For the adventurous traveller, everything is pointing in the same direction: along the epic Stuart Highway from Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory. This year is the 150th anniversary of John McDouall Stuart becoming the first man to cross this vast country from south to north. In mid-April the dry season begins in the “Top End” of Australia, the ideal time to make the journey. Simultaneously, air fares from Britain tumble to their lowest. And there are even new flights connecting both ends of the route, making this the perfect time to follow in Stuart’s heroic footsteps.
The route from Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin at the top end of the Northern Territory covers 1,894 miles – and that’s before you start adding diversions. Most of the journey is through the vast, glorious nothing of Australia’s outback, snaking between the giant road trains and caravan convoys on the Stuart Highway. Access roads to almost all the major sites are sealed – a conventional vehicle is fine unless you plan to take a four-wheel drive to some of the really obscure nooks and crannies of Australia’s interior.
For a journey that’s largely about ploughing through stark desert, it starts off in a remarkably genteel manner. The Barossa Valley and Clare Valley wine regions are a short drive out of Adelaide, with numerous companies offering tasting tours around some of the best wineries in Australia. In the Barossa Valley, The Kirche at Charles Melton (Krondorf Road, Tanunda; 00 61 8 8563 3606; thekirche.com.au) is a converted church with the luxe trimmings fitted in – and it just so happens to be inside the vineyard of one of Australia’s best winemakers. A stay here costs A$435 (£311) per night for up to four guests, with breakfast included.
Soon the rolling hills disappear from your rear-view mirror, and the long haul across South Australia – the driest state in the driest continent on earth – begins. The Stuart Highway is single-carriageway for almost all its length, but you should be able to maintain the top legal speed of 110km/h (68mph) in South Australia and 130km/h (81mph) in the Northern Territory with little trouble. Keep an eye on the fuel gauge, however: roadhouses, or service stations, are usually spaced between 100-130 miles apart. In rare instances, the next one may be out of fuel – keeping enough in the tank for a three to |four hour stint is advisable. Fuel for glass-based evening consumption, of course, is best stocked up on in the Barossa or Clare Valley.
The Flinders Ranges should be the first major diversion. The mountains have the most spectacular desert scenery, while the hiking in the natural amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound is excellent. Beyond Port Augusta, where the highway west to Perth disappears into a hazy mirage, you’re properly into the Outback. Here, the South Australian desert town of Woomera is a fabulous oddity. It was built around a once-secret weapons testing base. Old missiles are displayed in a park outside the primary school.
Further on, the opal mining town of Coober Pedy is equally strange. From a population of 3,500, seven out of 10 live underground in dug-out caves to avoid the scorching heat. The tours of the mines and show homes are engrossing. The Desert Cave hotel (00 61 8 8672 5688; desertcave.com.au) in Coober Pedy offers four-star dug-out cave accommodation from A$240 (£171).
Most visitors to central Australia come to see a big red rock. Uluru, as Ayers Rock is now known, is unquestionably worth the journey – the postcard shots can never convey the strange, mesmerising power it has up close. The five-mile base walk around Uluru is one of the most rewarding half-day treks imaginable. So make the 132-mile diversion
from the Stuart Highway at the Erldunda Roadhouse, 125 miles south of Alice Springs. Meanwhile, the Ayers Rock Resort’s Sounds of Silence dinner (best booked through Viator.com at £112) involves great barbecue food, watching the Rock light up at sunset and guided star-gazing presentations from on top of a remote sand dune. Nearby Kings Canyon and Kata-Tjuta both have their own majesty – at least three days should be budgeted for the Red Centre.
An hour south of Alice Springs, the Stuart’s Well Roadhouse (00 61 8 8956 0925; camels-australia.com.au) offers camel rides as well as petrol fill-ups – and from pretty much then on, every roadhouse has its own gimmick. Top of the pile is Wycliffe Well (00 61 8 89641966; wycliffe.com.au), which claims to be the UFO capital of Australia and has scores of plastic aliens and Elvises scattered throughout the grounds. It’s also possible to stay there – a decent option for anyone wanting to get to the nearby Devil’s Marbles for sunrise. En suite cabins cost from A$107 (£76).
The Daly Waters Pub (00 618 8975 9927; dalywaterspub.com) is an Outback legend – stay for the barramundi, beer and entertainment, then try to ignore the spiders that may be creeping around the rather rustic cabins costing A$125 (£89) a night.
After Daly Waters, you hit the Top End, where boat or canoe trips down photogenic Katherine Gorge showcase the rugged beauty that the Northern Territory does best.
After Katherine, it’s wise to resist the temptation to head straight to Darwin, and turn off towards Kakadu National Park. It has a get-under-the-skin factor, with bold sandstone escarpments, ancient Aboriginal rock art and waterfalls that veer between tempestuous and dainty depending on the season. In Kakadu’s main “town”, Jabiru, the Holiday Inn Gagudju (00 61 8 8979 9000; holidayinn.com) is designed to look like a crocodile from the air – the swimming pool is the croc’s heart. Doubles cost from A$165 (£118) a night.
Just an hour out of Darwin, the Adelaide River is home to the infamous Jumping Crocodile Cruises (00 61 8 8988 8144; jumpingcrocodilecruises.com.au) where giant saltwater crocodiles leap out of the water by the side of the boat in hunt of meat. Tickets cost A$40 (£29).
Darwin is a highly agreeable tropical city with Asian and hippie twists, but the Stuart Highway morphs anti-climactically into an urban street without fanfare. Stroll across Bicentennial Park, however, and you finally meet the Arafura Sea. Suddenly, the phenomenal achievement strikes home and thousands of miles of memories flood back.
Yet despite all the sights encountered on the way, it’s the sense of freedom and feeling very, very small that stay in the mind from this titan of road trips.
You can fly from the UK to Adelaide and back from Darwin on a range of airlines, but the latest option is the most appealing: fly Singapore Airlines (020-8961 6993; singaporeair.com) to Singapore with a connection to Adelaide, and return from Darwin on the airline’s subsidiary, Silkair. Returns from Heathrow start at £813 during May and June.
Taking a 21-day trip in May, picking up in Adelaide and dropping off at Darwin airport, a standard car is available for £504 through the comparison site Carrentals.co.uk. Campervans from Britz (00 800 200 80 801; britz.com.au) start at £919 for the same period, and allow you to save on accommodation and meal costs.
The non-driver’s alternative
Great Southern Rail’s Ghan service (00 61 8 8213 4592; greatsouthernrail.com.au) plies the route from Adelaide to Darwin, stopping at Alice Springs and Katherine for enough time to indulge in bite-sized mini tours. Multi-day breaks in the journey can be negotiated while booking. Fares cost A$774 (£553) for a seat or A$1,465 (£1,047) for a sleeper cabin.
For the main side-trips, Adventure Tours (00 61 8 8132 8230; adventuretours.com.au) offers three-day tours to Uluru and the Red Centre for A$595 (£425) and the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks for A$580 (£414).
Tourism Australia: australia.com
All accommodation prices exclude breakfast unless stated.