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4WD Trips in Central Australia.

Uluru or Ayres Rock

This is a composite narrative of our several visits to Central Australia. There are many excellent books describing the beauty of Uluru or Ayer's Rock (right), Kata Tjuta (the Olga's) and Watarrka (King's Canyon). This area is special, the aura around Uluru has to be experienced, one cannot describe it. I will just touch on this part of Central Australia and concentrate on places we have enjoyed around Alice Springs.

History

This is Pitjantjatjara land, the stories of the Tjukurpa (Dreamtime) belong to them. A white-fella has no right to describe them.

European history is more recent. John McDouall Stuart in 1860 was the first white man to pass this way. As a result of his endeavours, a telegraph line was erected between Adelaide and Darwin. This telegraph line and its wireless stations linked Australia and Asia. Explorers attempting to cross Australia between East and West knew, when they reached the line that settlements were not far away. The settlement may only have had a staff of 4 but it was "civilized contact".

Ernest Giles between 1872 and 1876 made several attempts to cross Australia from East to West. The early tries were thwarted by a large salt lake which he named Lake Amadeus after one of his sponsors. He could see Kata Tjuta but was unable to reach it the first occasion. He reached Uluru in 1873 and saw to his chagrin the recent wheel tracks belonging to William Gosse's expedition.

Giles went on in 1874-6 to make a double crossing of Australia using camels. He crossed the Nullarbor plain going West and returned almost at once via the Northern route departing from the Ophthalmia ranges (Near Newman in the Pilbara) to cross the Great Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert (Named after one of Giles' companions who died in an earlier expedition to this region) and to join the Trans Australian telegraph line.

Location

Alice Springs is found in Central Australia, 1500kms from Darwin, 1630kms from Adelaide, 2400 kms from Perth. Access is by road (Stuart Highway from North and South), Gunbarrel Highway from Western Australia and via the Plenty or Barkly Highway from Queensland. Coming from the West, you can follow the Eyre Highway to Port Augusta and then use the Stuart Highway. From the East, the alternatives are the many roads to Port Augusta and then again, up the Stuart highway. Fuel on the bitumen roads is freely available but, the regions are remote and full preparation is sensible. Full air services are available. The Ghan railway runs from Adelaide.

Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park.

Ayres Rock

Situated 440 kms south west of Alice Springs. Access from the Stuart Highway is a sealed road from Erldunda. A roadhouse is sited at the junction. An alternative route on the Ernest Giles road via Henbury is an option. This road is graded gravel, is corrugated and passes by the Henbury Meteorite Craters. (These were used to train astronauts as the terrain is very "Moon-like".)

At the Ayer's Rock resort (once called Yulara), there is an excellent visitors centre. Information on the National Park is readily available. Tours and other treats can be booked here.

Personally, I prefer the walk around the base of Uluru to the climb. First thing in the morning - before the buses start to arrive is my preferred time. The wildlife can be seen, and the full atmosphere of Uluru can be appreciated. I love to sit at a small waterhole and just listen to the bush. I have seen Uluru after rain and in the dry. Each time you see Uluru, she is different, you have to experience the different moods to fully understand.

Kata Juta or the Olgas Kata Tjuta (right) has a similar presence. There are walks through the domes, take time and enjoy. Make sure you wear a good hat and carry plenty of water.

Back in the resort, there is a full range of accommodation from a well appointed camping area with 5 billion stars to a 5 star hotel.

The Sounds of Silence dinner (booked through Sails in the Desert Hotel) is an experience. A meal and drinks held just after sunset in the desert. A short bus ride takes you to a quiet spot. Bush tucker canapés and drinks to the drone of a Didgeridu are provided as you watch the sun set over Uluru and Kata Tjuta. A 3 course meal is followed by a talk from an astronomer (+ telescope) explains some stars from both Dreamtime and whitefella aspects. It is quite expensive, but it is something special.

Mount Connor NT A Park use fee is charged, valid for 7 days. As you drive towards King's Canyon, you will see, on the south side of the road, Mount Connor (right). This is a large Mesa. Tours to the mesa can be arranged at Curtin Springs roadhouse.

Watarrka (King's Canyon) National Park.

Situated approximately 250 kms from Ayers Rock resort by a recently upgraded bitumen road. Full facilities are available at the resort. A more reasonable (price) option is at the King's Creek station campground. Several walks are available in the Park - ranging from a gentle stroll to "Why am I doing this?"! The rim walk is hard but good.

Leaving Watarrka, there are several options. You can

1. return via Ernest Giles road to the Stuart Highway,
2. Lasseter Highway
3. use the Merenie Loop road.
Merenie Loop Road NT If you have already used the Ernest Giles road from Alice Springs, the Merenie loop road (left) is a good option. It is a wide, graded dirt road with a few loose stones. It is not all weather and some small creeks have to be crossed. This has the potential to be a problem for sedans. Caravans can be towed on the road but beware of stones thrown up by the towing vehicles.

Tnorala or Gosse Bluff A permit is required for the road, available at Kings Canyon resort and Hermannsburg. Using this road, it is possible to detour to Tnorala or Gosse Bluff (right). Again 2 permits are required. These have to be applied for in advance.

1. The Finke River Track. (see later).
This a true 4WD track involving water crossings, sand dunes, rocky tracks and such.

For convenience, let us take the Merenie Loop road. This is easily accessed from King's Canyon resort. The permit comes with a little booklet describing the drive. Camping is not permitted on the route. It is worth leaving early to mid morning to complete the drive comfortably and still allowing time for a detour to Tnorala. A view point mid way along the loop permits a good view of the contour of Tnorala.

RedBank Gorge NT picture If you enter Tnorala, you are, as stated in the permits, expected to leave before dusk. It is an eerie place - even at mid-day!!

There is a choice near the end of the loop. You can go east to Hermannsburg or west to Redbank Gorge (left). This later option, is (for us) the better choice. Camping is available at the Gorge and some pleasant- but non taxing - strolls along the river bed are available. The track in is rough but can be managed in a "normal" car. At the end of the gorge, a deep waterhole is present. The water is cold even in summer.

As you head towards Alice Springs, you pass Glen Helen resort. Drinks and fuel are available here. This is the first available fuel since leaving King's Canyon resort. A walk along to the gorge is pleasant.

picture of Euro in Ormiston Gorge NT Ormiston Gorge is the next stop. This gorge (right) has a serviced camping area with a permanent ranger station. Informative talks are given by a Conservation commission ranger and labeled walk trails are present. Rock wallabies can be seen on the walls of the gorge. It is possible to follow a walk trail from here to Alice Springs. It is for the fit and well prepared.

Simpson Gap NT picture As you drive towards Alice Springs, you are in the West MacDonnell ranges. Several other gorges are accessed from the drive and these are well described in the many publications about the Red Centre. These include Simpson's Gap (left), Stanley Chasm, The Ochre Pits and Ellery Big Hole.

Let us now return to King's Canyon. Heading south east, the road is joined at 93kms by a road from the east. This is a dirt road and corrugated. About 30 kms along this road (just after the second cattle grid), a track turns north. This is the beginning of the Finke River Track. The track wends its way towards the Palmer River (a branch of the Finke). The crossing is through deep, soft sand. You have to cross several branches and the longest crossing is about 400 metres. If you have trouble here, GO BACK!!

Boggy Hole Finke River Track Northern Territory pictures The track from here is defined and navigation is not a problem. You repeatedly cross the Finke River as the track follows its line. Some crossings are wet, many are stony whilst occasionally they can be sandy. Mid way along the track, you reach Boggy Hole. This is in a National Park therefore, you must collect your firewood before you enter the park. Boggy Hole (right) has permanent water. It was the site of a permanent police camp for the long range patrols based at Alice Springs. The ruins are still visible. This is a great place to camp. Dingoes and brumbies visit as well as a mixed variety of reptiles.

Shortly after leaving Boggy Hole, there is another wet crossing. Last time we were there, it was about 1 metre deep and had a soft sticky base. The approach is also quite deceptive and a slight deviation from the line will see a snatch strap retrieve! Very few trees are available at the worst point for a winch anchor!

Palm Valley NT After this, the track meanders around until it exits on Larapinta drive near Hermannsburg and the Palm Valley track.

The drive into Palm Valley (left) is fun. Sand first and later some rocky steps and water crossings of variable depth. Collect firewood on the way in, once in the National Park, you are not permitted to collect it. An ablution block and a small camp ground have been sited on the way into Palm Valley proper. Several walks are within the park, including one that follows the Finke (Larapinta) river. At night, dingoes wander through the camp ground. They are not aggressive, but don't encourage them with food or other scraps of nutrition.

Hermannsburg is an Aboriginal community on the site of an old Lutheran mission. Part has been restored as a museum and tourists are welcome. Albert Namatjira, the artist, lived here.

Return to Alice Springs.

Chambers Pillar NT

After a break in the Alice (we use the MacDonnell Range Tourist Village) and day trips to the sites of the town - including the original Telegraph Station to the north of the town, it is time to head south and east.

To reduce back tracking, head out towards Ewaninga, here you are able to see Petroglyphs (Rock carvings). These are a protected site. Follow the walking track around the sites and admire the skill of the artisans.

Continuing south east, you follow the signs to Chamber's Pillar (right). This mesa has engravings from several explorers who passed this way - as well as etchings by various vandals. The track in is not difficult but is 4WD. Soft sand in river beds is the main obstacle but one or two sand dunes can stop the unwary. Camping at the Pillar is possible and occasionally the Conservation Commission ranger will visit and give impromptu talks. Sun rise is quite special - if you are lucky. Again, collect fire wood on the way in. Retrace your tracks towards Maryvale Station but just before you get there, turn left and follow the Hugh River Stock route back to the Stuart Highway. This is easy driving but you do have to cross the Ghan railway track. At the main road, turn towards Alice Springs. Just after Jim's Place, there is an unmarked track on the right.

Rainbow Valley NT Follow this along a 4WD track to Rainbow Valley (left). This is an awe inspiring place. The colours in the early morning are dramatic. Several walks around and through the valley are possible.

Corroboree Rock pictures NT Return to Alice Springs to refuel, then head east towards Arltunga. As you follow the road through the East MacDonnell Ranges several detours to places of interest are seen. John Hayes Rock hole, Corroboree Rock (right), Jesse & Emily gaps and N'Dhala Gorge to name but a few. The track to Arltunga is easy in the dry, but is quite treacherous in the wet. Last time we were there, a HiLux was written off after a roll over in the wet. At Arltunga, there is a hotel, a camp area and a tourist centre with information and a hands on display about the area and gold mining. You can visit the old township and the area around.

Leaving Arltunga, follow the road to "The Garden" and Ambalindum. This track is difficult / impassable in the wet. A 4WD track upto the Plenty highway can be followed or you can continue back to Alice Springs (below).

Alice Springs NT picture Here, I leave you to return home!

References.

Exploration.

  • Australia Twice Traversed (H.P.) Ernest Giles.
  • Journal of the Government's North-West expedition. H. Basedow.
  • Journal of the Central Australian Exploring Expedition 1889 W. Tietkins.
  • Diary of the Exploration of South Australia 1879 W Tietkins.
  • Journey across the Western Interior of Australia. (H.P.) P. E. Warburton.
  • The Journal of the Horn Expedition. 4 vols. Spencer Baldwin.
  • Explorations in Australia 1858 - 1862. J. E. Stuart.

History.

  • The Dead Centre C. T. Madigan.
  • Bush Justice (H.P.) Ron Brown.
  • Man from Arltunga (H.P.) R. G. Kimber.
  • Willshire of Alice Springs. (H.P.) A. Stapleton.
  • To Ayer's Rock and Beyond. W. Harney.
  • Alice Springs - Its History and its people. P. Donovan.
  • The Red Centre. H. Finlayson.
  • A Son of the Red Centre. K. Johannsen.
  • Too long in the Bush. L. Beadell.
  • Tragedy Track. (H.P.) F. E. Baume.

Natural History.

  • A guide to the geology and Landforms of Central Australia R. B. Thompson.
  • The Centre P. Van Oosterzee.
  • Flora of Central Australia. J. Jessop.
  • Uluru, Kata Tjuta & Watarrka. A. Kerle.

Travel.

  • Australia's Central & Western Outback. I. Read.
  • Australia's Eastern Outback. I. Read.
  • The Red Centre Australian Geographic
  • The Rock. Travelling to Uluru. B. Hill.

Aboriginal Information.

  • Traditional Aboriginal Medicines. Aboriginal communities of N.T.
  • Uluru - Looking after Uluru & Kata Tjuta the Anangu way. S. Breedon.
  • Uluru - an Aboriginal history. R. Layton.

Maps.

WESTPRINT produce excellent maps of:

  • Ayer's rock to Alice Springs.
  • West MacDonnell Ranges.
  • East MacDonnell Ranges (in association with the N.T. 4WD group)

These include some tourist information and are very good value. It is not worth rushing this area, there is too much to see. Take your time and be selective. Return on more than one occasion.

Please contact the author for more information and detailed track information if planning to drive these areas.

- Nigel Buxton

1996 -->

Go to the Kings Canyon, Northern Territory and Australian pages


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