6 Incredible Things To Do In Central Australia After You’ve Seen Uluru
Uluru is the undisputed icon of the red centre, and for good reason. Nothing compares to the full 10km walk around the base of the rock – it’s the only way to truly appreciate its enormity, both in size (duh) and significance to the Anangu people who have built their lives around this sacred place for tens of thousands of years.
But beyond Uluru and its many-headed sibling, Kata Tjuta, there are many unexpected wonders to explore here. The rich, ancient landscape is a paradise for adventurers – often under-appreciated by your typical Central Australian traveller.
From rugged mountain treks to unforgettable gorge swims, this is one epic natural playground. Here are six things to do in Central Australia after you’ve seen Uluru.
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Go Gorge-Hopping And Swim In The Oldest River In The World
Water isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the red centre, but the Macdonnell Ranges are home to some magnificent, untouched swimming holes. Wherever you take a dip, you’ll likely be swimming in the Finke River, which is said to be the oldest in the world, having kept the same path for 100 million years. The river now exists as a series of waterholes, reconnecting only if there’s a major flood.
There are three highlights that can be done in one day:
Ormiston Gorge has some of the warmest water in the ranges and is a magical spot for a swim. Dive in from the sandy bank and float down into the gorge, looking up at the lush trees and rocky cliffs as you go. If you’re up for it, find a deep section and a good rock to jump off. If you have time, the Pound Walk is one of the best in the area.
Glen Helen Gorge is a beautiful gap in the ranges where the Finke sneaks through. There’s a pretty good campsite here too, if you like waking up next to spectacular rock faces and magnificent waterways. They also do breakfast, lunch, dinner and surprisingly cheap beers.
Ellery Creek Big Hole takes the prize for best name, and also for the coldest water. It’s well worth taking the plunge – swim all the way to the other side and keep following the stones of the riverbank. You’ll find yourself in a bonafide bush oasis, surrounded by mountains.
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Hike Among Ancient Domes At Kings Canyon
Uluru isn’t the only impressive rock structure in Central Australia. Drive a few hours north and you’ll find Watarrka National Park, home to the ancient beauty of Kings Canyon traditionally owned by the Luritja Aboriginal people. As the name implies, it’s a majestic geological wonderland.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to see the canyon – you avoid the heat of the day and get to watch the dramatic colour-drenched show as the sun rises and sets. If you stay at the campground, the staff wheel out a drinks trolley at sunset so you can sit and watch the landscape change with a cold frothy in hand (you’ve earned it).
Get up early – yes, pre-dawn early – and charge your way up the 500 steps to the top of the canyon. Watch the sun rise over the kingdom, then take on the rest of the 6km Rim Walk. Explore the sheer cliffs and vast rocky plains, then wander among hundreds of sandstone domes that look like enormous beehives. It’s probably the closest thing you’ll get to walking on Mars.
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Drive Through The Red Desert On The Mereenie Loop
You don’t go to the centre of Australia to stick to the sealed highway. Hire a 4WD and get out to the Mereenie Loop – one of the most spectacular drives in the country, linking Kings Canyon and the West Macdonnell Ranges.
For 197km of corrugated road, this is the real outback – but it’s not all just red dirt. The Loop passes through fields of peculiar desert flowers and rolling hills striped with layers of shrubs and undergrowth. It’s a bumpy ride with some serious dips (which is half the fun) and there’s plenty to take in – keep an eye out for brumbies, dingoes, wild camels and eagles on the way.
Take time to stop and get out of the car – driving through this unique landscape is one thing, but putting your feet on the dirt and staring out into the immense desert is another entirely.
The Mereenie Loop Road passes through Aboriginal-owned lands, and you will need to purchase a permit (less than $5AUD).
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Take A Hike Into The Middle Of Nowhere
Like your hikes to be challenging, spectacular and rugged as hell? Say hello to the Larapinta Trail. At 223km (12-20 days, end-to-end), it’s a veritable beast.
But don’t be scared off – there are plenty of options for day walks and overnight sections. If you’ve got one day, try Mt Sonder (Rwetyepme) at the western end of the ranges. It’s a six-hour return walk that takes you up the fourth highest mountain in the Northern Territory, with insane views across the West Macdonnell Ranges.
Want a bigger challenge? Tackle the overnight hike from Standley Chasm to Brinkley Bluff – spending the night at one of the most spectacular campsites you could dream of. After a tough 10km walk across bush gullies, rocky valleys and rugged peaks, you’ll clamber up to the top of the Bluff where you can pitch your tent. Your reward: 360-degree views of the sun setting over the ranges, with the sky changing hues long after it’s below the horizon. It’s unlikely that you’ll see anyone else on your entire hike, so if you’re looking for solitude and a serious change of perspective – this is your ticket.
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Play Inside The Real-Life Labyrinth Of Redbank Gorge
Whether you climb Mt Sonder or not, don’t miss the magical experience at its base: Redbank Gorge. In the shade of the mountain lies one of mother nature’s sweetest playgrounds: a waterhole wedged between red rocky mountains, leading to a mysterious chasm. And yes, you can swim into that chasm.
Through the first gap in the rocks, you’ll find a series of caves connected by deep pools of water, with the blue sky still soaring above the sheer rock walls. If you’re up for a bit of a scramble, you can keep venturing deeper into the gorge where it gets darker and the water gets colder. Find your favourite pool and float there in your own secret spa, surrounded by sky-high ancient rocks.
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Slow Down And Enjoy ‘Outback Time’ In Alice Springs
When you need a break from all that rugged beauty – read: you need a shower, a bed and a burrito – spend a couple of days in Alice. The classic Outback town runs at its own charming pace, where life is dictated by the heat of the sun and naps are certainly encouraged.
Spend a lazy afternoon taking in the local art galleries, and if you’re looking to buy, opt to support Aboriginal-owned organisations like Tangentyere. Just don’t get excited about a refreshing dip in the Todd River afterwards – it’s dry for 95 per cent of the year.
I was serious about that burrito, though. You can build your own Mexican dream feast at Loco Burrito – their food is so insanely fresh and tasty, you’ll need to schedule at least two visits. While you’re treating your tastebuds, be sure to hunt down ‘The Bakery’: a pop-up that serves locally sourced, organic stoneground baked goods. Their pies are worth climbing mountains for – which you’ve done, right? Treat yourself.
If you want a night out, Epilogue Lounge does tapas, live music and parties with local DJs. For a unique farewell to the Central Australian desert, you can take a sunset camel ride just outside Alice Springs.
(All images: Author’s own)