In what used to be called ‘the Mereenie Loop’ — part of it goes through Mereenie Valley — The Red Centre Way is your grand tour of the best of Central Australia. It’s such an integral part of our country that even high school groups head to the iconic destinations as it’s a great way to feel as though you’re in a different country — a different planet even.
The long-haul drive is what makes the outback so special, and it makes you realise how lively the desert is with its diverse landscapes and unique and native species. There are also a variety of experiences in the Red Centre that will interest you. If anything here piques your interest or you’re after deals and further information, Tourism Central Australia can help you out.
The best way to explore the attractions is to dot them out on a map, choose your accommodation and fuel and food refill points — things are further than they seem — make sure you have the right gear and vehicles — a 4WD and offroad vans are highly recommended — and then start. The driving itineraries you’ll find throughout this guide are perfect for that.
While there are certain times of the year that are best to visit, don’t let that stop you — sunsets are gorgeous in the tropical summer while the hot, sunny days are perfect for swimming. Here’s a list of some of the essentials to visit while you’re there.
Combining culture, history and adventure, Alice Springs is a great place to set up base for a few days. For adventure seekers out there, step out of your comfort zone by paragliding or taking a helicopter over town, floating across the MacDonnell Ranges and Alice in a morning hot air balloon ride or hiring a mountain bike and exploring the endless trails. For those after different sorts of joys, take a guided tour on the back of a camel, join a local guide and discover the cultural significance of the region to the Arrernte People — they’re incredibly warm-hearted and knowledgeable — or take a guided tour of the night sky with a visit to the Earth Sanctuary. Regardless of your age or type of travel, it’s truly a place for everyone. Don’t miss the Alice Springs Desert Park to learn about the landscape, animals and Aboriginal culture you’ll see on the way.
Standley Chasm/Angkerle Atwatye
Located on Aboriginal Land and bordered by the West MacDonnell National Park, thousands of years ago, floodwaters cut through quartzite to form a picturesque natural chasm, best seen in the middle of a sunny day — don’t forget your hat and sunscreen. After a $10 entrance fee, it’s just a short walk into the Chasm. It’s also a great pit spot for lunch and drinks, and, if you like, you can stop here to camp. Make sure to walk along Section 3 of Larapinta Trail for a sensational view of the front and back of the Chasm.
Serpentine Gorge and Chalet
For a secluded area with an impressive lookout walk for great views across valleys, Serpentine Gorge is a lesser-known spot on this list. After rain, it has a small waterhole where you can take a quiet and relaxing swim. 8km further west is Serpentine Chalet where you can base yourself to visit Ellery Creek or Ormiston Gorge. In 1958, the camp was built to help boost tourism in the area, where they did tours and even had cabins, a kitchen and staff quarters. While the buildings are now gone, it’s a great free camping spot.
This easy to access gorge is the most photographed gorge in the entire outback. It has a small campground ($10pp), a kiosk, toilets, hot showers and free gas BBQs. Other than the outback swimming and birdwatching afforded to you here, there are plenty of short walks around the area. A 15-minute climb takes you to Ghost Gum Lookout, otherwise the 3–4-hour Pound Walk really shows you the beauty of this place.
Glen Helen Gorge
This picturesque waterhole breaks up the ranges and is a short distance away from Heritage-listed, Glen Helen Lodge, formally a cattle station. The landscape here is spectacular, with a towering sandstone backdrop, as well as views of Mount Sonder, one of the highest points in Central Australia. Nature and wildlife lovers will enjoy the fish species in the Finke River here and the migrating waterbirds. If photography or art is your passion, take a few snaps or open your sketchbook; there’s plenty to take in.
Mount Sonder LookoutJust after you cross the Finke River, known as the world’s oldest river, take the turnoff to the lookout on your right. After a short, steep hill, you’ll be able to see grand views of the Finke, Two Mile and MacDonnell Ranges, with Rwetyepme/Mount Sonder in the Skyline. It’s a great spot to view a sunrise or sunset, especially with the unpolluted skies and climate.
The westernmost gorge of the West MacDonnell Ranges at the base of Mt Sonder, this mixes adventure and bush camping ($5pp). It’s a permanent waterhole of cultural significance to the Western Arrernte people and is a refuge for plants and animals. Like all these locations, you feel the natural magic of the landscape as you walk down to the gorge which takes about 20 minutes. This is where those hiking the Larapinta Trail — one of the most popular bushwalks in Central Australia — from the west, start. In the summer, it’s a great swimming location, and when there’s enough water, take a floating device like a tyre tube and float down the water — the water can be pretty cold though!
This massive comet crater dominating the landscape is accessible with 4WDs only. The rough and rocky 5km track takes you inside the crater, with the area a registered sacred site. The Traditional Owners — the Malbunka family — and NT Parks and Wildlife have built walking tracks and other infrastructure inside the crater and ask that the area is respected. The crater seen today is about 2km lower than the original impact surface, now only about 5km in diameter compared to its original 20km.
Located in Watarrka National Park, this ancient red canyon soars 100m above Kings Creek to a plateau of rocky domes. Take in the views of the desert and palms below — and nestled into the crevices — and feel as though you’re on top of the world as you walk along the cliffs. The canyon is perfect for lovers of hiking, wildlife spotting and most definitely, photography, and all these can be done through ranger-guided activities. Take the 6km Rim Walk down into the Garden of Eden before ascending up stairs to 360-degree panoramic views. The canyon is of great importance to the Luritja and Arrente People who ask that you do not swim in the waters, but you’re free to climb, touch and explore the canyon in a respectful manner.
Locally called ‘Fool-uru’ due to people thinking it’s Uluru, this is a very sacred site for Aboriginal men, and is located on Curtain Springs Station. You can only visit via booking a tour and there is a great lookout and roadside rest area nearby, as well as another great viewing area on the dune lookout on the opposite side of the road. You can also view the Lake Amadeus salt plains near the Mt Connor lookout.
Yulara is a great place to stop and set up before heading off to Uluru. It’s a town where you can re-fuel and stock up on supplies and even send some mail and get a haircut. Once inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, you cannot camp anywhere except at the Ayers Rock Resort’s campground. View the sunrise or sunset at one of the multiple viewing areas and watch the rainbow of colours change as they hit Uluru, the 348m high and 550-million-year-old rock. Take the Base Walk, a camel tour or bike ride around for an up close and personal experience. To understand the significance of Uluru, make sure your listen to the local Anangu people as they tell stories of the Dreamtime. Learning about those who shape the Northern Territory will leave you with more than just a photo.
While a bit challenging, one of the best ways of exploring Kata Tjuta is by taking the Valley of the Winds walk. Here, you hike 7.4km around and through the soaring rock domes as they change colour during the day. Also located in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, there are a number of varying levels of tracks you can take, and a short walk to the Kata Tjuta dune viewing area gives you some breathtaking panoramic views. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Area for both its natural and cultural values and is jointly managed by the Anangu People and Parks Australia.
What makes the Red Centre so easily accessible is that there are plenty of free camping to immerse yourself in nature along the way, from the Hugh River to Point Howard to Two Mile to Ginty’s Lookout. As long as you have the right vehicle and permits, the Red Centre is a must visit for Australians after adventure after the lockdowns we’ve had, particularly for those who usually head overseas.
A long-haul drive to Alice Springs and the surrounding regions should be your next big trip, especially to help rejuvenate businesses who rely on tourism and the drive market. Make sure to tag @visitcentralaus when out there to show others the amazing places you’ve visited.
One thing’s for certain though, you’ll leave The Red Centre feeling much better about yourself — all that fresh air and isolation does wonders — so get out there.
The Traditional Owners of these locations have lived in the region for over 20,000 years. We wish to acknowledge Elders past, present and emerging.
RED CENTRE DRIVE GUIDE
This article appears in the Red Centre Drive Guide from Tourism Central Australia. You can download a copy and find out more here.