Running north for 1600 km from Alice Springs to Darwin, the Stuart Highway makes for a classic Australian road trip. Part scenery and part history, much of what makes it special are the characters along the way.
Leaving Alice Springs town centre, you soon pass the Telegraph Station. This first Overland Telegraph station was built in 1871 beside a spring named after Alice, the wife of the South Australian Postmaster-General. It operated until 1933, linking Australia’s main cities to Europe. It is well worth visiting in its evocative setting.
About 30 km north of town, you’ll see the marker for the Tropic of Capricorn. For the rest of the drive, you’re in the tropics, though the landscape doesn’t change for quite a while.
As you head up the track, you’ll find a series of classic outback pubs. The one in tiny Barrow Creek is welcoming but is best known for the 2001 dramatic murder of Peter Falconio at the hands of Bradley John Murdoch and the miraculous escape of Joanne Lees.
One hundred kilometres further along you’ll reach the Devils Marbles or Karlu Karlu, a series of granite boulders that litter either side of the highway for several kilometres. Some of the larger ones stand precariously balanced on tiny bases. They were once part of one solid block, broken and gradually rounded by wind and water erosion. The local Warumungu Aboriginal people believe they are the fossilised eggs of the Rainbow Serpent.
Just over 500 km from Alice Springs, Tennant Creek was the site of Australia’s last gold rush, after gold was discovered here in 1932. The town is 11 km from its namesake creek, and local legend says that a cart carrying timber to build the first pub at that creek became bogged and it was decided to erect the hotel on the spot.
With its tree-lined double highway and a population of 3000, Tennant Creek, one of the Northern Territory’s four main townships has several sites to explore. Visit Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre, the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station and Battery Hill Mining Centre, and Christ the King Catholic Church to find out why it’s dubbed “the longest church in Australia”.
The view from the Devils Marbles is nothing short of breathtaking
Just 25 km north of Tennant Creek is the Three Ways junction of the Barkly Highway that leads to Mount Isa in Queensland. Nearby is a memorial obelisk to Reverend John Flynn, the founder of what is now the Royal Flying Doctor Service and a genuine Australian outback hero.
Further along the Stuart Highway north from Tennant Creek, the tiny township of Renner Springs marks a geographical and climatic end to the long, dry journey. Renner Springs represent the end of the higher country and the southern extremity of the monsoon-affected plains.
Daly Waters, 900 km from Alice Springs, is worth a pause for a drink at the oldest pub in the Territory. The low stone building, once a refreshment stop for drovers on the overland cattle drives, was first licensed in 1893. The droving days have since given way to the era of the road train, and the north is now crisscrossed with a network of routes by which these huge trucks convey the cattle to market or railheads.
Mataranka is an unlikely oasis that was the setting for “We of the Never Never” — a classic novel by Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn who lived at the huge Elsey Station property in 1902. The surprise attraction is Elsey National Park, with tropical forest comprising palms and paperbark trees surrounding sparkling thermal pools — a real oasis amid the north’s arid surrounds.
Katherine and Nitmuluk
Katherine, 108 km north is the Top End’s second most important town after Darwin. It has a well-developed infrastructure of shops, camping grounds, hotels, and motels. Since colonial days, it has been an important telegraph station and cattle centre, and it is from here that the Victoria Highway strikes west towards the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Just before the WA border, there is a turn-off to Keep River National Park. Like the formations across the border in the Bungle Bungle Range, Keep River features a series of fascinating banded sandstone towers which shelter a wide range of vegetation and animal life.
To the east of the Katherine township, Katherine Gorge is one of the best known features of the Territory. It’s a great canyon of sandstone cliffs rising to over 100 metres above the Katherine River, best explored by water. There’s a series of gorges for 12 km before the river widens out again. It’s all part of Nitmiluk National Park that deserves several days of exploration. There are several walking trails in the park that follow the top of the escarpment, looking down into the gorge.
Katherine is only 340 km from Darwin and in the vastness of outback Australia this sort of distance qualifies as a relative short trip into town.
World record drive
Readers of a certain vintage may remember tales of a Jaguar XK120 Roadster that set a world open road record for the drive between Darwin and Alice Springs in 1951.
The road had only been converted from a dirt track alongside the telegraph line during World War II, when it was a main supply route for men and supplies to defend Australia’s north. Still it was a pretty rough road — particularly south of Tennant Creek where the bitumen ended. There was a 65 km/h speed limit and the NT police refused permission for the attempt saying “otherwise every silly bastard would be trying it”.
Les Taylor and Dick Rendle completed the course in 10 hours 32 minutes for an average speed of 145.89 km/h — or 90.5 mph over 954 miles. Les was arrested when they arrived in Alice Springs to great fanfare — and was subsequently fined £20.
Have you done any road trips around the Top End? Share your route below!