Untouched landscapes for millions of years. Here are the top 10 things to do in the Australian Outback that you won’t want to miss!
To celebrate my 30th birthday, I decided to treat myself to 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 returning from a school trip to Uluru. I was fascinated by her travel stories and clothes covered in red dust. It left a lasting impression on me that I carried into my adulthood. I knew I wanted to save this trip for a special occasion. I still can’t think of a better memory than the way I felt when a warm breeze woke me up from sleeping under the billions of stars in the Milky Way. It will be a long time before this experience is trumped.
I’d done a bit of research leading up to the trip. Would I hire a car and drive around myself? or should I find a tour company that travelled to all the places I wanted to see? There is so much to see and do in the Outback so it was my priority to make sure I got to tick these places off my bucket list. It didn’t take much time before I decided on the Rock N Top TopDeck tour. Not only were they more flexible in terms of payment, dates and optional activities, but they were also great value for money compared to other providers I was looking at.
I spent the most thrilling and humbling 11 days of my life getting to know my home country a little better. Our local tour guide and driver was always enthusiastic and uber passionate about sharing everything he knew aboutAustralian history and had us in stitches with his anecdotes. I really couldn’t fault this trip. Even on the airport shuttle bus to the hotel, just after I landed in Alice Springs, I met a fellow TopDecker and till this day we are close friends.
This post features my top 10 experiences I had on this trip. But before that, let me share some of the Australian history that I learned from Squatter, our charismatic, bubbly and down-to-earth TopDeck guide.
A Bit of History
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 kilometres. 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 2,834 km connects 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.
There are so many breathtakingly beautiful natural wonders in the Northern Territory that were formed millions of years ago, so let’s take a look at the top 10 places you must see.
1. Walk Around the Base of 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 discouraged 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. Don’t risk it people!
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!
2. Watch the Sunset at Uluru
While most people watch both the sun rise and sun set over Uluru, if you can only do one, I suggest seeing 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 that more special, share it with your partner or friends over a glass of champagne and a cheese platter.
3. Have a Guided Tour of the Milky Way
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 last 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 their telescope! Awesome! (See pictured)
4. Walk Amongst 36 Red Giants at The Olgas
Like with any hike in the Northern Territory, be sure to start early. This one is no exception. 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’s head. Along with Uluru, the formation of Kata-Tjuta dates back to roughly 550 million years ago.
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.
Pictured is the Valley of the Winds. As 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! Can you spot the people coming down the ridge?
5. Relax in the Garden of Eden at Kings Canyon
The money shot for me during this trip came from having climbed to the rim of Kings Canyon. Looks amazing, right? 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.
The 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 kangaroos enjoying a drink and 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.
6. Play with the 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 babies formed? Well, once upon a time many million 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.
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
Wowzers, this place was every bit as gorgeous as the ads you see for Australian tourism. 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.
Don’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!
8. Take a 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.
9. Fly Over Kakadu National Park
Sick of walking around all the time? The guys at Kakadu Air will fix that. One of the best ways to appreciate the immense size of the Kakadu National Park, which covers 19,804 km², whilst getting a bird’s eye view of the various waterfalls, is to take a scenic helicopter ride. It’s a bit of an investment at $150AUD a person. But, there comes a moment in every traveller’s journey when they have to decide if they want to save the cash for a nicer hotel room or spend it on flying over mouth-wateringly beautiful waterfalls. This is one of those moments. Choose wisely.
10. Check Out the Termite Mounds in Litchfield National Park
Number 10! 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.
Another 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?
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.
Over to you!
Have you been? What other things to do in the Australian Outback would you recommend?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.
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