Renting a 4WD for a few days of off-road driving can get you to some beautiful corners of the central deserts. Here are some 4WD-only routes close to Alice Springs. Read the advice and carry the gear recommended in Basics. The Alice Springs Visitor Centre can provide maps and information on road conditions (1800 246 199, ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport). Beginners should also consider taking a 4WD course such as those offered by Direct 4WD (0408 485 641, direct4wd.com.au) based in Alice Springs. Also make sure you are appropriately equipped for travelling in remote areas with plenty of food and water, tow ropes, a second spare tyre and spare jerry cans. All rental agents in the Alice Springs “Getting around” section can arrange 4WDs.
Mereenie Loop Track
The main appeal of the 195km Mereenie Loop, linking Hermannsburg with Kings Canyon (allow 3–4hr), is that it avoids backtracking on the usual “Canyon and Rock” tour. It is a stunning drive with plenty of desert oaks, river crossings, wild horses, donkeys and dingoes. The corrugations can be fearsome; don’t even think about the trip if rain is forecast as it’s prone to flash flooding and inaccessible after rain. Obtain a permit at Alice Springs Visitor Centre, Glen Helen or Kings Canyon. Note that you’re not allowed to stop (except at the official “Jump-Up” lookout area, close to Kings Canyon) or camp.
Finke River Route
With a day to spare and experience with a 4WD, following the Finke river bed from Hermannsburg down to the Ernest Giles Road offers an adventurous alternative to the highway and saves some backtracking. Rewards include stark gorge scenery, a reliable waterhole and the likelihood that you’ll have it all to yourself. Before you set off, check the road conditions.
The 100km track starts immediately south of Hermannsburg. After 10km of corrugated road you descend into the river bed. From here on driving is slow, along a pair of sandy or pebbly ruts – you should deflate your tyres to at least 25psi/1.7bar and keep in the ruts to minimize the risk of getting stuck. There’s just one designated campsite en route, Boggy Hole, which looks out from beneath river red gums to permanent reed-fringed waterholes.
Beyond, the track crisscrosses rather than follows the river bed before taking a roller-coaster ride to the Giles Road across some low dunes thinly wooded with desert oaks – beware of oncoming traffic on blind crests. Boggy Hole to the Giles Road is 65km, so allow three hours.
Arltunga to Ruby Gap
Call the Arltunga Ranger Station (t 08 8956 9770), 101km east of Alice Springs, for the latest track conditions for this scenic, if bumpy, 47km drive (allow 2hr) through the Eastern ranges. It includes some steep creek crossings until you reach the sandy river bed of the Hale and the Ruby Gap Nature Park. From here, keep to the sandy ruts and inch carefully over the rocks for 5km, at which point you’ll need to stop and walk the last 2km to Glen Annie Gorge.
Another challenging track (impassable after the rain) heads north from Arltunga past Claraville station and up over the Harts Ranges through Cattlewater Pass to the Plenty Highway, 56km or three hours from Arltunga. It’s a scenic way of returning to Alice Springs from Arltunga and you’re bound to see some hopping marsupials along the way, but ensure you allow plenty of time, as it’s slow going in places.
Owen Springs Track
A great option for those who want to combine 4WD touring with the region’s pioneering history. It’s a sandy but relatively short undertaking, running for 50km and forming a through-route from Larapinta Drive (50km west of Alice) to the Stuart Highway (66km south of Alice). Highlights along the way include old Aboriginal stockmen’s quarters and a log-hut homestead. There’s a detailed self-drive info sheet available online (parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au) or from the Simpsons Gap ranger station.