Northern Territory Travel Guide

AS A COUPLE
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For most Australians the Northern Territory – known simply as “the Territory” or “NT” – embodies the antithesis of the country’s cushy suburban seaboard. The name conjures up a distant frontier province, and to some extent that’s still the case. Even today, a little over one percent of Australians inhabit an area covering a fifth of the continent, which partly explains why the Territory has never achieved full statehood. Territorians love to play up the extremes of climate, distance and isolation that mould their temperaments and accentuate their tough, maverick image as outsiders in a land of “southerners”. And beneath the grizzled clichés you’ll unearth a potent, unforgettable travel destination, serving up raw scenery, world-class national parks and a beguilingly strong Aboriginal heritage.

The small but sultry city of Darwin, the Territory’s capital, is nearer to Bali than Sydney, with an unhurried tempo that regularly waylays travellers. Its location makes it the natural base for explorations around the Top End, as tropical NT is known. Most visitors make a beeline for the nearby natural attractions, most notably the photogenic swimming holes of Litchfield National Park and the World Heritage-listed, Aboriginal-managed Kakadu National Park, with its astonishing array of ancient rock art sites, waterways and wildlife: if croc-spotting’s a priority, you’re unlikely to leave disappointed. Arnhem Land, to the east of Kakadu, is Aboriginal land, requiring a permit to enter – some Darwinites think nothing of getting a permit every weekend to go fishing – while if you don’t want to go it alone, certain tours are authorized to visit the spectacular wilderness of scattered indigenous communities.

Around 100km south of Kakadu, the main attraction near the town of Katherine is the magnificent gorge complex within Nitmiluk National Park. Continuing south, a dip in Mataranka’s thermal pools and some colourful “bush pubs” are the highlights of the 670km to Tennant Creek, by which time you’ve left the Top End’s savannah woodland and wetlands to travel through pastoral tablelands. The Stuart Highway continues to spool southwards, passing the rotund boulders of the Devil’s Marbles and rolling on into the central deserts surrounding Alice Springs. By no means the dusty Outback town many expect, Alice is home to more than 25,000, making it by some way the largest settlement in the interior. It’s an enjoyable base from which to learn about the Aborigines of the Western Desert and explore the region’s natural wonders, of which the stupendous monolith, Uluru – formerly known as Ayers Rock – 450km to the southwest, is just one of many. The West MacDonnell ranges, a series of rugged ridges cut at intervals by slender chasms and huge gorges, start on Alice Springs’ western doorstep. On the other side of town, the Eastern MacDonnells are less visited but no less appealing, while the remote tracks of the Simpson Desert to the south attract intrepid off-roaders. To the west, lush Palm Valley is accessible via a rough 4WD route and linked to the yawning chasm of Kings Canyon via a dirt track, the Mereenie Loop. These sights combined make for a memorable tour of the Outback. Renting a 4WD is recommended to get the most out of the trip; there many interesting off-road tracks.

Alice Springs and around

The bright, clear desert air of ALICE SPRINGS gives the town and its people a charge that you don’t get in the languid, tropical north. Arriving here is a relief after a long drive up or down the Stuart Highway. Its sights, notably the wonderful Araluen Arts Centre and the out-of-town Desert Park, are worth leisurely exploration, and a couple of nights is the minimum you should budget for. Timing your visit for one of the town’s quirky festivals, from dry river-bed regattas to the Camel Cup, is also worth considering.

The centre of town occupies a compact area between the Stuart Highway and Leichhardt Terrace, along the almost perennially dry Todd River, bordered to the north and south by Wills Terrace and Stott Terrace respectively. Bisecting this rectangle is Todd Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with cafés and galleries. Get an overview of Alice’s setting by nipping up Anzac Hill (off Wills Terrace) for 360-degree views over the town and the MacDonnell Ranges.

Brief history

The area has been inhabited for at least forty thousand years by the Arrernte (also known as Aranda), who moved between reliable water sources along the MacDonnell Ranges. But, as elsewhere in the Territory, it was only the arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line in the 1870s that led to a permanent settlement here. It was Charles Todd, then South Australia’s Superintendent of Telegraphs, who saw the need to link South Australia with the Top End, which in turn would give a link to Asia and, ultimately, the rest of the empire. The town’s river and its tributary carry his name, while the “spring” (actually a billabong) and town are named after his wife, Alice.

With repeater stations needed every 250km from Adelaide to Darwin to boost the OTL signal, the billabong north of today’s town was chosen as the spot at which to establish the telegraph station. When a spurious ruby rush led to the discovery of gold in the Eastern MacDonnells, Stuart Town (the town’s official name in its early years) became a departure point for the long slog to the riches east. The gold rush fizzled, but the township of Stuart remained, a collection of shanty dwellings serving pastoralists, prospectors and missionaries.

In 1929 the railway line from Adelaide finally reached Stuart Town. Journeys that had once taken weeks by camel from the Oodnadatta railhead could now be undertaken in just a few days, so by 1933, when the town officially became Alice Springs, the population had mushroomed to nearly five hundred white Australians. The 1942 evacuation of Darwin saw Alice Springs become the Territory’s administrative capital and a busy military supply base.

After hostilities ceased, some of the wartime population stayed on and Alice Springs began to establish itself as a pleasant if quirky place to live, immortalized in fiction by Nevil Shute’s novel, A Town Like Alice. In the 1980s the town’s prosperity was further boosted by the reconstruction of the poorly built rail link from Adelaide and the sealing of the Stuart Highway. The town’s proximity to Uluru, which became a global tourist destination in the 1970s and 1980s, saw the creation of the many resorts and motels still present today. This trade took a knock when direct flights to the rock were established, and businesses in Alice are still suffering from this bypass effect.

Accommodation

There are decent accommodation options scattered across the city, on both sides of the Todd River. Much of it is reasonably central, but be aware that Alice isn’t the safest city for a long wander at night. Booking ahead is advisable during the winter school holidays (June & July) and events like the biennial Masters Games in October (even-numbered years).

Eating and drinking

There are plenty of good places to eat in Alice Springs. Todd Mall boasts a handful of cafés and restaurants with outdoor seating. Nightlife is fairly low-key, though Friday and Saturday nights get lively; doormen and regular police patrols keep things from getting too hairy but it’s safest to get a taxi back to your accommodation if you have more than a five-minute walk. The twice-weekly Centralian Advocate (alicenow.com.au) carries details of live music and other entertainment.

The Ghan

These days a rail adventure of international renown, The Ghan – the train service which travels year-round between Adelaide and Darwin – is remarkable for several reasons, not least the fact that it exists at all. Work first started on a rail line that would join the two cities in 1877, but poor engineering practices coupled with a flimsy understanding of seasonal rains meant decades of failed attempts. The service takes its name from the Afghan cameleers who had nailed Outback travel rather more effectively.

A workable stretch of track from Adelaide to Alice Springs was in place from the 1930s, although it wasn’t until as recently as 2004 that it finally reached Darwin. It’s a blessing that it now does. There are three types of ticket available: Red Service, Gold Service and Platinum Service. Red Service gives you a “Daynighter” seat and a view of the plains rolling by – plump for anything higher and you’re treated to a smart private cabin, indulgent food and wine, off-train tours and a general sense of rail travel as it should be. Highly recommended. See gsr.com.au or call 1800 703 357 for more information.

Arnhem Land

Pristine ARNHEM LAND is geographically the continuation of Kakadu eastwards to the Gulf of Carpentaria, but without the infrastructure and picnic areas. Never colonized and too rough to graze, the 91,000-square-kilometre wilderness was designated an Aboriginal reserve in 1931 and has remained in Aboriginal hands since that time. In 1963 the Yirrkala of northwestern Arnhem Land appealed against the proposed mining of bauxite on their land. It was the first protest of its kind and included the presentation of sacred artefacts and a petition in the form of a bark painting to the government in Canberra. Their actions brought the issue of Aboriginal land rights to the public eye, paving the way for subsequent successful land claims in the Territory.

Independent tourists are not allowed to visit Arnhem Land without a permit, and the twelve thousand Aborigines who live here prefer it that way. Little disturbed for more then forty thousand years, Arnhem Land, like Kakadu, holds thousands of rock-art sites and burial grounds, wild coastline, rivers teeming with fish, stunning stone escarpments, monsoon forests, savannah woodlands and abundant wildlife. In recent years, the mystique of this “forbidden land” has proved a profitable source of income for Arnhem Land’s more accessible communities, and tours, particularly to the areas adjacent to Kakadu, are now offered in partnership with a select few operators.

Aboriginal festivals

Attending an Aboriginal festival can make for a high point of a visit to Australia. Here are some of the best, and most memorable, in the Territory. They are almost exclusively alcohol-free.

Ngukurr (June; ngukurrarts.com) A three-day festival at a remote community on the Roper Highway, incorporating everything from footy matches and craft workshops to hip-hop competitions and family activities.

Barunga (June; barungafestival.com.au) One of the best known of the NT’s indigenous festivals, with a focus on music, sport and culture. 80km southeast of Katherine.

Dancing with Spirits (July; djilpinarts.org.au) Held by the Wugularr community in SW Arnhem Land, sharing songs, dance, stories and music in a spectacular waterside setting. 4WD recommended for access.

Walaman Cultural Festival (July; ntyan.com.au) A colourful celebration involving workshops, traditional dancing, bush games and fire sculptures. Takes place in Bulman, 400km southeast of Darwin. No charge for tickets, all welcome.

Garma (August; garma.com.au) Rightly famed and hugely popular, drawing large numbers of non-indigenous visitors to the Gove Peninsula to immerse themselves in the music, ceremonies and bushcraft of the “First Australians”.

Darwin

In spite of its modest size, torrid climate and often traumatic history, DARWIN manages to feel young, vibrant and cosmopolitan, a mood illustrated as much by the buzzing bars along Mitchell Street as by the joggers and cyclists making the most of the tropical parks and waterfront suburbs. Travellers accustomed to the all-enveloping conurbations of the east coast can initially be underwhelmed by its low-rise, laidback mood, but Darwin more than matches its billing as one of the fastest-growing cities in Australia, and its population of some 125,000 accommodates a jumble of different ethnic backgrounds. To fully appreciate Darwin you should allow a minimum of three days to absorb its heritage buildings and wildlife attractions, visit the gleaming new waterfront quarter and enjoy the steaming nightlife.

Day-trips from Darwin include the ever-popular Litchfield National Park as well as the Aboriginal-owned Tiwi Islands, a thirty-minute flight from town. Crocodylus Park, on the city’s edge, makes for a full day out when combined with the excellent Territory Wildlife Park. On paper, Kakadu is another day-trip option, but to appreciate it properly you’ll need longer, possibly on a tour.

Brief history

Setting up a colonial settlement on Australia’s remote northern shores was never going to be easy, and it took four abortive attempts in various locations over 45 years before Darwin (originally called Palmerston) was established in 1869 by the new South Australian state keen to exploit its recently acquired “northern territory”. The early colonists’ aim was to pre-empt foreign occupation and create a trading post – a “new Singapore” for the British Empire.

Things got off to a promising start with the 1872 arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), following the route pioneered by explorer John McDouall Stuart in 1862 that finally linked Australia with the rest of the world. Gold was discovered at Pine Creek while pylons were being erected for the OTL, prompting a gold rush and construction of a southbound railway. After the gold rush ran its course, a cyclone flattened the depressed town in 1897, but by 1911, when Darwin adopted its present name (a legacy of Charles Darwin’s former ship, the Beagle, having laid anchor here in 1839), the rough-and-ready frontier outpost had grown into a small government centre, servicing the mines and properties of the Top End. Yet even by 1937, after being razed by a second cyclone, the town had a population of just 1500.

During World War II, Japanese air raids destroyed Darwin, killing hundreds, information that was suppressed at the time. The fear of invasion and an urgent need to get troops to the war zone led to the swift construction of the Stuart Highway, the first reliable land link between Darwin and the rest of Australia.

Three decades of postwar prosperity followed until Christmas Eve 1974, when Cyclone Tracy rolled in overnight and devastated the city. Despite the relatively low death toll of 66, Tracy marked the end of old Darwin, psychologically as well as architecturally, and most of the population was evacuated before the hasty rebuilding process began. Over the last couple of decades links with Asia, and an influx of Aussies seeking warmer weather and a slower pace of life, have transformed the city into a vibrant multicultural destination. In 2004 tourism and the mining industry were boosted by the completion of the Darwin rail link with Alice Springs (and Adelaide). More recently, the billion-dollar waterfront regeneration project and the discovery of vast amounts of natural gas offshore have attracted more migrants and money.

The modern city spreads north from the end of a stubby peninsula where a settlement was originally established on the lands of the Larrakia Aborigines. For the visitor most of the action lies between the Waterfront Area and East Point, 9km to the north.

Aboriginal people and tourism

More than a quarter of Northern Territory’s population are Aborigines, a far higher proportion than anywhere else in Australia, and half of the Territory is once again Aboriginal-owned land, returned following protracted land claims. As a tourist, however, meeting Aboriginal people and getting to know them can be difficult. Excepting the national parks, most Aboriginal land is out of bounds to visitors without a permit or invitation, and most communities and outstations, where the majority of Aboriginal people live, are remote even by Territory standards.

There’s a tendency for outsiders to think of “Aborigines” as a single mass of people, overlooking the fact that dozens of distinct indigenous groups have traditionally inhabited the NT region, many of them with very individual cultural beliefs and practices. But it’s true, sadly, that the most visible Aboriginal people in the main towns of Darwin and Alice Springs are those living rough on the streets, a sad sight that shows little signs of changing. Likewise, the extent of certain social problems – most apparently alcoholism – is unavoidable.

But while these issues might be real they’re far from all-defining, and for those interested in getting to the heart of the enigmatic Australian Outback and meeting indigenous Australians, the Territory provides an introduction to a land that’s sustained fascinating and complex cultures for at least forty thousand years. Some Aborigines have a new-found pride in their heritage and identity, demonstrated in superb museums, successful tourism projects, and a flowering of indigenous art, media, music and literature.

The most meaningful contact for the short-term visitor is likely to be from an indigenous tour guide, a knowledgeable non-Aboriginal guide, or – if you time things right – a visit to a cultural festival. Try to choose Aboriginal-owned tour providers, for example Northern Territory Indigenous Tours or Batji Tours. Keep in mind that most tours will only scrape the surface of a complex way of life – secrecy is one of the pillars that supports traditional society, so what you’ll probably learn is a watered-down version from people unable to give away some of the particulars of closely guarded “business”. But if you’re keen to learn about the meaning of the country for Aborigines, about languages, bushtucker, bush medicine and Dreamtime stories, these tours can be enriching.

Accommodation

Darwin has plentiful accommodation, most of it conveniently central. Rates in the town’s apartments and more expensive hotels can drop by half during the Wet from October through to April.

Buying and playing a didgeridoo

Authentic didges are created from termite-hollowed branches of stringybark, woollybark and bloodwood trees that are indigenous from the Gulf to the Kimberley. They’re most commonly associated with Arnhem Land, where they were introduced between 1500 and 2000 years ago and are properly called yidaka or molo by the Yolngu people of that region. “Didgeridoo” is an Anglicized name relating to the sound produced.

Tiny bamboo and even painted pocket didges have found their way onto the market, but a real didge is a natural tube of wood with a rough interior. Painted versions haven’t necessarily got any symbolic meaning; plain ones can look less tacky and are less expensive. Branches being what they are, every didge is different, but if you’re considering playing it rather than hanging it over the fireplace, aim for one around 1.3m in length with a 30–40mm diameter mouthpiece. The bend doesn’t affect the sound, but the length, tapering and wall thickness (ideally between 5mm and 10mm) do. Avoid cumbersome, thick-walled items that get in the way of your face and sound flat. For authentic didges visit the workshop run by Richard Williams (21firstst.com), based at Coco’s Backpackers in Katherine. Sounds of Starlight in Alice Springs also has an extensive range.

The key to making the right sound is to hum while letting your pressed lips flap, or vibrate, with the right pressure behind them – it’s easier using the side of your mouth. The tricky bit – beyond the ability of most beginners – is to master circular breathing; this entails refilling your lungs through your nose while maintaining the sound from your lips with air squeezed from your cheeks. A good way to get your head round this concept is to blow or “squirt” bubbles into a glass of water with a straw, while simultaneously inhaling through the nose. Most shops that sell didges also sell CDs and inexpensive “how to” booklets that offer hints on the mysteries of circular breathing and how to emit advanced sounds using your vocal cords.

Some Aboriginal communities forbid women to play the didge – as actress Nicole Kidman found out after she played one on German television to promote the film Australia. Besides being criticized for cultural insensitivity, Kidman was later informed that some Aboriginal groups believe that playing it makes women infertile.

Drinking and nightlife

Darwin’s alcohol consumption is notorious and weekend nights can get lively. The main focus is along Mitchell Street where a cluster of terrace-fronted bars compete for trade with happy hours, big-screen sport and acoustic live music. For a more sedate evening head down to the Waterfront Quarter or catch a movie under the stars. There’s no mass-market NT-brewed beer, but for the ultimate hangover cure, try an omnipresent Pauls Iced Coffee (only sold in the Territory).

Eating

Darwin has a surprisingly sophisticated restaurant scene. Local favourites can often fill up, so try to book ahead. Look out for seafood, particularly barramundi, a sweet-tasting fighting fish which is near inescapable on the city’s menus. Mindil Beach and Parap markets boast a plethora of Asian food stalls, while there are inexpensive seafood takeaways on Stokes Hill Wharf.

Top End weather

There is a certain amount of misunderstanding about the Top End’s tropical climate, usually summed up as the hot and humid “Dry” and the hotter and very humid “Wet”. Give or take a couple of weeks either way, this is the pattern: the Dry begins in April when rains stop and humidity decreases – although this always remains high, whatever the season. The bush is at its greenest, and engorged waterfalls pound the base of the escarpments, although it may take a couple of months for vehicle access to be restored to all far-flung tracks. From April until October skies are generally cloud-free, with daily temperatures reliably peaking in the low thirties centigrade, though June and July nights might cool down to 10°C – sheer bliss for unacclimatized tourists.

From October until December temperatures and humidity begin to rise during the Build Up. Clouds accumulate to discharge brief showers, and it’s a time of year when the weak-willed or insufficiently drunk can flip out and “go troppo” as the unbearable heat, humidity and dysfunctional air-conditioning push people over the edge. Around November storms can still be frustratingly dry but often give rise to spectacular lightning shows. Only when the monsoonal Wet season commences at the turn of the year do the daily afternoon storms rejuvenate and saturate the land. This daily cycle lasts for two months or so and is much more tolerable than you might expect, with a daily thunderous downpour cooling things down from the mid- to low thirties.

Cyclones occur most commonly at either end of the Wet and can dump 30cm of rain in as many hours, with winds of up to 300kph. Frequent updates on the erratic path and intensity of these tropical depressions are given on the radio, so most people are prepared when a storm hits. Some fizzle out or head back out to sea; others can intensify and zigzag across the land, most infamously in the form of 1974’s Cyclone Tracy, which pulverized Darwin.

And if further proof were needed that the Top End’s weather patterns warrant more distinction than merely Wet and Dry, know that the region’s Aboriginal groups traditionally recognize no less than six distinct seasons.

Kakadu National Park

Some 150km east of Darwin lies KAKADU NATIONAL PARK, one of the most spectacular and varied wilderness areas in Australia, and World Heritage listed for both its natural and cultural riches. Kakadu derives its name from the Bininj/Mungguy people, the area’s traditional owners, who jointly manage the park with the Australian government.

Covering more than 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is a challenging place to appreciate in a short visit; aim to allow a minimum of three days, and consider either renting a 4WD or joining a 4WD tour. Try too to factor in a river cruise to get to more remote areas. The dry-season months are the most popular times to visit, with little or no rain, acceptable humidity and temperatures, and conspicuous wildlife. Towards the end of the Dry, birdlife congregates around the shrinking waterholes, while November’s rising temperatures and epic electrical storms herald the onset of the Wet. To see Kakadu during the Wet, which sees up to 1600mm of torrential rainfall between December and March, or the early Dry is, many argue, to see it at its best. While some major sights are inaccessible and the wildlife dispersed, the waterfalls are in full flow and the land possesses a verdant splendour that can be breathtaking.

You could easily spend a week visiting all the spots detailed here, ideally followed by a return visit six months later to observe the seasonal changes. All the places mentioned here are reached off either the Arnhem or Kakadu highways. Most roads are accessible to 2WDs, except where indicated; 4WD tracks are closed during the Wet when even the highways can be underwater at times.

Aboriginal rock art

More than five thousand known Aboriginal art sites cover the walls of Kakadu’s caves and sheltered outcrops, ranging in age from just 30 years old to more than 20,000. Most of the art sites are of spiritual significance to Aborigines who live in the park, and only a few locations, such as Ubirr and Nourlangie, can be visited by tourists. The paintings incorporate a variety of styles, from handprints to detailed “X-ray” depictions of animals and fish from the rich Estuarine period of six thousand years ago. At this time, rising sea levels are thought to have submerged the land bridge by which Aborigines crossed into Australia. It’s not unusual to see paintings from successive eras on one wall. Contact period images of seventeenth-century Macassar fishing praus and larger European schooners might be superimposed over depictions of ancient Mimi spirits or creation ancestors. For the indigenous people, the art sites are djang (dreaming places), depicting Dreamtime stories, and the images serve as prompts to communicate valuable lessons that are still passed down from generation to generation.

Kakadu’s wildlife

Kakadu’s 20,000 square kilometres encompass a huge range of habitats from sandstone escarpments topped with heathland to savannah woodlands, wetlands and tidal mangroves all changing throughout the seasons. Within these habitats an extraordinary diversity of wildlife thrives, including 2000 different plants, more than 10,000 species of insect, 68 mammals, and 120 different reptiles including thousands of crocodiles (the park’s main watercourse, the South Alligator River, was misnamed after the prolific croc population on its banks). You’ll also find a third of Australia’s bird species within Kakadu, including the elegant jabiru (black-necked stork), the similarly large brolga, with its curious courting dance, and white-breasted sea eagles, as well as galahs and magpie geese by the thousand. Mammals include kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, 26 species of bat, and dingoes.

With so many interdependent ecosystems, maintaining the park’s natural balance is a full-time job. Burning off has long been recognized as a technique of land management by Aborigines who have a safe, effective process that involves lighting small, controllable fires in a patchwork quilt-like pattern to stimulate new plant growth. Today, rangers imitate these age-old practices, burning off the drying speargrass during Yegge, the indigenous “cool weather time” season from May to June. Managing introduced species, from water buffalo to troublesome grass species and cane toads, is also a major priority in order to preserve the park’s environment.

Kakadu’s yellow gold

The land around Kakadu’s border with Arnhem Land contains fifteen percent of the world’s known uranium reserves, and mining and refining the ore produces millions of dollars in royalties for the park’s traditional owners (not to mention making a pretty penny for the mining company itself, multinational Rio Tinto). Environmentalists have long campaigned against mining in the park, arguing that it’s impossible to contain the low-level radioactive waste produced. There have been more than 150 leaks and spills at the Ranger Uranium Mine near Jabiru since it opened in 1981, and the vast open pit (surrounded by, but technically separate from, the national park) certainly makes for a sight deeply incompatible with the park itself. Until recently it was possible to take guided tours of the mine, although these were halted in 2013 after a transition began from open-cut mining to underground exploration. But subterranean or otherwise, and despite uranium still being touted as a catalyst for carbon-neutral power generation, mining in Kakadu won’t stop being a divisive issue anytime soon.

Katherine and around

The small town of KATHERINE, 317km south of Darwin, is a worthwhile stopover, primarily for a sidetrip to the dramatic Nitmiluk Gorge (formerly Katherine Gorge) or to strike out along the epic Victoria Highway to Western Australia. The fast-flowing Katherine River, which runs through the gorge and town, must have been a sight for explorer John McDouall Stuart’s sore eyes as he struggled north in 1862. Having got this far, he named the river after a benefactor’s daughter, and within ten years the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL) encouraged European settlement, as drovers and prospectors converged on the first reliable water north of the Davenport Ranges. In 1926 a narrow-gauge railway line linked Katherine with Darwin and the town was established on the present site.

Katherine is essentially a “one-street” town, though in January 1998 when the river rose to 22m and broke its banks that street found itself under 2m of water – a crocodile was even spotted cruising lazily past the semi-submerged Woolworths.

The Stuart Highway becomes Katherine Terrace, the main street, as it passes through town. Along it lie most of the shops and services, while sprinkled around town are several excellent Aboriginal art and craft galleries. The town can be a good place to pick up casual work at the surrounding stations and market gardens (most readily during the main Nov–Dec mango season).

Nitmiluk National Park

The magnificent 12km Nitmiluk Gorge, carved by the Katherine River through the Arnhem Land plateau, is the centrepiece of the Nitmiluk National Park. The river, hemmed in by sheer ochre cliffs, makes for a spectacular cruise or canoeing trip (there are, in fact, thirteen gorges split by sections of rapids). Nitmiluk also has eight marked walking trails, including the renowned 36km Jatbula Trail. The local Jawoyn (pronounced Jar-wen) people own the park’s accommodation options and also run Nitmiluk Tours, which runs visitor activities in the park.

The MacDonnell Ranges

The MacDonnell Ranges are among the longest of the parallel ridge systems that corrugate the Centre’s landscape. Their east–west axis, passing through Alice Springs, is broken by myriad gaps carved through the ranges during better-watered epochs. It is these striking ruptures, along with the grandeur and colours of the rugged landscape – particularly west of Alice Springs – that make a few days spent in the MacDonnells so worthwhile. The expansive West MacDonnells are best appreciated with at least one overnight stay at any of the campsites mentioned here, while the often-overlooked East MacDonnells are a better bet if your time is limited. Both can be visited as part of a tour or with your own vehicle – a 4WD is recommended to get the most out of a visit, as some of the best spots are along corrugated dirt tracks. Take heed of off-road driving advice.

The East MacDonnells

Heading out of Alice Springs through Heavitree Gap and along the Ross Highway you soon reach tranquil Emily Gap, Alice Springs’ nearest waterhole, 10km from town. This is one of the most significant Arrernte sacred sites, being the birthplace of the ancestral Caterpillar beings who formed the surrounding landscape. There are some interesting stylized depictions of the caterpillars on the far side of a natural pool; and again at the equally peaceful Jessie Gap, a little further east. Corroboree Rock, 47km east of Alice Springs, is an unusual, fin-like outcrop of limestone with an altar-like platform and two crevices piercing the fin. The rock was once a repository for sacred objects and a site of initiation ceremonies, or corroborees.

The Old South Road and the northern Simpson Desert

Just 14km out of Alice Springs, shortly after the airport turn-off, a sign indicates “Chambers Pillar (4WD)”. This is the Old South Road, which follows the abandoned course of the Ghan and original Overland Telegraph Line to Adelaide; these days, the sandy route has become part of the Old Ghan Heritage Trail, which takes adventurous off-roaders all the way to South Australia. If you’re not an experienced off-road driver, some full-day tours from Alice Springs include Chambers Pillar.

Rainfall permitting, ordinary cars can normally cover the 35km to Ewaninga Rock Carvings, a jumble of rocks by a small claypan that is a sacred Aboriginal Rain Dreaming site, but after the store at MARYVALE (also known as Titjikala; has shop and fuel) you’ll need a 4WD and to be in the mood for a thorough shaking until Charlotte Ranges. After the ranges there are sand ridges all the way to Chambers Pillar (camping), a historic dead-end, 165km from Alice Springs. Named by Stuart after one of his benefactors, the 50m-high sandstone pillar was used as a landmark by early overlanders heading up from the railhead at Oodnadatta, SA. The plinth is carved with their names as well as those of many others, and can be seen from the platform at the pillar’s base.

Some 4WD tracks in the Centre

Renting a 4WD for a few days of off-road driving can get you to some beautiful corners of the central deserts. Here are some 4WD-only routes close to Alice Springs. Read the advice and carry the gear recommended in Basics. The Alice Springs Visitor Centre can provide maps and information on road conditions (1800 246 199, ntlis.nt.gov.au/roadreport). Beginners should also consider taking a 4WD course such as those offered by Direct 4WD (0408 485 641, direct4wd.com.au) based in Alice Springs. Also make sure you are appropriately equipped for travelling in remote areas with plenty of food and water, tow ropes, a second spare tyre and spare jerry cans. All rental agents in the Alice Springs “Getting around” section can arrange 4WDs.

Mereenie Loop Track

The main appeal of the 195km Mereenie Loop, linking Hermannsburg with Kings Canyon (allow 3–4hr), is that it avoids backtracking on the usual “Canyon and Rock” tour. It is a stunning drive with plenty of desert oaks, river crossings, wild horses, donkeys and dingoes. The corrugations can be fearsome; don’t even think about the trip if rain is forecast as it’s prone to flash flooding and inaccessible after rain. Obtain a permit at Alice Springs Visitor Centre, Glen Helen or Kings Canyon. Note that you’re not allowed to stop (except at the official “Jump-Up” lookout area, close to Kings Canyon) or camp.

Finke River Route

With a day to spare and experience with a 4WD, following the Finke river bed from Hermannsburg down to the Ernest Giles Road offers an adventurous alternative to the highway and saves some backtracking. Rewards include stark gorge scenery, a reliable waterhole and the likelihood that you’ll have it all to yourself. Before you set off, check the road conditions.

The 100km track starts immediately south of Hermannsburg. After 10km of corrugated road you descend into the river bed. From here on driving is slow, along a pair of sandy or pebbly ruts – you should deflate your tyres to at least 25psi/1.7bar and keep in the ruts to minimize the risk of getting stuck. There’s just one designated campsite en route, Boggy Hole, which looks out from beneath river red gums to permanent reed-fringed waterholes.

Beyond, the track crisscrosses rather than follows the river bed before taking a roller-coaster ride to the Giles Road across some low dunes thinly wooded with desert oaks – beware of oncoming traffic on blind crests. Boggy Hole to the Giles Road is 65km, so allow three hours.

Arltunga to Ruby Gap

Call the Arltunga Ranger Station (t 08 8956 9770), 101km east of Alice Springs, for the latest track conditions for this scenic, if bumpy, 47km drive (allow 2hr) through the Eastern ranges. It includes some steep creek crossings until you reach the sandy river bed of the Hale and the Ruby Gap Nature Park. From here, keep to the sandy ruts and inch carefully over the rocks for 5km, at which point you’ll need to stop and walk the last 2km to Glen Annie Gorge.

Cattlewater pass

Another challenging track (impassable after the rain) heads north from Arltunga past Claraville station and up over the Harts Ranges through Cattlewater Pass to the Plenty Highway, 56km or three hours from Arltunga. It’s a scenic way of returning to Alice Springs from Arltunga and you’re bound to see some hopping marsupials along the way, but ensure you allow plenty of time, as it’s slow going in places.

Owen Springs Track

A great option for those who want to combine 4WD touring with the region’s pioneering history. It’s a sandy but relatively short undertaking, running for 50km and forming a through-route from Larapinta Drive (50km west of Alice) to the Stuart Highway (66km south of Alice). Highlights along the way include old Aboriginal stockmen’s quarters and a log-hut homestead. There’s a detailed self-drive info sheet available online (parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au) or from the Simpsons Gap ranger station.

The West MacDonnells

Most of the ranges west of Alice are now part of the West MacDonnells National Park. The route described here follows an anticlockwise loop out along Larapinta Drive, then north along Namatjira Drive to Glen Helen Resort, a short while after which a 110km partly dirt road takes you south past Gosse Bluff to the Mereenie Loop and turn-off (east) for Palm Valley and Hermannsburg, and back to Alice Springs. A total distance of 370km, it can be slow-going depending on the condition of the road after Glen Helen and the Mereenie Loop, which is prone to flash flooding in rain and can be closed for weeks after. The Mereenie Loop (not part of the national park) passes through Aboriginal land; get a permit from the Alice Springs visitor centre and check road conditions; do not attempt the route if rain is forecast.

Albert Namatjira

Born on the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission in 1902, Albert Namatjira, a member of the Arrernte tribe, was the first of the Hermannsburg mission’s much-copied school of landscape watercolourists. Although lacking much painting experience, Namatjira assisted white artist Rex Battarbee on his painting expeditions through the Central Australian deserts in the 1930s during which his talent soon became obvious to Battarbee, who later became Namatjira’s agent. Like all NT Aborigines at that time, Namatjira was forbidden to buy alcohol, stay overnight in Alice Springs or leave the Territory without permission. At the insistence of southern do-gooders – and against his wishes – he was the first Aborigine to be awarded Australian citizenship, in 1956. This meant he could travel without limitations, but needed a permit to visit his own family on Aboriginal reserves. Following the success of his first exhibition in Melbourne, he became a reluctant celebrity, compelled under Aboriginal tradition to share his wealth with his extended family. A shy and modest man, he died in 1959 following a sordid conviction and short imprisonment for supplying alcohol to fellow Aborigines.

Critics could never make up their minds about his work, but his popular appeal was undoubted: today his paintings remain among the most valuable examples of Australia’s artistic preoccupation with its landscape. Sadly, the Twin Ghost Gums in the West MacDonnell Ranges, which featured in some of his most famous works, were destroyed in a suspected arson case in 2013.

The Larapinta Trail

A wonderful way to experience the West MacDonnells is to trek the long-distance Larapinta Trail, which follows the ranges, beginning at the Telegraph Station north of Alice Springs and ending 223km to the west on the 1347m Mount Sonder summit. The walk is divided into around a dozen sections, but these don’t necessarily delineate a day’s walk. Trailside water tanks are situated no more than two days’ walk or 30km apart. The more impressive and more arduous sections are near town. Section 2 from Simpsons Gap to Jay Creek is 25km long – an overnight stop is advised, while the next section is a short but hard 14km to Standley Chasm with 350m of climbing. Pre-check weather conditions – it’s best tackled between April and October when the temperatures are lower. You can print a basic trail guide from the NT government website (parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/parks/walks/larapinta) or, better, buy its comprehensive “Trail Package” ($44), which includes waterproof trail maps and notes. For those walkers looking for a touch of Larapinta comfort, it’s now possible to make use of rather stylish semipermanent campsites through World Expeditions (worldexpeditions.com).

South to Alice Springs

The 1100km south from Katherine down “the Track”, as the Stuart Highway is known, to Alice Springs, is something of a no-man’s-land for travellers – taken up by a sparsely populated, flat, arid plain rolling all the way to the Red Centre. The bleak landscape can provoke a slight anxiety when looking at the fuel gauge. If you really have to drive straight through, allow a good twelve hours, though it makes sense to break the journey at Mataranka to visit the hot springs and overnight further south at Tennant Creek. Avoid driving in the dark, as there’s a strong likelihood of hitting kangaroos or dozy cattle, which often wander across the road.

West of the Track, the vast Aboriginal lands of the Warlpiri and neighbouring groups occupy just about the entire Tanami Desert, while to the east are the grasslands of the Barkly Tableland, a dramatic drought-affected pastoral region extending north to the seldom-visited coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Devil’s Marbles

Just off the highway about 130km south of Tennant Creek, the marvellous Devil’s Marbles are worth an hour or so of your time. Genuine geological oddities, the boulders are spectacular at sunrise and sunset, when they positively glow in the low-angled light. During the day, expect a steady stream of visitors striking elaborate between-rock poses for photos. The local Warumungu people believe the Marbles are the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent.

Mataranka

The tiny town of MATARANKA – just over 100km from Katherine – is the capital of “Never Never” country, named after Jeannie Gunn’s 1908 novel of a pioneering woman’s life set in the area, We of the Never Never. Nearby, the hot springs of Elsey National Park, Mataranka Homestead and the freshwater wetlands of the Roper River lure passing travellers from May to September. You’ll find accommodation, fuel, a supermarket and local museum on Roper Terrace (Stuart Highway).

The Red Centre: when to go and what to take

The aridity of the Centre results in seasonal extremes of temperature. In the midwinter months of July and August the weather is lovely and the light clear, although freezing nights, especially around Uluru, are not uncommon. In December and January the temperature can reach 40°C by 10am and not drop below 30°C all night. The transitional seasons of autumn (April–June) and spring (Sept & Oct) are the best times to explore the region in comfort, although in spring there’s the chance of rain. Although you may encounter floods and road closures, rain can transform the desert into a green garden with sprouting wildflowers, though generally it’s the midsummer storms that bring the most rain.

Out here a wide-brimmed hat is not so much a fashion accessory as a lifesaver, keeping your head and face in permanent shadow. A head net is also highly advisable – the flies can be maddening during the day, especially at Uluru. All walks require a water bottle and lashings of sun block. Australia’s venomous (but rarely seen) snakes, rocky paths and the prickly spinifex grass that covers a fifth of the continent, make a pair of covered shoes or boots essential too.

Tennant Creek

With its handful of shops, restaurants and sights, including an excellent Aboriginal cultural centre, TENNANT CREEK, 26km south of Three Ways, remains the best stopover on the long haul between Katherine (669km north) and Alice Springs (507km south). At the heart of the Barkly Region, Tennant is a hub for the mining and beef industries and the surrounding area is home to the NT’s oldest, and some of the world’s biggest, cattle stations.

Sadly, Tennant also has a dark side, with social problems and alcohol-related issues blighting sections of the Aboriginal community which makes up close to half the town’s population of around 3000. It can feel edgy when venturing out at night – taxis are a good idea if you’re taking more than a short walk – but the small town has for decades made efforts to shake off its reputation, and it deserves to be visited with an open mind.

John McDouall Stuart came through Tennant Creek in the early 1860s, followed by the Overland Telegraph Line ten years later. Pastoralists and prospectors arrived from the south and east, and in 1933 it was the site of Australia’s last major gold rush. Mining corporations continue to exploit the rich deposits here, with mineral exploration the most important industry alongside beef. The Stuart Highway becomes Paterson Street, the town’s main drag, as you enter Tennant.

South to Kings Canyon and Uluru

Stunning Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, southwest of Alice Springs, is accessible by three different routes. Most take the circuitous four-hour 450km journey south from Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway, then west on the Lasseter Highway (which continues on to Uluru), then north on the Luritja Road. Alternatively, a couple of 4WD routes, the Mereenie Loop and the Ernest Giles Road off the Stuart Highway, also access the park.

If you’re not self-driving, most tours of two days or more departing from Alice Springs include Kings Canyon on their itineraries, en route to or from Ayers Rock Resort. There are also daily bus transfers ($119 either way), with guided commentary, between Ayers Rock Resort and Kings Canyon with AAT Kings, with onward connections to Alice Springs.

Kings Canyon (Watarrka National Park)

As you cross the boundary of the Watarrka National Park, you’ll see the turn-off to Kathleen Springs, where a walk (90min return) takes you to a sacred Aboriginal waterhole. Once used to corral livestock, it’s now a good place to catch sight of colourful birdlife.

Another twenty minutes’ drive down the road is the majestic KINGS CANYON itself, part of the magnificent George Gill Range. The big attraction is the three- to four-hour, 6km Rim Walk up and around the canyon, its scintillating views and complex natural history making it one of the Centre’s best hikes. Early morning is the most popular time, and for a couple of hours from sunrise, visitors swarm out from the car park along the track – if you don’t mind missing the sunrise, you might have the place to yourself in the late afternoon when the light is better, but avoid the heat of the middle of the day. The walk actually gets closed if temperatures are forecast to peak above 36°C (most commonly in Jan or Feb).

Undertaken in a now mandatory clockwise direction, the walk starts with a well-constructed stepped ascent (the toughest part of the walk), after which the trail leads through a maze of sandstone domes, known as the Lost City, where interpretive boards fill you in on the geology and botany. About halfway along, you clamber down into a cool, palm-filled chasm known as the Garden of Eden. Coming up the far side, there’s an easily missed detour downstream to a shady pool where you can swim. From here you get a blockbuster view of the sunlit south wall and the canyon below. Returning to the staircase, the walk comes to the very edge of the south wall and then descends gently to the car park. For a different perspective, the easy 2km return walk along the canyon bottom is also worthwhile.

Along the Stuart Highway

Heading south from Darwin, the Stuart Highway passes old mining outposts and overgrown, but still commemorated, World War II airstrips. The highway itself snakes all the way down to South Australia, but along its most northern stretch are a number of attractions that can be visited either as excursions from Darwin or as diversions on the journey to Katherine, 320km to the south.

Litchfield National Park

“Kaka-don’t, Litchfield-do” is an oversimplified quip expressing many Darwin residents’ preference for LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK over its much larger near-neighbour. Situated just 100km south of Darwin, and roughly 16km west of the Stuart Highway, the park encompasses the Tabletop Range, a spring-fringed plateau from which several easily accessible waterfalls gush into swimming holes. The whole park is a laidback destination, great for bushwalking and lingering nature appreciation, without the hassle of long drives, permits or 4WDs. It offers comparatively little in the way of visible Aboriginal culture, but if you’re after a relaxed day or two in striking surrounds, it’s ideal. Pay attention to the signs warning of crocodiles.

Uluru

Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park encompasses Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (once known as the Olgas). If you’re wondering whether all the hype is worth it, the answer is, emphatically, yes. The Rock, its textures, colours and not least its elemental presence, is without question one of the world’s natural wonders. While overt commercialization has been controlled within the park, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, it’s impossible to avoid other tourists, but this shouldn’t affect your experience.

In many ways just as spellbinding, Kata Tjuta (meaning “Many Heads”) lies 45km west from the park entry station. A cluster of rounded domes divided by narrow chasms and valleys, it is geologically quite distinct from Uluru and makes for a stunning early-morning hike spotting rock wallabies along the way.

Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park

The entry fee for ULURU–KATA TJUTA NATIONAL PARK allows unlimited access for up to three days, though it’s easily extendable (an annual pass is just $32.50). Besides the two major sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the park incorporates the closed Aboriginal community of Mutujulu, near the base of the Rock, the site of the original caravan park before the resort was built. More than 400,000 tourists visit the park every year, and as many come in tour-bus groups, the place can sometimes feel crowded.

Brief history

It is thought that Aboriginal people arrived at Uluru more than 20,000 years ago, having occupied the Centre more than 10,000 years earlier. They survived in this semi-arid environment in small mobile groups, moving from one waterhole to another. Water was their most valued resource, and so any site like Uluru or Kata Tjuta that had permanent waterholes and attracted game was of vital practical – and therefore religious – significance.

The first European to set eyes on Uluru was the explorer Ernest Giles, in 1872, but it was a year later that William Gosse followed his Afghan guide up the Rock and thereby made the first ascent by a European, naming it Ayers Rock after a South Australian politician. With white settlement of the Centre and the introduction of cattle came the relocation of its occupants from their traditional lands.

The first tourists visited the Rock in 1936, and in 1958 the national park was excised from what was then an Aboriginal reserve. By the early 1970s the tourist facilities in the park were failing to cope and the purpose-built township and resort of Yulara was conceived and completed within a decade. At the same time the traditional custodians of Uluru began to protest about the desecration of their sacred sites by tourists, who at that time could roam anywhere. After a long land-claim the park was subsequently returned with much flourish to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara peoples in 1985. A condition of the handback was that the park be leased straight back to the Department of Environment and Heritage, which now jointly manages the park with the Anangu.

Aboriginal people in the Red Centre

The Red Centre includes the lands inhabited by the “Anangu”, which simply means “Aboriginal people” in the languages of the Western Desert. Tribes include the Arrernte from the Alice Springs area, Luritja from the Papunya area, the Pitjantjatjara from the region stretching from Uluru/Yulara to Docker River, and the Yankuntjatjara and Antakarinja, from the areas in between. Notwithstanding massacres as late as 1928, the Aborigines of the central deserts were fortunate in being among the last to come into contact with white settlers, by which time the exterminations of the nineteenth century had passed and anthropologists like Ted Strehlow were busy recording the “dying race”. However, their isolation is thought to have made adjustment to modern life more challenging for them than for Aborigines of the northern coast.

At the centre of Anangu life and society is the concept of Tjukurpa, sometimes translated as “Dreamtime”. It’s a complex concept that encompasses the past, present and future; the creation period when the ancestral beings (Tjukaritja) created the world; the relationship between people, plants, animals and the land; and the knowledge of how these relationships formed, what their meaning was, and how they should be maintained through daily life and ceremony. In Aboriginal society their stories (which can sound simplistic when related to tourists) acquire more complex meanings as an individual’s level of knowledge increases with successive initiations. Read the interpretive signs at the base of the Rock to learn about Tjukaritja such as the Mala (rufous hare wallaby), Liru (venomous snake) and Kuniya (python).

Uluru geology

The reason Uluru rises so dramatically from the surrounding plain is because it is a monolith – that is, a single piece of rock, with most of its bulk hidden below ground like an iceberg. With few cracks to be exploited by weathering, and the layers of very hard, coarse-grained sandstone (or arkose) tilted to a near-vertical plane, the Rock has resisted the denudation of the landscape surrounding it. However, wind and rain have had their effects. During storms, brief, but spectacular, waterfalls stream down the rock forming dirty channels. In places, the surface of the monolith has peeled or worn away, producing bizarre features and many caves, most out of bounds but some accessible on the walking trails. The striking orangey-red hue is actually superficial, the result of oxidation (“rusting”) of the normally grey sandstone that can still be seen in some nooks and caves.

The Victoria Highway to Western Australia

The Victoria Highway stretches for 510km southwest of Katherine to Kununurra in Western Australia. The two pit stops on the long journey west are the Victoria River Roadhouse, 194km west of Katherine, access point for the eastern sector of the remote and wild Gregory National Park, and Timber Creek, another 91km along the highway, near the entrance to the park’s western sector. More accessible and also worth a diversion is the Keep River National Park, just before the Western Australia border.

South of the highway, between Gregory and Keep River national parks, is the legendary Victoria River Downs (VRD) station, once the country’s biggest cattle station and the base of Australia’s biggest heli-mustering outfit (heli-musternt.com.au).

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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