Out­door Road Trip

Tack­ling Aus­tralia’s amaz­ing Red Centre with a young child in tow might seem like a daunt­ing task, but with a bit of plan­ning and the right at­ti­tude it re­ally is a trip that any fam­ily can en­joy.

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words and Pho­tos JUSTIN WALKER

A week-long 4WD camp­ing trip in the NT

VE­HI­CLE USED: Range Rover Sport TDV6 and Land Rover Dis­cov­ery TD5 ROADTRIP: The Red Centre, NT LENGTH OF TRIP: One week TRIP ITIN­ER­ARY: Two days west of Alice Springs, ex­plor­ing the area from Lara­p­inta Drive south to Ernest Giles Road. In­clud­ing Owen Springs Re­serve, Wal­lace Rock­hole com­mu­nity and Finke Gorge Na­tional Park. Re­turn to Alice for a food and fuel top-up be­fore strik­ing east to­wards the re­mote Ruby Gap Na­ture Park for a cou­ple of days to ex­plore some of the best camp­sites in the NT.

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

A TRANS­FOR­MA­TION

It had been a good five years since we’d been out in the Red Centre on a 4X4 trip – two kids un­der five and all that en­tails took care of any spare time – but we’d de­cided this year was time for a re­turn to one of the best tour­ing and camp­ing re­gions in Oz and had 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 thought might ac­tu­ally be quite sparse 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 his daugh­ter Eleanor. I had trav­elled ex­ten­sively with John over many years dur­ing my ten­ure as 4X4 Aus­tralia Ed­i­tor so was look­ing for­ward to a mix of great driv­ing, awe­some camp­sites, good com­pany and the odd beer or three around a camp­fire. It was, in short, shap­ing up as the per­fect Red Centre ad­ven­ture. And said ad­ven­ture started pretty well, too; I had been lucky enough to score a Range Rover Sport TDV6 (see side­bar story) 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 west of Alice Springs, ex­plor­ing the area from Lara­p­inta Drive south to Ernest Giles Road. This mini-ex­pe­di­tion would in­clude Owen Springs Re­serve, Wal­lace Rock­hole com­mu­nity and Finke Gorge Na­tional Park. We’d then re­turn to Alice for a food and fuel top-up be­fore strik­ing east to­wards the re­mote Ruby Gap Na­ture Park for a cou­ple of days to ex­plore the area’s beau­ti­ful gorges, long, sandy river beds and doze down in some of the best camp­sites in the NT.

Our first day was a mix of bi­tu­men and sandy desert tracks, once we’d turned off Lara­p­inta Drive. As men­tioned ear­lier the desert was en­gulfed by lush

We'd de­cided this year was time for a re­turn to one of the best tour­ing and camp­ing ar­eas in Oz.

green grasses that had sprung up after a par­tic­u­larly pre­cip­i­tous wet sea­son. We moved south as we tracked to­ward the low-ly­ing rocky hills that com­prise the tail end of the Water­house Range. The driv­ing was rel­a­tively cruisy, with the Sport’s Ter­rain Re­sponse sys­tem set to “Sand” mode (Land Rover’s TR sys­tem has four dif­fer­ent set­tings in the Sport that al­ter throt­tle re­sponse and trac­tion con­trol for op­ti­mum per­for­mance on dif­fer­ent sur­faces) to com­pen­sate for the ve­hi­cle’s road-bi­ased tyres. The only sound – be­side Sarah ask­ing where all the red sand had dis­ap­peared to – 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. Whether it is the fact you have the choice of pretty much any­where to roll out your swag, or that you have the (in­creas­ingly rare) op­por­tu­nity to sit around a camp­fire – and cook on it – while the south­ern stars grow brighter above your head, doss­ing down among all this is an al­ways mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence. Our camp­site for the first night was a nice clear­ing near a small gorge that cut through the rocky hills to our east. There was am­ple space to set up the camper-trailer, Oz­tent and swags, with plenty of fire­wood and space for the kids to get out and ex­plore. We’d only been driv­ing for three to four hours, but al­ready we were a world away from the crazy pace of city life. And yeah, that sounds like a cliché, but that night – our first out­back camp in five years – I was pre­pared to live it to the let­ter!

An­other ad­di­tion to liv­ing the cliché was not hav­ing to rush the next morn­ing; the per­fect out­back sun­rise greeted us when we de­cided to get out of bed and this was fol­lowed by a damn-near per­fect cooked brekky, be­fore pack­ing up and then load­ing up all the camp­ing gear. After a quick glance over the Hema Maps 4WD Maps app on my iPhone, it was time to turn 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 quick 45-minute drive through stony, open desert coun­try – dot­ted with brush and small, tough plants that seemed to thrive here – was all it took to reach the com­mu­nity, only to find it was 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 de­parted, fol­low­ing the track just north of town that turns west to­ward Finke Gorge Na­tional Park. The driv­ing along this sec­tion was mainly red sand, with plenty of washouts mixed in with smoother sec­tions as we passed more open coun­try to our west, with the higher, more dra­matic ridge­lines of the James Range shad­ow­ing 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 it­self, fol­low­ing the sandy bed of the dry Ellery Creek through Todd Glen, with more beau­ti­ful rugged red-rock cliffs on both sides of the track. We low­ered our tyre pres­sure here; John’s Dis­cov­ery 2 was run­ning mud-ter­rain tyres so it was do­ing it easy, and even our Sport’s road-bi­ased rub­ber wasn’t in­hibit­ing us too much, but we took the safer-is-bet­ter op­tion

sand dunes of the Palmer River sec­tion of Finke Gorge NP that com­prised our con­tin­ued jour­ney south the next morn­ing. The night had been colder than the pre­vi­ous one as the last of the cloudy weather dis­ap­peared, and it looked like stay­ing that way for the re­main­der of our Red Centre stay. The drive south to Ernest Giles Road was pretty quick, but tinged with a slight 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 re­fuel be­fore we’d be able to turn east to Ruby Gap Na­ture Park.

The ben­e­fits of the Range Rover Sport’s ca­pa­bil­ity were never more ob­vi­ous than the shift from slow, sandy driv­ing to the fast high­way blast back to Alice. 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 gear­ing (it’s an op­tional ex­tra on Range Rover Sport). Not that that had made any dif­fer­ence where we’d driven; the Ter­rain Re­sponse set­tings and the Sport’s 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 im­pres­sive. Our few days in the prover­bial mid­dle of nowhere made Alice Springs seem busier than what to in­crease our tyre con­tact patch and thus grip through the soft stuff. The drive through here was magic; the rocky cliffs con­trasted with the sand and huge gums that fol­lowed the line of creeks that criss­crossed this area.

It took an hour or so to reach the junc­tion of the Finke River and Ellery Creek, and it was a great mix of driv­ing con­di­tions, rang­ing from the ubiq­ui­tous soft sand to rocky sec­tions and a few wa­ter cross­ings. There was plenty of wa­ter about and the last wa­ter cross­ing, just north of Boggy Hole it­self, ended up be­ing a non-event as the wa­ter was too deep for us to safely ne­go­ti­ate. We met a young lad in an old ex-army Land Rover who had just crossed it driv­ing north and once he marked more than a me­tre up his Landy’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 an­other group of four ve­hi­cles – the only oth­ers we saw all trip – and then it was just an hour on to our sec­ond camp on a wide stretch of the Finke River, com­plete with a wa­ter­hole at the south­ern end for the kids to ex­plore, and a spec­tac­u­lar cliff-face lit up by the sun as it dropped below the ranges be­hind us that evening. A TASTE OF TOWN THEN TO THE FAR EAST It was a mix of dry (and wet) riverbeds and the tall

it re­ally is, 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 draft beer at din­ner that night…

The great thing with the NT is that there never seems to be a hurry to get any­where. This suited us fine and so we had a leisurely start to the next leg out to Ruby Gap, with some shop­ping taken care of in the morn­ing be­fore we hit the Ross High­way. The trip on bi­tu­men and then graded dirt was un­event­ful and after a quick stop at Arl­tunga (the well pre­served his­tor­i­cal gold min­ing site – well worth a look), which was ex­tended slightly as we helped a cou­ple change a flat tyre and then stopped off at Ross River Homestead for some beer, we drove deeper into the steep hills of the At­narpa Range, chas­ing the sun­set.

The track into Ruby Gap is bril­liant; it be­comes pro­gres­sively rougher as the scenery ups the wow fac­tor, mak­ing the con­cen­tra­tion and ef­fort re­quired to drive it more than worth­while. Once we reached the en­trance to the park and de­posited the camp­ing fees in the park fee box, 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 these “ru­bies” were in fact gar­nets. We weren’t look­ing for pre­cious stones but we did find ex­cel­lent four-wheel driv­ing along the Hale River, with its sandy base just dry enough to en­sure we didn’t be­come bogged as we drove fur­ther into the park look­ing for a camp­site. Up un­til this point we had, again, only en­coun­tered a cou­ple of on­com­ing ve­hi­cles and this sense of re­mote­ness con­tin­ued for the rest of the day. We passed one other camp­site, with a well set up

The track into Ruby Gap… be­comes pro­gres­sively rougher as the scenery ups the wow fac­tor.

cou­ple up on the banks of the Hale, be­fore we found our own slice of camp­ing par­adise an­other 500m or so up­river. With a great view back down the river val­ley, a few rea­son­able sized wa­ter­holes right below us, and no-one else around, it was bril­liant – the per­fect base for a cou­ple of nights.

On our sec­ond morn­ing we de­cided to ex­plore fur­ther up the gorge, find­ing the go­ing pretty easy un­til the last sec­tion of high, jagged rocks and dropoffs saw the Sport reach its limit. John’s lifted Dis­cov­ery 2 got through but the Sport’s longer belly and road-bi­ased tyres robbed us of fur­ther ex­plo­ration (I reckon with some chunkier, higher-pro­file mudter­rain tyres we would have made it). 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 nearby. For me, this was one of the ma­jor bonuses of this trip; Sarah’s first out­back ad­ven­ture had been ev­ery­thing she’d hoped for (go­ing by her pleas to not re­turn to Syd­ney) which gave me the per­fect ex­cuse to start plan­ning our next out­back trip – a topic that took up a good part of the af­ter­noon as John and I started plot­ting.

THE RE­TURN TO NOR­MAL­ITY

That night we saw more stars in the sky than I can re­mem­ber de­spite my many years of out­back tour­ing, and the fol­low­ing morn­ing we were greeted by a sub­lime sun­rise. If we spot­ted a film crew mak­ing the most of this per­fect im­age of “Out­back Aus­tralia” I wouldn’t have been in 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 num­ber of great camp­sites and awe­some lo­ca­tions that are avail­able Aus­tralia’s Red Centre, but even as we drove back into Alice, soak­ing up the last mag­nif­i­cent taste of the out­back, we were plan­ning a re­turn. A too-short visit to the awe­some Alice Springs Desert Park was a great way to fin­ish the ex­pe­ri­ence for all of us – es­pe­cially Sarah as she at last got to see a dingo (we’d had some foot­prints around camp but hadn’t spot­ted any when out and about) as well as the Desert Park’s awe­some Birds of Prey show.

The Red Centre has enough spec­tac­u­lar of­fer­ings to keep any off-road tourer en­thralled for months, if not years, and our plans to come back here made our re­turn to city liv­ing much eas­ier to han­dle; our time back in the hus­tle and bus­tle would just be viewed as a nec­es­sary de­lay be­fore we could re­turn to this vast time­less land.

Left to right A deep wa­ter cross­ing in the south­ern sec­tion of Finke Gorge Na­tional Park was one of a few ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing this ad­ven­ture; Hema Maps’ 4WD Map app kept us head­ing in the right di­rec­tion and per­formed with­out fault the en­tire trip.

It was a big trip for Sarah, but the camp­ing, driv­ing and dra­matic land­scape kept her well en­ter­tained: tak­ing pho­tos be­came her favourite pas­time while we drove.

The Wal­lace Rock­hole com­mu­nity had this phone tower so we took ad­van­tage of it to show off some of our pho­tos to those at home.

Paus­ing to take in the lofty view be­fore head­ing down into the val­ley below and mak­ing our way to our camp­site at Ruby Gap Na­ture Park.

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