The Australian outback has long enthralled and intrigued travellers. Discover wild landscapes and mythical folklore on a road trip through the Northern Territory
The Outback is a place to be savoured. Most simply jet into Alice Springs for just enough time to see its star attraction and leave again, thereby missing the real essence of the Northern Territory. Driving – whether on a tour or in Thelma & Louise style (minus the suicide bit) – is the way to do it.
Following the Stuart Highway, which dissects the endless red plains, reveals offbeat towns, indigenous cultures and some of the country's most impressive natural wonders. The journey south from Darwin, the state’s capital, should be done leisurely. As the buildings of Darwin disappear into the rear view mirror, taking civilisation with them, an unsettling and unforgiving landscape soon emerges in every direction.
But before venturing too far into the deep outback, it’s worthwhile – essential, in fact – to spend a little time sampling the delights that await nearby. Litchfield National Park, just 100km southwest of Darwin, is a tropical paradise full of waterfalls that plunge into natural swimming pools and hiking trails.
Kakadu National Park, meanwhile, offers attractions of another kind. It’s here you’ll find some of Australia’s best examples of Aboriginal rock art, which depict scenes of religious ceremonies and native hunting practices. But the drama of Kakadu isn’t purely confined to its walls. Man-eating saltwater crocodiles lurk in the many billabongs and are known to leap from the water to attack unsuspecting prey. It goes without saying that paddling here, as in much of the Northern Territory, is a no go.
One hundred and 65 miles away from Darwin is Katherine, a town made famous for its rather attractive gorge. A short cruise along the Katherine River, which was first explored by Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart, is a leisurely way to experience its towering cliffs and peaceful setting.
Big towns are few and far between. One interesting stop is Tennant Creek, a small settlement where men with firm handshakes and mullets spend evenings guzzling beer. Rumour has it that the town only exists because a wagon transporting booze broke down here in the early 1930s. The rest, as they say, is history.
Locals are somewhat stuck in their ways, so be prepared to toe the line if you don’t want to see eyebrows raised. Standing at the bar of one drinking hole, a bottle of Pimms stared back at me. Having been away from home for some weeks, and eager for a taste of Blighty, I declined a beer and ordered a refreshing Pimm's and lemonade. I could forego the obligatory mint and cucumber. I’m low maintenance, me.
A look of disdain washed over the barman’s stubbly face. “With lemonade?” he said, as though he hadn’t heard correctly. He prepared and placed the drink in front of me in much the same way a bemused parent humours a small child. “Do you want a straw?” he asked, eyeing me suspiciously. I declined politely. “Oh, how manly of you,” he responded, as he pulled another draught.
I’ve since discovered, thanks to an Australian friend, that only women sip Pimm's Down Under, which really does explain a lot. Beverage mishaps aside, a stopover at Tennant Creek is unlikely to include any major problems, but you may be better off ordering a bottle of VB (Victoria Bitter to you and me).
The next major town along the Stuart Highway is Alice Springs, gateway to the iconic Ayers Rock – or Uluru, to give it its Aboriginal name. Although it’s still over 200 miles away. Standing at 348m, Uluru, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the world’s biggest monolith and one of Australia’s most instantly recognisable sights. Walking around its base – a must-do – takes hours (yes, it really is that big) but it’s a relaxing and somewhat spiritual way to connect with the place.
The debate as to whether it's ethical to climb the rock is a hotly contested one. The area is deeply sacred to the indigenous population, who take great offence at visitors clambering up its steep slopes. The decision is, of course, a personal one but it’s worth considering that things are not as they seem at Uluru… Tales of people cursed with bad luck after taking more than just photos of Uluru are legendary. Whether they pocketed a few grains of sand or several rocks, their lives were never the same again. Read the stories for yourself at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, which houses all the letters from people desperate to reverse their fortunes by returning the stolen tokens.
Uluru is at its most spectacular at dawn and dusk. Champagne sunsets are especially popular and it’s certainly a magical experience to see the sun go down, basking the rock in a flurry of warm colours, while clutching a glass of bubbly. Just don’t ask for Pimm's…
Tour operator: Freedom Australia
Airline: Qantas flies from London to Darwin and Alice Springs via Sydney or Brisbane.