As part of Contiki’s Outback Adventure, I travelled from Darwin down to Alice Springs and then in a loop via King’s Canyon and Uluru, back to Alice. The route takes in some amazing sights, including Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge and Ayers Rock, but as our bus traversed 4000 km of highway, I came to realise that the roadside rest areas in Northern Territory are often just as worthy of a visit as the main attractions.
With so many kilometres of road to cover, it’s inevitable that you will need to break up your journey through the Outback. From stunning walks to famous drinking holes and the downright bizarre, here are some of my favourite roadside stop offs in the region.
On the road between Kakadu National Park and Katherine, you can detour down a side road and take a well-earned rest break exploring Edith Falls. Edith Falls is a series of waterfalls and pools in Nitmiluk National Park, located about 60 km north of Katherine. A short trail from the car park will bring you to the look out point. Take note of the ‘no swimming’ signs, as there crocodiles in the water.
Mataranka Thermal Pools
In Elsey National Park on the road from Katherine to Tennant Creek, you can take a refreshing dip in the Mataranka thermal pools. The spring is associated with a massive limestone formation that extends north of Katherine and to the border with Queensland.
Wet season rainfall absorbed into the porous limestone is heated by the earth to 34 degrees before it is released as crystal clear spring water. During World War II, soldiers stationed at Mataranka dammed the spring, turning it into a relaxing swimming pool.
There are walkways through the cabbage palm forest where you can stare up at hundreds of little red flying foxes hanging from the trees. At sunset, these creatures will rise in a column against the setting sun and circle overhead.
Also worth a look is the Elsey Homestead replica, which was constructed for filming of the movie ‘We of the Never Never’. Based on an Australian classic novel, this tells the tale of Jeannie Gunn, who arrived in 1902 with her husband to live and work on Elsey Station. Entry is free and historic information and interesting artefacts are on display there.
Established in the 1930s, Daly Waters is the oldest pub in the Northern Territory. Before World War II, Daly Waters was the site of the first international airport in Australia. A flight to London cost £275 and took eight days! Today, the aerodrome is in semi-retirement, but the pub is still a welcome stop off point for hungry travellers.
The walls are adorned with memorabilia, including international currency, expired ID cards and items of clothing. The owners will happily add something of yours to their collection if you give them a gold coin donation.
On the road outside, you can play ten-pin bowling with a smashed up ball or marvel at the quirky signs – including one to indicate that the nearest McDonald’s Drive Thru is just 286 kms away.
If you are part of the Contiki Outback Adventure, it’s worth noting that this stretch of road between Katherine and Tennant Creek is the longest bus journey of any Contiki tour in the world. I reckon that’s good enough reason to enjoy a cool beer in their back garden.
The Devil’s Marbles are rounded boulders formed by millions of years of erosion. About 1700 years ago, molten magma squeezed through the earth’s crust and cooled into hard granite rock. Shrinkage as the granite cooled, and pressures from below, caused right-angled patterns of cracks to form. As the overlying rocks were eroded by wind and water, the granite came closer to the surface. Groundwater then filtered down along the joints and reacted with some of the minerals in the granite to form clays. Weathering was greatest at the more exposed corners of the rocks. Eventually, the overlying rocks were eroded away to expose the granite to the elements. The softer weathered granite around the edges of the blocks was washed away, leaving boulders perched on top of one another.
The Devil’s Marbles are also an area of great cultural and spiritual significance for Aborigines. In fact, this is one of the oldest religious sites in the world.
Wycliffe Well – otherwise known as Australia’s UFO capital – is situated on the stretch of road between Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. Rumour has it that if you spend one night there, you would be unlucky if you didn’t spot some sign of alien activity.
Despite its remote location, it boasts one of the widest selections of beers in the Northern Territory. On the front counter of the local restaurant, there’s a log book with amusing personal records of otherworldly encounters.
In 2009, English pop sensation Robbie Williams – who claims to have seen UFOs three times already – considered purchasing Wycliffe so he could have a base from which to pursue his hobby.
As you approach Alice Springs, a detour to Simpson’s Gap is well worth it. Simpsons Gap is a break in the MacDonnell mountain range, which winds for 644 km through the centre of Australia. There are numerous walks of varying lengths in the area. The Creekbed Walk is just 20 minutes return past river red gum trees. If you have more time, a seven-hour track winds through woodland to Bond Gap. If you sit quietly for several minutes you may even see a rock wallaby.
One of Australia’s best extended walks – the Larapinta Trail – also starts here, covering 223 km from Alice Springs in the east to Mount Sonder in the west.
Journeying from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, you would be mistaken for thinking that this desert formation is the famous Uluru. Due to its similar appearance to one of Australia’s most well-known landmarks, it has gained the nickname Fooluru, but its official name is Mt Connor. There’s not much to do here but admire the views and pay a visit to the very basic long drop toilet. If you scramble up the red sand dunes on the other side of the highway, there’s a rather pretty salt lake.
King’s Canyon is a very popular stop off point on the route between Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. Its walls are over 100 m high, making for some spectacular views. You can hike around its rim in 3 to 4 hours or wander through the bottom of the canyon. The former walk is not advised after 9 am if temperatures exceed 36 degrees.
The park is a rugged area full of rocky cliffs and gorges, and there are notices all over the place advising appropriate footwear and adequate water supplies. A minimum of 1 litre of water per person per hour is recommended as the heat is so extreme, it evapourates your sweat before you notice it was there.
Don’t ignore the warnings. Every year, rangers at the Watarrka National Park provide emergency treatment to many people for heat stress and dehydration – conditions that are potentially fatal.
Nearby, you can spend the night camping in a swag under shooting stars at King’s Creek Cattle Station, where camel rides or quad bike tours are available.
My Outback Adventure was sponsored by Contiki. While they requested that I write about my trip, the choice of topics has been left entirely up to me. Any opinions expressed are a genuine reflection on how I felt about the experience.