Distance and Route: Driving Explorers Way in the NT is a route between Darwin and Uluru, via Alice Springs, is along the Stuart Highway and Red Centre Way which travels on the sealed Luritja and Lasseter highways. The distance is around 1700kms in total. You can begin the drive at either end – we began in the tropical Top End city of Darwin and worked our way south.
When you think about driving straight up the middle of Australia, you can’t be blamed for wondering if you’re up to it. Images of vast red, empty desert immediately fills your head, and it’s hard to imagine that it might not be for the faint-hearted.
We hope to put your mind at rest, because the Explorers Way route – straight down the centre between Darwin and the Red Centre (and beyond to Adelaide if you wish!) is actually really easy and doable, even with a 2WD vehicle and kids in the back!
Yes, you are surrounded much of the way by the desert – but you are driving on the Stuart Highway – a major Australian transport route that is fully sealed and offers fuel, accommodation and refreshment facilities at regular intervals, as well as major attractions!
So, what is so great about this route? So much!
Darwin is such a perfect way to begin the adventure. Tropical, chilled, full of great food and wine, a melting-pot of cultures and cuisines, and of course, a tonne of history. Simply wandering around this easy-to-navigate city is a great way to spend some time. The Bicentennial Park on the Darwin Harbour waterfront is a green space where you can enjoy some shade, views of the harbour, and a history lesson thanks to the fascinating war memorials.
Further around the harbour, the waterfront precinct is home to many dining establishments and a couple of swimming lagoons – perfect for the whole family.
There is a thriving café culture in town so you won’t be short of a good coffee, and don’t miss the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Between April and October each year they run on a Thursday and Sunday evening taking advantage of the spectacular beachside sunset. Here you can get your fill of a bounty of international food vendors, local arts and crafts and that chilled, tropical vibe.
We also highly recommend spending a sunset on the Harbour, and a three-hour champagne sunset cruise with Sail Darwin is about the best way to do it. With views back to the city and across the water, you feast on delicious canapes and sip bubbles while you relax on the 50ft luxury catamaran Sundancer and enjoy great company and a spectacular sunset around you.
BIG4 Howard Springs Holiday Park is the ideal place to base yourself in Darwin. An easy 15-minute drive into the centre of Darwin, the park is surrounded by lush, tropical gardens and is a peaceful haven to return to each day. With tropical pools, a splash park and jumping pillow for the kids, a mixture of campsites and cabins, bbq areas and more, you can really take advantage of the Darwin ambience and relax! Also, the local laksa van even visits serving up delicious meals!
Once you tear yourself away from Darwin and get on the road south, the anticipation builds as countless natural wonders are about to become part of your journey.
First stop is just 130km down the highway – Litchfield National Park. With 2WD and 4WD accessible roads, this park is open to everyone and popular for its amazing natural swimming holes and waterfalls. It is the perfect respite from the NT heat, you can swim below Florence or Wangi Falls, enjoy a picnic by the side of a waterhole and then explore some natural whirlpools and spas carved out of the rock at Buley Rockhole. Also, don’t miss the eerie, towering termite mounds!
Back on the road south, your next stop is Katherine. Famous for Nitmiluk National Park and of course, it’s namesake gorge, Katherine is a great place to stock up on necessities and enjoy some outback culture. Katherine Outback Experience, operated by Tom and Annabel Curtin, is a great way to start. Enjoy their authentic show which provides a mix of real horse-breaking and working dog demonstrations, with live country music performed by Tom himself and classic bush tales.
And of course, you will want to explore the National Park and gorge itself!
We recommend seeking out Nitmiluk Tours, operated by the traditional owners the Jawoyn people, and your best way to authentically explore the best of this ancient and spectacular landscape and learn of its culture. Enjoy a boat cruise of the gorges, or for the more active and adventurous, a canoe tour. You can explore by air on a scenic helicopter flight, or take one of the walking circuits in the park for incredible views.
Once you have explored the wonders of the region and it’s time to hit the road again, your next stop will be Mataranka – of ‘We of the Never Never’ fame.
As you enter the small outback town, you can’t help but think of the folklore that surrounds it after Jeanie Gunn wrote the famous book about her time here with husband Aeneas Gunn. You can visit the homestead and station cemetery to really get a feel for the story and hardship that she spoke of.
One of the bigger attractions of the town however are the natural thermal springs and a soak in any of the local pools is a must (totally safe too!). You are likely to encounter some friendly turtles and of course, enjoy complete relaxation under the native palm trees in 30-35 degree waters. Try Bitter Springs or Mataranka Thermal Pool and Rainbow Springs.
Nearby Elsey National Park and the Roper River are also well worth exploring. We tried our hand at a spot of barramundi fishing on the river (with absolutely no luck but we hear it’s a good spot!), and you can also take any of the established walking tracks through the park.
167km further south down the highway, you can choose to break the journey at the Daly Waters Pub – not just a drinking hole but accommodation also. An historic pub where visitors leave their mark by gifting a ‘souvenir’ that adorns the ceiling and walls of the pub long after they leave. Don’t be shocked by the countless bras that hang from the ceiling – they are said to be the gift that started it all!
Continuing south 400km, Tennant Creek is your next pit-stop for accommodation, fuel and food. We then stopped 100km further on, at the Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve, or ‘Karlu Karlu’. An emblem of the outback, these gigantic boulders are fascinating to explore and wander around (not to be climbed), especially when the sun hits them in the morning or evening light.
From there, it’s a 510km trip to the Red Centre and you will find yourself in the heart of it in Alice Springs. We rolled into town and based ourselves at the oasis-like BIG4 MacDonnell Range Holiday Park – a muchawarded Holiday Park that we love returning to – and not just for the lauded pancake breakfast that the owners put on every Sunday morning! From the pools to the waterslide, pedal karts, bike hire, camp kitchens and more, this is one of the friendliest and well-appointed parks we have visited and it is a pleasure exploring the town and returning here each day.
Alice itself is a thriving outback town, famous as a hub for Aboriginal art (check out all the galleries in town) and an emerging café culture. Yep – even in the very centre of Australia, you can get a decent latte!
There are so many things to do in and around town, from the Alice Springs Desert Park, to the School of the Air, the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, Anzac Hill Lookout, and one of our favourites, a sunrise hot air balloon experience over the red outback.
Then it’s time to hit the ‘Red Centre Way’ – the sealed drive from Alice Springs to Uluru taking in all of the icons of the Red Centre. Setting off from Alice, you will travel through the West MacDonnell Ranges. We highly recommend taking your time to explore the highlights along the drive and staying the night in the West Mac’s to truly make the most of them. Just 50km’s out of town you will find Standley Chasm. Here, take a 1.2km (ten minute) walk to the 80m sheer rock-face of the spectacular chasm. You can also tackle a 3km section of the Larapinta Trail from here, for a taste of this world-famous hike and views of the chasm you would otherwise be unable to get!
Other highlights on the road towards Glen Helen Gorge in the West Macs (132km from Alice) include Ellery Creek Big Hole (perfect for a swim!) and Ormiston Gorge, one of the most photographed places in the region. With spectacular geology and a great swimming hole, a 15 minute walk will take you to Ghost Gum lookout for incredible views over the Gorge and surrounding ranges.
Just up the road from there is Glen Helen Gorge, the ideal place to break your journey, relax for the evening and watch the sun set on the incredible red gorge walls around you. Star gazing in this part of the country is a must!
One of our favourite experiences in Australia is the rim walk around Kings Canyon and it’s a 234km drive from Glen Helen Gorge to the canyon and Watarrka National Park. On the drive, you can stop at Red Bank Gorge pools for a swim.
Base yourself near Kings Canyon and experience the 6km walk around the rim for some of the most incredible views and ancient landscapes you can imagine. With 100m sandstone cliff walls and palm forests that peer out from rocky crevices, it’s around a three-hour adventure to remember. For those that want to take it a little easier, the Kings Creek walk along the gorge floor is also spectacular. For a bit of fun while you are staying here, you can also go on quad bike adventures, camel rides and helicopter tours for a birds-eye view of the landscape.
Leaving Kings Canyon, our final destination was the world-famous icons of the Red Centre, Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). A 300km drive from Kings Canyon and you will be greeted by these uber-familiar landmarks that arise from the flat desert around them. Kata Tjuta is spread over an area of around 20 sq km and you can take any of the walking circuits around the giant rock formations to explore them, including the popular Valley of the Winds walk. Try to get there at sunrise and beat the heat of the day.
Uluru is also best viewed at sunrise and sunset, when the sun unleashes its magic on the rock and the colours change before your eyes. Viewing platforms are available to best witness the spectacle and of course, a sunset viewing isn’t quite the same without a glass of bubbles in your hand.
During the day, discover Uluru how you wish. We have done the base walk which takes you around the full circumference of the rock, and we have also taken the thrilling Harley Davidson tour around the icon – a different experience all together! Viewing both Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the sky in a helicopter is also an incredible way to get a real perspective of the marvels and we also recommend joining one of the many local indigenous tours available from the Cultural Centre for a full understanding of the landscape, its history and significance.
Uluru has its own airport from which you can fly out, or alternatively you can continue the drive in a loop back to Alice Springs and even continue south to Adelaide through Coober Pedy and the Flinders Ranges. The adventure is up to you!
Have you driven part or all of Explorers Way, or would like to? Tell us about it in the comments!