The West Macdonnell Ranges
For most people mention of the Red Centre of Australia stirs up images of unending plains of red sand and spinifex; a stark desert landscape shimmering under a white-hot sun. Ayers Rock is probably the most popular option for campervan tourists coming to this region, but an alternative that is closer to Alice and every bit as rewarding for a self-drive excursion is the West MacDonnell National Park. A round trip that takes in all the main attractions here is about 300 kilometres in length, and will take you through semi-desert country that is home to impressive gorges, rugged mountains and peaceful natural swimming holes. The West MacDonnell National Park was established in 1984 to protect the numerous parks and reserves of the range. It also facilitated the development of the walking track, the Larapinta Trail. So for the ultimate experience, pick up your campervan hire at Alice Springs and strike out to experience the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Start your West MacDonnell Ranges adventure at Simpsons Gap, a natural waterhole lined with ghost gums and surrounded by high cliffs. Turn onto Larapinta Drive from the Stuart Highway in Alice Springs, and head west for about 15min drive. Along the way, you'll pass the Alice Springs Desert Park, Flynn's Grave and Honeymoon Gap. Swimming is not permitted at the Gap, but you can lounge on the banks and enjoy watching the black footed rock wallabies bound amongst the rocks. There are a couple of designated walking trails here, and you can make use of the free barbeque sites as well.
Continuing along Larapinta Drive for about 22km brings you to the turn off to the Standley Chasm, which is a further 9km in from that point. This rock cleft is just a few metres wide, but towers to over 80m in height. At midday the overhead sun reflects off the walls creating a gleaming pillar of light, so try and time your visit to fit in with this glowing and glorious spectacle. There is an entry fee here and the chasm is open from 8 am to 6 pm. A kiosk operates in these times, offering souvenirs, food and drinks to visitors.
Just past Standley the road splits into two, and you should branch right onto the Namatjira Drive. Ellery Creek Big Hole is deep and permanent water but swimming isn't recommended since someone released a crocodile into it. The sandy creek here is lined with tall gums, which in turn are towered over by the characteristic red cliffs of the region. The permanence of the waterhole means it is relied upon by plenty of flora and fauna as a source of water, so you are likely to see an array of local animals bounding amongst the rocks and vegetation.
Serpentine Gorge is located approximately 100km west of Alice Springs along the Larapinta Trail. It comprises two gorges created by a creek which has cut through two ridges. There is a semi-permanent waterhole guarding the entrance to the gorge. The area is secluded and there are some stunning walking trails, with one in particular providing a panoramic view of the ranges. The real stars here are the walls of the gorge; the rock layers appear to have been twisted like a Danish pastry.
Drive on from this gorge for twelve kilometres and you'll find the Ochre Pits, which is where the local aboriginal people used to glean their ochre pigments from for body paint and in traditional ceremonies. This area is culturally significant to the local indigenous population and is worth a visit for its natural beauty and its cultural heritage. The pits consist of several layers of multi-coloured, layered rock in shades ranging from bright gold to crimson, a deep orange and a plum-like hue.
Ormiston Pound is a ring of mountains punctuating the MacDonnell Ranges, approximately 135 km west of Alice Springs. The most inspiring gorge in the Ranges is the Ormiston Gorge. There is a popular waterhole at the bottom near the gorge, as well as several lookouts. The famous Finke River passes Ormiston Gorge in the west. Over 300 metres deep in some spots, the gorge offers an abundance of viewing points and walking trails, all carved from the smouldering red rock of the area. There are official picnic spots and unpowered camping spots, so park your campervan and enjoy the quiet of the gorge at night.
One hundred and thirty kilometres west from Alice Springs is Glen Helen Gorge, which is your penultimate destination and where most people choose to bunk down for a few nights because of the good camping facilities on offer. The landscape around Glen Helen is as spectacular as you will find anywhere with a towering sandstone wall greeting you as you arrive. The area includes views of the much-painted Mount Sonder, which is one of the highest points in Central Australia. Like Uluru, Mount Sonder changes colours dramatically throughout the day. There is also the chance to go on guided hikes or even helicopter tours of the region. It's the perfect place to base yourself for a few days and explore the heart of the Red Centre.
You will see why this area was immortalised by painters like pioneering indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira. The colours glow! The West MacDonnell Ranges are a must-see when visiting the Northern Territory.