Matt and I flew into Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. We stayed in Darwin for one night before heading to pick up our rental car first thing the next morning. Many of the National Parks we were planning on stopping at had tracks that required 4WD vehicles with low and high range gearboxes, capable of water crossings and rough terrain. So we went with a Toyota Troopy that was equipped with a kitchenette and pop-up sleeping space. After signing our life away and getting groceries for the week, we headed to our first stop of the road trip–Kakadu National Park, nearly 300km Southeast of Darwin. Our first true stop was at a secret water hole recommended by a park ranger. It was very serene but also a little eerie, as it was our first time seeing the crocodile territory warning signs and we were the only humans in sight–aka the only crocodile food in sight.
We continued further into Kakadu and decided to spend the night at Gunlom campground. This decision meant going on the first 4WD track of the trip! We dove right in and drove down 37km of pretty rough dirt track before arriving at the campground.
The next morning we got off to an early start and hiked up Gunlom Falls to the famous rock pools at the top. We made it to the top around 7am, at which time it is beautifully lit and almost empty! We spent close to 5 hours up there exploring all the different rock pools and soaking in the beautiful view.
In the afternoon we headed even further into Kakadu to visit Nourlangie, one of the famous Aboroginal Australian art sites in the park. It was pretty impressive to see artwork that is millions and millions of years old.
The next day we decided to go on a four-hour cruise of Katherine Gorge that had been highly recommended to us by a friend of Matt’s dad and it didn’t take long for us to see why. The cruise took us through three different breathtaking “gorges” of the thirteen that make up Katherine Gorge, situated in Nitmiluk National Park. We had the opportunity to enjoy an hour and a half of swimming split between two different stops.
After the cruise we set out for our next stop heading west, Gregory National Park. Luckily Matt got tired 40kms out of Katherine so we decided to call it a night and plan for an early getaway. It was not until the next morning that we realized we had driven 40kms the wrong highway towards Ayers Rock! We counted our lucky stars we hadn’t made it our planned 150kms and debated over how much blame I should accept given my role as the navigator–most would argue all, but I am fighting it to the death. It was also at this point that we realized we had a flat! After teaching me all about and performing the tire change, we were finally underway to our original destination.
We stopped at Gregory National Walk for a bushwalk around the beautiful red rock landscape. The unique part of Gregory’s landscape is that amongst these sheer cliff faces, palm trees are grow as far as the eye can see.
We made our way further West and stopped to camp at Keep River National Park, just before the border of Western Australia. We got there just as the sun was setting but got up bright and early the next day to complete a walk along the escarpment. The walk was stunning and the scenery was very similar to the iconic Bungle Bungle Range that is just a couple hours south. The Bungle Bungles were a part of our original itinerary before we realized it just wouldn’t be feasible time-wise; this walk definitely made up for it though! On our way out of the park Matt gave me my first ever manual driving lesson on the quiet dirt track. I was obviously a natural given my fabulous driving track record and didn’t stall the car until the very end of the road…at which point it was clear Matt should get back behind the wheel before getting on the highway. The highways in this area of Australia are quite different to the rest of the country; the speed limit is 130km/hr and the roads are mostly empty. However, two aspects of driving in the area that we were not fond of were fuel prices and road trains. We filled up for $1.95! And that’s diesel…we also spoke to people that told us they had filled up for $2.50 in more remote sections of the Gibb River Road. Secondly, every third vehicle you encountered on the highway was a road train–a transport truck like vehicle with four to five train-like cars, aka these vehicle are the length of four transport trucks lined up back to back. They travel slowly relative to the speed limits and passing them can be a little scary given the size of their blind spot.
We continued West after that to our next stop–El Questro Wildnerness Park. El Questro is the most easterly part of the famous Gibb River Road. Because of its location and proximity to Kununurra–a relatively sizeable town in that neck of the woods of roughly 5,000 people–El Questro is one of the most accessible spots for tourists that want a taste of the Gibb River Road to make day trips too. The area has been commercialized (but not too much) in a way that provides guests everything they need to have the luxe level of their choice. They have a wide variety of accommodations options that range from camping to $5000 2-night all-inclusive packages that include exclusive access to the on-site hot springs for the entire afternoon. On our first afternoon we visited my favourite gorge of the trip–Emma Gorge! The water was extremely chilly but you literally can’t go to a place like this and not swim!
We went on to check out El Questro Gorge after that and encountered our first river crossing! We had seen warning signs for the crossing and anticipated 10m area of water at the max, after all we were in dry season (thank god!). We could not have been more wrong, our first crossing was close to 40m long in water that came over my knees. The protocol with 4WDing is to walk the crossing before driving it. We did this and then also were able to see another vehicle complete the crossing without any problems which made us much more confident. Shortly after, we conquered the crossing without any issues–so fun!
That night we enjoyed awesome live music at the park bar during happy hour–the perfect way to finish off a busy day. We got up early to check out the hot springs, as they are only open from 7am-12pm for peasants like us who can’t afford $5k 2-night stays. I’ve visited a few hot springs in Western Canada and one in New Zealand but these were by far the most true to the name “natural hot spring”, as they were virtually unaltered by humans other than the path! The springs were the perfect temperature; if only I could start every day with a dip in hot springs!
Our departure from El Questro marked the turn around point in the trip and we had to motor. That afternoon we put in over 500kms on the highway to get back to Katherine. The next morning we hit the jackpot again with a visit to the Katherine Hot Springs which turned out to be a super lovely spot as well and we had a huge pool to ourselves. On the way to Litchfield National Park, we made a pit stop at Edith Falls–a great swimming hole 40kms North of Katherine.
We had a quick dip and were on our way to Litchfield. On our way into the park we stopped to snap a pic with the termite mounds we had seen scattered along the highway our whole trip. We had to capture the scale of these things!
We had a great last night camping at Florence Falls in the heart of the park. Litchfield was filled with tons of beautiful waterfalls so it was hard for us to decide which ones to stop at on our way back to Darwin the next morning but a family camping beside us recommended Wangi Falls. We had a nice swim at Wangi Falls before we making our way back to the car rental drop-off!
Something interesting we noticed was that most of the people we met and ran into throughout the trip were Australians, rather than foreigners. Moreover, I would rate this area of the country as Australia’s number one hidden gem–uniquely Australian natural beauty at its finest. However, the trip was certainly just a teaser for the area and we both left with certainty that we would be back to explore the rest of the area!