Vast, silent and hot, the North of Australia is not for the faint-hearted. From waterfalls to rainforests, hot springs to rock formations, add deserts and chasms and gorges and more besides. There is adventure, danger and safe sight-seeing, it will all depend on you.
I will write a summary of the main regions and if you want to do them all, fast, you’ll need 18 days to get from Adelaide, to the Red Centre, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Mataranka Hot Springs, Katherine, Kakadu, Darwin, Litchfield, Edith Falls then on to Timber Creek, heading for Western Australia. That’s with overnight stops (I don’t drive at night) and stays of up to 3 days in some areas. You’ll have seen all the major sights, weather permitting.
The area is subject to flooding in the wet season (roughly November to April) and that will affect the route you take to get there and what you do when you arrive. We travel in a two wheel drive, towing a light van, so are limited to good roads and maybe a heavy coating of rain.
The sealed roads in the Territory are very good and well-maintained. You can hire a car or 4WD, but ‘the word’ is, that you have to take photos of the vehicle when you pick it up, to make sure you are not charged for damage not incurred by you. It is worth taking insurance out, as stones flying up can shatter a windscreen and hitting stray wildlife can demolish your front end.
From Adelaide, stop at Pimba or Glendambo, before visiting Coober Pedy and then the border. Plenty of free campsites and caravan parks along this way and the free campsite at the border between SA and NT (pictured at the top) with toilets and cooking facilities, but no power is great. I will say that the NT has the best maintained toilets on campsites I have seen. Maybe stop at Erldunda , or Curtain Springs, which both have a number of facilities.
The Red Centre
The Red Centre – the desert region that holds the famous monolith, Uluru, and Kata Tjuta, another sacred site. The Centre is ancient and has a mood that I can only describe as spiritual. Like the echoing chasm of a cathedral, this roofless expanse can somehow achieve the same meeting of you and what lies beyond. On your way in to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, visit Mt Ebenezer and stay at Kings Canyon Resort/campsite in Watarrka National Park. Four days should cover the whole.
Alice Springs is the town that is closest to the Red Centre and is small and neat, with everything you need. Visit one of the Aboriginal Art galleries, or the Reptile Centre, go to the Alice Springs Desert Park for a remarkable explanation of the plants, animals and people. There are so many things to do close to the town, such as walking Stanley Chasm or Simpson’s gap. These are both short, easy walks, with beautiful views at the end and plenty of opportunities for photos along the way. Please note any requests not to photograph particular places or angles, due to cultural significance. I’ve done them both three times and have not tired of it, but noticed that it is much quicker when your children are older or not there. I wouldn’t like to try either with a wheelchair, although there is some accessibility at both. Finke Gorge is much bigger but the distance you travel is up to you – take plenty of water.
There is a road from the Red Centre to Alice Springs, the Mereengie/Larapinta loop, but much of it is unsealed and you need to check on the suitability if you don’t have a 4WD. A permit is also required for part of it. The Mereengi loop takes in Glen Helen and Hermannsburg and I am told it is scenic but have not done it.
We tried to find Palm Valley a couple of times and were unsuccessful and have not met someone who has been there. However, the pictures suggest it is possible so it’ll have to go on a bucket list.
An ideal place to stay in Alice Springs is BIG4 MacDonnell Ranges caravan park. They have great activities for the whole family, good pools and clean facilities. The ranges that cast their shadow over the park are beautiful and worth a climb if you can find a legal track. The view from Anzac Hill, over the Alice, is also worth doing and you’ll take in a bit of history if you visit the site.
Ormiston Gorge I have visited with a friend who had a 4WD so I am not sure if it is accessible without one.
If you want to experience The Aboriginal Culture, attend one of the cultural experiences. They are informative, colourful and like nothing else. I cannot include photos of Aboriginal people, as they do not like to have their photos taken or shown, and it is particularly important not to show photos of someone who has died.
There are so many other things to do – check out websites. I have friends who have not found much in the centre for them, but I love it – even the red dirt that gets into everything.
Tenant Creek and Karlu Karlu
Head north to Tennant Creek, stopping at Karlu Karlu on the way. It is right on the Stuart Highway so you can’t miss it. We haven’t stayed overnight there, but intend to next time, having seen the camping area behind the rocks. Apparently, the sunset and sunrise is stunning, although I imagine the shadows at night would be eerie. If it was quite hot, you might find that a vehicle or van without air-conditioning would be taxing before sunset.
Tennant Creek has a lot of stories and warnings, but we stayed in one of the caravan parks in town, after asking at the local petrol station. From Tenant Creek you can take the Barkly Hwy to Queensland or continue north.
A work colleague heard I was travelling north and told me not to miss Mataranka Springs. Well, I can confirm that it is amazing, extraordinary and unusual. There is a kiosk, campground and bar, if I remember. But the star attraction is the thermal pool!
We were told it was a half hour drive to Katherine from here, but it took us an hour, so remember that locals will travel faster, knowing the roads.
This is a place worth visiting for at least a couple of days. The town is quite large and has good facilities and there are choices of campsites and motels.
Nitmiluk Gorge, on the Katherine River, is a must and if you do the boat trip at the end of the dry you won’t go as far but you will be rewarded with amazing colours of sandstone, a swim in crocodile-free waters and tales of culture.
There are hot springs around the town and the visitor information centre, or accommodation providers will give you a map. Don’t miss them.
We saw a number of kookaburras – you might, too.
Floods are not uncommon in the wet season, so check the timing. After the wet, crocodiles are more prevalent so bathe and camp carefully.
About 40 km north of Katherine and 20km along a sealed road is Leliyn. You could do this on your way back from Darwin, if time is short.
There are a variety of walks but we took the loop walk which takes about two hours (1.6km each way) and is uphill from the kiosk and downhill from the top plunge pool and falls. I would call it easy, having done it in thongs (rubber-soled footwear), while it was 45C. The tracks are well-marked.
The rocks at the top falls are slippery, so be careful, but refreshing on a 40C+ day. I saw many people jump in, but if you can’t see the bottom, that could result in a broken leg or hypothermia if the water is very cold. Don’t swim alone.
The main pool and falls at the bottom can be enjoyed by the whole family, but it does get deep.
Kakadu (Gagadju) National Park
World Heritage listed, Kakadu is the better known of the two national parks at this end of Australia. It is a long way in from the main highway and at the end of the dry season that trek did not have much scenery to recommend it. We stayed at Cooinda Lodge, after a fellow traveller recommended it and we were very happy with the campsite and facilities. There is a choice of pools and the visitor information centre had a great range of maps and options. Some of the falls were dry, so without a 4WD we couldn’t get to the water and so did not visit the northern end.
The Yellow River Cruise is world-renowned and if you are a bird lover you will be spoilt. You would also get your lens-full of crocodile pictures and some worthy screen savers.
Ubirr Rock is a site that has an easy walking track and many examples of Aboriginal rock painting. Tours in other languages are available. If you can climb the steep sides (about 30 degree slope) to the top you can see an amazing 360 degree view of that region of Kakadu. Sunset walks are possible. I won’t include pictures of art, as I haven’t checked if that is permitted. Most rock art is sacred and Aboriginal people do not like it shown on media, without consent.
Near Cooinda, Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre is very informative and has artifacts and art you can buy. Bowali Visitor Centre was also impressive.
It’s an easy drive from Kakadu to Darwin. It took us about 3 hours and we stopped at BIG4 Howard Springs Caravan park. It is lovely and there are several people who were working in Darwin and camped there.
The information Centrre is s good stop to get your bearings and work out what you want to see. Stoke’s wharf is good, Parap markets and the war museum. We heard the tunnels were very good, but we didn’t do them. Darwin is easy to navigate, small and tidy. The lookout over the “town beach” is interesting.
Litchfield National Park
A very accessible, adventurous, beautiful spot, an easy 1 hour drive from Darwin. Berry Springs has 3 ‘pools’ that join if you want to ride downstream on a noodle. Not too deep and quite safe.
Wangi Falls is a surprise. You swim out to one of the waterfalls and get pounded by the downpour.The floor of the lagoon (?) begins as sandy and is dark in the centre, with twigs and debris. You would have to be able to tread water or swim maybe 60m unless you stay by the edge, and many do.
You can stay at a campsite in Litchfield, but we thought it had little shade so went to Litchfield Tourist Park and had a grassed site. Shared showers, good facilities.
From Litchfield you travel via Leliyn and on to Timber Creek. You might stop here or continue to WA via Gregory National Park . If you travel on, turn off to Lake Argyle and you won’t be disappointed.
Travel safe, make sure you have plenty of water and a hat.