Some friends decided to be married in Alice Springs, so to make the most of it, we took a week’s holiday
with our four-year-old to show him the glorious centre of Australia. We decided to fly to Alice, then rent a campervan with Apollo, a Queensland-based company with a depot in the Red Centre. You can shop around for deals but we found the pricing didn't vary that much. The big question is: what kind of van?
It’s a tricky decision. The larger vans have a loo and shower and can sleep more people but are big vehicles to drive around. If you’ve got a four berth, someone has to sit in the back alone. If you have five people or more, it is worth considering a small van like the pop-top, a tent and then a second small vehicle for transport. That way, you can set up camp, leave all your overnight gear at the site, and go sightseeing in the smaller vehicle. It will also save you petrol. And believe me, the cost of fuel on those routes is not small. The smaller vans have all the same facilities for cooking and food storage and are as much as $100 per day cheaper.
We eventually settled on a three-seater pop-top, perfect for enjoying the scenery together and playing silly road games. Our pop-top had airconditioning, all mod cons for cooking and sleeping, a table for inside and one for outside and battery power which will last for 24 hours if you can’t plug in. A camp shower is provided too, in case you want to free camp. You know the kind, a large plastic bag you fill, hang up in a tree or somewhere high and the water warms in the sun. Beautiful! There’s also a small shovel for your toilet needs in the bush.
Our first camp was at a standard camping area just north of Alice Springs. It had, unbelievably, lush grassy sites, making it the favourite of the small one. I don’t think he appreciated the scenery at the red dirt campsites as much as we did, but the whole atmosphere of Alice Springs was so completely different to the big city that he couldn’t help but enjoy the strangeness of the surrounding desert. There were a million questions to answer every day.
Whatever you do, don’t dismiss Alice Springs as just an airport for the big attractions of Uluru, Kings Canyon and Kata Tjuta.The sights around Alice are stunning, including Corroboree Rock, the Telegraph Station and the start of the Larapinta Trail, the Western MacDonnell ranges and the swimming holes and gorges. The Telegraph Station and its museum, built at the very waterhole the Alice is named for, hold a trove of history. The Desert Park is a must for the kids, as is the feeding of the rock wallabies that happens at sunset behind one of the hotels near the Gap. Watching the kids’ faces as the small creatures eat out of their hands is wonderful.
The drive from Alice Springs to Uluru is a long haul – over 500 kilometres. Halfway there, you’ll be tricked by Mt Conner, a flat-topped monolith that does a great impersonation of Ayres Rock. There’s little in between but gorgeous red desert, however, with few distractions except for scenery. The road signs were fascinating for Mr Four - he learned heaps about speed signs and camel warnings. Roadside breaks became adventures in themselves, and in the pop-top we could linger and cook if we wanted.
To go exploring, excess stuff like sleeping bags and luggage was left in the tent and we drove off in the van with the makings of lunch, cold drinks in the fridge and proper coffee. For me, that’s the best part of the campervan thing. We stopped many times in the most stunning locations, and could linger for longer than if we had just a car. We could even lie down in the shade on a bed for a snooze after lunch - try doing that in a sedan.
One drawback to the campervan experience, though, was recharging the power supply. Some vans have a power connection plug that can only be used at camping grounds. We wanted to stay on a friend’s property and plug in but were not able to recharge unless we paid fees at a camping area. It may be possible to check this with your hire company or find an adaptor from a camping store before you go.
The other drawback is that two-wheel drive vehicles like the pop-top are not allowed off unsealed roads. This can be a bummer when such great places like Ellery Creek Big Hole near Alice is down three km of dirt and is wonderful for cooling off on a hot day.
Camping areas in the Red Centre are terrific on the whole, and most have swimming pools. Be careful which site you choose at the complex near Uluru. A powered tent site will be better than the van sites, which feels a little like a car park at the mall. We moved after the first night and it was much better – trees and grass.
The highlight of our week on the road was the Rock itself – a sight every Australian should take the time to experience. Whatever time of day you visit, the ever-changing light provides a new perspective.