Head to the heart of outback Australia where landscapes come to life in the stories of Aboriginal custodians with mountain ranges, monolithic rocks and beautiful national parks seep in deep spiritual significance.
Before you go
- Distance: 1130km
- Duration: Four to seven days
- Flight gateway: Alice Springs
- Highlights: Ever-changing scenery and desert colours
- Best view: Helicopter flights over Kings Canyon
- Spot it if you can: Sunrise at Uluru
- Definitely skip the Larapinta Drive section if you don't have an off-road vehicle
- Wild flowers in April and May are stunning
- Kings Canyon, a hunk of red sandstone that splits apart to create a green oasis for birds and flora
Nothing says Alice Springs like a boat race along the dry stone bed of the Todd River, where contestants run for glory as they carry their boats instead of paddling them. Spend a day here for historical treasures such as the National Road Transport Hall of Fame, the Old Ghan Heritage Railway and Museum, Alice Springs School of the Air Visitor Centre and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Visit the Araluen Cultural Precinct for a diverse collection of Indigenous and modern culture including art by Albert Namatjira.
You'd have to travel to some very remote communities before finding a better collection of Indigenous art for purchase than what you'll find in Alice Springs.
Heading west towards the MacDonnell Ranges the route passes Simpsons Gap and is marked by more than 100km worth of gorges and watering holes along Namatjira Drive. If you have time to make every detour along the route you won't be disappointed. Still waters surrounded by red rocks stand in contrast to blue skies and the white trunks of Ghost Gums. Some camping sites require four-wheel drive access even in the dry season.
The more southern route heads to Finke Gorge National Park, via Hermannsburg, where an easy walk into Palm Valley rewards a difficult drive. You need the clearance of an off-road vehicle or truck to get into the park, or maybe a camel, and there are camping sites if you want to spend the night.
Heading south-west along Larapinta Drive the paved road ends for about 150km of what's called the Mereenie Loop. Also note you usually need a four-wheel drive to reach Watarrka National Park safely. There are many sacred sites hidden from the highway, but you're advised only to seek them out when invited by the traditional land owners.
The highlight of Watarrka is Kings Canyon, a hunk of red sandstone that splits apart to create a green oasis for birds and flora. Half a day is required to complete the Rim Walk, and make sure you pack food and water even if you have the services of a tour guide.
Ten minutes from the canyon is Kings Creek Station, the pick of accommodation and dining in the area. Safari tents offer a touch of pampering and for something tasty try the camel burgers off the grill back at the station. You can ride the camels if you prefer not to eat them, or rent quad bikes for sunset views of the ranges. Helicopter flights over Kings Canyon depart here too, making slightly more noise than gangs of Corellas in search of a watering hole.
A satellite payphone is available here too if your mobile network doesn't work.
Three hours drive from Kings Canyon will get you into Yulara for food, accommodation and sunset views of Uluru. Formerly known as Ayers Rock this iconic scene is protected by the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park under a unique arrangement with the Indigenous owners, the Pitjantjatjara people. Climbing the rock is regarded is disrespectful, as tourists often urinate during the climb and there have been deaths as well. An Aboriginal man once told said: "Our mob don't go walk all over your church, so don't walk over our rock."
Uluru is a sacred site of deep spiritual significance, and for visitors the experience is palpably moving. Sunrise at the eastern car park is popular and with good reason. The rock changes colour dramatically in the dawn or dusk light and continues to swing moods all day long. An 11km walk around the rock is on flat terrain and reveals the endless detail and character of Uluru.
Still inside the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a collection of rocks called Kata Tjuta. The traditional people don't like this place, believing that bad spirits can affect those who visit. Hey are possibly best enjoyed from a distance at the sunset viewing platform, and from the air in a scenic flight. Restrictions on movements inside the national park, with due respect for the traditional land owners, means the aerial view is in fact one of the best you'll get.
When you're ready to return to Alice Springs the route heading east meets the Stuart Highway and turns north. Allow six hours plus stops to make the journey, or drop the rental car at Yulara and catch a scheduled flight home.