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Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip: 12 Incredible Things to Do in the Northern Territory

From Uluru to Katherine Gorge, see the best of the Northern Territory on this Darwin to Alice Springs road trip

by Michele
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Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip
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Take a trip to an untouched landscape, millions of years old. From Alice Springs to Alice Springs, you won’t want to miss these 12 spectacular highlights of the Australian outback. Plus where to stay, recommended tours and experiences.

To celebrate my 30th birthday, I decided to book a trip around the most famous part of Australia, the beautiful Outback in the Northern Territory. I remember when I was six years old and my sister returned from a school trip to Uluru. I was fascinated by her experience in the Red Centre and why her clothes were covered in red dust. It left a lasting impression on me that I carried into my adulthood. I regret having to wait until I was older for my chance to visit but it made it all the more special when I did.

To this day, 8 years later, I can’t think of a better memory than waking up under billions of stars. More on that later!

I spent the most thrilling and humbling 11 days of my life getting to know my home country a little bit better. Each of the local tour guides I had was enthusiastic and passionate about sharing everything they knew about the land, indigenous Australians and Australian history.

I had such a special time which is why I’m planning a return trip later this year. So, if you’ve ever been curious, now is the time to go. Don’t waste another minute. I promise you’ll wish you’d visited sooner!

Leading up to my first trip to the Northern Territory, I had done a bit of research but lots of questions came up. Would I rent a car and drive around myself? Should I base myself in a major township and book day trips? Or should I book a multi-day trip that travels to all the places I wanted to see? There are so many spectacular places and things to do in the Northern Territory but what makes it more special is when a local expert brings it all to life through stories and history.

Whether you decide to travel alone, as a couple or family, I recommend either joining an organised multi-day tour or booking several day trips from places like Alice Springs or Darwin. If you prefer to do it all on your own, I recommend renting a 4×4 SUV over anything else. It will offer a more comfortable journey between destinations which can be hours apart.

There are so many breathtaking natural wonders in the Northern Territory that were formed millions of years ago. This guide features 12 of the most incredible experiences I had on my Darwin to Alice Springs road trip. Before we get started, here is a bit of Australian history I learned during my trip.

A Brief History of Australia

Since the landing of the first fleet in 1788, European exploration of inland Australia was sporadic and mainly focused on the more accessible and fertile coastal areas. These British explorers and navigators faced hostile conditions both close to the coast and internal regions which oftentimes lead to a loss of lives in the various expeditions.

One well-funded expedition in 1860–1861, led by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills along with 19 men set out with the intention of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometers. Unfortunately, this expedition resulted in the death of seven men.

Then came along a savvy Scotsman, John McDouall Stuart who led the first successful expedition to traverse the Australian mainland through the centre of the continent from south to north. Due to his experience and the care for his team, Stuart never lost a man. In total, he led six expeditions without the loss of any lives. The major highway with a distance of 2,834km connecting Darwin in the Northern Territory to Port Augusta in South Australia was named Stuart Highway in acknowledgement of his incredible accomplishments.

An interesting fact is that 70% of mainland Australia is made up of arid and semi-arid desert which covers about 5.3 million square kilometres and includes ten major Australian deserts.

The Australian Outback has various names it is affectionately known as the Never Never a term first used in 1891 by Barcroft Boake in this poem “Where the Dead Men Lie” and the Red Centre, due to the colouration of the landscape.

While we’re on the topic of language, Kriol is an Australian Creole language that developed in 1880 from a pidgin dialect used initially in the region of Sydney and Newcastle in New South Wales in the early days of European colonisation. While it died out in most areas, it is still spoken today by around 30,000 residents in the Northern Territory. Another interesting topic is how the Aussie accent evolved.

How to get to the Northern Territory

By car, air or train, there are numerous options for getting to the Northern Territory. There are a variety of both domestic and international flights which connect a range of destinations across Australia, Europe, the US and Asia. I flew from Melbourne to Sydney where I changed for a direct flight to Alice Springs.

From South Australia, you can drive straight up the Stuart Highway (the very same I mentioned earlier), or from Queensland, you can drive westward on the Barkly Highway. Check availability and rent your car here.

For an iconic experience, there is also The Ghan, an all-inclusive rail journey through the heart of the country from Adelaide to Alice Springs which takes around 21 hours.

How to get around to the Northern Territory

As I mentioned earlier, basing yourself in Alice Springs or Darwin and joining single or multi-day trips is a great option. You can then move around easily with any of the daily flights which operate between Uluru, Alice Springs and Darwin. Book your flights here. Once you’re on the ground, local transport options available include airport shuttle, taxis, bus, and bicycle hire.

Airnorth operates smaller flights which connect regional towns such as Tennant Creek, Katherine, Darwin and several other locations in Queensland.

Alternatively,y, you can go for a more personalised experience and rent a car in Darwin, Uluru and Alice Springs or from further afield. Check availability and rent your car here.

Map of Darwin to Alice Springs road trip in the Northern Territory

Want to know where you’ll be going? Take a look at the detailed map below.

1. Explore Alice Springs and Climb ANZAC Hill

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Welcome to Alice Springs signLocated roughly in Australia’s geographic centre, Alice Springs is a popular gateway for exploring the Red Centre. Colloquially known as The Alice or simply Alice, the traditional name for the township area is Mparntwe. The Arrernte people are the traditional owners and have lived in the area for at least 30,000 years.

I recommend spending at least a couple of days in Alice Springs as this will give you ample time to visit several of its important attractions. In the morning, head to the Alice Springs Reptile Centre to see their extensive range of Australian reptiles. You’ll see Terry, the saltwater crocodile, perentie goannas, thorny devils, frill-neck lizards and more. Plus, during their reptile shows which run daily at 11 am, 1 pm and 3:30 pm, you can even hold a snake and a lizard!

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Reptile centre in Alice SpringsAfter lunch head to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Alice Springs Tourist Facility and hear heroic tales of the birth and growth of this non-profit organisation. If you’re not familiar with the RFDS, they provide emergency and primary health care services for people living in rural, remote and regional areas of Australia who can’t otherwise access medical care. Tours run every half an hour from 9:30 am – 5.00 pm with all profits made going straight to the replenishment of aircraft and medical equipment.

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Visiting the Royal Flying Doctors visitor centreEnd your day with a short 15-minute walk up ANZAC Hill to watch the sunset. This observation point gives panoramic views over Alice Springs, and the monument after which it’s named, pays tribute to the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps)) of World War I.

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Sunset at ANZAC Hill Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - ANZAC monument on ANZAC Hill

2. Visit the Alice Springs Kangaroo Sanctuary 

Meet one of Australia’s iconic marsupials on a guided sunset tour of the Kangaroo Sanctuary. Founded in 2005 by Chris ‘Brolga’ Barns, the sanctuary’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release kangaroos back into the wild whenever possible. In 2015, it became Central Australia’s first wildlife hospital.

Tours last between 2.5–3 hours and give you the opportunity to hold a baby kangaroo, called a joey. As you explore the grounds you’ll meet some friendly local kangaroos as you learn about this once small rescue center for orphaned baby kangaroos became a wildlife sanctuary that now includes adult kangaroos.

Top tip: Book your visit well in advance as tickets sell out fast. Be sure to wear closed-toe shoes too.

How to get there: The site is located just outside Alice Springs. To ensure the protection of this natural habitat, self-driving to the sanctuary is not permitted. Instead, round-trip transfers are provided with the tour and some buses service several hotels directly. Book your tickets here.

3. Walk Around the Base of Uluru

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Walking around Uluru

Uluru, also known as Ayres Rock, was the main reason for planning my trip to the Northern Territory. This massive 700-million-year-old sandstone monolith is located literally in woop woop, or 450km from the nearest large town.

Uluru is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is sacred to the Aboriginal people of the area. They believe that whenever someone dies while climbing it, so too will someone in their tribe, therefore they strongly discourage it. But, with a staggering height of 348 metres, (higher than the Eiffel tower at 324 meters) you would be crazy to climb it considering there is no made path and only a rope to help your assent.

I highly recommend doing the 10-kilometre base walk around Uluru. It will take you roughly 3.5 hours but it is the best way to enjoy the monolith in its full glory. The area around it is peppered with springs, waterholes, rock caves, and ancient paintings. Make sure you start your walk in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat!

Book your morning Uluru base walk here

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - Uluru Base walk

2. Watch the Sunset at Uluru

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Sunset at UluruWhile most people watch both sunrise and sunset over Uluru, if you can only do one, I suggest watching the sunset. The colours are so much more electric, plus you won’t have to get up at 4 am to make it to the sunrise viewing area. To make the experience even more special, share it with your partner or friends over a glass of champagne and a cheese platter.

Book this sunset picnic experience with sparkling wine and nibbles or this small afternoon group tour including sunset

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - see uluru at sunset

3. Have a Guided Tour of the Milky Way

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - See the moon through a telescope

If you’re a bit of a stargazer, then the Astro Tour with Outback Sky Journeys is for you. While you are guided through the galaxy, the guide encourages you to ask questions. So don’t be afraid to ask the REAL reason why a star twinkles or the complexities of a black hole.

The tour lasts just over an hour and changes depending on what is visible in the night sky at that time. You’ll always get a great view through the various telescopes that are set upon gazing at various constellations, planets, the moon and of course the famous Southern Cross, which features on the Australian flag. If you’ve got a smartphone, you can even take a detailed photo of the moon through a telescope! Awesome! (See picture above).

For the complete package, join this experience which includes an Outback barbecue dinner and expert-led star tour.

4. Walk Amongst 36 Red Giants at The Olgas

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - Hike Kata Tjuta / The Olgas

Like with any hike in the Northern Territory, be sure to start early. The Olgas is a sacred area to the Anangu Aboriginal tribe. The Pitjantjatjara word Kata-Tjuta (pronounced Kata Joota), means ‘many heads’, after the 36 steep-sided domes which closely resemble a human head. Along with Uluru, the formation of Kata-Tjuta dates back to roughly 550 million years ago.

Cutting through the centre is Valley of the Winds. As you can guess it gets its name from the strong winds that run through it. It may not look like it but it’s huge! 

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjuta

Valley of the Winds

To give a bit more context as to the importance of the sites, all aboriginal tribes conduct ceremonies that are for men only, for women only, or for both men and women. They are also often linked with a site. None of the events or teachings during these separate ceremonies are shared with the opposite sex. For example, at Uluru, there is an area strictly for women where they go to give birth, this is also where the younger girls learn how to prepare food and look after children. When these ceremonies take place it is usually referred to ‘women’s business’ and ‘men’s business’.

As such, the mythology surrounding Kata-Tjuta is rarely shared with outsiders, especially with women. Kata-Tjuta is a sacred men’s site and as is the custom, should women learn of the ‘men’s business’ they would be susceptible to violent attacks from spirits or even death.

Book your Kata Tjuta small-group tour including sunrise and breakfast

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - Helicopter ride at Kata Tjuta / The Olgas

Helicopter ride near the Olgas

5. Relax in the Garden of Eden at Kings Canyon

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - Hike Kings Canyon

My favourite photo during this trip came from having climbed the rim of Kings Canyon. The initial climb is pretty intense, but luckily once conquered, it’s pretty much flat terrain until your descent. It’s still not without its challenges and covers a six-kilometre Kings Canyon rim walk which will take 3-4 hours. The spectacular views of the gorge below and of the surrounding landscape are definitely worth the hike.

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - View of Kings Canyon

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Water at Kings CanyonThe walls of Kings Canyon are over 100 metres high, with Kings Creek at the bottom. Make sure you descend to the Garden of Eden. There is a permanent waterhole surrounded by beautiful plant life. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a few kangaroos enjoying a drink and a nap in the shade.

And yup, you guessed it, Kings Canyon is another sacred Aboriginal site and has been inhabited by the Luritja Aboriginal people for over 20,000 years, so please be respectful.

Book your Kings Canyon guided rim walk here

6. Play with the Devils Marbles (Karl Karlu)

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Michele at Devils Marbles

Most photos you see of the Devils Marbles, or Karlu Karlu as they are known by the local Warumungu Aboriginals, show just two boulders, when in fact the area is covered with them. The Devils Marbles are a collection of massive, red, rounded granite boulders that vary in size, from 50 cm up to six metres across.

 

Wondering how these ‘marbles’ formed? Well, once upon a time many millions of years ago there was an upsurge of molten rock which reached the surface. It spread out and settled into a solid layer. That one block of granite then developed both horizontal and vertical cracks which split into many rectangular blocks. Over the following millions of years erosion gradually wore away the edges to form the ‘marbles’ we see today.

Karlu Karlu is located 65 miles south of Tennant Creek, and 245 miles north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory’s interior. Visitors are free to wander through the 1,802-hectare reserve and climb on and wedge themselves between two boulders for that perfect photo.

7. Take a Cruise Along Katherine Gorge

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - Join a Katherine Gorge cruise

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Katherine signWowzers, this place was every bit as gorgeous as the ads I saw on TV growing up. This magnificent deep gorge was carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River and is the central attraction of the Nitmiluk National Park

There are thirteen gorges here with rapids and falls that follow the Katherine River which begins in Kakadu. If you go during the dry season (April – October) the Katherine Gorge waters are calm and ideal for swimming and canoeing.

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - View of Katherine GorgeDon’t freak out if you see Freshwater crocodiles resting along the banks. They are harmless to humans. The ones to worry about are Saltwater crocodiles who regularly enter the river during the wet season when the water levels are very high. Can’t tell the difference between the two? Freshwater crocodiles have longer and thinner snouts, with a straight jawline. Saltwater crocodiles have a broader snout, with an uneven jawline. Still in doubt? Stay out of the water!

Book your Katherine Day tour here from Darwin including a Katherine Gorge cruise 

8. Take a Swim in Edith Falls

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - Swim in Edith Falls

Also part of the Nitmiluk National Park is the Edith Falls, which is a series of cascading waterfalls and pools. Taking a swim here is a fabulous way to enjoy a well-needed cool down after suffering a day of the sticky humidity in the tropics.

Book your Katherine Day tour here from Darwin which includes a Katherine Gorge cruise and a swim in Edith Falls 

9. Fly Over Kakadu National Park

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - Take a helicopter ride over Kakadu Waterfall

 

Hang up your hiking boots and take to the skies. One of the best ways to appreciate the immense size of the Kakadu National Park, which covers 19,804 km² is with a scenic helicopter ride. You’ll get a magical bird’s eye view of the various waterfalls and landscapes that’s been carved out over millions of years.

Book your scenic flight of Kakadu from Darwin here or this Kakadu scenic flight with yellow water cruise.

Book your Kakadu full-day tour here from Darwin which includes lunch

 

12. Check Out the Termite Mounds in Litchfield National Park

Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - See Litchfield National Park termite mounds

Number 12! Are we here already? In comparison with Kakadu, Litchfield National Park is measly sized covering only 1500km2. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Think you’ve seen one waterfall then you’ve seen them all? Don’t be fooled. Be sure to check out the spectacular Florence Falls leading into a plunge pool. Here you can take a refreshing dip before enjoying a scenic walk to the viewing platform above the falls for panoramic views of the open valley and the waterhole below.

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Termite moundAnother unique sight of the park is the hundreds of magnetic termite mounds. These mounds stand at a whopping two metres high. The mounds’ thin edges point north and south thus minimising their exposure to the sun and keeping the mounds cool for the termites inside. Fascinating, huh?

Book your Litchfield and Crocodiles full day trip from Darwin here

Where to stay in the Northern Territory

As you travel around the Northern Territory, I recommend basing yourself in three main areas: Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin as these will give you plenty of fantastic and affordable accommodation options but also make it easier to join guided day trip tours. Looking for inspiration on where to stay? From hotels, and apartments to resorts in the Northern Territory, see my complete accommodation guide for every budget.

My Top Northern Territory Travel Tip

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Aboriginal Rock art in Kakadu If you only remember one thing from this guide, let it be this: when you visit Uluru and Kata-Tjuta especially, please please please join a guided tour with an Aboriginal guide. Visiting these two sacred sites was the highlight of my trip because left a lasting impression thanks to a local elder who explained to the group the importance and significance of both sites. It might sound trite, but after hearing his words, I felt connected to the land. Even a few tears welled up in my eyes. This is sacred land, so while the impressive size of these “rock” formations is mesmerising, an Aboriginal will make your experience even more special and memorable. Here is an experience which includes a Mala walk with an Aboriginal guide with an interpreter who shares traditional stories passed down from elders and interprets some local rock art.

Different in Every Sense

Darwin to Alice Springs road trip - Sleeping in an Australian swag

Sleeping in swags outside Tennant Creek

Apart from tearing up during a guided tour at Uluru, my other stand-out moment from my trip to the Northern Territory was the night I spent somewhere outside of Tennant Creek – located almost smack bang in the centre of the Nothern Territory. It was New Year’s Eve and a group of us slept outside in swags outside at a cattle station. An Australian swag is essentially a type of portable man-size tent. During the night, as a lay on my back, a warm breeze woke me up. When I opened my eyes, I saw billions of stars shine brighter and clearer than I’d ever seen before. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure I saw the Milky Way that night. It was absolute magic.

So, there we have it! If you’re not a fellow Aussie and thinking of heading Down Under, brush up on some hilarious Aussie slang to use with the locals.


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Darwin to Alice Springs Road Trip - 12 Incredible Things to do in the Northern Territory


Over to you!

Have you been to the Outback? What other things would you recommend doing on a Darwin to Alice Springs road trip? Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

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7 comments

Birthe May 10, 2018 - 20:08

We absolutely loved Australia, especially the Outback (although it was way too hot when we visited a couple of years ago)! Does Coober Pedy count as the Outback? Interesting town!

Michele May 11, 2018 - 15:11

Hey Birthe, Coober Pedy gets so hot that it definitely feels like the Outback haha 🙂 I haven’t been there but I’ve been to White Cliffs in NSW which is also an opal mining town.

Michelle August 15, 2016 - 09:12

Wow this looks stunning! Austrailia has always been at the top of my list, can’t wait to go!

Dana August 13, 2016 - 22:54

Australia is on our vacation bucket list and this post just makes me want to go even more. These are some beautiful sites to add to the list.

Michele August 13, 2016 - 23:00

Thanks Dana, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

Ranada aubrey December 6, 2015 - 01:32

This was a fascinating read. The outback is truely beautiful in it own. If it were me I would have stayed. lol j/k anyway it’s a dream for this older lady now. Have a great weekend.

Michele December 6, 2015 - 19:58

Thanks for your feedback Ranada! It’s never too late! There a many great tour companies that cater for all ages. Australia has may beautiful coastlines, but for me the most fascinating and awe-inspiring is the Outback. I highly recommend it to anyone travelling Down Under to make sure they include the Red Centre on their list. Safe Travels!

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