The term ‘Outback’ is a bit vague. Even Wikipedia, the Internet’s brain, cops out and simply defines it as ‘more remote than “the Bush”’. Most Aussies think of it as ‘the middle bit’, but if you had to name a state to which it belongs, that state would be the Northern Territory.
The NT is classic outback Australia. Private driveways longer than most freeways. Cattle farms the size of small European nations. Iconic Indigenous landmarks. Pubs full of people that look like extras from every cowboy film you've ever seen. It’s probably Australia at its most raw. The red and dusty heart of the continent.
But given the Territory stretches over 1.3 million square kilometres, you need to get specific when planning your Outback adventure. Sure you can hire a Land Rover in Darwin, point your compass due south and try your luck. But after 600 kilometres of the Stuart Highway and a whole lotta nothing on either side, you may wish you’d followed this guide…
The can’t-miss-‘em landmarks
Uluru is the Outback’s star attraction. Nearly half a million people visit it each year, and since 1985 most of the tourism dollars generated have gone to local Anangu communities.
A few things to know about Uluru: try to visit in a shoulder season, like August-September. Definitely do the Mala walk around the base of the rock; it’s the best and most interesting you’ll do in the Outback. And don’t climb it. Although it’s technically not banned, to the Anangu people climbing Uluru is a bit like abseiling down the side of St Peter’s Basilica. For safety and sensitivity, just content yourself with a terrestrial view.
Kata Tjuta (or The Olgas as they’re sometimes known) are about 25kms from Uluru, and well worth a look if you’re in the area. (Let’s face it, you’re basically on Mars – where else you going to go? The movies?). Next to the red slopes of Uluru, Kata Tjuta probably has dibs on the Northern Territory’s best sunset display. When the fading light hits the massive boulders and sloping domes, they glow all sorts of crazy red/gold/orange.
If you’re planning to tackle Kata Tjuta from Alice Springs, just be aware it’s a solid 4.5 hour drive. The smarter move is to fly into Yulara instead and stay in the nearby campground. Most capital cities run regular flights direct to Yulara, so if you’re trying to cram the Red Centre into a cheeky long weekend, that’s the way to go.
The walls of Kings Canyon are over 100m high. It’s like a massive red scar on the earth, and the reason so many travellers flock there every year is the chance to walk the rim of that scar. If you’re up to it, try the 6km Kings Canyon Rim Walk loop track. It takes about three to four hours, but they’ll be some of the most photogenic hours you spend in the Outback.
The locals call the steep climb at the beginning ‘Heartbreak Hill’ (or ‘Heart Attack Hill’ if they’re not fussed about potential litigation), but don’t stress – the track levels out after that. Try to stick to the designated paths in Kings Canyon. The local Luritja people consider a number of sites throughout the gorge sacred, and it’s not great to wander over them snapping selfies and saying ‘Wow’ a lot.
The Devil’s Marbles are also known as Karlu Karlu, and you’ll find them smack bang in the middle of the Northern Territory, about 393km north of Alice Springs. They’re one of the main reasons for electing to drive the epic stretch between Alice and Darwin (if you’re trying to do both the Top End and the Outback in the one go, it’s usually smarter to fly).
The Marbles protect one of the oldest religious sites in the world, and were officially handed back to the traditional Alyawarre owners in 2008. These days they’re an iconic Outback attraction: a collection of gigantic granite boulders, some split completely in two, in a desert valley just off the Stuart Highway.
West MacDonnell Ranges
Most people think you need to head well north into Kakadu and Katherine Gorge to get a taste of billabongs, river gorges and, well, water. But locals in Alice Springs know that there are plenty of spots to cool off in the spectacular Western MacDonnell Ranges, about 160km west of town.
They’re a gorgeous series of red ridges and shady river beds. Our pro tip is Ellery Creek, one of our favourite watering holes for a cool dip on a hot day (and not a croc in sight). Pick the right tour group and you can even sign up for sunset camel rides across the scrub. Something a little different from the typical Red Centre itinerary.
The best 4WD tracks
Boggy Hole Track
A definite Northern Territory secret, right up there with the location of hidden American CIA training facility that everyone’s heard of from some guy in the pub. The Boggy Hole Track traces the Finke River bed from the Ernest Giles Highway, winding its way for about eight hours to a spectacular water hole. It’s absolutely stunning, but watch out for wet sand during the rainy season. It’s easy to get bogged (clue was in the title, eh).
The Binns Track
Binns is a little better known to NT aficionados, but most of the country still hasn’t heard of it. It’s an epic 4WD adventure which begins at the South Australian border and stretches north for over 2000kms. As you go you’ll follow the fringe of the great Simpson Desert, skirt huge sand dunes, visit ancient Arrernet rock art and pass through old Gold Rush towns like Gemtree. Definitely one hell of an Outback adventu
The coolest activities
Check out an Outback rodeo
Daly Waters is a tiny town about 620kms south of Darwin, known mostly for its cracking pub and middle-of-nowhere vibe. But once a year it also hosts an Outback rodeo and Gymkhana. Dusty utes and Aussie cowboys converge on the Waters for seven days of bull riding, bronco bucking, barrel racing and tail tagging (don’t ask). Just spit a lot and talk about gelding, you’ll fit in in no time.
Fly a hot air balloon
Outback Ballooning is a company based out of Alice Springs that runs daily hot air balloon rides pretty much the year round. The weather is almost always set to ‘Blistering hot and cloudless’ so it’s a pretty reliable operation – you’d have to be pretty unlucky to have your booking rescheduled due to poor conditions. A 60 minute flight will set you back around $390, but trust me, it’s worth it.
The best Outback tour
Outback tour operators are as numerous as grains of sand on the Simpson Desert. Well, not really. There’s probably like a couple of dozen companies. But you know, it sounded impressive. One of the best we’ve found is Adventure Tours Australia. They use local guides, have good ties to Aboriginal communities (particularly those around Uluru and Kata Tjuta) and run a variety of NT tours to fit most budgets.
If you’re after a nine-day tour that hits up the Territory’s major sites, try this one. You get the best of the Red Centre, as well as a few days in Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge and Litchfield (the three stars of the Top End).