To marvel at the changing colours of Uluru, explore the vast valleys of Kata Tjuta, walk the rim of King’s Canyon, delve into the chasms of the West MacDonnell Ranges and engage in the vibrancy of Alice Springs are things every Australian should do, because they are essential to the country’s history and identity.
The great thing about all these things in Central Australia is that they are all relatively accessible to caravanners from every major Australian city and can be enjoyed at many different levels and depths – from the comfort of a rental car or motorhome, to a camper or an offroad caravan.
We’ve been here a number of times over the years, but mostly it’s been passing through on the way to somewhere further north, or west. But this time, we took the time to linger in places we’ve previously sped past, or been unable to access.
However, there are some basic rules for safe and happy Red Centre touring that apply to all caravanners, whether it’s their first of fifth visit…
1. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
The bitumen roads, marked picnic spots and road signs may give the impression of organanised calm, but beneath this façade the Red Centre remains a wild environment in which conditions can change rapidly and unexpectedly.
For example, two weeks before we arrived in Alice Springs, there was a deluge that set the traditionally dry Todd River flowing, dropped hail-stones on the township and producing record low overnight temperatures in the weeks following, while just a day’s drive north everyone was still in bathers.
The flow-on affects many people out on inland roads, including us, when we got bogged south of Finke on what should have by then been a bone-dry road. We spent nearly half a day getting out, only to have the only three other vehicles we saw all day arrive five minute after we were free!
The lesson here is to be prepared. Conditions can – and do – change quickly; your travel plans can be disrupted and you can be isolated unexpectedly.
Always carry plenty of drinking water, something to sustain you for a day or so, matches, sunscreen and a lightweight fleece blanket. It sounds silly when its 30 degrees and sunny one day, but makes sense when it’s hailing the next and the roads are flooded.
2. IF IT RAINS, BE WARNED!
Weather conditions can catch you out if you are not prepared. We recall crossing Far North Queensland’s Daintree River some years ago and driving happily on a sealed school bus route after overnight rain, when suddenly we were stopped by a raging torrent carrying broken tree limbs and debris.
We turned back only to find the same threatening conditions had closed the road we had just travelled. We had to wait an hour before the flash flood had subsided and we were free to travel.
It’s the same in the Red Centre. All those ‘floodways’ you cross on major sealed roads with their water depth markers are there for good reasons and you only need a good dose of overnight rain for major roads to become impassable and even life-threatening.
3. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE DISTANCES
The distances between major inkspots on the map in the Red Centre can sometimes be covered quickly. But often not.
Road and bridge wash-aways matter less to locals for whom time travels relatively slow, but can frustrate your holiday plans if you have pre-booked tours, accommodation, air travel, or deadlines to meet because of events back home.
Few holiday-makers, especially those towing campers or caravans, are accustomed to travelling four or more hours a day without losing concentration, let alone the 10 or 12 many attempt between major destinations on the major access routes.
If the road is marked as unsealed, expect it to take much longer. Apart from the obvious variations in condition, you might need to fact in detours, extreme corrugations, getting lost and, of course, the time you will spend stopping for photos.
4. DON’T RUN LOW ON FUEL
For the above reasons, never let yourself run low on fuel. Most refueling points on major roads are well spaced to suit average touring conditions, but a heavy caravan can double your fuel consumption and turn a useful touring range of 500-600km into 350-400km.
Missing a top-up because your tank is still half full or because you are shocked by the pump price (which can be up to double that of capital cities) is likely to leave you stranded.
5. FLAT TYRES
People rarely have flat tyres in big cities these days, but Red Centre conditions are different.
Debris, sharp stones and high temperatures can all contribute, so it’s important to ensure that your spare tyre is accessible, inflated and that you carry the equipment to change it.
Many punctures are caused by man-made objects. We punctured a rear tyre on a tow vehicle a few years ago when it picked up a rail spike on the Oodnadatta Track. How? Well, firewood is scarce there; some travellers pilfer old railway sleepers and the corrugations shake the spikes out.
Other debris gets pushed to the side of major sealed roads and many punctures occur because people stop suddenly from high speed to take photographs and pound their tyres into the rocks and stones on the edge.
6. LOWER YOUR TYRE PRESSURES
It amazes me that relatively few travellers – particularly those towing offroad campers and caravans – don’t adjust their tyre pressures for made and unmade road surfaces. It can make all the difference to your comfort and the survival of your towed vehicle.
As a general rule, drop your tow vehicle’s tyre pressures by at least 20 per cent over their highway pressures for corrugations and your trailer’s by up to 30 per cent.
On bitumen, we run Toyota’s recommended road pressures on our LandCruiser 200 Series tow vehicle – plus another 3psi in the rear tyres because of the ball weight of our Trakmaster caravan – and 35psi all round on the van.
On unsealed roads and tracks, we drop the LandCruiser’s pressures to 25/28psi front/rear, and the Trakmaster’s down to 24psi all round. If it’s very sandy or muddy, take off another 5-8psi.
We recently met experienced outback travellers Mick Hutton and Connie-Sure Beadell on the Great Central Road and asked their tyre pressure advice for the heavily corrugated section from Docker River to Kata Tjuta.
“Forget about figures,” said Hutton. “Just drop your pressures until you see the sidewall start to bag.” We did and his advice was spot-on.
Nevertheless, the less experienced (most of us) should carry a tyre pressure gauge to be more accurate. Sure, it takes time to raise and lower the pressure of eight tyres, but take my word for it: it’s worth it for your comfort, traction and the easier time it will give your rig.
If you can’t spare the time, perhaps you are on the wrong trip!
7. GROUND CLEARANCE
If you are planning to go offroad, ensure your vehicle has plenty of ground clearance when laden.
It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how the space under many tow vehicles shrinks once you add a trailer, a fridge, perhaps a generator, recovery gear and so on.
Many wonderful places, like Palm Valley south of Hermansburg in the West MacDonnell Ranges, are simply not accessible unless you have decent ground clearance and you’ll find yourself scraping your rear end on many dry creek bed crossings on other outback roads without adequate clearance.
8. PHONE/INTERNET SERVICE
This is the 21st century, right? Wrong, if you judge it by the level of mobile phone and internet coverage in some of the most visited parts of Central Australia.
Yes, Alice Springs, Yulara and Uluru are well serviced, but not the very popular Kings Canyon and not most of the Stuart Highway in between major centres.
We recently travelled nearly 500km on the Stuart Highway between Erldunda and Coober Pedy without a mobile signal, so if you suffer from Facebook Deprivation Syndrome, get used to it!
Radio signals are also few and far between, so I recommend that you either load your phone or iPad with plenty of music and/or audio books beforehand.
Many people are allergic to dust, certain grasses and pollen. In Alice Springs, we camped in a palm plantation. This produced what we discovered is a common reaction.
The morale is, it you are allergic to dust and anything else airborne, take your tablets and your prescriptions with you, as the winds that pass across the desert areas surrounding the Red Centre bring many allergens with them.
One of the joys of travelling in the Red Centre is to sit by a fire under a million stars. However, you can only do this if you can light a fire!
As gathering firewood is prohibited in most national parks, you’ll need to bring it with you. And unless you carry a bag of pre-cut timber, in most cases this means cutting and bringing your own.
We carry a cordless electric chainsaw, which is ideal, as we don’t need to carry fuel and it holds the charge of its Lithium battery for months when stored.
So when we know we are going to be somewhere overnight where we can light a fire, we source and cut dead roadside timber along the way and lash it to the rack on the back of our Trakmaster.
If you don’t have such rack, I recommend a large, heavy duty sack you can store in your car or on a roof-rack, as the timber you cut will often be dusty.
I would also recommend you carry a pack of firelighters and matches. Paper becomes a rare commodity for starting fires when you are travelling and one or two firelighters always does the trick.