DRIVE THEM WILD

Australian House & Garden
The Northern Territory is the ideal destination for a road trip, with fond family memories as the ultimate souvenir, writes Vanessa Walker.

Karlu Karlu, or the Devil’s Marbles. According to Aboriginal mythology, these giant boulders were laid by the rainbow serpent. Photograph by alamy.

Karlu Karlu, or the Devil’s Marbles. According to Aboriginal mythology, these giant boulders were laid by the rainbow serpent. Photograph by alamy.

The first clue that we are east coasters new to the Northern Territory comes at Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin. As the handler about to give a croc its lunch asks “who would like to…” – my nine-year-old son’s hand shoots into the air – “be fed to the crocodile?” As he lowers it, I can feel the mirth of the Territorians nearby. The crocodile, Burt, is famous for being the beast Mick Dundee fought in Crocodile Dundee and, as we’re told, his jaws are the equivalent of a 64-tonne truck crushing down upon you. The second clue comes when we pick up the 4WD hire car we will drive from Darwin to Kakadu National Park then down the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs and on to Uluru. When I ask at Britz if there’s an automatic available, everyone behind the counter smirks: no such thing, cityslicker. 

We are here to experience a part of Australia that we are all fascinated by but until now had seemed too far away. In fact, getting here is easy – a smooth four-and-a-half hour flight from Sydney.

Departing Darwin, we roar down the Arnhem Highway in our VW Amarok. At our first stop at the Bark Hut Inn, a former buffalo shooters’ camp, a snake slithers out of the undergrowth; we’re proven newbies again when my six-year-old daughter chases after it.

Checking into our hotel at Jabiru we make for the Ubirr rock art site. Here, over thousands of years, Aboriginal people have painted the world they know; the rainbow serpent Garranga’rreli, a Tasmanian tiger, barramundi, goannas, possums and wallabies. While the age of the art is impressive, what affects me most is its Garden of Eden setting. The art sits beaneath the overhang of a huge escarpment that is surrounded by lush plants, winding tracks and natural nooks and crannies in which to rest. 

Our land has a big story. Sometimes we tell a little bit at a time. Come and hear our stories, see our land. A little bit might stay in your hearts. If you want more, you come back.
— Jacob Nayinggul, Manilakarr clan

The next day we drive past tall termite mounds to Gunlom, a waterhole fed by a high waterfall. It’s boiling hot but a trail leads us up to a swimming spot at the start of the falls. It’s the original infinity pool; a deep clear well of coolness with a magnificent view over the land.

In the morning we rise before sun up for a cruise on the South Alligator River near Cooinda. We are the only ones on the boat and the electric motor allows us to glide silently though the wetlands. Near the shore are plumed whistling-ducks walking their chicks across the water lilies, among the trees we see rufus night herons, and in the open water crocodiles basking, while overhead are rainbow bee eaters, azure kingfishers and white-bellied sea eagles. Even after we leave the boat and drive the few minutes to the lodge we see brumbies grazing in the bush.

Two days is not enough time to see this 20,000km2wonderland but as on all great road trips we must make tracks. We drive to Katherine for a cruise on the Katherine Gorge, which is majestic to Kakadu’s abundance, with sandstone cliffs towering on either side of the freezing black water. We make our way to Mataranka and pull off the highway to Bitter Springs. A walk through the bush leads us to where a subterranean spring pours warm water into the Roper River. We enter the water and the current gently carries us past fan palms into a narrow waterway and down to a spot where it’s easy to get out. A short stroll through the bush takes us back to the start for many repeat performances. 

We continue to Coodardie, a Brahman cattle station owned by Clair and Mike O’Brien. Here, in this big airy homestead, the doors remain unlocked and guests soon feel like part of the family. The O’Briens are fourth-generation farmers who embrace holistic cattle-rearing. Hearing their thoughts about land management and raising healthy stock strikes a chord with my husband and I. The next morning Clair impresses children and adults alike by pulling out the skin of a 4m-long python she shot after finding it strangling her dog.

LEFT The beauty of Uluru. Photograph by Nicholas Watt. RIGHT Mila enjoys a dip at Bitter Springs, Mataranka. Photograph by Khaedup Shakya.

LEFT The beauty of Uluru. Photograph by Nicholas Watt. RIGHT Mila enjoys a dip at Bitter Springs, Mataranka. Photograph by Khaedup Shakya.

We end this part of the trip at Tennant Creek, where we spend a few days. About this time we really start to feel we are in Central Australia; the vistas, past mulga trees and ghost gums, are endless. We drive almost a full day to Alice Springs, stopping in at Karlu Karlu to stare at the huge granite balls that dot the area. Alice itself is surprisingly bohemian, with many alfresco cafes and a laidback atmosphere – we even spot a swami walking by. We spend a morning with an indigenous guide showing us around Alice Springs Desert Park and I come to understand how differently we experience the land to indigenous people. I remain in awe of their knowledge of plant and animal life. I also see my first real boomerang, a large plane of two-tone wood wrought from the bend of an acacia tree. 

We spend the final three days of our trip driving from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon and then Uluru. We can’t believe the landscape is so green – but then, lying beneath the Simpson Desert is the Great Artesian Basin. At Kings Canyon I enjoy a spectacular walk around the rim of the canyon while my family snoozes in our room. From here, on a clear day you can see Uluru. And, when we finally lay eyes on this great rock it is a significant moment for us all. 

It’s a magnetic place, Uluru, and it signifies the end of our trip. That night we join Ayers Rock Resort’s resident astronomer looking through telescopes at the stars. We see the moon so clearly we can make out its craters. For a moment, we connect with the sky with the same intensity that we’ve experienced the land these past days. I have no doubt that this trip will become one of my family’s most-cherished memories. 


When in NT...

We followed the Explorer’s Way route from Darwin, via Kakadu, to Uluru; go to adventurealltheway.com.au/itineraries/explorers-way. For information on NT; travelnt.com.

GREAT PLACES TO STAY Kakadu Cooinda Lodge; www.gagudju-dreaming.com. Katherine Nitmiluk Chalets; www.nitmiluktours.com.au. Mataranka Coodardie Station Stay; www.coodardie.com.au. Alice Springs MacDonnell Range Holiday Park; www.macrange.com.au. Kings Canyon Kings Canyon Resort; www.kingscanyon
resort.com.au. Uluru Sails in the Desert; www.voyages.com.au.

THINGS TO DO Hire a 4WD from Britz; www.britz.com. Darwin Crocosaurus Cove was a great introduction to the region’s wildlife; www.crocosauruscove.com. Kakadu Bowali Visitor Centre will orientate you geographically and culturally at Kakadu National Park; www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu. Katherine Gorge Nitmiluk Tours runs boat tours; www.nitmiluktours.com.au. Tennant Creek Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre is a must-visit stop; nyinkkanyunyu.com.au. Alice Springs Pyndan Camel Tracks – a beautiful way to see the ranges; www.cameltracks.com.