The east coast of Australia might be the number one backpacker route, but there is more to this dry continent. To really explore what’s out there in the desert, you should take a road trip between Adelaide and Darwin. The quirky towns and curiosities along the way are well worth the effort. You’ll see a side of Oz that you’ll never forget.
Departing from Adelaide you follow the footsteps of the early explorers by taking the Stuart highway, also known as the explorer’s highway, for about 3000km before you arrive in Darwin. There are a lot of things to see along the way, and in the coming weeks, I’ll post about some of your options. I bet there is heaps more to explore, but these are just some of the amazing things I’ve seen along the road. This one is all about the road, not so much about the destination.
First up are the Barossa and Clare Valley. These regions are well-known for their wines. Further north are the mighty Flinders Ranges, an area that is still wide and wild, and one that I would like to explore further some time. You’re gateway to the Flinders is Quorn, a quirky town that is used for film productions and feels like a western. We are really getting out back now. Driving here seems to have a special code. Everybody waves. I guess it’s just nice to see people out here and at the same time it keeps you awake. The many car wrecks prove that this can be pretty difficult.
Past Port Augusta you will pass by Woomera. If you have the time for a detour you can also visit lake Eyre, Australia’s biggest salt lake. This lake is rarely completely filled with water. If you don’t have the time for a detour, there is Lake Hart, a salt lake that is conveniently located along the Stuart highway. Before reaching the opal capital of the world, Coober Pedy, you pass through Glendambo. It’s a good stop for refreshments and the necessary outback photos. The environment is dry here. Vegetation consists mostly of bushes and the colors you see are a faded green and orange brown.
It’s a long drive into the Northern Territory. Before you reach Alice Springs, there is a turnoff to the Uluru – Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon national parks. Don’t underestimate the distance. You’ll drive for a few hours to reach Ayers rock, Uluru. On your way you’ll also see Fooluru, another big rock that is often mistaken for the sacred rock Uluru. This is the red center, the pure desert where not much grows and the sand is bright red.
On your way north, Alice Springs is a good place to stock up on groceries and relax. There are some activities around, such as the telegraph station, the flying doctors and a reptile park. It’s also the place to start 4WD trips into the MacDonnell ranges, the Simpsons desert or Finke gorge national park. I wish I’d spent more time around Alice to explore these places, but I got tired of Alice Springs itself rather quickly. According to some people it’s a great place to spend a few months working though.
So we’re past Alice and drive towards the Tropic of Capricorn, the line that divides the Southern temperate zone and the tropics. Slowly the red, dry landscape is replaced by lush green. The rivers have water and things actually grow here. Stop at Aileron roadhouse for some cool rainmaker statues. Another stop worth mentioning is Wycliffe Well, where locals claim to spot Ufo’s on a regular basis. The petrol station is equipped with a mailbox from outer space and the café is covered in articles about sightings and experts.
For some natural beauty you can stop at the Devil’s marbles or Karlu Karlu conservation reserve. These granite boulders are huge and make a natural playground for adults and photographers. Moving on you can have a break at the infamous Daly Waters pub on your way to Mataranka. Mataranka is home to beautiful Bitter Springs, which is well worth a few hours.
Katherine is your last chance to visit a big supermarket before arriving in Darwin. From here you can visit the gorgeous Katherine gorge, where you can swim and do several walks. Further on are Litchfield and Kakadu national park. These parks deserve a few days of your attention. Distances are big and there is a lot to see. Plan your trip well and know what you want to see and do. There are walks, swimming holes and aboriginal art. Only after seeing all this, you can go to Darwin.
Driving along the Stuart highway is an adventure. The roads are long and straight and there are big parts where you just drive. You are surrounded by desert and besides the occasional roadhouse there is nothing. Big road trains dominate the roads, mixed with cars and campervans. If you’re lucky you’ll see some of Australia’s rather odd wildlife, like camels, dingoes, emus, crocodiles, brumbies or donkeys. You’ll drive past enormous cattle stations, where skinny cows chew on the few leaves that grow around them. The roads might be deserted, but there can always be a cow in your path.