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Get out the back of Oz with a roadtrip from Darwin to Alice
Yes, this part of the NT can be exceedingly barren, but somehow its wild and varied terrain never really seems empty. Here you can also discover tumbling waterfalls, diverse wildlife, ancient 20,000-year-old rock art and World Heritage-listed Kakadu. This road trip certainly ain’t for the faint hearted (it’s almost 1500 kilometres long), but if you’re prepared to appreciate the unique allure and spiritual beauty of this rugged landscape, then you’ll be on your way to creating your very own scrapbook of outback dreams.
Darwin to Kakadu – 2 hours
So it’s not exactly on the direct route to Alice Springs, but if you’re in this part of the Top End, you really can’t go past a side trip to World Heritage-listed Kakadu – it’s incredible and it’s only an hour and a half from Darwin.
Australia’s largest terrestrial national park, Kakadu National Park extends from the coastal fringes in the north to the rocky ridges in the south for 20,000 square kilometres (about 200 kilometres north–south and 100 kilometres east–west to be precise). And it’s a whole lot more than just a ‘national park’ – it’s a living, breathing acknowledgement of the link between the Aboriginal custodians and the country they’ve respected and nurtured for thousands of generations.
It also contains a spectacular ecosystem, a diverse array of flora and fauna (almost a third of Australia’s bird population hang out here), and a mind-blowing concentration of ancient rock art – we’re talking over 20,000 years old, people. Its often-barren landscapes are also chock-full of billabongs and waterfalls in summer, it has an abundance of photo ops (try Barramundi Gorge and the Nardab Lookout), and its walking trails are littered with amazing sandstone escarpments.
Highlights? Jim Jim and Gunlom have the best waterfalls, Ubirr and Nourlangie the most breathtaking rock art sites and Mirrai Lookout Walk is the go if you’re up for a challenging traipse (the reward is superb views of Mount Cahill and the Kakadu escarpment).
Kakadu to Katherine – 2 hours
As you head towards Katherine, stop off at the Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park. There is a lovely, isolated gorge here that features steep red cliffs adorned with ancient Wagiman Aboriginal art, or continue on to picturesque Leliyn/Edith Falls for a dip. Located on the western side of Nitmiluk National Park, here you’ll find a pandanus-fringed natural pool, or you can take a challenging nine-kilometre bushwalk around the Leliyn Trail and end up at the tranquil Sweetwater Pool.
The most visited landmark in this region is undoubtedly Katherine Gorge, a continuous landscape that has been carved through the Arnhem Plateau. Running along perpendicular fault lines that separate during the dry season, the combined spectacles of the river, sheer cliffs and ancient rock art make this an awesome place to explore.
The Katherine River flows through 13 separate gorges carved from super-old sandstone country, resulting in an adventurer’s playground where you can frolick in natural thermal springs, swim beneath gushing cascades, and fish your way through a boatload of giant barramundi.
Located 30 kilometres south of Katherine, Cutta Cutta Caves Nature Park covers almost 1500 hectares of limestone landscape that is only found in a few locations in northern Australia. Take a tour fifteen metres underground and you’ll witness an ecosystem that was formed millions of years ago and is still growing today.
Katherine to Tennant Creek – 7.5 hours
You’ll have a long drive today on the Stuart Highway where you’ll begin to appreciate the hostility and enormity of the Australian landscape (so load up with fuel, tunes and snacks), and tourism spots along this stretch are pretty much limited to local pubs and roadside stops. However, along the way you might want to stretch the legs at Lake Woods. A huge wetland located on the western edge of the Barkly Tableland, it’s a popular fishing and swimming spot and during wet periods can swell to up to 1000 km², making it one of the largest temporary freshwater lakes in the NT.
Bordered to the east of the Barkly Tableland, you’ll find Tennant Creek, colloquially known as the NT’s ‘Heart of Gold’. This area is chockers with outback cattle stations and spectacular natural wonders. Thrill seekers can 4WD-fang-it around the Davenport Range National Park, tackle the numerous walking tracks in the region, or if you’re a fan of ‘shiny things’ try your hand at fossicking for gold at the Battery Hill Mining Centre.
Aboriginal culture is also very strong here and there are many sacred sites recognised in the area. The Nyinkka Nyunyu Culture Centre is an award-winning local attraction that gives visitors a unique opportunity to learn about Aboriginal history, check out some seriously stunning indigenous art and gain an insight into the unique connection indigenous people have to the land.
Tennant Creek to Alice Springs – 6 hours
The end of the road of your massive trip begins with the final leg to Alice Springs, however along the way, check out one of the outback’s most iconic landmarks – the Devil’s Marbles. Formed by erosion over millions of years, these are a series of massive, granite boulders that are scattered across a wide, shallow valley. Varying in size, many of them are also so precariously balanced on top of one another they appear to defy gravity. Cue extremely cool Instagram opportunities.
Then … hello Alice! You’re finally here, however the lure of this town’s tourist attractions, including the Alice Springs Desert Park, Temple Bar Gap and the Royal Flying Doctor Service Base will mean you’re not done exploring yet. Time to keep cracking on!
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