They say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that makes for a great trip, and in the Northern Territory you need to get used to the journey, because it can be a long way between destinations!
Darwin in the North is almost 2000 Kilometres from Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the South, and 3200 kilometres from Adelaide, but it is a journey that you will remember for a lifetime.
You can fly of course, but travelling along the Stuart Highway, that links Darwin to Adelaide will give you the “real Territory experience”.
Don’t forget to take lots of water, and work out where you need to stop to buy petrol, as well as pick the month that you want to travel, because it can get very hot, and there is also the wet season to think about too.
It is worth also stocking up with food, a hat, suntan lotion, mosquito repellent, and other essentials to take on your trip too – all be that via an organized tour or making your own way. Food and other supplies can be expensive to buy in remote locations.
Darwin is the main capital city of the Northern Territory, and is located on Darwin Harbour with a number of beaches, marinas and waterfront areas that are very attractive. The city has a population of around 130,000 people, and about 10% of the population is of aboriginal descent.
The city has a tropical climate, with a wet and dry season, so no winter, spring, autumn or summer, and pretty constant temperatures year round – with the wet season and cyclones being in the months December to March each year. The wet season can bring on torrential tropical rain storms, but great sunsets at the end of the day when they clear, and night storms can often bring on spectacular lightning shows too.
The airport is about 20 minutes from the city centre, and the best places to stay are around Mitchell Street in the city, or near Stokes Bay or Cullen Bay Marina, but being a small city most places to stay are not too far from any of the city’s attractions. There are a number of bike tracks in and around the city too – a great way to get a feel for the city and the lifestyle that goes with it. You can also catch an open air ‘Tour Tub Bus’ to see the main tourist hotspots.
Darwin was bombed a number of times by the Japanese in World War II, but it was Cyclone Tracy in 1974 that flattened the city, destroying more than 70% of all the buildings. Darwin has since been rebuilt, and has in many ways developed its own building style based on the hot climate and the need to allow any cooling breezes to blow through the houses. Its tropical climate also means lots of greenery grows too, making Darwin almost a tropical oasis.
While Tourism plays an important part of the Territory’s economy, mining and off-shore oil and gas fields have brought wealth to the city and economy, and Darwin is fast developing a reputation for its young, youthful enthusiasm and drive.
Many of the main Hotels have pools, and there is also the Wave Lagoon on the waterfront where you can swim, but don’t swim anywhere in the ocean or rivers where there are ocean stingers, Saltwater or fresh water crocodiles – unless you are seeking an early death! Signs in most places let you know if it is safe for swimming.
You can however feed the fish at Aquascene in Doctor’s Gully, or watch crocodiles being fed at the Darwin Croc farm (Stuart Highway, at Noonamah) where they have 30,000 crocodiles, or at Crocosaurus Cove (58 Mitchell Street in the city) – where you can even descend into a croc pen inside a cage to get right up close to a Crocodile to check its teeth. Crocosaurus Cove (www.crocosauruscove.com) also has a large aquarium and reptiles to see and also a turtle sanctuary. Also 75km south of Darwin you can take a cruise on the Adelaide River to see crocodiles leap out of the water next to your cruise to be fed by a Guide. See www.jumpingcrocodilecruises.com.au
Thursday nights is markets night – at Mindril Beach near Skycity Darwin Casino. The night markets are held during the dry season on Thursday nights and some on Sunday night and have lots of foods, crafts and other goods on sale.
Skycity Darwin Casino (www.skycitydarwin.com.au ) has a full range of games to play as well as a number of restaurants, bars, exhibition rooms, hotel suites and shows.
While in Darwin, make sure that you take a Darwin Harbour Cruise – ideally at sunset to see the sky change, and there are cruises that include dinners too. You will find cruises that leave from both Cullen Bay and also Stokes Wharf.
TWO OF THE BEST KNOWN AND MOST POPULAR NATIONAL PARKS OUTSIDE OF DARWIN ARE LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK AND KAKADU NATIONAL PARK -
LITCHFIELD National Park –
Litchfield National Park is located 75 kilometres from Darwin, and is near the small town of Batchelor, where there is the Coomalie Cultural Centre. Inside the Park you will find a wide range of landscapes, lots of waterfalls and pools, including the Tolmer, Florence and Wangi Falls, Buley Rock Holes where you can swim, areas of rainforest and perhaps the most amazing site – the Magnetic Termite Mounds. There are hundreds of these mud termite houses all facing in a perfect north to south direction, with the mounds being up to around 5 metres in height, their alignment related to the Earth’s magnetic field.
Termites in one sense are the most amazing builders, yet if they get into your home, they can also be the most destructive of all pests, eating out the cellulose in timber framing and creating a mud mountain at the same time. They are often called ‘white ants’, but in fact are more bee like – with a queen, workers, soldiers and reproductive Termites creating their nests. Mostly blind and with almost an albino white skin, they work below the surface of timber, and are never seen until the time that the timber itself becomes wafer thin and they are discovered.
At one time Termite mounds were used to make tennis courts, with a wire looped around their base and the termite mounds pulled away from the land, and then broken up to make a hard tennis court surface. This practice of destroying them is no longer allowed, and most are protected.
Here in Litchfield National Park, the termite mounds form an amazing landscape, and are definitely a site that you will remember.
KAKADU National Park –
Kakadu is one of the most popular of all destinations in the Northern Territory, with the National Park covering around 20,000 square kilometres, 200 kilometres north to south and 100 kilometres from east to west. It’s big!
The Park is located 170 kilometres south-east of Darwin and is a mixture of a dry plateau stone country in the south and rivers, estuaries, billabongs, wetlands, and flood plains in the north running right to the coast where four rivers- the East, South and West Alligator Rivers and the Wildman River – all flow into the sea.
There are two main sealed highways leading into the Park – the Arnhem Highway from Darwin, and the Kakadu Highway which leads south to Pine Creek and Katherine. Criss- crossing the Park are rough unsealed roads and tracks suited only for 4WD (four wheel drive vehicles). Many of these are impossible to travel on during the wet season.
You can either take tours with different companies, or make your own way. The advantage of taking a tour for all or part of your journey, is that someone else does the driving, and they will also give you a lot more information about what you are seeing, which you might otherwise miss. The best way to get a bird’s eye view of the whole park is to take a scenic flight from Jabiru or Coorinda.
On land there are lots of camping grounds, caravan parks and a few lodges and a Holiday Inn at Jabiru designed in the shape of a giant crocodile.
The main attraction of Kakadu is the wild and varied landscape, wetlands, birdlife, wild flowers, crocodiles and aboriginal rock art and culture.
If coming to Kakadu via the Arnhem Highway, there is an Information Bay at the Park’s entrance and 40 kilometres further into the Park is the Aurora Kakadu Resort, and 7 kilometres further along the turn off to Mamukala Wetlands where you can take a boardwalk for either 1km or 3km to see Magpie Geese and other wildlife. Also visit the Bowali Visitor Centre – where to see aboriginal art, have a coffee and gain more information about Kakadu.
Jabiru, about 30km further on is close to the junction with the Kakadu Highway and this is the main population centre in the Park and very close to the Ranger Uranium Mine and the controversial Jabiluka Mineral Lease.
Travelling northwards from Jabiru takes you to the Merl camping grounds and Ubirr where there are aboriginal rock carvings, and also the Border Store, where you cross the East Alligator River, which is a tidal river with Saltwater crocodiles in it, so you need to check when you can cross, as it may also be closed during the wet season. Beyond the River is Arnhem Land and you will be leaving the Park, and will need a permit to enter the lands.
While it is possible to see and buy aboriginal paintings and artifacts in many places in the Northern Territory, going to the source of these paintings can be even more rewarding. Around 60km from Jabiru and 16km from the Ubirr/Border Store is Gunbalanya where the local aboriginals speak the Kunwinjku language and create beautiful paintings and designs at the Injalak Arts and Craft Centre where a number of artists work. Over 200 artists from the area have works shown here. See www.injalak.com.au to read more about the artists and see some of their work.
Heading southwards from Jabiru on the Kakadu Highway, there are a number of camp sites, the Mirral Lookout and turn offs to places such as Burrunggui where there are bush paths including the 12km Barrk Sandstone Walk, and other places such as the spectacular Jim Jim Falls (a 60km rough 4WD only road). At Coolinda there is an airstrip for scenic flights, Yellow Water Billabong (Ngurrungurrudjba) and close by the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. You can also stay over in Coolinda in the camp ground or at the Gagudju Lodge.
The Yellow Water Billabong has small cruise boats that can take you to see the amazing array of birdlife, crocodiles, barramundi, waterlilies and lotus flowers that live in the Billabong. Kakadu is said to have more than 1700 different plant species – everything from paper bark trees, pandanus, kapok trees to mangroves, sedges, palms to different types of grasses and flowers of many types. There are also said to be over 200 different species of birds in Kakadu – from water birds, brolgas, to finches, lorikeets, honeyeaters, robins, geese, ducks, storks, pelicans, cranes, herons, falcons and many others.
Heading further southwards on the Kakadu Highway, you will pass by the Gungurule Lookout, Bukbukluk Lookout and come to the Mary River Roadhouse and the Gaymarr Interpretive Centre, with the road then leaving the Park and heading the 150km journey to Katherine.
Katherine is located 312 Kilometres south of Darwin, and has a population of around 6000 people. The most spectacular scenery 30 kilometres west of Katherine is the Katherine Gorge in the Nitmiluk National Park, with the high sandstone cliffs above the Katherine River, making for great views. You can hire a canoe or take one of the cruise boats for a 2 hour or longer time, and hear the Jawoyn Aboriginal story from the time of creation.
It is also possible to take a helicopter ride over the top of the Gorge too, and there are places where you can swim. Edith Falls is located in a different part of the Park, and to get there the turn off is 42 kilometres north of Katherine, and a further 19 kilometres from the turn off.
Katherine, like Darwin was bombed in 1942 by the Japanese in World War II, and there is the Katherine Museum that tells more of the story. The museum also houses the original Gypsy Moth the first plane used by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Katherine is also a centre for Gold Mining, and close to the town are about 180,000 Mango Trees, as well as Avocado fruit growing properties, supplying Mangos and Avocadoes to supermarkets and fruit shops across Australia. The Tindal RAAF Air force base is also located just outside town, and 3 kilometres from town is the Katherine Hot Springs. For history enthusiasts take a look at the Pioneer Cemetery, and if you are looking for gemstones take a look at the NT Rare Rocks gem shop where you can see Opals, Zircon, Zebra Stone, Okapi Stone and other gems on display and for sale.
The Cutta Cutta Caves are about 30km from town and said to be 500 million years old. You can walk inside the caves that descend about 15 metres below ground level.
DALY WATERS –
In the outback, finding water is essential for life, and always you should make sure to bring lots of water with you when you travel. It took the explorer John McDougall Stuart six attempts to finally make it from the south in Port Augusta to the northern coastline, and Daly Waters no doubt it was a God send when he found it on his Expedition heading north.
Daly Waters is located 620 Kilometres south of Darwin, and 400 kilometres north of Tennant Creek, and although it is three kilometres west of the Stuart Highway, it is worth a visit to drink some water, or even better quench your thirst at the local Pub.
The Daly Waters pub is famous for not just their beer, but also the amazing collection of ‘stuff’ – car number plates, bras and bank notes from all over the world, all sorts of memorabilia left by travellers at the pub since it was first built in 1938. There is a great beer garden and also a restaurant serving nightly “Beer and Barra” (Barramundi fish), with accommodation for backpackers and a caravan park and air conditioned cabins.
The pub is pretty much a party place – so a good place to hear some music and meet other people journeying through the outback.
Daly Water’s other claim to fame is that it was Australia’s first International Airport! The airport was built in the 1930’s for the Sydney to London “Kangaroo Route” for Qantas Empire Airways, so they could refuel here before heading on to Singapore. In 1942 it also became a RAAF base during World War II, and the old Qantas hangar is still there with some memorabilia from the early days. It is no longer used for International flights, but is still used by light aircraft.
TENNANT CREEK –
When the early explorers set off on their expeditions, they usually had financial support to pay for the expenses of their trips, and so it was that the explorer John McDouall Stuart named Tennant Creek in honour of his sponsor, a South Australian land owner named John Tennant.
Tennant Creek became one of the Overland Telegraph Station in 1872, and the stone Station building can still be seen today. In 1926 Gold was first discovered just outside the town, and in the 1930’s there was a Gold Rush. Today you can visit the Battery Hill Mining Centre and see and hear about the Gold Rush days and the mine. Also take a look at the
Tennant Creek is at the heart of the cattle country, but one of the main attractions just south of Tennant Creek are the Devil’s Marbles (Karlu karlu) granite tors, giant round boulders, hence the name Devil’s Marbles. The local Warmungu people say that the Karlu Karlu were “the fossilised eggs of the rainbow serpent.”
In town look out to see the Nyinkka Nyunya Culture Centre – for aboriginal art and information, and also the Winanjjikari Music Centre to find local aboriginal music.
Lake Mary Ann is a lake 5 kilometres north of Tennant Creek on the other side of the Honeymoon Ranges, off the Stuart Highway, where it is possible to go swimming and also to see lots of birdlife.
ALICE SPRINGS –
Alice Springs was made famous in Neville Shute’s book “A town like Alice”, and the TV series and movie of the same name. Alice Springs as the name suggests is built next to a water spring and the Todd River runs through it – although mostly the Todd River is dry and this is where they hold the Todd River Regatta – officially the Henley-on-Todd Regatta in August each year. The regatta is not quite as regal as the regatta in England, and with no water in the river, the boats need to be carried, but the rowers – 4’s, 8’s and yachtsmen, canoeists, bathtub derby oarsmen are all in fine form and the Regatta is probably the funniest boat race in the world. It also follows on from the Camel Cup Races in July each year – where Camels and their jockeys race followed by a cheering crowd of people and a large cloud of dust.
Alice Springs, more often called just ‘Alice’ is home to about 28,000 people and is in many ways the red heart of Australia. Surrounded by desert, the area has been populated by the Arrernte Aboriginal people for thousands of years, with their stories telling the story of how the land was formed. The Arrernte language is a living language, spoken by around 3000 people and is also taught in school in Alice Springs.
Alice Springs is over 500 kilometres south of Tennant Creek, and 441 Kilometres north of Uluru (Ayers Rock) – big distances to travel through the desert. To get to Uluru you can either drive down the Stuart Highway to Eridunda and turn onto the Lasseter Highway or head via the Red Centre Way, which goes via Kings Canyon.
In Alice Springs itself you will find supermarkets can you can replenish supplies, lots of specialty shops and food courts, aboriginal galleries, arts and craft and souvenirs of your travels, and Lasseters Casino with gaming rooms, hotel accommodation, convention rooms, spas, gym, restaurants and bars.
In the outback, cattle properties, mines and settlements can be very isolated, spread out over thousands of kilometres, with communication and services such as education and health difficult to connect to. Here in Alice Springs, we have the School of the Air – that links teachers in Alice to students spread out right across the Territory, hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometres away. We also have the Royal Flying Doctor Service based here too, with doctors and pilots ready to fly to isolated properties or mine sites to pick up a patient, bring medicines and the doctor to them. Both the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor Service have visitor centres here in Alice for people to see what they do, and showcase how both services have developed over the years. The School of the Air is located at 80 Head St, north of the city, just off the Stuart Highway, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre is located at 8-10 Stuart Terrace in the city.
To see the best in Aboriginal paintings head to the Mbantua Fine Arts Gallery and Cultural Museum, the Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre on Todd Street and the Araluen Galleries, where there is also a theatre and an Arthouse Cinema located here.
For history – head to the Australian Overland telegraph Historical Reserve where you can see the old stone buildings built for the Telegraph Station; also see the Road Transport Hall of Fame; The National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame; Old Ghan Museum; and the Central Australian Aviation Museum.
To get a feel for the desert environment, plants and animals head to the Alice Springs Desert Park and also the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens.
The Alice Springs Reptile Centre at 9 Stuart Terrace has lots of snakes, lizards, geckos and Thorny Devils as well as a saltwater crocodile to see, and to see and learn about Kangaroos, visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary (www.kangaroosanctuary.com Tel: (08) 8953 0127. If you are looking to get a great view of Alice Springs, head to Anzac Park, or go higher up on a Hot Air Balloon.
One of the greatest attractions of Alice Springs is the Larapinta Trail – a 223 kilometre long walking track that can take you through the MacDonnell Ranges past Simpsons Gap, the Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Serpentine Gorge, Ochre Pits, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge, Redbank Gorge to Mount Sonder– all, almost in a continuous line to the west of Alice Springs. These Gorges are also accessible by car, 4WD and tour buses, and depending on your time and interest you could access all or just some of these attractions, or do the full walk or just parts of it.
Standley Chasm makes for great photos, with the best time being midday. There is also a kiosk there and picnic tables; Ellery Creek Big Hole is in the Serpentine Gorge with great cliff views and the Ochre Pits is where the Ochre is found that Aboriginals use in their ceremonies. Glen Helen Gorge also has a restaurant in a hotel there, and you can also swim in the gorge there.
Another attraction is Palm Valley, where there are 3000 cabbage palms growing – almost an oasis in the desert. The Valley is located in Finke Gorge National Park about 138 km from Alice Springs, off Larapinta Drive, so on a different road to Standley Gorge and the other gorges above.
Kings Canyon is located further on from the other canyons and is about 310 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs in the Watarrka National Park. You need a permit to allow you to travel there through aboriginal land, and at Kings Canyon there is resort accommodation, a caravan park and backpacker lodges to stay over.
Kings Canyon can be accessed by walking or there are helicopter rides over the top, and even quad bike and camel tours available to certain parts of the canyon. The Canyon is best known for its sheer canyon sandstone walls that tower above the canyon floor and the red and orange colours of the rock that change with the angles of the sun.
East of Alice Springs on the Ross Highway there are also more Gorges to see, including the Trephina Gorge National Park with River Red Gums and quartz cliffs and the N’Dhala Gorge National Park at Ross River where there are rock paintings.
If you need to see more gorges and have the time and a 4WD to get you there, look for Ruby Gap Gorge and the Glen Annie Gorge. These are north east of Alice and about 38 kilometres from Arltunga.
ULURU and KATA TJUTA –
Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) are without doubt the most famous of all landmarks in Australia.
Millions of people have photographed them at sunrise, sunset, night, morning, afternoon, in rain storms, dust storms, with different skies, covered by frost and from every angle, and many have also climbed the very high side of Uluru to the top, a distance of around 1.6 kilometres and rising to a height of 348 metres above the ground level plain. The highest rock formation of the 36 rock domes in Kata Tjuta is even higher – 546 Metres above the plain and covering an area of 35 square kilometres. Kata Tjuta is about 32 kilometres away from Uluru.
What is the most amazing for those people who come to see the Rocks is the sheer size of both Uluru and the Kata Tjuta and their colours that change with the light from the sun early morning and then throughout the day and into the night. It is worth the effort to get up early to see the sunrise.
Stone is the fabric of the earth, and unlike timber, trees, soil and even buildings made from bricks and timber – stone seems to absorb the light and reflect it, and so it is with Uluru and the Kata Tjuta as they change colour from reds to orange, rust, pinks and mauves early morning and during the day and into the night where their outline becomes a silhouette. The night sky also come to life too, with millions of stars creating the universe above you.
This is all aboriginal land – the land of the Anangu people, who have lived in this area for thousands of years. When you look around you and see the vast land that you are in, and think about how you would survive here, you will most likely come to the conclusion that you would most likely die of thirst and starvation, much like the many of the early explorers. This leads to tremendous respect for the aboriginal people who have lived here in the desert for a lifetime, and done so for thousands of years. Where you see a desert, they see a food bowl.
While Uluru and Kata Tjuta attract thousands of visitors from all over the world to see them, it has also placed many Aboriginal Desert Artists onto a world stage, with the recognition they deserve for their unique art and culture. Take a tour with an Aboriginal Tour Guide to hear the stories and gain an understanding of “Tjukurpa” – encompassing the spirituality, sacred sites and laws that govern their world.
Make sure too that you visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre in the National Park to see the Maruku Gallery.
One of the best things about setting of Uluru and Kata Tjuta is that the natural setting of both have been preserved, and all accommodation, shops and the airport are located outside the park in Yulara outside the National Park.
It is possible to see, walk around and even climb up Uluru – a very steep and somewhat difficult climb to the top, although in respect to the Anangu people this is not something that they like to see. The Valley of the winds walk is around 7.4 kilometres long.
You can also take a small aircraft scenic tour over the top or go by helicopter, and there are also camel and quad bike tours that can be taken too. Ayers Rock Resort and Yulara offer lots of accommodation and dining experiences, and while it is possible to spend just a day here, it is better to spend longer to gain a real feel for the outback and pick up on the character and spirituality of the red centre of Australia.
We hope you enjoy your time in the Northern Territory.