"Oh, you’ve brought a map, have you?” Seems my travelling companion Mac thinks such things are superfluous. No matter that we’re about to hit an outback road with a new name – the Mereenie Loop is now the Red Centre Way – but still with a long-held reputation as a rather rough piece of dirt.
OK, Mac knows his way around wild and remote places, but we’ve got several hours of shuddering dust between Kings Canyon and Glen Helen Gorge to drive, and a wrong turn out here is not on my bucket list – more a kick-the-bucket list, thank you. Phone coverage dropped out somewhere back near Uluru.
So yes, Mac, I’ve brought a map.
Spectacular driving country
The Mereenie links the Red Centre icons of Uluru and Kings Canyon with the should-be-more-famous West MacDonnells region, which is spectacular driving country. On our trip from Uluru to Alice Springs, to stay on the bitumen it’s almost 400km, including a lot of backtracking. So the short cut is very attractive but it includes almost 200km of unsealed surface.
We’d sought updates on its condition from travellers who’d just come down the Mereenie from Alice, and it was fairly universal: pretty rutted and very dry. The advice: keep your speed up to negate the rattles, keep well away from the soft edges, and be kind to your tyres. All rather easier said than done.
Up until now it had been fairly cushy.
We’d flown into Uluru – from Melbourne, it’s 2½ easy-as hours – for a couple of days of visual and gastronomic feasting. You can sample the Rock at any time from sunrise (very early start from Ayers Rock Resort) to sunset, and on foot, on a bus, on a Harley or on a camel, or see it all in an instant from a light plane or helicopter.
Fine dining in the sand dunes
Or you can digest Uluru in a surreal new experience called Tali Wiru, which transports the resort’s fine dining into the sand dunes. Restricted to 20 guests, there’s five-star food and wine under a billion-star sky, in the lee of the Rock. An amazing experience.
Next morning our group collects our rental vehicles and heads the 100km from Uluru to Fool-uru: that’s the name the locals from Curtin Springs – of which there are, maybe, half a dozen – give to Mt Conner. Some first-time Uluru-bound visitors get excited when they spot Conner, as it has a similar appearance: that is, brown and big. But at 343m it’s 5m shorter than the Rock, and it’s flat-topped. Obvious when you know.
Apart from filling meals, value accommodation and the opportunity to take side tours to Mt Conner and several literally dazzling salt lakes in the area, Curtin Springs has a facility unlike no other in the Outback. Local station owners Ashley and Lyndee Severin have turned a disused abattoir into a paper-making plant which uses the abundance of spinifex grass on the property. It’s not the paper you use in your home printer, but it makes a unique memento of a wayside stop with a difference.
Kings Canyon is only a few hours up the bitumen, and a hot day means we’re not even attempting the Rim Walk until the cooler afternoon. (In summer, you can’t do the Rim Walk at all after 9am, it’s so hot. This is no place to get dehydrated.) So we check in early to our glamping experience at Kings Creek Wilderness Lodge and loll around in the welcoming shade.
The tough bit of the Rim Walk is the start, up a steep set of rock steps. Once up top, it’s somewhat level and totally spectacular, but not as spectacular as the descent to the Garden of Eden with its almost primeval vegetation.
We stop at Kings Canyon Resort servo for the essential checks to fuel, oil, water, tyres (including the spare, always) and map. The latter shows around 150km to a crossroads marked Katapata Gap, the first identifiable place for us to rendezvous.
So how long did it take? Couldn’t say. On the Mereenie Loop your eyes never stray to the clock and rarely to the speedo. They’re unwaveringly on the road, assessing the course of the hard centre track, which isn’t always a straight line and not necessarily in the centre. But you keep away from the edges, which are the motoring equivalent of quicksand, and you flirt with it only when making room for something coming the other way. In effect this is Australia’s widest one-way road.
A hand leaves the wheel only to change gear, which happens occasionally on the tighter bends and almost too regularly when signs warn of dips to cross dry watercourses; hit them too fast and you’re flying.
Following the dust
Fortunately, Mac is leading the way, and his dust trail proves to be an accurate indication of the correct driving line.
The advice about speed is also spot-on; drop it too much and you’re feeling every rut; they’re about a second apart. Go with what’s comfortable.
My wife says the landscape is magnificent but I’m totally focused on Mac’s dust, so I can’t confirm her sighting of a brumby.
We all make the rendezvous within a few minutes of each other, which is commendable given the conditions and that my map is wrong. It shows a turn-off that no longer exists, and directional signs indicate we are probably 30km further on. Better still, we are far closer to the resumption of the bitumen.
So yes, Mac, I brought a map, and at around 15 years old it’s next to useless.
We’re now approaching the western end of the MacDonnell Ranges, an area which, if you take the descriptions literally, is full of holes and mystery. On the 200km route to Alice Springs via Namatjira Dve, there are four gorges (Glen Helen, Redbank, Serpentine and Ormiston), a big hole (Ellery Creek), a normal hole (Reedy), a chasm (Standley), a gap (Simpsons), some pits (Ochre) and a few landmarks actually rising from the landscape instead of into it in the forms of bluffs (Gosse and Haast).
We find a good base at Glen Helen Gorge and lunch on a camelburger, which tastes like lean beef but with the texture of grilled chicken, and then pick the eyes out of the list of attractions.
Ormiston Gorge is a mini-version of Kings Canyon with its steep walls and a rim lookout but with the bonus of a waterhole fringed by a sandy beach.
The Ochre Pits are weird in that you’d expect these colourful geological streaks to run horizontally, like rock strata, when they’re vertical, like a bunch of crayons in a glass. The colours, from crimsony red to yellow/gold and white, have different properties and, when mixed with water or the likes of goanna, possum or emu fat, are used for different purposes by Aboriginals, including in some cases medicinally.
Standley Chasm, just 30km short of Alice Springs, has an entrance fee because it’s just outside the national park, so we save it for the next day. That’s because the best time to be at this narrow but deep cleft in the rock is midday, when the sun is perfectly positioned to shine right down the middle. That gives the chasm an orange centre. In the Red Centre. A neat finish to a nifty drive.
Published in RoyalAuto Apr 2016
travelnt.com – follow the Things To Do and Self-Driving links, and click Red Centre Way.
Also, ayersrockresort.com.au, curtinsprings.com, nt.gov.au/westmacs.
The author travelled with the assistance of Tourism NT.
Members get discounts when booking their car, 4WD and campervan hire through RACV for a Red Centre driving holiday. Go to racv.com.au/travel, call 13 13 29 or visit any RACV shop. RACV shops also have everything you need for a driving holiday, from maps, guides and GPS units, to first-aid kits, picnic rugs and more. For more information, see the shops list on racv.com.au.
FIELD OF LIGHT
Art on a grand scale meets Australia’s grandest landscape when the desert around Uluru will be lit up like the night sky above it in Field Of Light. Artist Bruce Munro will install 50,000 slender stems crowned with frosted-glass spheres that will illuminate as darkness falls. Pathways through the lights will immerse visitors in this world-first experience. Field Of Light opens on 1 April 2016 and runs for 12 months. Visit ayersrockresort.com.au for details.