From the Top End to the Red Centre, this drive hits all the highlights.
Ready to hit the road? Then get set for a stunning 11-day drive that takes in tropical waterholes and desert vistas, ancient cave art and classic outback roadhouses.
Day 1: Arrive in Darwin
Welcome to Australia’s northern-most capital city. With its low-slung buildings and tropical vegetation, Darwin has a character all of its own. You may want to explore the city’s indigenous art galleries, or eyeball a fearsome saltwater crocodile at Crocosaurus Cove. Board a Darwin Harbour cruise to learn more about Darwin’s natural landscapes and its tumultuous history, including the bombing of the city during World War Two. Don’t forget to sample some of the city’s buzzing restaurants, whether it’s watching the sunset over super-fresh seafood at Wharf One, or the spicy laneway action at Little Miss Korea.
Day 2: Darwin to Litchfield
Around 90 minutes south of Darwin, Litchfield National Park is a place that NT locals like to keep to themselves. The park is blessed with an abundance of croc-free swimming spots. Picturesque Buley Rockhole, with its shallow shoals made for splashing, is perfect for children, while Florence Falls, a waterhole fringed by shady trees and fed by twin falls, is one of the loveliest parts of the park. Not far away is the less-visited Tjaetaba Falls. It is a steep uphill hike to reach the falls, which cascade into a series of pools, but the panoramic views are worth the climb.
Day 3: Litchfield to Katherine
It will take you around 2.5 hours to reach Nitmiluk National Park, home to the remarkable Katherine Gorge. The soaring 70 metre sandstone walls of this dramatic gorge stretch for 12km, making it one of the Territory’s most magnificent sights. Depending on your energy levels, you can soak up the scenery on a cruise, or hire a canoe for your own explorations. The regional hub of Katherine is a good place to spend the night.
Day 4: Katherine to Mataranka
Enjoy a slower pace today as you head for the township of Mataranka, which played a starring role in the classic outback book, We of the Never Never by Jeannie Gunn. You can learn more about the area’s traditional custodians, the Mangarayi and Yangman people, by visiting the Never Never Museum and the exhibits of local indigenous art at the Stockyard Gallery. The area’s best loved attraction, however, is the lovely Mataranka Thermal Pool. Surrounded by palm forest and fed by hot springs, the water temperature is a constant 34 degrees.
Day 5: Mataranka to Daly Waters
As you drive through this land of wide skies and broad horizons, it is astonishing to think of the many people who have followed this route before you, from cattlemen droving their herds to the markets to the creators of the Overland Telegraph Line. Remarkably, the township of Daly Waters, originally established to service the cattle routes, was the home of Australia’s first international air field, built in the 1930s as a refuelling stop for Qantas planes en route to London. The Daly Waters Historic Pub is an outback classic, and holds nightly beef and barramundi barbecues during the dry season.
Day 6: Daly Waters to Tennant Creek
Today is probably the day on which you realise just how vast the outback really is. Those vast desert plains are far from empty, however; along the way you may spot kangaroos bounding across the highway and eagles soaring high above; you may even pass one of the outback’s famous road trains. Stay overnight at the town of Tennant Creek, known to its indigenous inhabitants as Jurnkurakurr.
Day 7: Tennant Creek to Alice Springs
Just south of Tennant Creek lie the Devils Marbles, a collection of granite boulders standing up to six metres high. The local Warumungu people believe these ancient boulders, which they call Karlu Karlu, are the fossilised eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. Your destination today is a town called Alice Springs, a lively hub surrounded on all sides by desert. Check to see if your visit coincides with any of Alice’s quirky festivals, such as the Camel Cup races.
Day 8: Alice and the West Macs
A day trip to the mighty West MacDonnell Ranges reveals plenty of surprises, from spectacular gorges to elusive wildlife. Highlights of the range, which stretches 400km across the desert, include Ormiston Gorge, where a waterhole attracts wildlife including dingo, red kangaroo and euros; Standley Chasm, a good place to spot black-footed rock wallabies; and the lush Palm Valley, filled with thousands of red cabbage palms, survivors from prehistoric times.
Day 9 Alice Springs to Kings Canyon
Each of the Red Centre’s gorges has its own charms, but perhaps the most unforgettable is Kings Canyon. Towering canyon walls, stretching more than 100 metres into the sky, protect a waterhole that is appropriately known as the Garden of Eden. The area’s unique micro-climate supports an astonishing 600 species of plants and animals, including ferns and cycads. Stay overnight and set the alarm early to tackle the 6km rim walk in the cool morning air.
Day 10 Kings Canyon to Uluru
It’s one of the best-known rocks in the world, but until you get close to Uluru it is impossible to appreciate the scale of this monolith, which seems to have been randomly dropped in the desert. There are many ways to explore the Rock – a guided walk along the base is recommended – but you won’t want to miss the spectacular sunsets, when the rock gradually changes colour. Tonight, celebrate your arrival with one of the memorable desert dining experiences, Sounds of Silence or Tali Wiru.
Day 11 Uluru and Kata Tjuta
They don’t receive as much publicity as the Rock, but the beehive domes of Kata Tjuta, just 30km away, are easily as spectacular as Uluru. The best way to explore them is on the Valley of the Winds trail, a 7km walk that reveals the hidden landscapes tucked in between the domes. Wild budgerigars flit over grasslands, while wallabies can be seen hopping on rocky slopes. It’s a tranquil way to end your visit to the Red Centre.