Named after John McDouall Stuart, the first explorer to successfully cross the continent from north to south and return in 1862, this route passes through the outback and red desert country to the Territory’s lush tropical Top End.
Alice Springs to Darwin
Best Time of the Year
May to November
- West MacDonnell Ranges
- Newcastle Waters
- Mataranka Thermal Pool
- Litchfield National Park
Today you will arrive in the Territory’s second largest city, Alice Springs. Alice Springs is Australia’s most famous outback town and is also known as the Aboriginal art capital of Australia. Called ‘Mpwante’ by the traditional owners, the Arrernte people, Alice Springs is situated 200km north of the geographic centre of Australia.
Tour Alice’s sights – visit Australia’s only arid zone botanic garden and discover fascinating local histories at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the Royal Flying Doctor Base, the School of the Air, and Anzac Hill lookout.
Alice Springs to West MacDonnell Ranges
An easy day trip from Alice Springs are the landscapes of the West MacDonnell Ranges which include chasms and gorges. The MacDonnell ranges, which stretch out for hundreds of kilometres on both sides of Alice Springs, are thought by the Arrernte people to have been giant caterpillars called the Yeperenye before becoming the ranges.
Take a short walk along the trail at Simpsons Gap to see its permanent waterhole. Stand between the sheer walls of Standley Chasm and photograph the fiery ochre colours reflected by the midday sun. Picturesque swimming holes at Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge and Redbank Gorge offer relief on a scorching day. You can also visit the Ochre Pits used by Aboriginal people as a quarry for ochre pigments.
Head back to Alice Springs for the night before your next day of adventure.
Alice Springs to Tennant Creek
Distance 510km - Driving Time 7 hours
As you head north the landscape changes from desert to sweeping plains. Take a detour to Ali Curung and visit their art centre. See the artists at work, telling their stories through their detailed works.
Wycliffe Well is known as Australia’s UFO sightings capital. Call in at the roadhouse, the walls of which document paranormal encounters from around the world.
The Devils Marbles are a sacred site known as Karlu Karlu to the Warumungu people. These massive ancient granite boulders are strewn across a wide shallow valley, and continue to crack and change. Bring your camera to capture the drama of the sun setting on the landscape.
While in the area John McDouall Stuart named a creek after his friend and sponsor, John Tennant. Today Tennant Creek is the main town in the region. Australia’s last gold rush took place here in the 1930s, and many believe that there is still gold to be found. The town’s golden history can be seen at sites around the town such as the Battery Hill Mining Centre. Take a tour to see how gold was extracted from the ground and processed through the Battery.
Just north of the town is Kunjarra/The Pebbles – granite boulders that are a sacred site and women’s dancing place for the Warumungu people, and a great place to see the sun set, before returning to Tennant Creek to set up camp.
Tennant Creek to Daly Waters
Distance 400km - Driving Time 5 hours
Before you leave town, discover the local Aboriginal culture at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre, which showcases the stories and art of the local traditional owners. Julalikari Arts is a busy centre where you can meet and see the work of Aboriginal women artists. Aboriginal music in English and traditional languages is performed, produced and for sale at Winanjjikari Music Centre.
At Threeways, where the Barkly Highway to Queensland meets the Stuart Highway, take the time to have a look at the memorial to the Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Flying Doctor Service.
Stop off at the historic ghost town of Newcastle Waters. A walk through the heritage listed buildings will give you an insight into the challenging life in a remote outback cattle town.
The Daly Waters Historic Pub is a popular place to overnight that offers backpacker, hotel or motel rooms, or a place to pitch a tent, as well as its renowned Beef and Barra meal. The pub and grounds are crammed with memorabilia that reveals the pub’s colourful history and those who have passed through its doors. This place is worth a longer stay, so set up camp for the night.
Daly Waters to Katherine via Mataranka
Distance 270km - Driving Time 3 hours 20 mins
First stop today is Larrimah, an historic outpost that was established in 1940 to service the nearby Gorrie Airfield during the war. It was the railhead on the North Australia Railway, and a camp used by the Australian Army. Troops made the journey by road from Adelaide to Larrimah then boarded a train to Darwin. Today you can wander through the Military Transport Museum to see photographs and interpretive text documenting WWII.
Next stop is the small township of Mataranka. The township itself is small, with a population of about 250, but it is a good place for a break, as it is well equipped with camping grounds, accommodation and a supermarket.
The area was made famous by the novel We of the Never Never – a book written in 1908 about nearby Elsey Station by Jeannie Gunn, and later adapted for a movie. Wander through The Elsey Cemetery and you will see the graves of many of the book’s characters.
Take a rejuvenating swim in the Mataranka Thermal Pool. Fed by spring water in the Daly and Georgina basins, it has a sandy bottom, is surrounded by a palm forest and its waters are a constant 34 degrees. From here, you’re only 113km from the township of Katherine.
Katherine is the NT’s fourth largest town, and a great base while exploring the nearby gorge country. The vast Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) is home to Nitmiluk Gorge, a system of 13 gorges that were carved out of the sandstone by the Katherine River. A helicopter joy flight is a great way to see the gorge from the air (ask at the park visitor centre).
Another popular way to see the landscape is from the water. Paddle a canoe or join a guided cruise of the river to see sheer cliffs, sandy beaches where freshwater crocs nest and ancient Aboriginal rock paintings.
Katherine to Litchfield National Park
Distance 265km - Driving Time 3 hours
First stop today is about 40km north of Katherine. Edith Falls (Leliyn) is located on the western boundary of the Nitmiluk National Park and is home to a huge natural pool, fringed with paperbark and pandanus. This is also the end point for walkers on the Jatbula Trail.
Further north is the historic town of Pine Creek, an important transport hub during the 1870s gold mining boom and WWII. Turn off the Stuart Highway and follow the signs to Batchelor, a small town and gateway to Litchfield National Park.
The Park’s close proximity to Darwin and unspoiled beauty makes Litchfield popular with day-trippers who come from the city for a dip in the Florence Falls plunge pool, Buley Rockhole, and Wangi Falls. Join visitors in the popular swimming spots, but also go further afield to follow the boardwalk past the curious magnetic termite mounds, or drive the four-wheel drive track to The Lost City rock formations and Tjaynera Falls.
Walking trails leave from most popular sites – look out for signs in the car parks for tracks that vary between short strolls and walks of 1 to 3km. Or for more experienced walkers, spend a few days here to complete the longer 39km Tabletop Track circuit.
There are many great places around the park to pitch your tent – as well as accessible, well-marked sites, there are those that are walk-in or accessible by four-wheel drive only.
Litchfield National Park to Darwin
Distance 130km - Driving Time 2 hours
On your way into Darwin stop at historic Berry Springs Nature Park. A recreation camp for armed forces personnel during the war, today it is a popular spot for a barbecue and a dip in the freshwater pools. Remains of wartime huts and weirs are still visible around the main pool.
At the Territory Wildlife Park you can get close to the local wildlife. Wander through treetop aviaries, around a natural lagoon and walk through the aquarium to see animals, including the saltwater croc, in their natural habitats.
Follow the Explorer’s Way for your first glimpse of the Timor Sea and into Darwin, Australia’s northernmost capital city, and one of Lonely Planet’s top ten cities to visit in 2012. You will find yourself in a contemporary multicultural metropolis of open-air markets, festivals, Asian-influenced cuisine, and an outdoor lifestyle.