The Best Road Trips In Australia

The Best Northern Territory Road Trip

The Best Northern Territory Road Trip
By Sara Jane Armstrong

There’s nowhere more quintessentially Australian than the Northern Territory. The sands are rust red, the skies are empty, the animals look like they crawled out of a sci-fi movie. Aboriginal culture and history are preserved better than anywhere else in the country and the landscapes are dramatic and desolate. It’s the ideal place to immerse yourself in the ‘real’ Australia.

Staying safe in the Outback is crucial. If your car breaks down, do not leave it. Rangers will find a car, but they will not find a lone straggler who has gone for help. Carry more water than you think you’ll ever need, with 1 litre per hour recommended for hikers, to stay hydrated in the sweltering deserts. Check your car and camping space for spiders, and learn which ones are harmless in advance. If you see a snake, stay perfectly still and let them pass you by, and never wander through the bushes they may call home.

It can seem intimidating, but that’s what makes a Territory trip such an adventure.

Northern Territory road trip

Approx. distance: 2,320km (1,440 miles) (one way)

Duration: At least seven days

Suggested route:

Darwin—Jabiru, Kakadu—Gunbalaya—Katherine—Tennant Creek—Alice Springs—Uluru National Park

Yellow Water Billabong Kakadu National Park Northern Territory NT Australia

Yellow Water Billabong in Kakadu National Park

You can spend at least a week travelling this route, broken up into the following stages:

Stage one: Darwin to Jabiru, Kakadu (253km, three hours)

Stage two: Kakadu to Gunbalaya (57km, one hour)

Stage three: Gunbalaya to Katherine (255km, four hours)

Stage four: Katherine to Tennant Creek (675km, seven hours)

Stage five: Tennant Creek to Alice Springs (509km, five hours)

Stage six: Alice Springs to Uluru National Park (468km, four hours)

Highlights on the Northern Territory road trip

Kakadu National Park

Glinting eyes between the river reeds in Kakadu track travellers to the park, where Australia’s most intimidating predators reign. Gigantic crocodiles, towering gorges, and sweeping rivers, everything in Kakadu is supersized. The park itself, spanning 20,000 sq/km could be explored for days on end. With thick rainforests hiding hidden pools and waterfalls,

Opt for a trip along the East Alligator or South Alligator rivers. Not far from the town of Jabiru and the campsites, they offer the best spot to spy some of the 10,000 crocodiles that roam the park. Follow the safety protocol strictly when travelling in Kakadu and never swim anywhere that isn’t marked as safe. If you can, take a river cruise through the Jim Jim Creek, travelling out into the South Alligator River. These tours are led by Aboriginal guides, experts on the land, it’s flora and it’s deadly fauna.

To reach highlights like the Jim Jim Falls or the Maguk Gorge, you need to have access to a 4WD.

Venture North Australia Aboriginal Guided Rock Art Tour Arnhem Land

Indigenous history and rock art in Arnhem Land

Explore Arnhem Land

Most visitors skip Australia’s indigenous heritage hub in favour of the more accessible sites in Alice Springs. They’re missing out on a unique opportunity to connect with Aboriginal communities in their ancestral homes, and to learn about the country’s history.

The area is restricted to protect the indigenous communities of the Arnhem Land, so you’ll need to file for a free permit online. Applications should be made 10 working days in advance. An off-roading vehicle is recommended, and visitors are asked to remember that each inch of the land they’re covering holds cultural and spiritual significance.

Start only 15km from the border of Kakadu National Park, at Gunbalanya. The community sits in the foreground of the Stone Country, where rough-hewn gorges, crocodile-filled waters and the shadow of Injalak Hill define quintessential Australia. Injalak is an ancient Aboriginal site, covered in rock drawings which date back up to 8,000 years.

If you’re visiting the area in August, add a couple of extra days to your itinerary and take the day’s drive up to Nhulunbuy. Here, you can attend the annual Garma Festival, Australia’s largest indigenous cultural gathering, which showcases Aboriginal art, dance, music and storytelling.

Paddle through Nitmiluk National Park

Stop for fuel at Katherine, then head 30 minutes north to Nitmiluk National Park. The 13 gorges that wind through the park cut limestone figures that stretch out to the skyline, easy to explore on foot, by boat, or by helicopter.

A favourite for adventurous travellers, the park rents out canoes. Take up a paddle and navigate your way to waterfalls, secluded swimming spots and caves painted with ancient Aboriginal art. The fourth, sixth and ninth gorges are accessible by canoe, with camping spots available there if you want to spend a night in the wild. There are also campsites available at the park entrance and accommodation in Katherine if you prefer to spend one day in the park.

Walking, you can travel through the park completely free, and have access to a wide range of lookouts, waterfalls, and natural pools. And, for the intrepid, there’s the full Jatbula Trail. Taking the five-day hike, you’ll be following an ancient songline, clambering over volcanic rock and night swimming mirrored pools that catch the cloudless, starry skies. Pre-booking and moderate fitness are essential for this route.

If you’d prefer a more relaxing route through Nitmiluk, cruises run at sunrise and sunset. These cruises are led by guides from the traditional owners of the land, the Jawoyn. Alternatively, you can catch a helicopter, flying you out to almost inaccessible pools and giving you a birds-eye view of the gorges.

Cross the great red desert

The small town of Tennant Creek makes for a convenient waypoint on your way down to Alice Springs. Take an opportunity to stock up on gas and food, and use one of the town’s many accommodation options for the night.

The stark red sands of the Tanami Desert can feel like a mirage on the long road to Alice. Flat, dusty plains are marked by spirals of sand that rise like tornados in the wind, disrupting the wispy tips of the native plant life. Unique and hostile, an environment like this is home to some of Australia’s most interesting wildlife.

Pay careful attention to the road, because giant monitor lizards will saunter across your path with no regard for speeding cars. Look to the shadows for sheltering echidnas and thorny devils, or to the skies for swooping peregrine falcons.

When you reach Alice Springs, you’ll find yourself amongst far more people than you’ve seen since Darwin. The only major town in the country’s centre, Alice caters to tourists and you’ll find plenty of options for accommodation, gas and food.

Kata Tjutas at the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia

Kata Tjutas at Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park

Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park

Australia’s most iconic skyline wraps around the giant standing rock Uluru. Though it’s one of the country’s most recognisable sights, no picture prepares you for the shifting shades of the oranges and reds and the vastness of the rock.

At around 550 million years old, the monolith has guarded over the landscape since before the dinosaurs and is an unsurprisingly significant figure in Aboriginal spiritualism and creationism. To learn about the rock’s role in the Dreamtime, walk around the base of Uluru with a local Anangu guide. They will teach you about the flora and fauna, and about the caves that provided shelter in the harsh desert for thousands of years.

Close the road trip with one of Australia’s most spectacular sights. The sunset over Uluru is one of the most dramatic on earth, cut with shades of red and orange against the blackening sands, a living mimicry of the red, black and yellow of the Aboriginal flag.

The Best Northern Territory Road Trip

Sara Jane Armstrong

SJ Armstrong is a travel writer and infrequent blogger from London. She specialises in slow and budget travel across 6 continents, including 6 months travelling around Australia. Her writing has appeared in various online outlets and magazines, and more of her published work can be found here.

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