Travelling from Darwin to Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway and crossing through the Australian Outback on a road trip has always been in the top crop of my must-do travel experiences. Over the past two years travelling in the country, I recently found myself having touched upon all States of Australia in some way or another, with only one left to conquer – the Northern Territory.
After some time spent traversing the cities and aboriginal lands of Western Australia, I took a flight from Perth to Darwin to start another adventure into more of the country’s dry, dusty hinterland – that of the mysterious, hard to traverse and famed Outback.
Darwin didn’t excite me, despite its crazy-fun wave pool, outdoor cinema, evening markets and scenic-historical walking spots. Sadly, its rough and rowdy backpacker scene largely offsets the rural calm. However, it is the place you come to see Litchfield or Kakadu National Parks and all the crocodiles for which this area is famed.
Or, like me, you come here to begin a five-day tour of Outback Australia, on a trip southbound that finishes up in Alice Springs for the Uluru (Ayers Rock) highlight.
Before arriving in Darwin I had no idea how to go about planning an Outback trip. People mostly try to do it themselves and drive through there for days on end, despite warnings not to travel through the northern Australian Outback alone and without proper navigation skills, contacts and equipment. I felt that by flying from Darwin to Alice Springs I would miss out on the beauty of what is essentially the beauty of the ‘nothingness’ in between and nature at its most untouched.
But I found an answer, setting out on an Outback tour, designed for those looking for time in the wilderness without the navigation struggle, outdoor camping and embracing nature on some of Australia’s best hikes. It was with a company called Mulgas, who came highly recommended from hostels and travel agencies in the city.
Outback Road Trip Day 1: Darwin to Edith Falls, Mataranka Thermal Springs & Daly Waters
It’s an early start around 6 am, but it adds to the sense of adventure as you hit the road, ready to join the open highway that starts to cut through the Outback. To break up the long journey, which could otherwise turn monotonous, we stopped at Edith Falls in the Nitmiluk National Park, to take a relaxing swim and stretch our legs. Here we found a sign saying that visitors should avoid the waters between 7 am and 7 pm because of the crocs, so a far-out swim to the waterfalls was slightly marred by our in-depth talk of whether crocodiles can tell the time and stick to their curfew.
Passing through the nondescript town of Katherine is simply for a snack stop, on the way to the serene Mataranka Thermal Springs for another swim. Here you can wade through small pockets of jade and emerald waters set within a dense palm forest.
Driving in the Outback is always long. The wide-open stretches of road are sometimes relaxing as you pass through them, and other times exhausting with the sand dust and intense heat. The highlight of the long day’s drive is the first over-night resting stop – visiting Daly Waters. Just over 600kms south of Darwin, this quirky, tiny town is a fascinating pit stop with a historic pub that has been open to the public since 1938, when people from the nearby airfield used to pass through, leaving an eclectic mix of memorabilia.
Inside the historic Daly Waters pub in the Australian Outback
Outback Road Trip Day 2: Devil’s Marbles & Alice Springs
The second day on the road meant pressing forward farther south to arrive in Alice Springs by evening, but not without a visit to the natural wonder that is Karlu Karlu (The Devil’s Marbles). A scattering of rounded granite rocks that appear to have popped out of the desert floor marks this holy Aboriginal site. These rounded towers have been formed by erosion over millions of years, creating a magical balancing act.
As a protected site under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act, visitors will never have full access to all its secrets. However, as a visitor, you will hear of some ‘Dreamtime’ stories of the Whyungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra and Warlpiri people, including the one about an ancestor who dropped individual strands of hair that turned into the rocks, and who still resides there today.
A drive along the Stuart Highway towards the ‘Red Centre’ of the Outback would not be complete without a quick stop at Wycliffe Well – the ‘UFO Capital of Australia’ said to have had the most sightings and visits in all of the country. The cafe, including its crazy exterior, is decked out in everything alien-themed and features news clippings from the abduction and sighting stories over the years.
Outback Road Trip Day 3: Uluru, the Icon
After an overnight stay in an Alice Springs hostel, a 6 am start marks the point of one of the most exciting parts of the trip – the journey to visit Uluru –Australia’s most famous red icon (also known by its Western given name, Ayers Rock).
Everyone’s heads turn in the bus as we approach this infamous masterpiece of Mother Nature. It’s bold, fiery and dominant. Today is the chance to hike around a huge part of it after a guided introduction tour, see it up close, and understand how sacred it is to the Aboriginal people.
So much so that many parts of Uluru are completely off-limits for photography. It radiates a scared feeling that you can’t quite put into words until you stand before it and its rugged ochre walls. It’s heartbreaking to see people climbing it when signs dictate how much this offends the Aboriginal people. Mulgas does not advocate climbing Uluru, yet is not at liberty to stop people either, and it was hard to stand by and watch a few members of my group do so, which is both dangerous and utterly selfish. Respect the ancient culture and don’t do it.
A day exploring Uluru is not complete without a glass of bubbly and watching the sunset over this iconic rock formation, toasting to new friends and being at one with the very best of nature’s creations. While out here, we got to set up camp nearby, hunt for firewood and sleep outside under the stars in swags – a true Australian Outback experience.
Outback Road Trip Day 4: Uluru Sunrise & Kata Tjuta Hike
Starting the day watching the sunrise over Uluru for good spiritual measure, this was the day we got to explore the wider area by driving to Kata Tjuta and setting off for a long walk through the Valley of the Winds.
The Kata Tjuta is a bundle of 36 red rock formations that span over 20km. Another holy site set within a now protected National Park, the stones are said to date back more than 500 millions years. It’s an arduous hike in the heat so it’s best to start as early as possible and aim to be finished before the midday high sun.
Outback Road Trip Day 5: Kings Canyon Hike
The Kings Canyon rim walk hike is a highlight of this trip. Think of it as an Australian Grand Canyon – wide, deep caverns, steep ledges and deep-drop viewpoints. We meandered its North and South walls, The Garden of Eden, as well as the Natural Amphitheatre taking in the adrenalin of standing close to mighty ledges and tackling the rocky steps for the ultimate panoramic vistas.
Tired and able to sleep in the van, we rolled back on the highway to Alice Springs. We had travelled the Outback like true adventurers while knowing we were only visitors in a very sacred space that we will never truly know or comprehend.
Things to Know About Visiting the Australian Outback:
- The five-day Mulgas tour (which departs in both directions of Darwin to Alice Springs and Alice Spring to Darwin) costs 629 Australian dollars. The standard Alice Springs to Darwin ‘Express’ tour (which doesn’t include the three-day Uluru tour and hikes) is $289. A more fun, scenic and cheaper alternative than flying.
- Care is taken to respect the Aboriginal rights at every site visited. Tourism access to certain places remains a contentious issue, and it is of utmost importance to abide by the rules and adhere to the ancient culture of the rightful owners of the land.
- Further information on travelling in the Northern Territory can be found here.
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