Turning off your car ignition is not usually a big deal but at the end of an epic road trip across Australia, parking in your home driveway becomes a poignant moment of reflection.
What started as a wild idea over a beer with a mate – to escape our busy lives for two weeks and roam the outback – had become reality and now it was over. A daunting drive from our homes in Mittagong, south of Sydney, all the way to the top of Kakadu – and back. All up, 8600 kilometres, including side trips, and all in 15 days.
Day one of our adventure began with a restful bush camp beside the Murray at Robinvale before we pushed north-west through Renmark, Burra, Port Augusta and Cooper Pedy along the seemingly endless, black belt which connects Australia’s top and bottom: the Stuart Highway.
The lure of the open road and the big horizons of the outback was compelling. Two middle-aged mates chasing freedom and adventure on a boys’ trip across the continent. As we ate up the “ks” we played music (loudly), solved world problems, shared life stories, laughed until it hurt, daydreamed out the window, ate too many roadhouse meals, toasted sunsets over campfires, stayed in some dodgy motels when camping seemed too hard, shaved our full heads of hair as a desert dare, visited pubs in the middle of nowhere and met many colourful characters along the way.
And when something interesting grabbed our attention, like the eye-dazzlingly white expanse of Lake Hart, a huge salt lake near Woomera, we stopped in awe and did a nudie run, as blokes do. Just for fun.
While our destination was Kakadu and its wild swimming holes, our trip was all about the journey – the magic of unfolding scenery, the overwhelming scale of our great continent, the simple joys of moments unplanned and our own pursuit of happiness. Each day promised new discoveries.
Finally crossing into the Northern Territory, we treated ourselves to a bit of luxury with a night at the Double Tree by Hilton in Alice Springs. Back to camping, we pushed further north past the intriguing Devil’s Marbles boulders at Tennant Creek, had a soak in the thermal pools at Mataranka before arriving at tropical Katherine for a two-day stay at the boutique Cicada Lodge at Nitmiluk Gorge. The highlight here was a Nitmiluk Tours helicopter ride to a remote waterfall and swimming hole in the gorge and a dip at the Southern Rockhole waterfall.
And then we were in Kakadu – Australia’s largest national park, embracing 20,000 square kilometres of timeless landscapes, fresh and lush and pumping with water after the summer wet. Based at Cooinda Lodge for two nights, we busily bagged a series of experiences: swimming at impossibly beautiful waterfalls (Motor Car Falls was our favourite); seeing crocodiles on the Yellow Water Billabong and flying over spectacular Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls with Kakadu Air.
While our trip north was filled with anticipation, our journey back south was more melancholic. On the last night, camped by the Murray again, we relaxed by the campfire and vowed to feel the freedom of the open road every year.
Best wild swimming
Waves of Australians are now shunning concrete and chlorine for wilderness and waterfalls. Here are seven of the best wild swimming spots in the Top End of the NT.
Southern Rockhole, Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine A beautiful waterfall that plummets into a gorge-cradled pool. 4km walk with gorge views from the carpark and a 10-minute ferry boat trip back via Nitmiluk Gorge, best in March/April after the wet.
‘The Swimming Hole’, Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine This mysterious place doesn’t have an official name but that’s what local chopper pilots call it. It’s only accessed by joining a thrilling, two-hour adventure swim helicopter trip offered by Nitmiluk Tours which will fly you over the gorge and land you at this deserted waterfall and lagoon which you can enjoy all by yourself.
Edith falls, Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine North of Katherine, this idyllic pool is fringed by paperbark and tropical pandanas and is open most of the year, with camping and kiosk facilities. It’s an easy stroll from the carpark, with a 2.6km loop walk taking you to an upper pool and waterfall.
Mataranka Thermal Pools, Mataranka A little piece of paradise south of Katherine where turquoise thermal pools soothe the muscles year-round, shaded by a jungle of palms.
Motor Car Falls, Kakadu National Park This deep, little-known pool, fed by a majestic waterfall and hugged by cliffs and lush, monsoon forest, offers a shady hideaway from the Top End heat. Accessed by a 7.5km return walk and usually available year-round.
Boulder Creek, Kakadu National Park An easy 2km loop walk from the Motor Car Falls carpark takes you to a series of crystal-clear pools. They’re shaded by the jungle and you’ll likely have your favourite swimming hole all to yourself.
Gunlom Falls, Kakadu National Park This natural infinity pool is one of the Top End’s most magical swimming spots and has become an Insta hit with tourists around the world. A short, steep walk takes you to the upper pools and falls. Best straight after the wet in April/May.
For more information, go to: AliceSprings.DoubleTree.com, cicadalodge.com.au, nitmiluktours.com.au, kakadutourism.com, kakaduair.com.au, northernterritory.com