Driving through the vast and arid Outback with the well adapted wildlife is as exotic as it gets. I am a travel junkie whose monkey on the back is road-trips, and anyone else who belong to this club would agree that perhaps the only thing to challenge such an epic drive would be Route 66.
A non-stop drive would take merely 22 hrs. Stopping by the myriads of sights, taking turns left off the mainstream life, and what I have here is a wholesome week-long itinerary. Bliss! As an extra leg to the trip, a little off Alice Springs is the majestic Ulura and it would be a crime to miss out on that! A high-rider off-road vehicle is on the cards. Along that is ditching the hotels and going for the free camp sites and I say, bring on the adventure.
The Road and More
Day One : Darwin to Kakadu National Park
Darwin to Kakadu National Park (245km, 3h 30m)
Sprawled over a massive 4.2 million acres, the Kakadu National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here is lily-strewn vast wetlands full of crocodiles, amazing and more safe natural swimming holes, and a hike along meandering through rough spear grass and cycads seems particularly endearing. So does fishing for the exotic barramundi and watching thousands of endemic birds flying high over the overwhelming red sandstone escarpment. The great Australian escapade has started. Here is also Australia’s most inspired aboriginal rock-art sites. With over 275 species of our feathered friends and 75 species of reptiles, the park is a place of intense biodiversity. Camping overnight in Kakadu National Park or going for one of the many eco-resorts/home-stays is what the better judgment tells me.
The name Kakadu essentially comes from the term Gagudju, a group of languages spoken by aborigines who live in the northern parts of the park. A place where they and their ancestors from long thrived for over 50,000 years. On this day, the aborigines manage the park as its owners, in collaboration with the Australian government.
This is one of the few places in Australia where groups of the inhabitants still live according to the original lifestyle of hunting and living off the land. We don’t see them, as they prefer to keep away from prying eyes. However, their culture is on display at the rock-art sites.
Day Two : Katherine
Kakadu National Park to Katherine (230km, 2h 50m)
A small town in the Top End but definitely worth a stopover even if it is only for the genuine hospitality of the locals. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to see here than one accounts it for. While the RAAF base here is of some interest to some, there’s bountiful nature for the others; natural hot springs in Katherine Nature Park (also known as the Nitmiluk National Park) and the spectacular Katherine Gorge are only a few. Camp overnight in Katherine and take in all of nature’s splendor.
Day Three : Daly Waters
Katherine to Daly Waters (273 km, 3 hours 26 mins)
Daly Waters throws in a little peek back into humanity and the real taste of the local life comes in the form of the Daly Water‘s Pub. This tiny place holds within it an immense wealth of history which starts from 1862 with John Mcdouall Stuart. As far back as In 1862, John Mcdouall Stuart successfully completely what was alluding him for long; cross the continent from south to north. After breaking through the dense Lancewood scrub which was the principle cause of his previous failures, Stuart finally discovered fresh water and hence was discovered Daly Waters.
Fresh water, being the soul for droving, Daly Waters was the last watering hole till the perilous Murranji Stock Route came on. When the Durak brothers drove their herd of those mammoth Australian cows, all the way from Queensland to the West Australian coast, Daly Waters became a landmark stop. The cattle here rested and the men quenched their thirst. And today that tradition still holds, albeit caravans and backpackers replacing the drovers and the cattle.
Another point of interest is the Stuart’s Tree (of John McDouall Stuart). A tree stamped with the letter ‘S’ lies about 1km north of the town; a place of historical import. For some, the original Qantas hanger; an airport museum about 1km due north-east this time are of interest. I would rather stick to more rustic things.
Day Four : Tennant Creek
Daly Waters to Tennant Creek (405km, 4h 40m)
Take it from legend – the almost ancient mining town of Tennant Creek came into being at a spot about 500kms north of Alice Springs when a beer wagon going to the nearby Overland Telegraph Station broke down in 1934. Instead of waiting for rescue, pioneer Joe Kilgariff decided to build a store right at the breakdown site and a pub came up alongside. And there you go! Tenant Creek was born. Don’t miss out on the Nyinkka Nyunyu Cultural Centre which is close to an aboriginal sacred site.
Nyinkka Nyunyu ( pronounced ny-ink-a ny-oo-ny-oo) is a unique art and culture centre here which gives us visitors an chance to learn more about the aboriginal life, their history and land of the Tennant Creek region. Out of nowhere, there is this multi faceted retail community. Shopping at the shop featuring local art and craft works, enjoying a fresh juice or coffee at the Jajjikari Cafe, and we might as well have been along the coast were not for the unending red landscape. What adds in more color are the traditional and contemporary performances. The Nyinkka Nyunyu is owned and operated by the aboriginals.
On the way to Tennant Creek from Daly Waters, consider taking a small break at Elliot, the largest settlement between Katherine and Tennant Creek with a population of just 600.
Day Five: Ti Tree
Tennant Creek to Ti Tree (315km, 3h 30m)
While driving along the Stuart Highway, Ti Tree comes as just another roadhouse. However, I could not be more wrong. This place proves well worth a stopover. Its history weaves through the times of the Overland Telegraph Line, the struggle for water, agricultural development, and much more.
The Central Mount Stuart happens to be the geographical center of Australia. It is a worthwhile endeavour to hike along the mountainous neighborhood and trying to spot the plaque that was erected by the early Europeans who first saw the mountain; John McDouall Stuart and William Kekwick.
Day Six : Alice Springs
Ti-Tree to Alice Springs (194 Kms, 2h 27m)
Amidst the McDonnell Ranges, today, Alice Springs is home to 27,000 people, a city-town complete with supermarkets, banks, and an odd nightclub or two here and there. A friendly, rambling and unsophisticated place, it brings out the openness of the place into its inhabitants. The place has a history to it. “The Alice,” as the locals prefer to call it, happens to be the unofficial capital of the Red Centre. In the early 1870s, when a few telegraph-station workers came from nearly the 1,600km (992 miles) away Adelaide, struggling through the desert to finally settle beside a small spring, it must have seemed like the very ends of the earth.
Along the red folds of the Ranges are hidden picturesque gorges with shady grounds. The place has a charming old gold-rush town to poke around, tiny and quirky museums, some nice wildlife parks, and a few cattle stations that take in visitors. A particularly quirky sight is the roadside shrine for Terry Michael Gill (1954 – 1998), a well known motorcyclist, on the Ross Highway in the East MacDonnell Ranges.
There are also some lovely hiking trails that does well to entice and get that red dust on the boots, and of course, one of the world’s top 10 desert golf courses.
Day 7 : Uluru National Park
Alice Springs to Uluru National Park (461 km, 6 hours 18 mins)
Perhaps one of the most visually stunning natural wonders in the world. The Uluru or the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a place so seeped in the harmony of human ethnicity and society with nature that it is often difficult for people from the outside world to fathom. This park certainly holds more within its breasts than just the Rock. Here live the mpressive Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), and the region shows itself of great cultural significance to the owners – the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara aboriginal peoples (who prefer to be called as Anangu).
Out of the 500, 000 annual visitors, only a very few spend more than two days here, and many even whiz through within 24 hours. Talk of the abominable package tours. Considering the 461 long and flat kilometers traveled to get here from Alice, that is a shame.