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Outback Roadtrip – Driving the Red Centre

by | Jan 24, 2017 | Australia, Drive | 0 comments

We left the outback the same way we came in, along the hot, flat road that stretches from Port Augusta in South Australia 1,761 miles to Darwin on the North coast.  After seven days of driving through the red centre, we’d expected these last few hours to be tedious at best.  But the outback had other ideas.

For a full six hours out of Coober Pedy we found ourselves beneath a canopy of clouds, each one discrete and perfectly formed.  They hovered like weird jellyfish, pressed uniformly flat against an invisible ceiling some way above the car.  The open land, and our journey out of the outback, transformed into one last thing for us to wonder over.

Maybe it’s childish, to marvel at clouds out of a car window.  But if our outback roadtrip inspired anything in us, it was the most basic sense of adventure and intrigue.  The kind that comes with filling your car with dozens of cereal bars and litre upon litre of water in case you break down with nothing but bush for miles in any direction.  When you measure the road out in petrol stations and carry a jerry can.  Where you drive for two days to watch a big rock change colour at sunset and consider it time well spent.

When we first calculated the hours upon hours it would take us to drive to Uluru, we nearly baulked at the idea of it.  We loved the thought of an outback roadtrip.  But we worried that distance would make the landscape dull and that the return journey would be a wasted two days.

We needn’t have done.

On our very first day of driving, we experienced torrential rain.  Moody, changing skies.  A bright, golden sunset over the opal mines of Coober Pedy.  We slept in an underground hotel, where the cool ground negated any need for air-conditioning, and ate kangaroo steaks for tea.

Yes, it was a long drive.  The road trains were intimidating (some are nearly 55m long!) and every time we stopped to take a photo was like stepping out into an oven. But we were already realising that journeying into the outback, mile by mile, was turning our trip to Uluru and Kata Tjuta into a kind of pilgrimage.  Which was apt, considering that these are two of the most sacred sites to traditional owners in all Australia.

There were none of the dramatic changes in scenery that usually make us fall in love with a road trip.  No lofty mountain peaks or glacier fed waters, though there were some extraordinary salt lakes.

Instead we watched for subtle changes in the bush; scrub giving way to trees giving way to the vibrant red earth.  We looked out for eagles and emus and giant, sunbathing lizards.  As the sky rolled threateningly above us, we discussed every small thing which caught our eye.  We named the tiny yellow and green budgies that flitted past our windscreen ‘outback fairies’ and talked about all the other creatures that were hidden from our sight, waiting somewhere for the hot sun to set.


By the time we saw Uluru in the distance, we had been driving for two days straight.  We were so used to the enveloping flatness of the outback that it was almost a shock to see it!

It was late afternoon, but we still had time to visit the cultural centre before driving to the sunset view point.  Learning about the spiritual significance of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to their traditional owners was a really important part of the visit for us.  It made me really upset to find out that people still climb Uluru.  This is despite repeated requests from the Anangu traditional owners not to do so.

Sunset itself was a magical moment.  After all, we’d travelled a long way to see it!

The next morning we woke up before dawn to watch the sunrise.  Not quite as magnificent as sunset, but beautiful in it’s own quiet way.

We spent two nights camping at the Ayer’s Rock Resort, so got to experience sunrise and sunset twice.  On the second night, we followed ytravelblog’s advice and headed to the sunrise viewing platform for a silhouette view.

Kata Tjuta

Our only full day at Uluru-Kata Tjuta was spent completing the Valley of the Winds hike.  This beautiful trail winds through Kata Tjuta and takes in a couple of lovely view points.  We completed the full circuit, which at 7.4km took us about two hours.

The trail is often closed after 11am because of the heat.  With everyone setting off early this hike was a little too crowded for my liking.  It’s worth it though, with the striking colour of the rocks popping against the blue sky. There’s also a surprising amount of shade and vegetation.  A stream flows through part of the trail, and in the peaceful gloom it’s easy to see why this place is considered sacred.

Alice Springs

The final destination on our outback roadtrip was Alice Springs.  I’d been intrigued by Alice ever since speaking to a colleague about her time living and working there a few years ago.  It didn’t seem like the obvious place for a backpacker to settle down. But she’d said that it had given her a completely different perspective on Australia and that she’d loved it.  We only had a couple of days to explore, but I was really hoping to see something of what she’d experienced.

With such a limited time frame and with the sun beating down, we decided to head to the Desert Park.  Most readily described as a wildlife park, Desert Park is really much more than that.  There is a nocturnal house, where bilbies, quolls and other animals skip about in the shadows.  There are several walk-through aviaries and daily activities to help truly immerse visitors in the outback. 

Desert Park also has opportunities to learn about the bush and traditional culture from aboriginal guides.

Of all of the activities on our outback roadtrip, visiting Desert Park was one of the best.  The nocturnal house in particular was truly impressive.  We didn’t get to do all the activities we’d hoped to, though, and I wish we could have visited twice.

The rest of our short time in Alice was great.  We stayed in a converted American school bus and tried out the local cafes.  A couple of days wasn’t enough to really explore, but it’s definitely somewhere we’d like to go back to one day.

Driving out of the outback was a slow unravelling of ourselves, from the heat and the dust and those huge expanses of sky.  Our cozy Airbnb outside Adelaide was a world away from the peculiar clouds we’d driven under to get there.  It felt very strange to curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea and Netflix on demand!

With our outback roadtrip over, we’re busy getting ready for the Overland Track through Tasmania next week.  We’ve bought snake bite bandages and are in the middle of a huge batch of laundry in preparation.  Wish us luck – I think we’ll need it!

Have you completed an outback roadtrip? We’d love to hear about it!

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