Come on a journey with us to the Red Centre of Australia…
- Road trippin’ alongside the majestic West MacDonnell Range
- Enjoying the beautiful scenery and wildlife
- Get exercise in the great outdoors
- Swim in and explore wondrous waterholes
Like space, Australia’s Red Centre is big. Really big. Actually, more like mind-bogglingly big. Lucky then it’s not (always) the heat-scorching hellscape some would have you believe. Better yet, there’s loads more to do than the famed threesome Uluru/Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta/The Olgas and Watarrka/Kings Canyon alone. And it even involves swimming.
Now, let’s say you’re hanging out in laid-back Alice Springs. You’re in for a bit of adventure. As it happens, it’s staring you right in the face: the mighty MacDonnell Ranges dominating the skyline of the city. Just outside the city starts West MacDonnell National Park where we’ll be going.
This particular adventure is going to involve road tripping, swimming and quite a bit of hiking. Meaning, you’ll have to prepare accordingly. Your main concerns?
#1 A decent car
Depending on the conditions, time of year, duration and locations you don’t necessarily need a 4WD. Most of the roads are sealed and in normal conditions a 2WD will do just fine – even on the gravel roads. But don’t be silly. Check the weather/conditions before you go.
#2 Proper gear
This mainly depends on how long you’ll go. I did everything within a day. But there are plenty of places to camp. At least bring a proper pair of hiking shoes, swimming gear (river tube included), and photo/film gear.
I’d suggest one of those handy lockboxes too. If only to have a secure option in case you won’t feel comfortable taking the car keys with you. This is a thing if you travel solo. The last thing you want is them ending up on the bottom of a waterhole or stolen.
3# A picnic
Plenty of water and easy-to-carry food is the key here. There are free gas BBQs near the bigger waterholes so you can treat yourself to a good meal. Don’t expect many petrol stations or roadhouses though; the Glen Helen Homestead Lodge (about 2 hours west of Alice Springs) is one of the few in the area. Check out Google/Apple Maps beforehand and shop accordingly.
Ready to go?
Great! Let’s head out west. I did this on a Sunday in March. So there was virtually no traffic and not a tourist in sight. This is great because now you’re not in danger of getting run over by a crazed, selfie-stick wielding horde in a hurry to get to the next tourist trap on the checklist.
First, we’ll be going over Larapinta Drive and then right onto Namatjira Drive. This gives you plenty of time to relax and enjoy both the road and scenery. I must say I found Namatjira Drive to be the most beautiful part of the +/- 330 km (return) road trip.
Along the way, you’ll find quite a few waterholes you can swim in and hike around. Visiting them all may be a bit of stretch. I’d recommend seeing at least Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge and Redbank Gorge.
Of the 3, the first two are the easiest to get to. They even have fine parking, camping (free gas BBQs included) and toilet facilities. When I got there in the morning there were maybe 3 people swimming and maybe 12 or so hanging around the waterside.
The permanent waterhole looks gorgeous and its cool water is very inviting after the long drive. Over time the elements have cut an impressive gorge through the ranges.
Swimming through the gorge for the first time felt quite special. Seeing all the different layers of rock eroded away is a real testament to the impressive force of nature.
The waterhole is pretty large and deep – but not THAT deep. So don’t go diving into the water or your spinal cord will end up being equally impressed by solidness of the rocks hiding underneath.
After your swim (and BBQ – I’m onto you) you might want to go hiking. There are quite a few trails around. You can do the Dolomite Walk, a looped 3 km trail which should take you about 1-1.5 hours. Should you feel more ambitious you can do parts of the famous Larapinta Trail.
Or you can move on to the next waterhole.
Ormiston Gorge is another great stop. As far as desert waterholes go, this one has a real wow-factor to it. It has everything Ellery Creek has in facilities and trails. But this is a must-visit place. I can’t recommend it highly enough, although it will probably be crowded as it’s quite popular.
Last but not least there’s Redbank Gorge. This is the perfect waterhole to go to if you want the place (mostly) to yourself. It’s further away and more difficult to get to. And if it has rained a lot, then I’d really check if you can access it with your vehicle.
From the carpark, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk… but this depends on how well in shape you are. I am, but you’ll have to realise there’s no trail to speak of. It’s best to follow the dried up riverbed. That means walking on loose sand most of the time in what was then +35 degrees Celsius.
For me, this sort of challenge is part of the fun. If you’re there for a quick swim you might want to avoid going to the waterhole and start your next BBQ near the parking area (we’re in the centre of BBQ country after all).
Once you’ve climbed over the last boulders of the dry riverbed you’ll find a pretty deep (and cold) permanent waterhole. There were hardly any people around, which is why you go here. It’s advisable to bring your river tube with you. Especially if you want to explore the narrow gorge.
Exploring the gorge is fun as you have no idea where you’ll end up- but don’t underestimate it and stay safe. As it gets narrower and narrower around you, you feel like you’re entering a different world. You’ll have to clamber up a few levels of slippery rocks to further in you go.
I got as far into the gorge as my schedule would allow. But it was definitely the one that stayed with me the most. If you go in solo like I did, I recommended letting someone (who is reliable) know about your plans. Should anything happen, don’t expect any cell coverage.
Afterwards, (or the next day if you stay camping) you can do a few walks right here, ranging from a 300m viewing walk up to a lengthy Mt Sonder Southern Summit Walk. Depending on the trial and your level of fitness the latter will take somewhere between 4-8 hours. I couldn’t do this myself as I ran out of time. But it’s definitely on my list the next time I’ll be here.
- Bottled water
- Sunscreen & hat
- Food (Depending on how long you go)
- A change of clothes
- Hiking shoes
- Smartphone (To increase the odds of reception use a Telstra SIM.)
- Action cam / camera gear
- Photographing /shooting video
How To Get There
Click here for the entire return trip.
Beginner to expert
328 km (return trip)