The Northern Territory can often play second fiddle in the road trip stakes to its more well-travelled neighbours, Western Australia and Queensland, but that doesn’t mean you should strike Australia’s Top End from your must-visit list. Do that and you’ll likely miss out on waterhole swimming, desert landscapes and jaw-dropping national parks.
Planning a trip to Northern Territory can be daunting though. It covers an enormous area - more than one million square kilometres, thank you - and with so much to do inland and along the coast, it can be tricky knowing where to start. Keen for a hint? We have two words for you: hire car. Renting a set of wheels gives you the freedom to explore Northern Territory at your own pace. That means you have the chance to stop off where you like, splash out on fancy activities and still have a good nights’ sleep before hitting the road for your next destination. It’s a win-win!
Sound good? Of course it does! But it gets better because we’ve done the leg-work for you and have created a driving route that covers destinations from Darwin and Kakadu to Katherine and Alice Springs. We’ve even picked out some of our favourite Beautiful Accommodation properties for you to stay at. This route explores only a snap shot of what Northern Territory has to offer, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself planning your next NT trip before this one is even over. Happy driving!
Arrive in Darwin
Darwin may not have the population or cosmopolitan reputation like its southern counterparts, but it doesn’t have any less to offer its visitors. With its year-round balmy weather, outdoor festival calendar, buzzing markets and waterfront eateries, Darwin has got it going on. Art aficionados will love the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) – don’t miss the exhibit on Cyclone Tracy. Looking for a splash of history? The Darwin Military Museum has recently undergone a swanky facelift and boasts interactive displays. Darwin doubles as the gateway to a smattering of sights – Tiwi Islands, Arnhem Land, Litchfield National Park, Kakadu – but to get to these destinations can take a couple of hours, so once you’ve picked up your hire car from the airport, head out to Knuckey Lagoon, an outer suburb, and hit the hay to rest up for tomorrow’s journey.
Darwin to Jabiru (2 hours 36 minutes)
Breakfast is provided at Knuckey Lagoons Villa, so once you’ve had your fill and checked out it’s time to make your way on Stuart Highway. Follow the road until you reach the Arnhem Highway exit and turn left. The Arnhem Highway will lead you straight into the heart of Kakadu National Park and today’s destination, Jabiru. Along the way, you’ll drive past places including Humpty Doo – home to a giant boxing crocodile -, Mary River National Park and Mount Bundey. Those keen to have an up close and personal encounter with one of the Northern Territory’s most famous inhabitants can hop aboard a crocodile-spotting cruise along the Adelaide or Mary Rivers. Book in advance to make sure you get a seat. When you’ve reached Jabiru and dropped your bags off at your accommodation, strap on your most comfortable walking shoes and get ready to explore. You can take another cruise on Yellow Water Billabong, book a short scenic flight from Jabiru airport, check out ancient mythological Aboriginal paintings along the walking track at Nourlangie (a head-turning rock formation) or swim in the waterfall at Maguk Gorge.
Jabiru to Mataranka (4 hours 25 minutes)
Head out of Jabiru and onto Kakadu Highway, eventually rejoining Stuart Highway. There are lookout points – Mirrai, Gungural, Bukbukluk – peppered along the stretch of highway that winds through the National Park. Follow Stuart Highway through Katherine (don’t worry, you’ll be coming back here) until you arrive at Mataranka, a small town that makes up part of the larger Katherine region. Mataranka is next to Elsey National Park, a park made famous in Jeannie Gunn’s novel We of the Never Never. The park boasts fishing, riverine canoeing, bushwalking tracks and Aboriginal and World War II historical sites. Make for Bitter Falls or the sandy-bottomed thermal pools for a dip after a day’s driving. Pro-tip: avoid swimming during the wet season to avoid strong currents and saltwater crocodiles.
Mataranka to Katherine (1 hour 8 minutes)
Katherine sits on the banks of the Katherine River and takes the gong for being Northern Territory’s third largest town; its where the outback meets the tropics. Exploring Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) should be high on the agenda. The park includes 13 gorges and can be seen by foot, boat or even helicopter. A sunrise breakfast cruise is a spectacular way to kick off your time in Katherine or you can travel along at your own pace in a canoe. Be sure to pack a waterproof camera. Butterfly Gorge is home to, unsurprisingly, thousands of butterflies and makes a dreamy setting for a peaceful paddle. Back in town, Katherine’s museums are well worth a visit, as is Springvale Homestead, the oldest original station homestead in Northern Territory. When you’re ready to take things down a notch, seek out Katherine Hot Springs, a five-minute drive from town. A soak in the crystal-clear waters is sure to work wonders on exploration-weary muscles.
Katherine to Alice Springs (2 hours 55 minutes by plane)
Travellers up for making the 13-hour trek could drive to Alice Springs, but when a plane takes just over two hours it’s pretty hard to resist the temptation to fly. Airnorth operates flights between Katherine and Alice Springs, so drop off your rental car in town before making your way to Katherine’s airport. Once you’ve touched down in Alice Springs, pick up your spanking-new rental car and head to your accommodation. Alice Springs is one of Australia’s most famous outback towns, and is home to a bright arts and culture scene, head-turning scenery and a rich history. Thrill seekers can get their kicks from four-wheel driving or quad bike excursions, and those wanting to reach new heights can clamber into a hot air balloon and take a spectacular sunrise ride.
Alice Springs to Darwin (2 hours by plane)
To drive from Alice Springs to Darwin would set you back just over 16 hours; to fly takes about two hours. QANTAS and Virgin operate daily flights between Alice Springs and Darwin, plus both airports have rental car desks so dropping off and picking up your wheels is a cinch. Darwin's Mindil Beach Sunset Markets open every Thursday and Sunday between April and October. The market boasts handicrafts, beauty products, savoury fare and sweet treats. Yes, there is crocodile available to taste too. Whatever your tastebuds fancy, grab yourself a plate and head to the beach to watch the sunset.
This post is brought to you by Budget Rent a Car.