Top End, Northern Territory, Australia
By Kate Cypcar
Imagine a place where adventure is waiting for you around every corner. Imagine a destination where, from tropical to desert regions, you will have the experience of a lifetime creating your own custom safari. Well, you needn’t imagine any longer because there are many opportunities to explore Australia’s outback in the comfort of your own vehicle in the Northern Territory.
The Top End is the tropical region on the remote tip of Australia’s extremely dry Northern Territory. Palm trees scatter the coast, while meandering rivers, fertile wetlands, and gorge pools adorn the inland. The climate is hot, but the dry season has low humidity, making it the best time to visit. The wet season, contrastingly so, is marked by high humidity and tropical downpours, although the display of thundering rivers and waterfalls, and lush vegetation is one not to be missed. Once upon a time, the Top End had a reputation as an isolated region; however, that spell is long gone. Today, the territory’s capital, Darwin, which serves as a good base for day trips, is linked by the Stuart and Western Highways to Alice Springs, Adelaide, and Melbourne in the south, and along interstate highways to Mount Isa, Cairns, and Brisbane in the east. The Top End’s major attractions can be visited without driving on a dirt road, but, really, what fun is that?! So, in the spirit of going on safari the Australian way (and without further ado) I give you the following adventure tour routes in the Northern Territory:
Locals still refer to this route as ‘The Track’, alluding to the once bumpy ride from Darwin to Alice Springs. Today the Stuart Highway is fully paved, but its popularity reflects the reputation it still holds as one of Australia’s great adventure drives.
Gibb River Road
Load up on extra gas, grab a couple spare tires, maybe even throw a four wheel drive (4WD) vehicle on the back of your rig…and you’re off! Get ready for traversing the Gibb River Road (GRR), one of Australia’s leading adventure experiences. The 410-mile road from Derby to Kununurra visits spectacular gorges, secluded cattle stations, and some of the Kimberley’s hidden wonders. Located in Australia’s Last Frontier, the Kimberley is a vast and secluded region of dry, red countryside. Prepare for harsh heat if journeying during the dry season. The wet season’s torrential rains make any attempt at travel futile. The road is considered impassable during the wet season, so, unless you’re a glutton for punishment, do not attempt it from December to April. April to September is the best time to visit, offering views of the country’s best natural sights. You’ll be witness to deep rivers that cut through the mountain ranges, as well as sections of the coastline that boast the highest tidal range in the southern hemisphere.
Derby lies at the western end of the GRR. The GRR offers a shorter route to Derby than the Great Northern Highway, but no one in their right mind would use it as a shortcut! Apparently, it is rare to venture across the GRR without something breaking or falling off of your vehicle (hardly used the steering wheel anyway!), and tire punctures are only too common. The attractions make the route even more interesting. Most are off the road a little ways, and some are only accessible to strong, high-clearance vehicles. Unless stated, however, a 4WD vehicle is not necessary. The best GRR gorges are in the western half, so if you are traveling from east to west and want to give your car a little breather, turn back from Manning Gorge and take the highway via Windjana Gorge. The Derby Tourist Office turns out a comprehensive and annually updated guide to the GRR – it is available for a couple bucks from local tourist offices.
Mereenie Loop Road
Experience remote Central Australia on the Mereenie Loop Road. You will see the stunning gorges of the West MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon, and the world famous Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The main appeal of Mereenie Loop Road is that it links the West MacDonnell Ranges with Kings Canyon, while avoiding lengthy backtracking on the usual “Canyon and Rock” tour. There are some drawbacks to this journey of at least 155 miles (allow 3-4 hours), as the rough ridges and grooves west of Areyonga can be difficult.
Additionally, the mandatory permit issued either at Glen Helen or Kings Canyon states that you are not allowed to stop (that means no camping either) anywhere along the road except for one lookout point just before the descent to Kings Canyon Resort. Oh, and make sure to bring enough fuel for the entire journey. Explorers have been known to be fooled by mirages in the likeness of gas stations. Ha, I’m only pulling your leg!
Cape York Peninsula
The journey to the northernmost point of Australia is one of the continent’s great adventures. Cape York Peninsula combines remote wilderness, abundant wildlife and a challenging four wheel drive experience. If 4WD is your thing, then tackling the rugged tracks and wild river crossings on the ‘Trip to the Tip’ is an adventure you won’t want to miss.
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, measuring 85 miles in length and 16 miles across. It is also one of Queensland’s most well-known national parks. Fraser Island offers another unique 4WD adventure, as the island is a landscape of hills and valleys, rain forest, and crystal clear lakes.
Any driving on the island requires a 4WD vehicle, but walking is the best way to see all that Fraser Island has to offer. There is only one established walking circuit, and even that is much underused. It begins at Central Station, travels south past Birabeen and Boomanjin Lakes, heads up the coast, and eventually makes its way back to Central Station. Plan on a good three-day hike to complete the circuit, but don’t be fooled by the estimated completion time. Sources confirm that by each sundown you should be rendered all but unconscious after walking (running, skipping, sledding, cart-wheeling…etc.) across all that sand. The route requires endurance and a bit of adventure-lust, but no technical skills.