I was travelling in the Outback for two weeks from Cairns to Adelaide. However, I know that not everybody has the time to spend two weeks in this breathtaking landscape. The most important parts with more tourist attractions are definitely reachable from Alice Springs. I know that some people fly to Alice Springs to get an Outback feeling. In this post, I want to give you more details on what to do around Alice Springs and in Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park. I highly recommend to rent a car in Alice Springs and do the tour on your own. First of all, it is way cheaper than with a tour and second of all, you are more independent and stay longer in a place which you like. If you have to rent a car, check out the conditions and try to get a 4 WD car to explore the MacDonnell Ranges and get a better Outback feeling.
From my Outback itinerary for two weeks this area Alice Springs, MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park where Day 5 to Day 10. Read the full Outback itinerary here. Therefore, I would recommend to plan at least 7 days or more for your little Outback experience. My recommended trip for 6 days is shown in the map below:
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After arriving in Alice Springs by car or by plane, get to know the city a little better and explore some of the places in the city depending on how much time you have. Where to stay and what to do in Alice Springs, read Day 5 in my complete itinerary: http://sharejourneys.net/2017/07/12/outback-itinerary-australia-from-cairns-to-adelaide-in-2-weeks/6/
Day-trip from Alice Springs to the East MacDonnell Ranges. Depending on how many attractions and the length of your planned walks here, you will need the whole day to visit East MacDonnell Ranges.
What a beautiful piece of land and very remote! As the East MacDonnell Ranges are going away from Uluru it isn’t as much visited as the West MacDonnell Ranges but for sure at least as beautiful! If you prefer to be alone in a whole National Park and don’t want to see anybody except for your driving company, you are perfectly right at East MacDonnell Ranges! During the whole day, we visited the sites there, we just saw one single car on our way back to Alice Springs! Therefore, please be back to Alice Springs before dusk and tell somebody in advance that you are going to visit East MacDonnell Ranges that day.
Rock Painting Emily Gap
Emily Gap: A gap in the rock formations along the road with a waterhole after heavy rain. We couldn’t go swimming there but even dry it is fascinating! With Aboriginal rock paintings representing animals from the caterpillar trail associated with the story of the Aboriginal dreaming. During rainy season with heavy rain, it isn’t possible to excess the paintings.
- Jessie Gap: Another gap with an Emu Aboriginal rock painting which is easy to access in dry season.
- Corroboree Rock: A sacred place for Aborigines as the different tribes met at this rock to change their stories and knowledge. There is a 15-min walk around the rock with explanation along the way. If you are lucky you could see a big reptile which could get up to 2,5 meters!!! They state that you shouldn’t be scared as the reptile won’t hurt you or anything. However, I was happy that I didn’t encounter one. ^^ Please don’t climb the rocks as for the Aboriginal people those rocks are like a church for other religions. And who would climb the altar?
- Trephina Gorge Nature Park: unsealed road easily accessible until the T-section where you either can follow the path towards John Hayes Rockhole or Trephina Gorge. Along the way easily accessible is the largest Ghost Gum Tree in the East MacDonnell Ranges which is about 300 years old.
- John Hayes Rockhole is just accessible with a good and high 4WD! We went with our 4WD and it was alright. However, in case you aren’t an experiences 4WD driver, I wouldn’t recommend that route.
- Trephina Gorge: Beautiful gorge with two possible walks to explore it:
- Rim Walk which took me about 30 min return including stopping and taking pictures along the rim of the canyon and returning below on the riverbed (have a look before you leave if you can return there or if the gorge is full of water!). You also will encounter some waterholes along the way in the rocks where you could go swimming, so bring your bathing suite.
- Easy River Bed Walk for 20 min return
- It is also possible to visit the ghost town Arltunga or the Aboriginal site N’Dhala Gorge with rock paintings. However, you will need good driving skills and a high 4WD. For our car, the roads were too sandy and we could get stuck in the sand easily…so we decided to head back towards Alice Springs before we have to walk back to get some help. ^^ I would have loved to visit Arltunga as it was the first real settlement in Central Australia due to a gold rush. But as I usually say: “You always should leave something to come back for another visit.” ^^
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Drive from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon via West MacDonnell Ranges and Mereenie Loop Road in a 4WD car. Most of the attractions in the West MacDonnell Ranges are just accessible by a 4WD car. Also, the Mereenie Loop Road is just recommended for 4WD cars. For more information on Mereenie Loop Road and the accommodation in Kings Canyon National Park, read my itinerary Day 7: http://sharejourneys.net/2017/07/12/outback-itinerary-australia-from-cairns-to-adelaide-in-2-weeks/8/
West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja)
As we already did a day-trip to East MacDonnell Ranges the day before, we knew what we could expect of the water level in the gorges and waterholes. However, our expectations were even exceeded by the beauty of the stunning places of West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja). I highly recommend to leave early that day and take your time bathing and relaxing in the waterholes. As this area of the Outback is pretty famous, you will find along the way a sign “Red Centre Way” with a map of the main attractions along the way.
- Simpsons Gap (Rungutjirpa): A gap in the rock formation with beautiful reflections of the cliffs in the water; rock-wallabies jumping around the rocks and playing with each other – soooo cute!!!
- Standley Chasm: privately owned, cost 15 $ per adult. It is a place of the Dreaming as it is a gap between the rocks due to a crack and river flowing through over years and years. You will find interpretive signs about the flora and fauna and the Chasm itself including a Dreaming story.
- Ellery Creek Big Hole (Udepata): We got various recommendations from different people to go to Ellery Creek Big Hole, to swim in the cool water and enjoy the peaceful nature and the surrounding cliffs. When we arrived and swam there, it was even more beautiful than expected! I swam all the way to the end of the creek where the water gets too shallow to swim and I was completely alone there just with a lot of birds and their singing echoing from the walls… It isn’t recommended to go cliff jumping because there are big rocks underneath the water which you can’t see! So, please don’t jump from the cliffs as you might hit one of those rocks!
- Serpentine Gorge: We didn’t go to Serpentine Gorge as the road condition was so bad that we were unsure if we would get back without any problems and decided to see one attraction less and enjoy another one for longer which was the case as we took our time to go swimming in Ormiston Gorge.
- Ochre Pits: The Ochre Pits are shining in all kind of colors of the rainbow in the sunshine. Personally, I didn’t know how many different ochre colors exist! It is impressive and I can totally understand better now how Aborigines could paint and color their surroundings now.
Ormiston Gorge: A stunning gorge surrounded by mountains which gives you a spectacular atmosphere and while swimming in this waterhole you will feel like you just entered paradise. I nearly enjoyed swimming in the waterhole of Serpentine Gorge more than in Ellery Creek Big Hole.
- Glen Helen Gorge: Here you can find a bit more infrastructure with a nice restaurant to eat delicious lunch or get a relaxing cup of tea in the afternoon. Moreover, next to fuel your body with energy, you can refill your petrol as well. It is a nice gorge which you can access after following the signs walking along and through the river, reaching a nice waterhole where you can go swimming. There are some people staying at Glen Helen Gorge and continue their trip the next day. I probably would do this as well if I would have more time.
- Redbank Gorge: We didn’t have time to visit Redbank Gorge as well as we still had to drive a couple of hours to get to Kings Canyon that day. I have heard from other travelers that it is worth it to visit Redbank Gorge. There are some people staying at Glen Helen Gorge and continue their trip the next day. I probably would do this as well if I would have more time.
- Larapinta Trail: Larapinta Trail is a walking trek with a distance of 223 km following a path from Alice Springs to Mount Sonder along the West MacDonnell Ranges. In case you prefer walking and it isn’t too hot, I am sure, it is a wonderful trek. However, for those of you who like to enjoy beautiful scenery but can’t imagine walking in the Outback: you will be able to see most of the beautiful spots by car as well.
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Days 4, 5 and 6
As you probably got up early to do the Kings Canyon trekking, you still have enough time to drive from Kings Canyon (Watarraka National Park) to Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park (Ayers Rock and the Olgas) on day 4 during your trip which marks already half-time of the little Outback experience! For more information where to stay around Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park, read my complete Outback itinerary on Day 8, 9 and 10: http://sharejourneys.net/2017/07/12/outback-itinerary-australia-from-cairns-to-adelaide-in-2-weeks/9/
Main attractions Kings Canyon (Watarraka) National Park:
- Rim Walk: Track closes at 9 am on days where at least 36°C are expected. It is a 6 km loop including the South Wall Walk and takes about 3,5 hours. The best time to go on the Rim Walk is just before sunrise, so that you can relax on top of the rim, watch the sun rising and how the surrounding canyon stones start to “wake up”, light up and to glow in the morning sun. What an unforgettable experience! This track is for fit, experienced hikers at it starts with a steep climb up to the rim but once you are up there, it is an easier walk with amazing views of the canyon, the flat surroundings and the cliffs. Along the way, you will find explanation signs for the stones geology, how the stones were once at sea level and about the vegetation. You will have the opportunity to go further out to stunning lookouts, you will pass by eroded domes which by the Dreaming shall be warriors and therefore it is the “Lost City”. Half-way you will enjoy the cold shadows of “Garden of Eden” down in the canyon where you can have a break at the water.
- South Wall Return Walk: Track closes at 11 am on days of at least 36°C; 4,8 km return which is trekking about 2 hours return. In case you don’t have so much time, or don’t want to walk the whole Rim walk, you should do at least the South Wall Return Walk. However, I preferred the first part than the South Wall Walk…it could be as well, as the sun was already higher and the stones looked all the same after a while…you still will have the possibility to see a great view of the Northern wall of Kings Canyon and a great view of the landscape though!
- Kings Creek Walk: 1,5 km, 45 min return. On the River Bed Walk you don’t have the stunning views from above the canyon but it is easier for people who can’t walk so much anymore.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park
Park Entry: 3-day pass 25$ per adult; annual 32 $ per adult; NT residents annual 65 $ per vehicle; entrance ticket available at park gate including a brochure of the park with the main information about the walks and viewing points; Open daily:
- Dec, Jan, Feb 5 am – 9 pm
- March 5:30 am – 8:30 pm
- April 5:30 am – 8 pm
- May 6 am – 7:30 pm
- June, July 6:30 am – 7:30 pm
- Aug 6 am – 7:30 pm
- Sept 5:30 am – 7:30 pm
- Oct 5 am – 8 pm
- Nov 5 am – 8:30 pm
What a magical place! If you don’t believe in God or another higher creature, you might start to overthink your opinion here in this sacred place! Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park is a World Heritage Area where the traditional owner Anangu people and the Australian federal government work together to protect this special place and open it to the public. I loved to be able to experience this magical place, however, I am unsure if it was right to go there considering Anungu people and their believes. I think it should be theirs to live in and not to just be looked at and taken photos of…Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park offers everything for Anungu people to live in for about 22.000 years and in the last 40 years they can’t live there anymore because the white man claimed it to look at it?!
At Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and its surroundings you will have the opportunity at night to see a clear sky full of stars and you can see a lot of shooting stars. As I learned at the free tour of the astronomer at Astro Hub, shooting stars are often just as big as a rice corn scratching the atmosphere of our earth. Impressive what an impact an object of the size of a rice corn can have! Imagine what you and I could produce then!!! However, while I was there, it was time of the full moon, so the stars where not as perfect to see as other days, but I was lucky enough that one night the full moon rose just next to Uluru in a dark orange color. A very special and spiritual moment. The following day it was just in front of us for our 100-km driving towards Curtain Springs. Stunning as well!
Use the time to explore Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park from the opening hour (details opening hours see above) just before sunrise till about 14 pm. Then it gets way too hot during summer, so relax at the swimming pool in the resort, read a great book or plan your further trip. In the evening cook your dinner and bring it along back into the national park and eat it while enjoying the stunning sunsets at Uluru or Kata Tjuta!
You will need your mosquito net in most areas of the park, as the flies can become pretty annoying flying directly into your ears, nose or eyes! So, just buy yourself one before entering the national park (best spot at Alice Springs as it is cheaper).
FREE activities in Yulara or Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park:
The information center at the town square of Yulara offers great information! Pick up the sheet for FREE activities around Yulara Resort and Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park. There are very interesting tours for FREE! Otherwise, you can pay a lot of money for very touristy tours! At the information center is also FREE WIFI.
- Wintjiri Arts & Museum: open daily 8:30 am – 5 pm; Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian artists get a display for a month at a time to exhibit and sell their beautiful art in this museum.
- Capturing the Cosmos: at Wintjiri Arts & Museum, daily 2 pm – 3 pm; A very informative movie “Capturing the Cosmos” from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO). As I am very interested in astronomy, I loved the documentary about the research on dark energy and the latest technology to explore it used in Australia. Afterwards you can ask all your upcoming questions to a resident astronomer. What a blast!
- Ecology & Museum Tour: at Wintjiri Arts & Museum, daily 3 pm – 4 pm; An Aboriginal guide will narrate native stories about the surrounding Anangu land, Aboriginal culture and the unique fauna and animals of Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park. Great stories and informative to see the surrounding nature from another point of view.
- Mala Walk, daily 8 am during summer or 10 am during winter departing from Mala Car Park; 2 km return, 1,5 hours. A spectacular 2-hour FREE guided tour of an Aboriginal guide walking along the Mala Walk narrating the historical stories of Mala people, showing the meanings of Aboriginal Rock Art and explaining the struggle of Aboriginal people in the surrounding. It is eye-opening and if you haven’t already, you will start to think about it at least from this point on, if the Western culture and school system is the best for everybody…or if we just should leave some cultures do their best by not interfering…we destroy our world and nature every minute, for Aboriginal people their land is holy and they care so much about it! They do everything for it and if we wouldn’t interfere it would stay in the same beauty as we have found it 100 years ago…however, the way it is now, will it still last for our grandchildren to see?
- Kitchen cave with the areas where the Aboriginal people graded the bread; sharpened their spears
- Aboriginal teaching cave with Rock paintings of many generations explaining the young boys the surrounding land, where to find animals, the different animal tracks and plants
- Problem of Aboriginal workers at Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park: just 7 Aboriginal workers out of 30 in the National Park – as they often can’t write because they didn’t learn it at school or don’t have the necessary “proper” degree to be employed by the government
- Just 40/50 years ago the transformation started that Aboriginal people around Uluru couldn’t be hunter and gatherer anymore. It is a slow process for them to change, a big problem is the language barrier as well and the conflict between their own culture and the Western style of living – where to choose from and what is best for themselves?!
- Culture Center; in Uluru-Kata Tjuta-National Park near Uluru; open daily 7 am – 6 pm; the Culture Center is a great opportunity to learn more about Aboriginal struggle while watching the movie at the center. It shows how everything started some years ago and it presents some crazy habits of white people as well – they often don’t experience a place…they just come, take a picture and leave again…the documentary is placed some years ago when the main focus of Uluru was climbing it and then leave again. They look like little ants climbing up and down the very steep and dangerous paths of Uluru. Why don’t we (I do the same sometimes, I know that!) take our time to meet the local people and understand their culture? I try to do that but sometimes especially language barriers keep me away from it…However, we all should respect each other, protect our nature, our planet earth and live peacefully together.
- The whole Culture Center is a place where you can listen, read, learn and understand. So please respect Anungu culture and don’t take photos. Take everything in and just remember this special place! The Anungu learn from stories, so why don’t we try to do the same?!
Other FREE possibilities, I didn’t do:
- Climbing Uluru: It is a big question of climbing the rock. The Aboriginal people are against it because it is a sacred place to them and would you climb an altar in a church? The Australian Park authorities are against it because by now already 36 people died due to the attempt to climb Uluru. So why risk your life for it? If so many people are against it, there are reasons for it and I think you should respect it and not climb Uluru.
- Dot painting course: at Yulara Town Square. Unfortunately, it didn’t take place in February while I visited due to extreme heat. Next time, I am back, I really would like to learn it.
Around Uluru (Ayers Rock)
Uluru, the big rock in the middle of nowhere, the flat outback where nothing is around and then this immense red-brown rock rises up to the sky! It is magical, so you should try to experience it, listen to its story and understand the culture of Anangu instead of just taking a picture with it….there are several sensitive sites which aren’t allowed to be photographed anyway. They are sacred places in Anangu culture and they don’t want to disgrace those places by having photos everywhere. When you get handed out a map those places are surrounded by black spots.
Start your day with an impressive sunrise at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku Viewing area, see how Uluru awakens in the morning sun, how it gets alive in its bright orange!
Then eat your breakfast at the picnic area here and with your stomach filled head over to Mala carpark for the guided 2-hour Mala Walk (see above). Afterwards you can continue to do the Base Walk all around Uluru for 10,6 km, 3-5 hours. You will have drinking water taps along the way. The Base Walk was a long walk around Uluru where not so much of the surroundings changed and in the heat, it got rough. Therefore, the Base Walk gets closed in the North at 11 am and in the South at 14 pm. If I would have to choose between the Base Walk and Valley of the Winds Walk at Kata Tjuta, I would always choose Kata Tjuta and just do the shorter walks at Uluru like:
- Mala Walk (preferred as FREE 2-hour guided tour with Aboriginal guide, see above)
- Kuniya Walk: 1 km return, 30 mins return. You will get to know the story of the powerful snake woman Kuniya and her nephew. You can also visit a family cave where an Anunga family lived for thousands of years and their rock paintings and at the end of the short walk you will arrive at a holy waterhole where a rainbow serpent is supposed to live in.
Best sunset point for watching the sunset at Uluru is Uluru Sunset Viewing Area.
Around Kata Tjuta (Round heads, the Olgas)
While I visited Kata Tjuta for the first time, there was a big thunder storm going on. One of the closest lightnings I have ever experienced went down just in front of us next to Kata Tjuta! The incredible loud noise still shattered in my ear some minutes later! Nature is just incredible and shows you how small you are as a human being – especially here at Uluru – Kata Tjuta-National Park!
Before heading off to Valley of the Winds Walk, enjoy the sunrise from Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing. From here you can see the majestic Kata Tjuta and in the far background Uluru as a silhouette as well. Amazing sunrise, however I preferred the sunrise and sunset at Uluru as it is calmer, and provoked more peace within me. After the beautiful sunrise, get to the Sunset Viewing point to eat your breakfast and for a last chance of a toilet before heading off for your walks at Kata Tjuta.
Bring your mosquito net, proper shoes and a lot of water. Otherwise, you can’t enjoy the walk with flies trying to get into your ears, nose and eyes…there are drinking water taps to fill up your bottle along the way as well.
- Valley of the Winds Walk: long walk of 7,4 km, walking about 4 hours for the full circuit. The full circuit closes at Karu Lookout at 11 am if the weather preview shows a temperature of at least 36°C that day or due to strong wind or rain. However, the walking track to Karu Lookout (2,2 km return, 1 hour) is open throughout the day in case it isn’t raining. The terrain is rough, has a lot of loose stones and you shouldn’t underestimate the wind and weather conditions. Especially in the summer heat the track from Karingana Lookout back to Karu Lookout anti-clockwise can be pretty long but stunning surroundings at the same time! We agreed that we preferred the Valley of the Winds walk to the Base Walk around Uluru. It has stunning lookouts, it differs in the nature around you, you climb up some parts of Kata Tjuta and walk the stone paths back down, through beautiful valley paths there are wild animals all around you! If you are as lucky as my travel mate, you will be “nearly jumped over” by a big red kangaroo which inhabits that area. Impressive animals! Touch the special grass which just grows in the stone area of Kata Tjuta or build a stone pile along the way to protect that path and all the following traveler after you! I build one just before Karingana Lookout anti-clockwise of the circuit on the left-hand side with a small stone shoe on top, so that all the travelers are kept safe along the path. ☺ Enjoy your walk and listen to the nature. My travel mate did the walk while listening to music. I listened to the wind blowing in the trees, the valley, the stones and grass, the different birds, the grass hoppers and all the other animals around me. Nature is never quiet but tells you a story of its long history! Listen and you can learn.
- You can follow the circuit clockwise or anti-clockwise. Just follow the blue arrows along the very well-marked path. I decided on the anti-clockwise circuit because the first path is more difficult and I wanted to be full of strength for the climbing up and down those rocks.
- Walpa Gorge Walk: short walk of 2,6 km return, walking about 1 hour. Nice walk through a gorge. I wouldn’t recommend to walk there while it is raining as the stones can be very slippery and the water rises high. Difficult for you to walk around. A beautiful view from inside the gorge in direction back to the car park. Bring your mosquito net and proper shoes!After the Walpa Gorge walk, you can enjoy the sunset at Sunset Viewing Kata Tjuta where you also can enjoy your dinner with a breathtaking background! Watch, listen to the nature and enjoy! However, be aware of the flies and ants! Bring your mosquito net and proper shoes. Otherwise, you can’t enjoy the sunset with flies trying to get into your ear, nose and eyes or ants biting you in your feet and legs…
Drive yourself back to Alice Springs and if you still have time before your plane is going out of the Outback, enjoy the rest of the city which you haven’t seen on your first day (recommendations Day 1).
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