When you think of Australia, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Kangaroos? Koalas? Probably. But for us, it is also the Northern Territory. And more specifically, the spiritual landmark of Uluru. But the NT is so much more! With an extensive indigenous history, magical plains of endless land, and that incredible red dirt that accompanies you even long after you left the Red Centre, no trip to Australia would be complete if you don’t go to the Northern Territory!
Our Road Trip through the Northern Territory
We took a road trip through the Red Centre in October 2020 and traveled through this incredible land for about a month. We were eager to see the Northern Territory and experience its magic. To see the NT, the “real” Australia, was pretty much our number one bucket list experience for this incredible country!
Over the years, we’ve seen so many pictures and documentaries of the NT that we almost felt like we had been here before. So, we were very curious if our expectations had become too high. Or, if it would be even greater than we ever imagined.
But we must say that the NT was even better than we imagined! Even though we spent the least amount of our time in Australia here, we can say that the Red Centre had the greatest impact on us. Regardless of all the photos and everything that we had seen before, nothing came close to the feeling that we had to see Uluru with our own eyes.
The ancient spirit, the majesty, and the vastness of the Red Centre gave us goosebumps and the feeling is something that we will remember forever.
So, let us take you with us on one of Australia’s most iconic drives! Travel with us along the Stuart Highway, on the Explorer’s Way, and learn more about our time in the Northern Territory.
The Explorer’s Way
While dreaming about our Australia road trip, our fingers traveled again and again along the Stuart Highway on the map. Also known as the Explorer’s Way, we had come across the name “Stuart” often and wanted to know a little more about him.
In 1862, John McDouall Stuart became the first European to cross the continent. Beginning in Adelaide, it took him and his expedition 8 grueling months to travel north to Darwin and back. How adventurous his trip must have been! What did he see? What did he encounter? The sealed Stuart Highway roughly follows Mr. Stuart’s original path. Still, we couldn’t wait to experience this epic drive ourselves!
We wondered how long we would need to get from Darwin all the way down to Adelaide. We wanted to follow in Stuart’s footsteps – and we did! In the end, it took us longer than his 8 months to complete the Explorer’s Way!
Crossing into the NT
After driving from Townsville to Mt Isa through the Outback of Queensland, we changed our clocks 30 minutes, went back in time 30 years, and crossed the border into the Northern Territory. At the border, we had a chat with an Aussie and as you know, the Aussies have classic humor. The second we mentioned that we were on our way to Darwin via the Three Ways, he said “Oh, that is easy to find. Just drive straight for 500 kilometers and then turn right.”
From the Three Ways, we took a “quick” detour to Tennant Creek to fill up with petrol in order to save a few dollars before we headed off to our first destination in the NT!
Tip: Use the App Petrol Spy to not only find where you can buy the cheapest petrol but also see where the petrol stations are located. You might want to fill your jerry cans as petrol is rare in the NT, not to mention very expensive!
Our stops throughout the Northern Territory
Our rough idea was to spend around a month in the NT before continuing to South Australia. These were our stops throughout the Northern Territory were:
Litchfield NP – Darwin – Humpty Doo – Kakadu NP – Pine Creek – Edith Falls/Nitmiluk NP, Katherine –Mataranka– Daly Waters – Tennant Creek – Devils Marbles – Wycliffe Well – Aileron Roadhouse – Tropic of Capricorn – Alice Springs – West MacDonnell Ranges – Uluru – Kata Tjuta – Kings Canyon – Kulgera
We were also hoping to see the famous Ghan train that drives from Darwin to Adelaide and takes four days. Leaning back in comfortable seats while watching this breathtaking landscape pass by. What an amazing journey that must be, and one day we would do this trip as well! But while dreaming of The Ghan, we were staggered by the road trains we came across. Road trains are extremely long trucks that are common in Australia. We have no idea how many meters long they were, but the NT easily has the longest road trains we saw in Australia! And we saw a lot of them while road-tripping!
The normal Things in the Northern Territory
We were already experiencing the normal things in the NT, which were anything but normal to us. The never-ending road trains, with dimensions so long that you fear your van won’t ever be able to pass them. The terrifying beware of crocs signs are everywhere. A landscape that is so fascinating that we can’t wrap our heads around it. The heat, the dust, and the streets seem to go nowhere. And of course, the billions of flies and their constant buzzing as they try to fly into your mouth, eyes, nose, and ears.
Even with all the beauty that lies in front of us, I already knew that it would be challenging for me. Challenging because it was already way too hot. We arrived late in the year, and we were coming into the wet season, which wouldn’t be so much fun in a campervan.
Litchfield National Park
After a few days on the road, we arrived at Litchfield National Park. We had planned to stay 2 nights and indulge ourselves in the natural plunge pools and rock holes. What a reward that would be after driving almost 1000 kilometers!
Tip: Coming from Darwin, Litchfield is a 1.5-hour drive. Driving via the Peninsula Way is 4WD only! If you come from the South via Batchelor, Litchfield is accessible with a 2WD.
Our first stop was the Magnetic Termite Mounds. An uncountable number of termite mounds stretched out in front of us as far as the eye could see. It looked surreal; almost like we were in a cemetery. The mounds are up to 100 years old and stand as tall as two meters. We walked along the boardwalk and were fascinated by these structures! Another natural wonder is the Cathedral Termite Mounds, that tower an incredible four meters in height.
The sun was burning down, and it was time to find our campsite. We had booked the Florence 2WD Campground, a fantastic base to explore all the waterfalls and rock pools in the surrounding area. You reach Florence Falls and a viewing platform in a few minutes’ walk from the campsite. And 135 steps down! It is a good-sized plunge pool and is very beautiful and refreshing. Did I mention that you can swim in all pools in Litchfield? But be sure to watch out for signs, as crocs can occur!
Tip: The NT holds the highest concentration of saltwater crocs in the world! So, take “Croc-wise” safety notes seriously!
The National Park was the best start to our Northern Territory Trip as we could enjoy Litchy’s many waterfalls. We jumped into the Florence Falls, the Buley Rockhole, the Wangi Falls, and admired the Tolmer Falls.
After being attacked by trillions of flies, and getting grilled in the heat, we decided to move on to Darwin. Litchfield* was an amazing start to our Northern Territory trip, and despite the flies and heat, we enjoyed the lush landscape around the multiple waterfalls. Litchfield is a must-see National Park. With marvelous landscapes, and everything from termite mounds to red dirt bush camps, and lavish forests to refreshing waterfalls. All while driving through an area where you can observe the Australian wildlife!
I guess we weren’t quite sure what to expect in Darwin*, but the NT’s capital city really surprised us! Darwin is a cultural melting pot. With an easily walkable CBD and street art that makes your artsy heart open wide, Darwin is loaded with lots of stylish bars and restaurants. Not to mention the beaches, markets, and history. We visited National Trust Heritage-listed houses, ate our way through a sunset market located right at the beach, and fed baby crocodiles! If you are planning a trip to this city, and you really should, make sure to see the Top Highlights of Darwin!
For us, Darwin was a truly unexpected ultimate on the Explorer’s Way, and we enjoyed the delicious food, the modernity of the city, and the endless possibilities of how to spend a gorgeous holiday.
And while taking a week to explore Darwin, it wouldn’t be “Puttering around the World” if we wouldn’t have played a round of golf. We took a day and visited Darwin Golf Club, the oldest golf club in the NT!
When we have long driving days, I like to look at the map to see what is on the way. That is when we saw that the town of Humpty Doo was on our way to Kakadu National Park; another highlight we were looking forward to. We had first heard of this town with a particular name when we were in lockdown. But, at the time, we never thought that we would get here! So, of course, we had to stop in this little town and check out the golf course. As we arrived, we were once more surprised. A beautifully, well-maintained course opened in front of us, and we grabbed our clubs and teed it up at the Humpty Doo Golf Club.
the astonishing Kakadu National Park
250 kilometers east of Darwin lays the astonishing Kakadu National Park. Home to about 5000 rock art sites, some of the oldest paintings are found in 3 main areas: Ubirr, Nourlangie, and Nanguluwurr. Kakadu National Park is a UNESCO site and is one of our absolute favorite places in the Northern Territory. The world’s oldest living culture, stunning rock art, plants, and animals are found only in this part of Australia, and wetlands of international significance are found within the 20.000 sq km National Park.
Besides Uluru, Kakadu was the place where we could feel the Dreamtime stories of the ancestors of this ancient land. With the view across the floodplains, watching the sunset at the Nadab Lookout was surely one of the most magical moments we had in Australia. Sitting there trying to imagine 50,000 years of Aboriginal history, we couldn’t help but think how insignificant we are.
We wish we would have stayed longer at Kakadu National Park. We recommend at least 5 days to have enough time to embrace the nature and history of this land.
From Kakadu National Park, we drove about 3 hours to get to our next stop: Pine Creek. Here we spent a night at the Lazy Lizard Caravan Park. We loved our stay here and would say that this was easily one of our Favorite Campgrounds in the Northern Territory!
From Pine Creek to Karlu Karlu
Rested, and revived with new energy, we decided to stay near water as much as possible in the NT. Lucky for us, from Pine Creek down to Daly Waters you are spoiled with crystal-clear pools, natural springs, and waterfalls.
We drove to Edith Falls, which is in the western section of the Nitmiluk National Park, before continuing to Katherine for quick lunch and a dip in the Hot Springs.
Afterward, it was on to Mataranka for the Bitter Springs and the lush palms, and the 34° waters of the Mataranka Thermal Pool. It can’t get any better, right?!
Mataranka is also the capital of the Never Never. If like us, you have never heard of Never Never, it is a famous book about Elsey Station titled “We of the Never Never” and is part of Australia’s folklore. The homestead replica which is right at the parking lot gives a sense of isolation and hardship of early settlers.
For those who still can’t get enough of termite mounds, in the center of Mataranka, you will find the world’s largest manmade one!
Quirky Daly Waters
265 kilometers south of Katherine, the quirky town of Daly Waters should be another must-stop on your list. The Historic Daly Waters Pub showcases a typical Australian Outback Pub, with good food, a quirky interior, and the convenient bonus of a caravan park found behind it.
Tip: The Outback is full of amazing quirky pubs. And, if you want to visit a less crowded one, Barrow Creek Pub is a great option. Just continue south on the Highway, it is located 73 kilometers south of Davenport.
But the Pub is not the only attraction in town. The Daly Water Aviation Complex is the oldest aviation structure in the NT. Built in 1930, it played an important role during WWII. After WWII it was an aviation hub between Australia and England. Visit and explore the original Qantas hangar and associated buildings. The Aviation Complex is a registered heritage attraction.
We also visited The Stuart Tree. Remember that the highway is named after John McDouall Stuart, the first European to cross the continent, right? Right! A landmark of Daly Waters showcases a dead tree trunk, registered as a National Trust. Wondering why? It says that “The explorer, John McDouall Stuart is presumed to have carved the initial S on this tree on the 23rd of May 1862 during his successful journey from Adelaide to Darwin 1861-62”.
We would have never guessed to find so much history in Daly Water.
Continuing our route south, we stopped at Tennant Creek, not only to fill Putu with cheap petrol again but also to play a few holes at the Tennant Creek Golf Club. As we arrived, the course seemed abandoned and was more like a ghost club instead of a golf club! Together with the sun burning down on us, I decided that it would be too crazy to play. We have been stupid enough in the past to play golf during the hottest time of the day and suffered from a case of heatstroke, so I didn’t want to risk it again. But guess who couldn’t resist and went out to play a few holes!
I recommend going and seeing The Pebbles instead.
Devil’s Marbles, or Karlu Karlu in the local Aboriginal language, is the traditional home for the Warumungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra, and Warlpiri people. Only an hour’s drive from Tennant Creek and we entered a fascinating wide-open area with the most unique rock formations that we have ever seen! The red dirt and giant red rocks stood in beautiful contrast to the bright blue sky. Scattered around were pockets of bush vegetation. This is how we always imagined the Red Centre. A dried-out red desert and seemingly never-ending plains.
The shapes of the Devil’s Marbles are formed through erosion and play an important role in the Dreamtime Story. As far as we understood, the marbles represent the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent.
We wandered around the Devil’s Marbles. The area is sacred, and tourists are asked not to climb the rocks and not to take photos of locations marked as sensitive areas. But we should have stayed overnight at the bush camp. We are sure that the starry skies there would have been mind-blowing!
A short 20-some minutes south of the Devil’s Marbles, you will find something completely unexpected, but somehow not too surprising. After all, this is the Outback of Australia! Wycliffe Well is the UFO Capital of Australia!
Every stop on our way seemed to have something crazier than the last, almost as if the locals try to out-crazy their neighbors. The places are very remote, and it would be safe to say that only unique characters live out here. Just like the people of Lightning Ridge, or Coober Pedy, I guess you have to be built for the Outback!
We took off to the Aileron Roadhouse, where you will see huge statues. “The Big Man” on the hill is a giant sculpture of an Aboriginal Warrior (Anmatjere Man), watching over Aileron. Down below you’ll see the giant sculpture of an Aboriginal woman and her daughter.
After a brief stop, we decided to also see the Tropic of Capricorn and wander along one of the short walks at the Native Gap Conservation Park.
Tip: Watch out for camels! In 1850, Afghan Cameleers brought camels to Australia as the conditions were too harsh for horses. Today you see a lot of wild camels in the Red Centre.
We spent a few days in Alice Springs and stayed at the great G’day Alice Springs Campground. We not only loved the huge non-powered site we had all to ourselves, but also the fact that right next door is the Alice Springs Brewing Co with refreshing beers and delicious pizzas.
Alice Springs* has a lot to offer. Go visit the Anzac Memorial, Royal Flying Doctor Service, Old Alice Springs Gaol, Totem Theatre, Stuart Town Gaol, Old Post Office, Railway House, and the Museum of Central Australia.
And if you carry your golf clubs like we do, go and play Alice Springs Golf Club!
Unfortunately, we couldn’t do the Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve as the unsealed roads are 4WD only. Located 160 km south of Alice Springs, the 50-meter-high sandstone pillar was first recorded in 1860 by John MacDouall Stuart and was a landmark in the desert on the long overland journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs.
West MacDonnell Ranges
We heard so much about the MacDonnell Ranges, that we couldn’t wait to go and explore.
The 644 km stretch (400 miles) of the MacDonnell Ranges runs east and west from Alice Springs. The Ranges are not only famous for red quartz, but also for granite, limestone, sandstone, and siltstone. The aboriginal name is Tjoritja.
We didn’t make it to the East MacDonnell Ranges. But if you do, you must go and see Yeperenye/Emily and Jesse Gaps Nature Park, Coroboree Rock, Arltunga Historic Reserve, Hale River Homestead, N’Dhala Gorge National Park, Arltunga Historical Reserve, Hale River Homestead at Old Ambalindum, and the Gemtree!
We explored the West MacDonnell Ranges for an entire day. If you are interested in what the West MacDonnell Ranges* has to offer, please read Our Daytrip to the West MacDonnell Ranges.
A Dream Comes True – We are visiting Uluru
Finding our way through a desert speckled with spinifex and the red sand dunes had already made us so indescribably happy, and I was reminded of that travel quote “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
Driving through the Red Centre and seeing the breathtaking landscape and being mesmerized by the billions of sparkling stars in the cool outback nights was almost too much to take in. How would we ever be able to go back to “normal” life after experiencing so much beauty that the world has to offer?
And yet, Uluru* was still to come. One highlight chasing the other we were almost there!
And then we saw it in the distance! Uluru! We were soooo excited, and we immediately started taking photos and videos! It took us a few seconds to realize that something didn’t feel quite right. It was the shape. And probably the size too. It just didn’t look right! We looked at each other and started laughing. We fell for it! It was Mount Conner, or “fake Uluru” as we called it. But we know that we aren’t the only ones because Mount Conner is also known as “Fool-uru”!
Uluru and Kata Tjuta
After this hilarious mistake, and another hour and a half of driving, we checked in at the only campground in the area, The Ayers Rock Resort.
Tip: The resort, shop, and restaurants don’t take cash! Be aware that robberies take place in the campground, so be sure that everything is locked away. Do not leave Eskys (coolers), alcohol, or jerry cans in the open. And always lock your campervan!
We spent three amazing days there. We did the Uluru Base Walk, saw amazing sunsets and sunrises, and met fellow travelers for a pizza night with a view of Uluru. And we also hiked Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), which should not be missed.
So, was it worth it to fly all the way to Australia, to drive thousands of miles while inhaling dust, and sometimes flies, to see one of its icons? HELL YES! Our once-in-a-lifetime journey: Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park – “the beating heart of Australia’s nation”!
The Watarrka National Park and the Kings Canyon
The Watarrka National Park, the traditional land of the Matutjara people, was not exactly on our list, but we had heard nothing but great things about it. From Uluru, we thought of next going to Kings Canyon, a “short” four-hour drive over sealed roads. Even though it was a long drive, we decided to go for it, and it was the best decision because the Canyon was mind-blowing, and one of the biggest and most unexpected surprises for us!
Last Stop Kulgera
Here we are, only 20 some kilometers away from the South Australia border! As we started traveling around Australia, we didn’t know that something unexpected like a virus would change our whole plans and that we would get to see parts of this amazing country that we hadn’t planned on originally seeing due to time.
Even if Uluru was on our original travel list, incredible places like Darwin, Litchfield, Kakadu, the West MacDonnell Ranges, and Kings Canyon weren’t. And we can’t tell you how happy we were that we had the flexibility to be able to change our plans. Otherwise, we would have missed out on one epic road trip through the Red Center.
Tip: Go see the Lambert Centre of Australia! Corrugated roads led to the geological center of Australia, located about 180 km east of Kulgera.
We stopped at the Kulgera Roadhouse, and ate our last cucumber and tomato salad so we wouldn’t have to throw it away at the SA border. We couldn’t wait to find out what would come next! Continuing the legendary Explorers Way, our next stop would be Coober Pedy, the Opal Capital of the World.
For us, visiting the Northern Territory was more than just a great road trip. In fact, the NT was THE Australian experience, and our hearts still stop when we think back to it!
Even if you’ve seen countless documentaries, pictures, and videos, it still is indescribable to see Uluru with your own eyes. To feel the warmth of the red sand, to hear the didgeridoo playing, and to witness the millions of stars at night.
We not only recommend a trip to the NT but urge you to do so. After all, you haven’t really seen Australia until you drive through the Red Center!
Where is the Northern Territory?
The Northern Territory is located in North Australia, between Western Australia to the west, and Queensland to the east. It also borders South Australia to the south. Darwin is its capital and the biggest city in the Territory. With about 130,000 citizens it is much smaller compared to the other Australian state capitals.
How do you get there?
Coming from Western Australia, drive along the Victoria and Butine Highway in the north.
If you’re coming from South Australia, drive along Stuart Highway.
Or, if you’re coming from Queensland, drive along Barkly Highway.
Bus: Traveling by bus has many benefits. Lean back in one of the coach services and enjoy the landscape passing by. You can sleep, relax or read while someone else does the driving. Major routes include Darwin–Broome, Adelaide – Alice Springs, and Townsville – Alice Springs/Darwin (via Tennant Creek).
Train: One day we will take The Ghan and enjoy the three-day travel from Adelaide to Darwin. The route goes twice a week in both directions.
Flight: The easiest and fastest way to get to the Northern Territory is by air. International flights arrive in Darwin, where you can start your experience directly by exploring the city or continuing your flight domestically to either Alice Springs or Uluru.
When is the best time?
The climate in Northern Territory varies a lot! It has four seasons and extreme conditions. Temperatures can range from under 0°(32°F) in winter to 40+°(104°F) in summer.
The Top End has a tropical climate. The summer (November to April) brings monsoonal rains and storms with very high humidity. Not to mention the annoying flies that buzz in Armageddon proportions 😉.
From May to October, the weather is dry and is the most popular time to visit. But remember to bring a jacket, because the winter may have warm days, but the nights can be very cold.
The weather in Central NT is drier and can have very hot days and cool nights.
Tip: If you don’t mind the rain and want to travel outside the high season, you might want to visit Uluru in winter. The experience of seeing Uluru covered in waterfalls must be amazing!
What are the Top Highlights?
The Must See’s are Darwin, Tiwi Island, Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land, Litchfield National Park, Katherine, Mataranka, Devils Marbles, Alice Springs, The MacDonnell Ranges, Uluru and the Olgas, and Kings Canyon.
The Northern Territory is rich in Aboriginal History. If you would like to learn more about the culture, art, and history of Australia, then the NT is the perfect place to do so!
Uluru is, of course, not only the undisputed landmark of the NT but all of Australia.
Compared to the other Australian states that we traveled to, the NT was “Australia” for us. The red desert, the long drives with nothing but heat, and the red glowing sand were exactly how we always imagined Australia would be!
Tip: If you are planning on traveling to Arnhem Land you must have a permit. The Northern Land Council oversees the permits on behalf of the traditional owners of land in the Top End. This includes Arnhem Land but does not include the Tiwi Islands or Groote Eylandt. When your permit is granted, you can collect it from a designated Land Council office.
How long did we visit?
We traveled the NT for a month but easily could have stayed longer. Depending on what type of traveler you are, it is possible to see the NT in less time, but we wouldn’t recommend going for less than 2 weeks.
Where to stay?
The Northern Territory offers the right accommodation for every traveler. From Caravan Parks to Backpacker Hostels to high-end Luxury Hotels.
If you are searching for the right accommodation, please let us know and send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will find you the best fit.
Summary of links
The astonishing Kakadu National Park
Favorite Campgrounds in the Northern Territory
Our Daytrip to the West MacDonnell Ranges
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park – “the beating heart of Australia’s nation”
Puttering around the World wishes to acknowledge and pay respect to the Australian Aboriginal Peoples as the traditional and original owners, and continuing custodians of this beautiful land.
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