Ultimate DIY Tour: Road Trip from Darwin to Uluru
Drive from Darwin to Alice Springs
I never knew that dirt could be so magical! But, in the “red centre,” it is exactly that. Starkly juxtaposed next to the soft greens of the shrubs and gumtrees, this extremely isolated area of Australia is breathtakingly beautiful. We drove from Darwin to Uluru via Daly River and Litchfield, then over to Kakadu and through Katherine, stopping in at the Devils Marbles and Alice Springs and then across to Uluru. Northern Territory scenery is absolutely breathtaking and the weather was perfect (that was until the hail storm in Alice Springs, the first in a very long time).
READ: My Guide to Darwin and Surrounds covers Darwin, Litchfield, Kakadu, Katherine and Elsey National Parks
Darwin to Daly River
Stay for: 1-2 days
Daly River is about 220 km South-East of Darwin, past Litchfield National Park. It’s a tiny river town and missionary with some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. There’s one pub which doubles up as a supermarket and that’s about it. It would be a great destination for people travelling in a van that want to see rural Northern Territory without having to go “off road”
Things to do in Daly River
There are gorgeous lookouts, a hill to climb at sunset, fishing and off-roading. The most beautiful lookout is very well hidden. To get there turn off Port Keats road onto Nanaar road, continue along for about 500 metres then turn right onto a partially hidden dirt track. This is where you can find the viewpoint that I have pictured. There is a nice rock flat at the top to park your car/van. In the late afternoon, walk to the top of the hill located between Daly River road and Nauiyu Access. It’s an easy walk and the 360° views are absolutely breathtaking.
Where to stay in Daly River
Hopefully, you’ve brought along your van, as this is a really great place for just parking wherever to sleep the night. If you’re in need of some accommodation you can stay at the Daly River Roadside Inn.
How to get to Daly River
Just follow the highway around Litchfield (you can also go through the park if you want to), make sure you stay on the Stuart highway otherwise you’ll end up going off-road.
READ: For Darwin, Litchfield, Kakadu, Katherine and Elsey read this article
Darwin to Tennant Creek & Devils Marbles (Karlu Karlu)
Stay for: 1-2 days
If you’re driving from Darwin to Alice Springs (or the other way around) chances are you’ve already planned to drop in here. I highly recommend staying more than just one night, as I really loved it, and the campground is cheap! There are lots to explore; it’s like a natural playground! If you’re into your photography you’ll want to have time for the perfect shots too, especially for sunset when the rocks become illuminated in bright pink.
Where to stay at the Devils Marbles
So Tennant Creek is actually 100 km from the marbles, but compared to how much you’ve already driven in the Northern Territory it’s really nothing. If you need a hotel, this is where you’re going to have to come. There is one resort next to the Marbles, the Devils Marbles Hotel, but it’s quite expensive. If you’re camping then you are very much in luck! The campsites are nice with lots of places to sit and people all around, plus it’s only $3.30 per person (honour system).
How to get to the Devils Marbles
Luckily for anyone driving, it’s literally right there on the highway, 100 km from Tennant Creek. It’s really, really easy. But it does mean it gets a little crowded with lots of families stopping in.
Darwin to Alice Springs
Stay for: 2-3 days
We were driving into Alice late in the afternoon, just after some rain, and the scenery around Alice literally made me stop the vehicle so I could take it all in. It was some of the most beautiful, and simultaneously alien-like views I’ve ever seen. The earth bright red juxtaposed with pale, silvery olive green of the shrubbery. Gum trees as white as ghosts jutted out every now and then, stretching their wiry branches in all directions. Photos do no justice for the beauty that surrounds Alice Springs, and it is a place I felt instantly connected to, a place I know I will have to return to.
Things to do in Alice Springs
The town itself didn’t interest us too much. There are some markets, shopping centres, etc. It’s the surrounding areas of Alice that we were desperate to explore. Just 18 km outside of Alice is Simpsons Gap, a beautiful natural chasm with a stream flowing between it. There are walks around the area including the Ghost Gum Walk and the Cassia Hill Walk; around scrubland and up to a lookout.
READ: Budget Guide when planning to Trek the Larapinta Trail on the Cheap
Where to stay in Alice Springs
We stayed in a very relaxed camping ground out the back of the Gap View Hotel for $11 per night (total). With a scattering of BBQ’s, a pool, a huge toilet block with hot showers and a few sneaky places for us to plug our camper electricity into this was a great spot for us.
How to get to Alice Springs
Alice is somewhat of an epicentre, with people flying in and out, an array of buses and a train line from Adelaide to Darwin also passes through. You have quite a few choices here but most likely you’re driving since you want to see everything else nearby.
Drive from Alice Springs to Uluru
The Alice Springs to Uluru drive is an increasingly popular route that only takes 5.5 hours to drive. Considering everything in Australia is so far away, this is actually pretty close! On the way, drop into the MacDonnell ranges for beautiful vistas and day treks, and be sure to swing by Kings Canyon for a gorgeous rim hike.
Alice Springs to the MacDonnell Ranges
Stay for: 2-3 days
Definitely do this park, and definitely, make sure you have a few days to do it if you can (still worth the day trip if you can’t). It’s gorge galore, lush river-full and boasts one of the top 20 hikes in the world – the Larapinta trail.
Things to do in MacDonnell Ranges
If I’d had the time, you wouldn’t have been able to stop me from doing the two-week Larapinta trail; rain, hail or shine. The scenery in the area is beautiful, and the trail is very well supported, you can hop on or off at numerous checkpoints and stay in very well equipped campgrounds for free. Luckily for me, most of the park is accessible by car so we were able to spend the day driving from one beautiful place to the next. My favourite spots were Stanley Chasm, Ormiston Gorge and Redbank Gorge (pictured).
Where to camp in MacDonnell Ranges
A lot of the campgrounds in the Northern Territory are free, but to check download the app Wikicamps which will give you most of the information you’ll need. My favourites were Redbank Gorge (beautiful sunset view) and Ellery Creek.
How to get around MacDonnell Ranges
Hopefully, you’ve got a vehicle for all of this but if you don’t you can do day tours from Alice Springs. For people who have a bit more freedom, it’s 100 km from Alice in total, with the first gorge being only 18 km out of Alice at Simpsons Gap. Zip along the main park road, dropping in at Stanley Chasm, Ellery Creek, the Ochre Pits, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen and Redbank Gorge. You can even go further if you have more time.
Alice Springs to Kings Canyon
Stay for: 1 day
I’ve already described so many places in the Northern Territory as breathtaking so I feel like I need a new word. Awe-inspiring? Otherworldly? Epic? All of these cover Kings Canyon which is a huge system of canyons and rock walls that you can climb to the top of and then walk along for 6 km. In the beginning, it’s a very tough vertical trek, then once on top, you can just chill out and take in the spectacular views.
Where to stay in Kings Canyon
There are a few good campsites just outside the park that are free. We stayed in Salt Creek RA, which had a resident dingo and beautiful red soft sand.
How to get to Kings Canyon
Unfortunately it’s quite a ways off the road to Uluru, but still worth the effort. You can also get to Kings Canyon from MacDonnell Park if you have a 4WD. It’s half the distance but could take the same amount of time due to the severity of the off-roading. If you have a van it’s an easy turn off on the way from Alice Springs from the Lasseter highway 4 on to Luritja road 3.
Kings Canyon to Uluru (Ayers Rock)
Stay for: 2-3 days
One of the most famous landmarks in the world… and with good reason. This rock put the Northern Territory on the map. Pictures really don’t capture how epic this rock is. Bright red and huge, it takes 20 minutes just to drive around it!
Things to do in Uluru
Aside from everything rock-related, there is also another very impressive place in the park; Kata Tjuta. Ensure you do both a sunset and sunrise here as the rock lights up into a bright, impressive red from different angles.
Where to stay in Uluru
The small town of Yulara just outside of the park comes equipped with everything from campgrounds to 5-star hotels. Or you can try your hand at sleeping in your van on the side of the road, though the Rangers might wake you up and tell you to move on. Last cheapo option is to drive 100 km back to Curtin Springs Roadhouse where they offer FREE campsites (and showers, omg!).
How to get to Uluru
Ayres rock has its own airport with several flights in and out per day. It would be quite simple to fly in and get a hold of a hire car right away.
READ: More on the Uluru rock climb for information about wether or not to climb this sacred rock
How to Road Trip in the Northern Territory
This is where your online detective skills are going to come in handy. I found that hiring the van through an online booking agency was cheaper than booking through the actual company’s site. When booking, Motorhome Republic gave me a 25% off deal for a Britz Highball Van because it was the off-season. Look out for these and compare lots of prices.
Advance Car Rentals hire 4WD cars for about $135 per day or Wicked Campers were the cheapest I found at $99 per day. Some places may charge extra for going off-road, which sucks. My advice? If you’re serious about 4WDing, buy your own then sell it at the end of the trip.
There’s one big problem with hiring a car for your Northern Territory trip. Most of the car hire companies have a very strict 100 km per day limit on their hire cars. They tell me this is because they can’t then sell the car off when its miles are up too high. In my opinion, that’s pretty unfair, but thems the rules. But I did manage to find one car hire place in Darwin that gave us unlimited kms to get to Daly River and back. They are Advance Car Rentals and they hire for as little as $35 a day! Be sure to check them out if you’re really set on a hire car for the trip.
If you can’t drive or otherwise can’t get a hold of a car, the buses are a good option. The Greyhound bus will let you choose where you want to stop along the way and the price is pretty fair at $180 for the trip between Alice and Darwin. Plus you get to just sleep between stops, which is rejuvenating.
The very famous ‘Ghan’ train is very expensive, and although it would be an epic train ride, it would have to be something I did when I have a bit more dosh. But it does stop in at all the major Northern territory landmarks along the way and have first class service.
Place: Northern Territory
Currency: Australian Dollars
$1 USD = $1.30
I was there: June 2016
Note: Thank you to Tourism NT for sponsoring part of my stay in the Top End and to Advance Car Rental for helping me out hiring a car. Opinions are always my own and not influenced by my sponsors.