THE RED CEN­TRE, NT

To prove it isn’t just a city slicker, the Range Rover Sport gets down and dirty in the Red Cen­tre.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOS JUSTIN WALKER

IT DIDN’T look like the Red Cen­tre. The track we were fol­low­ing in the Range Rover Sport was cov­ered in tall grass that nearly reached the win­dow and stretched to the hori­zon like a sea of green. Only the brief, in­ter­mit­tent glimpses of the track’s twin red rib­bons of dirt and the squirm­ing of soft sand un­der the Sport’s tyres con­firmed our lo­ca­tion: deep in desert coun­try south­west of Alice Springs. We couldn’t have got fur­ther away from our ev­ery­day city lives if we’d tried – and it felt bloody awe­some!

It had been five years since we’d been out in the Red Cen­tre on a 4x4 trip – two kids un­der the age of five took care of any spare time. But we de­cided this year we’d re­turn to one of the best tour­ing and camp­ing re­gions in Aus­tralia, and we’d been count­ing down the months since we’d booked our flights at the start of the year. This was also our daugh­ter Sarah’s first big off-road ad­ven­ture, and we’d been fill­ing her in on the ap­peal of “all that red sand in the desert” – some­thing we knew wouldn’t be preva­lent af­ter glimps­ing the sea of green from the air as we flew into Alice.

Our plan was a quick week of tour­ing and camp­ing with good mate and Alice Springs lo­cal John Stafford as our guide, ac­com­pa­nied by his part­ner Susie and daugh­ter Eleanor. I had trav­elled ex­ten­sively with John over many years dur­ing my ten­ure as 4X4 Aus­tralia ed­i­tor, so I was look­ing for­ward to a mix of great driv­ing, awe­some camp­sites, good com­pany and the odd beer or three around a camp­fire. In short, it was shap­ing up to be the per­fect Red Cen­tre away-from-it-all ad­ven­ture.

The trip started pretty well, too. I had been lucky enough to score a Range Rover Sport TDV6 (see side­bar p122) as our rig for the week – com­plete with two spare wheels – and was keen to see how this lat­est in­car­na­tion of one of my favourite off-road­ers was go­ing to per­form in this some­times chal­leng­ing coun­try. The shiny sil­ver Rangie looked slightly lost parked at Alice Springs Air­port among all the dusty Toy­otas and Nis­sans, but I knew we’d soon rec­tify its city ap­pear­ance.

John’s plan was for us to spend two days out west of Alice Springs, ex­plor­ing the area south from Lara­p­inta Drive to Ernest Giles Road. This mini-ex­pe­di­tion would in­clude Owen Springs Re­serve,

the Wal­lace Rock­hole com­mu­nity and Finke Gorge Na­tional Park. We’d then re­turn to Alice for a food and fuel top-up and strike east to­wards the re­mote Ruby Gap Na­ture Park, for a fur­ther two days ex­plor­ing the park’s beau­ti­ful gorges and long, sandy river beds. We’d fin­ish the days by doz­ing in some of the best camp­sites in all of the NT.

The first day was a mix of bi­tu­men and then, once turn­ing off Lara­p­inta Drive, some sandy desert tracks that were nearly en­gulfed by the lush green grasses that had sprung up af­ter a par­tic­u­larly pre­cip­i­tous wet sea­son. We moved south along an old fence line as we tracked to­ward the low-ly­ing rocky hills that com­prised the tail end of the Water­house Range. The driv­ing was rel­a­tively cruisy, with the Sport set to Sand mode to com­pen­sate for the road-bi­ased rub­ber it was run­ning. The only sound – be­sides Sarah ques­tion­ing the lack of red sand – was the brush­ing of grass on the Sport’s un­der­belly as we fol­lowed John’s Dis­cov­ery 2 and camper trailer through the sea of green.

NOTH­ING QUITE LIKE IT

THERE’S some­thing about bush camp­ing in re­mote coun­try that sticks with you. You have the choice of pretty much any­where to roll out your swag, and you have the (in­creas­ingly rare) op­por­tu­nity to sit around a camp­fire – and cook on it – while the south­ern stars grow brighter seem­ingly just above your head.

Our camp­site for the first night was a nice clear­ing near a small gorge that cut through the rocky hills to the east. There was am­ple space to set up the camper trailer, Oz­tent and swags, with fire­wood in abun­dance and plenty of space for the kids to get out and ex­plore. We’d only been driv­ing for around three to four hours, but al­ready we were a world away from the crazy pace of city life.

The per­fect out­back sun­rise greeted us when we de­cided to get out of bed. This was fol­lowed by a damn-near per­fectly cooked brekky, be­fore we packed up and loaded all the camp­ing gear. Af­ter a quick glance over the Hema Maps’ map on my iphone, it was time to turn fur­ther west to­ward the abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity of Wal­lace Rock­hole, where John was sup­posed to pick up some pot­tery from one of the com­mu­nity’s artists.

A 45-minute drive through stony, open desert coun­try was all it took to reach the com­mu­nity, only to find it pretty much de­serted. The Alice Springs Show was on in town and we guessed that most of the lo­cals had headed in to the Red Cen­tre cap­i­tal to check it out. We soon alighted, fol­low­ing the track just north of town that turned west to­ward Finke Gorge Na­tional Park. The driv­ing here was mainly on red sand, with plenty of washouts mixed in

The drive through was magic; the rocky cliffs con­trasted with the sand and huge gums that fol­lowed the line of the creeks

with smoother sec­tions as we passed more open coun­try to our west; the higher, more dra­matic ridge­lines of the James Range shad­owed us to the south.

It was once we reached the junc­tion with the Boggy Hole track that we turned south and cut through the James Range, fol­low­ing the sandy bed of the dry Ellery Creek through Todd Glen – more beau­ti­ful, rugged red-rock cliffs lined both sides of the track. It was here we let down our tyres. John’s mud­dies were do­ing it easy and our Sport’s road-bi­ased rub­ber wasn’t in­hibit­ing us too much, but we took the safer-is-bet­ter op­tion to in­crease our tyre con­tact patch and

thus trac­tion through the soft stuff. The drive through was magic, the rocky cliffs con­trasted with the sand and huge gums that fol­lowed the line of the creeks criss­cross­ing the area.

It took an hour or so to reach the junc­tion of Finke River and Ellery Creek, and the driv­ing con­di­tions ranged from the ubiq­ui­tous soft sand to rocky sec­tions and a few wa­ter cross­ings. The amount of wa­ter around was pretty amaz­ing – the last wa­ter cross­ing, just north of Boggy Hole, ended up be­ing a non-event as the wa­ter was too deep. We met a young lad in an old ex-army Land Rover who had just crossed it driv­ing north, and once he’d marked more than a me­tre up his Rover’s door with his hand we knew the Rangie – with no snorkel – would have been (ex­cuse the pun) well and truly out of its depth.

The de­tour around also saw us meet a group of four ve­hi­cles, the only others we saw all trip, and then it was just an hours’ drive to our sec­ond camp, on a wide stretch of the Finke River. The camp­site was com­plete with a wa­ter­hole at the south­ern end for the kids to ex­plore and a spec­tac­u­lar cliff-face for the sun to shine on as it dropped be­low the ranges be­hind us that evening.

It was a mix of dry (and wet) river beds and tall sand dunes of the Palmer River sec­tion of Finke Gorge NP that com­prised our jour­ney south the next morn­ing. The pre­vi­ous night had been the cold­est due to the last of the cloudy weather dis­ap­pear­ing, and it looked like stay­ing that way for the re­main­der of our Red Cen­tre stay. This jour­ney south to Ernest Giles Road was quick and tinged with re­gret that we didn’t have longer to en­joy this part of the Cen­tre. How­ever, Alice Springs was call­ing. We’d chewed through most of our food and both ve­hi­cles needed a re-fuel be­fore we’d be able to turn east to Ruby Gap Na­ture Park.

The ben­e­fits of the Range Rover Sport’s all-breadth ca­pa­bil­ity were never

more ob­vi­ous than the shift from slow, sandy driv­ing to the fast high­way blast back to town. The ve­hi­cle hadn’t put a foot wrong to this point, with the only slight nig­gles be­ing its width when it came to squeez­ing be­tween track­side veg­e­ta­tion, and the fact it didn’t have low-range as stan­dard. Not that it would have made any dif­fer­ence where we’d driven – the ter­rain re­sponse set­tings and its im­pres­sive driv­abil­ity in rugged ter­rain had made it all seem too easy.

The abil­ity of the ve­hi­cle to dust it­self off af­ter a few days in the sand and rocks, and then shoot us smoothly and rapidly to our des­ti­na­tion was pretty damn im­pres­sive. Our few days in the prover­bial mid­dle of nowhere made Alice Springs seem busier than it re­ally was, but we knew it was only a short stopover be­fore a few nights back out bush again. And it was rather nice to tuck into a beau­ti­fully cooked steak and some draught beer.

The great thing with the NT – and I’m un­sure whether it’s just my imag­i­na­tion or wishes – is that there’s never a hurry to be any­where. And so it was a leisurely start to the next leg, with some shop­ping in the morn­ing, be­fore we hit the Ross High­way and started for Ruby Gap.

A quick stop at the well-pre­served his­tor­i­cal gold min­ing site of Arl­tunga – well worth a look – was ex­tended slightly as we helped a cou­ple change a flat tyre. We stopped off at Ross River Home­stead and

Our few days in the prover­bial mid­dle of nowhere made Alice Springs seem busier than it re­ally was

then drove deeper into the steep hills of the At­narpa Range, chas­ing the sun­set.

As the track into Ruby Gap gets pro­gres­sively rougher, the scenery ups the wow fac­tor, and once we reached the en­trance to the na­ture park and de­posited the camp­ing fees, it was time to re­ally soak up this amaz­ing part of the Red Cen­tre.

The name Ruby Gap is some­thing of a mis­nomer – in 1886 David Lind­say re­ported find­ing what he pre­sumed were ru­bies in the Hale riverbed. This led to a mini ruby-rush that lasted only a cou­ple of years, be­fore prospec­tors and buy­ers re­alised the ru­bies were in fact gar­nets. We weren’t look­ing for pre­cious stones but we did find ex­cel­lent four-wheel drive routes along the Hale River, with its sandy base just dry enough to en­sure we didn’t get bogged as we drove fur­ther into the park look­ing for a camp­site.

Up un­til this point we’d again only en­coun­tered a cou­ple of ve­hi­cles re­turn­ing from Ruby Gap, and this sense of re­mote­ness con­tin­ued for the rest of the day. We passed one wellset-up camp­site on the banks of the Hale, be­fore we found our own slice of camp­ing par­adise an­other 500 me­tres up­river. With a great view back down the river val­ley, a cou­ple of rea­son­able-sized wa­ter­holes right be­low us, and no-one else around, it was bril­liant – the per­fect base for a cou­ple of nights.

I had been out this way a cou­ple of

My daugh­ter Sarah’s first out­back ad­ven­ture had been ev­ery­thing she’d hoped for – go­ing by her wish to not re­turn to Syd­ney

times be­fore, so on our sec­ond morn­ing we de­cided to ex­plore fur­ther up the gorge. We found the go­ing pretty easy un­til the last sec­tion of high, jagged rocks and dropoffs, which saw the Rangie Sport reach its limit. John’s lifted Disco 2 got through, but the Sport’s longer belly and road-bi­ased tyres robbed us of the op­por­tu­nity to do any fur­ther ex­plo­ration. Not that we were com­plain­ing; it sim­ply handed us the per­fect ex­cuse to re­turn to camp and en­joy the rest of the day hav­ing a yarn and down­ing a few beers, while the kids ex­plored the camp­site.

Sarah’s first out­back ad­ven­ture had been ev­ery­thing she’d hoped for – go­ing by her wish to not re­turn to Syd­ney – and this gave me the per­fect ex­cuse to start plan­ning our next trip. It was a topic that took up a good part of the af­ter­noon as John and I plot­ted our next NT ex­pe­di­tion.

The fi­nal morn­ing of any ad­ven­ture is al­ways hard. Mak­ing it less so on this trip was the sub­lime sun­rise that fol­lowed the most star-filled night I have ex­pe­ri­enced in many years of out­back tour­ing. If I’d seen a film crew mak­ing the most of this per­fect image I wouldn’t have been the slight­est bit sur­prised. But, thank­fully for us, we had it all to our­selves.

The week of camp­ing and off-road­ing had been, as these trips usu­ally are, way too short. We’d barely touched on the huge amount of great camp­sites and awe­some lo­ca­tions in the cen­tre of Aus­tralia, but even as we drove back into Alice, soak­ing up the last mag­nif­i­cent taste of the Red Cen­tre, we were plan­ning our re­turn.

We didn’t re­ally need an ex­cuse (Sarah had al­ready made it quite clear she didn’t want to leave) we just had to rec­on­cile our­selves to the fact that the Red Cen­tre has enough to keep any off-road tourer en­thralled for months, if not years – which isn’t hard to do. All of which made our re­turn to city life that much eas­ier to han­dle. The in­ter­lude back in the hus­tle and bus­tle would merely be a nec­es­sary de­lay be­fore we could re­turn to this time­less land.

Mil­lions of peo­ple live in cities around the world. Why?

Only an echo is there to hear your thoughts. Air down on the soft stuff. It’s eas­ier than air­ing up again.

The Range Rover Sport shows off its party lights.

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