flew back and forth around the Olgas for a few minuets then scurried across to Uluru for the final curtain call of the grand artist, ‘Sunset’. Each circuit we did of the rock showed changing colours until that dark hue of curtain call became obvious. Another benefit of flying in the fixed wing was that some pilots will be night rated allowing for late returns to the airport. Helicopters are not allowed to fly at night unless they are, police, ambulance, military, or oilrig transfers. We soon departed the rock as the sun was sinking beneath the horizon. Correct approach calls were made to the airfield and a fast elliptical military style final approach, instead of the more standard ‘ flying the square’ was made. This is a faster way to land and with diminishing light the perfect method to land quickly and safely having allowed us the maximum time in the air. ‘Wow’ what an amazing two hours was the collective comment of the passengers on board. View Flight Options.
Considered one of the three main areas to visit we had the benefit of having flown over the area the day prior to our arrival. This assisted greatly with giving perspective to the area and at the low flight height we were able to observe hikers on the rim trail that we would hike the next day. There are two possibilities of camp sites, one being at the ‘main’ township and the other back a few kilometres at the Kings Canyon Station. We chose the Kings Canyon Resort campsite (township centre) and proceeded to establish our vehicle on a camp pitch with direct views to the canyon walls. This was an ideal spot to open one of the precious bottles of cold beer, sit back and watch the unfolding natural light show.
The next day we headed off on the main crater rim walk. This is the longer walk and does require a decent energy input. The first stage is an ascent up to the rim via a stepped rock track. This is designed so that people make up their mind early as to their ability to continue. The walk then moves through exciting vistas, stunning rich colours and ancient geological features. An example being the ripple patterned base rock than one walks over in one section, this ancient seabed dates back a million years or more! Ghost gums grace our path as we walk down well engineered steps to a gully that fulfils anyone’s conception of a desert oasis. We lingered on our walk so took a bit longer than the estimated 4 hours, but picnics with a French family and many rest and photographic stops one can see why.
Merrini Loop Road.
Between Kings Canyon and the MacDonnell Ranges one can drive the Merinni loop road with a suitable vehicle and save a long back track on sealed roads. One has to obtain a ‘permit’ to travel this road by paying a fee. Many people we met wondered what this really meant as no one can recall anyone checking for a permit at any time along the road itself. Also no one could answer questions as to what the money was used for.
To travel this road by rental vehicle you have to have certain types of vehicles. With regard to campervans they must be four wheel drive. The road is rugged and its roughness varies through the year dependent upon when it was last graded. If you have not experienced ‘robust’ corrugations you will be well versed after this road. You could drive an ordinary two wheel drive sedan on this road – locals do – but you would have given the said vehicle a solid thrashing. I read about future thoughts of paving this road, but I imagine the costs, cutting through Aboriginal Land, and who is responsible for what, will mean this thought is a long term consideration.
An easy and intriguing side road (track), of some five kilometres, brings one to the car park for this walk. One descends down to a track that follows the river bed. A rocky path interspersed with sandy portions leads one closer to the gorge. Stunning red cliffs and ghost gums bring to life an Albert Namajeri canvas as ones eyes see what this great artist once saw.
It is a warm walk and then one arrives at the water hole that is the gorge itself. There in shaded bliss one feels the natural effect of a, gorge generated breeze that comes to you over water into shade.
There are several walks possible from the car park. The more substantial walk is to the top of Mt , the highest peak in the NT. The times indicated are 2.5 hours return. The information board at the car park may have contradictory information as to times for the walk. The gorge walk was stated to be 20 each way on one notice and 1.5 hours on another. We took 34 minute to the gorge and 24 back. On the outbound this included photo stops and a few conversations with other walkers. In addition, we spent 30 minutes at the gorge itself.
Our camp site for the MacDonnell ranges area was at the Glen Helen resort. There are a number of campsites at the various gorges that one visits in this area, which are more wilderness camps. We visited several and can highly recommend them for those that do not require more facilities than a self composting toilet and a fire box. We are normally that type of camper, but on this journey we were looking at the more substantial campsites catering to international travellers.
Glen Helen has rooms, as well as campsite pitches which can be powered, or un powered. There is a bar, lounge and restaurant area which has distinct outback character. In addition, the only helicopter sightseeing operation flies form the resort helipad.
You can easily wander down the track to the small river and lagoon area of Glen Helen Gorge itself. Visitors can set up their folding seats on the grass above the river, or sit on the main terrace of the bar area and enjoy the natural movie screen being the river cliffs. The sun shines onto these cliffs at sunset and once again you can enjoy the spectre of a desert sunset.
The lagoon is a gathering point for water birds and other wildlife. I met a photography enthusiast who had just witnessed a dingo grabbing a fish from the shore line. On our return walk we saw a Dingo slinking through the tall grass in the direction of the resort area, its nose drawing it on due to the many smells wafting up from campers gas cookers.
Here is a historical town famous for two main reasons. Firstly, this was the home of the famous artist Albert Namajira the first Aboriginal to paint with western techniques through which he developed his own indicative style. His mastery of images portraying red rocks, white Ghost Gums and blue sky are the legend he left us all. Secondly, there is the history of supposedly well-meaning 19th century missionaries. Good, or bad, this period of history happened and Australia lives with the ramifications to this day. The town itself has a sad aura about it, dusty and dry with an overlay of poverty and listlessness.
A gem, an oasis of beauty and natural history, which lives up to its written and vocal accolades. Vehicle type limits those who do come in here, high clearance 4WD being the vehicle type. A certain range of lower clearance 4WD’s could make the campsite, but from there to the start of the walks at Palm Valley itself, whilst only 4km, is a no go zone for anything other than high clearance. That 4km section is a fun drive in your 4WD with part of the track being over substantial flat rock areas. One rock segment forms a natural bridge across the riverbed itself. Slow and steady, correct lines of approach, with maintenance of momentum will see even an inexperienced hirer through without damage. If in doubt simply walk the 4km there and back. The car park area itself is a large stone slab and from here your walks begin.
The two hour, 5km, walk is worth the effort. With stops and inevitable ‘chats’ along the route you should plan for 3 hours. There is a short initial uphill section, which leads to a plateau area offering views back down to the first section of Palm Valley. The walk then meanders through a rocky landscape peppered with desert vegetation and fine examples of Ghost Gums, some with limbs that have grown in differing directions providing an artist canvas of shapes. After a while the track comes to an escarpment view overlooking an expanse of country of such beauty you can’t help but stop for an extended rest stop. Below are pools of water interspersed by flat rock areas all framed by Palms and Ghost Gums. In the distance is another escarpment with two Mesa style sentinels. The track now winds down the escarpment face to the river course itself. A magnificent overhanging cave is passed through and one considers how many ancient souls have called this a home, or an overnight camping place. So close to water, wide views and an ability to see if game came to drink made this a well sited camp area. The walk now winds it way back to the starting point by following the riverbed itself and in so doing so following a forest of Palms. There are shaded glads to once again rest and imbibe the scene before you regain the car park area.
The camp ground is stunningly sited facing across the river to a small escarpment. Birdlife abounds and is satisfying to ardent birdwatchers as was evidenced by two parties of campers there at the same time as us. Evening and dawn colours are a photographers dream palate and children will find an outdoor play area of exceptional beauty. Facilities are well above what one who is used to bush camping requires. Solar power heats the water for showers and hand basins. There are also public use gas rings and hot plates. Large metal receptacles are for communal fires, thus ensuring not only safety, but more minimal use of wood.
Monte’s Bar and Restaurant
This could be considered the happening spot for ‘The Alice’. It has an open air desert feel to it punctuated with some quirky decorations. The bar features a range of boutique beers on tap to compliment other beverages. The food is fine, one could say bistro/pub type dishes. Pizza is a mainstay. Perhaps a bit more variety with the food is an area to improve. Of note is the fact that Camel and Date sausages are on the menu.
Olive Botanical Gardens
This garden area is small, but in the right season, a compact live botanical encyclopaedia of the red centres botanical diversity. In addition to the garden there is a well positioned café with a wonderful seating area. The café is attached to a small community centre and the garden itself is the scene of several exhibitions each year using both the open area and the small hall.
This venue should really be visited before one sets off to explore the area as one then has a good overview of the variances in flora and fauna you may come across, in addition to the differing landscape and geographical features of central Australia.
Housed within old hangers that now border a local road that once was the old runway of Alice Springs airport. Within the hangers a history of aviation in the region is displayed. Of particular note is the DC3 interior fitted out as a film room so that visitors can see the continuous showing of film, amateur and professional, whilst patrons sit in aircraft seats. The aviation museum is connected to the main art gallery and museum, so do allow a sensible amount of time. Another benefit of these proximities is that travel partners with divergent interests can find succour in one area.
The Red Centre is a region that draws people back for repeat visits and we will be no exception.