Rainbow Valley NT

By: Claudia Bouma, Photography by: Chris Bouma

Rainbow Valley was in full bloom when the Bouma family embarked on the treacherous drive in.

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A trip to the iconic Red Centre is not complete without spending a night at Rainbow Valley, a spectacular destination only a couple of hours’ drive from the big smoke of Alice Springs. Heading 75km south along the Stuart Highway, this beautiful conservation reserve is accessed via a 22km unsealed road which has a bit of a reputation. Depending on the time of year, and when the track was last graded, it can become heavily corrugated so be prepared for a rough trip in.

As we turned off the bitumen on to the red dirt, we stopped to let the tyres down to ensure a softer ride. We also taped up vents to prevent any dust from coming into the camper trailer.

The first 15km were surprisingly smooth and easy, though the signs of recent heavy rain were everywhere. A deluge had battered the region days before and, four weeks earlier, a massive rain depression caused rivers to burst their banks and flood the roads. Most of the water had dried up but certain sections of the road had deep ruts and washouts.

Then the corrugations started, shaking the car and rig. Picking up speed seemed to help and certain sections were smoother than others.

Soon, we passed the sign welcoming us to Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve and the striking rock formation came into full view. Even with a thick cloud cover the unique shape in shades of red and orange was breathtaking.


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Driving into the first campground, which is situated behind the dunes, we met one couple in the process of packing up their van, otherwise it was deserted. Continuing on to the campground adjacent the claypan, we had the pick of the crop. A large site with magnificent views of the rock was the perfect spot for our Jayco Flamingo.

We headed to the nearby information shelter and decided to head off on the 1.6km return Claypan Walk. Meandering along the edge of the mostly dry claypan, signs of the recent rain were still visible. A variety of plants had burst into bloom; flowering and setting seed before the soil dried out again. Far in the distance a shallow pool of water covered the claypan, forming a desert oasis for the wildlife, such as big reds, bustards and emus.

As we reached the end of the claypan and turned back to head to our campsite, the sun finally broke through the clouds and highlighted the ochre-red, orange, yellow and white bands in the rock, transforming Rainbow Valley.

So why are there different colours? The iron and silica content provide the answer. The red stone is the toughest rock as it has a relatively high content of iron and silica while the orange and yellow rocks have a lower content. The white bleached zone was formed by the leaching out of iron and silica, resulting in soft and fragile rock which is susceptible to collapse.


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After a quick lunch, we decided to wander down to Mushroom Rock, an easy 45-minute return walk. The loop track first takes you up the hill to the lookout which is the place to watch a sunset. As it meanders through the dunes, keep an eye out for animal tracks. You’ll most likely come across dingo footprints but you might also spot snake tracks, though it’s rare to see any during the day, as the weather is generally too cold from May-September.

The walk takes you down to the claypan and on to a massive boulder which has been eroded by wind and rain, creating a unique shape. The rock is the nesting place for the fairy Martin, a tiny swallow, which makes its home in this arid landscape. Bottle-shaped mud nests dangle from the sandstone overhang, to shelter the birds from the extreme conditions.

Mushroom Rock is situated right next to the dramatic rock formations of Rainbow Valley. The traditional owners request that no one climb the rocks, out of respect for their culture and to assure personal safety as the rocks are brittle. For the Southern Arrernte people, this area is an important meeting and ceremony place where families gathered when the rain was plentiful. Charcoal, grindstones and rock art, dating back thousands of years, attest to the presence of the Southern Arrernte people but can only be seen when joining a guided tour.

That evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset. The dramatic rock formation appeared to glow as the sun slowly sank below the horizon. Deep reds were transformed into bright oranges, creating a magnificent spectacle. As day turned into night, a brilliant sky with countless stars appeared. As we sat gazing at the multitude of stars, the jagged contour of Rainbow Valley faded into darkness.

Make sure you don’t miss out on this memorable outback experience – Rainbow Valley is a must-see on any Red Centre trip.

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There are two camper trailer-friendly campgrounds with pit toilets, wood fire pits, picnic tables and communal gas barbecues. Fees are $3.30/adult, $1.65/child or $7.70/family per night and payable via the honesty box. There is no water at Rainbow Valley.

Visit Rainbow Valley Cultural Tours at www.rainbowvalleyculturaltours.com for guided tours of the region.

Visit www.nt.gov.au/parks or phone the local park ranger office on (08) 8952 1013 for more.