For grey nomads happy to spend an hour or two cruising unsealed roads, the Northern Territory’s magnificent Mereenie Loop Road is surely a must-drive adventure.
As well as taking in truly spectacular desert country, the iconic route linking Kings Canyon with the West MacDonnell Ranges saves an awful lot of backtracking kilometres. The drive takes approximately 3.5 hours, whereas the bitumen alternative entails first travelling the 461 km back to Alice Springs and then another 130km out to Ormiston Gorge.
Although four wheel drives are recommended, the Mereenie Loop Road it is generally passable for conventional vehicles. Generally the worst you have to deal with are some corrugations but wet weather can change things quickly and it pays to get up-to-date information before setting off. The road goes through Aboriginal lands and a $2.20 permit, which can be bought on the day of travel at the Alice Springs Tourist Office, Hermannsburg, Glen Helen, and Kings Canyon Resort, is required.
While the road north starts here, most people are not in a hurry to leave Watarrka National Park, the home of the 270-metre deep Kings Canyon. A moderately challenging six-kilometre walk takes in magnificent views of the Canyon rim, the weathered, buttressed domes of ‘The Lost City’ and the ‘Garden of Eden’ – a sheltered valley with permanent waterholes.
When it is time to leave though, it is important to remember that you will be in Aboriginal land and camping, picknicking and even parking are not permitted, except at the official ‘Jump-up’ rest area, also known as Ginty’s Lookout. It’s a top spot just out of the Watarrka National Park. and it offers great views north over sand dune country with Desert Oaks and Kurrajong trees and south to Carmichael Crag and Kings Canyon.
As the road traverses low scrub, sand dunes and bare rocky ridges, there are no shortage of man-made attractions such as ‘tyre’ trees and all manner of artistically arranged car body parts to entertain you as you go.
After 150kms or so, travellers have the choice of going a further 20kms or so into the Aboriginal community of Hermannsburg or looping north west and on towards the magnificence of the West MacDonnell Ranges. The wonders of Ormiston Gorge, the freezing waters of Ellery Creek Big Hole, and the magic of Standley Chasm are, however, a story in their own right.
Travelling the Mereenie Loop Road is a unique experience that will live long in the memory.