If taking a road trip is a great Australian dream, then driving from Darwin to Alice Springs through some of the nation’s most spectacular country in a camper complete with all the mod-cons, is the ideal way to make it come true.
We decided to take a week off, chill out and explore the heart of our vast brown land, it was a holiday unlike any other – jam packed with amazing experiences, breathtaking landscapes and colourful characters.
Our home for the next six days would be a beloved Maui motorhome. For a couple of 30-somethings it was perhaps an unusual choice for a holiday, but we were free, independent and able to go wherever the wind took us.
Our only restriction was off-road driving as we had the luxury model camper complete with toilet, shower and mini-bar style fridge, rather than the go-anywhere model.
And we had a plan. We’d tackle the 1500 kilometres of highway from Darwin to Alice, nicknamed ‘the track’ by locals, and visit some of the lesser known attractions along the way.
So with miles of open road in front of us, we were eager to put our van to the test in the arid surrounds of Central Australia and seeing the sights that we’d heard so much about - Devils Marbles, Daly Waters Pub, Barrow Creek and the Devils Pebbles were all on the agenda.
After a quick orientation at the Darwin depot, we were both instantly amazed at how much the good folk at Maui had packed into our van. It even had air-conditioning, a God-send for the 30-plus degree nights we were sure to encounter during our visit to the red heart of Australia. Not to mention a full cupboard of crockery and wine glasses for the inevitable sunset drinks.
One of our first stops “on the road” was at Daly Waters Pub. It’s a famous landmark in the NT. Located about three kilometres off ‘the track’ – otherwise known as the Stuart Highway, it is a sight to see. If you are on a mission to get to your destination, it would be easy to forgo a stop here. This detour is one that many don’t bother with, but my advice is take the turn off, it’s a fabulous place to visit.
If you’ve been to Birdsville or Barrow Creek, you’ll have a good idea of what to find here, but this little outback pub is an icon in the Territory and for good reason. Built in 1893 by early pioneers, life here would have been tough, but today, the quirky collection of bank notes, coins, thongs, t-shirts and other memorabilia takes pride of place, well, all over this historic stone pub.
Even with the layers of dust, the collections provide plenty to look at and chat about with fellow travellers. I’m sure there have been many visitors who have popped in for a quiet beer only to find themselves immersed in conversation with one or two of the locals and fellow travellers, and end up staying the night. This is even easier now, with demountable cabin-style accommodation available across the road.
Daly Waters pub has a certain outback charm, a welcoming aura. Whether it is the array of passport photos on the wall or the enchanting lilt of the friendly Irish barman ready for a yarn, I’m sure you’ll find yourself staying for more than one beer at this pub.
A little further south at Dunmurra we fuelled up with diesel – at $1.75 a litre, our large and rather empty fuel tank was replenished. But even getting fuel in the Territory is an experience. Where else would you see a full grown Brahman bull watching you wash the car windscreen?
There’s not much else at Dunmurra other than a servo and fast food top up, but we’re told that the local wildlife do often pop in for a look at the customers.
The change in scenery heading south on the Explorer’s Way (Stuart Highway) is quite dramatic. It starts in the tropical north of Darwin, where leafy palms and lush green grass, soft like a cushioning mattress, contrast with the white and yellow frangipani flowers the size of small saucers that line the streets.
The grass remains as vibrant heading down the ‘track’, but rich red ochre-coloured termite mounds begin to dot the landscape. The rivers and waterholes are filled to the brim after recent rains and the barren eucalyptus trees have a full head of hair again after a long dry season.
Heading further south, around Elliott and Three Ways, the landscape changes again and the road becomes flat and straight. Road trains become few and far between and there is the occasional herd of Brahman cattle meandering beside the road, while up above, Whistling Kites circle in the thermals searching for their next meal.
The dense leafy bush becomes more and more sparse and the trees increasingly shorter. Several sections of bush are reminiscent of the southern coastline but others remain iconically NT. By far the tallest landmarks on the horizon are the repeater stations that stand tall and contrast starkly with their natural surrounds.
By day three we make it to Tennant Creek. The trusty Maui purrs away, clicking up the miles as we slip in another travelling CD. We feel we’ve left the confines of everyday hum drum and the sun is beginning to set, casting a soft yellow hue on the landscape of small, white-trunked gums and oddly shaped termite mounds. It really feels like we are at the heart of what historically helped shape Australia’s pioneering past.
Many people forget, or don’t even know, the history of John McDouall Stuart, one of the country’s early explorers. Without him, the telegraph line built in1872 from Adelaide to Darwin, revolutionising communication between England to Australia, would never have been possible.
Today, the buildings at the historic Telegraph Station just north of the town, are meticulously maintained. The mission green roof tops are obviously painted regularly and the white-washed walls are glaringly bright in the midday sun. Historic artefacts of a bygone era remain in some of the buildings and coupled with the interpretive signs, it really gives you a feeling of what life must have been like out here in the 1800s when they were building the telegraph station.
Tennant Creek isn’t perhaps a town where you would consider spending your entire holiday, but the sights around here are definitely worth stopping for. The Bill Allen Lookout, just a couple of kilometres from the town centre, was named after this local identity who helped secure amenities and sundries for the town in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Panoramic views of the town and surrounds can be enjoyed from the lookout. We took a bottle of wine and watched the sun set to the west, as in the east a full moon rose through the pastel hues and shone as bright as a diamond glistening in the sunshine.
Before you leave Tennant, you must drop by the Nyinkka Nyunyu Cultural Centre. We were lucky enough to have Rose Graham show us around the centre for the morning. This insightful woman has lived in Tennant Creek and Alice Springs all her life. She knows local stories and the country like the back of her hand. If you were in the bush out here, you’d want to be with Rose.
This year, she is hoping to start cultural tours of the region and would like to see local artists working from the cultural centre so visitors could come along, have a chat, and see them at work. Rose has big plans and seems to be somewhat of a visionary for the Centre and the town.
Long seen by travellers as just a place to stay the night, Rose is helping to change this perception of Tennant Creek and encourages visitors to stay longer, learn stories from the local indigenous people and understand the local culture. Joining a search for bush tucker, water sinkholes and animals is just one of the activities that helps bring our two cultures, indigenous and non-indigenous together, she says.
You could spend hours wandering around Nyinkka Nyunyu. We left after two, contemplative of history and hopeful of a united future where understanding and learning replaces misunderstanding.
Editor's Note: Gay life in NT centers around Alice Springs and a little bit in Darwin. See Rainbow Tourism for places to stay, places to play.