Day 3 (Part 2) – Goodbye Bitumen, Hello Dirt!

Written by: Brandon

The Red Centre Way

As mentioned earlier, to get to Watarrka National Park we had to drive through the famous Mereenie Loop which also known as the Red Centre Way!

Touted as one of the must-drives when doing the Red Centre, the Mereenie Loop is a scenic 225 kilometre drive that connects Glen Helen, Hermannsburg and Watarrka National Park. It features a 151 kilometre stretch of unsealed road which is basically a dirt road instead of nice bitumen roads we’ve all come to know.

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The roads are normally open but subject to closures due to things like road works or heavy rain. As such, a Four Wheel Drive (4WD) vehicle is highly recommended for the unsealed portion.

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Always take note of signs like these. Even if it means travelling the longer route to your destination!

Depending on your luck, the road can be full of corrugations, washouts and flooding if a storm has recently swept through the area. You COULD attempt it in your own 2WD sedan but it’s an almost guaranteed uncomfortable drive that can damage your car. Even with a 4WD, you risk breaking down or blowing out a tyre in the middle of nowhere! Murphy’s Law everyone!

#Wandernot

Some vehicle rental companies have very strict policies on taking your rented vehicle onto dirt and unsealed roads. Do check with them before going all Mad Max in the outback only to have your security bond forfeited, insurance voided and to have to foot the ENTIRE repair bill in full if shit happens!

Gosse Bluff (Tnorala)

The Red Centre Way offers a few notable sights. The first one was Mount Zeil, the tallest peak (1531 metres) in the Northern Territory! You could even climb it if you wanted to!

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The next we encountered was Tyler’s Pass after a 40 minute-ish drive, which can be accessed by a small turnoff from the main highway and a 5-minute steep rocky dirt road up to the top of a hill which offers some shelter and an AMAZING view of Gosse Bluff (Tnorala).

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It looks small here, but trust me when I say it’s massive!

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Here’s one for the postcards!

In a nutshell, a comet struck earth millions of years ago leaving a huge-ass 20 kilometre-wide impact crater that is now the Gosse Bluff. Although it’s along our way, we decided to give this a miss as we were worried that we couldn’t reach Watarrka before sundown. But it is open to the public and it’s a 10km 4WD-recommended unsealed road into the Tnorala Conservation Reserve.

If you decide to pay Gosse Bluff a visit, do be respectful to the area and be mindful of signs restricting access to certain areas as the bluff is considered a sacred site to the aboriginal people.

We met a couple there who did the Red Centre loop in reverse. They had set off from Kings Canyon Resort at 7am and only just reached Tyler’s Pass when we were there (noon-ish). “The road’s really beat up and harsh today!” the wife exclaimed referring to the Mereenie Loop. Her husband told us that we should be fine as our car wasn’t hooked to an additional carriage like theirs. We parted ways and made our way down on our last few kilometres of sealed bitumen road.

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Starting the Mereenie Loop

We drove for about 35 minutes, and eventually, we reached a T junction at the end of Namatjira Drive which was intersected by dirt roads on both ends. Going left leads to the small town of Hermannsburg, right is the start of the famous Mereenie Loop!

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I love long drives like these!

Almost immediately after turning, the car started vibrating violently thanks to all the corrugations on the track and this was the worst dirt road we’ve encountered so far! The sound of the vibration rivaled the volume of our car’s stereo and our voices. Incidentally, George Michael’s Careless Whisper started blasting above the noise of the corrugations. I thought that was pretty funny. HA.

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Model for the trip!

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I had one job. That was to point AT the road.

So this was basically it, 150 kilometres of straight up off-road driving. As conditions were really dry, I decided to maintain a speed of about 80 km/h to minimise the impact of the really corrugated road – fast enough to ensure the nuts and bolts on our car didn’t rattle loose (going slower on heavily corrugated roads turns your car into a vibrator, the unsexy kind), but slowly enough to dodge crossing animals, and huge potholes and obstacles (sharp rocks and various debris) on the ground.

The Mereenie Loop Road Permit states you are not allowed to stray from the road. No parking your car to explore somewhere else, no picnicking and camping.

The only place you are able to stop, park and explore is Ginty’s lookout which we will touch on further into the post!

When they said that the Mereenie Loop was one the most scenic drives in Australia, they weren’t kidding. The view and the skies were AMAZING.

Long roads that seemed to stretch on forever, greenery and rolling hills as far as the eye can see and perfectly match with the bluest of skies. Everywhere was a perfect photo opportunity!

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We expected kangaroos to be crossing the roads but all we got were lizards, horses and cows. I wonder where all of them were hiding.

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The loop also featured some unique pieces of art as well. A tree decorated with underwear and boots, the famous “Lift ’em Foot” painted on a oil barrel telling you to slow down indicating a bend ahead with a sharp 45 degree turn.

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After about 3.5 hours or so we reached Ginty’s Lookout, the only place you are allowed to stop your vehicle, walk around, camp and rest! Ginty’s Lookout is the last landmark and point of interest of the loop road before you enter Watarrka National Park! Don’t be fooled though, it’s still an approx. 38 kilometers of dirt road before you enter the park’s boundary!

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We completed the Mereenie Loop! All 225 kilometers of it, no flat tires, no engine overheats and half a tank of fuel left! The Mereenie Loop was an unforgettable 4-hour drive into the heart of Australia’s outback but make no mistake, she’s as harsh as she’s beautiful.

During the journey, we drove past many abandoned flat tires, bits and pieces of vehicles here and there and even the abandoned wreckage of two cars. One just looked really rusted out with graffiti and the other had its front all mangled and windows shattered.

Enjoy your drive but remain alert and safe! We may or may not have gone airborne for a split second when I missed a rather large pothole :p

What a feeling of accomplishment it was to finally see this:

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Watarrka National Park

While it was a relief that we got to Watarrka in one piece, it was a bigger relief that we were on nice smooth bitumen roads again. To only hear the sound of the stereo instead of every atom around us vibrating violently was nice. My hands had gotten slightly numb from the steering wheel vibrating.

We took a turnoff for a short rest, checked the car to make sure that all’s well. The car is covered in a layer of fine sand and the entire front of it is covered with splattered bits and pieces of bugs; bull-bars, windscreen, front grille, headlights, EVERYWHERE.

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And eventually the view of the canyons crept into view.

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Such a majestic sight innit?

Eventually, we reached Kings Canyon Resort, the only major resort that services the national park. It features a gas station with a really overpriced convenience store, a holiday park / campground, hotel rooms, bars and restaurants.

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Image Credit: Kings Canyon Resort

We found ourselves at the reception to check in to our powered campground. The campgrounds are situated just a short drive away from the reception and it was more than big enough for our car and tent.

However, to our dismay, we found that the tent supplied to us was faulty! The stretchy string connecting the bendy tent poles was broken.These poles would hold up our tent, so there was no way we could have pitched our dome tent successfully. This left us basically homeless for the rest of the trip. Well shit.

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We headed back to reception to use their phone to call the car rental office. They said that we could get a replacement tent but the kicker was that it was at Yulara (Ayers Rock), where we would be going next, but not for another two days. The sun was already beginning to set, so we had to settle this fast.

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After reasoning with the car rental, they offered to put us up at one of the lodges they owned but that didn’t work out, probably due to those lodges being fully booked.

They also did say that because the tent came complimentary with the car, they couldn’t do anything about it, and that we should call their parent company. The other option left was to shell out an extra 100 AUD per person (we already paid 50 AUD per person for 2 nights for the powered campsite) for the shared room…but we would have to pay for it with our own money.

Some back and forth later, we were told the company would be sending someone down to have a look at our tent. So we sat, and we waited at the reception area.

We waited for around 45 minutes, resigned to our fate and deliberating whether or not to just pay for a room… until the girl at the reception, Tracey, came over to ask “Still waiting?” with a look of sympathy. She then informed us, to our surprise, that they would be giving us a free upgrade to a shared room for the next two nights! We think she told her manager Michelle about our tent situation!

“Wait what? Really?” We were utterly shocked at the incredibly nice gesture and very gratefully accepted her offer. Now that’s some excellent customer service! I don’t even think we’ll get this level of service on our future travels. (We made it a point to give the staff on duty a token of our gratitude before we left the resort. Still very thankful!)

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We weren’t expecting fantastic rooms but holy shit, there was a TV, air con, kettle and beds for five people with clean pressed sheets and towels, floors and furniture. Plus we had the room to ourselves! I guess travelling during off-peak season played a part as well.

Later, we decided to catch the sunset at the viewing platform nearby. It was cloudy so we could only see streaks of dark red. That also hampered our stargazing chances for the night. Bummer!

But we did explore the Thirsty Dingo & Outback BBQ & Grill as they were linked. I love that they have live country music sessions at night which really adds to the atmosphere, even better that the musician was great as well!

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We had our simple hobo dinner of cup ramen, watched trash TV and turned in early.

A longer day awaits tomorrow, when we attempt the Kings Canyon Rim Walk!

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