IT DIDN’T look like the Red Centre. The track we were following in the Range Rover Sport was covered in tall grass that nearly reached the window and stretched to the horizon like a sea of green.
Only the brief, intermittent glimpses of the track’s twin red ribbons of dirt and the squirming of soft sand under the Sport’s tyres confirmed our location: deep in desert country southwest of Alice Springs. We couldn’t have got further away from our everyday city lives if we’d tried – and it felt bloody awesome!
It had been five years since we’d been out in the Red Centre on a 4x4 trip – two kids under the age of five took care of any spare time. But we decided this year we’d return to one of the best touring and camping regions in Australia, and we’d been counting down the months since we’d booked our flights at the start of the year. This was also our daughter Sarah’s first big off-road adventure, and we’d been filling her in on the appeal of “all that red sand in the desert” – something we knew wouldn’t be prevalent after glimpsing the sea of green from the air as we flew into Alice.
Our plan was a quick week of touring and camping with good mate and Alice Springs local John Stafford as our guide, accompanied by his partner Susie and daughter Eleanor. I had travelled extensively with John over many years during my tenure as 4X4 Australia editor, so I was looking forward to a mix of great driving, awesome campsites, good company and the odd beer or three around a campfire. In short, it was shaping up to be the perfect Red Centre away-from-it-all adventure.
The trip started pretty well, too. I had been lucky enough to score a Range Rover Sport TDV6 as our rig for the week – complete with two spare wheels – and was keen to see how this latest incarnation of one of my favourite off-roaders was going to perform in this sometimes challenging country. The shiny silver Rangie looked slightly lost parked at Alice Springs Airport among all the dusty Toyotas and Nissans, but I knew we’d soon rectify its city appearance.
John’s plan was for us to spend two days out west of Alice Springs, exploring the area south from Larapinta Drive to Ernest Giles Road. This mini-expedition would include Owen Springs Reserve, the Wallace Rockhole community and Finke Gorge National Park. We’d then return to Alice for a food and fuel top-up and strike east towards the remote Ruby Gap Nature Park, for a further two days exploring the park’s beautiful gorges and long, sandy river beds. We’d finish the days by dozing in some of the best campsites in all of the NT.
The first day was a mix of bitumen and then, once turning off Larapinta Drive, some sandy desert tracks that were nearly engulfed by the lush green grasses that had sprung up after a particularly precipitous wet season. We moved south along an old fence line as we tracked toward the low-lying rocky hills that comprised the tail end of the Waterhouse Range. The driving was relatively cruisy, with the Sport set to Sand mode to compensate for the road-biased rubber it was running. The only sound – besides Sarah questioning the lack of red sand – was the brushing of grass on the Sport’s underbelly as we followed John’s Discovery 2 and camper trailer through the sea of green.
NOTHING QUITE LIKE IT
THERE’S something about bush camping in remote country that sticks with you. You have the choice of pretty much anywhere to roll out your swag, and you have the (increasingly rare) opportunity to sit around a campfire – and cook on it – while the southern stars grow brighter seemingly just above your head.
Our campsite for the first night was a nice clearing near a small gorge that cut through the rocky hills to the east. There was ample space to set up the camper trailer, Oztent and swags, with firewood in abundance and plenty of space for the kids to get out and explore. We’d only been driving for around three to four hours, but already we were a world away from the crazy pace of city life.
The perfect outback sunrise greeted us when we decided to get out of bed. This was followed by a damn-near perfectly cooked brekky, before we packed up and loaded all the camping gear. After a quick glance over the Hema Maps’ map on my iPhone, it was time to turn further west toward the aboriginal community of Wallace Rockhole, where John was supposed to pick up some pottery from one of the community’s artists.
A 45-minute drive through stony, open desert country was all it took to reach the community, only to find it pretty much deserted. The Alice Springs Show was on in town and we guessed that most of the locals had headed in to the Red Centre capital to check it out. We soon alighted, following the track just north of town that turned west toward Finke Gorge National Park. The driving here was mainly on red sand, with plenty of washouts mixed in with smoother sections as we passed more open country to our west; the higher, more dramatic ridgelines of the James Range shadowed us to the south.
It was once we reached the junction with the Boggy Hole track that we turned south and cut through the James Range, following the sandy bed of the dry Ellery Creek through Todd Glen – more beautiful, rugged red-rock cliffs lined both sides of the track. It was here we let down our tyres. John’s muddies were doing it easy and our Sport’s road-biased rubber wasn’t inhibiting us too much, but we took the safer-is-better option to increase our tyre contact patch and thus traction through the soft stuff. The drive through was magic, the rocky cliffs contrasted with the sand and huge gums that followed the line of the creeks crisscrossing the area.
It took an hour or so to reach the junction of Finke River and Ellery Creek, and the driving conditions ranged from the ubiquitous soft sand to rocky sections and a few water crossings. The amount of water around was pretty amazing – the last water crossing, just north of Boggy Hole, ended up being a non-event as the water was too deep. We met a young lad in an old ex-army Land Rover who had just crossed it driving north, and once he’d marked more than a metre up his Rover’s door with his hand we knew the Rangie – with no snorkel – would have been (excuse the pun) well and truly out of its depth.
The detour around also saw us meet a group of four vehicles, the only others we saw all trip, and then it was just an hours’ drive to our second camp, on a wide stretch of the Finke River. The campsite was complete with a waterhole at the southern end for the kids to explore and a spectacular cliff-face for the sun to shine on as it dropped below the ranges behind us that evening.
It was a mix of dry (and wet) river beds and tall sand dunes of the Palmer River section of Finke Gorge NP that comprised our journey south the next morning. The previous night had been the coldest due to the last of the cloudy weather disappearing, and it looked like staying that way for the remainder of our Red Centre stay. This journey south to Ernest Giles Road was quick and tinged with regret that we didn’t have longer to enjoy this part of the Centre.
However, Alice Springs was calling. We’d chewed through most of our food and both vehicles needed a re-fuel before we’d be able to turn east to Ruby Gap Nature Park.
The benefits of the Range Rover Sport’s all-breadth capability were never more obvious than the shift from slow, sandy driving to the fast highway blast back to town. The vehicle hadn’t put a foot wrong to this point, with the only slight niggles being its width when it came to squeezing between trackside vegetation, and the fact it didn’t have low-range as standard. Not that it would have made any difference where we’d driven – the terrain response settings and its impressive drivability in rugged terrain had made it all seem too easy.
The ability of the vehicle to dust itself off after a few days in the sand and rocks, and then shoot us smoothly and rapidly to our destination was pretty damn impressive. Our few days in the proverbial middle of nowhere made Alice Springs seem busier than it really was, but we knew it was only a short stopover before a few nights back out bush again. And it was rather nice to tuck into a beautifully cooked steak and some draught beer.
The great thing with the NT – and I’m unsure whether it’s just my imagination or wishes – is that there’s never a hurry to be anywhere. And so it was a leisurely start to the next leg, with some shopping in the morning, before we hit the Ross Highway and started for Ruby Gap.
A quick stop at the well-preserved historical gold mining site of Arltunga – well worth a look – was extended slightly as we helped a couple change a flat tyre. We stopped off at Ross River Homestead and then drove deeper into the steep hills of the Atnarpa Range, chasing the sunset.
As the track into Ruby Gap gets progressively rougher, the scenery ups the wow factor, and once we reached the entrance to the nature park and deposited the camping fees, it was time to really soak up this amazing part of the Red Centre.
The name Ruby Gap is something of a misnomer – in 1886 David Lindsay reported finding what he presumed were rubies in the Hale riverbed. This led to a mini ruby-rush that lasted only a couple of years, before prospectors and buyers realised the rubies were in fact garnets. We weren’t looking for precious stones but we did find excellent four-wheel drive routes along the Hale River, with its sandy base just dry enough to ensure we didn’t get bogged as we drove further into the park looking for a campsite.
Up until this point we’d again only encountered a couple of vehicles returning from Ruby Gap, and this sense of remoteness continued for the rest of the day. We passed one well-set-up campsite on the banks of the Hale, before we found our own slice of camping paradise another 500 metres upriver. With a great view back down the river valley, a couple of reasonable-sized waterholes right below us, and no-one else around, it was brilliant – the perfect base for a couple of nights.
I had been out this way a couple of times before, so on our second morning we decided to explore further up the gorge. We found the going pretty easy until the last section of high, jagged rocks and drop-offs, which saw the Rangie Sport reach its limit. John’s lifted Disco 2 got through, but the Sport’s longer belly and road-biased tyres robbed us of the opportunity to do any further exploration. Not that we were complaining; it simply handed us the perfect excuse to return to camp and enjoy the rest of the day having a yarn and downing a few beers, while the kids explored the campsite.
Sarah’s first outback adventure had been everything she’d hoped for – going by her wish to not return to Sydney – and this gave me the perfect excuse to start planning our next trip. It was a topic that took up a good part of the afternoon as John and I plotted our next NT expedition.
The final morning of any adventure is always hard. Making it less so on this trip was the sublime sunrise that followed the most star-filled night I have experienced in many years of outback touring. If I’d seen a film crew making the most of this perfect image I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit surprised. But, thankfully for us, we had it all to ourselves.
The week of camping and off-roading had been, as these trips usually are, way too short. We’d barely touched on the huge amount of great campsites and awesome locations in the centre of Australia, but even as we drove back into Alice, soaking up the last magnificent taste of the Red Centre, we were planning our return.
We didn’t really need an excuse (Sarah had already made it quite clear she didn’t want to leave) we just had to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the Red Centre has enough to keep any off-road tourer enthralled for months, if not years – which isn’t hard to do. All of which made our return to city life that much easier to handle. The interlude back in the hustle and bustle would merely be a necessary delay before we could return to this timeless land.
ALICE Springs has all the amenities you’ll need to stock up for a long or a short off-road adventure to the surrounding regions. Accommodation ranges from luxury resorts and hotels, to excellent caravan parks and camping grounds.
For info about all national park visitor and camping fees, plus track conditions, check out: www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au
Finke Gorge National Park is 127km west of Alice Springs, via Larapinta Drive. As well as the 4x4 track that runs north-south through this park, there is also a side track to Palm Valley and its campground, which is well worth a visit. Be fully prepared when driving in this park and take plenty of recovery gear. Also, check beforehand as to whether the track is open. Bush camping is free along this route.
Ruby Gap Nature Park is 149km east of Alice Springs, via the Ross Highway. The final track in is for high-clearance 4x4 vehicles only. The campsites are dotted along the river bank with plenty of space between them. There are no facilities and camping fees do apply.
The best time to visit the Red Centre is from April through to the end of October.
The Alice Springs Desert Park is well worth a look if you have a half or a full day to spare.