Are you an Australian who is yet to explore the Northern Territory or travel on the Ghan train? Are you from overseas, with Australia on your ‘bucket list’, but you’re not sure where to go first?
If so, this review of the main elements of the fortnight-long journey Maggie and I recently made through the middle of Australia, from south to north, might interest you.
While this post will be more of an evaluation than a travel story, a detailed account of where we went, what we saw and what we did is provided in the seven posts I have published over the last six weeks. An easy way to find these is to go the ‘Our travels’ page, which lists each place we visited and provides a link to the post about that place.
Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon
When Maggie and I meet people while visiting their countries, many of them ask us where we they should go if they were to visit Australia. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is always top of our list, alongside the Great Barrier Reef. Each of these icons is unmatched elsewhere in the world.
In the case of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, it is not only a case of their beauty, remarkable geology and the surrounding landscapes, but also the rich and profound indigenous cultural element.
You do need to be aware of the extreme seasonal variations in climate, arising from the fact that the area is not subject to any significant oceanic influences and is located close to the Tropic of Capricorn. So, it is better to avoid visiting during the southern summer and you should be be prepared for sub-zero nighttime temperatures during our winter.
Our recent visit to the area also included a night and morning at Kings Canyon. It is a popular destination and does have its own virtues, as shown in the photos below. However, the amount of time we spent getting in and out of there, plus the comparative inadequacy of food & beverage options for coach-tour passengers, reduced our ‘bang for the buck’. In hindsight, we wish we’d spent an extra day in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Self-catering travellers would probably enjoy a Kings Canyon visit more than we did, especially if they spent more than one night there.
Alice Springs is the only sizeable town for at least 1,000 km in every direction. It is located on both the only railway line and the only sealed road running through the middle of Australia. ‘The Alice’ is also accessible by regular direct flights from every major city of Australia, as is home to a large number of coach-tour services, hire cars, four-wheel-drive adventures and so on. So, it is an excellent base for exploring Central Australia.
The town had a somewhat troubled history for much of the second half of the 20th Century, mainly due to the calamitous circumstances of many of its Aboriginal residents. However, it seems to be a happier place these days and there is plenty to see and do, both in the town and within the MacDonnell Ranges, which run east to west either side of the town. Exploring the latter remains on our ‘to do’ list.
Our visit to this significant site was organised in conjunction with our Ghan train journey, so we spent less than three hours there. It was a pleasant enough experience, highlighted by the fact that our guide and cruise-boat operator were both local Aboriginal men.
We would have left with more appreciation for the gorge and its environs if we had either see it from the air in a helicopter or had a day or two to explore several more of the thirteen gorges that the Katherine River has cut through this southern end of the massive Arnhem Plateau.
The town of Katherine itself has a good range of facilities and services, including several adventure and tour options. It is located on the main north-south highway and it takes less than four hours to drive there from Darwin.
Darwin has long since recovered from the impact of Cyclone Tracy, which destroyed most of the city in December 1974. It has steadily developed and become a modern and lively city. There is plenty to see and do in Darwin itself, including a well-priced hop-on hop-off tour bus service, and there is plenty of accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets.
As well as the twice-weekly Ghan train service from Adelaide via Alice Springs, there are daily flights to and from all of Australia’s major cities. Once you are there, it is the ideal base for exploring the highlights of the ‘top end’ of Australia, with sealed roads out to the major national parks and a wide range of short or long tours available.
Kakadu is one of Australia’s most important national parks, with world heritage status for both its natural and cultural qualities. The incredible variety of features to explore include the living Aboriginal culture; a vast collection of ancient rock art; the remarkable geology of the Arnhem Plateau; tropical rivers and extensive wetlands; abundant birdlife; fascinating plants; and the presence of an estimated 10,000 saltwater crocodiles!
It is only 150 km from Darwin, so you can take yourself there easily enough. However, to get the most out of a visit, you should avail yourself of a well-researched guide book or some of the many guided tours based within the park itself.
Litchfield day trip
We added this to our itinerary because we wanted to visit Litchfield National Park, a popular destination due to its year-round waterfalls and rock pools. We enjoyed those, as well as the remarkable termite mounds. However, if you have read my post about this outing, you will know that the highlight was coming up close with saltwater crocodiles on the Adelaide River.
Here are a couple of examples:
This tour is operated by Litchfield Escapes, a small Darwin business, which enjoys a close relationship with the most famous crocodile cruise boat on the Adelaide River. If you check them out on Trip Advisor, you will understand why we regard this as a ‘must have’ experience for visitors to the ‘Top End’.
Maggie and I have travelled extensively overseas, commencing with three weeks in Italy in 2008, followed by a dozen other journeys through parts of Europe, North America and Asia. Along the way, we have made room for some short trips within our own country, several of which have been documented on our blog.
However, we decided a year or so ago that the time had come to devote more of our travel budgets – time and dollars – to some longer explorations of Australia.
One such journey we had in mind was a long road trip, taking in Central Australia, the ‘Top End’ and possibly returning to Melbourne via northern Queensland and the east coast of Australia. An exciting concept, in principle, but a lot of driving, much of it through ‘the middle of nowhere’; an epic fuel bill; not to mention our limited mechanical prowess!
So, when I stumbled upon some information about the availability of a Ghan train trip packaged together with the main attractions of the Northern Territory, it got our full attention. The closer we looked, the more attractive it became and, before long, we had booked ourselves into a 15-day adventure, including a daytime train ride from Melbourne to Adelaide.
Now, travelling on a train in comfort, as it proved to be, can be quite expensive. However, when we factored in all the side-trips and off-train accommodation, as well as avoiding the stresses and strains of the road-trip alternative, we believe we got good value for our money and didn’t come out far behind financially. And the train journey was world class.
You can find out more about the Ghan here.
AAT Kings coach tours
With the exception of our visit to Katherine Gorge and the Litchfield day tour, all of our side-trips were conducted by AAT-Kings, a large coach-tour company which operates throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Coach tours have been a popular way of travelling in outback Australia for many decades, reflecting the long distances involved and the extremes of climate, among other factors. Consequently, AAT-Kings offers an extensive range of options, as to routes and duration; has a large modern fleet of coaches; and has a large pool of experienced drivers with excellent knowledge of the main visitor attractions, to a level not far from that of expert guides. (And, no, I am not receiving a commission for this puff-piece!)
The scale of AAT-Kings’ operations in Central Australia is illustrated by the fact that, at 3pm every day, three of their coaches rendezvous at the junction of the road between Alice Springs and Uluru and the road to Kings Canyon. This means that visitors can mix ‘n’ match their options and employees of the accommodation village near Uluru can make their way to and from other locations. We stopped there twice and watched on as up to 20 passengers hopped from one coach to another.
You can find out more about AAT-Kings here.
Interactions with Aboriginal persons and with Aboriginal culture
The final lesson from our journey is that visitors to the Northern Territory have numerous opportunities to interact with Aboriginal people and their culture, to a greater extent than in any other part of Australia.
The reasons for this include the extensive Aboriginal ownership of traditional lands, some coming with joint management arrangements for national parks and the subsequent opportunities for guided tours, cultural performances and sales of paintings and craft. Traditional cultural beliefs and practices and the use of original languages have survived to a significant extent and, as a by-product, this enhances the range and quality of visitor experiences.
Across our journey, we had a good number of such experiences but, in reality, we barely scratched the surface of what is available. However, we also had the unanticipated pleasure of meeting young Aboriginal men and women from other parts of Australia who had taken up some of the many hospitality industry on-the-job-training opportunities within Yulara, the village located just outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
All in all, this was one of the best trips of our lives. So much so that we would mention it in the same breath as a tour through the Rocky Mountains. Seriously!
Cheers for now!