WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY DEAN DAL SANTO AND REBECCA SIMPSON-DAL SANTO
Leaving WA, we crossed into the Northern Territory. It was our first time here and we were pretty excited. If you are crossing from NT to WA, you’ll need to give up any fruit, vegetables, honey or firewood at the quarantine point on the border. After a short stop at the Douglas Hot Springs for a swim, we made our way up to Litchfield National Park, first tackling the Reynolds River 4WD track. This was our first deep water crossing since we had drowned the engine in Awinya Creek on Fraser Island K’gari months ago.
So it’s safe to say we were a bit nervous. While snorkels are recommended for this crossing, it wasn’t as deep as we expected. The track itself was corrugated, with a couple of shallower creek crossings posing no problems to cross. Being hot, we decided to camp at Surprise Creek Falls. It’s just a short walk to the falls and is a refreshing, croc-free place to swim.
The Lost City is just a quick drive to the upper parts of Litchfield and the track is short, but very rocky and slow-going. The Lost City is a pretty remarkable collection of enormous rock formations, which visitors can walk around and through. Also in Litchfield are enormous termite mounds, as well as the magnetic termite mounds. The tracks through Litchfield weren’t that rough, but still make for some fun exploring and 4WDing.
After getting a service for the Patrol in Darwin and checking out the city sights, we headed towards Kakadu. Kakadu is a mixture of sealed roads and some 4WD tracks. The scenery is spectacular. If you’re looking for a stunning, dry and hot landscape with enticing (but croc-infested) billabongs and that is rich in indigenous history, Kakadu is the place to go.
There are lots of Aboriginal rock art galleries and amazing views in Kakadu – some of the best rock art we’ve seen in the whole country was at the Nourlangie and Ubirr art sites. Ubirr is also famous for its absolutely breathtaking lookout over the wetlands. If you get a chance, you have to watch the sunset over the horizon – it’s truly unforgettable. There are also lots of short hikes in Kakadu, including the Nadab Lookout over Arnhem Land and Gunwarddehwardde Lookout over rocky escarpments in Kakadu – as well as some longer walks for those with the energy.
There are plenty of places to camp in Kakadu, we camped at Sandy Billabong – close enough to the billabong to enjoy the loud calls of the hundreds of birds during the night and morning, but far enough away to not be a tasty snack for any crocs. Mosquitos in this area are pretty bad, so repellent is definitely necessary.
Umbrawarra Gorge is south of Kakadu near Pine Creek and is a croc-free swimming spot and a brilliant way to spend a couple of days. From here, we headed down the Sturt Highway to the red centre. It’s a long drive, but huge termite mounds wearing t-shirts and hardhats make for refreshing entertainment along the way.
The Devils Marbles/Karlu Karlu is a must-see iconic part of the NT. These used to be one slab of granite, but wind and water erosion over thousands of years have shaped them into boulders of all different shapes and sizes. There is a small camping area here and watching the sun rise over the marbles is truly mesmerising.
[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”If you’re looking for a stunning landscape with rich indigenous history, kakadu is the place to go”[/blockquote]
Alice Springs holds the Henley-on-Todd regatta every August. This is a 4WDing event with a difference! The Henley is a boat race through the dry Todd River bed and has been running for 54 years. There are small bottom-less boat races, but the main event is three ships – pirate, Viking and navy – battling it out with flour, sand and water cannons in the middle of the Todd River. The ‘boats’ are actually built around 4WDs and the day is a fundraiser for the local Rotary club. One of the best outback events we’ve attended!
After leaving Alice, we headed to the East McDonnell ranges – which are just a short drive away. There are lots of camping spots and our pick of the bunch are John Hayes Rockhole in Trephina Bluff Nature Park and Ruby Gap Nature Reserve. The track to the John Hayes Rockhole is rutted, rocky and is a sandy river bed limited to high clearance 4WDs only. Because of this, the campsite by the rockhole is much quieter than anywhere else in the park.
We definitely recommend doing the 3.5km ‘chain of ponds’ walk that leaves from here – the name sounds undemanding and leisurely, but it’s actually a hike to the top of the gorge walls, giving an amazing lookout over the red and green landscape, before climbing down into the gorge itself. We found ourselves scrambling over rocks, around waterholes and loving every second of being in this amazing place with no-one else around.
Ruby Gap Nature Reserve is a little further east and like most of the 4WD tracks around the red centre, travels via a soft and sandy dry river bed. Which again means high clearance and lowering tyre pressures is a must. If you’ve just travelled through the flat expanses of land between Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, the huge domineering red mountains of this area are a spectacular sight and a welcome change of scenery. There’s something about the contrasting red and green landscape of the red centre that hypnotically sucks you in. You won’t want to leave!
N’Dhala Gorge/Irlwentye is well worth the stop too – it’s 4WD access only to the gorge as the track is sandy and has a small water crossing. The magical rock art here is actually engraved into the rock and estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. It’s an inexplicable feeling to experience such ancient and wise indigenous artwork in the exact place the artist made it thousands of years ago. Our big lap has been full of these experiences from visiting many landscapes and places around the country. We’ve heard people say that travelling around Australia makes for some of the best days of your life. One thing’s for sure, they’re dead right.
No trip to the Northern Territory is complete without a visit to Uluru. Rainbow Valley/Wurre is a very pretty spot for an overnight stop along the way and the Curtin Springs roadhouse offers free camping and cheap showers. You might even have a visit from the resident emus, one of which decided to sleep next to our tent. Waking up in the night to an emu snoring right by us is certainly a bizarre experience!
Uluru, Australia’s most iconic natural landmark, doesn’t really need much introduction. Neither of us had been there before and from the moment we could see it in the distance we were mesmerised. We did the 10.6km walk around the base which shows off all the colours and textures of the rock. Kata-Tjuta is right nearby and offers lots of shorter walks. That night we found a little track off the side of the highway about 30km from Uluru and camped within sight of both Uluru and Kata-Tjuta. Watching the sunset over them has to be one of the best parts of our 13 month trip around Australia.
[blockquote cite=”” type=”center”]”Watching the subset over Uluru was the best part of our big lap”[/blockquote]
Kings Canyon is just north of here and offers short and long walks – although we could only manage the short walks after the hike around Uluru. The Kings Canyon resort also sells the permit required to drive on the Mereenie Loop Road (as it passes through Aboriginal land) which brings you back to the West MacDonnell Ranges. This road was corrugated, rocky and rough as guts but surrounded by that beautiful scenery. In fact the landscape was so beautiful that a breakdown wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world!
The Owen Springs Reserve offers the best camping in the West MacDonnell Ranges and is accessible only by 4WD with a high clearance. We had desperately missed camping by the water at this point and to our extreme delight, the reserve offers several waterholes and creeks to camp by. You can camp right by a creek crossing just for the entertainment of watching 4WDs crossing it. The main track through the southern part of the reserve covers 50km of soft, sandy driving through dry river beds and plenty of places to camp as well. Reedy Hole Waterhole (northern section) and Redbank Waterhole (southern section) were our two favourite places to camp here. There are also a few places of interest along the track, like old huts and home ruins.
Palm Springs and Finke Gorge are also right near Owen Springs Reserve and we had planned to visit, but didn’t end up making it there. That’s on the list for the second trip around Australia! But for now it’s off to the Victorian High Country for two months before our epic 13-month trip comes to its sad but inevitable end.
THE TALLY SO FAR
Coldest night: -1.8°c at Trephina Bluff campground
Warmest day: 34°c at Keep River National Park
This part of the trip travels through the northern and southern sections of the NT.
While the major towns in this area offer all necessities, distances between towns are long. We experienced warm days and the nights were often around or below zero in the red centre. The Top End has hot days and cold nights, and a lot of mosquitos!
There are stacks of places to camp in the Northern Territory. Camps run by Parks and Wildlife have a small cost and normally have long-drop toilets. There are many spacious rest areas and roadhouses along the long stretches of highway for overnight stops. Our favourite places to camp were Reedy Hole Waterhole in the Owen Springs Reserve, Ruby Gap Nature Reserve, Surprise Creek Falls in Litchfield National Park and an ‘off the side of the road down the little track’ camp within sight of Uluru.
WHAT TO TAKE:
As always, be prepared. We always travel with at least a week’s worth of food and water, two spare jerries of diesel and enough spares to build a twin for the Patrol.
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL:
The dry season (approximately April-September) is the best time to travel the Northern Territory as the temperature is more comfortable and there’s less chance of roads being cut due to flooding.
FUEL & SUPPLIES:
We try to stock up on fuel and supplies wherever possible. Major towns like Darwin, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs offer everything you need.
Litchfield National Park has the Reynolds River 4WD track which is recommended for high clearance 4WD only and has a deep river crossing at Reynolds River. The Lost City track is rocky and requires high clearance.
Ruby Gap Nature Reserve, Owen Springs Reserve and Kakadu’s 4WD tracks are both accessible only by high clearance 4WD as the tracks are through soft, sandy river beds.
John Hayes Rockhole is a short 4WD track in the Trephina Bluff Nature Reserve. It follows a rocky river bed, it’s for high clearance 4WDs only and leads to a spectacular quiet camping area.
MAPS AND GUIDES:
We used Camps Australia Wide 7 and HEMA’s ‘Great Desert Tracks- Eastern Sheet’.
TRIP TIME OF YEAR:
RESTRICTIONS AND PERMITS:
There is a park entry fee for Kakadu of approximately $25 per person and there are alcohol restrictions in place for most of the park. The Mereenie Loop Road (connecting Kings Canyon and the West MacDonnell Ranges) requires a permit to travel on, available from the Kings Canyon Resort.
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