Continuing north from Alice to Darwin, there are many many kilometers interspersed with plenty of good stopping points. First, are the Devil's Marbles – a series of huge rounded boulders, balanced in seemingly gravity-defying formations – provide great climbing fun for kids and adults alike (alternatively just interesting scenery).
Wycliffe Well is a roadhouse where, apart from refuelling the car and stomach, you can spend a good hour reading the collection of UFO related clippings which literally cover the walls.
[Mothers note: Daughter fails to mention ‘Three Ways’ – the desert roadhouse where her mother started her travels cooking hamburgers 30 years ago. Three ways (in typical Australian fashion) is named for what it is – the point where the road from Mt Isa intersects with the Stuart Highway so you have the choice of three ways! I’m sure, that place is still good for a burger and to view the incredible road trains up close. (A road train being a big truck – really big – up to 50 meters long and quite the thing to avoid on the road!)]
Bitter Springs, in Mataranka, is a thermal pool of pristine turquoise water. At one end of the pool you can follow the flow of the river through a clear channel, drifting between lillypads, reeds, and the occasional spider-web (complete with rather large spider, dangling hopefully over the water). If you are lucky, you will catch glimpses of brightly coloured kingfishers or rainbow bee-eaters darting around the small oasis.
Daly Waters pub provides the visitor with great food and drink in eccentric surroundings (Make sure to get your authentic cane toad fridge magnet and kangaroo paw key-ring from across the road. I thought they were excellent souvenirs; however some of my family members were less impressed!)
The Cutta Cutta caves just outside of Katherine is a small but lovely limestone cave, where the rocks sparkle, and the inside temperature is actually hotter than outside – the temperatures reach 30 degrees (86F) in the center of the cave and it can get extremely humid. The tour guide helpfully warned us beforehand that
“snakes in this cave like to climb up the stalactites to try to snatch a tasty batsnack from the air. Unfortunately, sometimes they lose their grip and may fall on an unsuspecting tourist, so in event of this happening to you, please remain calm.”
Unfortunately, this didn't happen – I have to admit I would have loved to see it.
Katherine Gorge is a main tourist attraction as you near Darwin, and sadly has become so overly touristed that when I turned up at eight am on the day, hopeful to get a half day canoe hire, I was informed the canoes were “all fully booked for today and should I look to see if I can reserve one for you tomorrow?” Disgruntled, because this offers the only option to see the Gorge close up without getting on a ghastly and ridiculously expensive cruise boat, I set off on a hike to 'Butterfly Gorge' (because it sounded pretty) in the hopes to escape the crowd.
I can't have seen more than four people on my way, which was perfect. The walk begins along the escarpment, dry and hot and dusty, and descends into the Gorge which is beautifully green and damp, populated with palm trees and pretty wildflowers here and there. Sadly, I only glimpsed a few butterflies, before I popped right out of the forest onto the river.
Katherine Gorge really is lovely, and I was so happy to have caught even this glimpse of it from my hike. I swam out in the deep, cool waters and had a spectacular view of either end of the gorge. Apart from a few canoeists in the distance, I had it all to myself.
That is, until I scrambled back onto the bank to get changed. I had just started to divest myself of bikini when I heard the harsh tones of an extremely bored sounding tour guide, coming from a cruise boat packed to the brim with gormless looking tourists. Covering myself with my 'travel sized economy towel,' which, by the way, is tiny, I stood there staring right back at them as the cruise boat stopped at the gorge, the guide telling the tourists about it all in a monotone, and then slowly chugged on, with the tourists still staring at me and my lack of attire blandly as if I were part of the scenery.
Katherine Gorge is formed of 13 gorges, and even the cruise boats only get up the first three. You would have to go on a kayak expedition of a few days to see the rest – something I would truly love to do now, having only managed a tiny glimpse from the hiking track! The other option is to do a multi day hike, taking frequent side tracks to enjoy the river every now and then. It is a one-way track, so would involve hiking back the way you went. It really is still quite inaccessible, and tantalized by the tiny slice I had seen, I determined to come back one day, and see it gorge for gorge.
From Katherine, it is only 300k to Darwin. However, before pulling into Darwin I spent a day at Litchfield National Park. (I recommend more – along with a few days in Kakadu National Park!) A day spent: swimming in a pristine, beautiful waterfall, driving to the next pristine, beautiful waterfall or waterhole, and swimming again, was the perfect way to spend my last day on the Stuart Highway. To add to the sheer indulgence of the place, there are even some giant termite mounds to admire on the way as you can see in the pictures – they really are awesome.
For travellers from the Stuart highway driving into Darwin city is a shock. After 3000 kilometres of a two lane, narrow strip of asphalt, I suddenly had to deal with other traffic, multi lane roads, and frequent traffic lights. There were even street lamps! Amazing.
By this point I imagine everyone, like me, to be thoroughly sick of driving, and ready to spend a few days lying on the famous Mindil beach. Imagine my disappointment when I found out you can't swim on this beautiful palmshaded beach – due to the possibility of being brushed by a highly lethal box-jellyfish, and if not that, being eaten by a croc – so no swimming at all! But that's Australia for you, always poisons animals lurking in the shade.
I was sad to end my journey down the Stuart Highway; it was like leaving an old friend, and I had to part with my little hire camper, which I had grown quite fond of. Although it involved a lot of driving, and huge distances, and I stayed safely on the Stuart Highway (which really is no longer so remote) I feel like I have glimpsed a remote, wild, untouched place, with infinite boundaries and boundless beauty. But I owe this entire trip to one man, who was the first to successful make almost this exact same trip, and cross the formidable outback.
All I can say is, thank God for John McDougall Stuart.