4x4 tracks lit­ter the land­scape at Owen Springs.

This iso­lated bush camp­site not far from Alice Springs pro­vides an easy way to es­cape the high­way.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents -

ALONG the Stu­art High­way south of Alice Springs, road­side rest ar­eas quickly fill with trav­ellers dur­ing the peak tour­ing sea­son. The throng starts as­sem­bling at mid-af­ter­noon and, though the out­look might not be the most in­spir­ing, the cost is free and the com­pany guar­an­teed.

A hand­ful of savvy trav­ellers know where to nip off the bi­tu­men, to a lit­tle­known free camp that has some clear ben­e­fits over the high­way stops. At Red­bank Water­hole, in Owen Springs Re­serve, there’s not much in the way of traf­fic noise and there’s plenty of room to move.

A dirt track leaves the high­way 66km south of Alice, head­ing west just 6km through the re­serve to Red­bank Water­hole. The track is marked 4Wd-only and, though dusty and cor­ru­gated, is hardly a chal­lenge for any ve­hi­cle with a bit of clear­ance.

There are no fa­cil­i­ties at Red­bank; only the tracks and old camp­fires of pre­vi­ous campers de­fine in­di­vid­ual sites. Most sites over­look the bed of the Hugh River, one of the Ter­ri­tory’s great ephemeral rivers and a main trib­u­tary of the mighty Finke. Nat­u­rally, some of the tracks around camp are fairly sandy, as are the sites. An­other ad­van­tage of Red­bank is that it’s one of the few re­serves in the Ter­ri­tory where dogs are al­lowed.

This section of the re­serve isn’t that far off the main road, so there can be a drift of noise from road trains rum­bling along the high­way. The sound isn’t in­tru­sive, though, and it’s the lo­cal corel­las and red-tailed black cock­a­toos that cause the most com­mo­tion.

Quiet campers have a fair chance of see­ing more wildlife at Red­bank. Along with the corel­las and cock­a­toos, the water­hole at­tracts flocks of budgeri­gars, dif­fer­ent pi­geons and even hawks that ha­rass fish at­tempt­ing to hide in the di­min­ish­ing pools. Wa­ter lev­els will de­pend on how re­cently the Hugh River has seen a flow, and in a good sea­son there’ll be enough wa­ter for a re­fresh­ing warm-weather swim. It’s an at­trac­tive place, lined with river gums and sur­rounded with a va­ri­ety of grasses and shrubs.

How­ever, Red­bank is just a small section of Owen Springs Re­serve, and trav­ellers look­ing for some­thing more than just a con­ve­nient overnight stop won’t be dis­ap­pointed.

From the Red­bank Water­hole ac­cess track, a self-drive route leads roughly north to­wards the Water­house Range. This track is def­i­nitely for four-wheel drive ve­hi­cles only, as it picks up the bed of the Hugh River to tra­verse deep sand as well as rocks and dust. De­spite that, it’s not a ter­ri­bly tough track and the camp­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are

Red­bank Water­hole ac­cess track is for 4WD rigs only, as it tra­verses deep sand, rocks and dust

pretty good. Un­for­tu­nately, pets are not al­lowed in this section of the Owen Springs Re­serve.

The self-drive route is only 50km long, ending on Lara­p­inta Drive about 50km west of Alice Springs. A brochure de­tail­ing his­tor­i­cal and nat­u­ral points of in­ter­est along the way is usu­ally avail­able at the en­trance to the re­serve. An in­for­ma­tion sheet can also be down­loaded from the North­ern Ter­ri­tory Parks and Wildlife’s web­site (www.park­sand­wildlife.nt.gov.au).

The go­ing is pretty slow along this self-drive route, which is a good thing, as it al­lows trav­ellers to en­joy the chang­ing scener­ies. With the ranges still in the dis­tance, the track winds through grass­lands and over a few low red dunes where spinifex is in­ter­spersed with a di­ver­sity of shrubs and herbage. On oc­ca­sion, parts of the track can be eroded by heavy rain­fall, but it seems the park’s staff keeps sig­nage up-to-date to pro­vide ad­e­quate warn­ing of any dam­age.

The land­scape grad­u­ally trans­forms to un­du­lat­ing hills, which in turn morph into the Water­house Range. From here, the track fol­lows the course of the Hugh River as its cuts its way along Lawrence Gorge and through the range. Lower tyre pres­sures are nec­es­sary for the deep sand in this part of the re­serve, though there’s a fair share of nar­row, rock­stud­ded sec­tions as well.

This is a pretty part of the world. Low rock forms of dif­fer­ent shapes and colours have a def­i­nite ‘Cen­tral Aus­tralian’ am­bi­ence, and gnarled river gums show their age with wide girths and con­torted branches. In the gorge, signs mark a 5.6km stretch where campers can set up. There are no des­ig­nated sites within that dis­tance, though a few rough tracks lead to clear ar­eas or mas­sive sand­banks pushed up when the Hugh is in flood. It’s a mat­ter of camp­ing wher­ever you like!

With such a mas­sive choice of camps, it’d be rare to be crowded in this part of Owen Springs, so it’s a good op­por­tu­nity to sit back and en­joy a re­mote ex­pe­ri­ence. The chances of spot­ting wildlife are also good, though sight­ings of elu­sive black-footed wal­la­bies or euros aren’t guar­an­teed. Campers are more likely to hear the howl of din­gos echo through the range. The Water­house Range is said to hide ev­i­dence that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple have lived in and roamed this area for

With such a mas­sive choice of camps, it’d be rare to be crowded in this part of Owen Springs

count­less life­times. NT Parks asks that trav­ellers re­spect the wishes of Abo­rig­i­nal cus­to­di­ans and not climb th­ese hills.

More re­cent his­tory, from when Owen Springs was a cat­tle sta­tion, is much eas­ier to recog­nise, es­pe­cially at Haunted Tree Bore and the his­toric home­stead ru­ins. The old home­stead is among the first to be built in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory and, though much of the com­plex has dis­ap­peared, restora­tions have put a bit of life back into the main build­ing.

Owen Springs’ his­tory is en­twined with ex­plo­rations of the Over­land Tele­graph Line, and John Mc­douall Stu­art was the first white man to visit the area. In­ter­est­ingly, the water­hole named as Owen Springs isn’t per­ma­nent, but an­other ephemeral water­hole of the Hugh.

Be­tween the high­way-handy camp at Red­bank and the strung-out bush camps at Lawrence Gorge, Owen Springs is a great place to ex­plore. The re­serve of­fers the chance to see a dif­fer­ent part of Cen­tral Aus­tralia, and a part that it seems the mul­ti­tudes are yet to dis­cover.

No fa­cil­i­ties at the iso­lated Red­bank camp­ing area. Water­holes are tem­po­rary on this sec­tion of the Hugh.

Parts of the self-drive route cross grassy plains that are backed by low ridges.

Vans with a bit of clear­ance won’t have any prob­lems get­ting into Red­bank camp­ground. OWEN SPRINGS, NORTH­ERN TER­RI­TORY

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