Although it’s a big drive from the city coast to the desert, it can be done with some interesting – and sometimes incredible – pit stops along the way. From the relaxed atmosphere of sleepy Darwin, to hot and dusty Alice Springs, and then on to spectacular Uluru, there are many adventures to be had in the Top End.
The first stop is the city of Darwin: nestled on the edge of the Timor Sea, on one of the most northerly tips of Australia, it’s a melting pot of culture and the dry, but at times luscious, beauty of the Territory. Firstly, head to The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, one of the best arts and cultural attractions in the region. You can experience its ever-changing travelling exhibitions and its special exhibition in commemoration of Cyclone Tracy, as well as its fascinating Indigenous art collections. If the midday heat isn’t too unbearable, you can’t go past Mindil Beach. In the evening, when the markets are on, the place is buzzing with food stalls and entertainment, so be sure to grab an ice-cream and cool off. Unfortunately, swimming is slightly hazardous due to the stingers and crocodiles, but taking a stroll along Darwin’s favourite beach can be just as pleasant – just make sure to watch out for anything that bites. It would be foolish to leave Darwin without going through the extraordinary Kakadu National Park. As the largest national park in Australia, covering a staggering 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is home to myriad plant and animal species, and stunning landscapes including wetlands, savannas, and stone country.
Next up is Alice Springs. Credited as being the closest town to Uluru – and yet still a six-hour drive away – it is the perfect detour on your way to the big rock. If you’ve come all the way from Darwin, you’ll be in dire need of a pick-me-up. Firstly, head to the Page 27 Café for breakfast: it is renowned for its home-style food, hearty servings and excellent coffee. It’s a good idea to get to know the place. The Mbantua Gallery and Cultural Museum is a cultural paradise, featuring authentic, vibrant paintings and pottery by local Aboriginal artists, as well as other artefacts from the Red Centre. If you’re taking a walk down Todd Mall, you might be lucky enough to come across the Todd Mall Market, which runs two to three times a month on Sundays. If it is the Territory’s native wildlife that really steals your heart, visit the Alice’s Kangaroo Sanctuary, which was featured as part of a BBC2/AGB Films television series, Kangaroo Dundee. The Sanctuary owners run guided tours, which along with generous donations, sustain their work. Alternatively, there are multitudes of wildlife-viewing tours – some featuring camels or emus – that run from Alice Springs all year round.
When you get to Uluru, you will feel truly immersed in the desert. To experience the intrigue of the rock, it’s imperative that you spend time exploring its crevices, and getting to know its ancient cultural and natural history. Thought to be 700 million years old, Uluru (or Ayers Rock, as it is known by some) is part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It is a sacred site for Indigenous Australians, and would have originally been under the sea millions of years ago. It’s a good idea to begin your journey at the Cultural Centre, to learn about the Anangu culture and the story behind the land that you are walking on. It’s about a 10-kilometre walk around the base of the rock – plenty of time to take in the monolith and its myriad surface rock formations, which have developed throughout years of erosion; to appreciate the sacred aspects of the site; and to find a shady spot for rest, when you can. At the end of the day, it is highly recommended that visitors experience the sunset (alternatively, if you are an early riser, visit at sunrise). From a few selected spots, you will be treated to a dazzling mix of pinks, oranges and yellows. This is truly the perfect end to your desert experience.