Through Australia's Red Centre

Red dust, blue skies and long straight roads. Australia’s red centre has its very own charm. Pictures of rugged landscapes and endless straight roads might pop into your head. The colors are breathtaking, it is wild and it is definitely not all red sandy, boring dessert. Absolutely not.

Uluru
Uluru - the famous monolith in Australia's red centre - but there is so much more

All along the Stuart Highway (from Darwin to Port Augusta) there are many famous places to visit. The most popular attraction in the heart of Australia is without a doubt Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), a massive sandstone rock formation. But there is a lot more to see when traveling from Darwin to Adelaide or the other way round.

So here you get some inspiration for your next road trip and an itinerary for traveling right through the centre of OZ as well as information on famous sights and things to do along the way.

Popular itinerary

The most popular itinerary for many travelers follows the Stuart Highway with a few stops here and there and of course once leaving the famous Highway to head over to Yulara to see Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas).

This article is written in a way that runs you through this itinerary from north to south. If you plan to travel the other way round then read through the various parts of this trip accordingly from bottom to top.

Itinerary through the centre
The popular itinerary through the centre - the red centre later on in detail (source: goolge.maps)

Along the way there are several stops such as

  • Darwin and Top End (Darwin, Litchfield and Kakadu National Park)
  • Matranka Thermal Pools (quickly get refreshed)
  • Daly Waters Pub (unique outback pub to go for drinks and snacks)
  • Tennant Creek (stop and fill up again)
  • Devils Marbles (red round rocks in an open plain strewn about)
  • Alice Springs (vibrant city in the middle of nowhere)
  • The red centre (Macdonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon, Uluru and Kata Tjuta)
  • Coober Pedy (Opal mining town with underground houses)
  • Flinders Ranges, Port Augusta and Adelaide

So, there is a lot to do and many sights to see. Yet you will spend a lot of time driving along the Stuart Highway as well and do not underestimate the distances.

The Stuart Highway
Kings Canyon, Alice Springs, Uluru, etc. - however, you will also see a lot of this

How long does it take?

So how much time should you calculate for the whole thing? As oh so often, it depends. Some people like to spend more time in certain places than others, so here just a very rough guideline.

  • Darwin to Alice Springs (2 days):

It does not make a huge difference whether you are starting from Darwin or one of the national parks up north. A few hours of driving give or take. Most of the stops along the way are just places where you spend two or three hours and the rest is driving.

  • Alice Springs (1 or 2 days):

Walk around town, go for some grocery shopping, discover the place and maybe some of its attractions close by. If you feel like spend the night there and continue the next day.

  • Red Centre (3 to 5 days):

If you only go for the most popular attractions (Kings Canyon, Uluru, Kata Tjuta) then 3 days might be enough. In case you include the Macdonnell Ranges and don’t want to rush things too much go for 5 days.

  • Coober Pedy (1 day):

Driving to Coober Pedy, discouvering its underground houses, have a coffee and maybe spend the night there or close by.

  • To Adelaide (1 or 2 days):

If you just keep driving, think more like one long day in the car. If you want to have a stop or two in the Flinders Ranges or spend the night in Port Augusta rather take 2 days for the trip. If you choose to go for the Oodnadatta Track (4WD necessary!) then it might take a fair bit longer.

Of course these are just rough time frames and you can easily spend a whole month there. However, it should give you an indicator on how much time to calculate for that trip at the very minimum.

Also, this gives you an idea on how long the trip right through the centre takes. If you want to include national parks up north on your itinerary or more things to see in Southern Australia plan on spending a lot more days respectively.

Best time to travel

Which time of the year should you chose when traveling through the centre of Australia? There are two times that you should try avoid, which are peak summer (December to Febuary) and right during winter (June and July).

In summer it can get boiling hot which can make it a torture for obvious reasons. Moreover, in places like Kings Canyon some walks might get closed down already early in the day for safety reasons.

During winter it can get freezing cold at night. So sleeping in cars or even tents with inappropriate gear can range from quite uncomfortable to even dangerous.

The time around late August and September is said to be the best time as it not too cold anymore, but not too hot yet.

If you want to travel from north to south I think this is ideal. You can spend some time up north in the cooler (or let’s say not so hot and especially humid) months during the season up there and afterwards travel south into spring down there. How much better can it get?

However, if you want to travel from south to north and especially when you want to spend a longer period of time up there afterwards I would recommend to do basically the opposite. Go during April. The weather down south gets worse, but it is not proper winter yet and when you arrive up north it’s already bearable. You arrive before the busy season starts there.

Of course there are always people who travel this route at any time of the year and these are no hard and fast rules. You should just know what you are going to deal with. Also the weather can vary a little bit from year to year, so do not think that September is ideal, but October is way too late. Consider this more as a rough guideline.

Which transport

Flying, going by bus, train or driving by car? There are a few options. However, I think the ideal solution is to go by car. Whether it is your own car or it is a rental car. Whether it is a 4WD or 2WD.

 

There is a very famous train running along the Stuart Highway, which is called the Ghan. It is supposed to be one of the greatest train rides, but for your purposes of discovering the heart of Australia rather unsuited.

Going by bus is also problematic, as get for example to Alice Springs, but then you don’t have any option to go around or it is very tricky. If you choose to go by bus, go for one of the popular tours that gets you also to the famous sites.

Flying into Alice Springs might be an option. But once you are there, you have to go for a tour, rent a car or find other people you can join to take you along in their vehicle and you also miss out on attractions along the Stuart Highway.

So, ideally you (and hopefully some fellow backpackers) go for the whole thing by car. This post is also intended to people doing this. If it is your own car or rental does not really matter. Just be gentle with your rental as they say.

Rental car at camp ground
Rental car with roof top tent after packing up at our camp ground - plus visitor
A 2WD is absolutely sufficient for pretty much the whole itinerary. You do not really need a 4WD unless you want to go for some Outback gravel road experiences and drive for example along the Oodnadatta Track. Some tracks in the red centre require a 4WD, but even if you haven’t got one you won’t be missing out on the popular attractions such as Kings Canyon, Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
 
Moreover, you will spend a fair amount on fuel and it is not always particularly cheap along the way, so you might take this into consideration as well when choosing if you are going for a 2WD or 4WD.
4WD with camping trailer
4WD with camping trailer - not really necessary along the Stuart Highway

Darwin and Top End

As mentioned earlier we assume that you start up north. So most likely, you either start your trip in Darwin or from one of the national parks such as Litchfield NP or Kakadu NP.

Kakadu national park
Vast landscapes of Kakdu national park

The Top End is full of beautiful landscapes, huge areas such as Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land and here you can find out about Aboriginal history, art and lifestyle and see huge saltwater crocodiles.

aboriginal cave paintings
Up to 20.000 years old - aboriginal rock art at Kakadu national park

In this article I am not going into detail about the Top End (Darwin, Litchfield NP, Kakadu NP, etc.). If you want to have further information on that please read this post (LINK).

So, coming from up north you first go onto Stuart Highway and always keep driving south first heading towards Mataranka.

Mataranka Thermal Pools

Don’t miss out on this stop along the Stuart Highway. Mataranka thermal pools is basically just of the road and good for a break of two or three hours from all the time spend sitting in the car (sometimes cramped between backpacks, camping gear and whatever else).

Just off the road when passing through Mataranka you can enjoy a quick dip in the refreshing thermal pools in Elsey national park. Azure blue water among palm trees this place is a bit of a contrast to the red of the soil and grey of the asphalt you see while you are driving.

There is a slight current that gently picks you up and after just a few minutes of floating in the warm water you find yourself at the other end of this natural fun ride. Well, more relaxing than fun I guess. Definitely worth stopping here as it is on your way anyway.

Mataranka thermal pools
Get refreshed at the Mataranka thermal pools

Daly Waters Pub

A stop at this quirky, unique place is a must. Every now and then you find some places in Australia that depict their humor. And this pub might be on the top of the list of such places.
 
With its weird mixture of Australiana, an outside area decorated with thongs, a counter plastered with IDs, old drivers licenses and what not from tourists and seemingly random stuff thrown about this pub creates a unique ambience and a stark contrast to the monotony of driving along the Stuart Highway.
 
So have a beer or a little snack, a quick chat with some locals or other tourists and backpackers and continue your journey through the red centre of Australia.
Daly Waters pub
A stop at the famous Daly Waters Pub is a must

Tennant Creek

Just after Waramungu and the turnoff to Highway 66 into Queensland there lies Tennant Creek. There is nothing particular special about this place I would say, although every town as remote as Tennant Creek has a certain kind of charm that some people may find fascinating and others boring.

This is a good place for you to fuel up and have another little break, although your next stop, the Devils Marbles, is only about 100 km away.

 

Devils Marbles (Karlu Karlu)

These sometimes fairly huge round red rocks that are lying amidst of a plain make for an impressive quick stop along the way.

Just off the Stuart Highway you can go for a break for an hour or longer. Soak up the ambience of one of the many natural spectacles Australia has to offer, take a few photos and once you arrive there you will definitely understand why it was called Devils Marbles.

Devils Marbles
Devils Marbles - lots of giant round stones miraculously scattered about

Alice Springs

About 400 km after leaving the Devils Marbles you finally arrive in Alice Springs – the capital of the red centre if you want so. A very isolated town, but as soon as you spend some time there you seem to forget that you are very far away from any other bigger town.
 
Alice Springs offers everything you are looking for in a mid sized city. You got shopping centres, hostels, visitor information centre and much more.
 
Stroll around town, shop for some groceries, fill up on gas and just explore one of the most remote cities on Earth. If you want to recover from your time on the road you can spend one night in town and sleep in a hostel.
Alice Springs
Alice Springs - A city in the middle of nowhere (source: flickr, author: Naoki Sato)

You can go for some sight seeing or even organized whole day tourist tours. Enjoy the cities panorama from Anzac Hill, find out about Aussie Outback history, visit the museum of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, explore the red centre’s flaura and fauna and much more.

You can look up the official tourist information website for general information on things to do in Alice Springs and central Australia.

The red centre

From Alice Springs you will start to explore the true red centre of Australia. Places like the Macdonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon, Uluru and Kata Tjuta are waiting for you. To plan your itinerary have a look at this map of the heart of Australia.

You can easily spend a whole month discovering the wonders of central Australia. However the most popular attractions here are the Macdonnell Ranges (especially the western part), Kings Canyon, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Kata Tjuta (the Olgas).

West Macdonnell Ranges

West of Alice Springs and about an hour by car you find the West Macdonnell Ranges. There are various gorges to visit with lots of hiking included as well as shady spots next to pools to get refreshed and go for a break.

West Macdonnell Ranges
Gorges and pools at the West Macdonnell Ranges (source: flickr, by Naoki Sato)

To continue to Kings Canyon via Mereenie Loop you will need a 4WD. So if you have a 2WD you either miss out on the West Macdonnell Ranges or you have to go back to Alice Springs, continue on the Stuart Highway down south and via Lasseter Highway and Luritja Road to Watarrka National Park where Kings Canyon is located.

Kings Canyon

Hiking through trenches along red layers of rocks that give this place an extraterrestrial look makes Kings Canyon one of the spots not to miss when visiting the red centre.

Several tracks for all fitness levels can be found here and be reminded that some of them are closed quite early during the day if it is very hot.

A hike through Kings Canyon - of the famous attractions the red centre offers

From Kings Canyon follow the way back to Lasseter Highway and all the way to Yulara, your base for visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuta as camping in the close by national park is not permitted.

Uluru

For many people the red centre is synonymous with Uluru. This massive sandstone rock formation ca be seen from afar and is probably the number one reason why many travelers make their way to central Australia.

The little town called Yulara next to the national park where Uluru and Kata Tjuta can be found is your place to stay while visiting. When purchasing a ticket to enter the national you will have to go for a 3 day ticket, but you should definitely take all that time. It is totally worth it!

One of these days you should spend getting up early, driving to Uluru and go for the base walk (10.6 km) all around the giant red rock. When walking around you will notice that the rock looks very different when standing close compared to how it appears from the distance.

Standing close to Uluru you notice that its surface is not all that smooth

Later that day you should drive to a spot close by, have some dinner and watch the sun set and Uluru change its colors. A must see while you are there.

Uluru at sunset
The majestic Uluru at sunset - a spectacle not to miss out on

Kata Tjuta

Another must see next to Uluru (in terms of Australian distances) is Kata Tjuta, also kown as the Olgas. Though less famous a visit is highly recommended and some say the hikes are even more spectacular than the sight of Uluru.

Kata Tjuta - Uluru's less popluar little sister, but probably even more impressive

One of the most popular tracks leads through the so called Valley of the Winds.

Valley of the Winds - one of Kata Tjuta's must do walks

Here you can find out more about the walks around Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

Of course there are many more things the red centre has to offer. For more detailed information on a similar itinerary through central Australia click here.

Coober Pedy

This little opal mining town is yet another of many curiosities along the way. Fuel up and get some groceries and while you are there spend some time exploring this place.

Find out about the history of opal mining, have a look inside some of the underground houses and maybe even spend the night underground or somewhere close by.

Cave or house? Some places in Coober Pedy look like this one

Moreover, this extraterrestrial landscape has been featured in several Hollywood movies such as Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome, Pitch Black, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and a few more.

Space ship at Coober Pedy
Find traces of Hollywood movies around Coober Pedy

From Coober Pedy you keep heading further south towards the Flinders Ranges, Port Augusta and finally Adelaide.

Oodnadatta Track

This one might not be on the itinerary of most backpackers, however totally worth it. Yet, there are two things worth mentioning before.

  • You are missing out on Coober Pedy or it is going to be a little detour driving back and forth
  • You need a 4WD - even if some people drove it with 2WD it is not recommended

You can get this Outback driving experience you are looking for. Red gravel roads, blue skies, green bushes. And this track is said to be fairly easy compared to other proper Outback routes.

If you choose to drive along the Oodnadatta track your itinerary is going to change a little bit.

North to south:

Before Coober Pedy you turn onto the track and continue from Marree to Port Augusta (not along the Stuart Highway).

South to north:

From Port Augusta you head for Marre and don’t start on the Stuart Highway. From Marree you turn onto Oodnadatta track and finish in Marla.

Either way you miss out on Coober Pedy or drive back and forth between Marla and this little opal mining town. Up to you guys!

For general information on the Oodnadatta Track, sights along the way and much more have a look at this post.

Oodnadatta Track
The Oodnadatta track shown in blue (source: Wikipedia, author: Summerdrought)

Flinders Ranges, Port Augusta and Adelaide

Traveling further south along the Stuart Highway (or if you go for the Oodnadatta Track as well) you will pass the Flinders Ranges, the largest mountain range in South Australia which is worth a detour.

Hiking, mountain biking, sleeping in a swag under the stars and just soaking up that Outback feeling one more time before entering civilization once again.

 

The Flinders Ranges
Along your journey you pass the Flinders Ranges (source: flickr, by Ralph Bestic)

Driving further south you will pass through Port Augusta. Several highways run through this small town nestled to the ocean connecting north and south as well as east and west.

Here you might go for a last break and spend the night before reaching your final destination, Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.

Jacaranda tree in Adelaide
Spring in Adelaide - you can find jacaranda trees everywhere

Adelaide, also known as the city of churches can easily be explored by foot (at least the CBD), public transport or bike (free to rent in exchange for your passport or drivers licence).

There are so many possible day tours to go for. Whether you want to visit the markets and museums in town, head for Glenelg Beach, go for a wine tour in one of the three major valleys located close by or visit famous Hahndorf and learn about the German heritage of South Australia.

For more information on Adelaide see this article (LINK).

Inspiration and motivation

Last but not least a little video on Uluru to give you some motivation to plan and start your journey through the heart of Australia.

Tips and tricks

  • Have a fly net with you

A fly net is always handy to have. Depending on where exactly you go and what time of the year you might need it or not. But if you are going to use it you will know that it was a few dollars well spend. You get them at most outdoor shops and visitor information centres often for less than 10$.

  • Have a paper map with you

There are many devices and tools that help us to navigate nowadays. However, there is nothing that compares to a good old fashioned paper map. It is never a bad idea to have one in your car. Whether you rely on phone reception for navigation via google maps or in case the battery of your phone dies and… who knows. Just in case, it is always good to have a paper map.

  • Don't underestimate distances and plan fuel accordingly

Look at the distances between places (whether on google maps, your good old fashioned paper map or whatever else) and calculate how much fuel you need. And always have way more than necessary as you might be going for some detour or get lost along the way.

The red centre is a beautiful part of Australia and no backpacker should miss out on it when visiting. So I hope that this article gives you all the information and the motivation to plan your trip and immerse yourself in the breathtaking sceneries and the lifestyle of the Outback with all its charm and curiosity.

Close Menu