Few road trips anywhere in the world can match a drive through Australia’s Northern Territory – the heart of the Outback.
It’s been over an hour since I’ve spotted any sign of human life on this road – no cars, no passerby; just the occasional wallaby. Welcome to one of the world’s most remote highways that connects the Northern and Southern centres of Australia. Not a lot has changed around here since the 1860s when the legendary explorer John Mc Douall Stuart made the journey from Adelaide in the South all the way to Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. It’s still untamed and desolate, a land where Aboriginal legends continue to fill the air.
These crocs can jump
The Stuart Highway now runs for almost 3000 kms, not the easiest stretch for a self drive. Thankfully I’m surrounded by an intimate group of fellow explorers from across the world who have instantly become buddies – blame it on the lack of mobile coverage; we’ve already played two rounds of charades! In the two days before setting out on Stuart Highway I’ve seen some spectacular sights – Cathedral termite mounds that rise up to 4 metres and have survived for over a century. That was at Litchfield a national park just two hours away from the relaxed, coastal vibe at Darwin. If that was not big enough, there was more awesomeness at our next stop – the Jumping Croc cruises at the Adelaide River. With an average length of 15 feet, Australia’s Salt water crocodiles’ (they call them Salties around here) status as the world’s largest reptile is almost unchallenged.
It’s only when they jump, for the dangling chunks of meat, that you realise how ridiculously large these salties are. That’s about the time I make polite enquiries about the build quality of the boat. Our first night stop is also a reality check and far removed from the relative luxury of Darwin’s hotels. This part of the Australian outback is still untouched by the ‘glamping’ trend – no fancy caravans, just good old-style tents. Dinner is a group activity at most campsites like the one operated by Intrepid Travel – you cook and clean with your fellow travellers.
An aboriginal home for 50,000 years
Day two takes me to the heart of Kakadu National park, home to some Aboriginal communities for over 50,000 years – one of the world’s longest living cultural landscapes. That’s one reason this 20,000 sq km park is now a world heritage site. Ubirr is one of the Park’s most famous spots; some of the rocks are adorned by Aboriginal art that dates back at least 20,000 years. Kakadu also offers some spectacular views from some of its lookouts – you have to willing to make the trek though. The treks are tougher in summer when the mercury tips the 40-degree mark frequently. It’s around here that Australia’s most successful movie was filmed. It’s been over three decades but Australia is yet to produce another film that can match the box-office success or worldwide reach of Crocodile Dundee. With six distinct seasons and seven regions (each with its own unique flora) there was probably no dearth of shooting locations for Crocodile Dundee.
Ticket to the Tropic
After a whole day of driving and a couple of short stops – including a short detour to the scenic Edith Falls it’s time to cast anchor at Daly Waters, 600 km south of Darwin. Once an important airfield there’s not a lot left here aside from the quirky Daly Waters Pub that is now a magnet for road trippers. It had to be brekkie (Australian for Breakfast) on the go – the 1000 km drive from Daly Waters to Alice Springs was about 12 hours. Not much to do other than staring out at the rugged landscape and more charades. There were a couple of interesting pit stops though. The first was Kalu Kalu, Devil’s Marbles an unusual site where a series of boulders are precariously perched atop one other – a result of weathering and erosion over thousands of years. Not surprisingly this site is steeped in Aboriginal legends. The next stop was the point where the Tropic of Capricorn intersects the Stuart Highway – just enough time to get those ‘I was there at the Tropic’ pictures.
Alice Springs was not my last stop on this trip crisscrossing Northern Territory, Australia’s most sparsely populated state. This town almost in the centre of the country is where the country’s iconic ‘Flying Doctors’ service took wings; a compact museum pays tribute. Alice Springs is also the gateway to one of the country’s most spectacular sights.
Australia’s most magical sight
A seven hour drive along the Stuart Highway and the Lasseter highway eventually leads me to Uluru – Australia’s red centre. With a circumference of 9.4 kms (Height of 348 metres) Uluru is one of the world’s largest monolithic structures. It’s revered by the local Anangu people who share interesting tidbits about the region during guided walks around this towering monolith. It was just getting past 6 pm and the vantage points around Uluru were fast filling. That’s when the magic of Uluru unravelled. It was at sunset that Uluru transformed almost like a chameleon changing colours from dull brown to fiery ochre. There are few sites that can match the allure of Uluru at sunset or sunrise, not just in Australia but almost anywhere in the world. It was a brief passage of time but it was those five minutes that made the long drive well worth it.
Good to know:
- Singapore Airlines (Silk Air) has direct flights to Darwin while Malaysia Airlines has three flights a week (direct) to Darwin.
- Active Holiday Company: organises cool outdoor trips around the world including the Australian Outback.
- Intrepid: A great option for solo travellers and small group travel. I met like-minded travellers people from around the world on my Outback adventure.
- The official tourism website of Australia’s Northern Territory: Full of handy information to plan your trip.