A road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin

A little like Australia’s own American Route 66, the Stuart Highway—which runs from Port Augusta to Darwin in the Top End—provides a bounty of surprises. And it’s wicked fun on a motorcycle, as Brad Foster discovered recently.

The Stuart Highway begins at Port Augusta in South Australia and runs through the centre of the country to Darwin in the Northern Territory. It was named after Scottish explorer, John McDouall Stuart, the first European to cross Australia from south to north.

Friend Nigel Collin and I recently travelled the Stuart Highway—“The Track”—from Alice Springs to Darwin; a distance of just under 2000km. If we had started in Port Augusta, about 300km north of Adelaide, it would have been another 700km or so to reach Darwin.

Riding motorcycles and being conscious of not travelling before dawn or after dusk to avoid the period when the local wildlife is traditionally more active, Alice was our jumping off point into the great unknown. With just 10 days to complete the trip, we wanted to really soak in the atmosphere of each stop we made which just isn’t possible when you’re riding all day. Our biggest stint on the bikes was four hours.

On ya bike: a road trip from Port Augusta to Darwin

Thanks to Indian Motorcycles Australia our bikes were an Indian Roadmaster and an Indian Chieftain—both big comfortable motorcycles that just ate up this terrain.

Prior to leaving, Nigel and I talked about carrying our own fuel. But with the bikes getting about 250km per tank we had no need to, leaving us more time to enjoy the landscape that we were driving through, knowing there was a roadhouse and a service station not too far ahead.

What did take some getting used to was the speed we were travelling, with the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory having a 130kph limit. When you’re used to 110kph and dual carriageways, and you’re not used to being blown about by the massive road trains that fly by a metre or so from where you are, it is a little disconcerting at first.

I did get used to it and, once I had, settled into enjoying some of the most magnificent scenery I have seen anywhere in the world.

The first stop out of the laid-back town of Alice Springs, which I learnt has more art galleries per head of population than anywhere else in Australia, was the tiny roadhouse town of Ti Tree, 190kms from Alice.

Ti Tree is a major producer of fruit and vegetables in the Northern Territory, with mangos particularly popular, and super tasty after a couple of hours on the road.

On ya bike: a road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin

Our first overnight was a further 100km away at Barrow Creek which has a population of just 11 people. The old pub here is a popular stop-off for caravan and RV travellers and we met plenty who were heading north and south. The pub is home to a bush bank where visitors tack a note on the wall for their friends who pass through at a later date. Owner Les Pilton told Nigel and I just a few weeks ago a Dutch tourist found $10 his friend had left for him at the pub years previously!

An early night and early start the next day saw us heading to Wycliffe Well, described in the tourist brochures as “the UFO capital of Australia”. To say that this stop was a little disappointing was an understatement. Nigel had been here previously and said that the old owner had put his heart and soul into making it a real tourist destination, playing on the fact that over the years the area had been a hive of activity for seeing unidentified flying objects. This time around it was still fun but you could tell that the new owners weren’t that into talk of alien encounters.

On ya bike: a road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin

Some stale sandwiches and a refuel later and we had plenty of time to explore the stunning Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu) just up the road, and learn a little more about how the local Indigenous people said they came to be.

We made it to the charming township of Tennant Creek before nightfall and enjoyed some friendly hospitality in a local motel, complete with a pool, which was a welcome opportunity to wash off some of that desert dust.

The following day it was onto the charming Daly Waters Pub, a little like Barrow Creek but much larger in comparison and a real hive of activity when we got there close to happy hour. The pub and accommodation complex, which includes a caravan and camping park, is now owned by a South Australian company. Nigel and I are hopeful that they don’t give it too much of a spit and polish or else its Aussie outback charm could be lost!

On ya bike: a road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin

The desert landscape from here towards Darwin began to change, with more trees on each side of the road and grass turning from brown to green. The township of Katherine, just 320km from Darwin, emerged like an oasis in the desert. We couldn’t leave without visiting the incredible Katherine Gorge.

Our final two stops were Litchfield National Park about, 100km from Darwin, and the legendary Humpty Doo Hotel where Slim Dusty was reportedly inspired to write his song Humpty Doo Waltz.

On ya bike: a road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin
On ya bike: a road trip from Alice Springs to Darwin

The twisty roads to Litchfield were a welcome change for us on our motorbikes to the kilometres of straightness that we had become accustomed to.

Our final ride was into Darwin itself along some beautiful new expressways. Being used to the bikes by then I was a little disappointed the speed limit was back to 100kph.

The sunset across the Timor Sea with a drink in hand was a welcome end to a ride on one of Australia’s greatest highways.

It’s a trip that I would recommend to anyone, particularly if you can do it on a big motorcycle.

Photography by Brad Foster.

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