Slap bang in the red heart of Australia is the town of Alice Springs, our starting point. This road trip takes us through the Northern Territory, straight up the Stuart Highway on the section of the road known as ‘The Track’. The drive takes us from the dry desert plains of the red centre to the tropical north of Darwin.
At a distance of just over 1,000 miles, it’s not a trip you do in a rush unless you’re an outback trucker driving your 200-tonne road train.
I (Mr W) first did this trip by coach back in the early 1990’s. I actually did the whole length of the Stuart Highway from Darwin to Adelaide with a short stop in Alice Springs. I still remember how uncomfortable the trip was, cramped on a sweaty bus and not being able to stop when you wanted to, but I was young and uncomfortable travelling was just part of growing up.
As we both get older we’re far less tolerant of uncomfortable travel. Adventure travel and exploring ‘yes’, having to do it with a bunch of backpackers with very questionable hygiene, ‘no’. We need our own space and this trip is perfect to do in a campervan or if going off-road, with a camper trailer, read more. Hotels are very limited en route and a camper gives you the opportunity to explore at your own speed and stop exactly when and where you like.
The road itself used to be a dirt track but it’s now a flat sealed road with a speed limit of 80 mph. It’s suitable for all vehicles although you still need to a 4WD if you want to venture off the main road.
The Start – Alice Springs
If you want to be adventurous and you have the time you could drive the 950 miles from Adelaide to Alice Springs (just like popping down to the shops!). However, it may be easier to fly to Alice Springs, there are flights from most major Australian cities.
While in Alice Springs take time to discover the Aboriginal art and find out more about the culture. Learn about the wildlife in the desert at the Desert Park or even take a ride on a camel. Read more about things to see and do in Alice Springs.
When I was there in the 90’s Alice Springs used to sell itself as a destination from where you can take a day trip to Uluru (Ayers Rock). In reality, it is nearly 300 miles away, to put that into perspective, it is a bit like staying in Newcastle upon Tyne in order to visit the Tower of London. So if you are driving, allow at least a couple of days or you could fly there and get some great views as you come into land.
Alice Springs To Tennant Creek – 315 Miles
If you want to try something a bit bizarre then stop at Wycliffe Well “The UFO Capital of Australia” with its alien-themed holiday park. We’re not sure why aliens like to hang around in the desert and we still don’t know why their spaceships need so many lights but we think the aliens could be an offshoot of Wycliffe Well tourism.
Just south of Tennant Creek are the spectacular geological wonders of the Devils Marbles ‘Karlu Karlu’, it is a sacred site for Aboriginal people. Huge granite boulders, some as wide as 6m are scattered across the desert valley.
From the Devils Marbles, it is about a 60-mile drive to get to Tennant Creek, a green oasis in the desert.
Tennant Creek To Katherine – 420 Miles
Just north of Tennant Creek is the imaginatively named Threeways Roadhouse, this is the junction between the Barkly & Stuart Highways. If you turn right here, you’ll be heading towards the tropical Queensland coast and the Great Barrier Reef. It is a 1000-mile drive so we’d better leave that for another trip.
On this part of the highway just take your time and enjoy the expansive Australian desert vistas, especially at sunrise and sunset. You may want to stop at the Daly Waters pub, a historic outback pub first licenced in 1938. It is crammed full of memorabilia left by travellers over the years.
Further up the road are Mataranka hot springs where you can bathe in the crystal clear warm water. Nearby are Bitter Springs, a more natural less landscaped area where you can relax and drift downstream.
Just over 20 miles from Katherine is Cutta Cutta Caves, Nature Park. See the incredible limestone rock formations and the various species of bats and the odd snake or two (brown tree snakes which luckily, are harmless to humans). You can only enter the caves on one of the guided tours which run daily.
Finally, we reach Katherine and you can now really tell you are in the tropics. There are some great trails of various difficulties and length in the area and of course, the beautiful Katherine Gorge. You can rent a canoe and paddle the gorge but if you have the chance take a helicopter ride. You’ll get to see the area and its natural beauty from a unique perspective.
Read more about things to see and do in Katherine.
Katherine To Kakadu – 190 Miles
It’s time to take a diversion off the Stuart Highway onto State Route 21 to Jabiru in the Kakadu National Park. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, over 7,500 square miles of rugged landscapes, billabongs, waterfalls, tropical wetlands and lots of crocs.
It is definitely worth spending at least 3 to 4 full days in the Kakadu National Park before heading to Darwin. Just watch out for those saltwater crocodiles, they inhabit most areas of water and they are always on the looks out for a tasty little snack especially a fresh pom or two!
Kakadu To Darwin – 160 Miles
Finally, after a 1,000 miles, we reach Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory. Sitting on the Timor Sea it is actually closer to Bali than it is to Sydney. This location may be one of the reasons why Darwin is so cosmopolitan with many Asian influences.
After all that travelling the laid-back atmosphere of Darwin is a great place to unwind, enjoy the excellent food and watch the sun go down over the water.
We hope to go back to Australia very soon and this time, revisit somewhere else I haven’t been to since the 1990’s. Western Australia and its wine country.
Have you been on an epic road trip? Let us know your recommendations, it doesn’t have to be Australia.
Read more about our other road trips:
A direct contrast to the heat of the Northern Territory is Our 7 Day Iceland Road Trip Itinerary.
A bit of Miami Vice in Florida The Complete Guide to Fly Drive Florida.
Driving ‘The Track’ From Alice Springs To Darwin – Pin For Later