14 day road trip to Uluru

6,000km across three states

Late last year my mum visited from Germany and since it was her first time in Australia I thought there was no better way for her to get a meaningful impression of the country than by going on an epic road trip from the coast in Victoria across the outback to Uluru.

In the end we spent 14 days on the trip, driving over 6,000km and visiting three states. Everything worked out really well, the weather was great, we saw a lot of wildlife and had a fantastic time with many lasting memories.

Preparations

An advantage was definitely that only a few weeks earlier I had done a similar road trip to Alice Springs to walk the Larapinta Trail. I was able to scope out nice places to stay and visit. But in the end it’s very easy to travel around Australia even without prior experience.

It was summer and I wasn’t expecting much rain on the trip. I also think the best way to experience Australia is outdoors, so instead of booking accomodation along the route we stayed on campsites. I made a basic itinerary before we left, but no fixed schedule.

I purchased two 1-person tents (the cheapest ones I could find – $12 each) and two air mattresses at Kmart. For cold drinks and fresh food we used a good quality icebox – every other day we simply topped it up with a bag of crushed ice that every petrol station or general store sells.

All the other equipment was already there from my previous trips, and so I put the roof rack on my car and off we went.

Itinerary


Day 1 – Portarlington to Parker Hill

I wanted to stay at Blanket Bay for two nights, but it was fully booked so we spent the first night at Parker Hill campground nearby.

Highlights on the way there were of course the Great Ocean Road, watching the surfers at Bells Beach, and a quick stop at Maits Rest for the short but impressive rainforest walk, not far from the turnoff to Cape Otway.

Parker Hill is a nice place with a beautiful bay. It’s located in the Great Otway National Park, so it was disappointing to see two Aussie girls camping there with their dogs, despite a number of signs that pets are not allowed. I wish Parks Victoria rangers would do more checks and actually fine people, it’s a nuisance and shows a lack of respect for national parks when people bring dogs.

It was a bit too chilly for a swim, so we went for a walk along parts of the Great Ocean Walk and saw a few koalas and Crimson Rosellas. Later I unsuccessfully tried to catch a good eating fish for dinner.

Maits Rest Rainforest Walk
Maits Rest Rainforest Walk
Parker Hill lagoon
Parker Hill lagoon

Day 2 – Parker Hill to Blanket Bay

For this day there were several campsites available at beautiful Blanket Bay so we packed up after breakfast and moved on. It’s only a few kilometres down the road from Parker Hill. We arrived early, so we parked at the day visitor area and went for a walk before setting up camp.

Much of this beautiful day was spent on long beach walks and more fishing. I had more luck this time and caught a couple of sweep, but too small to keep for dinner.

A highlight was the koala that slept in a tree just opposite our camp, it’s always pretty easy to find koalas at Blanket Bay.

Blanket Bay
Blanket Bay
Blanket Bay
Blanket Bay
Rocks at Blanket Bay
Rocks at Blanket Bay

Day 3 – Blanket Bay to Halls Gap

Our first stop of the day was at the Cape Otway lighthouse. A very nice place especially early in the morning just after it opened, when nobody else is there yet. Entry is not cheap, but worth it. There are great views from the top of the lighthouse, there is much to learn about its history, and the café offers great cake and hot drinks.

Later we rejoined the Great Ocean Road and it turned into a beautiful sunny day. We stopped at pretty much every lookout and attraction and completed most of the short walks, including Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, Sherbrook River and The Arch.

When I travel by myself I don’t normally stop at the Twelve Apostles anymore, it’s too overrun by hordes of tourists competing for the best selfie spots and climbing fences and barriers to get an advantage. I don’t know what’s more disappointing: the disregard people show for rules and vegetation, or the lack of any Parks staff that would educate the idiots who jump barriers and walk out on the fragile cliff ledges. Simply putting up signs clearly doesn’t cut it.

Eventually we left the Great Ocean Road and drove inlands towards Halls Gap. It’s largely flat country with cleared paddocks, so it was all the more surprising to find a koala sitting in the middle of the road a short while later. When we pulled over it quickly climbed up the nearest tree.

When I go to the Grampians I always try to drive via Dunkeld and take the spectacular tourist drive through the Southern Grampians. It was close to getting dark and we saw many wallabies at the side of the road.

We stayed at a caravan park and even though we arrived outside of reception hours and had no booking, the manager was happy to let us in and we simply paid the following morning. That’s the kind of easy-going flexibility that I love about Australia – no chance of that happening in Germany.

Cape Otway lighthouse
Cape Otway lighthouse
Sherbrook River
Sherbrook River
Koala
Koala

Day 4 – Halls Gap

We stayed in Halls Gap for two nights to have at least one full day for bushwalking and enjoying the scenery. It was another stunning day, so right after breakfast we packed some supplies and walked up to the Pinnacle to try and be back before the mid day heat. It’s one of my favourite walks in the Grampians but quite steep at times and needs a good level of fitness. It’s worth it though and the views from the top are spectacular.

Another one of my favourite walks is the Fyans Creek Loop Walk at Brambuk National Park & Cultural Centre. It’s short and easy, and there is always a lot of wildlife later in the afternoon. We saw plenty of kangaroos and emus.

View from the Pinnacle
View from the Pinnacle
Wild flowers
Wild flowers
Kangaroos
Kangaroos

Day 5 – Halls Gap to Chinaman Creek

This was going to be one of the longest days with nearly 800km of road ahead of us, so we tried to leave early. Another reason to leave early was to beat the heat, because it was another day with temperatures forecast around 40°C.

When driving around the country on a hot day a common sight is blue-tongued lizards warming themselves on the tarmac. Very interesting creatures, I’ve seen many of them before. Often they end up as roadkill, but not long after leaving the Grampians we were lucky to see one at the side of the road and I pulled over for a few snaps. Overall on this trip we’ve come across a huge diversity of wildlife and I never understood why anyone would need to visit a zoo in Australia when it’s so easy to see all these animals in the wild. People just have to get off their couch and make the effort to get out there.

Our next stop was at Pink Lake, conveniently located right at the Western Highway. It’s a salt lake that contains algae which makes it shine pink, a pretty amazing view and not to be missed. The lake was half dry, and it was over 40°C outside, so we were wading ankle deep in warm pink salt mud, good fun!

After the border to South Australia the route led us through Coonalpyn. Only a week earlier I had seen a story on TV about a silo art project, and it happened to be in Coonalpyn, so we stopped to admire it.

My plan was to camp on free campsites every now and then (there are plenty in Australia), and for this night we stayed at Chinaman Creek in Winninowie Conservation Park just off the highway not far from Port Augusta. It was quite a rough drive from the highway to the camp area, and there were plenty of kangaroos. We got there just as the sun set, and there were no facilities other than a basic toilet. It felt very remote and that’s what I liked about it.

We went for a short walk to check out the surroundings and met some other campers who were fishing for crabs in the river. When we returned to the car I noticed one of my tyres was flat! It was fortunate that it happened after we parked for the day, and not on the highway earlier. So while my mum set up camp and worried about being stuck in a remote area, I got the spare wheel out and changed wheels – a first for me, but then not exactly rocket science either. Half an hour later the car was fixed. The old tyre however was beyond repair.

Eastern Shingleback
Eastern Shingleback
Pink Lake
Pink Lake
Winninowie Conservation Park
Winninowie Conservation Park

Day 6 – Chinaman Creek to Coober Pedy

We left the campground early to have breakfast in Port Augusta. During the 10km unsealed road back to the highway we again saw plenty of kangaroos.

I was keen to get the broken tyre replaced before driving on to Coober Pedy. It’s not wise to travel the outback without a working spare wheel. We checked two tyre shops without luck, none had the right tyre size in stock. Most shops in the area only seem to keep common 4WD tyres in stock, which kind of makes sense.

Finally we checked Bridgestone on the outskirts of Port Augusta, and not only did they have the right tyre in stock, they were able to work on it straight away. Half an hour later we were back on the road with a new spare tyre mounted and balanced. Aussie flexibility again, no appointment needed. I love it.

After Port Augusta the endless road straight ahead may seem boring to some, but I enjoy it. It gives me a sense of space and remoteness, and the changes in vegetation are fascinating to watch. It may seem like a barren landscape, but on every trip so far I have seen plenty of emus and Wedge-tail eagles close to the road.

The only major stop during the day was at Lake Hart, a large salt flat that is worth a stop. Walking on salt and seeing the sheer size of the dry lake is an experience.

No visit to Coober Pedy is complete without a visit to John’s Pizza Bar, so we went there for dinner after setting up camp at the Oasis campground nearby. We also decided to book a half day guided tour of Coober Pedy for the next morning.

Rain clouds
Rain clouds
Lake Hart
Lake Hart

Day 7 – Coober Pedy to Kulgera

After breakfast we packed up our camp gear and then got picked up by our tour guide. The tour was offered by the Oasis campground where we stayed and the guide was a true Coober Pedy local.

I’m so glad we did this tour, anyone visiting Coober Pedy should book a tour with a local. I always thought Coober Pedy was little more than piles of rubble and junk mining equipment, but on closer inspection there’s so much more. We got to visit several underground churches and even the private home (‘dug out’) of our guide, which was very impressive.

Because of the tour we only left Coober Pedy around 1pm. Our original plan was to drive to Yulara, but that was no longer feasible to get there before dusk. So instead we drove only to Kulgera and camped there for the night.

The campground at Kulgera is next to the highway and very basic. I would only stay there overnight if it can’t be avoided.

Underground Serbian Orthodox Church
Underground Serbian Orthodox Church
Outback Christmas tree
Outback Christmas tree

Day 8 – Kulgera to Yulara

The plan for the day was to get to Yulara as early as possible and then walk some of the tracks around Uluru in the afternoon.

Not long after Kulgera we left the Stuart Highway to join the Lasseter Highway. After a short stop at the Mt Conner lookout we arrived at Yulara around lunchtime and booked a place on the campground.

Yulara is a bit of an obscene place, a huge tourist resort in the desert, with supermarkets, shops and airport. It always seems to attract a lot of party tourists who just fly in for the spectacle that is Uluru, but otherwise have no interest in the outback or Aboriginal culture.

Instead of setting up camp we went straight to Uluru. Temperatures were already well above 40°C. I was hoping to do the base walk all around Uluru, but unfortunately some sections had been closed by park rangers due to the heat, so we could only walk parts of it. After driving all around Uluru and walking several short walks we returned to Yulara.

We set up our camp and cooked dinner, then went back to Uluru to watch the sunset. It’s important to leave quite early, once the sun starts to set it can all be over incredibly quickly but we got there on time to see Uluru shining bright red, a stunning experience to wrap up the day.

Kuniya Walk
Kuniya Walk
Uluru at sunset
Uluru at sunset

Day 9 – Yulara to Kings Canyon

We tried to leave at sunrise, as early as possible, and drive to Kata Tjuta, not far from Uluru. Park rangers had announced they were going to close the Valley of the Winds walk at 11am due to temperatures again forecast to be around 45°C.

When we got to the car park, many were already there who had presumably left long before sunrise to beat the heat. Personally I love the heat, so I packed enough water and went to walk the entire Valley of the Winds walk while my mum stayed in the shade close to the car park.

I returned after just over 1.5h and we sat down to have lunch before moving on. The heat was relentless, but we still stopped at the Walpa Gorge for the other, shorter walk at Kata Tjuta.

Afterwards we packed away our hiking shoes for the day and went on the longish drive to Kings Canyon where we wanted to stay overnight. The road there had some interesting scenery, we came across wild horses crossing the road, and the highest outside temperature we saw was 45.5°C.

After setting up camp and having dinner we joined several other guests and campers to watch the sunset from a lookout at the Kings Canyon resort.

Kata Tjuta
Kata Tjuta
Valley of the Winds walk
Valley of the Winds walk
Walpa Gorge
Walpa Gorge

Day 10 – Kings Canyon to Alice Springs

Again we left at sunrise, to do some of the walks at Kings Canyon before the heat becomes too much, and before the park rangers would close the tracks. On previous trips I walked the entire rim walk, but this time it seemed too much so we just walked the South Wall walk, which is basically half the rim walk.

It was still a great experience, and just when we returned to the car park, the rangers started closing the tracks due to the heat. We then quickly checked out the easy Kings Creek walk into the canyon, but unfortunately it was closed halfway through because the viewing platform at the end had recently been destroyed by falling rocks.

Kings Canyon was planned as our last major stop before Alice Springs, so after we finished the walks we were soon on our way. After a lunch stop at Erldunda Roadhouse we arrived in Alice Springs around 5pm.

Sunrise at Kings Canyon
Sunrise at Kings Canyon
Lizard
Lizard
Kings Canyon
Kings Canyon

Day 11 – Alice Springs

This was our rest day before the long journey home to Portarlington. We spent the day relaxing in the sun at our campground, browsing art galleries in the town centre and enjoying the view from Anzac Hill, before going out for dinner at the great Overlander Steakhouse.

View from Anzac Hill
View from Anzac Hill

Day 12 – Alice Springs to Coober Pedy

We stopped at Kulgera Roadhouse for a quick lunch break, where I had a bit of a run-in with the moron who operated the forklift behind the roadhouse. I dared to move his water sprinkler by a few metres so we could sit on the outside tables and enjoy our lunch without getting wet and having bore water sprayed all over our sandwiches. For whatever reason he thought it was worth throwing a tantrum over this and totally freaked out – it felt surreal and other travellers nearby were just shaking their heads. A very upsetting experience so I’m going to skip Kulgera on future trips. There’s fuel and food at both Erldunda Roadhouse and Marla, so no need to stop at Kulgera and support idiots like that.

Road trains at Marla
Road trains at Marla

Day 13 – Coober Pedy to Parham

The only significant stop during the day was at the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden in Port Augusta. It’s a beautiful garden and definitely worth checking out.

We stayed at the campground in Parham for the night. It’s free and very popular, therefore good to be there early.

Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden
Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden
Parham beach sunset
Parham beach sunset

Day 14 – Parham to Portarlington

830km to drive and we were mostly just looking forward to returning home, so no significant stops.