Aside from the east coast, the Northern Territory is one of Australia’s international tourist meccas. You seem to meet more overseas travellers here than anywhere else beyond the main tourist trail of Cairns, Sydney and Melbourne.
I’m not fond of travelling to places swarming with Instagram hungry tourists but apart from Uluru, I wasn’t sure how packed it may be.
And whilst I was excited, I’m not quite sure if I had high or low expectations of our 3-week trip into Australia’s faraway land. I think I was just hoping it would all go well given that we were doing this unusual campervan-ing yet staying in pre-booked cabins and lodges with my family in tow.
I don’t often go on holidays with my family. I live some 16,000 km away from them so time together tends to be limited to few and far between trips to the homeland.
But here we were, spending three weeks in the Northern Territory. Our plan was to roadtrip together from Darwin to Alice Springs via Uluru, clocking up some 3,500 km. That’s a lot of kilometres, and not a lot of time.
Planning a holiday for your family has its own challenges but in the end, it did all go rather smoothly. No real flops like on our Germany road trip or during our six weeks in Canada. This time we only had some hiccups.
Like the incredibly nauseating stench in the campervan every time we accelerated. Think ‘dead snake’ that gets cooked again and again, giving you perpetual acid reflux and disturbing thoughts of dead snake meat under your seat. Of course, the stench disappeared the day we were due to drop off the rental van. Thank you, snake, for making us sound like lunatics.
But hiccups aside, the Northern Territory surprised me.
HIGHLIGHTS OF A NORTHERN TERRITORY ROAD TRIP
The Territory isn’t mesmerising the way imposing mountain ranges or crystal clear lakes are. But it is special in its own right, from its rich Aboriginal heritage, to the stunning beauty of the desert around Alice Springs, the vast spaces without any visible inhabitants, or the unexpected magnificence of the rocky crags and jagged mountains in the red centre.
So here are my Northern Territory highlights going from north to south, basically in the direction we travelled.
1. SUNSETS IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY
Sunsets are something else here. Dusk seems to go forever and ever, and even an hour after sundown, there’s still light lingering around giving you almost as much time as you want to play with blue light. If you have your tripod with you. Which I mostly didn’t. Because I’m forgetful.
I don’t know how many glorious sunsets I got to enjoy over the three weeks but the most stunning one was on our first night in the Territory at Mindill Beach in Darwin. Spectacular would be a very inadequate way of describing it.
Another special spot was Ubirr in Kakadu National Park where watching the sun set felt sacred and peaceful, despite another 20 or so people milling about.
2. ROCK ART AT KAKADU NATIONAL PARK
I think rock art is something you’re either deeply interested in, or not very much at all. You’re either fascinated by the stories they tell, or you think kids painted them in the last fifty years. Maybe some people sit somewhere in the middle, I just haven’t met you yet.
After seeing some stunning rock art at Carnarvon Gorge National Park in Queensland three years ago, I was absolutely wild to learn more about rock art in the Northern Territory.
The rock art found across the Northern Territory is very different, not just from what I saw at Carnarvon but also at Kakadu as compared to Uluru, for example. Not really surprising, of course, as they tell stories about very different Aboriginal groups, each with their own knowledge, traditions and customs, language(s), identity, food sources, creation stories, and more.
Read more: Incredible Aboriginal rock art in Queensland
3. BATS, BATS AND MORE BATS AT NITMILUK GORGE
Nitmiluk Gorge, formerly known as Katherine Gorge, is gorgeous and definitely worth a visit. But the highlight wasn’t the gorge itself, it was watching 80,000 (!) bats leave the gorge for their nightly feast! They roost in trees just beyond the visitor centre, and at sundown the bats take flight and soar through the gorge.
The spectacle is best seen from Baruwei Lookout at sundown, about 900 m from the visitor centre. On the way to the lookout, you won’t be able to miss the overwhelming bat smell as you walk beneath tree after tree hanging full with “bat fruit”.
Since it takes some time for 80,000 bats to fly past, you’ve got ample opportunity to be mesmerised!
4. WEST MACDONNELL RANGES
Alice Springs is hemmed in by the West MacDonnell and the East MacDonnell Ranges. It’s way more beautifully situated than I could ever have imagined. But the majesty of these caterpillar ranges only increases the further along you go.
The West MacDonnell Ranges (known as Tjoritja by the local Traditional Owners), stretching some 160 km west of Alice, took us completely by surprise!
For one, we didn’t really expect mountainous ranges in the red centre, naively perhaps. I had always pictured the famous Larapinta Trail tracking through rather flat countryside, not along glorious ridges, rocky crags, deep gorges, undulating hills, permanent waterholes, and with vast views over the not-very-flat desert!
This place dug itself into my heart. It is the one place that I’m dead keen on returning to, and during our three days we barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer here! I want to spend two weeks just exploring the many 4WD tracks, hiking trails, and if it wasn’t so ridiculously hot and dry here and I such a heat wuss, I’d definitely want to consider hiking the Larapinta. Or at least a few sections of it.
5. FLYING OVER THE MIDDLE RANGES (KINGS CANYON REGION)
I’d like to say that the Kings Canyon Rim Walk was our highlight at Watarrka National Park (formerly Kings Canyon) but alas, no such thing. It was hot, hot, hot, around 38°C, during the two days we were there, and I wasn’t in fit state to be going on a 4-hour hike. Even very early in the morning. Such is life.
So we took a sunrise helicopter flight over the Middle Ranges and Kings Canyon. That way I could at least see some of the area! I thought it was brilliant, I loved the early morning light, the many dry riverbeds flanked by ghost gum trees, the wide, open plains, the rocky Middle Ranges, the canyon landscape.
Seeing Kings Canyon from the air though wasn’t nearly half as impressive as I had imagined, and I probably wouldn’t recommend doing a helicopter flight just over Kings Canyon. If you’re up for it, go and do the 6 km rim walk. Lots of people seem to love that! Or take a flight over the Middle Ranges, they’re impressive.
6. ULURU BASE WALK
And at the end of our road trip, we got to Uluru.
It wasn’t nearly as packed as I’d expected. I thought we would be doing the Uluru Base Walk among throngs of people, all intent on walking, segway-ing (Seriously, is there a more ridiculous way of doing the Uluru Base Walk than on a segway?!) or cycling around this bucket list item.
A couple of tour groups aside, we probably met no more than 20-30 people on the whole walk, partly due to me insisting on starting the walk before 7 am. For once we had gloriously cool weather, and for the first hour I even wore a jacket.
In any case, the Uluru Base Walk is far more interesting than what ‘walking around a giant rock’ might seem like on the surface. Uluru isn’t just a smooth rock. It has markings, nooks, caves, holes and shapes that are endlessly fascinating. It’s an eco-system with permanent waterholes. Add to this the stories and sacredness it holds for the Traditional Owners, and you know you’re in the presence of ancient history.
Unlike for some others I’ve chatted to, walking around Uluru wasn’t a spiritual experience for me. But I feel a deep respect for this place and got a glimpse of what it might mean for the Traditional Owners. It’s a privilege to be able to walk around this sacred place, recognise its cultural significance and admire the creation before us.
7. MY FIRST EVER VISIT TO AN AUSTRALIAN HOSPITAL
Well, this is probably not something to put on your bucket list. I’m actually not very keen to repeat this highlight either, even though I can see the funny side now!
After going on a 12 km hike at Nitmiluk Gorge in 40°C heat, I came back severely dehydrated. I didn’t realise it for almost another two hours but around 2 pm, just before it was time for our cruise into the gorge, I started feeling a bit funny.
Long story cut short: Whilst the family, husband included, went on the cruise, my body collapsed due to heat exhaustion. And by collapsed, I mean collapsed. Vomiting, headache, brain fog, body shakes, mind-numbing nausea, diarrhea and no ability to keep water or hydralite down whatsoever. In the end, I was lying on the floor at the ranger’s station stuck on an oxygen mask that provided some relief and waited for the paramedic to arrive.
Those who know me know that I don’t even willingly take medication, let alone go to the hospital. In fact, I’d never even been inside an Australian hospital other than to visit someone.
But that afternoon, what roughly ran through my head was how insanely stupid I had been to not drink enough on the hike! I knew it was hot, I knew I was getting very tired of the heat but clearly, my brain didn’t quite make the ‘drink, drink, drink’ connection. I’d even brought a water bladder for goodness sake!
Plus, I’m the kind of person who reads all those ‘beware of the heat’ signs, memorises them, and thinks ‘gee, some people are stupid and don’t know their limits’! Yep, here’s to my own humble pie.
So there I was being helped to the toilet for the n-th time by the nicest ranger lady ever, having lost all shame and dignity in regards to bodily functions… I think at some point she told me to stop apologising, everybody gets heat exhaustion at some point up around Katherine. I’m not sure I believed her.
In the end, the paramedic arrived, gave me some magic medication to make the nausea subside, and put me on a drip after stabbing around my wrists for a bit to find a suitable vein (dehydration doesn’t make for very visible veins, in case you’re wondering). It’s amazing what a bit of intravenous salt can do to your body and how quickly it can stabilise you again!
Later that night the whole family came to pick me up from the hospital in Katherine. I’m not sure if they were worried or if they just wanted to see an Australian hospital from the inside. 🙂
This whole episode, of course, did nothing to deter me from hiking in the Northern Territory but after repeating this heat exhaustion thing in the West MacDonnell Ranges (YES, I did it again!!), I got a bit more wary. Thankfully I recognised the signs a bit earlier the second time and managed to keep the hydralite-infused water down. But after that I had to give the Kings Canyon Rim Walk a miss…
There’s an awful lot to discover in the Northern Territory and our three weeks were barely enough to scratch the surface. Plan more time if you can, especially if you want to find out more about Aboriginal culture and history, or go offroad.
I also really loved the wetlands cruise we took at Yellow Water Billabong in Kakadu, or the Valley of the Winds hike at Kata Tjuta. But the experiences here really stand out as Northern Territory highlights. What I certainly didn’t expect was for the desert to be as beautiful as it was.
I’m not sure when we’ll return to the Northern Territory. All I know is that it won’t be as late in the dry season as this time. Next time I want to be on my way by July so daytime temperatures are still in the range that this wilting girl can cope with (i.e. around low/mid-twenties).
Here are some things I’d love to do next time:
- Explore some of the 4WD tracks around Kakadu National Park
- Get a permit and visit Arnhem Land
- Take a peak around Litchfield National Park
- Take a cultural cruise at Nitmiluk Gorge, learn more about their rock art, and/or take a canoe trip through the gorge
- Spend about 2 weeks in the West MacDonnell Ranges, camping, hiking, 4WD-ing, and doing sections of the Larapinta Trail
- Drive the entire Red Centre Way, connecting the West MacDonnell Ranges with Watarrka National Park
- Visit Hermannsburg, Finke Gorge National Park and Palm Valley off Larapinta Drive
- Explore the East MacDonnell Ranges
- Take an Aboriginal culture day tour (or longer) somewhere
You can certainly roadtrip the Northern Territory in a conventional car or campervan. There are a lot more accommodation and eating options than I expected, and you can easily make it from one caravan park to another if you want rooms, cabins or powered sites. You can even get barista style coffee in the middle of nowhere!
To go offroad though, you’ll need a high-clearance 4WD and will be camping without facilities. That is what I want to do next time!