If you’re seeking a once-in-a-lifetime family holiday in Australia, the ‘Red Centre’ and ‘Top End’ in the Northern Territory (NT) need to be at the top of your list.
The semiarid Red Centre of Australia is a 1,600km drive south, along the Stuart Highway, from the tropical ‘Top End’ (Darwin). It’s remote. It’s in the dead centre of Australia. And it’s the best place to go if you want to discover some of the most unique destinations and people in the world.
Yes! You really can visit Uluru and Kings Canyon with kids. We did it with a 1yo and a 3yo in May 2021. There were some limitations due to short, tired legs which meant that we weren’t able to do the big hikes. But I don’t feel like we missed out on discovering the best of the Red Centre.
So, make sure you bring the kids and really explore the best of what the Red Centre has to offer…
1. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
While in the Red Centre you must spend a 2-3 days exploring Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. With young kids, I recommend to stay at least 3 nights.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has many beautiful self-guided or tour-guided walks/hikes to take around the national park. And there are plenty of wonderful experiences for you to do together as a couple or family:
- learn about bush tucker and dreamtime stories,
- enjoy a helicopter ride or plane flight over Uluru at sunset or sunrise,
- go on a guided walk, bus tour or segway tour around the base of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
You can book these at the nearby Ayers Rock Resort tourist centre at Yalara or the cultural centre at Uluru.
Driving yourself in the Red Centre? You can see that postcard perfect view of Uluru from dedicated sunset and sunrise car parks around the ring road. And, hire an Uluru Audio Guide. It uses your GPS location to play important information, inspiring stories and songs through your car speakers or headphones as you travel by car or foot throughout the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Uluru is a magnificent sight. You can see it as you fly into Ayers Rock Airport and from the road as you drive towards the resort and national park. It dominates the landscape and makes a big impression.
The Uluru Base Walk is a 10km flat walk that follows the path of ancestral beings around the sacred rock. The base walk will take you around 3.5 hours. It’s worth it if you want to see ceremonial sites, billabongs, caves and rock paintings, and local flora and fauna. There are shorter walks, some that are wheelchair/pram friendly, on which you can still soak up the beauty of Uluru and it’s surrounds.
The Field of Light Uluru, by artist Bruce Munro, is named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’ in local Pitjantjatjara. It’s a stunning display of 50,000 swaying spindles of light that covers more than seven football fields. The lights change between ochre, deep violet, blue and gentle white as visitors wander in awe between them after dark.
In the national park and only a 48km down the road from Uluru is Kata Tjuta. Sometimes referred to as “The Olga’s”, Kata Tjuta is made up of 36 orange-red uniquely shaped domes. They cover more than 20 square kilometres and soar up to 546 metres above the surrounding plain. ‘Kata Tjuta’ is a Pitjantjatjara term that means ‘many heads’.
There’s a great Kata Tjuta lookout halfway along the road there, but I recommend driving the whole way to visit the towering domes up close. Check out Walpa Gorge and follow the other marked tracks to explore the unique ancient landscape. There are several walks to choose from, depending on your time and ability.
2. Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park
Tucked away in the southwestern corner of the Northern Territory, about 450km from Alice Springs, is the Watarrka National Park. Covering 71,000 hectares, this ancient land has been home to the Luritja Aboriginal people for more than 20,000 years. The Watarrka National Park has a variety of bushwalks that take you up the soaring sandstone walls of Kings Canyon and to beautiful springs dotted throughout the arid landscape.
Some of the walks are steep and treacherous, but some are very accessible and wheelchair/pram friendly. Even though we carried a 3yo and a 1yo most of the way – and for most of our time in the Red Centre – we were able to complete the:
- Kathleen Springs walk,
- the Kings Canyon Creek walk
- part of the Kings Canyon southern rim walk to Kestrel Lookout.
Kings Canyon Rim Walk
You can visit Kings Canyon as a day trip between Alice Springs and Uluru. Note, it’s a 3-4 hour drive each way. And, the Kings Canyon Rim Walk should be started before 9am to avoid the heat extremes in the middle of the day.
Helpful tip: avoid heat stroke by taking plenty of water and drinking small amounts often, resting when you need to, and, rethinking your plans if it’s predicted to get hotter than 35 degrees.
Another helpful tip: Be aware that the road from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs may not be suitable for your car. Ask the locals about the quality before you head off. And always check with your car hire supplier before you take your car off-road or on unsealed roads.
We stayed overnight between Yalara and Alice Springs at Kings Creek Station, which was 20 minutes drive from Kings Canyon and the National Park. Because we didn’t have our own camping gear, our home for the night was a (glamping) canvas tent, complete with two single beds, a swag and air conditioning, overlooking the George Gill Range.
This was truly the Red Centre. We were a three-hour drive from the nearest town and it’s probably the most remote we’ve ever travelled. The wind blowing through the desert oak trees sounded like ocean waves, the dingoes howled as they crept past our tent in the night, the ground was fine red sand that sticks to everything and the stars of the Milky Way above were magnificent.
3. West MacDonnell Ranges (near Alice Springs)
We travelled 135km west of Alice Springs and into the Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park for a night of camping. And, while we were in the area we visited the beautiful waterholes and gorges that are scattered between mountain ranges along Namatjira Drive (State Route 3). My favourites are Ormiston Gorge and Ellery Creek Big Hole.
Growing up in central Australia, I have fond memories of camping in dry creek beds, sunsets and camp fires. So, I was delighted to take the kids on an overnight camping trip to experience the same. Thankfully, our local friends had enough camping supplies for us to borrow.
Much like when I was a kid, we stayed in a dry creek bed along Ellery Creek, a short drive from Ellery Big Hole. Watching the sparkling Milky Way and listening to the dingoes howling in the distance from the swags in our borrowed ‘screen tent’ was truly a memorable experience for us all! A holiday in the Northern Territory wouldn’t be complete without at least one camping trip under the stars.
Check out that sun setting on the red West MacDonnell Ranges!
Ormiston Gorge is a billabong perfect for swimming in when the weather is warm. The gorge is only a short, accessible walk from the carpark, where there are picnic shelters and a small café selling some snacks and drinks.
So, what are you waiting for? Book your flights, pack your bags and get going! You never, never know if you never, never go. Just don’t forget the kids. 🙂
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