Overnight stays: Devils Marbles Campground, Warumungu; BIG4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park, Alice Springs (3 nights); Ayers Rock Camping Resort, Yulara; Kings Canyon Resort, Petermann; Desert Oaks Rest Area, Ghan; Attack Creek Camp Area, Tablelands
Three thousand, two hundred and four kilometres in eight days – what more needs to be said about central Australia?!
Our country’s infamous middle is sparse, but it blew our socks off with unimaginable beauty, diversity, wildlife, fuel prices, sunsets, and colour.
We kicked things off smashing out 774km from Mount Isa, broken into four driving sessions, pulling into The Devils Marbles just in time for a cracking sunset over the random rocks on sweeping plains. After a day on the road we couldn’t have asked for a better backdrop for a few rock beers and a campfire.
After that first Territory sunset we quickly realised that sun-up and down are some of the best things about this place. With an infinite horizon and usually the perfect amount of scattered unthreatening cloud cover, they are quite literally endless, and absolutely spectacular. Peeking out the window each morning has become a pleasure.
Cold in the middle
I must say that I always imagined the Red Centre to be red hot all year round. But oh what a shock we got, for the first time on the Wombatical pulling our trackies and doonas up as necessity. The nights dropped to low single digits, with the day’s only pushing early twenties at a stretch, like an American teenager’s fake ID.
Before we knew it we had travelled another 500+kms without much thought, and were checking into the BIG4 at Alice Springs. We decided to spend a couple of days relaxing here, given the distance we’d covered, and the fact that we hadn’t heard a peep out of Liv, and she deserved a few days to play and meet some friends. And that she did, with BIG4s made for travelling families. Jumping pillows (like a jumping castle, but without the castle), playgrounds, pools, games rooms, and water slides keep young minds (and me :)) occupied and satisfied for hours on end.
When you’re about 140km from Uluru you start to see a giant red rock on your left hand side, in the distance, but also quite close. “Shit”, we thought, “I didn’t think we’d see it this far out; but wow!” And for the next ten minutes Loz and I ummed and arghed, changing our minds countless times on whether or not what we were looking at was the famed rock people travel thousands of kilometres to see. It had to be; there’s nothing else out here. When we finally concluded that what we were looking at was in-fact Uluru, we drove past a sign telling us we couldn’t have been more wrong.
Turns out there’s another monster rock in the Outback that no one is talking about, Mount Connor. So if that’s not it, Uluru is going to blow us away, because we were pretty damn impressed at this stage.
When we finally reached Uluru, our high expectations were happily met, with its pure size, remoteness, and colour impressing the most. Yes it’s just a big rock, but when you’ve travelled thousands of kilometres at 130km/h on long straight roads, seeing nothing but termite hills, small trees, cow carcasses, exorbitant diesel prices, caravans, and road trains, anything different is awesome.
Sharing the sunset
I don’t want to understate just how great this big red rock is – and it peaks at sunset, of which we planted the best seats in the house to witness, with nibbles and champagne, of course.
As sunset neared the crowds formed, cameras ready, sharing an intimate moment with scores of strangers – an event happening since forever and one that will continue to do so as long as the sun goes down.
It seemed that the slightest sun movement changed the colour of the rock or background enough for a new photo, as the dozens of shutters clicked in unison. I reckon it was here, in this moment that we took more photos than anywhere in our life, looking for the perfect framer.
Only hours later, we were back in the same position, photographing again like true tourists, as the sun woke. Company was far more sparse this time – probably a combination of it being cold, early, and the fact that we were at the sunset point (rather than the sunrise point 🙈). But it was 100% worth getting up for, and another one for the memory bank.
Are you gonna climb it?
A can’t recall the amount of people who have asked me, “Are you gonna climb the rock?”, but it feels like a lot. Those same people are also quite surprised when I respond with a simple “no”.
The Aborigines, who have inhabited this planet longer than any other race, simply ask that people don’t climb a sight sacred to them. Seems reasonable to me, and it’s really not a big ask, is it?
Whatever the case, no one was climbing on the day we were there due to strong winds on the summit, thus closing the walk that will be permanently closed from 2019 anyway.
Riding ’round the rock
It had been a while since we’d dusted off the bikes, but the idea of riding around Uluru got us all excited. It took just under an hour and was an easy, fun ride, especially through the sandy paths where you lose as much traction as the government and their company tax-cuts (seriously Queensland, 25% of you voted for Pauline’s party?!).
When you’ve driven multiple 700+km days, 300-odd kilometres to Kings Canyon feels like a walk in the park; a rest day, even.
I had wondered why they call it a canyon, rather than a gorge, but when we arrived and started to explore it just felt more like a canyon than gorge. I still don’t know the difference, but I picture canyons as American, and that’s exactly what this place looked and felt like. I reckon we could’ve been in Yosemite or Yellowstone and it would’ve had a similar feel.
Free camp faux pa
I had picked a free-camp for us to stay for the night, a distance past the canyon (unsure how far, and we’d long run out of phone reception). We had a look on our physical map and it didn’t look far, of which a little bit would be gravel, but we’d be fine. I had high hopes for the free-camp, as it was rated well with a view and you could have fires. My mind went to Carnarvon Gorge where we stayed at our best campsite of the trip so far, and I was hoping for a repeat.
Soon enough we hit the dirt, more corrugated than a new outer-suburban housing development, and for an unknown amount of time. For whatever reason we continued as the road worsened, until finally we hit a bit of tar and then the campsite. At this point we were relieved we hadn’t busted a tyre, but also angry at ourselves for taking this stupid road in an unworthy vehicle.
We also weren’t blown away by the site; in-fact it was a grand old disappointment, with no view, no flat sites, and a lack of people. After a couple of half-arsed attempts at getting flat, we eventually called it and returned on the same shit road, bound for a night at the Kings Canyon Resort Caravan Park.
The Kings Canyon Rim Walk has by far been the best hike of our trip so far.
At times it felt like we were in America, and other times, Mars. The rock formations, textures, gradients, colours and heights make this place awesome.
We were also impressed and surprised by the complete un-Australianness of the walk. When you do anything in Australia you expect there to be rules, regulations, signs, barriers, guards etc. to stop you doing stupid things and getting hurt. It’s part of what makes Australia the great Nanny State.
But Kings Canyon doesn’t have that… You can walk as close to the edge of the sheer cliffs as your brevity will allow. It felt as far from Aussie regulation as being able to walk into lava in Iceland, and we loved it.
This also made walk all the more eery and adventurous, which I guess is part of the appeal, especially with the strong wind gusts blowing about; gentle whispering reminders that they could push you at any moment.
Anyways, it was a ripper and will be tough to match.
Was it worth it?
The Red Centre is anyone who hates driving’s worst nightmare. It is so bloody remote and when you’re doing a lap, it couldn’t be more unlaplike as it’s bang in the middle and literally divides the country with a main road going north to south.
We thought Lawn Hill was a big backtrack, totalling around 500km round-trip. But our Red Centre round-trip (from when we turned left at the 3-ways to when we passed it again) clocked up 2,487km – that’s 1,244km of the same road, twice.
And it was absolutely worthwhile!
Obviously Uluru and Kings Canyon are the motivations for the detour, but it’s so much more than those that makes it some of the best travel we’ve done…
Seeing a couple of multi-metre wing-span wedge-tailed eagles tearing into a cow carcass on the edge of the road is nature at its’ finest.
Feeling road trains shake the life out of you at 130km/h is truly terrifying, as you hold the wheel for dear life.
Pulling into the red dirt to dress a termite hill is stupidly entertaining.
And most memorable for me is pulling into a free-camp at dusk, watching the most magical sunsets, as your campfire burns into wood drier than my sense of humour.
The Red Centre is so unique, remote and incredible and should be top of everyone’s list.