At the beginning of November 2016, we went to Rainbow Valley. Rainbow Valley is just over 100km outside of Alice Springs. Most cars will be able to make the journey, but it’ll be a bumpy ride, taking about an hour and a half to get there. If it’s been raining, then you’ll want to check on road conditions before heading out there.
Rainbow Valley and the claypans
Rainbow Valley and the claypans
Rainbow Valley, which is inside the Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, is known for its sandstone cliffs. It’s an absolutely beautiful spot, and well worth the drive. We camped, which I highly recommend. Although the drive back isn’t that long, it’s worth it to stay and see the sun set against the cliffs, to watch the sandstone turn different shades of orange and red. If you’re really into photography, you’ll get some amazing photos of the stars (and/or the moon) against the formation as well.
The drive out there is pretty interesting, because as soon as you turn off of the Stuart Highway, the dirt is bright red. And then, when you get those first glimpses of the sandstone, you’re instantly in awe of the place.
If you need firewood, make sure you stop before you get to the reserve. Remember to only take the dead pieces.
First glimpse of Rainbow Valley
We arrived at the site just after 4pm. After setting up the tents, we started on dinner prep. The campsite itself is pretty basic. There are pit toilets, a picnic area with gas barbecues and even fire pits. Before you get to the reserve, you’ll want to gather your firewood. There’s plenty of dead trees, so we didn’t have any problems collecting wood for the night.
You can do a little walk around the claypan, which is the area around the sandstone. After it’s rained, the claypan fills with water, and the photos people have taken of the place are beautiful. The walk is short, about a kilometer long.
There’s also a sign posted that informs you of the fact that it is a weed free area (so check your shoes and tents for any errant seeds before you go out there). Because there are no weeds, there is different flora in the area than anywhere else in the Northern Territory.
For dinner, we brought vegetarian Indian food that is sealed in foil packages. You submerge them in water to heat up the food, and in a couple of minutes, you have a piping hot Indian meal. It’s pretty awesome.
I played with my camera settings that night, and tried to get some night sky shots. A friend who really knows his stuff was there, and he was helping me a bit.
The next morning we did the walk out to Mushroom Rock. It’s hot in November, but the walk is about a kilometer, so it won’t take you that long. And, the other rock formations are stunning.
The wind carved out these rocks, giving them these unique shapes.
It was a fun weekend camping in a new spots with good friends!
One of my favorite spots to camp is Palm Valley. I was just there again this past weekend, and my happy memories of the place were renewed. It takes about 2.5 hours to get there, although the times can vary widely, depending on the last 18 km. The first hour and a half of the trip is on Larapinta Dr, a paved road that will take you all the way to Hermannsburg, which is about 130 km west of Alice Springs. Hermannsburg is the last place to get fuel, so it’s worth filling up if you have a small fuel tank. The one gas station in Hermannsburg also has limited hours, so it’s best to fill up if you think you might need fuel.
Also, if you’re hoping to stretch your legs out a little, the town of Hermannsburg has a museum, a cafe and a gift store. It’s absolutely worth a visit. Here is some more information.
Back on the road, less than 2 km west of Hermannsburg is the turnoff for Palm Valley. It’s the second left, after the turn off for the dump. There will be a sign shortly after you turn off, warning you that the road is for 4WD vehicles only. From here, the path is fairly clear, but the terrain can vary. From the sand to the boulders, you’ll want to take your time. The first time we went was October 2016. It had been a while since it had rained, but throughout the winter and into spring, we’d had a bit of rainfall.
It takes about an hour to get there, as long as there are no major wash outs
Entering into the Finke Gorge National Park
For the first approximately 15km, you’re able to collect firewood, but that ceases to be true once you enter into the Finke Gorge National Park. There’s plenty of dead wood to pick up along the way, so don’t feel like you need to stop at the first sight of wood.
The drive to the campsite is pretty fun, but then the campsite itself it what makes it all worth it. It’s beautiful and serene, and we got lucky – there was water in the river. There are a number of campsites available, and there are actual facilities at the campsite – fire pits, grills, toilets and even showers. Here’s the official website for the campsite.
That evening, we had a feast of veggie Indian meals, chips and salsa, fruit and veggies. All the food was cooked in the glow of the setting sun. And once the sun was down, we used our newly acquired wood to get a nice fire going in the fire pit. By then the birds has quieted down, but every once in a while we’d hear the howls of dingoes.
Dismantling the wood acquisition
Water in the Outback!
The next day we went to the Palm Valley hike. It’s 4 km away, but because of the rough terrain, the rangers say to allow 45 minutes to get there. For us, it took about 20 minutes.
Palm Valley is a place not to be missed because of the Red Cabbage Palm Trees. You don’t expect to see palm trees in the middle of the desert, and yet here they are. And they have been here for thousands of years.
What are these tall leafy green trees?
The day started cloudy, which we were grateful for because we knew as soon as the sun emerged, it would be hot. Hiking in October can be risky! We started hiking just before 0900, but in a short period of time, the clouds would dissipate, and it would indeed get quite warm. The hike is about 2 hours, but once you climb through the valley, and up onto the ridge, there is no shade. Make sure you bring plenty of water and a hat!
Immediately you’re treated to palm trees and water
Make sure you bring a hat, because there’s no shade on this part of the walk
It’s hard to believe this is the desert
The Jeep was perfectly equipped to handle this terrain
It’s a steep climb to the top, but the views are amazing
It’s pretty cool to imagine this filled with water
Last October, on a lazy weekend, we decided to bike to Simpsons Gap. We knew that the transition from spring to summer was well underway, and that daytime temperatures would be hot, so we decided to start our journey early. The bike ride is about 24km from our house, so we figured it would take about 2 hours to bike it (although, not having ridden in a while, I was allowing for closer to 3 hours!). We packed a picnic in the saddle bags, and then off we went a little after 0700 to meet up with a friend who was cycling with us. Here‘s the official trail information.
The first 7ish km are from Alice Springs to Flynn’s Grave. You’re riding in the street, but fortunately there’s not a lot of traffic, especially at 0700, so it didn’t feel claustrophobic to be on the street with the cars.
Flynn’s Grave is a landmark in Alice Springs. It’s located on the opposite side of the street that you’re riding on, and it’s definitely worth checking out. The man it commemorates is John Flynn, a minister who lived and worked in the Outback over a century ago. His persistence for better rural medical care is what led to the establishment of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
From this point, it is another 17km to Simpsons Gap. The trail easily meanders past various Outback plants, like Mulga shrublands and grasslands. We were on the lookout for kangaroos and rock wallabies, as well as the perenties!
The Macdonnell Ranges
This was our first time on the trail, and the views of the MacDonnell ranges are breathtaking. The trail is well maintained, and wide enough to ride two abreast. There are also multiple interpretative signs along the way that explain the current and ancient landscape.
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this view
About two hours later, we made it to Simpsons Gap. We parked up the bikes and then found a shady spot under a tree to enjoy our view and eat our food, and to drink lots of water. Even though it was only 0900, it was getting warm and we knew we didn’t want to be out in the hot sun at 1200. We chilled for about half an hour, and then back on the bikes we went.
The way back felt a little longer, and the hills a little harder, but that’s probably because it was inching up past 30ºC, and we were starting to bake. But, we made it back by 1100, after biking more than 40 km. We felt pretty good about our day! We even went to the Central Australian Aviation Museum on the way home!
If the video in the begnning doesn’t work, you can find it here.
This was the only map we had (I don’t recommend this)
Who’s ready for an adventure?
Following the river North
Following the river North
At the end of September 2016, we decided to go on a camping trip. It was a little late in the day when we decided this, but the weather had been really nice, and we wanted to take advantage of it.
We decided to head west on Larapinta, and chose Glen Helen as our starting off point. They let us park our car there, and then we walked across the street, just a couple of minutes west until we saw the trail. At Glen Helen, there was a sign that said we were 4.3 km from the Larapinta Trailhead at Finke River. Once we reached the trailhead, we had to decide if we wanted to walk Section 10 or 11 of the Larapinta trail.
The path to the trailhead is vehicle accessible, and it meandered next to the Finke River. There had been some recent rains, so the river, while not full, did have some water in it. There were a number of people who had driven out to spend their weekend by the river. We walked along the trail for a while, until we came to a fence. Seemingly it was preventing the cars from going any further, as there was an opening for people. Since we’d left our map at home, we just continued to use the Finke River to orient ourselves.
After walking for about an hour, we came across a part of the riverbed with some water, and we decide to stick our toes in.
Looking for the trailhead
These fruit (I think) were really neat. They grow on the vines, that stretch along the desert.
One of the reasons we decided to go hiking this weekend was because of the recent rains. We had hoped to find water in the river.
About ten minutes up from where we stopped was the trailhead for the Larapinta Trail. It’s about 4:30pm by this time, so we know that we won’t be able to complete either trail. We decide to head West to Redbank Gorge. Now that we’re on the trial, there are blazes that guide us along the correct path. We head west until about 5:15pm, looking for a place to set up camp. When we don’t find one, we decide to head back towards the Finke River, where we know we can camp. Sun set around 6:15pm, so we didn’t want to still be looking for a place to camp once the sun went down.
Blazes to guide our path
The sun is starting to get low
We found this awesome spot along the river to set up our tent. Our tent is almost all mesh, so you have a fairly unobstructed view outside of the tent. Once the tent was up, we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, which we enjoyed as the golden glow of the sun descend upon us.
The view from our tent
Do you see our tent?!
Perfect weather for this mesh tent!
By 7:30pm, the sun was completely gone, and we enjoyed looking at the starry sky, trying to guess which constellations were above us.
That morning, after many hours of sleep, we had some granola bars for breakfast and then packed up our tent. We thought about walking further along the trail, but decided instead to have a lazy morning and head back to the part of the river that had water in it. We stayed there for a couple of hours, and then headed back to Glen Helen. We got some ice cream, and then walked out to see the gorge. Then back in the car for the hour and a half drive home. Weekends in the Outback don’t get any better than this one!
Back to our favorite spot along the Finke River
You can tell that there was water here not too long ago
Almost back to the car, here’s the part of the trail that is accessible by vehicle
About a month after we moved to Australia, a good friend contacted me to say that she was going to be on a work trip to Adelaide, and could we meet them there? She and her husband and their two little girls were going to make the enormous trip from St Louis all the way to Australia – of course the answer was “yes!”.
Adelaide is more than 1500km from Alice Springs. It takes approximately 16 hours to get there, and it is at the southern end of the state of South Australia. Most people, for those reasons, choose to fly. Not us!
In September 2016, we headed for Adelaide in the little Hyundai Getz. We planned to take two days to get down there, with an overnight stay in Coober Pedy. We’d heard a lot about it – it’s a very small mining town, with an apparently legendarily good pizza place. We were in!
We left midday, after working for a few hours, leaving around 1200. The first notable landmark is the Northern Territory/South Australia border. It’s about 300km south of Alice Springs. The first 250km we’d done a week earlier when we went to Uluru and Kings Canyon, but after we continued straight instead of turning right to Uluru, it was all new territory for us.
Then, after that border, you drive almost another 400km before getting to Coober Pedy. Along the way, there are a number of roadhouses, spaced out for fuel and food, we stopped in at every one during the entirety of our trip, just to say we had seen them all. The roadhouse in Marla is one that we explored. It is a bit larger than most, with a grocery store and post office along with the normal restaurant/bar, fuel, and motel. This is a remote and foreboding place though, seeming to be on the edge of nowhere. And later we heard the tale of a coworker who spent four boring (and somewhat agonizing) nights here with his family after blowing a transmission nearby.
We arrived in Coober Pedy around 7pm, about half an hour before sunset. As you’re approaching, it looks like it’s inhabited by giant prairie dogs, who have dug holes up all around the place. As far as the eye can see, there are these giant mounds of earth that have been piled high. In reality, the mounds are the tailings of earnest miners – Coober Pedy is an opal mining town, and each of these piles of dirt represent mine shafts and hard work.
We had planned to camp, but the camping situation wasn’t great. At the Oasis Tourist Park, which is slightly north of town, you can camp but the campgrounds are basically on a parking lot, and it seems mainly set up for camper vans. Same goes for the Big 4 Holidays Parks. In the end, we stayed at Riba’s Underground Camping & Caravan Park. It was slightly south of town. They offered camping underground in former mining shafts – and we took them up on the offer!
Here’s where we stayed
Below the domes are the underground “tent sites”
For dinner, we ate at the aforementioned pizza place – a restaurant called John’s Pizza Bar and Restaurant. It wasn’t bad, and for a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, it was actually pretty good. The next morning we had breakfast at Waffles and Gems. The owner is a man who has lived in Coober Pedy most of his life, and if you have time, he has some great stories to tell! Coober Pedy seems interesting enough in and of itself for a weekend trip from Alice Springs. There are a lot of museums that tell the history of the town, both its recent mining history, as well as its more dated Aboriginal history. You can also go “noodling”, which basically means looking for opals in piles of tailings. There are a number of tour groups that will take you on those adventures.
Watching out for animals – like kangaroos and cows!
Missile testing at Woomera
We’re back on the road just before 9am. Our first stop was a place called Woomera. It’s about 380km south of Coober Pedy and was the perfect place to stretch our legs and grab some lunch. It’s less than 130km south of the Glendambo Roadhouse, and if you have a little extra time, is worth a stop. It’s about a 15 minute detour off of the Stuart Highway. The town was established in 1947 in order to support the Woomera Rocket Range. Testing continues to this day, although it is much more scaled back and apparently less manpower intensive. This is largest test range on earth, used by the US, UK, and Australia. Even now, when missile tests are occurring, the Stuart Highway is closed from just south of Coober Pedy to Woomera, sometimes for days. And since this is the only road traveling south, it can really mess up travel plans! If you’re interested, you can find more information about Woomera here.
Changing landscape around Carriewerloo
Civilization! Adelaide is another 3 hours from here.
No longer on Stuart Highway, the road changes names to Princes Highway, or the A-1.
190km later, after being surprised to see large lakes on the way, we came to Port Augusta. Although we have been logging a lot of hours in the car, we had run reading a book about the Stuart Highway, and listening to podcasts.
Driving through Winninowie
Driving through Mambray Creek
Driving through Germein Bay
After Port Augusta, the landscape changed quite a lot. We also experienced rain off and on, which is why there aren’t as many photos during this period. When we did finally make it to the outer city limits of Adelaide, it was dark and raining quite heavily. In fact, it rained so hard and so quickly that many of the streets were flooded, and we had to carefully navigate our way through to the downtown. But, we eventually arrived at our Airbnb with no problems! Now for the next stage of our adventure – exploring Adelaide!