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 make beelines for the iconic destinations. It’s a great way to feel as though you’re in a different country — or even a different planet. The long-haul drive is what makes the outback so special, and makes you realise how lively the desert is with its diverse landscapes and unique endemic species. There are also a variety of experiences in the Red Centre that will interest you. The best way to explore the attractions is to dot them out on a map, choose your accommodation, as well as fuel and food refill points — things are further than they seem — make sure you have the right gear and vehicles — a 4WD and offroad-capable rigs are highly recommended — and then start. While there are certain times of the year that are best to visit, don’t let that stop you. Sunsets are gorgeous in the 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 an excellent place to set up base for a few days. For adventure seekers out there, step out of your comfort zone by gliding 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, fauna — consider booking the Nocturnal Tour — and Indigenous culture you’ll see on the way.
STANDLEY CHASM/ ANGKERLE ATWATYE
Located near the West MacDonnell National Park, floodwaters cut through quartzite thousands of years ago to form a picturesque natural chasm, best seen in the middle of a sunny day — don’t forget your hat and sunscreen. After a $13 entrance fee, it’s just a short walk into the Chasm. It’s also a great pit stop 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 enjoy a picturesque view, while 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 barbecues. Other than the swimming and birdwatching afforded to you here, there are plenty of short walks. 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, Discovery Parks Glen Helen, formerly part of 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 water birds. If photography or art is your passion, take a few snaps or open your sketchbook; there’s plenty to take in.
MOUNT SONDER (RWETYEPME) LOOKOUT
Just after you cross the Finke River, 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 on the skyline. It’s a great spot to view a sunrise or sunset, especially with the unpolluted skies and climate.
As a western gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges at the base of Mount 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 lovely swimming location, and when there’s enough water, you can take a floating device like a tyre tube and float along — 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 of course 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 sacred site for Indigenous men, located on Curtain Springs Station. You can only visit via booking a tour, such as a SEIT tour, and there is a great lookout and roadside rest area nearby, as well as another viewing area on the dune lookout on the opposite side of the road. You can also view the Lake Amadeus salt plains near the Mount 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, the Mala Walk — a guided tour from rangers — 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 breath taking 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 spots 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 could be an excellent way to cure post-lockdown blues, and to help rejuvenate communities that rely on tourism. Make sure to tag @visitcentralaus when out there to show others the amazing places you’ve visited. For more info or to start planning, check out discovercentralaustralia.com. One thing’s for certain though — you’ll leave the Red Centre feeling much better. The fresh air and isolation does wonders, so get out there.
Tags: Red Centre Attractions Essentials Alice Springs Standley Chasm Glen Helen Gorge
Written: Fri 11 Feb 2022
Printed: January, 2022