EXPLORE RED CENTRE HOT SPOTS
WE’VE seen the Todd River flow and, so the legend goes, once you’ve seen this normally dry creek bed swirling with muddy water, you are bound to return to Alice Springs and the Red Centre of Australia. Or so they say! Still, it must be true, as we have returned many times and now, having seen the Todd flow on three separate occasions, we are doomed to follow the winter sun to Central Australia.
So, over the course of the past couple of decades, we’ve poked our noses down most of the tracks open to the public in this vast region of Australia, and one thing we’ve learnt is that there is so much to see and experience you’ll never see it all in just one or two trips – or perhaps in a lifetime!
THE WEST MacDonnell Ranges are one of the great tourist attractions of Central Australia, and they’re easily reached from Alice Springs on a bitumen road. Still, while the West Macs are well and truly on the tourist agenda, there are a few spots only visited by those willing to use a 4WD as they were designed – and that’s by scrambling a wheel or two.
The first gem is about 55km west of Alice, where a track leads off the blacktop to Birthday Waterhole and Hugh Gorge. There are a couple of tricky spots along these tracks, especially if you’re towing a camper trailer or similar, but the rewards are well worthwhile, with bush camps along the upper reaches of the Hugh River.
Back on the blacktop, heading west – beyond Glen Helen Resort – you’ll lose the bitumen and most of the tourists and find an excellent bush camp on the Finke River, at what is known as the Finke Two Mile.
The sandy access track leaves the bitumen just east of the road and crosses over the Finke and wanders along the bank.
Sandier tracks head down to some small pleasant sites tucked just above the long waterhole – some are even shaded by tall gums that make this spot such a pleasant interlude to your exploration of the area.
From a nearby lookout you’ll get great views of Mt Sonder (catch it at sunrise) and it’s just a short drive to Redbank Gorge.
There’s camping out on the access road to Redbank Gorge, but they’re pretty ho-hum, while the narrow cleft of the gorge is best explored on a hot day with a LI-LO – the water can be extremely cold, though.
A little further west, some 160km west of Alice, is the track to Roma Gorge, probably the least known and visited site in the West Mac Ranges. The access route to the gorge follows a creek for a few kilometres, but it’s generally pretty easy (with lower tyre pressures). The 13km from the main road to the small car park takes 40 minutes or so.
From the carpark, it is a short walk to the gorge where, with a little bit of exploration, you can find some ancient Aboriginal rock art. It’s also a great spot for birdwatching, as the water in the gorge always attracts wildlife.
MORE INFO: traveloutbackaustralia. com/outback-destinations/westmacdonnell- national-park.html
THE 1570km² Owen Springs Reserve is located south and west of Alice Springs and is a favourite with four wheelers wanting to get away from the crowds. Surprisingly, considering how easy it is to access, we’ve always found it pretty quiet with few other travellers around. The southern access is off the Stuart Highway about 65km from Alice, while the western access is 50km from Alice along Larapinta Drive.
The main 4WD track through the reserve closely follows the original route of John McDouall Stuart’s explorations through this region in 1860-1862, which opened the area up to European pastoral settlement.
His route and today’s 4WD track skirts along the edge of the Hugh River, one of the major but still ephemeral streams of Central Australia.
From the southern access point, the Hugh is met just 4km from the blacktop; while Redbank Waterhole, probably the most popular camping spot in the reserve, is found just 2km south. The main track crosses the Hugh and wanders north via 8 Mile Yard, before passing through Lawrence Gorge, a convoluted gap in the Waterhouse Range. Camping is allowed along the river through Lawrence Gorge, but don’t expect any facilities.
On the northern edge of the Waterhouse Range are the ruins of the old Owen Springs HS. Originally built in 1873, the building here was the first homestead built in Central Australia. Some of the great pastoral pioneers who owned this property include Sir Thomas Elder (late 1880s), Sir Sidney Kidman (1896-1901) and the Hayes family, who first bought the property in 1907, sold it in 1930 and re-purchased it in 1936. The property was taken over by the NT parks service in 2002.
The track north crosses the Hugh River once again and then wanders across the plain, before recrossing the dry river and reaching the bitumen of Larapinta Drive.
Along the way you’ll see kangaroos and the occasional dingo, while birdlife of all sorts is common around the waterholes.
Bushwalking near Haunted Tree Bore and among the Waterhouse Ranges is particularly enjoyable, but remember this is a hot, dry region.
THE DAVENPORT Ranges and the national park of the same name are located east of the Stuart Highway, some 380km north of Alice Springs. The main access road north of Wauchope is pretty good gravel for the first 120km or so, but as it swings south and begins to pass through the Davenport Ranges it degenerates to a rocky, sometimes eroded route, which is part of the adventurous Binns Track.
The Ranges form the transitional zone between the wet Top End and the drier region of Central Australia, and they’re an important refuge for animals, especially waterbirds and the seven species of fish that inhabit the numerous waterholes found here.
Aboriginals have long lived here and depended on the region for water and food. Europeans first came to the area in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until 30 years later that any pioneers tried to settle in the region – resistance from the local Aboriginal clans drove them out. Miners came to this area in the early 1900s, and by 1914 the Hatches Creek wolfram mining area was the most important, with a shortlived police post being established in 1919.
Miners left when the price of wolfram plummeted after the end of WWI, only to be revived by WWII. By then, pastoral development had seen a number of cattle stations established in the region. Today, the four Aboriginal groups that have long called this region home help manage the park and operate some of the cattle stations surrounding the reserve.
About 70km from the Stuart, a track heads south from the access road into the northern edge of the mountains at Whistleduck Creek. There’s a camping area close to the creek, while a pleasant day-use area that often abounds with waterbirds – Irrmweng Rockhole – is a short distance away. Wandering the creek around here you’re bound to see red kangaroos, euros, donkeys and horses.
The most popular camping area in the park can be found further on at Old Police Station Waterhole, on the Frew River.
To get away from the crowds along this delightful stretch of water you can take the Frew River 4WD loop track and, while rough, it leads to a number of small but pleasant bush camps along the waterholestudded stream.
Further south on the main track (part of the Binns Track) you approach Wolfram Hill and the original settlement of Hatches Creek. A little later, the Pioneer Wolfram Mine – the biggest mining concern in the area – with its big steel headframe complete with cables and cages, winchwinding gear, ore dumps and settling pits, along with debris from the crushers and refining process, litter the area.
The Binns Track then skirts alongside the headwaters of the Frew River and, before leaving the Ranges, passes close to a small waterhole which makes for a good camp often missed by travellers.
From here, the track swings west, skirting the southern ramparts of the Ranges and passing Murray Downs Homestead, before reaching the Stuart Highway, south of Wycliffe Well.
IF YOU’RE heading to Central Australia from down south, you can head to the remote Old Andado Homestead from Coober Pedy via Oodnadatta and the Coober Pedy via Oodnadatta and the friendly Mt Dare Hotel, which is quite an adventure in itself. Or, if you’re already in Alice Springs, you can do a great loop drive of a few days and take in the delights of the desert to the south-east of the ‘big smoke’.
At Mt Dare and the nearby Dalhousie Springs (you’ll need a permit to visit the latter), the route starts on the Binns Track, heading north.
From Mt Dare, the 105km route is easy enough to follow, but sections can be deep in bulldust – and this is remote country – so you need to be prepared.
Once at Old Andado, throw down the swag or set up the camper. It’s a great spot right on the very edge of the Simpson Desert, and it’s Desert, and it’s surrounded by big dunes to the west and east.
History of the area dates back to the 1920s, when the homestead was first built. But it is the story of the legendary and late ‘Molly’ Clark that the homestead is best known for. And, once you’ve been there, you will be enthralled by the story and the heritage of this unique place.
North of the old homestead, a memorable drive parallels a great dune for quite a distance. From here, it’s more than 300km to Alice Springs and, along the way, you’ll pass the Aboriginal settlement of Santa Teresa, a community known for its dynamic artwork.
LOCATED 110km east of Alice Springs, the Arltunga Historical Reserve preserves the substantial ruins and memorabilia of the 1887 gold rush that brought 300 people to this remote area and established the first town in Central Australia.
North of the well-set-up and informative Visitor Centre, you’ll find the old police post and gaol and another road leading to the government works area, where a gold battery was established. The most significant ruins of the goldfields are found here, along with an old boiler and assorted machinery. Many of the first miners were Cornishmen, fresh from the famous mines in South Australia. Today, many of the buildings they built in this remote and dry region of Australia have been restored as a testimony and a monument to their skill and pioneering endeavour.
Just a short distance east at the ‘Cross Roads’, where there was once a store and hotel, you can continue east to the White Range Cemetery or take a walk to the old mining areas in the White Range itself.
Camping isn’t permitted on the reserve and pets aren’t allowed. The Arltunga Bush Hotel is closed, though some people camp in the adjoining camping area. There are no facilities. We’ve never had an issue finding a camping spot.
The nearby Trephina Gorge and N’Dhala Gorge both offer basic bush camps, while the Old Ambalindum HS on the Hale River offers pleasant camping and accommodation, as does the Ross River Resort.
LOCATED north of the Plenty Highway and about 95km east of the pleasant camping area of the Gemtree Bush Resort is the Mac and Rose Chalmers Conservation Reserve, named after the pioneering couple who, in the early 1920s, took up the MacDonald Downs Station lease and are now buried on the reserve.
The impressive hills of rounded boulders that dominate the small reserve features Tower Rock, which is the tallest and most imposing. With the water run-off from infrequent rains, the small patches of sandy flatplain in-between the rocky hills carry a bigger variety of plants than elsewhere, while bird and animal life is much more common. The entire area was a favoured picnic spot for the Chalmers and their descendants, and it’s very easy to understand why.
It’s also a top spot to camp, with the small campground having a couple of longdrop dunnies for amenities but no water, so you have to be self-sufficient to stay there. Luckily, the Mt Swan Homestead, just 25km or so south from the camping area, has a well-stocked store where water is available. The homestead also has a very good art gallery that exhibits (and sells) spectacular local Aboriginal art.
A couple of walking trails help you explore the area, while just clambering up the rocky hills will reward and inspire reward and inspire you with incredibly impressive views.
Viewing the sunrise from one of the rock-strewn crests, with the flat-topped ridges of the Dulcie Range far to the east, is truly unforgettable.
THIS can be the most challenging trip detailed here, and after the recent rains in Central Australia – and with the Finke flowing for some time – the route can be tricky. I remember our first trip here was plagued by near-quicksand conditions, with numerous vehicles getting bogged and some mammoth recovery operations needed. It pays to find out the latest info.
Before you head down the Finke to Boggy Hole, check out Palm Valley, which is one of the natural highlights of this region. To access the valley and the camping area, you’ll need to flick on 4WD, then backtrack to the bitumen to pick up the Finke River 4WD route, which first follows Ellery Creek before meeting the Finke at The Junction. From here, the route crosses the normally sandy bed of the Finke a number of times before coming to Boggy Hole.
to Boggy Hole.
Nearby and close to the camping area are some low ruins of the 1889 police camp that was established here. This is the scene of one of the most shameful episodes in the settlement of Central Australia, when mounted constable W.
coming Willshire and his four native constables were based here to control cattle killing by the local Aboriginal people. Willshire was implicated in a number of killings and was later charged with murder – the first policeman to be so charged in Australian history. He was controversially acquitted!
The great waterhole found at Boggy Hole is a beauty and always hosts a number of pelicans, ducks, water hens and a host of other birds. Other animals wander through to take advantage of the long stretch of water and the green feed that often blankets the fringing banks.
The route south from Boggy Hole again skirts along the edge of the Finke and crosses it a few times, before it passes through James Range, exits the national park and reaches Running Waters and a series of stockyards. From here, the route swings west and then south, before striking swings west and east towards Watarrka NP and the Stuart Highway.