For most people mention of Alice Springs stirs up images of expansive and dusty red space, stark desert landscapes that are harshly beautiful, simmering under the hot sun that beats down onto the centre of Australia. Ayers Rock is probably the most popular option for campervan tourists coming to this region, but an alternative that is closer to Alice and every bit as rewarding for a self drive excursion is the West Macdonnell National Park. A round trip that takes in all the main attractions here is about 300 kilometres in length, and will take you through semi-desert country that is home to impressive gorges, rugged mountains and peaceful natural swimming holes. So for the ultimate experience of the 'red centre' of Australia pick up your camper in Alice and strike out west to experience the West Macdonnell Ranges.
For an educational insight into the flora, fauna and natural features of the area stop in at the Alice Springs Desert Park, which is just outside of the city. Perfect for kids, and just as interesting for adults, expect to leave here armed with some knowledge about the amazing landscape you are about to drive through. Not far from here you reach the first selling point of the Ranges, Simpsons Gap, which is a natural waterhole lined with ghost gums and surrounded by high cliffs. Swimming is not permitted here, but you can lounge on the banks and enjoy watching the black footed rock wallabies bound amongst the rocks. There are a couple of designated walking trails here, and you can make use of the free barbeque sites as well.
Continuing along Larapinta Drive for about twenty two kilometres brings you to the turn off to Standley Chasm, which is a further nine kilometres in from that point. this rock cleft is just a few metres wide, but towers to over eighty metres in height. At midday the overhead sun bounces off the walls with a strong orange reflection, so try and time your visit to fit in with this amazing spectacle. There is an entry fee here, and the chasm is open from 8 am to 6 pm. A kiosk operates in these times, offering basic food and drink supplies to visitors.
Just past Standley the road splits into two, and you should branch right onto the Namatjira Drive. Forty two kilometres on from where the road parts and you reach Ellery Creek Big hole, a deep and permanent swimming hole with the reputation of being the coldest pool in the region. The sandy creek here is lined with tall gums, which in turn are towered over by the characteristic red cliffs of the region. The permanence of the waterhole means it is relied upon by plenty of flora and fauna as a source of water, so you are likely to see an array of local animals bounding amongst the rocks and vegetation.
Eleven kilometres further up Namatjira Drive is Serpentine Gorge, which is unique in that there is a large billabong which is only accessible by swimming up the gorge. The area is secluded and there are some stunning walking trails, with one in particular providing a stunning view of the ranges. Drive on from this gorge for twelve kilometres and you'll find the Ochre Pits, which is where the local aboriginal people used to glean their ochre pigments from. Ochre is of significant importance as body paint and in traditional ceremonies, and therefore this area is very culturally significant to the local indigenous population. The pits consist of several layers of multi coloured and multi layered rock, and is worth a visit for its natural beauty and its cultural heritage.
The most inspiring gorge in the Ranges is the Ormiston Gorge and Pound. Over 300 metres deep in some spots, the wide deep pool here rests at the base of tall red cliffs which offer an abundance of viewing points and walking trails. There are official picnic spots and unpowered camping spots, so park your campervan and enjoy the quiet of the gorge at night.
A bit further on is Glen Helen Gorge, which is your penultimate destination and where most people chose to bunk down for a few nights because of the good camping facilities and the motel style accommodation on offer. There is also the chance to go on guided hikes and even helicopter tours of the region. Its the perfect place to base yourself for a few days and explore your surrounds, or you could turn around and start heading back slowly and take in everything you have missed on the way here!