When it comes to a family road trip that defines the vastness of this island continent for the kids in the back of the car, the Northern Territories Explorer’s Way is nothing short of magic.
The shimmering grey ribbon of road unfolds all the way to the horizon and beyond. It’s the ultimate exploration – hence the name, in honour of John McDouall Stuart, who took on the huge challenge of exploring the land in preparation for the Overland Telegraph in 1862. The sealed route in its entirety runs sea to sea, from Adelaide north to Darwin, and now takes a fortnight at least to travel by car.
However, starting from Uluru makes the journey more family-sized, bringing together some of Australia’s most iconic sights: from Uluru’s unmistakable monolith, through Alice Springs to the giant, playful balancing act of Karlu Karlu (known as the Devil’s Marbles), and up to the sheer red cliffs and crystalline waters of Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge.
Any explorer loves to venture past the road in search of natural beauty, and the many waterfalls and swimming spots punctuating the journey make for unforgettable moments.
The gorges of the wonderfully accessible West MacDonnell Ranges – Glen Helen, Redbank, Ellery Creek Big Hole – belie the Red Centre’s reputation for aridness; shady Ellery Creek is the Ranges’ deepest and coolest.
A third of the way up to Darwin, Tennant Creek offers more swimming fun in the wide, man-made Lake Mary Ann (Tingkkarli). A ready-made family day out with shady picnic spots, barbecues, a playground and the five-kilometre bike path to town, it’s also the place, at sunset, to see the lake’s many waterbirds.
Further north, you’ll find Mataranka – a fairytale-esque thermal pool that shimmers in the paperbark forest near Katherine. Even among the towering sandstone of Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, you’ll find a tucked-away swimming spot at Leliyn, alongside the cascading Edith Falls.
Camp here overnight for an early morning dip in the mix of blessed silence and birdsong.
More adventures await at Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park, with a pool and beach overlooked by squared stacks of red rock, and the fun continues in Darwin at the popular Waterfront Precinct’s wave lagoon. We think John McDouall Stuart would approve.
Matt Hayden’s must-do family highlights
1. Cool off in the waterholes of the West MacDonnell Ranges, which stretch west of Alice Springs.
2. Enjoy some outback tucker at the celebrated Daly Waters Pub.
3. Enjoy a rejuvenating swim in the Mataranka Thermal Pool, fed by spring water at a constant 34 degrees.
4. Join a Nitmiluk (Katherine) gorge cruise and marvel at the mighty gorges and their ancient art.
5. Eyeball a croc in the ‘Cage of Death’ at Darwin’s Crocosaurus Cove.