Australia’s vast desert Outback is paradise for outdoorsy families and in an action-packed week you can explore the many wonders of the region. By foot or four wheel drive (or even the back of a camel!) you can discover incredible landscapes dotted with ochre cliffs and stately river red gums.
It’s also chock full of attractions kids will love like close encounters with kangaroos, hot air balloon rides, mountain biking, swims in deep desert rock holes and camping under the stars. Base yourself in the thriving, spirited centre of Alice Springs, a 2.5 hour flight from Sydney and Melbourne. Australia’s most famous outback town is well known for its pioneering history, larrikin locals and the stunning natural wonders which surround it. The Alice is also only a four and a half hour drive from Uluru, one of Australia’s most unforgettable attractions.
Desert Life Goes Wild
If the kids have never seen (or heard of) a thorny devil, red-capped robin or bandy-bandy, then the Alice Springs Desert Park should bring them up to speed on the flora and fauna of Central Australian. Hundreds of species of plants and animals are on show, alongside various walk-through replica desert habitats reflecting a desert river, sand country and woodland environment. There are not to be missed free-flying bird of prey demonstrations (daily, 10.30am & 3.30pm), and a Nocturnal House boasting rare and endangered animals like the bilby and mala. Local Aboriginal guides offer a rare insight into one of the oldest living cultures on earth, and share their tips for identifying bush tucker. The free audio-guide to the Park (available in English, German, French and Japanese) can be illuminating for junior rangers. Get to the Park early to escape the heat, and take your time enjoying the mysteries of the desert at your own pace. Strollers are available for free from the main courtyard area.
Meet the Locals
Boasting the largest collection of reptiles in Central Australia, the Alice Springs Reptile Centre is the place to conquer your fears of scaled and slithering critters. While you may struggle to relax as a two-metre long python wraps itself around you (it’s just sharing the love) the Centre’s charming and affable owner Rex Neindorf will have you smiling through gritted teeth. Featuring over 50 species of snakes, lizards and other reptilian creatures, the Centre is also home to the hard-to-spot thorny devil, and a zillion different types of NT geckos lurking in the Gecko Cave. Step outside and say hello to Terry the Saltwater Crocodile, meander through the many exhibits and stay for feeding times (daily, 11am, 1pm, 3.30pm). Keep an eye out for the Reptile Centre’s cheeky resident goanna. If stumbled upon unawares, it can cause quite a fright!
Visit the World’s Largest Classroom
Started in 1951, the School of the Air was the first of its type in Australia, broadcasting lessons to isolated primary children living on pastoral stations over an area of 1.3 million square kilometers. While transmissions were originally done over high-frequency radio, from 2005 the school started utilising Interactive Distance Learning – IDL technology, including satellite broadband internet to broadcast lessons to students. The school now has about 120 students, some of whom you can meet during the one hour guided tour of the centre which includes a rather dated video history and the opportunity to view live lessons. Best visit before 3pm on school days to get a real sense of how the school works.
Sunset with Kangaroo Dundee
Kangaroo crusader and Alice Springs local Brolga charmed the world in the TV documentary series, Kangaroo Dundee. Filmed and set on his 90 acre wildlife reserve, the program shone a light on his mission to rescue and rehabilitate injured kangaroos. Operating small, hands-on tours at his Kangaroo Sanctuary, Brolga is a rugged and humble tour-guide; insisting that the real ‘stars’ are the kangaroos on his property. With up to 30 Red kangaroos in varying states of growth at the Sanctuary, visitors can nurse and feed joeys wrapped in pillow cases, meet adult Red kangaroos and sneak a peek into a kangaroo’s pouch. Providing authentic outback hospitality, the 2.5 hour tour also integrates local Indigenous culture into the mix, with Aboriginal guides discussing the significance of the kangaroo and other wildlife in the region.
Viewing the mythical landscape around Alice Springs at sunrise is a mesmerising experience. You can walk it, or drive through it but there is nothing to compare to seeing this part of the world from a hot air balloon. The relaxed pace of the balloon gives you time to absorb the outback environment. Time to see kangaroos scurry to and fro between the spinifex and desert plants, brumbies and camels too. The Outback Ballooning tour picks you up an hour before sunrise from your accommodation before heading out into the nearby desert for take-off. Standby for amazing photos! This fabulous experience is rounded off with breakfast in the desert before you are bussed back into town. Kids must be six and over to join the tour.
Explore the West Macs
For extraordinary desert landscapes, deep waterholes and fabulous walking trails head out to the West Macdonnell Ranges, which stretch 160km west of Alice Springs. The region is possible to explore during a day-trip and a four wheel drive isn’t necessary. That said, you won’t regret organising to camp out at one of the many bush sites or overnighting at the rustic Glen Helen Resort.
Some of the highlights of the West Macs include:
- Jumping on a bike from Outback Cycling and riding along the cycle path from Alice Springs to Simpsons Gap (17km, flat and easy ride) to see the permanent waterhole and the colony of rock wallabies.
- Walking through the lush gully floor of Standley Chasm (50km from Alice) with its looming 80m walls. Be sure to time your visit to see the rock at its fiery red best in the midday sun. This private reserve costs $10 for adults and $8 for kids to enter.
- Cooling off on a warm desert day. You can swim at the picturesque, though often freezing, swimming holes like Ellery Creek Big Hole, Glen Helen Gorge and the multihued, cathedral-like Redbank Gorge.
- Taking in the majestic Ormiston Gorge which is the most impressive chasm in the West MacDonnells. There’s a waterhole shaded with ghost gums, and the gorge curls around to the enclosed Ormiston Pound. It is a haven for wildlife and there are a myriad of walking tracks, including the Ghost Gum Lookout (20 minutes), which affords brilliant views down the gorge, and the excellent, circuitous three hour Pound Walk.
With its remote desert location, deep cultural significance and spectacular natural beauty, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is one of Australia’s most unforgettable attractions. As it’s a four hour drive from Alice Springs (or a 55 min flight) we recommend a two or three day stay to make the most of the Park.
First stop inside the Park should be the Cultural Centre for an introduction to the culture of the traditional owners, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal peoples, known as Anangu (pronounced arn-ang-oo). Most weekday mornings Anangu workers are in the courtyard and kids can try their hand at painting, craft and tasting bush foods. The Cultural Centre is a starting point for the myriad of walking tracks around the Rock. Park rangers lead informative and easy-going walks, which delve into creation stories, wildlife and geology.
As it’s a sacred place, the Anangu do not climb Uluru and ask visitors to follow their lead. For a close encounter, follow the 10.6 kilometre base walk (or hire bikes), which allows you to experience the immense presence of the Rock as well as view rock pools and art sites. Start the base walk from the Mala car park in the morning to escape the crowds (approx 3.5 hours).
Another highlight kids will enjoy is a sunrise camel ride tour followed by breakfast in the desert (suitable for children five and older).
It’s not as well known as Uluru, but the 36 steep-sided domes of Kata Tjuta (meaning ‘many heads’) about an hour from the Rock is perhaps even more captivating. Beat the crowds and wander through the mystical Valley of the Winds at dawn.
Be the King of the Canyons
The splendour of central Australia’s Watarrka National Park with its sheer red cliffs and narrow gorges, is undeniable. The six-kilometre (three to four hours) Rim Walk offers jaw-dropping views of Kings Canyon and a range of geographical marvels from beehive domes to the Garden of Eden with its lush ferns and prehistoric cycads. It can be strenuous (particularly the steep steps in the first part) so we wouldn’t recommend it with a baby carrier or for kids younger than 10. On days when the temperature is forecast to be 36 degrees Celsius or above (Nov-Mar), visitors wishing to do the walk need to start before 9am. A good alternative is the Kings Creek Walk (2.6 km return) which meanders along Kings Creek ending at a lookout point. If you can spare the cash, take a helicopter ride, an incredible way to view the yawning chasm and the diverse terrain. You will likely spot flocks of wild brumbies! At nearby Kings Creek Station you can experience the adrenaline rush of a quad bike tour or the more sedate thrills of a sunset camel ride.