Fancy taking a campervan road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin? Can’t say we blame you! This trip will see you travel though some of the most beautiful places in Australia. Tania Lee from Fairfax newspapers recently hit the road in a Maui Ultima plus and explored the iconic Alice Springs to Darwin route. Here are her top recommendations for this 5 day itinerary.
This journey from the lower half of the Northern Territory all the way to the top of the state covers the true outback of Australia in a huge 1496km journey. This trip offers visits to National Parks, some great Aussie pubs, stunning natural attractions, and unique rugged experiences. Discover the many hidden gems along the way – and read below for some local advice from Tania!
Darwin to Alice Springs
Best Time of the Year
April to October
- Alice Springs
- Banka Banka
- Kakadu National Park
Alice Springs to Aileron
Distance 135km - Driving Time 2 hours
Pick up a camper at Maui Alice Springs and enjoy some of the local attractions before you head off.
One of the best things to do in Alice Springs includes delving into the natural attractions. Enjoy a visit to the Kangaroo sanctuary where you can hold a baby roo, visit the botanic gardens or visit the desert park. Grab a cold drink at Alice Springs Brewing Co, then visit the Todd Mall market for arts, crafts, food and homewares.
Unique experiences in the area include Camel rides and taking a hot air balloon across the Red Centre for incredible views of the area. Alice Springs is known as the Aboriginal Arts Capital of Central Australia, so visiting the galleries is another must-do.
Driving North from Alice Springs for around an hour and a half, you will come across Aileron on the Stuart Highway which is an ideal roadhouse stop for a break and refresh. Enjoy a photo opportunity with the large sculptures of ‘Anmatjere Man’, who is an Aboriginal warrior, and another sculpture named ‘Woman and Child’. These were both made by a local sculpture artist.
Now is the time to stock up on water and food supplies at the convenience store.
There are plenty of great attractions in Alice Springs to see when you’re ready to face the day. For Tania this meant an early start and a gallery visit. “We got a powered site at a truckies stop and in the morning visited the site’s Aboriginal art gallery”.
Other attractions in the area include the Ryan's Well Historical Reserve which was hand-dug in 1889 for the purpose of supplying water for incoming travellers. The reserve has historical importance and the well system showcases how stock was once watered in the early years.
Enjoy a walk on one of a few tracks including Oatley Walking Track, Colsen’s Walk, or Mark’s Walk.
Aileron to Banka Banka
Distance 477km - Driving Time 5 hours
Banka Banka Station is about 5 hours drive North from Aileron but before you get there it’s worth stopping for lunch. “We stopped over at Devils Marbles Hotel for lunch. This was a beautiful scenic spot for a break where we also went for a long walk to stretch our legs”.
Visit Karlu Karlu, otherwise known as Devil’s Marbles to see the amazing site of ancient granite boulders, sacred to the Warumungu people. Information boards display the history of the site over a short walking trail.
Head off next to Tennant Creek to get those essentials sorted. “Tennant Creek was interesting. The town has reception, is good for refuelling, grabbing an ice cream and checking messages and emails”.
Tania suggests getting your tech sorted while you have reception. “It’s good to download a heap of music onto your device beforehand and bluetoothing it through the vehicle’s speakers”.
“Banka Banka station is where we stayed. Non-powered sites, so we slept in the dark and cooked kangaroo steaks and veggies on the bbq attached to the campervan. We celebrated Ismael’s birthday today with cake, a good bottle of red and nice conversations around the communal campfire at this excellent, popular stop”.
Banka Banka to Mataranka
Distance 465km - Driving Time 5 hours 30
Driving North for 4 hours and 45 minutes you will reach Mataranka. Before you get there, it’s a good opportunity to stop for something to eat in Daly Waters.
“We drove to the very famous Daly Water Pub for lunch, a short drive in from Stuart Highway. This was probably the most Aussie pub I’ve ever been to. Thousands of tourists and locals have stopped over for a feed. The pub drips of memorabilia- people have left behind their currency notes, ID cards, caps, undies and bras for all to see! Barmen are happy to greet you with a smile and share a good yarn. Although we stopped for lunch, dinner is when the action begins with live music, more people and a communal BBQ.”
Continuing on for 1 hour and 45 minutes you will reach Mataranka. Here you can visit the Mataranka War Memorial, and take a dip in the thermal pool, famous for its turquoise water and sandy bottom.
“We stayed overnight in Mataranka which we heard was a must-see for their natural thermal pool and welcoming swim through clear blue water and aquamarine plants. We stayed at Bitter Springs campervan site, a 500m bushwalk to the Springs which is open 24/7. The owners had a pet Wallaby that their friend had rescued, that was a cute photo op!”.
Mataranka to Kakadu National Park
Distance 360km - Driving Time 4 hours
After a 1.5 hour drive, you can stop off on a detour to Katherine Gorge. The area of Katherine offers plenty to do from visiting the Hot Springs, stopping by the museum to look at artifacts, or checking out Cutta Cutta caves.
“We took a detour to Katherine Gorge where we completed a morning hike to the lookout, which was stunning. We would have taken the morning slower if our schedule had permitted”. Explore more of this amazing area in Nitmiluk National Park which showcases carved gorges, an amphitheatre and many rock pools to dip your feet into before heading back off in the camper.
Carry on north for just under 3 hours and you will reach Kakadu National Park. “We Stayed in Cooinda Gagudju Lodge the first night in the park. Yellow Cruises give a very detailed brief on the wetlands and its rich wildlife. Come here for crocodiles! Plenty to be seen in the dry season. A 4WD would have been handy if we had the time to visit the waterholes (the ones that had been cleared of crocs!). We opted to spend the second night in Kakadu in a hotel. This was probably my biggest regret as staying in the campervan was way more fun. Ubirr which is in the north-easterly end of Kakadu by Arnhem Land was the highlight of the Kakadu followed by the wetlands of Yellow River. Ubiir has an open-air gallery of Aboriginal rock art and stunning sunset views of Kakadu wetlands via a 1km return walk.
A tip for drivers- be prepared to set air vents to reverse cycle as a lot of control burnings take place in the Park during the dryer months”.
Kakadu National Park to Darwin
Distance 305km - Driving Time 3 hours 30
The final leg of the journey is a 2-hour 42-minute drive west to Darwin. “We left Kakadu and its stunning scenery for Darwin. We stopped via Humpty Doo to purchase a didgeridoo from Aboriginal-owned Didgeridoo Hut near the Arnhem Hwy just before the turnoff to Darwin.
We stayed at Hidden Valley Tourist Park, a very friendly, clean, well-facilitated campsite. Slightly more expensive than the other campsites we had stopped over at. The best coffee was had at Laneway Specialty Coffee in Parap Village. They use Campos coffee beans. The taste was on par with Melbourne coffee. We visited the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory, which is a must-see. It’s as good as Mona, with a collection of boats, aboriginal art and a political cartoons exhibition. We ate at Rachael’s Seafood Shack. The seafood was as promised: No chips, No salad, No bull. We had the Red Snapper, seafood chowder and freshly caught Northern Territory prawns for lunch.”
Other Darwin city attractions that are must-do experiences include the Mindil Markets which offers over 200 stalls from food to arts and crafts. Crocosaurus Cove has interactive displays and a unique experience called the ‘cage of death’ where you can dive with the crocs. The Darwin waterfront has plenty to offer from a man-made beach, plenty of places to dine, as well as festivals and events throughout the year. Check out some history at the Darwin Aviation Museum which showcases the area's involvement in World War 2, or visit the Darwin Military Museum. The Charles Darwin National Park is another great place to take in some history, and also offers walking and biking tracks as well as a lookout platform over the Darwin Harbour. Litchfield National Park is an hour out of the city, but well worth a visit especially to have a cooling dip in one of the many beautiful spots including Florence Falls.