When it comes to the quintessential Aussie road trip, there is little doubt the Northern Territory sits atop most bucket-lists. At its crown, the shimmering blue waters of the Arafura Sea and its base, the beating red heart of the Australian outback. Taking a trip during the dry (April to October), when the weather is not too hot and the roads in perfect condition for a 2WD vehicle had always been the dream.
Australian travel writer Narelle Bouveng invites us to join her family on an adventure through the Northern Territory. And while not avid campers, the thought of being out under the stars without foregoing the comfort of air-conditioning, a toilet and a hot shower really appealed to them.
Darwin to Uluru
Best Time of the Year
April - October
Darwin to Cooinda Lodge
Distance 315km - Driving Time 3 hours 45 minutes
After picking up our van and setting off from Darwin, our first stop was to pick up supplies before leaving the city at Darwin’s longest-running Rapid Creek Markets. We found a bounty of fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables at the stalls and vacuum packed free-range meat at Greenies Organic Supermarket. With the fridge full ands a couple of delicious mango smoothies on board, we kicked off our Northern Territory adventure with a healthy dose of crocodile appreciation at Adelaide River.
Being huge croc fans already and knowing full well the dangers these prehistoric predators present, it was still a good idea to be reminded just how agile they are and how fast they’ll move for a morsel of meat before venturing into Kakadu National Park.
Cooinda Lodge was our home for our first few nights and what a delight it was to just plug the van into the power and set off for a swim in the pool. The park is set amidst lush tropical gardens and there’s a great bistro and bar area right near the pool. The kids quickly made new friends while we traded tips with other families on where to go and what to see over a few frosty brews from the bar.
Cooinda Lodge to Kakadu
Distance 160km - Driving Time 3 hours 45 minutes
We’d pre-booked a Yellow Water Billabong Cruise, opting for sunrise. It was an early start, but we were rewarded immediately watching a brumby foal take its first wobbly steps on the plains and mesmerised as flocks of hundreds of whistling ducks and Magpie Geese rose like clouds over the wetlands. Gliding through lotus flowers and past lurking crocs, we listened as the traditional owners of this country shared insights into their ancient culture and the partnerships forged with the land to protect, respect and provide.
The next few days were spent wandering Kakadu stopping at Nourlangie to visit the rock shelters filled with art depicting the story of Namarrgon (Lighting Man); said to control the powerful storms and lightning that signal the Wet Season - an important time of replenishment and restoration for Kakadu.
And while we didn’t risk the Maui at Cahills Crossing, listed as the worlds most dangerous due to having the highest concentration of crocs per kilometre, we were thrilled to watch them (from afar) feasting on barramundi as the high tide rushes over the causeway. The fitting finale to our time in Kakadu was Ubirr. After visiting galleries holding the finest collection of Aboriginal rock art in the world, we settled in to watch a spectacular sunset spanning the plains and wetlands of magical Kakadu.
Kakadu to Katherine
Distance 365km - Driving Time 4 hours
It only takes a little over an hour to reach Katherine from Kakadu, but we made an early start to spend the day swimming and hiking around Edith Falls before setting up camp at Nitmiluk Caravan Park, deep inside Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge for sunset. The campground has great facilities and is only a short stroll to the visitor centre where gorge cruises depart. There are 13 gorges to explore on foot, but only 2-3 can be reached by boat, but it’s a spectacular way to see the ancient rocks formations from the water and listen to the history as told by the Jawyon people who are the traditional owners of this incredible country. Swimming is permitted, but check with the rangers first as crocodiles can be present in the gorges year-round. A safer option for us was enjoying the lagoon-style swimming pool back at the campground.
Over the next few days, we dipped from one beautiful natural spring to the next with visits to Katherine Hot Springs, Bitter Springs and Mataranka Springs. All are equally worthy however, Bitter Springs which boasts a lazy river where you can just flop and float from one end to the other, was our firm favourite. A number of caravan Parks sit close by all springs and are fairly similar offering shaded sites and short walks through palm filled forests to enjoy the natural beauty and therapeutic qualities of the springs. Mataranka has a pub and beer garden too, making it slightly more popular and is home to Elsey Homestead where famed Australian novel “We of The Never Never” was set.
Katherine to Daly Waters
Distance 280km - Driving Time 3 hours
Following the iconic Stuart Highway, the landscape changes from lush palm-fringed spring-fed towns to the arid, red plains of the Australian outback. And while some may choose to go past, we felt not stopping for the famous ‘Beef ’n’Barra' at Daly Waters Pub would be considered un-Australian. It’s a fun night for the family with kids hitting the dance floor and singing with the band while parents relax over a few beers and enjoy the famed fare. Pool parties kick off here too, and for history buffs there’s a quirky collection of curios with cars, motorbikes, number plates, boots and even bra’s decorating the walls as pub-memorabilia.
Daly Waters to Tennant Creek
Distance 420km - Driving Time 4 hours 30 minutes
It’s a little over 4 hours to reach Tennant Creek from Daly Waters, but a worthy stop is Newcastle Waters where the now ghost town reveals a trove of Australia’s rich droving past. And there was no way we were going past Wycliffe Well without a look in - it’s Australia’s UFO spotting capital and host to all sorts of un-explained happenings which are shared at the Wycliffe Well Roadhouse. Before reaching Tennant Creek we dropped into Tennant Creek Telegraph Station, one of the best preserved examples of our quest to communicate across Australia’s vast lands including telling the stirring stories of pioneers and the hardships, toil and persistence that payed off to link our land with the countries of our commonwealth.
With two caravan parks in Tennant Creek to choose from we chose Tennant Creek Caravan Park simply because it had the luxury of grassed sites, which felt like heaven after coming in from the dust. And as our next stop was only an hours south, we made the most of the day exploring Tennant Creek including taking a self-guided tour of Battery Hill Mining Centre to learn of the fortunes found and lost in Tennant Creeks famous goldfields, home to what was once the richest gold mine for its size in the world.
Tennant Creek to Karlu Karlu
Distance 110km - Driving Time 1 hour 20 minutes
Arriving earlier than most do, we took our pick of the camping spots at Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles) where for $3.50 per person we enjoyed the doubleheader of sunset and then sunrise with a backdrop of the spectacular giant boulder formations changing with the colours of sun and shade. Communal campfires and bush toilets are offered, but no showers, water or power. We were pretty chuffed to be in the Maui as we had our own supply and nothing beats a shower before bed when you’ve been out in the red dirt.
Karlu Karlu to Gemtree
Distance 410km - Driving Time 4 hours
After some camp fire friends recommended a place they thought out geology obsessed daughter might like, we added a few more kilometres to our trip and took the Plenty Highway for Gemtree to stay a night under the stars at and fossick for gemstones the next day. The caravan park is run by a friendly family who cook up amazing meals and indulgent homestyle treats. For a small fee, we joined a guided tour to learn how to fossick for garnets, which was a highlight of the trip for our eight year old who unearthed plenty of sparkly red treasure.
Gemtree to Uluru
Distance 605km - Driving Time 6 hours 30 minutes
From Gemtree it was a big drive to reach Uluru in the one run (over 400 kms), but we timed it to reach just before sunset to arrive in such a special place at arguably, the best time of day to see it. Over the next few days we rose early to catch sunrise before cooking up our breakfast rock side and spending the rest of the day walking the many trails around Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
When it came time for the sun to dip, all we’d have to do is find a good spot to park, pull out our chairs and the cheese platter and nestle in to watch one of the most spectacular shows our country puts on with the light illuminating Uluru.
We travelled over 14 days on a very loose itinerary and a plan not to be in any rush. It was perfect to have our home on wheels able to pull up anywhere, whether it be in a caravan park where we’d power up and enjoy the indulgence of air-conditioning, or in the bush where we could self-sufficiently stay a few nights and have the whole place under the most incredible blanket of stars to ourselves.
Tips for travelling with kids in the NT
Devise a wildlife spotting wish list and talk about the animals you might see before you go, and tick them off if you see them. Have a few special ones on there too - like a Thorny Devil, which we did not expect to see, but we spotted two! Give them a campfire cooking challenge so they are included in the meal selection, shopping and cooking. The accessibility of the BBQ at the back of the van makes it easy for older kids to practice flipping pancakes or sizzle up some bacon and eggs as a special treat for dad. Pack binoculars to look at the stars more closely and goggles for times when you might need them for underwater adventures or when sliding down epic sanddunes. A pool noodle is also a worthy investment if you are hitting the springs and you can pay it forward by leaving it spring side so someone who wasn’t quite as prepared as you can also enjoy a float.