Road trip: Binns Track, NT
From the northern Simpson Desert’s vast expanse to Davenport NP’s rocky tracks and Gregory NP’s deep water-crossings, the Binns is a microcosm of the NT’s eternal appeal to visitors.
COVERING 2191KM OF primarily off-road tracks and roads, the Binns Track appears to be a massive undertaking. Starting as it does in the northern Simpson Desert – at the fabulous Mt Dare Hotel, to be exact – it means at least four days of travel for those adventurers based in the eastern states before you even place wheels on the Binns’ sandy tracks. But – and this writer can personally attest – if you plan and prepare well (and book in plenty of leave) all that pre-trip effort will be repaid tenfold once you are out under that vast outback sky, soaking up the ‘true’ Northern Territory, from sandy desert to rugged gorge to grasslands to lush subtropical terrain.
In the beginning
This ambitious off-road tourism project had taken years to be completed (in 2008). The track is named in honour of Bill Binns, a former NT Parks Ranger who eventually became the Executive Director of Parks NT during a 32-year career. The track officially starts on the ‘other side’ of the border, at the Mt Dare Hotel in South Australia, before turning north, crossing into the NT, and following the Old Andado Road to Alice Springs, via Santa Teresa. After Alice, the track ventures east, through the spectacular East MacDonnell Ranges, traversing N’Dhala Gorge and the historical mining settlement of Arltunga, to Ruby Gap, before turning north once again to Davenport Range National Park (NP). From this national park you return to the Stuart Highway for a short detour to the Devils Marbles, just south of Tennant Creek, before following the bitumen north to Glenmarra. From Glenmarra, the Binns Track turns west to Gregory NP where it follows the Humbert River Track north through the park to Timber Creek. During the trip you cover a variety of landscapes, from arid desert country, the Red Centre’s gorges, the flat Barkly tablelands and the subtropical around Gregory NP.
There’s escaping the distance needed to travel before you reach the start of the Binns – especially for tourers coming from the eastern seaboard. A steady four days is what we’d recommend before you start tracking north on the Stuart Highway through South Oz and then on to the dirt-road turn-off point at Kulgera, in the NT.
From Kulgera you drive east, toward Finke, with the magic Newland Ranges shadowing you on your left. This part of the track is renowned for containing large sections of bulldust – a talcum-power-like dusty sand that billows around your vehicle and can hide deep potholes, so be careful negotiating it.
A lengthy water crossing in Gregory NP is negotiated easily by the Pajero.
During this section you have the opportunity to physically stand in the geographical centre of Australia, at Lambert’s Centre of Australia. This continental midpoint is just off the Kulgera-Finke Road and well worth the diversion. The Centre was a Bicentennial project, initiated by the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, and was named in honour of Dr Bruce Lambert, a former Director of the Division of National Mapping. The exact centre-point was calculated using 24,500 points at the high water mark of Australia’s coastline as reference. The simple memorial includes a flagpole that is a near-identical replica of that sitting on top of Parliament House in Canberra. From the Centre you continue toward Mt Dare, travelling through more bulldust patches, corrugations and potholes. Staying the night at this famous desert hotel is a must, but we’d also recommend a desert camp along this track section. This part of Australia offers loads of sites where you can sleep under the million or so stars and enjoy a campfire dinner. In terms of bush camping this part of the country is tough to beat.
The Mt Dare Hotel sits on the Simpson Desert’s western edge, just inside the Witjira NP boundary, and offers travellers all the necessary services (and an awesome bar) to ensure a safe journey through this isolated region. The Binns Track officially starts right near the hotel, with Alice Springs 421km north, via the Old Andado Track, the next refuel/restock point. The landscape on this first section changes from the previous flat and sparse to a combination of dry creek crossings, more bulldust and river red gums as you near the Finke River. The sheer size of the Finke River’s ancient path is amazing. This vast, flat, vista is only broken by impressive sand dunes on the floodway’s outskirts, along with the occasional rocky hill. These flatlands make for fast travel before reaching Old Andado Station, another must-visit attraction along the Binns Track.
The homestead was originally home to the McDill family and built around the mid-1920s, before becoming Mac and Molly Clark’s residence from 1955. It is now looked after by caretakers and kept in original condition. It must have been a tough life out here back in the day.
Leaving Old Andado you continue north, traversing more sandy tracks toward the Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa before reaching the overnight stop at Alice Springs. The landscape continually evolves along the Binns, with the initial wide, open expanses of the Simpson Desert making way to more mountainous terrain with, firstly, the Train Hills and then the Deep Well Range’s taller, rich-red hills. Not far north of Santa Teresa you rejoin bitumen (albeit single-lane) road and follow it into the Red Centre capital, with the majestic East Macdonnell Ranges teasing you on the northern horizon.
Looking over a gorge just outside Davenport Range NP.
Middle of the road
The rugged gorges and sandy tracks of the East Macdonnell Ranges, along with the grassy savannah of the Barkly Tablelands, are the big attractions of the “middle” of the Binns Track. Leaving Alice and striking east along Numery Road, you pass the beautiful Emily and Jessie Gaps Nature Park, two break-throughs in the Heavitree Range. About 12km past Jesse Gap there’s a left turn onto Numery Road. Fifty kilometres from here, you arrive at N’dhala Gorge Nature Park (the location of thousands of petroglyphs; ‘pecked’ rock carvings).
This track is fantastic as you travel along dry, sandy riverbeds part of the way, with ghost gums surrounding you and huge red cliffs in the background. Once you reach the Arltunga Tourist Drive turn-off, the track leads past Trephina Gorge on the way to the Arltunga Historical Reserve, the ruins of which are all that remains of what is claimed to be central Australia’s first town. Arltunga was established after alluvial gold was discovered in the region in 1887. Now, all that remains are a few stone buildings, such as the old police station.
For those keen on some sublime bush camping, backtrack slightly and join the main road to Ruby Gap Nature Park, where you’ll find some sublime camping spots. For those with a less time, you can continue on from Arltunga, tracking northwest through the Georgina Range, before turning right onto Pinnacle Road. The gorge-covered country of the East MacDonnells is replaced by flat, stark plains, only interrupted occasionally by dry creek crossings and majestic gums. The track becomes less distinct as you enter more hilly country with the surrounding landscape turning a much richer, ochre red. Pinnacle Road is rougher, slower, and more undulating than the bitumen and graded dirt around Arltunga, so it’s nice to reach the Plenty Highway and take the turn-off to Gemtree and drive the 8km west to the powered or unpowered campsites and a hot shower at day’s end.
The Plenty Highway is a nice, smooth start to the following day’s 422km drive to the Barkly Region’s Davenport Ranges National Park. The terrain is open and flat, with only the large “humps” of the giant Harts Range to break the monotony. The track itself is well graded in this section and provided you don’t run out of fuel (don’t ask – it was close!) you will enjoy a relaxing day of driving. As you get closer to Davenport Range NP, you will notice the changes in the landscape that signal entry into savannah country, typical of the southern part of the Barkly Region, with yellow grass and large red rocks covering the track, and gorges and riverbeds predominant.
It had been a fairly poor Wet Season. The park’s landscape is brilliant. Our recommended campsite is at Old Police Station Waterhole, which on my two separate visits to the park has been either full to the brim with awesome swimming or nearly bone-dry. The Frew River Track, a 17km 4X4-only alternative route to Policeman’s Waterhole, is the best/most enjoyable route to the campsite. It can take a couple of hours but is time very well spent. In between crawling over near-wheel-sized rocks, and traversing narrow ridges with beautiful gorges to each side, you’ll have a spare few minutes to marvel at the absolute isolation this place offers. The campground is excellent, with a toilet, raised timber platforms for swags/tents and oodles of space. It’s a fantastic place to spend a couple of nights – especially if the waterhole is full. But, the road goes ever on, as one short, hairy fantasy character liked to say…
The Binns Track changes character again after Davenport Ranges NP; moving through the savannah country, via Epenarra, you make your way back to the bitumen of the Stuart Highway (don’t forget to nip south for 20 minutes to check out the amazing Devils Marbles) before continuing north to the Barkly region’s main centre of Tennant Creek.
For those with a bit of time, there are some top attractions at Tennant Creek. Battery Hill Mining Centre offers an excellent interpretive mine tour and is a must-see, as is the brilliant Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre. It also provides the opportunity to refuel and restock camp supplies before the push north to the tropical wonderland of Gregory NP. It is at the town of Dunmarra, 358km north of Tennant Creek, where you thankfully leave the Stuart Highway and jump back on to dirt roads as you follow the dusty Buchanan Highway west to Top Springs and then on to the eastern entrance to Gregory NP. Dunmarra’s balmy weather is the first sign you are entering the NT’s subtropical region, with its vast cattle stations (Victoria River Downs Station is located here) and sparse vegetation marrying with numerous creek beds (often traversed by concrete causeways) before the green mass of Gregory NP’s 13,000 square kilometres looms.
The Binns Track follows the Humbert River Track – one of Gregory NP’s main 4X4 routes – north before finishing up at Timber Creek. There are some great campsites nestled beside the Humbert River (be croc-aware though; Gregory NP has plenty of salties in its waterways). We’d read the crocodile warning signs at the park entrance (much to photographer Mick Ellem’s disbelief, the park does have plenty of them) so made sure we kept six eyes out for any reptilian residents as we checked out the waterway.
Continuing north, leaving the river behind, you will cross a series of creek beds and the track becomes progressively rockier. There are also deeper waterways in the park’s northern section that need to be crossed so make sure you are confident in your water-crossing skills and your vehicle is prepared for them. One of Gregory NP’s more famous residents (and the park’s symbol) is the boab tree and, as you reach the park’s northern section, you will start to spot these age-old giants everywhere; they will dwarf even the biggest 4WD and are magnificent.
Other campsites worth checking out are near Bullita Homestead and also near Limestone Gorge, in the park’s northern extremity, which is reached via a very pretty route running beside the Baines River.
Timber Creek is the end point of the Binns Track and, after all the various landscapes you’ve driven through – and the days it has taken to do so – it can seem like a bit of an anti-climax. But, setting up your tent, swag or camper-trailer on that last night, sitting around a campfire sipping a beverage in this still-wild tropical wonderland, it does offer that unique chance to reflect with a fresh memory on what you have just achieved: completing one of the world’s great 4WD camping adventures.
When to go: June through to September are the best months to tackle the Binns Track. The Wet Season means plenty of track closures up in the tropical regions and the numbing heat in the summer means the desert areas are out as well.
Getting there: For adventurers on the eastern seaboard, a decent four-day trip will see you at the start of the Binns. South Oz residents have it much easier, of course.
Time needed: If you plan on doing the Binns Track in one hit, we’d recommend a minimum of 10 days (excluding travel to the track and back home). For a more relaxed experience, take 14 days and really soak it up. If you plan on doing it piecemeal, we reckon the southern and central sections could be done in three days each, with the northern section a two-day affair.
Vehicle: You will need a 4WD with low-rang gearing and – preferably – one that has a diesel engine, which will offer nearly twice the touring range of a petrol-powered equivalent. Make sure your vehicle has been inspected before the big adventure, and also make sure you have two spare wheels/tyres, plus a tyre repair kit. We’d recommend fitment of light-truck all-terrain (at a minimum) or mud-terrain tyres for a trip like this; the sharp rocks of the NT’s dirt roads are notoriously unforgiving on tyres.
Essentials: Paper maps (The Hema Maps range of touring maps are best by far) backed up by a GPS unit (either handheld or dash-mounted, such as Hema’s HX-1). A satphone; emergencies in the remote parts of Australia can quickly escalate and a satphone is the most reliable form of communication. Also pack plenty of water, food, etc. for remote travel (minimum 5L per day, per person) and be very familiar with your vehicle – and pack any spares that you are confident you can fit if need be. Finally, pack a sense of adventure; the Binns Track sounds immense in terms of a challenge and time needed but, as we stated earlier, you can always chop it into sections and do the southern, central and northern parts over a couple of years.