THE NORTHERN TERRITORY
For many this is the real outback of Australia: hot, dusty and remote. This is for those who like to travel beyond the well-known attractions like Kakadu National Park, Uluru and the Olga’s. Great bush camping in areas such as Arnhem land with its aboriginal heritage, villages and remote beaches. The rugged and tropical northern part of Australia is a paradise for 4WD enthusiasts looking for a challenge and great scenery. Other areas to explore are the Tanami Desert away from the Tanami Track, the Northern Part of the Simpson Desert, Gregory National Park and Cobourg Peninsula. A must do but very busy are: Kakadu National park, The red centre sights around Alice Springs, Litchfield National Park and Ruby Gap Nature Park. And for a great swim try Mataranka Hot Springs and Bitter Springs.
OUTBACK TRAVEL; Word of warning for our international overlanders. The outback, Australian deserts and to some degree our beaches are very different to the terrain you are used to in Europe, Africa or South America. If you are travelling remote ensure one person in the vehicle has first aid knowledge, make sure you have proper communication equipment. Min Satellite phone, UHF radio, and if possible HF radio (available for rental) let people know where you are going and call in to advise them you have arrived. Travel well within your capabilities and when crossing rivers in the North be aware of Crocodiles, same applies to those who like fishing, Freshwater Crocodiles are not as dangerous however they bite and do a lot of damage. The beaches of Australia have some very soft sand in particular when you have to drive above the high water mark. driving the beaches on a outgoing tide is what I recommend when turning on a beach always turn towards the water to avoid driving uphill and turning in soft sand. Tyre pressure very important in our landcruiser i have been down to 10 psi. My suggestion is start at 25 psi and go down in 5 psi lots as required and keep the speed down. Be aware of deep rutted tracks, bull dust, mud, soft sand on beaches and inland tracks, deep water crossings all combined in one day of driving can be a challenge and can break parts in your vehicle not to mention being stranded mid stream with a flooded engine. Be warned do not become one of those people who know it all Australia’s outback is unforgiving.
Weather in the top end: (Darwin Region) is tropical with basically 2 seasons, WET and DRY. The Dry Season runs from the end of April till the end of November. The Wet Season from December till the end of April. Most rain falls from January till March. The build-up during October, November and December makes it hot and humid with thunderstorms in the afternoon. The cyclone season starts in December and can last till April, so the ideal time to visit is end of May till end of October but remember so do many others.
Weather in Central Australia: (Around Alice Springs) is a desert environment mainly clear blue skies, low rainfall, average of 9 hours sunshine per day and long hot summers with temperatures up to and sometimes over 50 degrees. Winters are sunny with frosty mornings. Best time of the year would be March till May with warm days and nights. Or September till November if you want to enjoy the wild flowers but be prepared for thunder and dust storms. This time of the year also has warm days and nights
Everyone seems to travel to the very busy and well-developed Kakadu National Park, however very few venture further East and North into Arnhem Land and the Cobourg Peninsula. The Cobourg Peninsula features ancient landscape, spectacular coastline and lots of little billabongs full of birdlife (AND CROCODILES); you will love the pristine coast line near Smiths Point. This area has many coves and bays worth while exploring. Only a hand full of people live in this area. The whole of the Cobourg Peninsula is part of Garig Gunak National Park. This is prime Crocodile country and be aware when walking the beaches or out on the flats during low tide. Be prepared for lots of water across the tracks when driving straight after the wet season. Trust me driving the Landcruiser is an experience when the water reaches the windows. For those who love fishing there is lots of Barramundi and Mangrove Jack in the billabongs and lot of Barracuda, Coral Trout and Jewfish in the ocean. But you also find lots of protected sea life like Dolphins, Dugongs, Turtles and Crocodiles. Please note permits are required to enter the Cobourg Peninsula and be crocodile wise. When crossing from Kakadu ensure you know the tides. Best time to drive across Cahills Crossing is at least one hour before or one hour after high tide. Do not become a statistic and remember this is crocodile country and people have been taken at Cahills Crossing by crocodiles.
The journey alone is sometimes a challenge. You will have 2 choices: one is by crossing Kakadu National Park and the famous Cahills Crossing. The other is from Roper Bar when travelling from the Queensland Border or the Track from half way Mataranka and Katherine. In any event, after rain taking on Arnhem Land’s bogged, cracked and corrugated dirt roads is a challenge. If its dry, all you must deal with is corrugations and a few river/creek crossings. When veering off towards the Arafura Sea you will feel like you are the only person in this world and the true wilderness feeling kicks in. Special permits are required and make sure you have good communication and recovery gear. When hunting for mud crabs keep an eye out for the bull sharks. Don’t forget to visit Port Essington. Within the Arnhem Land area, you find a few Aboriginal communities like Oenpelli, Maningrida and Nhulunbuy Gove nearly 650 East of Darwin. Make sure you visit the local craft centres and local aboriginal rock art. In Nhulunbuy you could visit the bauxite mine; from memory this is on Friday’s. The scenery including the beaches is great with lots of great bush/beach camping, however be careful as there are lots of crocodiles. Remember knowing the tides (Tide chart) is a must when travelling on beaches and crossing tidal rivers.
THE TOURIST HOT SPOTS, KAKADU & LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK
KAKADU NATIONAL PARK
Lies just 170 kilometres south east of Darwin and can be reached by driving all on main sealed roads. But before you reach Kakadu National Park driving down the Arnhem Highway from Darwin you enter the Mary River National Park, also home to the Adelaide River. The Mary River and the Adelaide River are both known for the many huge saltwater crocodiles and the many tourist boarding boats to watch jumping crocodiles. The wetlands in the National Park are fed by 8 or 9 major rivers and have been home to Aboriginals for thousands of years. Even today they still practice the traditional Aboriginal culture.
Kakadu National Park is accessible all year round but best time to visit is May till October. (very busy). But the Wet Season is also spectacular when the waterfalls are flowing, and the place turns green. In the dry season Jim Jim falls can stop flowing, but Twin Falls flows all year around. Gunlom Waterfall creek is known from the movie Crocodile Dundee. When you decide to go bush walking always let a ranger know where you are going. If bush camping you do require a permit but not when camping in designated camp sites. Kakadu is a bird lovers paradise with water birds. Must do destinations besides Jim Jim and Twin falls are Ubirr Rock (in the wet season 4WD only) with a fantastic view over the wetlands, Nourlangie Rock, Anbangbang Rock, Gubara overlooking many pools, Nawulandia and Cooinda located on the Yellow Water Billabong. A must do here is the Yellow water cruise.
LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK
Just 90 minutes south of Darwin is a mix of unspoiled wilderness with rainforest, waterfalls, such as Wangi, Tolmer Falls and Florence Falls, rock formations, Huge Termite mounds and places you can swim such as Florence Falls, Buley Rockhole. Visit the Lost City with its sandstone towers.
This park is busy but far less busy than Kakadu. From here there is some great off roading to the Douglas and Daly river a great area to explore wit natural rock formations and thermal pools. Swim in the rock pools but not in creeks or rivers (Crocodiles). Great Barramundi fishing at the Oolloo crossing. Camping on the banks is great. Last time we visited this area (10 years ago) it was impossible to exit on the other side so please check. Instead you can cross the Daly River Crossing around 110KM from the Stuart Highway. But only attempt in the dry season. (Do not cross when the river is flowing) While in the area visit the Merrepen Arts Centre. This centre sells Aboriginal art and crafts made by the local Nauiyu community. http://www.merrepenfestival.com.au/
DARWIN and SURROUNDING AREAS
A great spot for some R & R after 3 or 4 weeks in the bush. Darwin is a modern city and very cosmopolitan. On Christmas Eve 1974 Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin and devasted the city, it caused over 840 million dollars in damage. In today terms around 7.5 Billion dollars. Over 70% of the city was destroyed, 71 people died and over 60% of the population was homeless (27.000 out of a population of 45.000 inhabitants). Of the 10.000 buildings only 400 remained. More than 30.000 people were transported to other cities around Australia in the following weeks. Now completely rebuild, visiting the museum and art gallery of the Northern Territory will give you lots of detail of this killer Cyclone on Christmas Eve 1974. Darwin is the capital city of the Northern Territory. I admit after 4 or more weeks in the bush it is tempting to just hang around the campsite doing nothing and enjoying the great bars and restaurant in town. But a must do destination when in Darwin are the Tiwi Islands 80 kilometres North of Darwin (2.5 hours by ferry). Yes, it is a bit touristy, but this is an ideal opportunity to meet the rich indigenous culture and history of the Tiwi Island people. It will also allow you to purchase some unique and traditional artwork at local prices. Other interesting places in Darwin are the Thursday markets at Mindle Beach, great restaurants around the marina and harbour, Fog Dam, the Humpty Doo Pub and Howard Springs.
Like Kakadu and Litchfield this are tourist hot spots but well worth a visit. Katherine is just 300km south of Darwin, reachable all on perfect paved roads (Stuart Highway). Katherine is the 4th largest town in the Northern Territory. Coming from Alice springs this is where the arid centre changes over to the tropics. From Katherine the possibilities are endless. But in Katherine the major attraction is Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. In contrast to the Darwin region Katherine is a lot cooler in winter with temp dropping to as low as 7 degrees at night however day time temperatures are comfortable around 30 degrees and low humidity.
Based on your travel plans the following locations are worth a stop travelling to or from Katherine-Mataranka Region
GOING WEST Victoria River Crossing 200kmwest of Katherine has a stunning escarpment, a perfect road house and lots of wild life. Gregory National Park forgotten or bypassed by many travellers, covers 13000 sq. kilometres of spectacular gorge territory and is just outside Timber Creek on your way to or from the West Australian border.
Must do stop is the big Gregory’s Boab Tree just 20KM North West of Timber Creek. This tree has special significance to the local Ngaringman Aboriginal people. If you are fed-up with driving on the main highway you can always follow the Buntine Highway as an alternative road into or from Western Australia. This road links Dunmarra with Halls Creek and passes Top Springs.
GOING EAST You travel via the famous Daily Waters Pub towards Borroloola located on the coast of the Northern Territory 670 kilometres east of Katherine. You may visit the famous Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford and Poppys pool just North of Cape Crawford on the way to Borroloola.
If you are lucky to find a local in Borroloola with a boat, you may venture to Barranyi National Park the traditional home of the Yanyuwa Aboriginal people. Around 50Km south of Borroloola is the Bukulara Range (Carabirini Conservation Reserve) and the Lost City featuring 25 metre sandstone spires. Just under 200 kilometres North West of Borroloola on the Roper River Road is Limmen National Park, a favourite among fisherman and 4WD drivers. For those wanting to access the Western Lost City this is by 4WD only.
GOING SOUTH A must do stop is the Daly Waters pub, around 650KM south of Darwin and around 300 kilometres south of Katherine. Just before the intersection of the Savanna Way and the Stuart Highway is a true outback pub established 84 years ago. The pub is famous for its cheeky décor of Bras and Undies. Over the years it has become a tourist hot spot but nevertheless still a pub you need to visit.
(Do not confuse this pub with the Highway Inn on the main Stuart Highway) Next major stop on the highway would be Devils Marbles just 100km south of Tennant Creek or 400-kilometre North of Alice Springs. This reserve is bigger than the 2 round rocks and worth exploring or staying overnight. From here 4WD lovers could take a detour via Davenport and Murchison Range National Park; all this area is part of the Eastern Tanami Desert. Many tracks left and right of the highway driving south towards Alice Springs venture into the bush from here.
TANAMI DESERT In the early 80’s we looked at the Tanami Track as remote and only suitable for 4WD. Today the Tanami Track as it is still called is suitable for 2WD and no longer of the beaten track. (thanks to the mining industry) It now even has fuel stations all along the track. During our last visit we could fill up in Yuendumu, Billiluna, Tilmouth Well and Balgo. However once venturing east or west of the track remember you are in remote areas and good preparation is required. Covering around 200.000 sq. kilometres it is Australia’s 3rd largest desert area. The Tanami Track crosses the desert north west between Alice (just North of town) and Halls Creek in the Kimberley. (around 1200 kilometres and is a great short cut for those from the south to travel to or from the Kimberley’s in Western Australia).
The drive beats the boring drive up north or south on the Stuart highway. Summers are hot and with low humidity temperatures go above 45 degrees on a very regular basis. Winter temperatures are around 30 degrees during the day, but night time can be very cold around 10 degrees. If you like to venture out bush from the Tanami Track, make sure you have the permits in place. The famous Rabbit Flat road house closed in 2011 and I am told it has not re-opened. In the early 80’s it was the world’s most remote roadhouse situated around 860 kilometres north west of Alice Springs and 545 kilometres south west of Halls Creek in Western Australia. I never forget meeting Jackie Farrant (born in Paris, France) the owner in the early eighties when she showed us her vegetable garden in the middle of this very arid land where she grew asparagus. Even in the early 80’s out here mail and fresh fruit was only delivered twice a month, school and doctor was done via the HF radio and a medical kit. Not to mention delays when the road was closed due to flooding. Times have changed, the road house closed and was replaced by fuel stations visited by luxury 4WD and mining vehicles. However, those who like to use the 4WD for what it was built for, there is plenty to see if you go off the main track into the Tanami Desert. This region is flat and if on the Tanami Track, the bitumen stops north of Tilmouth Well and the road becomes gravel.
ALICE SPRINGS AREA Alice Springs, also called the unofficial capital of the outback is the third-largest town in the Northern Territory with a population of around 24000 people, known as “the Alice” by the locals. Its biggest festival of the year is the Henley at Todd Regatta. This is the world’s only dry river bed boating regatta and normally held in August. The atmosphere is great at this crazy event. Alice is a great spot for some R &R after weeks in the bush or after the Simpson Desert crossing.
The surrounding area is stunning with the MacDonnell Ranges as a backdrop. Places to visit are Alice Springs Desert Park, the Telegraph Station which connected Australia with the world in 1871, the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Follow the Namatjira drive west to explore the Western MacDonnell Ranges and despite being busy with tourists, this 260-kilometre round trip is amazing with postcard scenery and refreshing waterholes and no crocodiles. The larger water holes include Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Redbank Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge.
It is possible to continue west from here connecting to Uluru or Kings Canyon. Alternative this is the track to Kintore, the Canning Stock Route all the way to the Indian Ocean. Personally, I prefer the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges and as you venture further east you see a lot less tourists and the real outback becomes yours alone again. Tourist stops on the way are Jessie Gap, Trephina Gorge and Ross River Homestead. From here you are getting more remote towards N Dhala Gorge Arltunga Historical Reserve and Ruby Gap Nature Park. All great places to visit and stay overnight, sleep under the stars and enjoy a great campfire. Many tracks from here venture into the Northern Simpson Desert and Madigan Line but permits are required and so would be good communication.
AYERS ROCK-KINGS CANYON-OLGAS AREA
The roads and tracks leading to Uluru (Ayers Rock) are many. But the most interesting one would be the Laparinta Drive to Hermannsburg, home of Australian famous Aboriginal watercolour artist Albert Namatjira. The next destination would be the hidden tropical oasis Palm Valley in the middle of the red centre of Australia. Palm Valley is in the Finke Gorge National Park. For those who like some 4WD experience (soft 4WD), the popular Finke river Gorge 4WD route between Hermannsburg and Kings Canyon is a must.
This great route along and in the Finke River bed will reward you with great photo opportunities, bush camping and towering red cliffs. Good maps are essential (or mud maps) as the track was not marked when we visited last except for a few faded signs stating, “KINGS CANYON THIS WAY” The track is poorly defined, has many rocky sections, many soft sandy sections and crosses the river many times so if the river is flowing it is impassable. (this only happens on average once a year) Stay overnight in the gorge and be surrounded by the stark red cliffs and camp in possible the oldest river in the world.
Next stop would be Kings Canyon. First time we visited this area was in 1986 when around 100km before King Canyon we met the owners of Wallara Range Station. Jim in those days did slide projections at night in the bar to make people aware of what there was to see at Kings Canyon. The track from here was strictly 4WD (Today all asphalt and a resort at the entrance!) When Jim’s parents Jack and Elsie Cotterill arrived in this area in the 1960’s there were no roads in this area. The family leased the area of the local Aboriginals and decided to build accommodation in the 60’s and build the road from Wallara Range to Kings Canyon (cnr of the Luritja and Ernst Giles Highway). This was done all by hand and his old Dodge Weapons carrier. They started a tourist business showing people Kings Canyon. In 1990 Jim unsuccessfully re-negotiated his lease renewal and was forced to leave his thriving business to the local aboriginals. Instead of handing over the buildings and the business, he hired a bulldozer and burned/knocked down all the buildings and his house, dug a hole and buried it all!
For those driving the bitumen from Alice south you may stop at Stuart Well Roadhouse as this is now Jim’s Place. Interesting and very interesting reading about an immigrant who had a go and lost it all 30 odd years later and started up again from scratch.
These days Kings Canyon is a very popular and busy tourist destination with towering 120-meter-high sandstone walls, red rock cliffs and palm forest below in the valley. This is walking territory but the 6km walk is a must. Unlike in the mid-eighties the area is now full of walking tracks, the most famous one is the 6KM Rim walk with the weathered domes of the lost city and the Garden of Eden. Many people believe this is more spectacular than Uluru (Ayers Rock). From here plenty of soft road 4WD tracks to explore. From Kings Canyon you could continue the Mereenie Loop back to Alice or continue further west into the desert either to Kintore or Docker river.
Alternative you return to the Ernst Giles Highway and follow the bitumen to Ayers Rock. I am told the old rough 4WD track to Curtin Springs is no longer open to the public. Word of warning: recently the rangers have closed the tracks in summer when temperatures reach 36 or above so check before you venture out. When walking ensure you carry enough water. Next must do stop is Uluru. A 350-meter-high monolith changing colour from ochre to burned orange into deep red. Best time to visit this unique site is sunrise or sun set. This rock towers above the surrounding flat landscape. To walk around the base of the rock is a 10-kilometre hike. Be warned: to climb the rock is hard work and people have died climbing the rock and many have injured themselves.
Kata Tjuta, just over 50 kilometres west of Uluru also known as the Olga’s, consists of 36 steep sided monoliths, which, just like Uluru, look most impressive at sunrise and sunset. The highest dome is just 1100 meters high. Many walks have now closed mostly to allow the local aboriginals to have their ancient ceremonies. All roads in this area are well maintained due to the high numbers of tourists visiting the area. If you are enroute to West Australia following the Great Central Road you have several options past Docker River. The Great Central Road has tracks allowing you to connect with the Canning Stock Route (via the Gunbarrel Highway and the Old Gunbarrel Highway), many tracks to explore the Len Beadell or even connect with Cooper Pedy via the many tracks available. From Docker River it is also straight ahead towards Warburton-Laverton and Perth. Alternative you turn back on the asphalt towards Alice or Coober Pedy. Remember for many area’s permits are required.
FINKE RIVER TRACK and SURROUNDING AREAS
When Leaving Alice heading for South Australia or Queensland you have many options. The easiest option is the asphalt to Coober Pedy (Stuart Highway) but the more interesting routes are along the old Fink River race track and old Ghan Railway Line. First stop Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve.
Great spot to overnight enjoying the sunset or sun rise, with lots of sandstone bluffs and cliffs. This area is accessible from the Stuart Highway or from the Old Ghan railway track. From Rainbow Valley follow the bush tracks back to the Old Ghan railway track turning right to Mary Vale and Chambers Pillar. Chambers Pillar is a column towering 40 meters high. Be warned the track from Maryvale can be soft and sandy. Camping in the area is great. Back tracking to Maryvale Station and following the Old Ghan Railway Line you are driving on the Finke Desert race track, a 2-day event held in June for cars, bikes, buggies and quads. Some overseas competitors find this course more difficult that the Dakar Rally. Finke is a small aboriginal community of 250 people and around 180 kilometre south of Alice Springs. From here it is a short drive to the Lambert Centre. This is the gravitational centre of Australia which is disputed by some.
But in 1988 (Bicentennial Year) the Royal Geographical society of Australia nominated this point the Gravitational Centre of Australia. The flag pole at this location is a miniature of the flagpole on Parliament House in Canberra, there is a visitor book and even toilets. From here you back track to Finke and either continue to Mount Dare Homestead and Oodnadatta/William Creek or Coober Pedy in South Australia or return to Alice Springs via Old Andado Station and Santa Teresa. Alternative you return to the asphalt and the Stuart Highway. The track to Old Andado station is remote, bumpy and gets slippery and boggy when wet. But the area is great and scenic if you enjoy desert country. This is now all part of the tourist drive known as the Bins Track. Remember you are remote and good communication and being self-sufficient is important.
Old Andado was taken over by Mac and Molly Clark in 1955 and in 1972 they restored the old homestead to start catering for the tourist. In 1978 Mac died and in 1986 Molly sold the property and moved into the old homestead and kept the tourist business.
Molly Clark was born in 1920 and worked on the Birdsville Track as a governess. Married in 1946to Malcolm Clark. Life has been hard for Molly and when visiting the area, you will understand why. We were lucky to meet her once in the late eighties. Her Son Kevin had a severe car accident in 1975, but survived, her husband Mac had a heart attack and died a week later in 1978, her eldest son Graham was killed in a freight train accident just 9 months later. 1984 due to a tuberculosis Molly had to kill all cattle and was forced to sell but kept a 45sq kilometre block and moved back to the old homestead and continued her tourist venture. But as she said to us life goes on. This is the outback where people are tough and pregnant woman work till the birth of the baby and are back on the land again a few days later. In 2005 Molly left the homestead as she had poor eyesight and became ill. She moved to Alice Springs where she died in 2012.
If you return to Alice you will pass the small township of Santa Teresa 85 kilometres before Alice, established as a catholic Mission in the 1950’s serving the goldmining town of Arltunga. If you are completing the loop from Alice Springs via Finke, you may want to fill up here. Around 500 people live in and around the village. The area is full of tracks to enter the Northern Simpson Desert area but be aware this is remote territory.