Explore the red rocks, waterfalls, and rock art of the Northern Territory, journey through the outback on the Ghan train, and discover South Australia's wine regions and island wilderness and wildlife. Bookend your trip with the laid-back tropical city of Darwin and Adelaide's graceful sandstone symmetry.
By Sue Gough Henly
What to expect
- See rock art, waterfalls and wetlands in Australia's largest national park
- Travel through the outback on the world's longest north-south train journey
- Get close to Australia's diverse wildlife on Kangaroo Island
- Time: 14 days
- Distance: 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles)
- Transport: car, train, boat and plane
- Nearest major cities: Darwin and Adelaide
- Price: $$$$
Traversing Australia from top to bottom is an incredible experience easily achieved in two weeks. This itinerary combines two very different cities, World Heritage national parks, Aboriginal rock art, Australian wildlife, world-class wineries, an epic train journey through the wide open spaces of the outback, and one of Australia's most beautiful islands.
Day 1: Darwin
Start your journey in the multicultural tropical city of Darwin. If you're here on a Saturday, visit the year-round local favourite Parap Village Markets for freshly brewed coffee, tropical juices and perhaps a spicy laksa or Vietnamese pancake, and browse local arts and crafts. Visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which showcases some of Australia's best Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. While you're there, don't miss the exhibit on Cyclone Tracy, which flattened 80 per cent of Darwin in 1974. For more insights join a heritage tour with Walk Darwin. Enjoy a Champagne sunset cruise of Darwin Harbour with Sail Darwin before feasting on terrific Indian and Thai food from Hanuman and enjoying a movie under the stars at the Deckchair Cinema. Stay at the reasonably priced Vibe Hotel at the Darwin Waterfront next to the natural lagoon and Darwin's simulated wave pool.
Day 2: Darwin
Start your day with a seriously good coffee and breakfast at the Roma Bar, popular with local politicians and journalists. Go to Crocosaurus Cove, which has the world's largest display of Australian reptiles. You can hold a baby crocodile and, if you are brave, get lowered in a cage to come face to face with some of the largest saltwater crocodiles in captivity. World War II buffs will enjoy the Darwin Military Museum in a memorabilia-filled bunker, with its old newsreel of the bombing of Darwin (Australia's Pearl Harbor). There's also the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre, which houses a Spitfire replica and a B-25 Mitchell bomber. Check out the Mindil Beach Market (open Thursday and Sunday evenings between April and October) to browse local craft stalls, listen to the didgeridoo and feast on Indonesian, Greek or perhaps bush tucker street food as the sun dips into the Timor Sea. Another great spot to watch the sunset is over a few beers at the Darwin Ski Club or with an alfresco meal at Pee Wee's on the Point.
Day 3: Wetlands and Kakadu National Park
Today you head out to explore Australia's largest national park, World Heritage-listed Kakadu, to discover rugged escarpments, 20,000-year-old rock art galleries, rainforest and spectacular waterfalls. Drive 59 kilometres (37 miles) south-east of Darwin and break the journey with a Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tour, on which you can do a bush tucker walk, learn to play a didgeridoo and try basket weaving. It's just another 18 kilometres (11 miles) drive to Window on the Wetlands, which offers 270-degree views of the Adelaide River wetlands. These are flooded during the wet season (November to April) and baked during the dry (May to October). Interactive displays explain the wetlands' habitat, wildlife and Aboriginal history. Nearby, board a one hour Jumping Crocodile Cruise (dry season) on the Adelaide River to get close to saltwater crocs. Drive 193 kilometres (120 miles) to Jabiru township and visit the Aboriginal rock shelter-inspired Bowali Visitor Centre, designed by Pritzker award-winning Australian architect Glenn Murcutt around a billabong and dry creek bed. Admire a skeleton of an enormous saltwater crocodile, find out about Kakadu tours and check road conditions. (The trip outlined here can be done in a 2WD vehicle during the dry season but is always subject to current weather conditions.) Check in to the Aboriginal-owned Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, built in the shape of a saltwater crocodile, whose belly in this case is a tree-shaded swimming pool. Drive 43 kilometres (27 miles) to Ubirr (the road access can get a little soggy so check conditions beforehand). Follow the signposted one kilometre (0.6 mile) walk to see remarkable rock art depicting the rainbow serpent as well as a wide range of X-ray art. Then take the 250 metre (820 foot) climb to Nadab Lookout on the escarpment for a spectacular sunset wetlands panorama. Back at the Crocodile Hotel go to the Ochre Art Gallery to visit artist-in-residence Selone Djandjomerr, a Kunwinjku artist who grew up in Kakadu. He shares his cultural knowledge with guests as well as creating works of art for sale. Enjoy Top End staples such as crocodile, kangaroo and barramundi at the Escarpment Restaurant.
Day 4: Kakadu National Park
Start your day with a dawn flight from Jabiru Airport with The Scenic Flight Company to view the dramatic escarpment and stunning Jim Jim and Twin Falls (best done in the wet season for biggest impact). Then drive 36 kilometres (22 miles) to Nourlangie and Anbangbang Billabong. Stroll the 2.5 kilometre (1.5 mile) Anbangbang Billabong Walk to see paperbark trees, freshwater mangroves and lots of waterbirds on the billabong pond. Signs explain how Aboriginal people used these materials for food, tools and medicine. Follow the 1.5 kilometre (0.9 mile) Nourlangie Rock Art Walk past an ancient Aboriginal shelter. The main site of the Anbangbang Gallery reveals stories of Dreamtime ancestors including Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, who controls the violent lightning storms that occur during the wet season. Drive 46 kilometres (29 miles) to the Warradjan Cultural Centre, which offers insights into the Aboriginal people who have lived in Kakadu for thousands of years. Spend an hour in the interactive gallery, which takes you on a Kakadu journey from an Aboriginal perspective, from Dreamtime origins, through art and cultural customs, to the arrival of Europeans, up to today. There are videos and written stories from the main Aboriginal families, plus lots of artefacts, information about bush tucker and an exhibit on the six-season calendar. The gallery shop sells local artwork and didgeridoos. Check in to Cooinda Lodge and cool off in the resort-style pool. Enjoy a two hour Yellow Water sunset cruise through the wetlands to marvel at Kakadu's wildlife, from delicate kingfisher birds to five metre (16 foot) crocodiles.
Day 5: Kakadu National Park to Litchfield National Park
Drive 129 kilometres (80 miles) south to Gunlom Falls, made famous in the movie Crocodile Dundee. Swim in the serene plunge pool at the base of the waterfall and enjoy a picnic under the shady gum trees. You need to be fit to follow the one hour walking route over steep terrain to the top of the falls but you will be rewarded by enjoying Australia's most spectacular natural infinity pool, with sweeping views. Drive 107 kilometres (67 miles) out of Kakadu National Park to Pine Creek. Stop for a cool drink at the quirky indoor/outdoor outback pub, the Lazy Lizard Tavern, built from termite mound mud brick, with carved ironwood sculptures of local wildlife. Drive 158 kilometres (98 miles) to stay in a self-contained cabin at the Litchfield Tourist Park, where you can cool off in the pool and dine on buffalo or barramundi burgers at the café.
Day 6: Litchfield National Park
Spend the day waterfall hopping through Litchfield National Park. Drive 33 kilometres (21 miles) to swim beneath the tumbling twin torrents of Florence Falls before enjoying a picnic lunch alongside resident wallaroos and short-eared rock wallabies. Walk 1.5 kilometres (0.9 miles) along Florence Creek Walk to the popular Buley Rockhole, a chain of spa-like shallow pools linked by small cascades. Drive another 20 kilometres (13 miles) to get to Tolmer Falls, which will lead you to the gentle, 45 minute Tolmer Falls Walk through sandstone country. You may be lucky to see some of the rare ghost and orange horseshoe bats that live here. It is another 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) to Wangi Falls, Litchfield's largest waterfall, which tumbles into a large natural swimming pool surrounded by rainforest. Enjoy the one hour (return) Wangi Falls Walk through monsoon forest. Get a bird's-eye view of the falls as well as the Lost City, a collection of bizarre eroded rock formations, on a scenic flight with Litchfield Helicopter Flights. Drive 165 kilometres (103 miles) to Darwin and relax in the five-star Mandalay Luxury Stay, set in tropical gardens.
Day 7: Darwin to Katherine on the Ghan
Board the Ghan train at 10am from Darwin Railway Station to set off on your four day, 2979 kilometre (1851 mile) journey through the Outback to Adelaide in South Australia. This trip, including the stop in Cooper Pedy, runs from May to October. A three day version, minus the Cooper Pedy stop, runs from November to April. Enjoy an early lunch as the monsoonal rainforest of the Top End rushes past the window and the train heads to Katherine, where a number of excursion options await. Enjoy a leisurely cruise on Nitmiluk Gorge admiring towering sandstone cliffs and crocodiles basking in the sun as Jawoyn Aboriginal guides give insights into their culture. Or visit the Katherine Outback Experience to see horse-breaking, dogs rounding up cattle, goats and ducks, and listen to Australian anthems and country music songs in the stockyards of a cattle station. Return to the Ghan in the late afternoon and enjoy dinner before being lulled to sleep by the rattling of the rails.
Day 8: Alice Springs
After breakfast you'll arrive in Alice Springs, a quintessential Outback town just south of Australia's geographic centre. You have a full day to enjoy off-train excursions such as exploring the Alice Springs Desert Park to learn about the desert adaptations of plants and animals and how they were used by Aboriginal people for food, tools and medicine. Or do a tour of the town, where you can visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service Base and the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame. Choose some optional upgrades: enjoy a fixed-wing scenic flight around Uluru and Kata Tjuta, ride a camel in the desert, or go for a guided walk to admire the red rock landscape and ancient ghost gum trees at Simpsons Gap just outside Alice Springs. Finish off your day by dining under the stars at an Outback bush barbecue with steak and damper bread made in a campfire oven. After dessert, cast your eyes towards the constellations of the southern skies during an astronomical talk. Relax in your comfortable bed as the Ghan rolls its way through Australia's Red Centre
Day 9: Coober Pedy
Watch the sun rise over the wide open expanse of the Outback. After breakfast, the train pulls in to a stop at Manguri in South Australia, where a tour guide is waiting to take you to sun-scorched Coober Pedy, the opal mining capital of the world. Because of the town's extreme temperatures, many residents live in underground cave houses, some of which you will visit, as well as an opal mine and an underground Serbian Orthodox church before enjoying lunch in an underground restaurant. On the return trip to the Ghan you'll travel through the Breakaways, a surreal orange-tinged landscape of flat-topped mesas and stony desert. Enjoy a final dinner and night on board the Ghan.
Day 10: Adelaide
Watch the red earth of the Outback soften into rolling pastoral lands and undulating wine country as the train heads into Adelaide. The South Australian capital is a city of gracious sandstone buildings and historic churches, bordered with expansive parkland and set between sandy beaches and the Mount Lofty Ranges. Start the day with a guided tour of the colourful Adelaide Central Market, the largest covered market in the Southern Hemisphere (don't forget to pick up picnic supplies), before shopping for ceramics, glass or jewellery at the studios of some of Adelaide's most creative artists at the JamFactory. Tour the Adelaide Oval, one of the world's most beautiful cricket grounds, and enjoy a picnic in the Adelaide Botanic Garden, renowned for its Australian native gardens, Amazon waterlily pavilion and tree-lined avenues. Visit the South Australian Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of Australian Aboriginal cultural artefacts. Then enjoy a gourmet dinner at Orana, one of Australia's top restaurants, where the seasonal tasting menu features modern interpretations of local and native wild foods. Finish off the day with a bar crawl to discover idiosyncratic little bars such as Clever Little Tailor, Maybe Mae, Pink Moon Saloon, and Udaberri, in and around Leigh and Peel streets. Spend the night at the Mayfair, a gorgeous, boutique five-star hotel.
Day 11: Adelaide Hills
Rent a car and drive 20 minutes into the Adelaide Hills, with its pretty villages, rolling vineyards, and tall eucalyptus trees. Drive to Mount Lofty for a panoramic view of the city and visit nearby Cleland Conservation Park to see Australian animals in their natural setting and even hold a koala. In spring (September to November), walk through the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden amid flowering rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias. Explore the quaint village of Hahndorf, Australia's oldest surviving German settlement. Adelaide Hills is one of Australia's finest cool climate wine regions, with more than 60 wineries specialising in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Enjoy lunch with spectacular views at Mount Lofty Ranges Vineyard, Pike & Joyce or The Lane Vineyard and spend the afternoon tasting wine at wineries such as Ashton Hills (renowned for its Pinot Noir) Shaw + Smith and Bird in Hand, which also offers art, music and farm-to-table feasts. Visit Woodside Cheese Wrights and, if you are a car buff, check out the National Motor Museum in Birdwood. Stay at the beautifully restored, historic Mount Lofty House.
Day 12: Kangaroo Island
Enjoy a scenic 119 kilometre (74 mile) drive through the Adelaide Hills and along the Fleurieu Peninsula to Cape Jervis to catch the one hour Sealink ferry to Kangaroo Island. From the dramatic cliffs and secluded sandy beaches, to an abundance of native Australian animals and wildflowers, Kangaroo Island is one of the world's most beautiful wilderness destinations. Drive 124 kilometres (77 miles) to the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to see koalas in the wild on the Koala Walk. It is just another 10 kilometres (six miles) to the spectacular Southern Ocean Lodge for luxurious accommodation atop a secluded cliff offering peerless views of the wild Southern Ocean. Enjoy an exclusive guided Seal Bay Experience at the Seal Bay Conservation Park, where you might see giant bulls fighting or baby sea lions playing just a short distance away. Over dinner at the lodge, enjoy the finest Kangaroo Island wines, beers, and even vodka and gin, as well as the freshest local ingredients including oysters, marron (a native Australian freshwater crayfish), sheep cheese and rare Ligurian honey.
Day 13: Kangaroo Island
Enjoy a half day signature Southern Ocean Lodge experience to see more wildlife, learn about Kangaroo Island’s history at the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse and discover some of its stunning coastal landscapes. Remarkable Rocks are giant granite boulders covered with orange lichen and carved into bizarre shapes by rain, wind and waves. The eroded rock bridge of Admirals Arch is covered with stalactites and home to a fur seal colony. Enjoy an Aboriginal-inspired spa treatment at the clifftop spa before the lodge's sunset Kangas and Kanapes experience at which you will sip South Australian wines and beers with canapes while watching kangaroos and wallabies at Grassdale, a historic island property. You'll then enjoy another spectacular dinner overlooking the Southern Ocean.
Day 14: McLaren Vale and Adelaide
Drive to Penneshaw to board the ferry back to the mainland. Drive 75 kilometres (46 miles) to the McLaren Vale wine region, renowned for Grenache, Shiraz and Italian varietals, which you can taste at wineries such as Wirra Wirra, Coriole and Primo Estate, and have lunch overlooking the vineyards at d'Arenberg. Go for a swim at nearby Port Willunga Beach before enjoying a sunset dinner at the rustic, seaside café the Star of Greece, set on the cliffs overlooking turquoise waters. It's an easy 46 kilometres (29 miles) drive back to Adelaide.
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