The five best road trips in WA, NT and SA – according to someone who’s done them all

The five best road trips in WA, NT and SA – according to someone who’s done them all

On the first day of our six-month road trip, we had a car accident.

Our plan had been to head north from our home town of Adelaide, reach Darwin and turn left. Eventually we wanted to trace the whole western coast, returning via the Nullarbor.

As our four-wheel-drive collided with a tiny hatchback, I wondered if our first stop would instead be the hospital. Fortunately, no human damage was done and we returned our gaze to what lay ahead: the unknown, including a string of surprise visits to the most expensive mechanics in the southern hemisphere.

The mechanics and the car crash were my least favourite parts of the six months, the road trips below were my most favourite.

As Western Australia transitions “to a safe and sensible controlled border arrangement” on 14 November, with the Northern Territory open to all Australians bar Melburnians, and South Australia set to open their borders to Victoria from 1 December, here’s where to follow in my pre-Covid footsteps.

The Flinders Ranges

Perfect for: a long weekend
Trip type: loop
Leave from: Adelaide

Home to some of the world’s oldest fossils, the Flinders Ranges possess an uncommon stillness and ominous beauty. Remote enough not to be overrun with tourists, the right itinerary and a decent 4WD can still provide the region’s best in a four-day weekend.

Stock up before leaving Adelaide. In the Flinders, with the exception of the excellent Flinders Food Co and O’Reilly’s Orchard, food is largely served deep-fried.

Ignore the GPS. Travel north via an overnight stop near Laura, and then on though Quorn for dramatic scenery. Your destination is Wilpena Pound resort in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, which has an excellently-appointed campground, or – for those in need of luxury – Safari Tents.

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Car driving in Bunyeroo Valley, South Australia

Commit at least a full day to exploring Ikara. Attend a Welcome to Country, learn from an Adnyamathanha guide and take on the steep hikes for a glimpse at the scale of ancient landforms surrounding you. Leave the park using the vehicle track that heads north after engaging the 4WD and wending through Bunyeroo and Brachina gorges. The vehicle track doesn’t appear on GPS (including our Google map above) but you can download maps from the park’s website. Cap the trip by turning right on the Parachilna Gorge Road, setting up in a free camp and then nipping up the road to the Blinman pub. Less famous than the Prairie hotel, it’s also much better.

Returning to Adelaide, break the drive with a hike at Alligator Gorge.

The Giant Forests

Perfect for: a long weekend
Trip type: loop
Leave from: Perth

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This quick long-weekender from Perth is a dive into the old-growth forests south of the city, where the towering Karri canopies dampen the light and sounds from outside and draw focus to the teeming life on the forest floor.

Out of Perth, it’s sensible to stop in Fremantle for lunch and supplies. Then set out for Lane Poole Reserve. Sliced through by a river, there’s a choice of walks, swims and camps in this part of Dwellingup state forest, but the tiny and private campsites at Stringers are the best pick.

The Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree

Warren national park is another two and a half hours south. At our campsite at Draftys, our neighbours were inquisitive kookaburras – twice the size of any I’ve seen in South Australia. On the 11km Warren River loop walk, we also found wrens and sleepy snakes, and our progress was announced by bird calls issuing from unseen beaks high in the branches. While these experiences were peaceful, there’s also higher octane choices here with a nearby sandy 4WD track and the option to climb 65m up a tree that was once used as a fire lookout.

Stop for an enormous pastry at Crossings Bakery before driving back to Perth. When the trees grow smaller and the sunlight reappears, you’re almost home.

The Red Centre Way

Perfect for: a weeklong trip
Trip type: loop
Leave from: Alice Springs

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This seven-day 4WD loop out of Alice Springs includes iconic destinations like Uluru, but its extra magic is the lesser-known stops on the way that slowly reveal the majesty of central Australia.

Start in the West MacDonnell Ranges – home to oft-Instagrammed swimming spots such as Ellery Creek Big Hole. Many are fed by underground springs and the pictures won’t tell you the water is freezing. Instead, stay clothed and hike at Angkerle Atwatye and Ormiston Pound, where the awe-inspiring country is scarred by bushfires. The contrast brings the importance of the fight against invasive species into sharp relief.

Car on a central Australian dirt road

Dotted with good camping spots, the road leads on to Kings Canyon, but take a detour to Palm Valley. The Kalaranga lookout at sunset and the Mpulungkinya walk (found at the end of a fun 4WD track) were the first places that made me forget to breathe. Then continue on the Mereenie loop – a long-ish dirt drive with few places to stop, but with views that deserve the time and space.

Now is a special time for the final destinations of this route. The usually bustling Kings Canyon, Uluru and Kata Tjuta now have smaller crowds. This is the perfect opportunity to follow the advice of Anangu traditional owners, who – in national park literature – encourage visitors to let new knowledge “come through your ears, into your mind and settle in your heart”.

Katherine to Kakadu

Perfect for: a weeklong trip
Trip type: loop
Leave from: Darwin

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A week-long 4WD road trip that takes in some of the best swimming locations in the top end, this itinerary is also a trek through contrasting ecosystems.

Arrive in Darwin, then take the fastest road to Katherine, which takes about three hours. Then head south to Bitter Springs – a thermal pool among dense tropical vegetation with a slow current on which to float. Travelling north, pause at Nitmiluk national pPark. Access the gorges through cultural and canoe tours, and escape the crowded Leliyn Falls pools with a full-day hike through semi-arid surrounds to Sweetwater pool.

Jim Jim waterfall in Kakadu

From Nitmiluk, drive on to the sprawling Kakadu national park. My expectations were informed by a family friend, who entered Kakadu via dirt tracks and water crossings in the 1970s. Now serviced by bitumen roads and thick with tourists, the park’s dense wilderness retains its mystery. Famous spots such as Gunlom, Maguk and Jim Jim Falls (particularly the plateau hike) are great for more swimming (though check ahead if you’re planning to travel in the wet season). Visiting the three rock art sites is essential too.

Take three days or more to explore the park and seize every opportunity to turn down a less-travelled track. It was on our way to camp near the unpopular, croc-infested Sandy Billabong that we saw the undisturbed landscape open out – revealing a water buffalo, kangaroos and giant red-tailed black cockatoos.

Drive on to Darwin to complete the trip, and – if you have the time – drop down to Litchfield national park for a final picturesque swim.

Driving direct from Darwin to Katherine takes just over three hours; alternatively, Thrifty car hire in Katherine offers one-way hires for an additional fee.

Coral Bay to Karijini national park

Trip type: one way
Leave from: Exmouth, WA
Arrive in: Tom Price, WA
This trip can also be done as a loop from Perth, adding an additional 28 hours of driving.

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The north of WA is, without hyperbole, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This two-week road trip takes in three incomparable natural phenomena, but requires remote travel preparation, a sturdy 4WD and a willingness to embrace the thrill of isolation.

A snorkeller on Ningaloo Reef

Exmouth and Coral Bay are front doors to the 260km-long, world heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo is easily accessible. At spots including Oyster Stacks and Turquoise Bay, you can snorkel metres from shore and find tightly packed corals, turtles and a huge diversity of colourful fish. It needs at least five days of exploration – swim out alone and then take tours with eco-conscious providers to visit with giant, otherworldly whale sharks (March to September) and manta rays, as well as dolphins, humpback whales and reef sharks.

Heading inland, map your way to Millstream-Chichester national park. Wikicamps is the best guide for where to camp along the 600km+ journey into the red dirt and spinifex plains of the Pilbara. Arrival at the Park is jarring – suddenly, a green oasis emerges, with a spring-fed river as wide as a football field where you can wash away the long journey.

The Fern Pool in Dale Gorge, Karijini

After a few days walking and swimming, it’s about 200km of permit-required road to Karijini. Travelling alongside the iron-ore train line, the Pilbara picture becomes more complex. There is a mine next door to Karijini and – between hiking, climbing and swimming through gorges and daily dips in the tropical vegetation-rimmed Fern Pool, which a ranger told me is home to a peaceful 4m python – I either imagine or can hear the dynamite blasts ripping apart the region.

This trip is remote and will likely make up part of a longer journey. A one-way drive between Exmouth and Paraburdoo airport in Tom Price can be arranged through rental car companies in both towns, though bookings are limited so you will need to plan well in advance.

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