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On an Australian Outback road trip from Darwin to Alice Springs, this five-day trip takes you to Uluru via an unforgettable adventure.
Travelling from Darwin to Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway and crossing through the Australian Outback on a road trip was always at the top of my list when in the Northern Territory.
After some time spent in cities and aboriginal lands of Western Australia, I took a flight from Perth to Darwin to start the journey into the country’s dry, dusty and sacred hinterland – the mysterious, hard to traverse and famed Outback.
- Planning a Trip From Darwin to Alice Springs
- Starting in Darwin
- Outback Road Trip Day 1: Darwin to Katherine Gorge, Mataranka Springs & Daly Waters
- Outback Road Trip Day 2: Devil’s Marbles and Wycliffe Well
- Outback Road Trip Day 3: Visiting Uluru, the Icon
- Outback Road Trip Day 4: Uluru Sunrise & Kata Tjuta Hike
- Outback Road Trip Day 5: Kings Canyon Hike
- Things to Know About Visiting the Australian Outback
Planning a Trip From Darwin to Alice Springs
Before arriving in Darwin I had no idea how to go about planning an Outback trip. I just knew Darwin was a popular starting point to begin a multi-day tour of Outback Australia, on a trip southbound that finishes up in Alice Springs for the Uluru (Ayers Rock) highlight.
People mostly try to do it themselves and drive through there for days on end, despite warnings not to travel through the Northern Territory Australian Outback alone and without proper navigation skills, contacts and equipment.
How far is Alice Springs From Darwin?
Alice Springs is 1497 km south of Darwin on the Stuart Highway. It would take 15 hours to drive from Darwin to Alice Springs on a single journey. But with plenty of things to see on the way, this journey is better experienced over a few days.
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.
Darwin to Alice Springs Tours
I found an answer – setting out on a five-day tour between the two cities, designed for those looking for time in the wilderness without the navigation struggle and including outdoor camping and getting to experience some of Australia’s best hikes.
I choose to go with a company called Mulgas Adventures, which came highly recommended by hostels and travel agencies in the city.
Starting in Darwin
Darwin might surprise you if you have extra time – you just need to dig around a bit. Its fun wave pool, outdoor cinema, evening markets and scenic, historical walking spots are some of its immediate highlights. Sadly, its rough and rowdy backpacker scene largely offsets the rural calm.
However, it is where you embark on day trips to see Litchfield or Kakadu National Parks and all the crocodiles for which this area is famed.
Day Trips from Darwin
Here are some top-rated and popular nature trips and tours from Darwin.
Trip to Litchfield Park Tour – Cruise along the famed Adelaide River, spot crocodiles, and swim in the Wangi Falls.
See Kakadu National Park – Tour the UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its incredible nature and wildlife.
Visit the Tiwi Islands – Learn about the indigenous culture of the Tiwi through cultural workshops.
Guided Airboat Adventure – Take an adrenaline ride through the mangroves and mudflats around the city.
Darwin Harbour Sunset Cruise – Enjoy city views from the sea.
Where to Stay in Darwin
Outback tours start early, so you’ll either want a budget place to crash for a few hours or splurge a bit more if you have a few days to enjoy the city and surrounds.
The 3-star city centre Capitanos hotel is close to Mindil Beach and Darwin Waterfront. It has an outdoor pool and roof terrace. Palms City Resort is around €20 more per night if you want a spa stay. Looking for something quirky and budget? Stay on this 38 Foot Motor boat in Cullen Bay. Youth Shack Backpackers caters to the hostel crowd.
Outback Road Trip Day 1: Darwin to Katherine Gorge, Mataranka 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.
Edith Falls in Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge)
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.
Nitmiluk National Park, in the Katherin region of the Northern Territory, is located on the lands of the Jawoyn people. On arrival, you can head in two directions – to the Nitmiluk Gorge area in the south or Leliyn (Edith Falls) to the north or trek the Jatbula Trail and circle the park.
With limited time we took a short walk towards the falls and found a spot next to the water to swim out to the waterfall. When we found a sign saying that visitors should avoid the waters between 7 am and 7 pm because of the crocs, the debate on swimming out to the rocks was slightly marred by our in-depth talk of whether crocodiles can tell the time and stick to their curfew.
Mataranka Springs Thermal Pools
You only pass through the small town of Katherine (although it’s the Northern territory’s third-largest) for a brief snack stop on the way to the serene Mataranka Thermal Springs for another swim.
Here you can wade through small pockets of sandy floored, jade and emerald waters set within a dense palm forest. You can also visit the Mataranka township and learn about the Aboriginal history and customs of the custodians of this land.
Overnight in Daly Waters
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 overnight resting stop at 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.
Visitors leave their mark here, whether it be a t-shirt, bra or a pair of flip flops, to old money or an id card. The choice is yours.
Outback Road Trip Day 2: Devil’s Marbles and Wycliffe Well
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 of the Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve.
Visiting Karlu Karlu – Devil’s Marbles Conservation Reserve
A scattering of rounded granite rocks that appear to have popped out of the desert floor marks this holy Aboriginal site owned by the Whyungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra and Warlpiri people.
These rounded towers have been formed by erosion over millions of years, creating a magical balancing act. Karlu Karlu translates to mean ’round boulders’ and out of respect, you should not climb them.
As a protected site under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act, visitors will never have full access to all its secrets but you will hear of some ‘Dreamtime’ stories of the custodians, including the one about an ancestor who dropped individual strands of hair that turned into the rocks, and who still resides there today.
Wycliffe Well – The UFO Capital of Australia
A drive along the Stuart Highway towards Uluru – the Red Centre of the Outback – would not be complete without a quick stop at this quirky destination. south of Tennant Creek and north of Alice Springs is 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: Visiting 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.
Uluru Base Walk
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 this sandstone formation, after a guided introduction tour by an Aboriginal custodian.
The Base Walk is an opportunity to see it up close and understand how sacred it is to the Aboriginal people.
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, which change colour as times passes.
Don’t Climb Uluru
It was heartbreaking to see people climbing Uluru and that a sign had to be put up to highlight how much scrambling this sacred site offended the Aboriginal people. Uluru has been promoted as a place to climb since the 1940s, contributing to the concept of conquest, claim and achievement rather than as a site to connect with. I’m glad the practice of climbing has now been banned.
Back then, Mulgas did not advocate climbing Uluru, yet it was 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 was 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 in the area near Uluru, we got to set up a camp nearby, hunt for firewood and sleep outside under the stars in Swags – a true Australian Outback experience. It seems daunting at first, knowing you are sleeping out in the opening, but Swags are special sleeping bags that protect you from the elements.
You are so tired from the heat and the excitement of the day that you pretty much sleep through the night, and spend the morning discussing Dingo footprints and other animals tracks.
Outback Road Trip Day 4: Uluru Sunrise & Kata Tjuta Hike
The last day involves a special sunrise and a hike in a another sacred park close to Uluru.
Up early from the night camping in the open, we started the day spiritually watching the sunrise over Uluru. The fiery sky rose above this sacred monument and we knew this wasn’t just another sunrise, but one of the most iconic we would witness in our lifetime.
Hike in Kata Tjuta National Park
After sunrise, we got to explore the wider area by driving 50km to Kata Tjuta National Park and setting off for the longest walking track through the Valley of the Winds.
The Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas, is a bundle of 36 red rock formations that span over 20km said to date back more than 500 million years. The sacred ancestral lands of the Aboriginal Anangu, Kata Tjuta is now a protected National Park because of its importance to spiritual life.
Passing these orange-red domes on a 7.5 km trail is no easy feat. 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
Another day, another chance to see the Outback’s magnificent nature and rock formations.
Visiting King’s Canyon in Watarrka National Park
The six-kilometre trail and 500 steps of the Kings Canyon Rim Walk is a highlight of this trip. Think of it as an Australian Grand Canyon – wide cavernous drops, 300 metre high walls, and lofty ledge viewpoints.
We walked along 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 that look out across a palm tree scattered desert.
Kings Canyon to Alice Springs
Tired and able to sleep in the van, we rolled back on the highway to Alice Springs – a 330 km drive east that takes around 3 and a half hours.
We had travelled the Outback like adventurers while knowing we were simply visitors in a very sacred space that we will never truly know or comprehend.
Need another night in Alice Springs? Check out Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn, close to the city centre.
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.
The closure of the Uluru climb in October 2019 was wonderful news. Australia Parks closed the climb permanently after Australian Indigenous traditional owners pleaded for people to respect their culture. After 34 years, the site has been returned to its traditional Anangu owners.
Looking to extend your outback adventures? Nearby, in a route from Broome, is The Kimberley, the Indigenous Outback of Western Australia.