Australia’s Northern Territory is a destination of vast distances, incredible natural beauty, a rich Indigenous cultural heritage, and plenty of unique quirks and surprises.
Encompassing the tropical Top End, the bio-diverse and culturally significant Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks, and the subtle arid beauty of the Red Centre, one of the best ways to explore the Territory is on a road trip from bustling capital city Darwin to outback provincial hub Alice Springs — a total distance of 1,500 kilometres, give or take a detour or two to check out key attractions. And while a road trip like this takes plenty of planning and preparation, the rewards are well worth the effort.
The trip can be done entirely on sealed roads, but travelling during the wet season (November to April) can see some Top End roads and attractions closed. Follow the travel advice of local authorities, plan your fuel stops carefully, and ensure you have plenty of drinking water with you at all times.
Here are ten of the best things to do on a Darwin to Alice Springs road trip. This list assumes you will spend a few days in Darwin at the start of the trip, and two or three days in Alice Springs at the end. It only scratches the surface and there are hundreds of other amazing things to see and do along the way. But if you tick off these ten highlights, you’ll have given it a good go. Enjoy!
1. Smile at a crocodile at Crocosaurus Cove
Darwin is a relaxed and friendly city, but some of the residents are known to be a little snappy. Crocodiles are a part of life in this neck of the Aussie woods — both the aggressive saltwater crocodile and the slightly less formidable freshwater crocodile — and you’ll learn a whole lot about both at Crocosaurus Cove in the heart of the CBD. One invaluable piece of information is that both species live in fresh water, so don’t swim in any Top End waterhole unless it is designated safe to do so by the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service.
For an up-close but safe encounter with one of the Cove’s monster salties, take a spin in the Cage of Death. It will see you lowered right into a crocodile pool at feeding time. Also check out the reptile house, where you’ll get to hold a variety of native lizards and snakes.
If you’re in Darwin on a Thursday or Sunday during the dry season, don’t miss the fabulous Mindil Beach Sunset Market. It’s a microcosm of Top End life and a great spot to shop for locally produced arts and crafts. You can also enjoy casual eats from an array of street food vendors. The entire town usually turns out to enjoy the festive atmosphere. Grab a tub of tucker and head to the beach to watch the sunset.
3. Chase waterfalls in Litchfield National Park
Departing Darwin on the Stuart Highway, head south for an hour or so, then take the State Route 30 exit towards Litchfield National Park. You’ll pass through the small town of Batchelor, which has an excellent community museum. The town is close to the infamous Rum Jungle Uranium Mine of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the museum will give you the backstory.
Once in Litchfield National Park, check out the amazing magnetic termite mounds and take in some of the park’s collection of plunging waterfalls and shimmering waterholes. Several, including popular Wangi Falls, are suitable for a dip. Leave time to do the short walks to the viewing platform overlooking sublime Florence Falls and Tolmer Falls.
4. Explore Kakadu National Park
Continue on down the Stuart Highway, then make a detour at Pine Creek into the southern reaches of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. From the turn-off, it’s just under two hours’ drive to the vast wetland area known as Yellow Water (which is part of the South Alligator River). It’s renowned for its abundant birdlife and resident crocodiles — both freshies and salties — and a Yellow Water cruise is one of Kakadu’s most popular activities. Operated by Indigenous-owned Kakadu Tourism, cruises run all year round.
From Yellow Water, a 30-minute drive east will bring you to Nourlangie — one of Kakadu’s most famous Indigenous rock art sites. There are over 5,000 rock art sites across the park, which combine to document one of the oldest continuous histories of any group of people in the world. Nourlangie is one of the most accessible. It’s possible to book a guided walk with a park ranger, which is included in the cost of your park pass. Some of the art is believed to date back 20,000 years.
5. Drift through timeless Nitmiluk Gorge
Head back to the Stuart Highway and cruise down to Katherine. Just a short drive north-west of the town is Nitmiluk National Park — home to spectacular Nitmiluk Gorge. This incredible landscape is best experienced on a cruise along the Katherine River with Indigenous owned and operated Nitmiluk Tours. Previously known as Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk is actually a series of 13 gorges. Nitmiluk Tours’ Nit Nit Dreaming Two Gorge Tour takes in soaring gorges one and two, with a short 400-metre walk in between.
The steep sandstone escarpments that line the gorge are awe-inspiring and hearing the dreaming stories from your guide will add to the experience.
6. Enjoy a soak at Mataranka
An hour’s drive south of Katherine will bring you to Mataranka — a popular stop with travellers, thanks to the famous aqua-coloured thermal spring on the edge of Elsey National Park. The plumage of the resident peacocks blends in nicely with the water colour of this tropical oasis and a dip in the sandy-bottomed spring is a great way to relax those cramped leg muscles.
Mataranka was immortalised in the novel We of the Never Never by Jeannie Gunn (penned under the name Aeneas Gunn). Visit The Never Never Museum in town and seek out the Elsey Homestead Replica, which was built for the 1981 screen adaptation of the novel.
7. Strike it lucky in Tennant Creek
From here the Stuart Highway stretches deep into the Red Centre. You’ll pass through dusty Daly Waters and on to Tennant Creek, the seventh largest urban centre in the NT. Tennant Creek has a rich history as a gold mining centre and gold is still mined here. Visit the Battery Hill Mining Centre to learn more. Also drop by Tennant Creek’s excellent Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Cultural Centre, which showcases the region’s Indigenous cultural heritage. You can book a guided tour of the centre.
Any chance to beat the heat with a dip in the red centre is one that most visitors want to take. So drop into breezy Lake Mary Ann, just before you reach Tenant Creek. It’s low key, but a lovely spot for a splash. And chances are, you’ll have it all to yourself.
8. Roll up to the Devils Marbles
Travelling south from Tenant Creek, make your next stop Karlu Karlu — the famous collection of granite boulders also known as the Devils Marbles. The marbles look amazing at sunrise and sunset, and are popular with photographers. Keep in mind that if you’re viewing them at the end of day, it’s a four-hour drive from here to Alice Springs.
9. Step back in time at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station
Amazing Alice Springs sits at the base of the age-old MacDonnell Ranges. European settlement came to the region with the construction of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station in the early 1870s. It was a key part of the establishment of the overland telegraph line from Adelaide to the Top End. The station is situated four kilometres north of the city. There’s a collection of original buildings to explore, and a small but well-presented interpretive museum.
10. Immerse yourself in the beauty of the Red Centre
Alice Springs has several signature experiences that showcase the arid beauty of the Red Centre. Two that you shouldn’t miss are a camel ride through the desert and a hot air balloon flight at dawn. Thousands of camels were brought to the outback in the 19th century for transport. Pyndan Camel Tracks is located just a short drive from town and offers relaxing one hour afternoon and sunset rides onboard these hardy ships of the desert.
A hot air balloon at dawn with Outback Ballooning in Alice Springs provides a ringside seat as the rising sun ignites the rich red hues of the surrounding landscape. If you’ve never taken a hot air balloon flight, this is without doubt the place to do it.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do on a Darwin to Alice Springs road trip? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.