From the Red Centre’s ochre-toned monoliths to the Top End’s tropical tangle of swimming holes, the Northern Territory is a vast and varied canvas that’s best explored with plenty of freedom up your sleeve.
Few travel modes shout ‘freedom’ more than road tripping does; however, to truly enjoy driving in the Northern Territory you’ll need to be prepared – its seasons differ from those in other states, as do the distances between towns and the hazards you’re more likely to face. We’ve covered all bases with this essential guide.
Choose your ride wisely
Many of the Northern Territory’s most stunning sites, and a few of its more direct routes, are 4WD access only. This includes Jim Jim and Gunlom Falls in Kakadu, plus the Mereenie Loop that runs between Alice Springs and Kings Canyon. When selecting a vehicle type, keep this in mind, but don’t let it rule out travel if a 2WD is your only option. Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks feature many sealed roads too.
These will deliver you to Wangi Falls, Florence Falls, and the cascades of Buley Rockhole in the former, and to stone country and wetland sites Ubirr, Nourlangie, and Yellow Water in the latter. Similarly, Nitmiluk (home to Katherine Gorge) and Uluru-Kata Tjuta (home to the formerly named ‘Olgas’, as well as Uluru) National Parks are completely sealed.
Outback-proof your car
Start by ensuring your tyres all have ample tread, including the spare. The distances between towns is sizeable when driving in the Northern Territory, so if you’re doing a bit of exploring, you’ll want to give yourself the best chance of a smooth ride – and limit the chances of needing to change a tyre or being caught without fuel.
While mobile phone and wi-fi reception is pretty good in cities and most towns, national parks are a bit hit and miss, so if you’re heading out bush, carry a satellite phone or an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). Lack of wi-fi reception will impact your access to Google Maps, so pack a paper map too. Plenty of water is another essential; aim for around five litres per traveller.
For more safety tips on driving in the Northern Territory, read our survival guide.
Nail your route and timing
Given its stunning landscapes, perpetual summer and quirky pubs, the Territory is somewhat of a road tripper’s paradise – provided you don’t try to do too much in too short a timeframe.
If you’re travelling from Darwin, leave at least six days to drive the Top End Loop, which cuts along the Arnhem Highway to Jabiru, a township that serves as a great base for exploring Kakadu. See stone country in the northern sections and waterfalls in the south, before heading to Nitmiluk and Katherine via Edith Falls (if you have an extra day, add Mataranka Hot Springs and Bitter Springs to your itinerary). On your way back to Darwin, take in Litchfield and its lush tropical forest and waterholes. The tiny township of Batchelor provides a good base here.
For a Red Centre road trip, carve out a week to explore Alice Springs, iconic Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and the painterly vistas of the MacDonnell Ranges. Nine or 10 days is even better, as this allows you to pair a trip to Alice with the full Red Centre Way itinerary. This includes the surprisingly verdant King’s Canyon, 4700-year-old meteorite craters at Henbury, and the sandstone bluffs and cliffs of Rainbow Valley.
Know the seasons, road conditions and rules
While Central Australia carries the traditional four seasons – inclusive of cold winter nights in the middle of the year – the Top End divides its calendar into ‘tropical summer’ and ‘dry’.
The dry season runs from May to October and is the best time of year to travel by car, as most roads and swimming holes remain open. During the tropical summer, which spins from November to April, rains can affect access, so keep an eye on roadreport.nt.gov.au as you travel.
The most striking road rule in the NT is its 130 kilometre-per-hour speed limit on highways. For the most part, this is a good thing – especially given the lack of twists and turns on major roads. However, fast travel speeds can prove a little dicey when it comes to navigating your way around a road train in the Territory, which can sometimes run up to 54 metres long. Take care when passing these beasts: leave yourself a clear line of sight before making your move, or better still, wait for an overtaking lane to appear.
Mastering the elements
Sand: drive slowly and steer clear of tree lines
Dirt roads: keep your speed under 80 kilometres
Deep water: use a car snorkel and observe croc danger signs
Motorcycle diaries: Think big – the Northern Territory’s long, open roads are best tackled on large-capacity bikes above 750cc with a fuel range of at least 350 kilometres.
Be permit savvy: Large swathes of the Territory are Aboriginal land, so if you’re fishing, camping, filming, bushwalking, hunting or travelling in remote areas, you may need a land permit. Four different land councils govern Central Australia, Northern Australia, Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands. Apply directly to the relevant council and allow up to 10 days for approval.
Our top three road trips
Still not sure where to start? We’ve done part of the hard work for you. Here are our top three road trips when driving in the Northern Territory:
Darwin, Katherine and back. We call this the Top End lap.
From the heart of the Red Centre to an Australian icon, Alice Springs to Uluru makes an epic road trip.
Delve deep and travel the whole thing on one of the most fascinating (and remote) road trips of them all: Alice Springs to Darwin.