Nine Things We Learnt On An Epic Outback Northern Territory Road Trip
Welcome to the great Australian road trip.
If, like most of our population, you live in a city or rural town on the fringes of Australia, you could be forgiven for thinking of central Australia as a big red desert with a famous rock in the middle. But Australia’s outback is as diverse as it is vast, with a wealth of wonder waiting to be discovered.
It wasn’t until I spent 10 days road tripping through the Northern Territory that I finally felt like I had experienced the “real” Australia – the Australia that everyone talks about. You know what I mean: that red, hot and dusty place where everything you touch could kill you.
Obviously, I knew of Australia’s reputation, but like most of us who are consumed by the daily grind I had never seen it with my own eyes.
So with good company and good tunes, we flew into Uluru and took a campervan up the Stuart Highway from Uluru to Darwin, making sure we stopped to embrace all the sights along the way– both the beautiful and the bizarre. Our stops included Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Alice Springs, Wycliffe Well, Devils Marbles, Tennant Creek, Daly Waters, Mataranka, Katherine Gorge, Kakadu, Adelaide River, Humpty Doo and Litchfield National Park.
Here’s what we learnt on the great Australian road trip.
#1 Australia is big. Really big
There’s no finer feeling than being out on the wide, open road, and in the Northern Territory the roads are certainly both wide and open. In 10 days, we drove 2537km (that’s Melbourne to Adelaide three and a half times). The roads stretch as far as the eye can see, and then some.
Sections of the highway have unrestricted speed limits, but the risk of danger is high when you’re driving through unfenced cattle stations, so keep your wits about you. During the longest stints, it was rare to turn the steering wheel or to pass another car, though we did spot the occasional road train (a huge truck pulling one or more enormous trailers). Petrol stops always need to be well planned to make sure you’ll get to the next town without running dry. To be safe, it’s recommended to fill up whenever you come across a station.
#2 It isn’t all flat, red desert
Yes, there is a lot of flat red desert, but there’s also a whole bunch of incredible natural rock formations like Katherine Gorge, Kings Canyon and the mind-boggling, 1640-million-year-old Devils Marbles.
And don’t forget that the NT has some of the most remarkable swimming holes and waterfalls that you will ever see – or swim – in your lifetime. From the warm and healing waters of tropical springs to cascading waterfalls you can swim under, some of the NT’s swimming spots are otherworldly.
#3 You can get up close and personal with the wildlife
All things great and small, the wildlife encounters in the NT are second-to-none.
For a bit of danger, visit the Jumping Crocs on the Adelaide River just outside of Humpty Doo. A boat cruise will take you down stream to watch 6m-long saltwater crocodiles literally jump out of the water right beside you to snap up a feed. Just don’t lean out of the boat.
At some campsites, kangaroos and wallabies sit at your feet and you can wake each morning to the sound of the kookaburra’s laugh. Huge birds of prey like the whistling kite and wedge-tailed eagle swoop in front of the moving cars to feast on road kill, and you might also tick dingoes, wild horses, camels and bush pigs off your “spotto” list.
#4 You can eat the coat of arms
Please excuse the disturbing segue, but no trip to the outback is complete without eating something different – or native. It’s easy to find a meal of fresh barramundi or steak, but the more adventurous among us can try a camel burger, smoked emu fillets, kangaroo bolognese, buffalo sausages, or crocodile vol au vent.
We dined at the Overlanders Steakhouse in Alice Springs, where some of us were braver than others. When in Rome, as they say.
#5 You can visit Australia’s UFO capital
Never will you see a more extraordinary petrol station than in the town of Wycliffe Well, 130km south of Tennant Creek. It’s no more than a petrol station and a campground, but it doesn’t take long to figure out why it’s so popular: the facade is completely covered in extra-terrestrial paraphernalia, including huge UFO and alien sculptures. The walls inside are plastered with clippings of sightings and strange occurrences from the area.
We came for the fuel… we left with two stubby holders, a coffee mug and a t-shirt.
#6 Daly Waters is home to the best pub in Australia
Daly Waters Historic Pub is in the middle of nowhere. Literally. If you ask for directions, you’ll probably be told to head towards “Woop Woop”. It’s 600km south of Darwin, 900km north of Alice Springs, and home to the only B&S Ball in the NT.
The 1930s establishment serves as a watering hole for staff from the surrounding cattle stations and travellers making their way up and down the Stuart Highway, although you will have to turn off the main road to find it.
The staple meal is the beef ‘n’ barra, cooked to-order on the barbie outside. The pub’s backyard is a campsite where a friendly lad on a wobbly pushbike will show you to your patch of grass. And, if you’re lucky, you can line dance to some live country and western in the beer garden.
The catch phrase here is “Leave Your Mark” so, inside and out, it’s covered in international money, ID cards, stubby holders, photos, scarfs, hats and bras. Lots of bras.
#7 Kakadu well and truly deserves its World Heritage listing
It’s really difficult to put into words why Kakadu National Park is so incredible. It might be the galleries of ancient rock art. Or the exotic birdlife. Or crocodiles swimming in the wild. Or seeing blooming water lilies and lotus flowers as far as the eye can see. Or seeing the sun set over stretching plains and floodways.
Not to be missed are Jim Jim Falls, Gunlom Plunge Pool, Ubirr Rock, and a sunrise cruise at Yellow Water Billabong.
#8 The world’s oldest living culture is incredible
Indigenous Australians are part of the world’s oldest living cultural groups, and their way of life overflows with language, spirituality, art, dance, tradition and stories. When visiting the Northern Territory, you can truly immerse yourself in their more than 50,000 years of history.
Take a tour of ancient rock carvings or purchase some Indigenous art to take home from one of the many galleries (and always ask how much of the sale price is given back to the artist). Always opt to do things like tours with Aboriginal guides where possible and, needless to say, the best way to engage with a culture is to respect it. That means don’t climb Uluru and don’t take photos or venture into areas if they’re restricted.
#9 If you need help, ask a grey nomad
When you are out on the road and need a little direction, we suggest you ask a grey nomad (retirees taking longtime trips around Australia). The campervanners and caravaners out there in the Top End are always happy to tell you where they’ve been and where they’re going, and to share some tips, lend a cup of sugar or help you change a gas bottle.
(All images: Kate McCabe)