Alice Springs to Darwin
For so many, the Stuart Highway is simply the only way to get to Darwin, a long-haul transport route of mind-numbing sameness. Take a while to look sideways and you'll find a countryside steeped in history and awash with stunning natural colour and beauty.
We start our journey in Alice Springs, the thriving heart of central Australia and spend the next four days winding our way north to Darwin, following in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart, the Scottish explorer who pioneered this region one hundred and fifty years earlier.
In deference to this intrepid man and perhaps travellers like us, the tourist literature refers to his namesake road as the Explorer Highway, in an attempt to separate it from its other persona as a mundane transport corridor. Despite its daunting distances and barren plains, Australia's Northern Territory is one of the most beautiful and exciting driving locations in the country and is perfectly suited to the self-propelled traveller.
As a complement to the Explorer Highway, the NT Tourist Commission (NTTC) has developed two other routes. Pioneers' Path takes in Uluru and Kings Canyon, while Nature's Way encompasses Kakadu, the Adelaide and Mary Rivers and Pine Creek. The NTTC takes the self-drive tourist market very seriously and is continually developing vehicle-based activities for caravaners, 4WDers and normal (2WD) cars. Excellent printed brochures and guides detail all these possibilities.
At key locations along the Explorer Highway you'll find 'InfoStands' detailing and chronicling local history and attractions. These thoughtful additions make the journey a real discovery, giving the otherwise transient visitor a colourful insight into the immediate region.
The Stuart Highway itself is a first class, two-lane sealed road that makes for effortless travelling in conventional vehicles. The majority of town streets along the route are similarly sealed, but once off the main thoroughfares, the roads quickly become unsealed. Most are wide and graded to accommodate the huge road trains and cattle transports that ply them, whereas others are humble little trails in varying states of repair that can yield wonderful scenery and locations.
Alice Springs is very focussed toward the tourist and presents an enormous range of activities. There is far more to see and do in Central Australia than could be presented in this chapter. So if your trip involves spending a few days in Alice Springs, you could explore the superb ranges to the east and north-east, taking in Gemtree, Harts Range and Ross River. Similarly, a western diversion will take you out along the new Mereenie Loop that now joins Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon with Alice Springs.
A new stand-out attraction in Alice Springs itself is the Desert Park. [images] Opened in 1997, this world standard facility is a combination park, zoo and museum that offers an excellent education and entertainment package for everyone. If you only have time for one thing in Alice, go there and allow at least four hours to get full value. In the event you have a half-day to spare, there's the restored Telegraph Station, aviation museum or Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre.
On your way north, it's still possible to get a glimpse of the gem fields. Seventy kilometres out of Alice, go east along the sealed section of the Plenty Highway to Gemtree, where you can find your own gems like Zircon and Garnet, then have them cut, polished and set as a lasting momento. Stay over at the Caravan Park if you wish.
Our first leg of just over 500 kms takes us to the famous gold mining centre of Tennant Creek, through Aileron, Ti Tree, Barrow Creek, Wycliffe Well and Wauchope.
Around Aileron, there are historic wells dug during the 1880s to supply telegraph workers and drovers. They are marked as Ryan's Well and Conners Well, and along with Native Gap Conservation Reserve, present themselves as handy break points during the drive.
The roadhouse at Ti Tree is typical of the many that dot the highway, carrying basic supplies, refreshments and fuel. Just to the north is Central Mount Stuart, identified by the explorer as Australia's geographic centre. His original cairn still stands on the summit - if you're up to a climb.
Barrow Creek is our next stop and definitely worth a look. The old pub was erected in the 1930s and has certainly kept its character - the walls of the bar stand testament to its popularity! Next door is the old telegraph station - ask at the pub about tours.
Well prepared 4WD travellers might like to try the seldom explored Davenport Ranges to the north-east These ranges are amongst the oldest landforms in the world and host an enormous variety of plant and animal life in their well-watered interiors.
Ninety kilometres up the road you can't miss the Wycliffe Well Caravan Park and Roadhouse. This quirky, eccentric stopover is like something out of a Hitchcock movie. You'll be greeted by Aliens and can meet Elvis, The Hulk and The Phantom over in the Caravan Park, while Buddha has a table in the cafe.
Neighbouring Wycliffe Well is Wauchope, known also for its pub, as well as its proximity to the famous Devils Marbles. This whole region is also known for its use during WWII as stopovers and transit camps for the convoys, while tungsten/wolfram mining was another key feature of the region.
Tennant Creek, named in 1860 and established in the early 1870s, has suffered from some bad press over the years. Make no mistake, this is a tough outback town, built on hardship, deprivation and backbreaking toil. Frequented by miners, prospectors, drifters and more than few no-hopers over the years, Tennant Creek has had to work hard to overcome this now-outdated image. On the other hand, some would argue that this rough-and-tumble heritage only adds to Tennant Creek's allure.
Perched conspicuously on Battery Hill, just to the east of the town centre, is the Regional Tourist Association's office. The staff and guides are enthusiastic and passionate about their colourful history and there are several guided tours you can take. The Gold Stamp Battery and Underground Mine Tour [images] are captivating demonstrations of life and industry in this rugged town. If you don't have the hour or so to do one of these tours, you can stroll amongst the machinery and photographic displays.
Tennant Creek is also conveniently located as a fuel and overnight stop, with several modern motels and caravan parks to choose from. Have a superb meal at the Tennant Creek Hotel's award-winning Margo Miles Restaurant. This distinctive hotel is really quite an oasis for the weary traveller and even offers an Internet Cafe.
If you are on a roll, you can extend your overnight stop 200 kilometres, past the Barkly Highway junction at Three Ways to Renner Springs. Originally from the NSW south coast, new owners Judy and John Blackman now run the landmark hotel/motel. They have brought with them a competitive customer service attitude that isn't always evident at some of these remote outposts. Hearty meals, cold beer and clean beds are guaranteed.
As we begin our next leg of 670 kilometres to Katherine (or 470 kms. from Renner Springs), we start to see sign-posted historic WWII sites. Airfields, hospitals, supply bases and encampments dot the landscape all the way to Darwin. Not much is left at many of these sites except for orphaned concrete foundations and some unclaimed scrap metal, but they stand testament to the urgency of the time.
Elliot, nearly 70 kms north of Renner Springs, is one such location. Now not much more than a line-up of forlorn roadhouses, it was once a bustling staging camp for the constant convoy traffic with a population of several thousand service personnel.
A further 20 kms up 'the track', the historic township of Newcastle Waters is presided over by its famous statue of 'The Drover'. Now largely deserted, several of the historic buildings are preserved including Jones Store and the curious Junction Hotel.
Just past the Sir Charles Todd Memorial to the joining of the Overland Telegraph is Dunmurra, near the Buchanan Highway intersection. Dunmarra is believed to be have been named after a bloke called Dan O'Mara who went missing in the area. The local aboriginals, who assisted in his search, coined the name.
Keep going past the Hi-Way Inn to the Daly Waters detour where fuel is a bit cheaper and the old pub is a definite tourist magnet. Kept in traditional bush style, it can get very busy when one of the many tourist coaches arrive. Down the road from the pub is Stuart's Tree and the historic airfield. The strip, laid in 1930, was to become one of the most important airfields during WWII, with the Daly Waters Inn even taken over by the RAAF for a brief period.
You can still walk around the old Sidney Williams hangar and barracks and even see the remains of an unsuccessful landing unceremoniously piled up on one side of the taxiway. After the war, the airfield continued to cater for commercial traffic, including Qantas and TAA, until 1965.
A little over 90 kms further on is Larrimah [images], once the end of the line for rail traffic from Darwin. Consequently Larrimah was a very important town before, during and again after the war. In fact, passenger and goods traffic continued to arrive at the railhead until the abandonment of the Darwin line in 1976. While lunch is cooking at the quaint pub, take a stroll around the old shunting yards and see the converted radio repeater station, now a museum.
The abandoned Gorrie Airfield, 10 kms north, was once home to 6,500 service personnel during the war. All that's left of the once vast facility is the paved strip hidden amongst the eucalypt regrowth - but be careful not to get lost!
Mataranka, 75 kms past Larrimah, plays heavily on its association with the famous Australian historical novel 'We of the Never Never', so much so that a replica Elsey homestead [images] has been built next to the resort complex. The other equally significant attraction at Mataranka is the prospect of a soothing thermal bath in the perpetually warm springs adjacent the resort which, understandably, can be very well patronised. [images]
It's only another 100 kms to Katherine where, if you're not in a hurry, you should spend a day or two. There's accommodation for all tastes, from luxury motel suites to modest campsites, all at reasonable prices. The lush, award-winning Low Level Caravan Park is as good as a caravan park can be. Eating is varied too. Try the Walkabout Restaurant at the Country Club for interesting bush-based tucker, or share a starlit meal with the local crocodiles on the Croc Spot Tour.
Tours around Katherine abound. There's the mandatory Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk) - take a canoe, it's more fun or, better still, take a helicopter. Apart from Katherine's namesake one, there's Umbrawarra Gorge, with its own nature reserve 25 kms west of Pine Creek, Edith Falls and the Cutta Cutta Caves. If you like Aboriginal art, buy direct from the artists at Mimi Arts over the railway line near the old station museum.
Take your time over breakfast because Darwin is just a leisurely 300 kms away. This will give you plenty of time to explore Edith Falls if you missed it earlier. You'll find the turn-off about 40 kms out of Katherine and will need to allow a hour or more for walking to the falls.
Pine Creek is a fun place to stop, and is perfect to pick up lunch after working up an appetite tramping to the falls or touring the village. The Hard Rock Cafe (no relation) knows how to look after visitors. Check out the old railway station, complete with steam engine, and the local museum. If you are pressed for time, get over to Earl Gano's Gun Alley Gold Mine where he'll regale you with tales of Pine Creek's history, help you pan for gold (and get some!) and even fire up his superbly restored, turn-of-the-century steam battery. It's well worth the five dollars.
Pine Creek is also at the junction of the Kakadu Highway, which will take you into the park itself and the township of Jabiru. Plan your trip through Kakadu separately, perhaps on your return leg. There's far too much to see and do there that could ever be squeezed into this chapter.
If you're not towing a caravan, you may choose to take the unsealed detour via the old Grove Hill Historic Hotel. You'll be rewarded with some gorgeous countryside that is now changing into a series of rolling, rocky hills and valleys. Pop in and chat to Jan Hills, the crusty licensee and local historian who maintains this remarkable little outpost.
Stop and pay your respects to the two hundred service personnel buried in the Adelaide River War Cemetary, many of them victims of the Japanese bombing campaign. The old railway station still stands and there's a full array of services too if you need them. Adelaide River also borders the glorious Litchfield National Park, but you'll need to travel on to Batchelor to gain access to the park. Renown for its waterfalls and beautiful natural vegetation, Litchfield is well worth exploring. As it's just 129 kms from Darwin, you can day trip there from Darwin if you choose not to stay at the any of the local campgrounds.
We're now on our final approach to Darwin, less than 80 kms away. Small as it is by national standards, Darwin nevertheless offers a truly cosmopolitan spread of accommodation options, entertainment and cuisine. There's plenty to see and do, ranging from the popular Darwin Cup Races to motorsport action at Hidden Valley Raceway. The Territory Wildlife Park is highly recommended, and is a natural complement to Alice Spring's Desert Park we visited earlier.
Things to see and do:
* Desert Wildlife Park. 7.30am - 6pm. Last entry 5pm. Adults $12, Child $6, Family $30
* Devils Marbles. Free entry. Camping fees apply.
* Battery Hill Gold Stamp Battery, museum and Underground Mine: Free entry, tour fees apply. Open Daily. Ph 08 8962 3388
* Daly Waters Inn. Camping fees apply.
* Thermal Springs. Free entry. Camping fees apply.
* Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk). Various tour options available. Check at Visitors' Centre. Open 7.30am-9.30pm peak season. Free entry. Ph 08 8972 1253.
* Gun Alley Gold Mine. Open most days. $5
* Territory Wildlife Park. Open 8.30am-6pm Daily. Last entry 4pm.
As most NT roads are unfenced, be aware of wandering stock and wildlife, especially when travelling at night.
Timing your fuel stops along the Stuart Highway is the key to travelling economically. Fuel prices can vary dramatically, often as much as 15% or more. In any case, you should always carry an emergency reserve of at least ten litres in an approved metal container.