Darwin to Alice by Road

July 28, 2007 by

Australia & the Pacific, Best of the Viator Blog, Places to Go, Travel Advice & Inspiration

So you’ve been following the Northern Territory (NT) motto for a while now — Not Today, Not Tomorrow, Not Tuesday, Not Thursday. You’re kicking back with some second-rate Australian beers (Fosters anyone?) or expensive imported stuff underneath the palm tree of your choice, and now you reckon the day has arrived to leave Australia’s northern capital. So why rush things now?

The long road to Alice
The long road from Darwin to Alice

To enjoy the maximum effect of your decision to head south from Darwin and its tropical oases, spend all day packing your car, take your time, enjoy the last of the sea breeze and then amble out onto the Stuart Highway around 4pm.

Why so late?

Well, at this restorative time of day, as the light shifts low, casting all in its path in a heart-warming shade of cinematic orange, its not hard to see how people get trapped in Darwin for so long. Once you are clear of the mighty outliers — Coolalinga, Virginia, the unusually named Humpty Doo and Noonamah, the fringe-dwellers zone where a man’s mullet* is often as long his goatee — and you pass the sign reading “Outer Darwin” (some argue it should read “I gotta get Outta Darwin”) the landscape tells a different story to the spreading suburbia and corrugated iron tenements of the tropical metropolis.

I lived out here many years ago and ended up in Town like many others. But as I head out of Darwin now, I remember what drew me here originally — the ubiquitous rust-coloured eucalypts, dusted an ochre which echoes southern desert sands, with burnt umber stumps from early dry season fires; long grass, drying to brown from their wet season fluorescence; metres-high folded crenulations of termite mounds, built to provide natural air-conditioning in the hotter months, quiet sentinels breaking the horizon of the open plains.

Later in the evening it’s not unusual to find the dangerous allure of bushfires burning along savannahs, dotting the gently undulating hills and side-tracks among the stretched canvas of the Northern Territory landscape. These fires are part of centuries old fire-farming techniques developed by indigenous peoples and often run their course almost unnoticed by local eyes, used to them as they are forming part of the backdrop to the six shifting seasons of the tropical year.

Termite Mounds
Termite Mounds in NT

Should you fancy a dip (swim) at this early juncture, Litchfield National Park may beckon to the west as you slip back through the frontier — ample places for private camping and gorgeous scenery makes this a worthwhile diversion and perhaps a good first stop if you aren’t in much of a hurry.

The small township of Batchelor might be an interesting diversion, for reasons that may become apparent when you are there. It’s also home to the Bachelors of Batchelor calendar (think strategically placed machinery in photos for a calendar to raise money for the annual Lingalonga festival. This year was the ladies’ turn).

The road-side signs and “photo opportunities” (look for the little sign with the camera!) that mark the “something happened here once” approach to Australian history and landscape, is still evident in the NT. With its careful documentation of places that can often boast little more than a roadside monument (usually a big piece of concrete resembling a drunken Masonic obelisk where perhaps an explorer washed their horse), a former WWII airstrip, or as one sign declares 110 km south of Darwin “Adelaide River – World War II Frontier”.

Formerly housing Australian troops back in the 1940s, part of a protective manoeuvre covering the northern coast from attack, Adelaide River is now part of a new frontline to economic change. Only two of the three petrol stations, the general store and of course the pub and police station there have survived the past few years of rationalisation. Further down the track its obvious that they aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch as more than a few roadside stations-come-small-town have reduced their business capacity. Adelaide River, in days past, boasted Charlie, the free-roaming (well, in an enclosure) buffalo from iconic Australian film Crocodile Dundee. These days Charlie is still on display, but he’s moved to the bar. Literally. Stuffed, mounted and standing on the corner of the bar in all his woolly glory, waiting for you to have a chat over your fourteenth can of XXXX**.

From Adelaide River you can head along a side road west, to the secluded Robin Falls, Douglas Daly Hot Springs (one of a series of thermal pools extending along a 400km line south from Litchfield Park) and the exciting, adventurous indigenous community of Port Keats – one of the wilder outposts of the north, but open only to those with a permit to enter Aboriginal Land. Heading out without one is opening a can-o-worms…

Boxing Croc in Australia's Northern Territory (NT)
The Boxing Croc

If you stayed on the highway you’ll be offered a few opportunities to turn off to the unique hospitality that is Grove Hill. Signs start many miles out, shouting “cold beer” and “coldest beer in the Territory” and similar catchphrases that lure the thirsty traveller. Should you be interested that is exactly what you would find – an old shed which is all that remains of a once thriving gold mining town, now housing a museum of “the way life once was” exhibits (i.e., nothing has changed) and of course a line of beers on a shelf so you know what is on offer within the implied Holy Grail: a glass-fronted fridge with aforementioned Cold Beer. Glorious. The licencee is often on for a chat these days…

Australia is known for the celebration of The Big in its roadside attractions – the Big Prawn (Ballina, NSW), the Big Wool Bale (Hamilton, Victoria – huge concrete boxes) and of course the Big Boxing Crocodile (Humpty Doo, NT – its got boxing gloves on! marking the home of the Hard Croc Café).

Up here, some clever sod, who some years ago realised that the rising price of land in the Territory could one day bring him some luck, turned earth into tourist gold with the Big Clod. On a side road, just a short distance from the main road, a four metre mound of dirt marks the spot where one man’s vision became another man’s happy snap*** for the gran-kiddies.

Jack Brown

* Mullet: A great Australian haircut characterised by the phrase ‘business at the front, party at the back’

** XXXX is an Australian beer from Queensland – rumour has it that it was so named because the locals couldn’t spell Beer.

*** Australian term for tourist photo or casual/holiday photo opportunity



7 Responses to “Darwin to Alice by Road”

  1. komahony Says:

    “Mullet: A great Australian haircut characterised by the phrase ‘business at the front, party at the back” That is the funniest description of a mullett I have ever heard – describes it perfectly.

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