One of the reasons why we landed in Darwin was that we wanted to drive down the Stuart Highway through the Australian outback. An epic journey that was on our bucket list for quite a while now. This highway goes all the way from Darwin to Adelaide and through the red and dry centre of Australia. Lonely Planet calls it one of those epic road trips you must do once in your lifetime. With names such as Devils Marbles, Snake River and Spiders Creek you know what you can expect ?! No way we could miss that!
In this article, we’ll talk about our adventures along the road. But we have also written a downloadable guide to the Stuart Highway, you can use when planning your trip or while you are on the road.
Read more: The ultimate guide to the Stuart Highway
We told you all about our car and its troubles in our last travel diary. But now we can finally tell you everything about our first real road trip in Australia! The journey is long, 3000 km of endless roads, hundreds of kilometres without a living soul, roadhouses and the real Australian outback spirit. And of course, there is Uluru or Ayers Rock right in the middle, in the red centre of the country!
We try to prepare ourselves as good as possible because you really don’t want to have a broken car out here. And if it does happen, you’d better have everything you need in order to survive in those temperatures of 40 degrees or more! We have an annexe at the car to create some shade, two cans for 20 litres extra drinking water, a can for water for the engine, enough food and some extra fuel in the cans on our roof. But because our car just got a new engine and is fully serviced and checked, we have good hopes we will reach Adelaide without any problems. You never know, of course, mechanics can always fail…
Darwin – Litchfield National Park
The Stuart Highway leaves in Darwin. We already wrote another travel diary on our adventures there. But our first ‘real’ stop along this road is Litchfield National Park, where we immediately camp for the first time in the bush at Florence Falls Campground! We arrived quite late in the park, but just in time to prepare Cody for the night while enjoying a beautiful sunset! We do have to admit those first nights weren’t easy as all the camping equipment was new to us, so we had to discover a lot by trial and error. But luckily Jurgen succeeded in connecting the gas bottle so he could prepare our dinner. We were at a real bush camping, so almost no facilities and we were a bit in bad luck because the toilets were out of order. So Hanne could immediately show she is a real bush girl and use the shovel to dig a hole for you know what?
Waterfalls and termite mounds
The park is just beautiful! There is still a lot of tropical vegetation but it also has this desert feel about it. Luckily there are still a lot of trees in Litchfield, which makes camping and walking around still bearable. Our campground lies just next to Florence Falls and Waterhole. It is almost the end of the dry season, so the waterfalls are on their smallest now, but the pool is still fantastic! Because this is crocodile country, you cannot swim everywhere you want, which is quite frustrating with the heat! Waterholes, pools and creeks were it is possible are therefore very popular! And luckily it is still the dry season, in the wet season, the crocodiles can more easily reach the waterholes through the rivers. Freshwater crocodiles are scary but less harmful for humans, but it’s the saltwater crocodiles you don’t want to encounter! They can easily eat an adult!
The next morning (when our car problems start) we visit the Wangi Falls, again a gigantic natural pool surrounded by high orange/red walls and some rainforest where a beautiful waterfall runs through the entire year. Do I still need to say it was a magical place? Next, we visit the enormous termite mounds, or apartments for the ants as our girls call them. We see entire termite cities, towers in all kind of formats with some real giants in between. We can only look at them awestruck! How beautiful can nature be!!
Katherine – Nitmiluk National Park
We probably don’t have to repeat it again, but we were stuck in Katherine for a couple of weeks because our car broke down. Luckily there were some nice places around to discover while we were there (with a rental car because oh yes, that’s right, our car broke down ?).
Just next to the campground where we were stuck for a while, you could visit hot springs. Again a safe place to take a dip because you really wouldn’t want to do that in the river next to the hot springs… What an amazing spot! And because we had time, we could visit it a couple of times!
Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk National Park is situated very close to Katherine and is an amazing stop along the Stuart Highway. We visit some more waterfalls and swimming holes, but we don’t get tired of them! Edith Falls was stunning! Although we do have to admit that Hanne, for some bizarre reason didn’t want to go into the water. She was suddenly scared of the fish. Knowing that she snorkelled in Malaysia between much bigger fish? A children’s mind can take some strange curves from time to time… But anyway, the rest of the family enjoyed the refreshing swim in the water! And Jurgen could test his drone for the first time in Australia.
After our swim, we walk up to a lookout over Katherine River, and it is so hot! We had 2 bottles of water with us, but even that was not enough! The view over Katherine Gorge, on the other hand, was just breathtaking. Way down the river finds its way through the cliffs, again with crocodiles, but we don’t see any. The kids, however, are busy looking for them and in their minds, they saw lots!
During our long stay at the Katherine Campground, we talked to lots of Australians. There was an older guy, a real Aussie, who gave us lots of tips for our journey down the Stuart Highway. One of them was Mataranka, again a hot spring, but situated in the middle of tropical vegetation and an endless amount of palm trees. A good reason to stop over here and wash off all the dust from the road! Because from Katherine to Mataranka is already more than 100 kilometres through the outback with nothing in between but dust and endless horizons.
The walk from the parking to the springs is one we will remember! The trees are filled, and then we mean completely filled with giant bats or flying foxes as they are called. And now and then they fly up in big groups from one palm tree to the other. A beautiful thing to see, although we have to look out when we eat our lunch next to the hot springs. A giant group of bats like this drops some stuff here and there. And you’d rather don’t have that in your pasta salad. After a refreshing swim in the hot springs, we are ready for the next long drive.
Banka Banka Station
Again thanks to the tip of a local (Justine, who helped Patrick fixing our car), we end up at this place to spend the night. And it doesn’t get more outback than this for us! The campground is extremely cheap and is just next to the highway, but you can camp in the middle of nature! It is an old cattle station where you can stay for the night and still some people live. How different must life be out here, so far from everything in complete desolation? The nearest stores are sometimes a hundred kilometres away.
We stay here almost alone and enjoy the outback feeling we get from this place. Getting our tent up, cooking a little, … Yuna was already checking the environment with her binoculars for a while and suddenly she spots some kangaroos hopping around as the night sets in. We can only hope they won’t be going to the road because we can hear and see the gigantic road trains passing by in the dark. They won’t be able to stop for some little kangaroos who just happen to appear in front of their trucks.
The somewhat bizarre man living at Banka Banka shows the kids a snake on our way to the toilet. And then you realise again that nature and all its elements rule this place! When it’s dark, we look forward to checking the sky for the milky way, because it is supposed to be amazing out here in the outback! But unfortunately, it is an almost full moon, so no milky way just yet for us
The next day we leave early because we have a long day ahead of us! We want to drive over to Uluru, or Ayers Rock, one of the symbols of Australia!
Devils Marbles, again one of those names that make you either shiver or excited! And we have to say the landscape feels as if it was shaped by the devil himself… A desolate desert, filled with snakes and scorpions living between the rocks and cracks in the unbearable heat and where life is hard and dangerous. But luckily a simple visit is a lot less dangerous! Although we do warn the kids not to put their hands under rocks or leave the pad.
Again after a long drive, during which we kill the time with listening to music, car games and a movie now and then for the girls, we stop at Barrow Creek. Another tip of our Australian friend we met on the campground in Katherine. When you look at the map of Australia, you see lots of dots along the Stuart Highway. You think a dot resembles a little village or even a small town. But often it is just one roadhouse with some facilities for eating, sleeping, getting fuel and that is about it. If you are lucky you can also buy some groceries. And there is nothing else along the road for sometimes more than 100 kilometres.
Barrow Creek is one of those places and is mainly known for its notorious and historic pub, the reason why it was recommended to stop here. Lots of visitors leave something behind here such as a note on the wall, a flag, card and even some bras. We order something to drink before we are off again but who suddenly walks into the pub? That friendly older man who told us about this pub in the first place! What are the odds? So nice to see him again and after some catching up, we leave again for what was a very nice stop!
Alice Springs is the centre of Australia and for many people the base for exploring Uluru and many other national parks such as the West Macdonnell Ranges and Kings Canyon. A lot of people fly straight to Alice, not everybody is so crazy to drive up there ?. For us, it is the moment to rest a little after some very intensive days and work and homeschool a lot. We stay for 2 days on the campground and to be honest that is about all we see of Alice Springs. We heard a few times the city doesn’t have very much to offer, so we enjoyed some rest and didn’t try very hard to explore it all. However, we saw the base of the Royal Flying Doctors, again something that appeals to our imagination! Another thing we noticed was the large population of Aboriginals wandering around the streets without a specific goal. It is such an amazing culture, so we feel sorry about how some of them have to live in Australia these days.
Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park
After Alice Springs we begin our journey to Uluru! It is something we have looked forward too for a long time and it was one of the reasons we started our journey through the outback in the first place. But again, we shouldn’t underestimate the distances. When you look at the map, Uluru seems to be not too far from Alice Springs but it still is a 500 km drive. So after again a long trip, we arrive at the Ayers Rock Campground, just outside of the Nationale Park. We stay here for 3 nights and have all the time to explore this Australian icon.
And who suddenly parks his campervan a few spots away of our place? A Dutch family we met on the campground in Katherine where we got stuck. Again what are the odds? We had to stay there for much longer and still, we end up here on the same campground. They are travelling through Australia for 10 weeks with their adorable son Alexander and the girl love it to play with them!! And to get ahead of our story, we will also meet them at the Great Ocean Road and in Melbourne. The world can be such a small place…
Uluru – The Indigenous People
But we were talking about Uluru (the famous silhouette) and Kata Tjuta (some the beautiful rocks in the same park)… We actually could write a blog post just on this place on its own. We absolutely loved it! It has something magical about it and it is a magnificent example of how modern Australia can work together with the Aboriginals with mutual respect. The indigenous tribes got their grounds back of the government some years ago and the elderly are now part of the management board. The entire park breaths out deep respect for its original inhabitants, their stories and their religion.
We learn so much about their culture! They have the most wonderful stories on how everything is created, from every rock, cave, mountain and river. For example, when you walk up close to Uluru, you see all kinds of shapes in the rocks. Through the eyes of the Aboriginals, it is the snake women, who meandered along the rock and changed in a human being. And so it goes on and on… The kids love these tales and ask us to tell them over and over again. But the most intriguing part is that they tell us only part of their stories. W will never know the real endings. According to their beliefs, that can only be told within the tribe from father to son, from mother to daughter. The visitor centre is a must when you visit the place. It explains a lot about their culture and history and you also get to see some Aboriginal women painting their recognisable artwork. The kids are fascinated and start immediately to reproduce some of the paintings in the evening!
Uluru – Ayers Rock
Uluru (the original name) or Ayers Rock (the name given by the Australians) is so much more than a red rock rising up out of the earth. The closer you get, the more interesting it gets. We explore the rock by walking alongside its base. We discover some water pools, beautiful shapes and structures in the rock, many birds and some amazing nature. Did you now Uluru is covered in waterfalls when it starts to rain? It is a magical and fascinating environment!
In the afternoon the ladies go to a didgeridoo lesson in the resort where the campground is located as well. And in the evening we go and watch the obligate sunset of course, that turns out to be beautiful. A very successful day!
Kata Tjuta – Olga’s
The next morning we went out to explore Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas). To be honest, we had never heard of them but they turned out to be very much worth it! Because of the heat, we chose a shorter but still challenging walk through the valley! Red walls rise up on both our sides and it is just beautiful! Despite the heat and how dry it is here, you can still see trees and plants around here. The reason why is because there flows a little stream through the valley. Something the Indigenous people knew and that’s why they travelled from Uluru to Kata Tjuta (26 kilometres) in the dry months to enjoy the shade of the rocks and the water they could find around both structures.
We have heard it is worth to see the sunrise above Uluru, so the next morning we get up very early. We head off to the place where most people watch the sunrise, but to be honest, we would pick another spot if we ever come back. It was beautiful, definitely, but we had to stretch ourselves out to look above all the heads of the other tourists. Next time we’d go to a less ‘ideal’ spot and enjoy the sunrise in all tranquillity with an equally amazing spectacle without any doubt.
But to sum up, we would recommend everybody to go over to this National Park! Take your time to really feel the atmosphere of the place and discover the hidden corners. And learn more on the culture of the indigenous people and how it coexists perfectly with its surrounding nature.
After all that natural beauty of Uluru, we have a long day ahead of us as we are planning to drive 750 kilometres. There are some nice places to stop along the way, but nevertheless, we decide to drive to Cooper Peddy in one trip. Cooper Peddy is a mining town in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere you look you see opal mines. It is also one of the warmest places on earth, but not when we are there. When we arrive in the evening, a severe thunderstorm hits us.
And also the next day it rains the whole day and it is even a bit cold. Because that doesn’t happen often here, the whole place turns into an enormous mud pool. Not so funny when camping! It a shame, because this city has, despite its industrial look, some nice things to offer. So we visit the opal museum and a church built into a cave of a former opal mine. But then we head south, for our last day on the Stuart Highway.
That night we arrive in Port August, back to civilisation. Our trip through the desert has come to an end! We could drive on to Adelaide, but that is not the Stuart Highway anymore so we decide to stop here. We don’t stay in the city for long and end up in a very nice place in Wilmington! But that is for the next diary…
What did we think about the Stuart Highway and the outback?
About one thing we can be totally clear, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world! It was a fantastic experience that showed us a side of Australia you could never understand just by visiting the popular coasts or beaches. The desertion, heat, loneliness, the red sand and the (sometimes strange) people we met have made a lasting impression on us. And of course, there is the sense of adventure when making this road trip that makes it even more worth. So many things appeal to the imagination: the names, kangaroo signs, Uluru, roadhouses, cattle stations the size of Belgium, …
What did we learn?
Of course, there are some downsides or just things you need to know. The fuel prices along the road are horrendous. Almost one dollar per litre more expensive than in the populated areas of Australia. And because Cody is an old car and drinks a lot of fuel, we have to get fuel quite often. We just don’t want to get out of fuel, despite the two extra tanks on the roof. During some parts of the road, you can’t refuel for hundreds of kilometres. And also the normal groceries in the roadhouses are more expensive. Although we do understand it takes a lot of effort and money to get the goods there in the first place.
We expected to see more ‘living’ wildlife alongside the road. They are definitely there, but come out when the night falls and it is highly recommended not to drive then! So on the other hand, maybe it is best we didn’t see much animals while driving. If some kangaroos or emus would have crossed our path while driving, we probably would have had bigger problems! You see lots of road kills, but they are mainly killed by road trains (gigantic trucks with 4 or 5 trailers) or other big cars with big bumpers so their vehicle isn’t damaged.
Roads or tracks?
The longe distances aren’t to be underestimated. Although we do find the landscape changes a lot over 3000 km, you have to be prepared it is mainly driving straight on an endless road without any distractions. So stop frequently to rest a little, put on some good music and go road-tripping! Or just take along two kids, they offer you enough distraction ?. We do have to say the kids were amazing! They watched a movie now and then (it was not the moment to be too strict about it), but they kept themselves busy with making drawings, playing together, watching outside and luckily a little nap once and a while.
And one final thought. Despite the fact we had an amazing journey through the outback, we stayed mainly on the road. Because of our previous troubles with Cody we didn’t want to take extra risks. But there is so much more to discover! The ‘real’ outback tracks are still unknown territory for us. Those tracks consist out of red sand only and can only be taken with a 4WD. They take you to little villages and places were no other roads come. They are often old mail- or trade routes filled with history. A real adventure guaranteed! But to take those tracks you have to be really well equipped, with even a satellite phone. So that will be for another time…