Cycle your way around Uluru and the Red Centre

By Justin Walker 11 September 2014
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Discover a wilder side to the Red Centre by hopping on a bike

A VISIT TO THE Northern Territory’s Red Centre has, for me, always conjured up images of mud- and dust-caked four-wheel-drives parked in front of rustic outback pubs. But look a little closer these days and you may notice more than a few dust-covered bicycles nearby and their equally dusty riders inside, enjoying country hospitality.

From the centre of Alice Springs, it’s just minutes of cycling before you are surrounded by the quintessential central Australian terrain of red rock, lustrous blue skies, and pale ghost gums. I followed Riverside Walk, a multi-use, sealed track, for about 30 minutes out to the Alice Springs Telegraph Station.

Here you’ll find historical buildings, artefacts and information boards that tell fascinating anecdotes. The track, bordered by river red and ghost gums, is a great family cycle adventure when the weather isn’t too hot. It would make an ideal picnic ride, as there are barbecues and eating areas at the station.

Uluru riddled with cycle routes

Outback Cycling, based at Telegraph Station, offers bikes for day-hire or longer. “Cyclists could sample most of the trails in three or four days and at a leisurely pace,” says owner Clarke Petrick, who has been heavily involved in the bike track developments around Alice Springs and has started up bicycle hire at Uluru.

For Tim Burke, an Alice bike guide originally from north-east Victoria, the accessibility of the tracks is a huge drawcard. “You can ride them in loops; start in town and head out to the north as far as you want to go and then end up back in town for a feed and some beer after with your mates,” he says. “I guess that’s what mountain biking has always had; that social side, and we seem to thrive on it out here.

“The easier tracks around Alice are well constructed, fairly flat and clearly signposted – perfect for beginners and families. On longer, intermediate-level rides north of Alice, riders will find slightly steeper sections and looser terrain, with a mix of sand, rocks and gravel as the base.

Along these more remote tracks, wildlife encounters are a given – kangaroos are plentiful, snakes and lizards bask in the heat and small flocks of birds often burst out of nearby trees as you roll by.

Bike tracks in the Red Centre for the more experienced 

Intermediate-level tracks can be managed by most cyclists and, if riders do encounter a particularly challenging section – as I did while I was out there – you can always walk for a stint. The effort is well worth it, as these tracks offer fantastic views, looking back to the city and sweeping across to the dramatic peaks of the West MacDonnell Ranges, which hold one of the Red Centre’s best-kept cycling secrets.

The Simpsons Gap Bicycle Path presents a microcosm of the West MacDonnells. The 17km, slightly undulating path starts at Flynn’s Grave, 7km west of Alice Springs’ -centre, to end at beautiful Simpsons Gap, where you will find toilets, a water supply and barbecues – and
an opportunity for an outback dip, if water from the Wet remains.

The sealed surface makes for very easy going (about four hours return) and there are four rest areas with seating and bike racks. The terrain varies from dry river flats to woodlands and high, rock-covered outcrops, overshadowed by rugged hills, including Rungutjirba Ridge and Mt Gillen. Ride this path either in the morning or afternoon for the best light or follow the Parks NT suggestion and ride the path during a full moon.

Increasing use of pushie power in the Red Centre

“It’s been there for more than two years but we’ve definitely noticed an increase in cycle traffic in the past five or six years,” says John Stafford, manager of tourism development with the NT government. “It’s a great ride – my daughter and I have done it a few times – and it’s a good day out; an easy ride for casual riders like me.”

After a few pleasant days exploring Alice on two wheels, I head south to try one of the Territory’s newest tracks. Until recently, Uluru visitors could experience the famous monolith frm afar, from a car park, or on foot while walking the 10.6km loop-track
around the base.

But Clarke decided riding a bicycle around Uluru made perfect sense. “It is a really good way to experience the rock,” he says. “It makes it more accessible; a lot of people can’t walk 10km, so it just makes it easier for everybody who wants to see Uluru up close.”

Cycling: minimal impact on the NT environment

Clarke ensures the hire bikes cause minimal impact on the land by fitting them with wider, softer tyres which are triple-proofed against punctures (they have a liner, an inner tube, and are filled with liquid sealant).

Cyclists travel anti-clockwise, walkers clockwise, limiting accidents as groups can see each other approaching. The wide path is nearly flat, with a mix of hard-packed dirt in most sections, interspersed with occasional, short sandy sections. The bike tyres’ extra width gives greater contact and more traction for a bike to ‘float’ over the sand, rather than dig into it.

Bikes can be hired from Outback Cycling at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre, and cyclists can follow the Liru Walk to Mala car park at the base of Uluru to begin. It would be easy to ride the complete loop in less than an hour but that wouldn’t allow you to fully experience this geological wonder.

Cruise control at Uluru

Many people only have a few days around Uluru and, as I found, riding a bicycle allows the time-poor to maximise time at scenic highlights. On a bike, you are able to cruise between the highlights, such as the Mutitjulu Waterhole and Kantju Gorge, with more time to explore the details.

Cycling across Australia’s arid, red heartland means not only can you ride in peaceful solitude on hundreds of kilometres of purpose-built tracks, but you also get to do so in a simply stunning part of the continent.

On a bike, you can enjoy near silent progress through the land, with only the hum of tyres on sand and the occasional click of a gearshift to accompany the sounds and sights of desert wildlife.

Need to know

Getting there: Qantas flies daily to Alice Springs from all capital cities except Canberra and Hobart. Flights leave Alice Springs daily for Uluru, via QantasLink.

When to go: From April to September, when temperatures are cooler. In the hotter months, it can regularly exceed 35°C, and it is very humid from November until late March. 

Hire bikes: Outback Cycling hire out bikes from the Alice Springs Telegraph Station office and the Cultural Centre at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The bikes at Alice Springs range from top-end dual-suspension mountain bikes, to cruiser-style bikes, and rental fees vary accordingly. At Uluru, bike hire is $30 for three hours, but the post is closed in extreme heat (40°C+), so it’s best to call ahead. 

BYO bikes: If you decide to take your own bike by plane, know how to pack it in a bike case and be aware that airlines charge for the extra luggage.

Park fees: A standard three-day Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park pass costs $25 per person aged 16-plus.

Where to stay: Alice Springs has accommodation ranging from camping grounds to five-star resorts and self-contained units, such as Quest Apartments in the centre of town. See Voyages Ayers Rock Resort is the only accommodation near Uluru. The resort has three hotels, apartments and a camping ground. More info.

Events: Photography weekend at Uluru