Road trip: Top End Circuit
Want to experience some of the wildest parts of Australia – and spot it’s even wilder residents? Kick off in Katherine, NT, and spend a couple of weeks exploring the mighty Gulf Country.
GOT A COUPLE OF weeks and want to disappear with your family off the grid to explore one of Australia’s most pristine and remote areas? This road-trip circuit (suited to SUVs and 4WDs) starts and finishes in beautiful Katherine and takes you through the Northern Territory’s Gulf region.
This part of Australia is close to the perfect destination for those who want to experience true adventure, explore rich indigenous culture, immerse themselves in an ageless landscape, and check out some of Australia’s most famous – and some more infamous – wildlife.
Nothing beats a spectacular start so spending a few days exploring Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) on foot and via canoe/kayak is definitely the best way to kick off this NT circuit. From the township of Katherine, the gorge is around 30km east, via sealed road. The park has a fantastic campground (powered and unpowered sites) and an excellent visitor centre with all the info you will need to explore the gorge system. One of the best ways to explore the nine separate gorges that make up Nitmiluk is to jump in a canoe. For those visitors who don’t have their own, you can hire a canoe for a half- or full-day, or you can hire one for an overnight trip and camp at the fourth gorge. Even a day trip in a canoe is brilliant; keeping a lookout for turtles, freshwater crocs, Jawoyn rock art and birdlife will keep you well occupied, as will stopping off at the numerous beaches along gorges one, two and three and going for a swim in the water.
For those who have their own watercraft, you can stretch out your exploration of the gorges and make it a multiday experience, with campsites at gorge four, gorge six and gorge nine (note: a permit is required to use a privately owned canoe/kayak in Nitmiluk). For us, this would be an awesome experience as you can then continue deep into the gorge system, way past where most visitors venture. Just be prepared for a few portages as you move from one gorge to another. Still, the effort will pay you back in spades as you enjoy a night under the stars with only the flowing water of the gorge and the local wildlife for company.
The Gulf country’s birdlife is spectacular, making it incredibly popular with birdwatchers.
For walkers, Nitmiluk has numerous tracks. It is also the start point for the Jatbula Trail, a multiday trek that takes walkers from Nitmiluk through amazing country to Leliyn (Edith Falls), where another fantastic campground is found, as well as great swimming. There are many other shorter walks that follow the cliffs of the gorge system – and there’s even a few overnight campsites as well – so the keen walking family will have plenty to keep them occupied when camping at Nitmiluk for a few days.
To The Gulf
After a few days of exploring Nitmiluk it’s time to pack the vehicle and head further east. The journey from Katherine to our next destination of Limmen National Park is again along mainly sealed roads, via firstly the Stuart Highway, before turning left onto the Roper Highway, which is also part of the popular tourist route called the Savannah Way. Make sure you stop off at Mataranka for a dip in the hot springs, then keep driving east to Roper Bar (you will hit dirt/unsealed roads about an hour and a half after leaving Mataranka) and then on to the larger town of Ngukurr (for keen anglers, we’d first recommend continuing further northeast to Numbulwar) where you’ll need to refuel (it is 338km between fuel stops) before turning south and entering what is one of the NT’s least-known but most spectacular national parks.
Limmen National Park is Australia’s second largest, at a massive 10,000km2. So yeah, it’s big, as are many of its wild inhabitants. For those anglers keen on catching one of the NT’s famed barramundi, this is one of the best places to find them. The park itself abuts the Gulf of Carpentaria, and is fed by numerous big (and we mean big) waterways, such as the Roper, Limmen Bight and Towns rivers, all of which contain this famed sportfish. Big saltwater rivers also mean big reptiles; whatever you do, avoid swimming in any of the waterways in this park as the huge saltwater crocodile is prevalent all through the park’s waterways. If you’re keen to spot a big saltie, you won’t have to work hard; they are easily sighted sunning themselves along the banks of the park’s rivers. The park has numerous boat ramps so if you do have a boat – or are keen to jump on board a hire charter – you may also catch sight of the Gulf’s most shy resident: the dugong. These gentle marine mammals inhabit the waters in this region and seeing one of these in the wild is a unique experience.
Limmen National Park is one of Australia’s best kept secrets. It is easy to spend a week camping in this park, exploring its massive waterways, fishing and bushwalking.
The national park is dotted with excellent campgrounds, including one of AG Outdoor’s favourites, Towns River campground in the park’s northern section (other campgrounds in the northern section include Yurrimundji, Munbililla, Mountain Creek and Didi Baba). As you enter the park’s southern section you are further spoilt for bush accommodation choices, with Limmen River, Butterfly Falls and the Southern Lost City campgrounds all very good. Speaking of which, the Southern Lost City is a great opportunity to get out and explore the fascinating rock formations of the region – and get a swim in; Butterfly Falls is the only location in the park safe for swimming. An overnight stop here is one well spent. For those in a high-clearance 4WD, don’t miss the Western Lost City (you will need a gate access code from the Ranger station at Nathan River) and its sandstone rock formations that resemble a block of city flats.
On the other side
As well as the Gulf’s awesome national parks, there are some brilliant – and yes, big – private cattle stations and wilderness parks that offer plenty of adventure, great camping and an insight into life in this part of Australia. Just south of the Southern Lost City campground is the turn-off to Lorella Springs Wilderness Park. This million-acre property is an amazing outdoor playground for 4WD tourers, bushwalkers and anglers. It stretches all the way to the Gulf coast and its multitude of 4WD tracks make exploring brilliant fun. As well as plenty of exploration, you can relax in the many thermal springs on the property (owner Rhett Walker estimates there to be more than 100). The main spring is right next to the campground – and just a few steps from the campground’s bar. With icy-cold beers at hand to keep your body temperature regulated while soaking in the hot spring and thinking how good life is in the Gulf, it is a place to while away a few days for sure…
Returning to the Lorella Springs turn-off, continue south to the southern entrance of Limmen National Park, before rejoining the bitumen Carpentaria Highway at Cape Crawford (and refuelling). From here, follow this highway 110km east to Borroloola. This large centre is a base for numerous fishing adventures; as well as fishing, those boat-borne adventurers can also explore the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands just off the Gulf coast from Batten Point. You can even camp out at Barranyi (North Island) National Park, at its Paradise Bay campground (permits apply).
Throwing down the swags and enjoying a few cold beers while cooking dinner over a fire at Limmen NP and contemplating what the Gulf country has in store for the next few days.
From Borroloola, our road trip route turns southeast and continues for 68km to the turn-off to Seven Emu Station. The station itself is reached via a 4WD-only road (which includes a crossing of the Robinson River, so be sure to ring the station to check depth before crossing). This writer was lucky enough to visit Seven Emu Station back in 2009 and I can vouch for it being probably one of the most unique – and spectacular – camping destinations in the Gulf region. Traditional Owner Frank Shadforth runs the property with his sons and their families. As well as having the opportunity to see how one of these big cattle stations works, you stay at some of Australia’s best bush camps – campsites set atop high cliffs overlooking the immense Robinson River right below you.
The station has six cliff campsites – all private from each other – that provide these amazing views, as well as a wood-heated donkey for hot showers, and pit toilets. You could easily never leave your campsite; spending a morning looking out for crocs, dugong and turtles in the waters below is a great way to spend time. Or, you can explore the property and the coastline it adjoins. Make sure you spend a few days here.
To all points
From Seven Emu Station the Savannah Way continues south on more graded dirt road. From here, you can opt to continue following the Savannah Way (and the Gulf Coast) into Queensland, or you can turn right onto the Calvert Road (about two hours south of the Seven Emu Station turn-off) and start making your way back to Katherine – the long way. Our suggestion would be to follow Calvert Road until the Tablelands Highway junction, then turn south again and aim for the Barkly Homestead Roadhouse. You will travel through the spectacular, near lunar-esque Barkly Tablelands during this leg – a stark contrast to the lush Gulf region you’ve just left, but amazing in its own right. The Barkly Homestead Roadhouse is a favourite among AG Outdoor’s 4WD touring experts – especially after a week-and-a-half of bush camping and the occasional dip in a swimming hole. The campground is excellent (hot showers!), the roadhouse restaurant is brilliant and the location is pretty cool, too.
From here it’s only a few hours to Tennant Creek, the NT’s fifth-largest town and the centre of the Barkly region. The town is, again, worth a few days of rest and exploration, with the Devils Marbles only a couple of hours down the Stuart Highway (and the “UFO centre of Australia” Wycliffe Wells around two hours further south), while Tennant Creek’s gold mines are well worth checking out on a guided tour.
From Tennant Creek, the drive back up the Stuart Highway can be as quick or slow as you like. We’d definitely recommend a stopover at the Daly Waters Pub and (maybe) another visit to Mataranka to further explore the hot springs and the rest of Elsey National Park. This road trip is a lot of driving, but with each day’s drive rewarded with some of the NT’s best destinations, we reckon it’s a definite one for the Aussie road trip bucket list.
When to go: May to September is the best time to visit the Top End and Gulf. The weather is more settled and the Wet Season has (usually) finished so most roadways will be cleared of any floodwaters.
What to drive: We’d recommend a SUV or 4WD for this road trip – and ensure it is diesel-powered, has been recently serviced and has appropriate tyres fitted. If you don’t own one of these vehicles, hiring one is the go. Britz has an excellent LandCruiser-based 4WD camper that includes a rooftop tent and annexe (for up to 5 people), portable shower, all kitchen gear, fridge/freezer and loads of other equipment. See www.britz.com.au.
Accommodation: The Top End and Gulf contains a number of accommodation options, ranging from national parks bush campgrounds through to luxury station stays. For information on camp and national parks fees see www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au
For station stays at Seven Emu Station and Lorella Springs Wilderness Park, see
www.sevenemustation.com.au and www.lorellasprings.com.au.
Map: Hema Maps’ Top End and Gulf
More info: For more information on travelling in the Northern Territory see www.travelnt.com