By Michael Phelan
Published: Thursday, February 10, 2022
Central Australia is the last frontier for many travellers. There’s no better way to discover this vast expanse than by driving the Red Centre Way, a week-long self-drive journey through the region’s famous landmarks. Pack the motorhome or caravan and expand your horizons on this epic outback odyssey.
Close your eyes and imagine a diverse natural habitat of sandstone cliffs, salt lakes, sand dunes, gorges, rockpools and waterholes, densely populated by native flora and fauna, blanketed by a diffused sky that changes colour when the sun comes up and goes down. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it?
Shaped over millions of years by natural, celestial and mythological forces, the grandeur of Central Australia will simply leave you in awe. However, the beauty of the bush only tells part of the story. This ancient land evokes profound spiritual connections.
Every grain of dirt, every native plant and animal, every twinkle in the starry night sky holds deeper meaning for the Traditional Owners of this region.
Known as Mparntwe to the Arrernte people, who’ve lived in the area for tens of thousands of years, Alice Springs is easily accessible by rail, road or air. It’s also the geographic heart of Australia, and an obvious starting point for any outback adventure.
Alice Springs makes a great base for exploring cultural and tourist attractions, including renown art galleries such as Yubu Napa, Papunya Tjupi Arts and the Araluen Art Centre, and camel rides and sunrise balloon flights. Parrtjima – A Festival in Light, DesertMob art fair and Desert Festival are not to be missed.
Sandstone bluffs define Rainbow Valley, a 75km drive south of Alice Springs on a partially unsealed road. Given the rough terrain on the two-hour trip, a 4WD is recommended.
When soft light breaks through in the early morning and late afternoon, the rainbow-like rocks undergo a dramatic transformation, changing colour from ochre red to orange and purple. During heavy rainfall, the rocks cast a dazzling reflection in the claypans skirting the base.
Follow the Mushroom Rock walking trail to a tunnelled sandstone sculpture chiseled by wind and rain over millions of years. This is the perfect spot to set up camp for night.
Almost five thousand years ago, a fragmented meteorite weighing several tonnes hurtled towards Earth at 40,000km/h, crashing 145km southwest of Alice Springs.
The surface impact left a dozen craters scattered across the area, ranging from seven to 180m in diameter and up to 15m deep. Named after a nearby cattle station, the Henbury Meteorite Conservation Reserve offers a colourful, unique landscape, walking trails and simple camping facilities.
Most locals would consider Rainbow Valley and Henbury Meteorite Conservation Reserve ‘hidden gems’ and both are sacred sites to the Traditional Owners, so please be respectful and only stick to the designated paths.
Tjorijta West MacDonnell National Park
Just outside of Alice Springs to the west, Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park is an ancient playground of sheer cliffs, gorges and waterholes which provide a tranquil sanctuary for native flora and fauna.
There are 1500 species species of flora, including xeric shrubs, spinifex grasses and acacias which thrive in the national park. Wildflowers dot the grounds with bursts of red, yellow and purple.
A rich diversity of wildlife, including long nose dragon lizards, orange drummer cicadas, Spencer’s burrowing frogs and land snails found nowhere else in the world call it home.
More than 200 bird species inhabit the region, most notably the peregrine falcon – the fastest member of the animal kingdom capable of reaching speeds up to 320km/h. With a few years of good rain in the region, birdlife is absolutely thriving.
Make sure you’ve packed a good pair of hiking boots. The 223km Larapinta Trail is a bushwalker’s dream, traversing ridgelines around the full length of the park, taking in spectacular sights such as Stanley Chasm, Serpentine Chalet and the Ochre Pits.
The trek is divided into 12 sections catering for all levels of hiking ability. Don’t worry if you don’t have time for the full trail. There are a variety of excellent day hikes such as Ormiston Gorge and Mount Sonder.
A dip in one of the permanent waterholes is the perfect way to refresh after a long walk. Glen Helen Gorge gives respite to the heat with cold, deep pools while offering truly spectacular scenery. Stay overnight with Discovery Parks to get the full experience.
Take the Dolomite Walk around Ellery Creek Big Hole, a fascinating geological wonder carved out by massive floods over thousands of years. Nestled between towering cliffs, Simpsons Gap is the stage for black-footed rock wallabies to perform at dusk and dawn.
Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) is of great importance to the scientific community. About 140 million years ago, a huge meteorite struck Central Australia, leaving one of the world’s largest impact craters.
Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon
Home to the Luritja people for more than 20,000 years, Watarrka is an Aboriginal word meaning umbrella bush, a plant with bright yellow flowers commonly found in the area.
Towering sandstone cliffs, rolling red sand dunes and lush palm trees sprouting up in narrow crevices paint a dramatic landscape that will take your breath away.
Rugged ranges, rock holes and gorges provide refuge for over 600 species of native flora and fauna. Many can be found in the Garden of Eden, a hidden oasis of cool waterholes and riverine vegetation nestled between sheer red rock walls The contrast is as stark as it is stunning.
Kings Canyon is often an unexpected highlight for visitors to Central Australia. Formed more than 440 million years ago, ancient red rock walls soar 100m above Kings Creek to The Lost City – a plateau of rocky domes forged through layers of sandstone and hard shale. Below, serene rockpools lie among enchanting native gardens.
The 6km rim walk offers panoramic views of the stunning scenery. It takes up to four hours to complete the circuit, which can be challenging, especially in the stifling conditions.
Beginners should probably embark on a more pleasant walk, or perhaps take a scenic helicopter flight. Sunrise, before temperatures soar, is the best time to head off, and remember to always stay a minimum five metres from the cliff edge for your own safety.
Further south, as you travel from Kings Canyon towards Uluru, stark salt lakes at Curtin Springs are the last vestiges of the inland sea.
Experience the stillness and silence of this wide expanse, which evokes a feeling of intense isolation, on an SEIT Outback Australia guided tour. Take time to contemplate on a walk across the crystal crust or while stargazing at the brilliant night sky.
There’s something eerily familiar about nearby Mount Conner. Perhaps it’s the ochre red rock bursting out of the desert soil or the way it changes colour in different light conditions. Whatever the reason, many have mistaken it for another big rock.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Land and memories exist as one at Uluru, a profound sacred site holding deep cultural significance for the Anangu people. More than 550 million years old, the Anangu people believe the giant sandstone rock was made by ancestral spirits during creation, and they still rest there today. Nothing can quite prepare you for your first glimpse of Uluru.
Synonymous with the Australian outback, Uluru is one of the main reasons so many people journey to the Red Centre. Standing 348 metres high with a circumference of 9.4km, you can appreciate its full grandeur on a 3.5 hour walk around the base.
Choose from a variety of organised or self-guided tours to circumnavigate the base of Uluru. A guided walk with an Anangu guide offers an opportunity to learn about their culture through ancient rock art, mystical caves and fissures, ancestral spirits and Dreaming stories. The more adventurous can explore on camel back or a bike, in a helicopter, on a guided motorcycle tour or even a Segway.
Sunrise and sunset are prime time at Uluru. That’s when the rock becomes a kinetic kaleidoscope of ochre, burnt orange and blood red. At the same time, purple, pink and yellow hues set off natural fireworks in the night sky. Totally immerse yourself in the spectacular light show from specially built viewing platforms.
Kata Tjuta is just as evocative. The soaring rock domes are broken up into 36 formations and best explored on several meandering walks including the Valley of the Winds and Walpa Gorge, which allow you to sneak through deep crevices hiding between jutting peaks.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is recognised with dual UNESCO World-Heritage listing for both natural and cultural values.
Packed with hidden gems, Central Australia opens your eyes to a wonderful world you never really knew existed. The journey along the Red Centre Way offers enriching experiences at every stop with the land and its people sharing their stories and secrets.
For some, it elicits a spiritual awakening. It’s easy to get lost out here but it might just be where you find yourself. The Red Centre is waiting for you, so get out there and soak up this profound experience.