Many roads lead to the Red Centre – and each comes with its own bragging rights. At camping grounds throughout Australia, there’s a question that opens nearly every encounter with strangers, whether it’s at the communal barbecue, the shower block or when you’re queuing self-consciously at the motorhome waste dump point: “Which way’d you come?”
No matter your response, invariably you’ve gone the wrong way. Whatever you have seen along the road that’s blown your mind, filled your heart with joy or even altered your perception of reality, your fellow traveller will insist – often with a knowing shake of the head – that you’ve missed something much better, something they saw. Often there’s photographic evidence. Sometimes there’s two hours of it.
My husband and I are on a road trip from Uluru to Darwin, a journey we arrange when the lights of the big smoke suddenly lose their lustre and nothing is more appealing than an open road, a big empty sky and days of dry-season sunshine.
In Alice Springs, we rent a small van with a kitchenette, shower, flushing toilet, built-in barbecue and a sofa that, if you listen to the instructions, will smoothly convert to a comfy double bed. (Some silly people have been known to drive away – 450 kilometres, for instance – believing it can’t be that hard to assemble a bed in a campervan.)
We don’t see the couple – let’s call them Bruce and Cheryl – until they sit down opposite us at The Thirsty Dingo Bar, a watering hole adjacent to our campsite at Kings Canyon, roughly four hours by car south-west of Alice Springs. We’ve just arrived, faces flushed after an exhilarating hike through the canyon, minds and smartphones cluttered with images we’re bursting to relive over a cold drink. Instead, rivulets of condensation track down our beer glasses as the couple (mainly Bruce, to be fair) describes incredible places we haven’t been.
“You loved Kings Canyon? Have you been to the Bungle Bungles?”
“No, we ha…”
“Oh, they’re much more interesting…”
“And don’t tell me you missed Ormiston Gorge?”
I wonder at this point if Bruce cries as he watches the sun rise over Uluru. If the smell of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle in the chill of the morning is as intoxicating to him as it is to me. If boots coated in a layer of red dust make him happy. I want to tell him that travel is not always about what you see; sometimes it’s what you feel. And right now (okay, maybe not right now) in Australia’s geographical and spiritual heart, I feel alive.
Early next morning, we drive back to Alice to pay attention to the bed instructions before heading north along the Stuart Highway towards Darwin. We pass the time listening to podcasts, complaining about remote-roadhouse coffee and photographing termite mounds that tourists have given human form with discarded T-shirts, sunnies and hats. We watch majestic wedge-tailed eagles soar in slow-motion through a sky that has no end then lose our thoughts in the shimmering bleached scrubland beneath them.
“G’day, you want the beef and barra?” asks a barman through a dangling bra strap. We’re standing in the public bar of The Daly Waters Pub, about 900 kilometres north of Alice Springs. No-one knows when it started but for years tourists have donated bras (sometimes on the spot) to hang in here alongside a blinding collection of stickers, fridge magnets, baseball caps and business cards.
It’s not like the pub was lacking character before, having witnessed, over its 90-year history, murders, shootouts and assorted other pioneer nefariousness. But back to the question. It’s not dinner time but the dish is a pub speciality; you order it now with your drink, give both names (one won’t do) and wait for them to be announced like a 1950s primary school roll call – “Norm and Beryl!”, “Bill and Coral!” – while Sam’s One Man Band (CDs 4 Sale $15.00 ea) belts out tunes in an open corrugated-iron shed. The dining area, a sea of silver hair and tapping feet, feels like the happiest place on earth.
At precisely the wrong time, we decide to call it a day. Strolling to our van in the campsite adjoining the pub, the familiar twang of The Angels’ pub anthem Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again strikes up. The grey-nomad retort that fills the warm outback air as we walk away (“No way! Get f***ed, f*** off!”) is not only unexpected, it’s also positively, hilariously life-affirming. I may never have felt more Australian.
It’s becoming clear that this adventure of ours has three distinct phases – the wild, the wacky and, as we approach Mataranka, 170 kilometres north of Daly Waters, the water. The springs around here are warm, clear, croc-free aquamarine pools that meander through the pandanas palms like a gauzy dream sequence in a movie. At the Mataranka Thermal Pool, we quickly get changed and glide in then float on our backs through the foliage, get out, walk back through the bush and repeat. It’s sublime.
From now until our destination, Darwin, it’s all about water – from stupendously majestic Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge to the thunderous waterfalls and swimmable billabongs of Litchfield National Park.
Before we set out from Sydney, I’d compiled a list of must-do activities based on recommendations of those who’d been here before. At the top and underlined for emphasis is the Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner Tour of Nitmiluk Gorge. We haven’t booked ahead – big mistake – but there have been two cancellations, a stroke of luck I will forever be grateful for. Yesterday, we’d climbed to a viewing point high in the gorge so its breadth and beauty comes as no surprise but a three-course, freshly prepared fine-dining experience on a big tinnie in the middle of nowhere. Really?
Really. We’re talking white linen tablecloths, fine wine and delicious and artfully plated dishes, such as wild-caught local barramundi delivered to eight tables on the tinnie like it’s The Dorchester – if the walls of The Dorchester were made of sunlit ancient sandstone. The dinner boat is the second phase of the three-and-a-half-hour event, which is run by Nitmiluk Tours, an award-winning company owned and operated by the traditional custodians, the Jawoyn people. The initial part is a late-afternoon cruise through the first of the national park’s 13 gorges, led by a guide who knows when to talk and when silence is the thing you will take away and keep.
For three days we stay in Katherine, a town blessed with natural wonders, good coffee and food trucks, torn between its easy charm and the knowledge that a hot shower and proper bed are just 320 kilometres north-west in Darwin (I’ve fallen in love with our van but campsite shower blocks are losing their appeal). So we hit the road with a detour into the paradisiacal Litchfield National Park, where we sit under waterfalls and swim and trek and begin to dread our inevitable return to the big smoke.
Darwin, as it happens, is the perfect transition; an increasingly sophisticated city built on a foundation of wilderness, wackiness and water. The resort wing of the Mindil Beach Casino has a swim-up bar and giant beds – bliss after a fortnight in the van. At the end of the day we stroll through the famous Mindil Beach Sunset Market, sample food finessed in the city’s exotic ethnic melting pot then jag a patch of sand and say goodnight to the setting sun.
Dear Bruce, it was lovely to meet you and Cheryl. We didn’t go to any of the places you recommended yet somehow still felt energised, reinvigorated and spiritually recharged.
PS: The Bungle Bungles are on our list.
Know before you go: Uluru to Darwin road trip tips
- The dry season (May to October) is the ideal time to visit.
- Select the right-sized van for your group. It’s not only your home for the journey, it’s also your runabout to and from town.
- The onboard toilet should be saved for bladder-busting emergencies, nothing more, ah, serious.
- Download podcasts or audiobooks to listen to before you head bush. Wi-fi is patchy to non-existent on most stretches of road.
- Take lots of water.
- Consider hiring a satellite phone if you have a medical condition or will need to be contacted.
- It’s likely your van will be fitted with a bar fridge, nothing bigger, so pick up provisions when you hit the bigger towns.
- Book the Nitmiluk Gorge dinner tour before you leave home – it’s wildly popular, extremely good and not to be missed.
Image credit: Michael Dunning (top); Di Webster