Highway to Heaven
20 February 2012
Travelling from South Australia, the first main attraction to visit is Uluru (Ayres Rock) and The Olgas (also known as Kata Tjuta). Turn left off the Stuart Highway at Eridunda and travel along the Lasseter Highway for about 240km. About halfway along you start to see in the distance what appears to be a huge natural monolith, possibly Uluru. But as you get closer, you can see it has a flat top – it's Mt Conner, which is actually much bigger than Uluru and often confuses travellers.
Camping in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is regulated and centralised around the Ayres Rock Resort at Yulara. The resort is a welcome oasis in this sandy, red desert. The camping ground is well laid out, with good viewing areas to both 'the Rock' and the Olgas. We had fires at night to keep warm and cook marshmallows.
When we travelled this area last spring, recent rains had turned the landscape into a kaleidoscope of colour. Green, lowlying scrub broke up the monotony, and much of the Red Centre was green. Wildflowers were spurting up everywhere, making the nation's geographic centre look more like a botanic garden than a red and brown desert!
The Rock, about 20km from Yulara, is so much more impressive in real life than in photos. You can walk all the way around it for 9km or drive around and do some of the smaller walks to various sites like the Mutitjulu Waterhole via the Kuniya Walk, where you can see some ancient rock art. Like other parts of the outback, the territory is a land of contradictions, where vast desert plains are sprinkled with mountain ranges and water holes that give RVers plenty of opportunities for adventures and casual sightseeing.
There is an excellent cultural centre nearby the Rock with informative displays about the local fauna and flora and Aboriginal ties to the area. The guides are happy to answer your questions. Various tours are available too, including locating and sampling bush tucker. The traditional Aboriginal owners of the area, the Anangu, ask visitors to not climb the Rock, but people can and do. We decided against it, but I had climbed it as a teenager 30 years ago.
The Olgas are 40km further west and are equally as impressive, with various viewing areas along the way and plenty of self-guided walks weaving in and around the 36-domed rock formation, which collectively is much bigger in mass than Uluru. There are some good picnic spots at the Olgas. A sunset viewing of both the rock and the Olgas is a must from one of the key vantage points provided. We even saw camels wandering nearby!
Back towards the Stuart Highway along the Lasseter Highway for 190km, just past Curtin Springs, we turned left onto Luritja Road, which after 160km brought us to Kings Canyon. The countryside changes dramatically as the George Gill Range comes into view, displaying lush green bush and rocky escarpments.
We camped at the Kings Canyon Resort's campground and headed off to explore the canyon's Kings Creek with its impressive waterholes and viewing areas. The wildlife is never far from view in the outback, but Kings Canyon was abuzz with birds, particularly large flocks of budgerigars, and various types of lizards. Depending on your time and ability, there are numerous walking tracks in and around the canyon to explore.
Next stop was Alice Springs. You can drive from Kings Canyon via the Mereenie Loop Road through the West MacDonnell ranges to Alice, but if there has been rain, some of the unsealed roads can be impassable. For this reason, most people double-back 270km to the Eridunda turn-off on the Stuart Highway and then travel another 200km up to Alice.
My teenage memories of Alice were not very flattering, but I was surprised how modern it now is, and there are many good caravan parks around town. We camped at the huge MacDonnell Ranges Holiday Park for a week and really only had enough time just to see the main attractions. There are so many sites and places to see in and around Alice, particularly if you have a high-clearance 4WD.
Highlights for us were daytrips to both the East MacDonnell Ranges and the better- known West MacDonnell Ranges, which is home to Simpsons Gap, Stanleys Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and much more. There are also loads of freecamping locations there. Wildflowers were blossoming all around the ranges and we had fun stopping the car and walking off to pick various floral specimens, most of which we had never seen before.
We preferred the East MacDonnell Ranges along the Ross Highway with its fewer visitors and more rugged exterior, enjoying Trephine Gorge, Corroboree Rock, Jessie Gap, Emily Gap and some creek crossings and constantly changing views.
There are some excellent tourist attractions closer to town, including Desert Park, the Cultural Precinct with its Albert Namatjira Gallery, the historic Telegraph Station, various museums, a number of animal and reptile parks and, of course, many art galleries. The Todd Mall Markets are on the weekends and we bought a beautiful canvas of Aboriginal dot art direct from the artist displaying them in the street. We were impressed by Alice.
About 200km up the Stuart Highway is the small town of Ti Tree (and yes, ti-trees are everywhere). We camped at the back of the roadhouse. The pub had a 'grog garden' (that's what the sign called it) and it was alive with noisy locals when we pulled up. But after 5pm they dispersed and it felt safe to enter with the kids for a cold beer and bistro dinner. Just like at most outback pubs, our kids were allowed to sit at the bar and order their own drinks, which is a habit we had to break them out of each time we stayed in urban areas on our 23,000km trip around Australia.
Another 200km further north is Wycliffe Well (a roadhouse with a camping area), which has put itself on the map by claiming the area has had more UFO sightings than anywhere else in Australia. The roadhouse has UFO paraphernalia displays complete with little green men.
Another 140km up the road is Tennant Creek, but apart from a good cultural centre, we didn't feel inclined to explore the town. Our next camping spot was on a working cattle station at Banka Banka, which is about 100km north of the Three Ways, the junction of the Stuart Highway and the western end of the Barkly Highway. About 190km along the Barkly is the Barkly Homestead, which is a great place to spend the night if travelling from or to Queensland.
Banka Banka isn't something we read about in any book, guide or pamphlet, but heard about from other travellers. The station served as an army camp during WWII. Now it's just a stopover across these vast outback distances, but we fell in love with the place. There is a lovely grassed campground with access to modern facilities. There's plenty of bore water at Banka Banka and the station owners, who charge a small camping fee, encourage you to use it to clean your car and van because it helps them keep their grass green.
The station has the original mud homestead on site and part of it has been converted to a licensed bar, which the owner opens up at 4.30pm for a couple of hours. There are some great relics situated around the station, and several walks over the hills to a nearby waterhole.
We found there wasn't much else to visit over the next few hundred kilometres further north, apart from pulling off the highway to visit the historic town and pub at Daly Waters. The pub is the Territory's oldest and an old airstrip nearby was Australia's first international airport. There are many airstrips along the Stuart Highway, all built for service during WWII.
The old pub was a supply point for drovers in days of old, and it still carries a quirky if not risqué charm, with its various displays of knickers, bras, thongs and old machines among its rustic setting in pretty much the middle of nowhere. The explorer John Stuart Mill put this place on the map (and just about every other site along the Stuart Highway) when in 1862 he carved the initial 'S' on a tree during his successful journey across Australia from the north to the south. The overland telegraph line largely followed the route Mills somehow forged alone in this unforgiving part of Australia; he must have been one hell of a bushman.
Next stop 190km further north was Mataranka; a place I had been hankering to visit since I had just finished reading the novel We of the Never Never written by Jeanne Gunn in 1908, which was based on life at a huge cattle station in the area. We visited the site of the original Elsey station/homestead, various other historical sites related to the book as well as a replica of the homestead, which really took my imagination back to the start of last century when, in this remote location, life would have been as hard as hell.
We stayed at the Territory Manor Caravan Park, one of the prettiest parks in the outback with its spacious grounds, free-range animals and a lake teaming with barramundi, not to mention a bistro selling a wine label called Grey Nomad! Our second night a massive storm erupted and we huddled together in the van hoping the incessant lightning and falling tree branches would stay away from us. The park looked like a war zone in the morning, and everyone was a bit shell shocked, but we survived without damage.
The town and district of Mataranka have a certain charm, surrounded by scrub and various springs and remnant forests. The Bitter Springs, made famous in We of the Never Never, are simply breath-taking, bringing to life the contradiction that is the Territory outback. The warm water that comes out of the earth is clearer than any other I've seen before, including some of the best dive spots across the globe. Proud stands of remnant palms surround the springs, looking oddly placed in this desolate landscape. Somehow they have survived for thousands of years.
The next and final stop on this leg of our journey was Katherine, just 105km further on. We spent several days at Katherine, camping at the well-appointed Low Level Caravan Park, a welcome retreat from the harshness of the outback. There is plenty to see and do around Katherine and its famous river.
We visited the Springvale Homestead, the oldest home in the Territory, and swam in the majestic Katherine Hot Springs, and checked out the Katherine Museum, which had some wonderful displays of wartime artefacts and bric-a-brac. A big attraction for most people is to do a tour of the Katherine Gorge system in Nitmiluk National Park. The river winds its way through 15km of rocky escarpment on the edge of the ancient Arnhem Land Plateau. There are various tours, but be sure to get as far up the gorge system as possible so you can take in its full natural glory.
Darwin is just over 200km further on from Katherine and is the end of the line of the Stuart Highway. We found the Stuart Highway and its attendant towns contained a unique brand of Aussie culture and personality, and something that shouldn't be missed for any caravan or motorhome owner.
The Stuart Highway neatly bisects the Territory and there are three main ways to join up with it: from the southern end of the Stuart Highway in South Australia from Port Augusta; via the Barkly Highway in Queensland; or from the much less travelled Victoria Highway from Western Australia.
WE STAYED AT
AYRES ROCK RESORT CAMPING GROUND AT YULARA
All camping bookings are made directly with the Campground Manager or staff. Contact Voyages Ayers Rock Campground.
Ph: (08) 8957 700
Fax: (08) 8957 7004
KING'S CANYON RESORT CAMP GROUND
Ph: 1300 863 248
MACDONNELL RANGES HOLIDAY PARK
Ph: (08) 8952 6111
TI TREE ROADHOUSE
Stuart Highway, Ti Tree
Just walk into the pay station at the roadhouse.
BANKA BANKA STATION
Stuart Highway, Banka Banka This seems to be the only place at Banka Banka. Just pull up and walk into the house and ring the bell.
DALY WATERS PUB
Follow the signs. Turn off the Stuart Highway on to the Stuart Road for about 5km. No need to book.
TERRITORY MANOR, MATARANKA
Ph: (08) 8975 4516
KATHERINE LOW LEVEL CARAVAN PARK
Ph: (08) 8972 3962
1. Katherine Gorge, located about 30km into the Nitmiluk National Park. There are various boat trips along the gorge system that involve walking small distances from one gorge to another.
2. The Bitter Springs, located several kilometres out of the town of Mataranka. These warm swimming holes are a beautiful contrast to the harsh landscape of the outback. The nearby Thermal Hot Springs are also worth a visit, but have been extensively landscaped.
3. East MacDonnell Ranges, located east off the Stuart Highway along the Ross Highway. Smaller scale than the West MacDonnell Ranges, but is also less travelled and, like many outback attractions, possesses a strange beauty.
4. Uluru and the Olgas, located about 240km off the Stuart Highway along the Lasseter Highway.
5. Kings Canyon, located over 300km from Ayres Rock along the Luritja Road via the Lasseter Highway. Amazing rock escarpments forged by the Kings Creek over the millennia.
WORDS BY STUART SNELL PHOTOGRAPHY BY STUART, ELIZABETH, TABITHA AND CHARLIE SNELL ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY BY CARAVAN & MOTORHOME