Splitting the middle - a road trip through Australia’s Red Heart

A drive through the heart of Australia is a special experience.

By Rob Tibbett, RvTrips.com.au

The Stuart Highway runs from Darwin, through the Red Centre, to Port Augusta in South Australia. It splits Australia down the middle and takes you through some of the most iconic destinations you will ever find. An adventure in itself with plenty to see and do.

For many, the 2834km is a road trip of a lifetime.

The first part of our trip started in Katherine and headed south through Mataranka, Daly Waters, Tennant Creek, the Devils Marbles, and on to Alice Springs. We then headed south to Uluru and Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, and Woomera and finished in Port Augusta. 

Of course, there are many side trips to be had along the way, but that’s another story...

Ormiston Gorge is typical of the dazzling scenery to be found in West MacDonnell National Park, an essential day trip from Alice Springs.

Katherine

On arrival, we called into the Katherine Visitor Information Centre, which conveniently provides a parking area specifically set aside for caravans. Across the road is Woolworths, an essential stop to purchase much-needed groceries.

This supermarket serves a huge area that encompasses many large cattle stations and a busy RV touring population. We had been warned, this is an extremely busy supermarket and to expect a 45 to 60-minute wait at the checkout. We were mentally prepared, with coffee in hand and a positive attitude. We enjoyed our time in the queue and found plenty of interesting people to chat to. 

Katherine has plenty of appeal with several outstanding attractions nearby.

While in the queue we spoke to a fellow shopper. He was the author Dennis McIntosh who has written Beaten by a Blow (about his experience in the shearing sheds), and The Tunnel (about his observations of working-class men working on the underground sewerage tunnels in Melbourne). A fascinating man who was heading to a small community near Katherine to teach. Our time in the queue was not wasted!

Key attractions near Katherine include Edith Falls (about 60km north), and Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) where we enjoyed a boat cruise with Aboriginal guides, excellent ambassadors with an amazing knowledge of the local area, the gorge, the plants, animals, and local indigenous history. The Katherine markets are held every Saturday morning featuring a range of stalls with fresh local produce. 

Edith Falls is must-visit material when exploring Nitmiluk National Park in Katherine.

Mataranka

On the road again and down the highway towards Mataranka, which is well-known for its thermal pools.

The Mataranka Thermal Pools flow from the Rainbow Springs at a rate of 30.5 million litres a day at a constant 34 degrees. Nice. Hard to believe that so much water travels past each day and easy to understand why this is such an attraction for tourists.

Buses stop on their way down the highway for passengers to take a dip before continuing their journey. A very relaxing spot. While in the area you should also visit Bitter Springs and float downstream with the warm, fast-flowing currents generated by the thermal pools.

Mataranka Thermal Pools. Absolute bliss.

Daly Waters

Leaving Mataranka, we headed south to the iconic Daly Waters Pub, famous for its beef and barra barbecue and live entertainment.

The pub is full of outback charm with travellers' possessions hanging around the walls and ceilings - bras, name badges, coins, hats, shirts etc. We had a barra burger for lunch - a grilled piece of freshly caught wild barramundi and salad on a bun accompanied by chips. It was delicious and is highly recommended.

Back to the highway, a quick stop at the iconic Banka Banka Station and on to Renner Springs. About 150km south you come to the well-known Threeways Roadhouse where we enjoyed a break and a well-made coffee. Painted on the outside wall of the roadhouse is a road-train - attached to the front of the painting is an actual road-train bull bar – huge (reminds you to stay out of their way on the road).

There is nothing quite like the Daly Waters Pub.

Tennant Creek

Just down the highway is Tennant Creek, which has an interesting mining history all on display at the Battery Hill Mining Centre. 

The Old Telegraph Station is worth a visit, just to wander around and read the informative signs of how life was at this isolated location. The buildings are surprisingly cool inside with the outside temperature sitting at about 38-40 degrees Celsius.

Retrace a fascinating past at the Old Telegraph Station in Tennant Creek.

We were lucky enough to be staying at Tennant Creek when the World Solar Car Challenge passed through town. Teams from all over the world race their cars from Darwin to Adelaide - about 3000km using only the power of the sun. Very interesting.

Of course, our first stop after Tennant Creek was Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles); fascinating granite boulders that seem to be precariously balanced on top of one another. They continue to crack and erode, making an ever-changing landscape, and a great photo opportunity.

Next stop was Wycliffe Wells, which is supposedly the UFO capital of Australia. Alien figures (models) have been created, which provide a bit of fun for photos.

An NT icon - Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles)

Alice Springs

On to Alice Springs, which we found to be a perfect place to spend a week or more. We stayed at BIG4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park, a fantastic place with one of the best pool facilities we have seen. We were told the locals stay here over Christmas when the weather in this part of Australia can be scorching!  The park also provides a free pancake breakfast each Sunday morning. Awesome pancakes and an excellent way to meet fellow travellers.

Must-see attractions in and around Alice Springs include the East and West McDonnell Ranges (a story in themselves), the National Road Transport Hall of Fame, Alice Springs Desert Park, and the amazing Alice Springs Reptile Centre. One word of warning when travelling in Outback Australia: if you ask a local for directions they may say X is ‘just down the road’ – this can range from a few hundred metres to 400km!

Alice Springs Desert Park ranks among the Red Centre's leading attractions.

You can easily spend a few days exploring West McDonnell Ranges. Must-see locations include Standley Chasm, which is best seen an hour either side of noon when the sun creates a dramatic effect on the sheer walls; the chasm glows as the sun hits the quartzite walls. Ellery Creek Big Hole is a permanent water hole and a very welcome swimming spot (highly recommended).

Serpentine Gorge is a home for large flocks of zebra finches that can be seen drinking at the water’s edge at sunrise and sunset. Serpentine Gorge lookout provides magnificent views of the West MacDonnell Ranges, and is a good work-out walking up to the lookout! The Ochre Pits have been used by Aboriginals for thousands of years for decoration.

Ormiston Gorge is another welcome swimming hole, and Glen Helen features a gorge with a rock formation that resembles organ pipes. Lots to see in the West MacDonnell Ranges, an area that stretches 140km from Alice Springs.

An oasis in the desert - multiple award-winning BIG4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Kings Canyon are accessible from Alice Springs, about 450km each way! Motorhomes are a very popular mode of transport for overseas visitors who fly into Alice Springs and drive to our world-famous rock.

There are signs every 100km reminding travellers that ‘In Australia, we drive on the left-hand side of the road’. We spent a week or so exploring this area and were in awe of the sheer size and beauty of these natural wonders – another story in itself. Another absolute must see!

After exploring this incredible area, we once again headed south into South Australia, towards Coober Pedy ('only' 487km down the road). Of course, we had to stop at the border for some photos and morning tea. 

The biggest rock star in Australia - Uluru.

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy is another iconic Australian town that needs to be seen to be believed, with remnants of opal mines scattered for miles. Coober Pedy is a very dry part of Australia and water is an extremely precious commodity. If you require water, you can fill up (purchase water) at the visitor information centre via water bowsers that are open 24 hours a day.

We stayed at BIG4 Stuart Range Outback Resort, which provides undercover parking for most vans. Great in the hot weather. This BIG4 park has one of the best camp kitchens we have seen on our trips around Australia. Of course, Coober Pedy is well known for its beautiful opals, and I suggest a tour of one of the underground mines while in town. 

Other must-sees include the Breakaways, the Painted Desert, and the Dingo Fence. The Dingo Fence stretches for more than 5300km across three states, built to keep dingoes away from the sheep in our eastern states.

Coober Pedy's golf course has reciprocal rights with famous St Andrews in Scotland. True story.

Woomera

Coober Pedy to Woomera was another big day covering about 400km. Long distance is our choice, but rest assured there are places along the way for a break.

Next stop was unplanned, as we noticed a large salt lake from the road and pulled into the car parking area for a closer look. We walked down to Lake Hart, across the railway line, to reach the edge of the water. Salt was crunchy underfoot, just as described by Len Beadell in his amusing book on the outback. Apparently, this is only a small lake but seemed huge to us at the time.

Lake Hart is small in comparison to many lakes in the area but is still worth a visit.

Next on this trip was a detour just off the highway to visit Woomera, which seems a bit like a ghost town these days, but was once a huge part of the rocket-testing capabilities of Australia and our allies. Woomera has a range of memorabilia in the local museum dedicated to Len Beadell, the amazing man who opened up large tracts of land in outback Australia. Other interesting places to explore in this area include Andamooka, Roxby Downs, and Olympic Dam Mine.  

The last part of this journey was south towards Port Augusta, through fascinating scenery, from salt lakes to mountain ranges in the distance. We were advised by fellow travellers to stay at the Discovery Parks BIG4 - Port Augusta, which is large and conveniently located next to the highway. Lots to explore in this part of South Australia, all before heading off to the Flinders Ranges. However, that is another story...

Woomera has an interesting, often secretive past that involves rocket testing.

Have you undertaken this epic drive? What are your memories of it? Or do you have great advice to share with other readers? We’d love to see your thoughts in the comments section below.

Isn’t it time you embarked on a road trip? Book your next BIG4 adventure now.

1 comment on “Splitting the middle - a road trip through Australia’s Red Heart”

  1. George Hubber

    16 November 2017 at 1:14 pm

    Hi. We did this trip last year (opposite direction) and visited nearly all those places. We stayed in Katherine for 5 days (and never had a problem at the supermarket (except when they forgot to place a meat order).
    I’d recommend this trip to all and please take your time to see it.
    Don’t go when the military are going to their exercises in Darwin as the road houses get packed.
    Enjoy

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