Three Spectacular Road Trips to Soak in the Australian Outback

Awe-inspiring landscapes and legends Down Under. Plus, the best way to see Uluru.  
Rainbow Valley
Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve near Alice Springs is most striking at sunrise and sunset. Photo: iStock.com/TonyFeder

Raw, untamed, intriguing and spectacular—Australia’s Northern Territory lives up to all those images of the Outback, and yet has surprises waiting along its desolate roads, including 15ft-long crocodiles and Aboriginal sites steeped in folklore. Here are three road trips that offer completely diverse experiences, from a drive through lush national parks to a journey to the heart of Australia’s Red Centre.

Drive 1: From Darwin to Litchfield National Park and Kakadu National Park

Itinerary: 3 Days

Day 1 Darwin to Litchfield National Park (via National Highway 1, Batchelor Road, Rum Jungle Road) (120km / 2hrs)

Litchfield National Park to Adelaide River (Jumping Crocs Cruise) (60km / 1hr)

Adelaide River to Corrobore Park Tavern (30km / 30mins)

Day 2 Corrobore to Ubirr, Kakadu National Park (via Arnhem Highway and State Route 36) (200km / 2.5hrs)

Day 3 Ubirr to Maguk Gorge (About 2 hours drive) and then on to Darwin (290km / 4hrs)

Go on a crocodile cruise to see the saltwater crocs in action. Photo: iStock.com/renelo

Go on a crocodile cruise to see the saltwater crocs in action. Photo: iStock.com/renelo

Large-screen televisions fail; it’s impossible to visualise the sheer magnitude of the world’s largest reptile. You can spot your first “salty” (Australian for a saltwater crocodile) only a few hours after hitting the road in the Northern Territory, Australia’s most sparsely populated state.

Make a pit stop at the 4m-tall Cathedral Termite Mounds in Litchfield National Park—evidence that termites don’t just thrive in mouldy attics and lofts. Some of these mounds have survived a century along with rows of smaller magnetic termite mounds reminiscent of tombstones. Next, take the Jumping Crocs (Trust the Aussies to get to the point) cruise on the Adelaide River, about three hours from Darwin, the state’s capital that sits on the Northern coastline. It is home to one of the world’s largest population of saltwater crocodiles that weigh about 450kg with an average length of 15ft. It’s around these parts that Australia’s most successful film of all time, Crocodile Dundee, was filmed.

Kakadu, Australia

Trekking in Kakadu is a must-do if you’re in the area. Photo: Ashwin Rajagopalan

My first brush with Aboriginal art does not live up to the archetypal dotted forms I’ve seen in other parts of Australia. I’m in Ubirr, which boasts of some of the country’s oldest surviving rock paintings that date back 20,000 years. Ubirr is one of the many significant Aboriginal sites within the 20,000sq.km Kakadu National Park. Kakadu is half the size of Switzerland, is home to seven regions with distinct flora, and has six seasons according to thousands of years of Aboriginal knowledge. It swings from the wet gudjewg season (between December and March) to the hot, dry gurrung (from mid-August to mid-October). Kakadu is now on the World Heritage List in recognition of having one of the world’s longest surviving cultural landscapes (over 50,000 years). Tales of Aboriginal legends fill the air. Local communities are once again the proud custodians (Aborigines prefer to say custodians rather than owners) of traditional lands like Kakadu.

Every tough trek is almost always rewarded with a spectacular view. At the Nawurlandja Lookout, I can almost hear that iconic Led Zeppelin song, “Over The Hills And Far Away”. Plans can change by the minute during the gudjewg season. It just takes one major storm for a road closure but thanks to Kakadu’s enormous size, you never run out of options. One such road closure meant Jim Jim Falls, one of the region’s big draws, was off-limits but the Florence Falls in the Litchfield Park zone more than made amends. The heady mix of flora around Kakadu also includes swathes of lotus flowers believed to have been brought to this region from South-East Asia centuries before the Europeans arrived.

Day 3 includes a quick stop at Maguk Gorge (Previously known as Barramundi Gorge). It’s not an easy drive—the last 15km need a four-wheel drive and once you’ve covered the dirt track, a 1km-trek finally leads you to a gorgeous plunge pool.

Pro Tips

•    Three days and two nights is time enough to cover key spots around the Litchfield Park and Kakadu National Park region.
•     Stay the first night at the Corroboree Park Tavern on the Arnhem highway and spend the second night inside the Kakadu region. Jabiru, the main town has a range of accommodation options including the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, shaped like a crocodile!
•    You could self-drive from Darwin or travel with a seasoned tour operator like Active Holiday Company, an Indian representative of Intrepid Travel, who have all-inclusive packages.
•    You can visit almost any time of the year. November to April is the wet season (with heavy storms in April). Months between May and August are generally cooler (17-32°C) months while August to October are the dry, hot months. (23-37°C)
•    If you’re on your own in the wet season, keep talking to park rangers along the route to get the latest updates on road closures and do keep printed maps in the glove compartment; mobile coverage is only available in Jabiru.
•    Your Indian license or international driving license is valid in Australia; it also helps that you are on the same side of the road. You can hire a car/SUV from a long list of car rental firms like Thrifty, or rent a car from Budget.

Drive 2: Darwin to Alice Springs

Edith Falls

At Edith Falls, the lower pool is generally closed during the rainy season, when the flooding waters bring in saltwater crocodiles. Photo: iStock.com/Ladiras

Itinerary: 2 Days

Day 1 Darwin to Daly Waters via Pine Creek and Edith Falls (A 20km deviation off the National Highway 1/Stuart Highway) (640km / 8 hrs)

Day 2 Daly Waters to Alice Springs with stops at Devils Marbles and the Tropic of Capricorn en route (1,000km / 7 hrs)

It’s been 150 years since John McDouall Stuart made his epic journey from Adelaide in the south to Darwin. It was probably one of the riskiest road trips ever undertaken into the realm of the unknown. Today, the Stuart Highway runs for 3,000km, cutting across the centre of Australia. Hardly an hour into the drive, you’ll find all those images of the Australian Outback slowly coming to life. There’s no sign of human life for long stretches – not even a passing car or those never-ending Aussie road trains. Cast anchor three hours later at the Lazy Lizard, a quaint bar and restaurant in Pine Creek. An old locomotive stands in an abandoned station with nowhere to go; things have quietened down in this small town since a brief gold rush in the 1870s.

Edith Waterfalls in the Nitmiluk National Park is a regular detour for motorists heading South. A testing trek is rewarded with a rejuvenating dip in one of the two water bodies. It’s not unusual for the lower pool to be closed in the rainy season when the flooding waters bring in saltwater crocodiles. The trek uphill is not such a bad idea after all! If that’s too much of a climb, there’s a much smaller natural pool at Bitter Springs, near the small town of Mataranka. It’s here that the region earned its “Never Never” moniker thanks to Jeannie Gunn’s famous autobiographical novel, We of the Never Never.

Pull into the historic town of Daly Waters, home of Australia’s first international airfield, to grab a pint at the Daly Waters Pub. The airfield hasn’t survived but the pub that served the erstwhile airport still springs to life every evening. It proudly displays currency notes that international travellers have left behind over the years as souvenirs.

Devils Marbles, Australia

Devils Marbles, or Karlu Karlu, are two huge boulders that tease to roll over at any second. Photo: Ashwin Rajagopalan

Day 2 is almost spent entirely on the road—1,000km is a lot of ground to cover. If you can, stop at Wycliff Wells, the self-proclaimed UFO Capital of Australia. Encounter another Aboriginal legend at Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles), a dramatic natural site where scores of boulders have been shaped by the natural process of weathering and erosion over thousands of years. Quite a few of these boulders are delicately perched over one another, teasing to roll over any second.

Last stop before the final destination: the intersection of the Tropic of Capricorn with the Stuart (the highway named after the Scottish explorer), a little before Alice Springs. This is the perfect spot for selfies and those “I was there” pictures. Eventually after a 1,600km drive and close to 20 hours on a road where you will be able to remember almost every single car that passes you, you will be at Alice Springs, roughly the halfway point on McDouall Stuart’s ride between Darwin and Adelaide.

Pro Tips

•    Spend some time exploring Darwin before you hit the road. The city’s wharf precinct is famous for its surreal sunsets and scrumptious seafood with South-East Asian influences. Melaleuca on Mitchell Street is ideal for an overnight stay.
•    Stock up on enough supplies; muesli bars and fruits are a particularly good idea, before you leave Darwin.
•    Mobile coverage is almost non-existent all the way to Alice Springs except for a couple of big towns along the way.
•    Keep an eye on that fuel gauge and your water stock at all times if you are doing a self-drive holiday. Towns like Katherine Springs, Mataranka and Tennant Creek have fuel stations and convenience stores.
•    If you are an adventurous foodie, do look out for croc meat and kangaroo steaks at restaurants along the way, like Lazy Lizard in Pine Creek.

Drive 3: Uluru and Kings Canyon

Itinerary: 3 Days

Day 1 Alice Springs to Uluru (Via Stuart Highway and Lasseter Highway) (460km / 6 hrs)

Day 2 Uluru to Kings Canyon (Via Lasseter Highway and Red Centre Way) (320km / 4 hrs)

Day 3 Kings Canyon to Alice Springs (via Red Centre Way) (320km / 5.5 hrs)

Uluru

If there’s one site that can match Uluru at sunset, it’s Uluru at sunrise. Photo: Nosha/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

It’s sunset; that brief passage in the day when Uluru goes from dull brown to sun-kissed ochre. It’s why people make the journey to this unique monolith, and it’s worth that long flight. If there’s one site that can match Uluru at sunset, it’s Uluru at sunrise, when the same magical ochre reappears. It’s hardly surprising that Uluru occupies a hallowed place in Aboriginal culture; you can feel a distinct energy in its shadow.

It’s just six hours away from Alice Springs, longer if you choose to stop over at a large camel farm. Fun fact: Australia has the world’s largest population of wild camels (over 200,000). They were first brought in the 1840s to handle transportation and have multiplied manifold ever since. Farms around the Stuarts Well region organise camel rides and yes, you can also sink your teeth into camel burgers here. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta (pronounced “joota”) National Park spans 1,300sq.km and although Uluru is the big magnet, the domes of Kata Tjuta make for a great hike. Kata Tjuta is a mix of assorted rock types like granite and sandstone, further accentuated by the red soil. Geologists call them bornhardts. These 36 domed formations spread over 22sq.kms take their name from the local Aboriginal term for “many heads”.

Uluru is one of the world’s largest monolithic structures. Spend a good part of the morning walking around the 9.5km-long base with a local Anangu guide, who will take you though some of the legendary water holes and rock art. The Anangu people have lived around Uluru for over 22,000 years. A cultural centre in the area that offers insights into their history is also a great place to snag traditional art.

On the last night on the road, snuggle up in a swag (Australian for bedroll) under the stars at the camp near Kings Canyon, halfway between Alice Springs and Uluru. Watch out for occasional dingo sightings around the camp, but don’t let that ruin what could be your best night’s sleep on the trip. It’s the ideal prep for the demanding 6km Canyon Rim walk that begins at sunrise. The sandstone walls of the Canyon were formed when small cracks eroded over centuries. The four-hour trek begins with an insanely steep climb dubbed “heart-attack hill” by the locals, and offers sweeping views of the gorge below. Thankfully, there are pit-stops: Garden of Eden, a watering hole, and The Lost City, a cluster of unusual rock formations. Kings Canyon captures the essence of the Outback—intriguing, magnificent and tough.

Pro Tips

•    Ulara is the gateway to Uluru-Kata Tjuta. There are quite a few hotels here, such as the Outback Pioneer Lodge.
•    The Kings Canyon Resort has a choice of hotel and camping-style accommodation.
•    You can buy an access pass (25AUD/₹1,280) to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park or opt for an all-inclusive package that includes camp accommodation with Active Holiday Company, an Indian representative of Intrepid Travel.
•    Alice Springs is the home base for Australia’s emblematic Flying Doctors service; a compact museum in the heart of town pays tribute.
•    While it’s not forbidden to climb Uluru, the local Anangu people consider it a sacred site and encourage visitors not to climb.
•    You can buy traditional art and souvenirs including didgeridoos either at the Todd Mall Area in Alice Springs, or at Ulara.
•    The Kings Canyon climb requires more than a moderate fitness level; opt for the Kings Creek Walk at the base of the Canyon even if you have the slightest doubt.
•    Make sure you drink at least 4-6 litres of water a day while on the road here.

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    Ashwin Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based lifestyle writer who never tires of the beach. He enjoys writing on food and wine, handheld gadgets and travel. Ashwin’s work has been published in Lonely Planet, GQ, the Man, The Hindu and Sommelier India. He is a compulsive Instagrammer (@ashwinpowers on Instagram and Twitter).

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