While driving through the red center of Australia, we were certainly astonished with the beautiful locations that this part of the country has to offer, something that didn’t stop in Alice Springs but it continued and got even more impressive further north.
Our previous diary ended as we entered the West Mac Donnells Ranges and took Namatjira Drive. This scenic route led us to a whole series of gorges and gaps. Our first stop was on Wallace Rock-hole, a permanent large waterhole perfect for swim on a hot day (it was still a bit cold for Yianni to enter though).
About 11 kilometers further up a gravel track, we were led to the narrow, red Serpentine Gorge, which has a lovely waterhole blocking the entrance and a panoramic lookout, after a steep track from where we left the car. The next morning and after a quick breakfast, we continued along the way, with destination the majestic Ormiston Gorge.
This is the most impressive chasm in the West Mac Donnells and comes with a waterhole shaded with ghost gum trees. The gorge itself curls around the enclosed Ormiston Pound, where along the route you reach the Ghost Gum Lookout that offers brilliant views down the gorge. The excellent, circuitous Pound Walk involves a deep water crossing that we were not prepared for. Rochelle went for it straight ahead as she didn’t mind getting wet.
Myself, I picked a different approach climbing up on the rocks around it. Something that caused Rochelle a small heart attack, watching me hung high over cliffs but it was definitely worth it for me, the adrenaline freak of the family. No, I did not get a stupid pass! Continuing northwest and after about 25 kilometers, we reached the turn-off (4WD only) to Red-bank Gorge. This waterhole runs for kilometers through a labyrinthine gorge, and makes for an incredible swimming and trekking adventure. For our last night we went back to Standley Chasm to spend the night and planned to visit the site the next morning.
With that completed, we took the road north and we called in the Devil’s Marbles. This sacred site has great cultural importance for the locals as it is believed that the rocks were eggs of the Rainbow Serpent (the Creator according to the Aboriginal culture). The main site took us 30 minutes for a loop walk around it while at the end we were rewarded with a magical sunset over the rocks.
That night, we camped beside the rocks, where the night skies were full of stars and a mesmerizing milky way, while the next morning an unforgettable sunrise made a great start of our day. We drove to Tennant Creek that, except being the only town of any size between Katherine, 680km to the north, and Alice Springs, 511km to the south, it was the place where one of Rochelle’s relatives lived in harmony side by side with the local community, while defending their rights to the land of their ancestors. We paid a visit to his hotel/pub that still stands and operates till this day. It was an emotional moment seeing the plate in his honor still decorating the entrance of the hotel, representing the hospitality history of the Kilgariff name.
Besides that, the town is nothing more than a break from the long drive and a place to restock in supplies and fuel before you push further north to Daly Waters. This place was known as an important staging post in the early days of aviation. Was that all though? Were we missing something? It got us by surprise when we arrived in its pub, waiting to see a ghost one street settlement. Seriously packed, the designated camping area on the side of the pub seemed like everybody’s stop over, while the pub itself had proofs of the number of travelers passed by, as it had decorated its walls with hanging business cards, ladies bras (yes, you read it right), banknotes and memorabilia from everyone who was willing to mark their pass through here. The pub claims the fame of the oldest establishment in the Territory and the liquor license that decorates the center of the bar has valid date 1893. Just that, I guess, makes this place a bit of a legend along the Track.
Next stop was Mataranka, with its warm thermal springs set in a forest of tropical palms. We had been hearing about this place since we first started our loop, so we would be mad not to pull in for a few days to soak off some of the road dust. Every night the small on site pub had entertainment on, in a form of country western live music.
A music educational program as well as amusement time for me. Rochelle on the other hand, seemed like she knew most of the songs as a true real country girl! I still tease her about it. Moving further north, we reached the spectacular Katherine Gorge that combines a series of deep sandstone gorges, carved out by the Katherine River. It’s a beautiful place although it can get extremely hot during the day, even in the wet season that we were here. Our itinerary included a 16km round trek following the rim of the gorge. While halfway into it, we reached a beautiful waterhole where we cooled down before we moved on. Before our final approach into Darwin and next on our list to visit was Litchfield NP, which many NT locals rate higher even than Kakadu.
This 1500-sq km national park encloses the Tabletop Range, that comes with a wide range of waterfalls pouring off the edge, creating crystal-clear cascades and croc-free plunge pools. Our first stop was in Buley Rockhole, where the cascade forms a series of rock pools big enough for a good swim.
Later that day, we pulled up in Florence Falls Campground, from where after a 135-step descent, we could reach a big beautiful pool, surrounded by thick forest and toped up with a year round running waterfall. It was a great way to keep ourselves busy swimming, while escaping the heat for almost the entire day. The mosquitoes though had other plans for us at night! They were so bad that instead of two nights (that we had originally planned to stay) we shortened our stay and late that day, we packed our tent and took the road towards Darwin.
Except being the capital of NT, Darwin is Australia’s only tropical city, it’s closer to Bali than to any of the other big city in Australia (certainly feels removed from the rest of the country). Darwin’s lack of swimmable beaches, because of the presence of saltwater crocodile, is balanced by many other activities. Street side restaurants and bars, wonderful local craft markets, innovative museums displaying the city’s past and rich Indigenous art galleries are some of the things to keep you busy within the city. If all this is not enough, there is nature that is part of Darwin’s backyard.
The famous Kakadu National Park is only a few hours’ drive away. A national park, as our native guide pointed out, that is a whole lot more than just a park. It’s a vibrant, living acknowledgement of the link between its people and the country they have nurtured, endured and respected for thousands of generations. It’s encompassing almost 20,000 sq km and holds within its boundaries a spectacular ecosystem and a mind blowing concentration of ancient rock art. The landscape always changes from bare lowlands to flooded flat lands desolated or abundant, depending on the season.
In just a few days during our stay here and although we entered the park the first officially date of the dry season (that had as a result some of the popular places to be out of limits, subject to flooding), we managed to cruise up and down on billabongs bursting with wildlife, examine 25,000-year-old rock paintings, swim in pools at the foot of tumbling waterfalls, do some scary water crossings with Voukefalas and hike through ancient sandstone escarpment country. All and all, and no matter how busy Kakadu might get, this place is still a remarkable piece of paradise and worth visiting.
Leaving Kakadu behind, we headed back south to Daly Waters, where we entered the epic Savannah Way that runs all the way from Cairns to Broome, skirting the top of the country and is one of the country’s greatest road trips. In this part of the Savannah Way, the Carpentaria Highway after 378km meets Cape Crawford. From here, after a rough 150km of corrugated road, we reached Lorella Springs Homestead, a working family owned farm that covers a total area of 1,000,000 hectares (that is almost half the size of Greece, by the way).
Within the borders of this Northern Territory coastal wildness sanctuary, which extends all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the north, there is an abundance of waterfalls, billabongs and off the beaten track gorges along the Rosie River, which can keep you busy exploring for weeks. As we checked in, we were told that there is a total of 1000km of 4WD tracks around the farm that we were free to explore during our stay and camp anywhere we wished within the boundary of the farm. What a treat that was! I wonder why we stayed for a week! The tracks proved to be hard on our vehicle and while exploring some of the pools and waterfalls, we suffered some minor hits and bumps from the rocks hidden under the water line, in the many water crossings we had to do.
Back on the Savannah Way from Borroloola and after 252 kilometers to the east, we reached the Queensland border. By the time we entered Hell’s Gate roadhouse, we had completed 480 km on the worst roads we had come across so far. Yes, even worse than the Amazon crossing, Iran or India! Voukefalas had done some of the deepest water crossings and in one of them was wounded, as we bottomed out big time in a huge rock, again not visible above the water line. Fortunately no serious damage was done. After that overnight in Hell’s Gate roadhouse and 300km more of bad roads, we finally completed the rough corrugated route and we were back to the safety of an asphalt road near Normanton.
On the last stretch of the Savannah Way, the flat, red dust landscape of scrubby forest and croc-filled creeks started giving way to east coast’s green mountains and sugar-cane fields. With our car making strange noises and after a quick stop in Cobbard National Park, we pushed towards Cairns, where the epilogue of a bit more than three months in Australia’s outback came to a conclusion as we finally had reached the coast.