Hi, Angie from Salamanda Travel here. After nearly 10 years of helping clients with their Alice Springs campervan hire holidays, I thought it was about time I visited the Red Centre myself. So I convinced my husband, brother and sister-in-law to leave the kids at home and join me on a 5-day camper van holiday to Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon and everything in between.
I’ve outlined a day-by-day account of our recent trip for your reading pleasure. We hired two Apollo 4WD Adventure campervans to experience the Outback and couldn’t have been happier with the campers. I specifically wanted a 4WD campervan so that we could travel on the unsealed Mereenie Loop Road. This is a popular travelling route with our customers and I wanted to see it for myself. So read on and I hope you find my blog interesting and helpful!
Day 1: Alice Springs to Ayers Rock Resort
We flew into Alice Springs from Brisbane around lunchtime and the plan was to collect the Apollo campervans and hit the road as soon as possible. Well, great plans always go astray – Qantas decided to leave my bag in Brisbane so I had to make a quick trip to Kmart to buy a few essentials. (Qantas ended up delivering my bag to Ayers Rock campground the next day but I was not a happy camper for those 24 hours!).
The Alice Springs Apollo branch staff were very cheerful and showed us through the 4WD Adventure Campers, pointing out how to connect to power, where the gas bottles were and the other important camping info. Then it was a quick stop for some food and other supplies, before hitting the highway for our 500 kilometre (310 mile) journey to Ayers Rock Resort. We made a fuel stop at Erldunda (which marks the turn-off from the Stuart Highway onto Lasseter Highway) and was pleasantly surprised to see some emus watching us from the car park. Our first animal sighting!
It ended up taking us close to 6 hours to drive from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock Resort – and that was travelling at 130 km/h for part of the journey. I was beginning to realise the distances involved in travelling through Australia’s Outback. We arrived at Ayers Rock Resort in darkness and congratulated ourselves on hiring campervans which are very easy to set up for the night (no tents or pegs involved!). Ayers Rock Resort is a big place with lots of different accommodation options, ranging from the campground to budget accommodation and 5-star luxury hotels. We had pre-booked two adjoining powered camp sites and were fortunate to get sites close to the shower and toilet block. The sites themselves were pretty bare (not much green grass!) but they were quite large so we weren’t too close to our other neighbours.
We had dinner at the Pioneer BBQ and Bar which specialises in a do-it-yourself BBQ with a variety of meat for purchase (including emu and kangaroo). Then it was early to bed as we planned to watch the sunrise over Uluru in the morning. The temperature got down to 3 degrees overnight so we were happy to have the onboard heater to keep us warm (240V power required).
Day 2: Ayers Rock (Uluru) and the Olgas (Kata-Tjuta)
Early morning starts are not my speciality, but I figured watching the sunrise over Uluru (Ayers Rock) was worth the sleep deprivation and cold. Or so I told myself when the alarm went off at 6am. We quickly packed up the campervan and drove for 20 minutes or so to the Ayers Rock sunrise viewing area. There is a check-point before entering the National Park where you hand over $25 per adult (under 16 years are free) for a 3-day park pass. Sunrise was scheduled for 7.19am (click here for sunrise and sunset times) and we just made it after getting a little lost and driving all around the Rock trying to find the sunrise viewing area. We should have just followed the hordes of tourist buses making their way to the same place! By the time we arrived the viewing platform was packed but we made our way down the hill a little to get a clear view of Uluru. It was pretty special watching the sun rise and witnessing the changing colours on the rock face. And did I mention it was cold?!! My fingers and toes were freezing but it was worth it!
As soon as the sun was up the masses of tourists boarded their buses again for the next stop on their whistle-stop tour. Again, we congratulated ourselves on hiring our own campervans – travelling to our own schedule was definitely one of the biggest advantages of hiring our own vehicles. As soon as everyone cleared out we set up our outdoor table and chairs and cooked up bacon and eggs for breakfast on the outdoor gas stoves. Uluru provided a spectacular backdrop for breakfast but we kept looking at it, wondering how difficult it was going to be to climb it.
But climb it we did (with bellies full of bacon and eggs). The local Aboriginal people (the Anangu) request that you do not climb it for spiritual and safety reasons, but it is still left up to each individual to make their own decision. But be warned – the climb is not for the faint-hearted. We were surprised at how steep the first part of the climb is and without the steel chain, the climb would be impossible. Uluru is made of sandstone and is relatively smooth, so one slip and there would be no stopping you.
That said, many people were climbing the rock in all sorts of clothing, but sturdy shoes and a slow-and-steady approach are a must. The chain covers about a third of the journey (which is the steepest part of the climb) and the rest of the climb is easy for most people. The view from the top is amazing and you can see the Olgas in the distance. We were lucky that there was not much wind but it would be cold up there if the wind was blowing.
In all, it took us about 1.5 hours to climb Uluru (with lots of stops for photos along the way) and just over an hour to climb back down. I would leave at least 3 hours to complete the return climb, accounting for some photo opportunities and rest time at the top. There are no food or drink outlets at Ayers Rock but the 12V fridges onboard the campervans kept all of our food nicely chilled, so we set up our table and chairs again under some shade for lunch. Our legs definitely needed a rest (I think coming down is harder on the legs than going up). An easier option is to do the 9.4km walk around Uluru.
After lunch we headed to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), which are 44 kilometres from Ayers Rock. If we had more time on our trip, I would have left the Olgas for the next day, but unfortunately we had to get to Kings Canyon in the morning. So we only ended up spending about 30 minutes at the Olgas which is not enough. There are two of walks you can do through the Olgas (Valley of the Winds Walk – 7km or the Olga Gorge Walk – 2km). We just did the first part of the Olga Gorge Walk as we were pressed for time.
We raced back to the Campground as we were getting picked up for the Sounds of Silence Dinner at 5pm. We just had enough time for a quick shower before boarding the bus (so much for an afternoon siesta after our early start!). The Sounds of Silence Dinner takes you to a viewing area in the desert to watch the sunset over Uluru before dining out under the stars. We enjoyed some champagne while watching the sunset and listening to a local didgeridoo player. He wasn’t in the best mood because his normal “didge” had been stolen while in for repairs and we felt he rushed his talk on the didgeridoo and its origins. But for the international visitors, it would have still been an interesting display of local culture.
Once the sun set we walked a short distance to dinner area, which consisted of about 10 round tables with heaters. The dinner ended up being a buffet and while is had some interesting food selections (including kangaroo), we didn’t think it lived up to the $159.00 per person price tag. But we were impressed with the location as it’s not often you get to sit out under the Milky Way with Uluru in the distance. The other highlight was a star talk from a local Aboriginal astronomer, who gave a fascinating insight into the night sky, including discussions on the planets, star signs and Aboriginal meaning behind a lot of the constellations. He and his helpers had even set up high-powered telescopes so that we could look at the stars and planets (including Venus and Saturn). It was a thrill to see the rings of Saturn in blurry detail. In all, I would recommend the Sounds of Silence dinner for the experience and star talk, but I feel the food and presentation could be improved.
The bus took us back to the campground at the end of the night and we had no trouble falling asleep after our very full day.
Day 3: Ayers Rock Resort to Kings Canyon Resort
Today we drove approximately 300km (186 miles) from Ayers Rock Resort to Kings Canyon Resort in the Watarrka National Park. We stopped at the Mount Connor lookout off Lassiter Highway to take in the view of Mount Connor, which is a table-topped mountain about 3 times the size of Uluru. We then turned off onto Luritja Road to continue the drive up to Kings Canyon.
We stopped for lunch at Kings Creek Station (about 40km from Kings Canyon Resort) where one of the staff questioned us about making our own sandwiches on their outdoor tables (which were not being used). He seemed happy enough when we explained that we had purchased some food and drinks from the counter. Not sure if we would stop there again!
We made it to Kings Canyon Resort by early afternoon and checked into the campground. They allow you to pick your own site so we “reserved” two adjoining sites but setting up our outdoor table and chairs. We were heading back out to walk the Canyon so we didn’t want to lose our spots. The campground was cleaner and prettier than Ayers Rock Resort and we even had our own patch of green grass to enjoy.
At Kings Canyon itself, you can either do the Kings Creek Walk into the canyon (2.6km return) or the rim walk (a 6km loop). We’d read that you need 3-4 hours to complete the rim walk, but we did it comfortably in 2 hours. The only part we didn’t visit was the “Garden of Eden” which is an optional walk (about halfway around the rim) down to an area of waterholes and greenery. The only strenuous part of the walk was the beginning climb up to the rim but we thought it was a lot easier than climbing Uluru. The rest of the walk was pretty relaxed but I would not recommend it for people with bad knees as the ground is quite rocky. Overall, Kings Canyon is an amazing gorge that is well-worth the visit.
That night we ate at the Outback BBQ and Grill and watched the “Roadies” show, put on by a husband and wife team who perform a variety of skits and songs. It had a very strong Australiana theme (I can’t remember when I last heard the “Botany Bay” song!) but they got the crowd involved and we even found ourselves singing along.
Day 4: Kings Canyon Resort – Glen Helen – Alice Springs
Today was probably our biggest day on the road. We drove nearly 400 km (249 mi) from Kings Canyon Resort back to Alice Springs. Before leaving the Resort at 10am we paid our mandatory $2 road pass to travel along the Mereenie Loop Road. The Loop itself is only 155km in length but it took us at least 2 hours to drive. I was surprised that it was not as corrugated as I expected (I’ve driven the Gibb River Road and it was far worse) but we saw a few graders along the way so they obviously keep it well-maintained. The road is basically dirt (very red dirt) and there were a few creek crossings but they didn’t have any water in them (much to our disappointment). That said, you definitely do need a 4WD campervan or Four Wheel Drive car to do the Mereenie Loop as a 2WD car would have been shaken to pieces. Thankfully we only saw 4WD cars and campers on the Loop. We also saw a dingo, horses and a lone donkey.
Once the Mereenie Loop finished we were back on sealed roads. For lunch we detoured into Tnorala (Gosse Bluff)which is crater formed around 142.5 million years ago when an object from space (believed to be a comet 600 metres wide) crashed to Earth, blasting a crater some 20km across. The remaining bluff is about 5km in diameter and the dirt road takes you into the middle of the crater where you can have lunch at some picnic spots. There are some shaded areas as well as waterless (pit) toilets. We didn’t have time to walk up the bluff but we spotted a few people enjoying the view from the top.
Our next stop after lunch was at Glen Helen Resort for ice cream! Glen Helen is located on the edge of the West McDonnell Ranges and is a small resort offering accommodation, fuel and access to the many gorges in the area. We were quickly losing daylight so we only got to visit Ormiston Gorge on the road back to Alice Springs. It was a very pretty gorge (with water!) and we even saw a dingo chase some rock wallabies up the rock face (for the record, the wallabies got away).
From Ormiston Gorge it was just over 100 km (62 mi) back to Alice Springs and we arrived around 6.30pm. So it was a very big day of driving and if we had more time, it would have been nice to stop at Glen Helen for the night and visit a few more of the gorges, like Serpentine Gorge, Ellery Creek Bighole and Glen Helen Gorge itself.
We spent the night in Alice Springs at the Crowne Plaza Alice Springs Hotel although the Stuart Caravan Park was recommended to us by the Apollo Alice Springs branch staff if we needed an overnight camping option.
Day 5: Alice Springs
We enjoyed breakfast at a café in Todd Mall before returning our Adventure Campers back to the Apollo branch. We returned the campervans in no worse condition that we collected them, albeit for some red dirt stains! We were really impressed with the Apollo campervans, particularly the large double bed, ice-cold fridge and the fact that we didn’t have any mechanical breakdowns or problems, which is important when travelling through remote areas.
We flew home tired but with a lot of great memories of our Outback adventure. If we had more time in Alice Springs we would have liked to visit the Alice Springs Desert Park and the Old Telegraph Station to learn a bit more about the area.
TIPS AND TRICKS
So that was my Alice Springs campervan hire trip! I thought I would include some extra tips about our time away and hopefully this information will help with your own campervan holiday.
• Rental Length – we took the campervans for 5 days but most rental companies have a 7-day minimum. But this is a good thing, because we did rush a few days and could easily have spent more time at The Olgas, Glen Helen and in Alice Springs.
• Driving Distances – Don’t underestimate how long it takes to get from point A to point B. We stopped a lot for rest and photo opportunities which added more time onto the trip than we expected. Driving in the Outback requires a lot of concentration so you do need to stop for rest breaks.
• Night Driving – If possible, don’t drive at dusk or at night. Driving at dusk is dangerous because this is when more animals venture near the roads and if you are driving west, driving into the setting sun is blinding.
• Phone Reception – Don’t expect any! We lost mobile phone reception about 5 minutes out of Alice Springs and only got reception at Ayers Rock Resort. There was no further reception until we returned to Alice Springs. Some campervan rental companies hire out Satellite Phones which overcome this problem. We also took walkie-talkies which allowed us to communicate between vehicles when the phone reception died. I definitely recommend walkie-talkies when you are travelling in convey.
You are welcome to contact me at Salamanda Travel if you would like more information on my trip or to discuss your own Alice Springs campervan hire. I look forward to hearing from you!