Outback Australia Road Trip – Part 2 – Port Augusta to Uluru (Full Article)

There is no shortage of great outback adventures in Australia. To get a good taste of the outback, without needing a four-wheel drive, the trip from Port Augusta via Uluru and Alice Springs, all the way to Darwin, is an unforgettable experience through the heart of the red continent.

This is Part 2 of the road trip and and covers the route from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy and the sites around Uluru, and via Watarrka to Alice Springs. Part 1 of the route (See the  LINK) can be also be found under articles in the menu bar, and describes a route from Sydney via Wagga Wagga, Canberra, and Burra to Port Augusta. Part 3 of this road trip will describes the route from Alice Springs to Darwin, and will be published soon.

The Arid Lands Botanical Gardens at Port Augusta (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Port Augusta is where the the real outback adventure of this road trip starts. Make sure to fuel up when you hit the road. When you start heading north after Port Augusta you are on the Stuart Highway and you will soon see signs to the Arid Lands Botanical Gardens. This is on a right turn just off the Stuart Highway.

Desert and lake views on the way to Woomera (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Desert and lake views on the way to Woomera (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Continue on the Stuart Highway to Pimba and Woomera. There are lots of kangaroos on this stretch, so be careful. There are various places along the road where you can camp. Via Stuart Highway you continue towards Glendambo.

This is a lonely road and make sure that you have plenty of petrol, and even a spare jerry can of petrol if possible. Along the road there are some fine viewpoints to various lakes, including Lake Hart, Island Lagoon and Lake Gairdner. Depending on when you pass, their appearance is from afar like a white mirroring salt plain. Now you will be driving on a section through the Woomera Restricted Area. This used to be a restricted Australian Defense Force facility for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). I prefer the name that the local apparently give to the place, the Woomera Rocket Range.

Taking a rest stop along Stuart Highway (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Taking a rest stop along Stuart Highway (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

By the time you get to Coober Pedy you will be about 846 kilometers north of Adelaide. You suddenly start to encounter the moon-like landscape dotted with small mounts of spoil from mining opals. The population of Coober Pedy is about 2,000 with over 20 per cent Aboriginals. The name Coober Pedy comes from the Aboriginal term ‘kupa-piti’, meaning ‘white man’s hole’. Cooper Pedy is called the ‘opal capitol of the world’ as it has some of the best quality opals.

The miners and their families face the scorching heat to go about their business here, and have created with mining equipment many below-ground dugouts as their residences, It is possible to visit some residences and even an underground church. The town and its hinterland have gathered a solid movie reputation, featuring in films such as Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Until the End of the World; and Pitch Black. One local Aboriginal we spoke to proudly introduced himself as a former Queen of the Desert actor.

The mining landscape around Coober Pedy (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
The mining landscape around Coober Pedy (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

After Coober Pedy  you pass long stretches of desolate outback land and you will add up some big kilometers driving. The road continues to Marla where there used to be an old bore. It is again good to fuel up at Marla. The cost of petrol just keeps going up the closer you get to Yulara. Logically, leaving Yulara later on to drive up north, the cost of petrol will again go down.

Another feature along the road in these remote areas are the road trains. These are of the largest and heaviest vehicles in the world. You will see road trains made of a truck pulling three to four trailers, referred to as triples and quads. The largest operate in the Western Northern territories and are the power trains, consisting of the main truck plus another six trailers. These however only operate on private property of mining companies.

Undergound living in Coober Pedy (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Undergound living in Coober Pedy (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

From Marla drive north to Kulgera, just over the Northern Territory border, and to Erldunda. In Erldunda the Lasseter Highway starts and heads east towards Yulara. On the drive to Yulara on the Lasseter Highway, make sure to look out for Mt. Conner to your left. If you think this is a large rock, wait until you see Uluru. Lots of tourists mistakenly believe this is Uluru when they first see it. Our party ran at the Mt. Conner viewpoint into a guy from Hong Kong called Jacob who had so far cycled in twenty-eight days from Perth to here. An odyssey he himself called absolutely nuts. He told of going insane cycling through the zillions of flies near Coober Pedy. He said he ended up cycling about 200 kilometers a day on the stretch south of Kulgera to just get out of there as soon as possible.

Long desolate stretches along the Stuart Highway (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Long desolate stretches along the Stuart Highway (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

About eighty kilometers before Yulara, at Curtin Springs, there is the last free camp ground before Uluru. At Curtin Springs there is a shop and petrol and for a few dollars you can take a shower. Powered sites are also available at a small cost. A fairly tame emu has made the petrol station its residential home. One morning I got freaked out by this emu as I walked out of the toilet block and got chased. I tend to always get chased by the wrong creatures. You are warned.

Curtin Spring's residential Emu (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Curtin Spring’s residential Emu (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Curtin Springs can be a good base for a day trip to Uluru and Kata Tjuta, if you do not mind getting up extra early. Keep in mind that driving in darkness is never ideal in kangaroo country. We narrowly escaped a collision with some wild horses crossing the road to King’s Canyon in darkness. There are various other accommodation options in Yulura, the main tourist hub for Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

Next up are some of the finest wonders of this earth, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, officially declared asa UNESCO World Heritage site. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park opens its gates at six in the morning. Vehicles queue up at the gate to get in early and see the sunrise over Uluru. A must. After the sunrise people start to explore other sites.

Sunrise at Uluru (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Sunrise at Uluru (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Uluru, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Uluru, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Stunning is the walk all the way around Uluru and passed many Aboriginal sacred places and rock art sites. Visitors are asked not to climb Uluru in respect of the Aboriginal believes and values. Guided tours conducted by park rangers can be taken at Uluru and will give valuable explanations.

Uluru Rock Art, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012)
Uluru Rock Art, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012)

The visitor centre provides more interpretative details and was constructed using natural materials that blend in well with the landscape. While it is a most sacred place for the Aboriginals, it is tourists that crowed the site. The experience of visiting the park also reminds of visiting major US National Parks, where you also often visit a National Park by driving around some scenic roads, and explore various features from satellite car parks. One result of that is that the motorized tourist industry has taken over the landscape with busloads of tourists crowding the main features, and a high level of urban style road infrastructures up close to the sacred places.

Sunset at Kata Tjuta, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Sunset at Kata Tjuta, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

A definite must-see in the park is Kata Tjuta, or the Olga’s. At Kata Tjuta there are a series of rock mounts and their appearance is for many even more impressive then Uluru. A stunning walk is certainly the one through the Valley of the Winds.

The Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
The Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Visitors to the park often also take in the sunset at Uluru but very worthwhile is also to stay at Kata Tjuta one evening for the sunset. The standard day pass is valid for three consecutive days, which makes it possible to see a variety of sunsets and sunrises and explore diverse trails, depending on your schedule.

To continue to Alice Springs from Yulara you can either go back via Erdlunda and take the Stuart Highway north to Alice Springs or alternatively drive via Watarrka National Park (King’s Canyon) and the dirt road that connects to the West MacDonnel Ranges National Park, and from there to Alice Springs. For this last option you require a four-wheel drive for the stretch between King’s Canyon and the MacDonnel Ranges National Park. If you do not have a four-wheel drive it still is more than worthwhile to make the 360 kilometers return journey from the Lasseter Highway up to Watarrka National Park and return via Erldunda to Alice Springs.

Watarrka National Park (King’s Canyon)offers another fabulous addition to the varieties of geological sights of this region. A short path leads you into the canyon but more rewarding is the Rim Walk loop around the ridge of the canyon. If you take about four hours you will be able to enjoy the diverse geological formations that keep popping up around each corner, and also be able to take a cooling plunge in the pool at the Garden of Eden.

A view down the canyon from the ridge at Watarrka, King's Canyon, National Park, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
A view down the canyon from the ridge at Watarrka, King’s Canyon, National Park, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
King's Creek petrol station near Watarrka (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
King’s Creek petrol station near Watarrka (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Along the road between the Lasseter Highway and King’s Canyon you will pass King’s Creek petrol station. This is a good place for lunch and to fuel up again, as there is no other petrol station between King’s Creek and Erldunda. There used to be another petrol station on Lasseter Highway and many maps still show this.

The Garden of Eden at Watarrka, King's Canyon, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
The Garden of Eden at Watarrka, King’s Canyon, Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Make sure you have plenty of petrol to make it to Erldunda. We barely made it back there as we mistakenly had counted on refueling at a petrol station about 60 miles before Erldunda, but it turned out that this petrol station had been closed for some years. Those last miles to Erldunda sure were memorable in a manner that you prefer not to remember. Our smiles on our faces when we arrived at a ten kilometer an hour speed must have caused some new ever-lasting wrinkles. You better do not try to undertake some foolish experiments of this sort out in the outback.

King's Canyon birdlife (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
King’s Canyon birdlife (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

About halfway between the Lasseter Highway from King’s Canyon you will also find a rest area with free camping. This is the stretch of road were we narrowly escaped driving into some wild horses after darkness. It was a adrenaline pumping reminder that you better do not rush on this road after darkness, or best stay off the roads all together after darkness. When you reach Erldunda you are again on theStuart Highway. Fuel up here and continue towards Alice Springs, about 200 kilometers further north.

The Todd Mall at Alice Springs (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Alice Springs or simply ‘Alice’ is a good place to stock up for the next part of your trip, if driving, and get a flavor of life in the largest central outback city. It is called the heart of Australia and is surrounded by desert landscapes with many Aboriginal communities in the vicinity. Alice Springs has also a large Aboriginal community, but sadly, as in Coober Pedy, the Aboriginals you encounter may enhance some too stereotypical views, as many that hang out on the streets appear in less healthy fashions. Particularly alcoholism and petrol sniffing remain problematic within many Aboriginal communities. In cities like Alice Springs, where alcohol is easily accessible, it is therefore not hard to come face to face with this.

Along the Larapinta Trail in the West McDonnell Ranges (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Along the Larapinta Trail in the West McDonnell Ranges (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Darwin and Adelaide are both about 1,500 kilometers away. Alice Springs has an excellent collection of early Twentieth century buildings and a number of interesting museums and tourist attractions. On Sunday’s the Alice Springs Market on Todd Mall is a pleasant place to hang out for some time.

Desert and garden enthusiasts may wish to visit the Alice Springs Desert Park or the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. The Botanic garden is low-key but offers good views over the city from a viewpoint on the adjoining hill. The starrgazing is also top in Alice Springs. With so little light pollution the view of the Milky Way is simply stunning.

From Alice Springs you can explore the MacDonnel Ranges National Park through which the Larapinta Trail runs. There is an East and West section of the park. You can walk straight out of Alice Springs on the Larapinta Trail into the West MacDonnel Ranges. On the trail you will first head north via the historic Telegraph Station and next turn west.

Amongst the kangaroos on the Larapinta Trail, West McDonnell Ranges (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Amongst the kangaroos on the Larapinta Trail, West McDonnell Ranges (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

The first section of about twenty-eight kilometers from Alice Springs takes you to Simpsons Gap. You will see lots of kangaroos on the first part of this section, after which it continues over some mountain ridges with excellent views over the valley. Simpsons Gap offers a great sunset location and you can see wallabies on the rocks at the gap. Some people split this first section up into two days, as there is an option to camp halfway. Make sure to take purification tablets for water or a filter along, as water at this halfway point is untreated. Do follow the guidelines for carrying water as this landscape is extremely harsh. At Simpsons Gap there are good toilet, water and barbeque facilities at the campground. There is also a well-used mountain bike trail from Alice Springs to Simpsons Gap.

Further up the Larapinta Trail the Ellery Creek Big Hole is another scenic destination with popular camping facilities. A swim in the water hole is fabulous, particularly when hiking along the Larapinta Trail. The full Larapinta Trail through the West MacDonnel Ranges is 223 kilometers long and has twelve sections, each taking about one to two days.

Text by Jan Haenraets and Scott A. Heyes. Photographs by Jan Haenraets. 

Jan Haenraets is a Director in Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

Scott A. Heyes
 is Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture
 at the Faculty of Arts and Design of the University of Canberra

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