The long road North

Time to start planning those ‘must do’ drives for when the roads once again beckon.

The northern half of the Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs is one of our great driving routes, providing outback adventure and startling sights worth putting on that ‘to do’ list.

The highway is named after John McDouall Stuart, who in 1862 became the first explorer to successfully travel from Adelaide to Darwin

To be honest, the Stuart Highway will coat your car in orange dust and opening your window will result in a car full of flies. It’s mostly flat and straight and invites you to count rocks and roadkill and resist the temptation to completely bury your right foot in the firewall to test top speed – because that’s illegal (the speed limit in the northern territory is 130km/h). 

The monotony, though, is part of its attraction, and its occasional diversions are quirky and spectacular. This is a classic Australian journey that takes you from steaming tropics to arid outback, from ocean to interior, and from one of Australia’s youngest, most multicultural cities into the ancient Aboriginal heartland.

The highway is named after John McDouall Stuart, who in 1862 became the first explorer to successfully travel from Adelaide to Darwin, roughly along the route of the road that now bears his name. Budget about a week to drive its northern half, a 1500 kilometre route that reveals national parks, eccentric pubs and colonial outback history.

Start in the city. Long characterised by its frontier spirit and rough pubs, Darwin these days has undergone a vast waterfront redevelopment and is the most multicultural city in Australia. Its excellent Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory displays the arts of the local Larrika people and has fascinating exhibits devoted to Cyclone Tracy.

As you head beyond Darwin, telegraph poles and fast-food signs soon vanish, replaced by billboards promoting a crocodile farm and wildlife park. Consider spending your first evening in (or near) Litchfield National Park, where waterfalls slide over the escarpment and pockets of rainforest crouch in shaded canyons. Take a wildlife cruise along the Reynolds River and spot herons, egrets and long-legged jabiru. Then wander through fields of termite mounds, where it feels as if the outback has truly begun. 

The first section of the Stuart Highway runs south from Darwin some 320 kilometres to Katherine, but distractions slow you down. The township of Adelaide River has a small war cemetery, and you can take cruises on the river to see its famous ‘jumping’ crocodiles snapping at junks of meat dangled off the boat. 

Further south, the convoy of travellers thins as many turn off the Stuart Highway towards Kakadu National Park. Take another break at Pine Creek, a one-time gold-rush town where you can pan for gold and poke among the dilapidated remnants of history. Some 90 kilometres further south brings you to Leliyn or Edith Falls, close enough to Darwin to get busy at weekends, but great for swimming and hiking.

Katherine is only down the road. Detour off the highway to Nitmiluk National Park. Its chief feature are a series of rust-red gorges cut by the permanent waters of the Katherine River, best admired from a boat or kayak – though if you’re looking for a special experience, a helicopter ride is spectacular. The park also features some significant cultural sites of the Jawoyn Aboriginal people. 

At Adelaide River you can take cruises on the river to see its famous ‘jumping’ crocodiles snapping at junks of meat 

After Katherine, distances between points of interest get longer, and the emptiness more vast 

After Katherine, distances between points of interest get longer, the emptiness more oppressive. Sometimes you’re distracted only by big red kangaroos, strange rock outcrops, and rusting roadside cars. The occasional roadside petrol station springs satellite dishes and camper vans, huddled into a nervous kraal. Sunsets are great slashes of yellow and pink that set the Northern Territory’s red earth on fire and spark the sky with evening stars.

Despite the eerie emptiness, the 1100 kilometres from Katherine to Alice Springs is worth driving for any number of reasons. Mataranka was made famous in We of the Never Never. (Author Aeneas Gunn was one of the first white women to live in a Northern Territory station, arriving here in 1902 as the wife of Elsey Station’s manager.) Hot water bubbles up in Elsey National Park, providing a little oasis in the arid outback in the process. Float around in turquoise water surrounded by rustling pandanus and palms, in which little rainbow bee-eaters flit.

Larrimah has an historic bush pub and a museum devoted to World War II history. Another 90 kilometres brings you to another notable pub at Daly Waters; it has been around since 1893 and is famed for its highly eccentric décor. Bras hang from the rafters like medieval pennants, and number plates and underwear decorate the walls.

At Tennant Creek, you can inspect the town’s old telegraph station and remains of its gold rush, the last in Australia. You might be just as taken with the contemporary Nyinkka Nyunyu Arts & Cultural Centre, which explains the history of the local Warumungu community through artefacts and old film footage.

Further south, the Davenport Ranges create an enticing ripple in the flat landscape. Stop at the Karlu Karlu or Devils Marbles. These chunks of granite, buried in a sea of sandstone, have been exfoliated by wind and sand. The local indigenous people believe these rock formations are the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent said to have created the Earth during the Dreamtime. It isn’t just a remarkable geological feature but one of the world’s oldest religious sites.

You’ll probably blow straight through Wycliffe Well, UFO-spotting capital of Australia. At Barrow Creek is yet another quirky pub, with its ‘bush bank’ of foreign banknotes pinned to the walls. Just before entering Alice Springs, stop at the School of the Air to hear lessons being broadcast across the Territory.

The highway slips through a gap in the MacDonnell ranges and into town. In truth, you’re only halfway along this epic route across the continent. Squint further south and still there’s no farmland or buildings, only a ribbon of tarmacked road surrounded by red earth. The spinifex seems to go on forever. The clouds are immense galleons sailing into a blue sky without edges, luring you on with a promise of another great drive.

This is not just the ultimate cure for a long social distancing – but the polar opposite to home isolation. Although, crowds in this part of the world will certainly not be a problem.

You’ll probably blow straight through Wycliffe Well, UFO-spotting capital of Australia