Planning a trip through the Red Centre? Featuring the tropical city of Darwin and the top end’s many national parks, Uluru which is the world’s largest rock and the otherworldly terrain of South Australia’s desert, the Darwin to Adelaide road trip is one of Australia’s most loved road odysseys.
There’s several detours to reach different towns and attractions, but the majority of the driving on this Central Australia road trip itinerary takes place down the Stuart Highway. The Stuart Highway is named after John McDouall Stuart, who was the first European to navigate the country from north to south – along a very similar route to what the Stuart Highway takes now (bear that in mind as you drive along the highway, staring into the outback abyss either side of you…). It was constructed during WWII to transport supplies from south to north. It was largely bitumen by 1942 and nowadays is a popular road for cargo and road trippers alike.
The Stuart Highway is a pretty barren expanse. I’ve drove across the Nullarbor Plain in the south of South Australia/ Western Australia, and saw more cars there than on the Stuart Highway – there are still road trains and travellers passing by, but they are fairly infrequent. You’ll want to make sure your car is serviced and prepared with everything you need before you leave Darwin to avoid any break downs, which would be painfully expensive to sort out.
The best time for the Darwin to Adelaide road trip
“When is the best time for the Darwin to Adelaide road trip?” I hear you cry. Darwin and Adelaide have significantly different climates: Darwin’s being tropical, with dramatic wet and dry seasons. Darwin is always hot, even in Australia’s winter (and especially in September, when I was there. I felt my face melt off on numerous occasions), and to explore all of the national parks of the top end, you’ll want to be in Darwin during the winter, the tropical dry season.
Adelaide, however, has a Mediterranean climate, with warm summers and cool-mild winters. You can explore Adelaide’s attractions at any time, but spring or autumn are probably best – after the winter rains and before the scorching heat of the Australian summer.
I left Darwin in late September, just before an early wet season began, and arrived in Adelaide mid-October – where the weather was 28 degrees on the first day and over the next few ranged from rainy and slightly cold to warm enough to picnic outside. This was a pretty ideal time to drive from Darwin to Adelaide.
If you’re doing the reverse – an Adelaide to Darwin drive – It’s probably best to leave the opposite time of year; to escape Adelaide as it gets cooler in late April/ early May and reach the top end and the start of the dry season. This is often a great time to visit the national parks, as the waterfalls are in full swing after the plentiful rains of the wet – although sometimes Darwin does have a late wet season, meaning that parts of Kakadu could still be inaccessible. If you’re venturing westwards and tackling the Gibb River Road (which you should do – it’s incredible) remember that the Kimberley region has the same wet and dry season – so be sure not to get there too far into the wet.
These times of year are also great to enjoy the deserts of the red centre. In the summer, Alice Springs and Yulara (where Uluru is based) are absolutely sweltering, making exploring uncomfortably hot. But in winter, temperatures can drop to just above freezing at night, making camping fairly uncomfortable! In spring and autumn, temperatures are generally cool enough to explore during the day and not so cold you’ll feel like your vital organs are freezing over at night. Always a plus!
So, where does this Darwin to Adelaide drive take you? Here’s the main stops on the route – obviously if you’re doing the reverse, an Adelaide to Darwin drive, start reading from the bottom ;).
- Kakadu National Park
- Daly Waters
- Tennant Creek
- Alice Springs
- West McDonnell Ranges
- King’s Canyon
- Coober Pedy
- Flinder’s Ranges
The tropical city of Darwin lies at one of the most northern parts of Australia, and basks in a sweltering climate. Please don’t take that lightly – Darwin is hot and humid, especially during the build-up to the wet.
But if you can handle the heat (I could only just!), Darwin has an array of unique attractions to enjoy. Its geographical position means that it is home to some distinctly Northern Territorian wildlife, is often exposed to various natural disasters, and was the main Australian victim of bombings in World War Two. Darwin goes through a hell of a lot, and all of this can be learnt about in various museums in the tropical city. There’s also a great recreational lagoon, lots of Aboriginal history to educate yourself on and various beautiful national parks. Darwin has a harsh climate making it difficult for plants, humans and animals to live in, but the surrounding nature sure is beautiful.
And of course there’s Darwin’s (in)famous drinking scene. If you’re after backpacker style drinks, Darwin is your place. Just make sure you leave enough time to enjoy its other attractions!
The best things to do in Darwin include
- Visiting the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and learning about the unique history of the state capital
- Learning about Australia in WWII and subsequent conflicts at the Darwin Military Museum
- Dining and shopping at the Mindl Beach Sunset Markets
- Taking a day trip to Litchfield National Park which is just over an hour away from the city
- Going for a dip at the tranquil Berry Springs
- Walking through a war tunnel and enjoying the bike trails and Darwin skyline at Charles Darwin National Park
- Taking a dip in the waterfront’s lagoon and splashing around in the wave pool
- Enjoying the exhibits at the Northern Territory’s State Library and reading about Aboriginal culture in the city
- Doing one of the best tours of Darwin and the surrounding areas
Kakadu National Park – 3 days
The wetland wonderland of Kakadu is located about three hours east of Darwin. Begin your drive there early, because there’s plenty to see and do in the national park to take three days. The national park is one of Australia’s most famous, and rightly so: it’s absolutely breath-taking. Kakadu is even hotter than Darwin (it got to 46 degrees when we were there) – so come prepared! However, it’s well worth the constant feeling that your face is going to melt off, trust me.
The best things to do in Kakadu National Park include:
- Learn about the nature and Aboriginal culture at Bowali Visitors Centre
- Crocodile spotting at Cahill’s Crossing (note: bring spare underwear)
- Looking for Aboriginal Rock Art at Ubirr
- Enjoying a natural infinity pool at Gunlom Falls
- Seeing the spectacular Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls
- Seeing the crocodile-shaped hotel in Jabiru (I’m serious, it was a highlight for me)
Campsites in Kakadu
There’s lots of free campsite options in Kakadu, as well as paid for sites with lots of facilties – Jabiru campsite has a fantastic swimming pool and bar, perfect for relaxing in after a busy days’ exploration!
Spend some time absorbing Katherine, because it’s the only town you’ll see of any size until Alice Springs, some 1,182 kilometres to the south. Katherine is located a one hour 40 minute drive from the south end of Kakadu and three hours from Darwin, and has a range of attractions within the city and on the outskirts.
The best things to do in Katherine include:
- See how children in remote communities in the outback are educated at a School of the Air
- Visit the Katherine Museum
- Nitmiluk National Park, which includes Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls
- Take a dip in Katherine’s hot springs (don’t worry if it’s 38 degrees outside, they’re not actually that hot)
Mataranka – stop over
Mataranka is a tiny outback town 108km – just over an hour’s drive – from Katherine. It’s well worth stopping at, even if it’s just for a dip in the springs. Bitter Springs is nothing short of magical, and Mataranka Springs are well worth visiting too. The rest of the township is pretty miniscule, but if you want to stay overnight, there is a campsite in town.
Once you get down to Daly Waters, you’ll certainly feel as if you’ve approached the real desert. It’s a tiny town that was originally a stop on the Overland Telegraph Line and then enjoyed life as an airfield – a stop over on the London to Sydney air race.
Nowadays, it’s best known for its eccentric pub, where memorabilia – from bras to driving licences – from its many visitors is left behind. The pub is cheery and inviting, serving cold beer and tasty food and has live music every night – a great tonic to driving through the outback!
The pub is home to a range of accommodation – from air conditioned hotel rooms to unpowered camp spots, it’s the perfect place to rest your head for a night.
Tennant Creek – 1 day
Tennant Creek is the only town of any size between Katherine and Alice Springs, and it’s located 407 kilometres, about 4 hours driving, south of Daly Waters on the Barkly Tablelands.
It was the home of a repeater station on the telegraph line and was a significant spot in Australia’s last great gold rush. Nowadays, it’s home to various attractions that reflect life in an outback mining town, as well as some interesting natural formations and sacred Aboriginal sites.
Things to do in Tennant Creek include
- Wander around ‘The Pebbles’ – big granite boulders and try to spot some unique wildlife
- Learn about the history of the telegraph line at the Overland Telegraph Station
- Travel up the road to Churchill’s Head – which is a part of the Old Stuart Highway
- Relax by the Mary Ann Dam and enjoy a refreshing dip in the lake
- Learn about mining history at the Battery Hill Mining Centre
Devil’s Marbles – stop over
Just over 100 kilometres to the south lies the Devil’s Marbles. These otherworldly formations are said, in Aboriginal dreamtime stories, to be the eggs of the rainbow serpent who laid them as it ploughed through the continent, shaping many of the formations that we see today. The rock formations are fascinating to take in and a great backdrop for some photos. There’s a few different walks to take around the marbles, and stopping over here is a great way to stretch your legs on the long drive south!
Wycliffe Well – stop over
It’s a fairly long drive from Tennant Creek to Alice Springs, so it’s a good idea to stop and stretch your legs at every opportunity. And you won’t want to miss this road house – which is the self-proclaimed UFO capital of Australia.
Hundreds of UFO sightings have supposedly occurred around the miniscule town (which consists of the tourist park, a bar, life size alien figures and a fuel house. What more could any town need?).
A stop at the road house will enable you to read the hundreds of newspaper clippings about the UFO spottings (and some whacky ones about sex-starved emus – the smallest things become most amusing when you’re driving through the desert) and enable you to fuel up with petrol, coffee and food as well.
Alice Springs is the capital of the outback, there’s no doubt about it. As you drive south on the Stuart Highway, you’ll start seeing signs indicating you’re closer and closer to Alice… and will no doubt be wondering where the actual town is!
In fact, Alice quickly appears from behind the McDonnell Ranges and suddenly, you’re in a bustling town in the middle of the desert. It’s the strangest feeling!
Alice is a laid back kinda place which celebrates Central Australia’s rich Indigenous culture and revels in some of the most spectacular natural beauty of the outback. Alice also has a thriving arts and music scene, with both Aboriginal and western artists and musicians finding their groove within the town.
Alice Springs is somewhere I must return to – I was sadly unwell during my three days there – but I’ve read plenty about all of the fantastic things to see and do in Alice Springs. Here’s a detailed guide to Alice Springs written by residents!
Some of the best things to do in Alice Springs are:
- Learn about the outback in the Alice Springs Desert Park (disclaimer: I don’t support any kind of zoos or centre where animals are in captivity, but I have heard that the desert park is a fantastic place to learn about Aboriginal culture in the area. I haven’t visited to make my own mind up yet).
- Take a guided tour around the Alice Springs Telegraph Station
- Check out Untyeyetwelye or Anzac Hill for a view over the town
- Learn about the Royal Flying Doctor Service at their Alice-based centre
- Wander around the Museum of Central Australia
- Go shopping for Aboriginal paintings in the Araluen Cultural Precinct
- Take a sunrise balloon ride over the outback
There’s also lots of great places to eat and drink in Alice Springs – which are fantastic respites after driving thousands of kilometres through the outback. Some of the best restaurants and bars are:
- Page 27 café for fantastic brunches (with a great vegan option!) and delicious coffee
- The Goods café which serves excellent coffee – widely regarded as the best in the outback
- Todds Tavern for a relaxed atmosphere and cold pints on tap
- Epliogue Lounge for funky interior and a variety of different drinks
Red Centre Way
The obvious next stop from Alice Springs is the almighty Uluru. While the world’s largest rock is definitely set to be one of the best parts of your Darwin to Adelaide drive, don’t be too hasty in getting there – there’s plenty to see along the way too.
The Red Centre Way is a 690 kilometre route that takes you from Alice Springs to Uluru, via the West MacDonnell Ranges and King’s Canyon. A 4WD vehicle is recommended for the unsealed part, and I would agree with this.
While it probably would have been possible to drive the Mereenie Loop with a 2WD in the road conditions we experienced, there were a couple of hairy moments where I was thankful for my car’s AWD functionality.
If you have the time and the right vehicle, the Red Centre Way is well worth exploring. You’ll get to experience the outback away from the crowds and enjoy some desert off-roading. What’s not to love in that?
West MacDonnell Ranges – 1-2 days
Spending a day or two in the West MacDonnell Ranges will enable you to see some of the very best of the Red Centre. The ranges aren’t that well known with backpackers, but are absolutely spectacular – take lots of photos and be sure to show them to anyone who thinks that the outback is dull!
Some of the best parts of the West MacDonnell Ranges include:
- Simpsons Gap
- Standley Chasm
- Serpentine Gorge
- Ochre Pits
- Ormiston Gorge
- Redbank Gorge
There’s lots of free campsites dotted along the westward road or a paid-for campsite at Glen Helen.
The road from the West MacDonnell Ranges to Watarrka National Park includes the rough Meerenie Loop. This is the rough road that it’s best to have a 4WD on. Keep your eyes peeled for wild camels and horses!
Kings Canyon is a beautiful natural phenomenon, well worth a day’s exploration. The most popular thing to do is the King’s Canyon Rim Walk, which is a six kilometre hike over boulders and past breathtaking viewpoints. Leave yourself an afternoon to complete the walk.
Free camping can be found at Ginty’s Lookout, or your other accommodation option is to stay in the King’s Canyon Resort or at Kings Creek Station).
At the resort, there’s fuel points (which are insanely expensive but kind of necessary), a pricey food store, great places to grab a soy cappuccino and a bar called The Thirsty Dingo.
Uluru – 2 days
It’s a three hour drive to Uluru from Watarrka – a short hop down the road in these parts. As you drive down the Lasseter Highway, you might catch a glimpse of Mount Connor, or Fuluru – don’t get too excited yet! (Or do, it’s still pretty cool)
You’ll drive through Yulara first, a town built for Uluru which – fun fact – is actually the Northern Territory’s fifth biggest town.
You’ve actually been to all of the bigger ones on this Darwin to Adelaide road trip already, which should give you some indication as to how underpopulated the rest of the NT is!
Entrance to Uluru and Katja Tutja National Park is $25 for 3 days – this might seem like a lot, but the traditional owners of the land work an incredible amount to make this show stopping place accessible for everyone. Don’t grumble, it’s worth it.
The best things to do in the Uluru and Katja Tutja National Park include:
- Do the 10.6 kilometre base walk around Uluru, taking in Anangu culture along the way
- Hire out bikes and cycle the distance if you’re not up to walking!
- Learn about Anangu culture and hear their ancient stories, as well as learn about their battle to reclaim ownership of their sacred rock
- Watch the sunset/ sunrise over the rock
- Do the Walpa Gorge walk in Kata Tjuta
- Walk the Kata Tjuta dune walk, where you can take in vistas of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and watch a spectacular sunset
- See the spectacular Field of Light by night
Where to stay in Yulara
Yulara is home to the Ayers Rock Resort, where there is every type of accommodation you could ever need; fancy hotels, backpacker rooms, a huge campsite… the resort is even home to a police station and a fire brigade. Even if you’re not staying at the resort, I’d highly recommend a drive around just to be baffled at the size of the place.
There are a few free camps near Uluru, but it’s a bit of a grey area how legal it is to stay at these. One that we were planning on staying at was shut down on the day we were there, and I’m not sure of the exact reason – it could be sacred Aboriginal land, which is a very just reason for not camping there. Consult wikicamps and make your own mind up as to whether you want to stay there.
South Australia Border – night stop
Once you’ve left Yulara, it’s a 3 hour drive eastwards back to the Stuart Highway – you’re actually under 250 kilometres from the Western Australia border here – and BTW, if you’re searching for more road trip inspiration, The Outback Way runs from Laverton in Western Australia to Winton in Queensland via the Red Centre, and is known as ‘Australia’s longest shortcut’ and it’s a road trip I’m dying to take some day.
Be careful on the Lasseter Highway – the road that connects the Stuart Highway and Yulara. It’s known as the deadliest highway in Australia – mainly because lots of tourists land in Alice and take to the highway straight away, without realising how different outback driving is to driving at home. We saw three flipped vehicles on the Yulara – Stuart Highway stretch. You’ll be fully savvy in terms of outback driving at this point of your Darwin to Adelaide drive, but just keep your wits about you!
There’s a very merry road house as soon as you turn onto the Stuart Highway called Erlunda. Here they play upbeat music, have eye catching posters and serve cold drinks and hot meals – and is a fantastic place to stretch your legs mid-drive. A stop here should ensure you don’t look like the below once you reach your camp spot for the night…
There are two camping options near the SA border. One is at the Kulgera Roadhouse, which costs $10 for an unpowered site. The other is on the border and is a free camp. There’s two options there – either a car-park style camp with toilets or a more authentic ‘bush camp’ across the road.
Coober Pedy – 2 days
It’s 4 hours from the South Australia border to Coober Pedy, and you might feel the climate change as you drive across the border (we definitely did). Coober Pedy is known for being one of the hottest and driest places on this globe, and when we reached it it was… 15 degrees and raining. The weather gods obviously heard that the Brits were arriving…
Anyway, Coober Pedy is normally so hot that residents have taken to living underground. Which means that instead of buildings lining the street, there’s mounds of earth – it really does look like the scene of a post-apocalyptic movie. (And funnily, it has been the scene of many films, such as Mad Max and Priscilla Queen of the Desert…)
Coober Pedy’s other attraction is opal. It’s known as the ‘opal capital of Australia’ because of the vast amount of the gemstone that has been found in the area. This is why people want to stick around, despite the extreme heat!!
The best things to do in Coober Pedy include:
- Learn about how a woman dug out her own home at Faye’s Underground Home (definitely a must-see)
- Visit the adjoining mine to see how Faye earnt her money
- Explore the underground churches
- Drink in an underground bar
- Visit the Coober Pedy free museum
- Enjoy local Aboriginal art at the Josephine Art Gallery and learn about the rescue of orphaned kangaroos on the premises
If you’re searching for somewhere to stay in Coober Pedy, I’d recommend its only hostel – Radeka Underground. This is a hostel with a difference – the dorms are underground. It’s a surreal experience to sleep underground, and you know, when in Coober Pedy and all… The hostel is also kitted out with a kitchen, lounge area and free wifi.
Oodnadatta Track – alternative route through the Flinders Ranges
The Oodnadatta Track actually starts further north by Marla, but that would mean you’d miss Coober Pedy – which would be a crying shame. You can also access it by venturing east of Coober Pedy, so you get the best of both worlds – underground living and outback driving.
Because of rain and time limits, I didn’t get to experience the Oodnadatta Track, but it’s firmly on my bucket list. The track is a fantastic way to experience some outback driving and is generally well maintained. The track passes hot springs, historic railway stops and tiny outback villages. If you’re feeling confident, Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest lake, is a side trip away too.
The Oodnadatta Track finishes in the Flinders Ranges, so is perfect for the next leg of your journey!
If you haven’t taken the Oodnadatta Track, the Flinders Ranges are still accessible via Port Augusta. This Flinders Ranges guide presumes you are entering from the south – obviously flip it around if you have taken the Oodnadatta Track and are arriving from the north!
Starting about 200km north of Adelaide, the Flinders Ranges stretch a further 400km to the north. As you pass this area you can spend as much or as little time here as you like, but one to three days is recommended.
The first area of interest is around the town of Wilmington. There is some great hiking in Alligator Gorge, part of the Most Remarkable National Park. There are various hikes for different abilities. I hiked the challenging 9km Alligator Gorge Ring Route, a four hour walk through the gorge and surrounding bushland. Not only will you enjoy the stunning red walls of the gorge, you are likely to spot wildlife such as kangaroos, emus, lizards and birds on your walk.
Next stop is the town of Quorn, where on certain days during the winter months a steam train runs along the Pichi Richi Railway.
Further along the road are the ruins of the Kanyaka Homestead, a settlement originally housing 70 families so there are quite a few buildings and also a cemetery to explore.
From here continue north to Wilpena Pound, part of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. There are various options here for overnight accomodation, from resort rooms to unpowered campsites. With not much else around, you can get fuel and food here, arrange tours and guides, or just get local information.
Around this area there many more hikes, from short walks to multi-day hikes. Many start right from Wilpena Pound Resort but others require a short drive to the starting points.
To see some Aboriginal rock paintings, drive 20km to Sacred Canyon, and a short walk along a dry riverbed will bring you to some nice examples.
As you continue your trip north, the small town of Blinman is worth a quick visit. There are good facilities for a picnic lunch, and tours can be arranged to visit the historical mines. It is also possible to arrange scenic flights over the area from here or do a homestay at a local property.
Thanks Josie from Josie Wanders for this – read more about bushwalking in the Flinders Ranges here!
I think Adelaide is pretty underrated. Similarly to Perth, it’s got a bit of a rep for being dull, but it’s a beautiful city with some great attractions, well worth a few day’s exploration.
We were in Adelaide for three days, but could have easily spent more time. The city centre is small, and its main attractions can be explored in a day – but there’s vineyards right on its doorstep, beaches along its coast, lots of little townships in the hills that all have their own unique character and hiking opportunities nearby.
Some of the best things to do in Adelaide include:
- Explore the state’s history at the South Australian Museum
- Feel like you’re in Harry Potter at the Mortlock Wing of the State Library of South Australia – and take a lesson in Australian politics while you’re there!
- Visit the German-influenced towns in the Adelaide Hills such as Hahndorf
- Laze on one of the beaches nearby the city – Glenelg, Brighton and Henley are popular favourites!
- Drink the Barossa Valley dry on a wine tour
How much does a Darwin to Adelaide drive cost?
How long is a piece of string? As mentioned in my previous itineraries, I’m pretty terrible at keeping track of my finances. I normally travel on a budget – but as soon as I arrived into Darwin on a tourist visa and knew I only had three months in Australia left, I started to favour beer over tea and ate out a few more times than my wallet (or waistline) was truly happy with.
So, in the space of 16 days, I spent just under $1500. This included
- Half the costs of the petrol of my route (I was travelling with my good friend Mischa)
- Kakadu and Uluru National Park entrance fees ($40 for Kakadu and $15 for Uluru)
- On average $15 a night accommodation costs (we stayed in some free camps, some paid camps and some hostels. I reckon it evens out to about $15 per night. There are still lots of free campsites on the Stuart Highway and in Kakadu, so if you’re looking to cut costs this is a great way)
- Food for 16 days
- Dinner out a few times
- Beer… lots of it.
- A few too many soy cappuccinos… I should go to soy cappuccino anonymous.
The road trip could obviously be done a lot cheaper by staying at exclusively free campsites (which is trickier in the towns but can be found if you drive further out and plan your itinerary accordingly), eat cheap, self-made dinners and cut back on the beer and soy caps. Australia on a budget is possible, I promise!
Have I inspired you to take the Darwin to Adelaide road trip?
I hope so – Central Australia is a truly unique place and is well worth some time on any Australia trip. Going from the tropics of the top end, through to the dynamic Red Centre and across the barren South Australian desert that, while large and empty, exudes a certain unique compel, is a surreal road trip experience that should be on any Australian bucket list.
Pin me baby, one more time…