Taking on the Red Centre Way: Kings Canyon to Alice Springs

ANZAC lookout

There are two ways to get to Alice Springs from Kings Canyon.

1) Backtrack for 500km along a paved route: the most popular choice.

2) Continue along the Red Centre Way to the Mereenie Loop for a total of 320km along a largely corrugated dirt road.

Google Maps told us that the dirt road would take about 8 hours, while the longer route was estimated at 6. We decided to go rogue and risk the shorter journey in the hopes that it would be quicker.

Before we left, we packed our remaining two wine bottles tightly in a box and tucked any glass containers next to bags of beans, just in case. Our car is a 4WD, but our trailer is not designed to go off-road.

The road was one wide strip of corrugated red dust, and Jared quickly discovered that it was generally less jarring to go at 60-70km than it was to slow down. As we jolted our way towards Alice, we saw a toilet that had been torn from the bottom of a low-clearance caravan. I tried think not to about the wine as bits of gravel rattled against the car and my brain rattled in my head.

The first half of the drive was rough, but after 150km and 2.5 hours, we hit the paved Mereenie Loop section of the road. I have never been so grateful for a paved road; I was so relieved that I managed to overlook the many dead brumby carcasses we passed.

We traveled along the inner Mereenie loop road to the south, stopping at Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira’s house and his home town of Hermannsburg. We also purchased our A$6.50 Mereenie Loop pass at the supermarket in Hermannsburg; the loop passes through Aboriginal land and you need to buy a permit to do the drive.

Hermannsburg NT

Albert Namatjira’s house.

The outer loop through the MacDonnell Ranges has more tourist attractions, but Google was wrong: the inner loop was faster. Including a few stops, it took us 5 hours to reach Alice Springs from Kings Canyon.

When we got to the caravan park, the wine had survived while the car and trailer sustained only minimal damage. The trailer’s number plate was hanging on by a single screw and there were chips in the light covers. Everything packed in the front and the back of the trailer was covered in a thin layer of red dust, but all in all we got off lightly.

While staying in Alice we returned to the upper loop road for a day trip through the West MacDonnell Ranges. It was a good day out that further drove home how versatile the Australian outback is.

Here’s where we stopped:

Simpsons Gap

I can only assume this riverbed courses with water during the wet season, but in the dry the temptation of swimming wasn’t on the table.

Simpsons Gap river bed

Macdonnell Ranges

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm is the only place with an entry fee, A$12 per person. It felt steep, but we were already there and it’s not as if we’d paid for anything else. By a stroke of good fortune, we arrived at the Chasm right around noon, which is when the light hits the walls at just the right time.

Chasm MacDonnell Ranges

Ochre Pits

From there we drove 80km straight to the ochre pits, a fascinating place where Aboriginal men sourced ochre for ceremonial body painting and other uses.

Colorful hills Australia

Serpentine Gorge

This isn’t the biggest or most striking gorge in the West Macs, but it was on our way so it’s the one we visited. Serpentine was peaceful at ground level, but the real winner was the lookout trail, which takes you above the gorge for views of the ranges.

gorge macdonnell ranges

Lookout from Serpentine Gorge

Ellery Creek Big Hole

The information signs explained that the water at the big hole gets so cold in winter that the fish die, and their nutrients are then reabsorbed into the water. Jared jumped in for a freezing cold swim with a few fish carcasses, while I stayed safely on shore.

west macdonnell ranges

Visiting the Red Centre Way

  • Ensure that the road is open between Kings Canyon – Mereenie Loop before taking it on.
  • Drive carefully. Vehicles don’t always stay in their lane and there are hidden holes, dips, and floodways that can do real damage if you hit them at speed.
  • The $6.50 Loop permit is sold in Hermannsburg, Glen Helen, Kings Canyon Resort, and the Alice Springs Tourist Office.
  • Many people visit the West MacDonnell Ranges on the way to Alice, using the town of Glen Helen as a base. We opted to visit as a day trip from Alice.

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Driving the Red Centre Way: Kings Canyon to Alice Springs. It's a rough road, but if was easy it would be the way.

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