Join the convoy on an unforgettable adventure on one of Australia’s hottest roads.
WORDS + PHOTOS CARMEN HUTER
For me, Australia’s Northern Territory has an emotional pull. The stories of the indigenous people, rich cultural history of Uluru and images of red sand and crocodiles make me feel a kind of melancholic longing and nostalgia, something like the presence of absence.
To scratch this itch, I rented a campervan with two friends and set off on a road trip from Darwin on the country’s northern coast to Alice Springs smack bang in the centre. The capital of the Northern Territory is named after the mighty Charles Darwin, although rumour has it he never actually visited the area. The Stuart Highway takes you 1500km south to Alice Springs; if you want to visit Uluru, it’s a further 460km south.
The landscapes of the Northern Territory might be dry, but they’re drenched in meaning. It felt like an honour to explore what each place meant to those who came before us and I felt inspired to dive in and study Australia’s history and its marvellous megafauna. The journey really got me thinking about the bond between us walking monkeys and the natural world.
Here are some of the highlights we discovered as we journeyed to the centre of this part of the Earth:
Litchfield National Park: This park is home to several waterfalls and pools, but my favourite was Florence Falls. The park covers approximately 1460km, so I recommend staying overnight in one of the campgrounds so you can get to the falls early. Wild crocs are a thing, so as with all inviting-looking water in the Northern Territory, be sure to swim only in the designated areas: Florence Falls, Buley Rockhole, Wangi Falls, Walker Creek, Cascades, Tjaynera Falls and Surprise Creek Falls.
Edith Falls: These cascading beauties, also known as Leliyn, are a couple of hours south of Litchfield. Follow the path up the hill for better views and even better swimming. This is the end point of the 62km Jatbula Trail – a one-way walking track that begins at our next stop, Nitmiluk National Park.
Nitmiluk National Park and Katherine Gorge (above): This place is sheer perfection at golden hour. A favourite sunset spot for us was the lookout to the right of the visitor centre, a steep-ish but simple 20-minute walk to the top. The Jawoyn people, one of more than 250 individual nations of indigenous Australians, arrived in this area more than 50,000 years ago and it holds tremendous cultural meaning, which you can learn more about during one of the guided trips down the gorge. If you’re feeling fancy, you can feast and enjoy the views at the same time during a sundown dinner cruise, and for early birds, the sunrise cruise won’t disappoint. You can also canoe down the waterway to experience it from another angle. To canoe past the fifth gorge, you should camp overnight with a permit from the visitor centre.
Katherine Hot Springs: A lesser-known alternative to Bitter Springs (below), this is ultra-relaxing and picturesque. Like every other landmark in the region, entry is free and your best bet for maximum serenity is in the early morning. Note that the springs are closed from November to April because of excess water.
Bitter Springs at Elsey National Park (pictured top): These naturally heated thermal pools transported us into an enchanted parallel universe. If you’re into taking underwater photos, come early and take your time, as these magical waters are not meant to be rushed. There’s a short loop walk you can complete afterwards before getting back on the road.
Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve (above): Another area of great historical importance, Karlu Karlu (the indigenous name for both the rock features and the surrounding area) is at its best at sunset. The English name is said to originate from a quote by drover and explorer John Ross recorded during the 1870 Australian Overland Telegraph Line expedition: “This is the devil’s country; he’s even emptied his bag of marbles around the place!” In Aboriginal culture, a ‘dreaming’ is considered a sacred artwork, and a tribe can own a dreaming story to explain the creation of life, people and animals. Some traditional dreaming stories passed on from generation to generation have Karlu Karlu as their setting, hence its importance as a sacred site. Several parts of the reserve are fenced off due to their significance. In others, touching the rocks is not allowed.
Outback Ballooning (below): It’s not every day you get to float across a pink sky, but it’s possible in Alice Springs. The warmth of the fire that keeps the balloon in the air also keeps everyone in it toasty warm, but my favourite thing was spotting kangaroos from above. You land in the middle of bushland, but return transfers to Alice Springs are included.
The Kangaroo Sanctuary: Did you know many species of kangaroo are considered nocturnal? This Alice Springs sanctuary admits one group of visitors a day, just before the sun goes down, for an informative and cuddly (baby kangaroos!) experience that I wouldn’t mind repeating every other week. You might recognise owner and caregiver Brolga and resident roo Roger from their BBC and National Geographic documentaries. It’s Brolga’s mission to educate and encourage people to rescue and care for kangaroos and other wildlife.
Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve: You’ll need a four-wheel drive for the last bit of the road here. In the early evening, you can watch the rock go from ochre red to orange and purple. It’s a real spectacle – don’t miss it. We stayed until after dusk and the Milky Way shone brightly in all its glory. Next time, I’ll camp here.
One last tip: the ideal time to visit the Northern Territory is in early winter, when there are fewer tourists (and mosquitoes), more comfortable temperatures and little chance of rain.
WANT TO READ MORE FROM CARMEN? GO TO: unomagazine.co.nz/marrakesh