Take 5: Where to Hit the Brakes in Australia’s Northern Territory

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Take 5: Where to Hit the Brakes in Australia’s Northern Territory

In Australia’s Northern Territory, there’s a need for speed. Among its largest states, it’s also Australia’s least populated, meaning that much of its terrain is no man’s land. Here, “just short drive away” can mean a three, four or even five hour endeavor. Luckily, it’s home to the country’s highest speed limits. Quick translation: road trip.

The routes are extreme and endless. Sections of its most isolated roads are breathtakingly apocalyptic, where the earth is scorched—seriously—and soulless, and the rocky road itself is beat red. And yet, there are points—like Darwin, its coastal capital—that are serene, with sandy beaches and stunning sunsets. Pro tip? Leave it to the pros. While it’s possible to take the wheel yourself (4×4 rentals through Britz are ubiquitous), the Northern Territory’s gargantuan sprawl, unsealed roads and countless dead zones are better sorted by a hired navigator. Boutique companies like Offroad Dreaming lend expert, local guidance.

But no matter who leads your itinerary, it will be long and wild—drive fast, and be sure to hit the brakes at these bright spots.

Keith Flanagan is a writer, eater and consummate traveler who loves the journey home to Brooklyn, NY as much as the open road.

1. Darwin


Likely your first and last stop, Darwin will certainly leave a peculiar first and last impression. As the Northern Territory's main hub, it's less city, more townie and prone to backpackers. The former frontier outpost is a foremost launchpad for the surrounding outback, and luckily, it's a tasty place to gear up or recoup. Ask a local where to go while you're in town, and bizarrely, they might suggest heading to Bali. It's a reminder that Darwin sits just below Asia, which means the local cuisine has quite the Asian affinity. In its subdued downtown, Little Miss Korea is an edgy example with stick-to-your-rib, grilled Korean meats (yes, Bulgogi beef) served inside a steamy and graffitied side-street space. The ultimate array—and a must-see—is Mindil Beach Sunset Market, where palm trees silhouette the sunset. Every Thursday and Sunday evening, locals flock to this beachside smorgasbord of food trucks, snacking on fusion, from deep-fried sushi rolls to spicy laksa to a nibble or so of crocodile meat.
Photo courtesy of Tourism NT

2. Litchfield National Park


As Darwin's main draw is the nature surrounding it, get out—quick. The Stuart Highway, which boasts some of the country's most thrilling speed limits (81 mph), leads most of the way to Litchfield National Park. Even the fast lanes will take speed demons almost two hours to reach the heart of the park. But it's a worthy drive. The park is home to waterfalls and a handful of swimming holes. Wangi Falls has some quirks. The daunting waterfall's massive swimming hole is free from crocs, but the aboriginal people who've long lived throughout the area know these waters as a sanctuary for women only. Lingering spirits will drown any man who dares to dip. Luckily for lads, Wangi Falls is also home to a public Wi-Fi connection to kill some time while your lady is taking a dip—it's the only one you'll find for days, and it beats swimming toward a dead zone.
Photo courtesy of Tourism NT

3. Nitmiluk National Park


Some stops are made for staring. The locus of Nitmiluk National Park is Katherine Gorge, considered by its aboriginal owners as a cicada-dreaming place (in tourists' terms, ancestral spirits rest here). It's easy to see why. The Katherine River crawls through a series of 13 tremendous gorges that climb into the sky. Visit them at dawn, and there's more shine to their rise: a boat departs in the early morning through the gorges as the day breaks over the peaks, highlighting bright reds and oranges that mottle each cliff. The boats are helmed by Nitmiluk Tours, owned by the local tribe that's historically lived in these parts, which also operates a campground nearby for travelers hoping to catch the early morning departure. Next to the campsite, a boutique hotel with chic bungalows, Cicada Lodge, commands a poolside view of the pink and purple sunset.
Photo courtesy of Tourism NT

4. Kakadu National Park


In Australia's largest national park, the hard decision isn't where to stop but where not to stop. Inside its nearly 8,000 square miles lies a grab bag of natural wonders, from bursting floodplains to abounding lowlands and towering waterfalls. Hardly any visitor misses Kakadu's Yellow Water Cruise, whose operators have exclusive use of the teeming Yellow Water Billabong. The billabong draws each passenger's gaze downward in search of lying crocodiles, but necks inevitably crane to the sky. Nearly one-third of Australia's bird species flock in these wetlands, from eagles to jabirus. Nearby, thrills continue on foot. One essential stroll is through Ubirr. The protected site is home to ancient aboriginal rock art that experts estimate are thousands of years old, and a walking path leads to a rocky overlook across a seemingly infinite horizon of stone country. If you need a break from roughing it, there's room for R&R at Bamurru Plains, just west of Kakadu National Park and perched atop floodplains, where wallabies and buffalo graze the edges of screened—and safe—bungalows.
Photo courtesy of Bamurru Plains

5. Uluru and Kata Tjuta


While it's nearly 300 miles from Alice Springs, the nearest noteworthy town, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is undoubtedly lively. Beyond the tourists who flock to its landmarks, Uluru is home to the Anangu people, an aboriginal group that has lived in its surroundings for thousands of years. And they're not alone: larger than life sandstone formations command both the horizon and every visitor's attention. The most iconic is Uluru, a monolith rising over 2,800 feet high. The main activity is watching the still formation's facade as light dances with unworldly colors during sunrise and sunset. But today, there's another reason to stop: British artist Bruce Munro's "Field of Light," a sprawling, scintillating year-old light installation at the foot of Uluru has just been extended through March 2018. The patchwork of 50,000 solar-powered bulbs vibe at the sacred foot of Uluru by nightfall, creating the artist's largest outdoor installation to date. The lights won't shine forever, so put a rush on this bucket-list art pilgrimage—luckily, speed isn't an issue.
Photo by Mark Pickthall