If you were some kind of masochist you could drive the 3,000+ kilometres from Adelaide to Darwin in 32 hours. That is not our idea of fun and we’re figure it is not yours either. Take the more scenic 14-day itinerary to traverse Australia’s loneliest road - the fascinating Explorer’s Highway. Best experienced from April to October, navigate the wild ride of Australia’s iconic ochre-stained landscape. The Stuart Highway follows the pioneering spirit of 19th century explorer, John McDouall Stuart.
While on the Explorer’s Highway, accommodation can be more rustic than the coastal areas of Australia, so pack a swag or tent, or opt for a choice of Australia’s more unique stays. Drive times are approximate, please let people know your route and expected arrival times, and be on the lookout for roaming stock and kangaroos who can wander onto the road. There are gas stations every 300-400kms, but you can often be the only one on the road for miles at a time, and if you’re up for for an adventurous endeavour across the pulsing heart of Australia, then this is the road trip for you.
Start the explorers trip of a lifetime in South Australia's Adelaide.
Clare Valley encompasses picturesque stone hamlets, quintessential eucalyptus valleys, and the delicious riesling wine country. Auburn, gateway to Clare Valley, is only 110km from Adelaide, yet the contrast in pace and atmosphere feels more like 110 years. Use the self-guided walking tour to explore the town. From here, stop at one of Clare Valley’s famous eateries – where classic country pubs and rustic vineyards offer local produce served in delectable feasts. Skillogalle, Sevenhill and Annie’s Lanes are favourites.
After the scrumptious feasts of Clare Valley, bring balance back with a walk at Alligator Gorge. Burrowed in Mount Remarkable National Park, this is your introduction to the dramatic scenery of the Australian red centre. Depending on both time and your fitness levels choose from three walks, however, don’t enter if rain is forecast. (And you have to purchase an entry permit online prior to exploring the gorge..)
At a debated 540-1650 million years old, a visit to the Flinders Ranges is good for the soul - especially if you’ve ever been concerned about your age – here you are positively sprightly! What first appears to be a crater is, in fact, the stubs of an ancient mountain range eroded to its current bowl shape over millennia. Covering an enormous 8,000 hectares, exploration of the rugged landscape could fill an entire trip but it’s best seen in it’s entirety from the air - definitely worth the splurge for a scenic sunrise flight. Other highlights, are the walks. Grab a brochure from the camping ground/motel as this outlines the 13 walks around the basin, ranging from an hours walk to a 9 hour hike.
Don’t believe the movies – you don’t need a Tardis to time travel when you can visit Brachina Gorge. Considered one of the oldest trade routes on earth, with some of the oldest exposed rocks on the planet, the bumpy 22km geological trail (4WD recommended) affords a plethora of fossils and bush wildlife, including the yellow-footed rock wallabies.
Population 7, the desert oasis of Parachilna makes its way on the tourism map for its stunning gorge. Camping is available at the old Parancilna school where you can get access to showers and the camp kitchen. Prairie Hotel’s ‘Flinders feral grill’ with a feast of emu, kangaroo and camel. At the iconic Prairie Hotel you can get a bed in a heritage room for the night, or you could try a more rustic experience and rent a Fettlers cottage.
Once the main route to cross Australia, the Oodnadatta Track, is just over 600km long so prep in advance with gas and provisions. Now accessible by 2WD, this route should be avoided if rain is forecast. While passing Marree, stretch your legs at the strange standing planes and “big dog” - whose head is made of a Chrysler car - at Mutonia Sculpture Park.
About 20 minutes prior to Coward Springs, keep an eye out for signs to the bubbling, natural artesian spring of the Wabma Kadarbu.
William Creek is about as ‘outback town’ as you can get - it’s South Australia’s smallest town with a campground, two motels and a pub - in the middle of the world’s largest working cattle station (larger than Belgium and Holland combined)! Be sure to grab a bite at the tin-shed William Creek Hotel.
The drive to Coober Pedy is a steady journey through the orange hues of the outback, passing sand hills, saltbush and the desert brush with nothing much else, so stock up before getting on the road. Anticipation rises as the town of Coober Pedy emerges. You’ll recognise the unforgettable terrain from Mad Max III as it zooms into view.
Coober Pedy is a gem of a place (groan), where fossickers in 1915 struck the world’s largest haul of opals. The harsh outback heat and desert conditions saw the townsfolk build some of their community structures underground in dugouts. These unique features make Coober Pedy one of the most curious places to visit on earth. The ultimate exploration here includes the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum, Faye’s Underground Home, resplendent with indoor pool, or you can try your luck fossicking for opals. Round off the day with sunset at the gorgeous Breakaway.
Uluru must be one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks. To reach the national park, you’ll be crossing into the Northern Territory, with obligatory border sign. Our vote for a million-star experience is to sleep in a swag at Uluru; alternatively, the hospitality of Curtain Springs offers a slightly more affordable stay than within the national park.
To fully appreciate the geological majesty and spiritual significance of Uluru, a visit to the Cultural Centre is recommended. From here, take the 1.5km Liru Walk from its base. An alternative (or addition, if you’re up for it) is to drive to Mala where the hike takes around 1-1.5 hours. Round off this spectacular day at the Uluru sunset viewing area, or, for an upgraded Uluru experience, splurge on the Sounds of Silence sunset dinner.
With an action-packed day ahead, wake with the wildlife to witness sunrise at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). You can see nature’s finest from the viewing area or with a walk around the dunes. From here, go directly to Kata Tjuta to hike among the 36 majestic domes of Walpa Gorge and/or Valley of the Winds. Please make sure you plan ahead and take plenty of water to combat the desert heat.
Or if you’ve got the time, take the 6 day Larapinta trail walk is tremendous. These fully guided and assisted tours give you a chance to really soak up the landscape and learn about the environment and the Arrente people - the traditional owners of Alice Springs.
Go and visit Brolga and the kangaroos for a guided sunset tour at the Kangaroo Sanctuary (Tuesday - Friday and bookings are essential.).
Once back on the Explorer’s Highway, head 150 km north to reach these truly epic hillside statues at Aileron. They were created to get people to pull off the highway and they do their job. At 17m, the biggest is the Anmatjere Man, or 'Big Aboriginal'. Park, and take the time to do the short walk up the hill to appreciate how massive this guy is. He weighs eight tonnes. Then, towering in the yard behind Aileron Gallery, is the Anmatjere Woman And Child, who are equally impressive. Aileron includes a roadhouse and accommodation.
Most people take a quick photo stop at Wycliffe Well but the adventurous stay the night. This is not another outback settlement but, in fact, the UFO capital of Australia! With hundreds of sightings, the odds of you witnessing something extra-terrestrial while staying at the Wycliffe Wells Roadhouse are apparently high.
Rise early to reach the Devil’s Marbles in time for sunrise. One of the Northern Territory’s geological treasures, these granite boulders vary in width from 50cm to 6m. The Marbles have great significance to the Aboriginal people and, as the rocks are sacred, climbing is not permitted.
If there is one meal you make sure you commit to on this trip, it’s the Daly Water’s pub grub. It’s the oldest pub in the territory, and a regular winner of culinary awards. It’s also a reasonable spot to stay for the night with a range of accommodation options.
Head out to the amazing limestone formations of the Cutta Cutta Caves. At nearly 1,500 hectares of limestone, this nature park is rich in wildlife, especially of the winged variety and must be seen by guided tour.
Katherine is gateway to Nitmulik National Park, aka Katherine Gorge. You can hire canoes or get a permit to use your own canoe from the Nitmiluk National Park Visitor Centre. And if you book ahead, you can canoe to the fourth, sixth and ninth gorges and camp overnight.
But if canoeing isn’t your thing there are several walks in the park with the ultimate being the 6 day Jatbula trail.
No visit to Kakadu is complete without a visit to one of the ancient Dreamtime drawings scribed into the sandstone rocks. Begin with the 2km circuit to Nourlangie, a world-class site where you can experience the staggering artwork etched into the ochre minerals. It dates back a phenominal 20,000 years – the longest historical records of any group in time.
Connect to one of the oldest civilisations on earth at Kakadu National Park, where the indigenous tribes have treasured this ever-changing landscape for centuries. Spoilt for choice this park is a combination of wetlands, savannah, stone country, coastal, tidal flats, hills and ranges with an array of stunning waterfalls. Our pick is the majestic infinity plunge pool and cascading waters of Gunlom Waterfall Creek. Stay deep within the park at either the 3-star eco Cooinda Lodge or nearby Mardugal Campground if you’re on a budget.
Nature lovers unite in the wetlands of Mary River National Park – where the highest concentration of saltwater crocodiles can be found. These scaly beasts are best seen by airboat where you can also take in billabongs, water buffalos, and monsoon rainforest. The latter can also be explored on three trails if you choose to stay at the Mary Wilderness Lodge.
You made it! Through rugged terrain, remote bushland and dusty highways, you can celebrate your personal pilgrimage on the Explorer’s Highway in the Northern Territory’s capital. A walk around the manicured parkways of Darwin’s waterfront will be in stark contrast to the tin-shed towns along the Stuart Highway.
The Deckchair Cinema. The ‘top end sunset’ provides a remarkably fitting ending to your extraordinary outback adventure.