Ever wondered what it would be like to drive across the country from Adelaide to Darwin? We’ve mapped it out for you, and just in case 3000km wasn’t long enough, we’ve shortlisted the top 3 short drives from Darwin so you’ll know where to go when you get there.
The Explorers Way: Alice Springs to Darwin
Follow the path of John McDouall Sturt, the first explorer to traverse the continent in 1862.
Adelaide to Coober Pedy (688km)
Set off through SA’s winegrowing regions to Coober Pedy, just south of the NT border. Once you’re there, head underground out of the heat and fossick about at the Umoona Opal Mine. Stay underground at the Comfort Inn.
Coober Pedy to Alice Springs (690km)
Over the NT border, take a detour to the east at Cadney Park and see the Painted Desert (allow at least three hours). Consider also detouring to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and/or Kings Canyon via the Red Centre Way tourist drive. Stay the night at Crowne Plaza Alice Springs. environment.gov.au/parks/uluru; crowneplaza.com
Alice Springs to Wycliffe Well (375km)
Visit Alice Springs School of the Air and hear a distance-education school lesson broadcast to students in remote areas, then stop off at Ti Tree and sample sparkling mango wine produced in The Outback. Along the way to Wycliffe Well, keep an eye on the sky as well as the road, as it’s said to be Australia’s UFO capital. Spend the night at BIG4 Wycliffe Well Holiday Park, which offers accommodation ranging from campsites to cabins. assoa.nt.edu.au; redcentrefarm.com
Wycliffe Well to Tennant Creek (130km)
Visit Devils Marbles (Karlu Karlu), which are balanced piles of huge round boulders believed by Aboriginal people to be the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent (explained at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Culture Centre). Explore Tennant Creek, the site of Australia’s last major gold rush in the 1930s, then cool off with a dip in nearby Mary Ann Dam. Stay at Desert Sands Motel.
Tennant Creek to Daly Waters (400km)
Explore the scenic Elliott and Newcastle Waters Discovery Trail, a network of roads (some are 4WD only) branching off the main highway to huge cattle stations, outback pubs and landmarks of World War II. Spend the night at the historic Daly Waters pub, adorned with all kinds of memorabilia from football jerseys to bras, and offering a range of budget accommodation. dalywaterspub.com
Daly Waters to Mataranka (165km)
Visit the Larrimah Museum for a peek at the area’s World War II heritage, then cool off with a drink at the historic Larrimah Wayside Inn. Continue to Mataranka for a dip in the thermal springs, before setting up camp in Elsey National Park.
Mataranka to Katherine (105km)
Stop off for a canoe or boat cruise down Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park.
Katherine to Lake Bennett (260km)
Branch off the Explorer’s Way at Pine Creek to Nature’s Way Tourist Drive into Kakadu National Park. There you can explore the historic World War II township of Adelaide River. Spend the night at Lake Bennett Resort.
Litchfield to Darwin (130km)
Visit Litchfield National Park and see stunning waterfalls and great termite mounds – and swim safely (ie, not in fear of saltwater crocs) in clear swimming holes. Continue following the Explorer’s Way right into the heart of Darwin and see the first glimpse of the Timor Sea. nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/litchfield.html
The top three short drives from Darwin
1. Darwin To Litchfield National Park
Even though it’s only 91km southwest of Darwin, Litchfield is in a world of its own and includes marvels like the Lost City (ornate blocks of weathered sandstone pillars), the cooling swimming holes at Wangi Falls (which are also conveniently wheelchair accessible), and the breathtaking views from popular Florence Falls and Buley Rockhole. There are few things better than setting up camp and falling asleep under the stars, all just two hours from the NT capital.
Along the way // There’s plenty of jaw-snapping excitement to be found at Darwin’s Crocodile Farm in Noonamah, home to more than 7000 crocs (and even some American alligators). And you can easily leave your worries at home as you float in the serene waters of Berry Springs while surrounded by lush woodlands. Drive through Rum Jungle (which became prominent after uranium was found there) before reaching the town of Batchelor, the stepping-off point for Litchfield. Before heading into the national park, the quirky Butterfly Farm in Batchelor is well worth a look for its wildly different colourful species. There’s also a terrific feed (and no doubt some interesting local characters) to be found at the newly refurbed Rum Jungle Tavern.
Did you know? // There’s some speculation as to how Rum Jungle got its name. Some claim its because a local hotelier ran out of all liquor apart from rum, others cite a group that passed through drinking 80 gallons of it. Either way, the town was named after an incident involving excessive rum drinking. Very Australian.
2. Darwin to Jabiru
Jabiru, in the northeast corner of world famous Kakadu, is a tiny town known for mining, for its access to the national park, and for its absurdly wonderful crocodile-shaped hotel. Be sure to stop by its Bowali Visitor Centre to grab info on Kakadu’s distinct habitats before travelling to one of the country’s oldest Aboriginal quarry, cave and art sites at Nourlangie Rock. The Warradjan Aboriginal Culture Centre is also good to visit before heading to Ubirr, which is considered one of world’s best showcases of ancient x-ray art. The panoramic views of Kakadu from atop Ubirr are also incredibly special, especially in the late afternoon light.
Along the way // Follow a nature trail through the parklands of the Howard Springs Nature Park to get yourself to the picnic area for a BBQ. Watch local Aboriginal artists at work making didgeridoos and weaving baskets and dillybags at The Didgeridoo Hut and Art Gallery. Get out your camera for spectacular pictures at Windows on the Wetlands at nearby Beatrice Hill or at the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. Take a cruise with Aboriginal tour guides along the East Alligator River, and for something a little closer, sunset cruises are also offered at Yellow Water Billabong, giving you a chance to get up close to the natural wildlife. Stay nearby at the Gagudju Lodge Cooinda before considering a drive further northeast towards Arnhem Land, a region famous for its strength and depth of Aboriginal culture.
Did you know? // According to Aboriginal Dreamtime, two creation ancestors who took the form of short-eared rock wallabies created Nourlangie Rock when they moved past it, cutting two gaps in the rock. These gaps remain visible today and rock wallabies are often seen in the area.
3. Darwin to Bamurru Plains
Built as a luxury safari campsite on a working buffalo station, Bamurru Plains is on the edge of the Mary River floodplains on the western boundary of Kakadu, three hours northeast of Darwin. If you’re lucky, you might be able to capture some bull-catchers in action while you’re there, or go fishing along the Sampan River, a Mecca for barramundi fishing and a great secret spot for jewfish. You’ll also encounter plenty of wildlife through the wildlife safaris on offer, spotting all kinds of animals including wallaroos, dingoes and an array of reptiles.
Along the way // Take a Jumping Crocs Cruise along the Adelaide River, as you watch the crocs leap hungrily for food hanging from the boat. Pass through the small town of Humpty Doo, home to the iconic Boxing Croc, before trying your luck at catching a barra at either the Corroboree Billabong or Shady Camp while surrounded by woodland wildlife. Head to Mary River National Park, southeast from Darwin along the Arnhem Highway, and drop by the rustic and memorabilia-filled Bark Hut Inn for a bite before checking out their animal enclosure (and souvenir shop). For spectacular views of the sunset against the backdrop of the Mary River floodplains, drive to Couzen’s Lookout. Spend a night at the Wildman Wilderness Resort, which is only accessible through the Brian Creek Monsoon Forest.
Did you know? // The town of Humpty Doo is thought to be named either for the slang for something that’s all upside-down and turned around, or from “umdidu”, an Aboriginal word meaning “popular resting place”.