From the Top End to the Red Centre

What to do in, around and a little further afield from Darwin when you’re not dancing tango. Highlights of a one week trip from Darwin to Uluru.

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1. A walk along the waterfront

 

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Within walking distance of Darwin city centre is Bicentennial Park and it’s worthwhile to visit, not just for the view of Darwin Harbour, but if you have some time, follow the WWII walking trail to learn about the city’s recent history. Located within the park are the Cenotaph memorial, which commemorates Australians who have served in conflicts, the Civilian Memorial, which is dedicated to the civilians who lost their lives during the bombing of Darwin during the second world war and the USS Peary Memorial, a US navel ship which was bombed and sunk during the bombing of Darwin in February 1942. The memorial consists of one of the ship’s guns, which points towards where the ship went down, and where the wreck still lies.

2. Kidnapped by aliens

When I was in Darwin, I kept coming across this kind of headline on display stands.

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Seems to be a bit of an issue in and around Darwin, with nurses, farmers and psychologists being particularly targeted. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3. Kakadu National Park

 

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Kakadu National Park is located about 150 km from Darwin and is Australia’s largest national park, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site, covering an area of almost 20,000 km². It’s also home to about a tenth of the Northern Territory’s crocodile population, as well as a huge variety of bird and plant species, not to mention its collection of rock art, some of it as old as 20,000 years.

We joined a day trip from Darwin and started our day with a look around the Bark Hut, a touristy roadhouse/campsite/bar on the Arnhem Highway. A quick toasty, a few snaps of the water buffalo and it was back on the bus, next stop Kakadu.

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When we arrived, we had a guided tour of some of the rock art at the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, which gives a whole new meaning to the term “modern art”. The paintings here were done within the last 1,000 years …

Next was a cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong, where there were plenty of close encounters with some of the crocs in residence…

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… the park’s birds…

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and opportunities for admiring the landscapes from the boat…

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We spent about an hour on the water before finishing our day at the Warradjan Cultural Centre. The displays were developed by the traditional owners of Kakadu and give an insight into Aboriginal culture and history, from personal stories to accounts of hunting techniques according to the various seasons.

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Calendar outside the Centre which shows the six seasons at Kakadu

Kakadu park is open all year round, but parts of it may be closed depending on the season. For more information, including suggested itineraries depending on the season have a look at their website.

4. Taking the Ghan: some tips

I have always loved travelling by train and I thought, what better way to get a feeling for the vast expanse of the outback than crossing it by train? And especially this train.

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The Ghan takes its name from the cameleers who came from a part of the world which today covers parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. They arrived in Australia at the end of the 19th century and accompanied expeditions into the centre of the country, transporting materials and supplies on their camels which became known as “ships of the desert”. They were instrumental in facilitating infrastructural projects, such as the construction of the trans Australian railway and the overland telegraph. The original Ghan line ran for the last time in 1980 and a new one was built to avoid the flood plains upon which the original line had been built. Although it was planned from the start for the line to go up to the Northern Territory, the connection to Darwin was not operational until early 2004. If you are interested in reading more about the Ghan’s history, have a look here and here.

Obviously, this is not the most efficient way of crossing the country. If you do the full journey (Darwin-Adelaide or vice-versa), it will take you around 54 hours and is probably going to cost around 900 AUD (and that’s in the “red service”, ie seat only).

In our case, we wanted to spend a few days in Uluru, so we took the Ghan from Darwin to Alice Springs (25 hours). It stopped in Katherine, where we had about 4 hours (see below). The train also stops in Alice Springs again for about 4 hours, but this is obviously not enough if you want to expore Uluru. There is a stop between Alice Springs and Adelaide too, but this seems to vary depending on the time. See website for further details.

A few things to bear in mind if you are planning a trip on the Ghan:

– it runs once or twice a week depending in the season, so if you plan to visit Uluru (about 4-5 hours driving from Alice Springs) and want to continue your journey on the Ghan afterwards you may need to wait for a week for the next train. See the timetable here.

– the “cheaper” cabins (gold service) tend to sell out several months in advance

– there are discounts for students and backpackers. In order to be eligible for a backpacker discount, you need to have a membership card from a major recognised backpacker organisation. I bought the MAD card from Nomads World as it was the cheapest at the time we were booking (19 AUD), which meant a saving of 171 AUD for a seat in Red Service.

– Tickets are also cheaper if you book 6 months in advance (this is what is meant by the “advance purchase” rate). For further information on fares have a look here

If you do decide to go for the Red Service and want an idea of what to expect:

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As you can see, there is a bit more leg room than usual for a train. The chairs swivel around so if you are a group of 4 you can still sit together. It is also possible to recline the seats quite a bit without disturbing the person behind. There is a dining carriage with a small shop which sells hot drinks, snacks and a small selection of warm meals, as well as souvenirs. The toilet and shower are at the end of the carriage.

One word of warning though: despite other reports I read beforehand, they do not switch off the air conditioning during the night, in fact I had the impression that they actually turned it up! As a result, I was freezing and didn’t sleep a wink. And this despite wearing jeans, a sweater, a scarf and a fleece jacket.

Nevertheless I would say red service is OK if you’re just staying one night on the Ghan. If you’re doing the full journey, go for a cabin.

5. Katherine

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On our trip from Darwin to Alice Springs, the Ghan stopped for a few hours in Katherine. There were a few different activities to choose from (all of these can be booked directly with staff on the Ghan) including a helicopter flight over the Katherine gorge, a cruise on the river Katherine, painting classes or being dropped off at the Nitmiluk National Park for a walk around by the river. The park is about 30 km north east of Katherine and the northern part of it actually borders with Kakadu. We went for this option and a bus took us from Katherine station to the park’s visitor centre. From there it was a short walk to the river. It was beautiful down there and the trees provided some relief from the sun (yes, hard to believe I once needed “relief” from the sun as I write these lines on a chilly winter’s night!)

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Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the visitor’s centre to catch the bus back to the Ghan.

Whether or not you are taking the Ghan, Katherine is a great place to visit if you are visiting the Northern Territory. It’s about 3 hours driving from Darwin. If you need some ideas for what to do there have a look here or on the Nilmiluk National Park’s website.

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6. Alice Springs

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So after 25 hours and not a wink of sleep, we arrived in Alice Springs. Despite the fact that I was more than a little narky due to sleep deprivation, I actually quite liked Alice Springs. What stuck out was: a nice café on Todd Street Mall that didn’t mind us camping out for hours typing on our computers (little did I know these would be my last hours with my beloved netbook), a quirky mural on the wall of the Lone Dingo, beautiful flowers everywhere and the royal flying doctor’s museum, which gives an insight into the history of the organisation which has been providing medical services in the outback for almost ninety years. There is a cafe and art gallery which are located within the original radio station house. We found ourselves outside this museum by chance when we were walking around the town. It’s well worth a visit. We finished the day at the monthly night market.

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7. Uluru and Kata Tjuta

Days start early when you’re travelling in the Red Centre and we left Alice Springs for Uluru at 6am. We joined a tour with Emu Run Experience and had two guides for the day, who were friendly, entertaining and extremely knowledgeable. One of our first stops along the way was Mount Connor, also known as “Fool-uru” because of numerous tourists mistaking it for Uluru. They’re about the same size, but Mount Connor has a very flat top.

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Nearby we climbed a sand dune for a view of Lake Amadeus, the largest salt lake in the Northern Territory.

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From there we travelled on to Kata Tjuta, a rock formation, made up of thirty six domes which are thought to be around 500 million years old. There were very few people around and as our group walked along the walkway through two of the domes, I was stopping to take photos and so was soon was trailing behind. I could see no one around me and there was a sense of calm and peace that I did not experience at Uluru later that afternoon.

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Still, no matter how many photos you have seen of the world’s largest monolith, nothing can prepare you for what it feel like when you actually
see it for the first time. The way its colours change depending on the time of day and from what side you are looking at it. The ridges and many caves which you can see the closer you get. And of course the feeling that no matter how many photos you take you can never do it justice. Not that I let that stop me trying, of course.

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Unfortunately, it is still possible to climb Uluru, but the traditional owners of the land ask visitors not to climb, as it is offensive to their laws and culture. The climb is also dangerous (people have died climbing Uluru) and the traditional owners feel responsible for accidents which occur on their land. Our guide told us that if the number of people who climb Uluru ever reaches less than twenty percent of the number of visitors to the park, they will close the climb. However, it seems that it is not as simple as that and the climb is likely to remain open for the time being. Until then it is up to each of us individual travellers to show respect by not climbing Uluru.

8. Kings Canyon

The next morning we set off for Kings Canyon, in Watarrka National Park, which is about four hours driving from Uluru. We opted for the Creek Walk (about 2 km) along the floor of the Canyon and ended at a viewing platform with nice views of the surrounding canyon walls. There are other, more challenging walks at Kings Canyon, the most famous being the Rim Walk. For more information on this and other walks in the area have a look at this guide.

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On the way back we stopped at Curtin Springs, a privately owned cattle station which also offer accommodation and camping facilities. If you are interested in getting closer to Mount Connor or exploring the salt lake landscapes I mention above this is a good place to base yourself as Mount Connor is in fact located on this privately owned land.

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And then it was back to Yulara for our last night in the outback. Yulara or the Ayer’s Rock Resort is the main hub for accommodation at Uluru. The complex has several hotels, a hostel and a camping site, as well as a supermarket, restaurants and bars. Prices for everything from food to wifi tend to be fairly high and budget accommodation is limited, so book in advance, particularly if you are travelling there during the high season. We stayed at the Outback Pioneer Lodge which was rather basic but fine for a couple of days. For breakfast we went to the Kulata Academy Café at the Town Square which also does lunch and snacks at very reasonable prices. The café is staffed by trainees from the Ayers Rock Resort’s National Indigenous Training Academy.

One of the best moments of this trip was seeing the sunrise and sunset from the top of a sand dune close to where we were staying. I’m not normally an early bird, but this was definitely worth the loss of sleep…

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Have you been to the Northern Territory or do you plan to go there on holiday? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Missed my post on dancing tango in Darwin? You can find it here

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