18 days in the Outback


“Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m tanned, or just really dirty”.

This quote of Christine’s, from our campsite in Tennant Creek, nicely sums up our 18-days traveling through the Australian outback. Lots of sun and lots of red dirt.

Our route took us from Darwin on Australia’s northern coast right down to Adelaide on Australia’s southern coast; the first time either of us had driven across the entire length of a continent. The main highway for the journey is the Stuart Highway and the journey itself is dubbed “The Explorer’s Way”. Both are in reference to the early Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart who was the first white person to cover this stretch back in 1862. One slight difference between Stuart and us is that he did the journey from south to north. Another slight difference is that he didn’t have a car.

In Darwin, we picked up our 4wd rental, fully equipped with tent, sleeping bags, mini-fridge and cooking equipment. Having a fridge was a pretty sweet addition and meant we’d have more flexibility in what we cooked than we otherwise would have with just an esky.

Before we left Darwin, we stopped by a supermarket to stock up on provisions. The two most important items for us to buy were 30 litres of water in case we broke down in the outback, and a bunch of lacinato kale because Christine doesn’t eat any meal that doesn’t include kale these days. Along with this we bought some other moderately important things like toilet paper, soap and non-kale food items too.

Fully stocked, I was itching to hit the road. But one last thing to do before we left was to set the trip odometer to zero and photograph it so we could capture the full number of kilometres we travelled on our journey. Little did I know that this thing resets itself every 2,000km so I was unable to get a nice picture with the total kilometres we covered. In case you’re wondering, we covered 5,425km and if you do the math you can work it out with the pictures below :).

Our first stop was Litchfield National Park. Although less well-known than the nearby Kakadu National Park, Litchfield is a beautiful park in its own right. Upon arrival we went straight to the nearest waterhole for a quick dip, which was a great relief from the 40+ degree (Celcius) temperatures. Cool and relaxed from our swim, we then found a nice patch of dirt to set up camp. Admittedly, we struggled at first working out how to pitch our very large 4-man tent. It was not as easy to assemble as the 2-man tents we’re used to. However, later we were very grateful to have a large tent since the night time temperatures throughout the trip were often north of 30 degrees and the bigger tent was actually quite airy, providing some relief to the heat.

The following morning we awoke early to sunrise and did a short hike to a peak where you could look out over Litchfield. Having built up a sweat we then made our way to a waterfall for a swim and were lucky to have the entire place to ourselves. An incredible first 24 hours.

Next stop was to backtrack a little and then head east over to Kakadu National Park. I’ve been wanting to go here for years so I was excited to finally make it. We ended up spending 3 nights in Kakadu. Highlights were our first evening picnic at the Ubirr sunset point; seeing some of the oldest Aboriginal rock paintings; the Yellow River cruise which allowed us to get upclose to tons of saltwater crocodiles along with other beautiful bird life; and the little advertised waterfalls at Yurmikmik that Christine and I stumbled across and got to swim in.

On the topic of swimming in Kakadu, because of the saltwater crocodiles there aren’t really any truly safe places to swim in Kakadu. Waterholes are either signposted as “Don’t swim”, where you’d be stupid to swim since there are known crocodiles in the area; or “Swim at your own risk” which is where the rangers do not believe there are crocodiles and make an effort to check on this, but just can’t be 100% certain. Knowing that nothing is 100% certain, definitely made the heart beat a little faster on the couple of times we did swim in Kakadu.

On day 5, we woke up early to hit one of the longest stretches of our journey from Kakadu down to Tennant Creek. Fortunately the road conditions were good so we got into Tennant Creek a little earlier than expected. This allowed us to spend some time getting to know the town. We hit the local RSL club for a beer and a steak, chatting with one of the locals who regaled many a story about Tennant Creek’s booms and busts over the years with mining and cattle butchering. Afterwards we stopped by for a beer at the Tennant Creek Hotel. We were the only non-indigenous clientele there that night. Interestingly the only people who gave us funny looks were the bar staff.

Next morning we got up at 4:30am so that we could make our way down to see the Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu) at sunrise. It was breathtaking experience and well worth the effort. The Devil’s Marbles are this incredible set of rock formations where weathering over time has created these large round rocks everywhere. At sunrise you got to see the rocks change colours and the landscape come to life.

Later that afternoon, we arrived into Alice Springs where we stayed with Christine’s brother-in-law’s sister, Geeta, and her partner David. Geeta and David were incredibly hospitable, taking us out for lunch and showing us around Alice Springs. It was great getting an opportunity to get to know them. It was also great to learn from them and their experience working on Aboriginal health issues. One of Australia’s most pressing social issues is the state of affairs of Aboriginal communities and our country’s dealings with its original owners. It’s an incredibly complex issue and was great to hear perspectives from people who work and contribute to change in this area.

Although we were tempted to stay a little longer hanging out with Geeta and David and getting to make use of a real bed and clean shower, we were also excited by the next few days ahead: a short detour off the highway to pass through the West Macdonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru (Ayers Rock). Highlight of the West Macdonnel ranges was driving from gorge to gorge, where we’d do a short hike followed by a dip in a beautiful waterhole. In Kings Canyon the highlight was our sunrise hike around the rim of the canyon. And the highlight for Uluru was  probably the highlight for our whole trip: seeing Uluru at sunset. I’d been to Uluru before about 10 years ago. Since then I’ve always remembered it as my single favourite place in all of Australia (and maybe the world). Coming back to Uluru for a second time, it was equally as incredible. As you approach the Uluru from 50km out, there is only flat earth as far as the eye can see. And then, on the horizon, you see Uluru as this massive rock that seems to emerge from nowhere. It boggles the mind as to how this rock should exist there. Up close, Uluru feels like it has its own field of gravity, pulling you in. For our sunset there, we went to the lookout, prepared a wonderful picnic spread, popped open a bottle of bubbly, plugged in our headphones to our iPod and sat on the roof of our 4wd admiring the changing colours of the rock at sunset. We ended up staying there long after the sun had set, admiring the beauty of our surroundings. Just magical.

After Uluru was another long driving day of about 750km, first heading east back to the Stuart Highway and then south all the way down to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is a quirky town of only 1,500 residents. Its claim to fame is that it is the world’s largest Opal mining town. Its other claim to fame is that it is the most uninhabitable place on earth with ground temperatures often above 65 degrees, along with extraordinarily strong winds. In order to deal with these conditions, many of the people live in houses built underground. So one of the “must do’s” in Coober Pedy is to stay underground for the night. In our case, we camped underground which was a really fun experience. It was actually one of the more comfortable places we slept in given that the temperature was a cool 22 degrees and we didn’t have to battle with any rain or wind. While in Coober Pedy, we also made time for an Opal mine tour and a visit to an underground church.

After Coober Pedy, we decided to take another detour of the Stuart highway so that we could make our way over to the Flinders Ranges. Along the way, we bumped into some travelers we’d seen at our underground camp place in Coober Pedy, so we hung out with them for a couple of days. Dimitri and Els from Belgium and Maarten from the Netherlands were in the middle of a longer road trip from Perth to Melbourne, also via the Flinders. Together we visited some cool natural springs, camped under the stars, and had a lunch of Australian feral animals at the very “hip” Prairie Hotel. The Prairie Hotel is worth a call out because it was an absolute gem of a find. Situated in the town of Parachilna with only 2 permanent residents (which, as described by Grant, the hotel manager, is “northeast of the middle of f***ing nowhere”), the only reason to stop is to come to the Prairie Hotel. 20 years ago, on what sounds like a whim, the new owners decided to turn the run down pub into a boutique hotel. The hotel itself is very tastefully done. But the reason we came by was to try the famous “Feral Platter” which is an antipasti plate of emu pate, camel wurst and smoked kangaroo. Everything we ate there was just delicious. And Grant was a barrel of laughs too.

Along the drive to the Flinders we saw emus in the wild for the very first time. Crazy animals as you can see in this video:

But the highlight was for Christine getting to see big red kangaroos in the wild for the first time. Prior to this, Christine had been complaining that she’d only seen small kangaroos and wallabies in the wild and was starting to not believe me that you could see big ones in the wild too. But once we arrived into Flinders Ranges National Park, we saw big ones everywhere. Very cool.

Flinders is famous among geologists for having some of the oldest known rocks in the world that now potrude out after movement in the earth millions of years back. But beyond just having really old rocks, the area itself is beautiful. We spent two days there, hiking around and enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures than further north. Given the vast area of the Flinders Ranges, that we could never entirely cover by hiking or even by car, we decided to take a scenic flight which gave us a very different and spectacular perspective of the landscape.

Our penultimate stop along the journey was in the South Australian wine region. It was two stops really, one in Clare Valley and the other in Barossa Valley. Part of the reason for deciding to go from north to south was so that we could finish up our journey in this beautiful wine country. In Clare we hired bikes and rode along the Riesling Trail (Clare is famous for its Rieslings) from winery to winery tasting wonderful wines and gourmet food. In Barossa we did a wine hike, walking from winery to winery to taste the wines and food. Mixing exercise into our wine tastings helped us justify the 4 straight days of indulgence.

And finally, 18 days after departing Darwin we arrived at our destination: Adelaide. We’d both been to Adelaide before so didn’t budget a lot of time here before we flew back to Sydney. That said, we still made time for one last gourmet experience dining at Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar where we celebrated the amazing journey we’d just completed.