There’s just something about Australia and the Northern Territory in particular that captures the imagination of people around the world. Maybe its the natural beauty or the famously rugged environment, but it’s hard not to feel drawn to one of the most remote spots on the planet. There are many ways to enjoy Australia’s Red Centre, but a self-drive is one of the best. Caution, it involves renting an off-road vehicle of some sort.
Arrive at Alice Springs, pick up 4WD truck and follow my suggestions for spending a day in Alice Springs. This is a great community and it’d be a shame to miss some of the amazing experiences found in the capital of the outback.
Ok, you’ve had your fill of Alice Springs’ culture and amusement, and it’s time to stock up at the grocery store and then hit the road. The drive from Alice Springs to Glen Helen is an easy one, with the ancient West MacDonnell Ranges serving as your constant companion. It’s a 130 kilometer drive to reach Glen Helen, but there are plenty of sights along the way including Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole and Ormiston Gorge. Spend the night at the Glen Helen Resort or at the adjacent campsite if you’re in a camper van.
Wake early and prepare yourself for a hard day of driving as you traverse the 260 kilometers to Kings Canyon. Much of the road isn’t paved and can be corrugated at times, so allocate additional time. As a reward though are camel sightings, amazing views and the feeling that you just very well may be the last person on Earth (this is a good thing). Your stop for the evening is at the expansive Kings Canyon Resort.
There’s no where else to stay, but fortunately there are options for every budget at the Kings Canyon Resort from campsites to beautiful suites overlooking the desert terrain. The resort is like a cruise ship in the middle of the desert; completely self-sufficient. They have all the necessities including a convenience store and gas station and multiple dining options. The best is the outdoor grill where chefs make to-order steaks, chicken, lamb and a variety of game meats. Stay for the show which always guarantees a fun evening. For a more romantic meal, be sure to book the Under a Desert Moon dining experience with secluded tables and individual fine dining.
You can’t visit Kings Canyon without, you know, actually visiting the canyon. Through the resort you can book a hike, either along the canyon floor (easy) or the canyon rim (hard). Both afford a closer look at this remarkable canyon that has been a sacred site to the indigenous peoples for millennia.
After you’ve recovered from your dawn hike, a quick shower is in order before hitting the road once again. This is the big day though, the day everyone looks forward to – Uluru. The drive to Uluru is 300 kilometers, but is actually a pleasant drive. As always though, watch out for wildlife as you drive since the road can be a bit monotonous at times. You catch a glimpse of the mighty rock long before you actually arrive, but it serves as the perfect motivator to keep driving.
Depending on what time you arrive, try the Sounds of Silence dining experience for something truly unique. The evening begins on a sand dune with amazing views of both Uluru and the Olgas as you sip champagne. Then guests are led to a dining area under the biggest sky you’ve ever seen. Dinner is buffet style, but high quality and the free flowing wine doesn’t hurt. Later in the evening guests are led through a crash course in astronomy as the entire universe pops into view over head. Very few people get a view like the one available in the middle of the Australian Outback and Sounds of Silence is not to be missed.
Wake up early and either self-drive to the Uluru National Park or take a tour to see the rock at dawn. The colors of Uluru change dramatically over the course of the day, depending on the light, so it’s important to see it at all times of day. My recommendation is to take an Anangu tour, led by native peoples, that includes both a viewing of the rock as well as remarkable insights into the lore surrounding Uluru for the people who have called it home for tens of thousands of years.
There are a lot of options for the rest of your stay including helicopter flights over the area, ATVs and even camel rides. The Ayers Rock Resort also features a pool, shops and plenty of restaurants. There are several different hotels at the resort, from the super high end to a campground and everything in between.
Time to leave the rock behind and head back to Alice Springs, a somewhat daunting 445 kilometers away. If you have a flight that day, make sure to build in plenty of extra travel time. Also be careful of wildlife, we saw lots of kangaroos along the Lasseter and Stuart Highways. It’s exciting, but it can also be dangerous. There are many opportunities to stop along the way to Alice Springs, be it at scenic overlooks or roadhouses. It’s best to take it slow and enjoy your last day of driving through Australia’s Red Centre.
That’s it! This is a compact schedule for experiencing some of the highlights of the Red Centre, the same drive could easily be expanded over a much longer period of time depending on what you want to do. No matter what, always take the proper precautions when driving in the outback. You should have plenty of extra supplies, especially water, and a satellite phone or distress radio beacon of some sort. Never underestimate the environment because should anything happen, it will always win.
On the whole though this driving itinerary is a lot of fun and a really interesting way of experiencing first hand one of the most fascinating regions on the planet.
Red Centre Travel Apps
There aren’t a lot of apps on the market, but here are a few useful ones I found.
Australian Road Trips – Discover the best of Australia with 25 classic Aussie road trips, including the Red Centre. Cost – $3.99
DIY Tourguide: West MacDonnell Ranges Self-Drive Audio Travel Guide – This app is GPS triggered and is designed for the independent, self-drive traveler. It’s an audio tour that activates as you drive through the Northern Territory. Cost – $16.99
OutbackNT – Provides you with everything that’s great about the Northern Territory in one place, identifying great culture, points of interest, attractions and events. Cost – Free
The West Macs – Listen and watch stories of scenic beauty and history from this ancient landscape and culture. Cost – Free
10 thoughts on “Travel Tips and Driving Itinerary for Australia’s Red Centre”
I am an Australian and am ashamed to say I have not been to Ayers Rock (Uluru), but I have flown over it on a flight from Perth to Townsville. Great Photos. Will see it one day when we drive from Adelaide to Darwin. I am sure it will still be there!
Another great post, Matt. I especially like that you’ve made it clear to readers that you can’t just whiz about between these places in a day or two (unless you’re a nutter!).
So glad that you took your time and did the road trip in 6 days, and as is conveyed from the article, really took the time to understand the landscape and appreciate that the Red Centre is not just miles of ‘frikin nothing’ as I read on a post in another blog today!
If I could be so cheeky… I will point out that there are two other accommodation options at Kings Canyon: the very salubrious Wilderness Lodge (luxury safari) tents, and the Kings Creek Station which is amazing, awesome and oh-so-much-cheaper than the resort to stay at. Camel rides, quad bike rides, helicopter rides, and the best camel burgers in Central Aus!
And for those of us who are national parks rangers, there’s ranger station accommodation (the photo on the top of our website was taken from our house on Watarrka (Kings Canyon) National Park)… but we won’t brag about that! ;)
Again, thanks for the wonderful post. I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts on my home!
Amanda, thanks again for the kind words, it means a lot. I realize that a few days doesn’t make me an expert, but I wanted to share my experiences with others in the hopes it would help. And thank you for suggesting the other accommodations options! I knew about Kings Creek, but not the others. Looking forward to returning to the area one day.
That is such a great article on where to go, what to do and how to get to the Red Centre. We havent been to Uluru yet, but we cant wait to we do! Love the idea of staying in a resort while we visit the area – wonder if our Motorhome will be able to make the trip!
I highly recommend this adventure to all! I will never forget driving around the Outback for 2 weeks in my camper van. The things I saw…wow!!!
Nice photos. Australia is a nice place to be. It has great cities, also countryside with great nature and adventurous rides to do. I hope to be in this beautiful Kangaroo country someday! Thanks for the article.
Enjoyed reading this :) I’m doing a similar trip to this in a few weeks. I was told by some I can’t take a hire vehicle on the last few kms into Ellery Creek Big hole but really want to see it. Were you able to drive your hire vehicle to the carpark there?
Wonder how you took the vehicle on unpaved roads. It seems most hiring companies do not allow that.
Some insight into how you managed that deal would be handy for someone looking to travel that path.
rental agencies in the area rent 4×4 vehicles, which is what we used.
We spent six days driving the Red Center and absolutely loved it. We only rented a camper van (not 4×4) but we were still able to see a lot. We drove to Rainbow Valley through 22kms of unsealed road which was tough, but we made it. We also drove to King’s Canyon on the sealed road on the way back from Uluru. It added a lot of driving to our trip, but it was definitely worth it.
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