Cairns to Darwin: Seas, Trees and Deserts
Cairns to Darwin
Est Driving Time12-25 days
- Great Barrier Reef
- Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
- Paronella Park
- Castle Hill
- Reef HQ Aquarium
- Kronosaurus Korner
- John Flynn Place Museum
- Hard Times Mine
- Underground Hospital
- Battery Hill Mining Centre
- Kelly's Ranch
- Daly Waters Historic Pub
- Top Didj Cultural Experience
- Katherine Gorge
- Jatbula Trail
- Ubirr Rock Art
- Crocodile spotting
- Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
Leg 1 Cairns to Townsville
Est Driving Time4 hrs, 15 mins
Before you strike out on your epic road trip across northeastern Australia, don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time in one of the nation’s top tourism destinations. The city itself is known for its cafe culture, excellent markets and a very attractive esplanade swimming lagoon, but visitors to Cairns have far more in store for them than just urban attractions. Not only does Cairns provide easy access to some of Queensland’s most vibrant rainforests, it’s also the gateway to one of the seven wonders of the natural world: the Great Barrier Reef.
To start out your first morning in Cairns the right way, head down to one of the upmarket cafes on Spence or Grafton Street. Imbibing your morning coffee fix and finding a delicious breakfast to start your day of adventuring will be a cinch in Cairns, a city which seems to specialise in brunches and all manner of delectable casual dining.
Experiencing the heart of the city is as easy as strolling down to the Esplanade. Take a dip in the Lagoon, a huge salt water swimming venue where you can enjoy all the best bits about tropical bathing without the stingers and crocs which could spoil your experience, indulge in the classic Aussie pastime of BBQing or let the kids burn off some energy amongst the playgrounds and parklands. Whether you’re here to work out, wind down or hang out the Esplanade has a little bit of something for everyone.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran bargain hunter or simply enjoy the atmosphere of a bustling market - Cairns will have you spoiled for choice. Rusty’s Markets is one of the best places to go for great prices on quality regional produce, while those after delicious street food and a vibrant social scene will find that Tanks Market (held on the last Sunday of the month from April to November) is the place for them. If you’ve packed your day with adventuring and exploration and the only free time you have is in the evenings, the Cairns Night Markets on the Esplanade are perfect for you. Open till 11pm, you can pick up a gift or two for the folks back home, a souvenir for yourself, or simply indulge in a mouth-watering meal followed by a delectable dessert.
As attractive as Cairns is, you need to get out of the city to appreciate the true beauty of the region. This part of the world is packed with stunning natural attractions but there’s no denying that one stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to both international fame and visual spectacle: the Great Barrier Reef. Great Barrier, set off the coast of Queensland, stretches for more than 2,300 kilometres and is the world’s largest coral reef. The biodiversity on display here is absolutely mindblowing and the clear, warm waters provide the perfect environment to explore these wonders. There are many different ways for you to experience the glory of Great Barrier - which one you choose largely comes down to a combination of budget and personal preference. Those who want to be awed by the scale of this reef system should consider a helicopter tour to get a bird’s eye view on a natural wonder which is so immense that it can be seen from space. One of the most common ways to see Great Barrier Reef is on the water itself of course, with day trips and multi-day tours aboard boats ranging in size from dinghies to superyachts providing visitors with a multitude of options. But even cruising aboard a glass bottomed boat can’t compare to getting in the water and experiencing this amazing place firsthand. Snorkeling and diving tours are extremely popular - even if you haven’t had any scuba diving experience, you can still do an introductory dive, so make sure you check out all your options before deciding how you want to experience this natural masterpiece.
As essential as a Great Barrier experience is, you don’t have to leave dry land to find amazing environments near Cairns. In fact, Cairns is only a short trip away from the oldest continually surviving rainforests in the world - and although they no longer cover the entire continent as they once did, this lush ecosystem stretches for more than 500 kilometres along Queensland’s coastline. One of the best ways to discover Queensland’s subtropical rainforests is rising above the canopy before plunging down into the heart of the forests with the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Gondola tours leave from Smithfield (just 15 minutes drive north of Cairns) and allow visitors an unparalleled view of this primeval paradise. For those hunting for the ultimate cableway rainforest experience, there are even gondolas with glass floors enabling you to look straight down at the spreading canopy beneath your feet.
It would be easy to spend your whole holiday in and around Cairns but that would deprive you of all the amazing sights and experiences to be found on the road from Cairns to Darwin!
The road to Townsville
About an hour south of Cairns and just a little off the A1 you can find Babinda Boulders, the perfect place to cool off on a hot day. Take a dip in the crystalline waters amidst smooth granite boulders, or take a shady rainforest walk to discover more enchanting locations. If Babinda Boulders really works its spell on you, you can even choose to stay a while - there are a couple of motorhome-friendly campsites nearby which will allow you more time to explore and recharge in this pristine setting.
An entirely different kind of attraction lies less than an hour to the south of Babinda - the intriguing environs of Paronella Park. This fantastically improbable place is not only beautiful to look at but it also has an incredible story behind it. Spanish immigrant José Paronella had a dream to build a place to delight and entertain the public, inspired by Spanish castles. A movie theatre, tennis courts, a pavilion and a museum all grew to become part of Paronella Park. A series of natural disasters have ravaged the park over the decades, and at one point it was almost lost and forgotten, but in spite of everything Paronella Park has endured and survives to this day as a testament to the power of dreams, persistence and hard work.
If you have time to break up your trip a little, take a trip out to Hinchinbrook Island. Set 8 kilometres off the coast near Cardwell, this is a prime ecotourism destination approximately halfway between Cairns and Townsville. If you have the time to really get out and about in nature, the Thorsborne Trail along the east coast of the island is a world renowned trail that will delight any keen hiker. Those who just want to take a day trip are also well catered for - there are plenty of beautiful places and amazing wildlife that you can see in a short amount of time before heading back to the mainland to continue your journey. From Cardwell it’s just two hours down the A1 to reach Townsville, your final destination for this leg.
Leg 2 Townsville to Cloncurry
Est Driving Time8 hrs, 15 mins
In addition to boasting more than 300 days of sunshine per year, Townsville deftly balances cosmopolitan urban attractions with activities that will have you exploring the hidden gems and famous tourist attractions of the surrounding area. Take some time to savour the tropically coastal atmosphere of Townsville before your journey shifts dramatically and you find yourself in an entirely different sort of land.
Townsville is a hub of culture for the region, and is well known for its festivals and annual events. Make sure to check out what’s coming up during the time you’ll be here - you may even want to adjust your schedule slightly to ensure you’re in Townsville for a fest that particularly intrigues you. From chamber music to street jazz, international food, music and dance to Stable on the Strand, one of the most unique Christmas celebrations you’ll ever experience, this is a city brimming with cultural entertainment and opportunities.
If you feel like stretching your legs after all that driving, there’s no better place to do it than Castle Hill. It’s impossible to miss this enormous pink granite monolith thanks to its height and central location, and those who make the 2km climb to the top will be rewarded with a commanding view of the city and Cleveland Bay stretching out before you. You don’t have to hoof it to the summit if you don’t want to though - you can also drive to the top along Castle Hill Road - just be aware that the road is winding and narrow.
Those who didn’t have the chance (or budget) to explore the Great Barrier Reef while in Cairns, or had young kids who weren’t able to go, can still experience the vibrant majesty of a coral reef at Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium. A coral reef tank featuring 120 species of fish, 130 species of coral and 2.5 million litres of water is the main attraction here, but kids will also love the Turtle Hospital, where they can feed and handle sick and injured turtles which are being rehabilitated with an eye to releasing them back into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Sometimes all you’re after is a place for a nice casual stroll - if that’s the case, simply head down to the palm tree shade of The Strand. With plenty of playgrounds for kids, cafes for adults and parks for everyone, this waterfront locale is a prime spot for relaxation. If the weather’s nice (and it almost always is) head to the north end of the waterfront to take a dip in the Strand Rock Pool, a massive artificial swimming pool.
If you’re ready to leave the coast behind and embark on the first stage of your Outback adventure, head for the A6 south out of Townsville toward Charters Towers.
If you’re intending to drive from Townsville to Cloncurry in one day you won’t have much time for detours, but those who are planning to break up the journey a bit should take a detour to Ravenswood before you hit Charters Towers. Exit the highway at Mingela for a half hour side trip which will bring you to a heritage-listed working mining town with a number of historic buildings left over from the time before the town was abandoned in the early 20th century.
When gold was discovered here in 1871, the town virtually sprang up out of nothing to become the biggest settlement in Queensland outside of Brisbane. Such was the prosperity of Charters Towers that for more than 25 years it had its own stock exchange and was affectionately known as ‘The World’ - people used to say that there was no reason to leave as everything you could possibly want could be had here.
Of course this couldn’t last forever. By the end of the 1910’s, the town’s golden age had well and truly passed. Today, Charters Towers provides visitors with a window into the heyday of this boom town. From the lovingly preserved architecture to the Stock Exchange Arcade where fortunes were made and lost, you can get a glimpse of how life was in those heady years.
From Charters Towers, it’s time to settle in for a long drive - one of the first of many that you’ll enjoy as you pass through the vast spaces of the Australian Outback.
After about four hours travelling west down the A6, you’ll reach Richmond - the perfect place for a well deserved rest. Richmond has been called the fossil capital of Australia thanks to its position in the midst of what was once a vast inland sea that covered much of Queensland 120 million years ago. To gain a glimpse of the distant past, head to Kronosaurus Korner - Australia’s premier marine fossil museum. In addition to the eponymous Kronosaurus, the museum houses a wide variety of other prehistoric fossils, and if all this is a little too stuffy and academic, you can also book a spot on a fossil hunting expedition to discover 100 million year old fossils for yourself!
The road to Cloncurry
Just over an hour and a half west of Richmond you’ll pass through Julia Creek. Every April the sleepy town comes alive for the Dirt n Dust Festival, with a triathlon and horse races, plus some much less traditional competitions like Bog Snorkelling and Australia’s Best Butt Competition. If you can time your trip to coincide with the fest, it’s definitely worth stopping in and appreciating some of the craziness.
On the other hand, if you’re travelling at any other time of year you may want to power through and continue for another hour and a half to Cloncurry.
Leg 3 Cloncurry to Tennant Creek
Est Driving Time8 hrs, 30 mins
If you need to recover from your long haul trip from Townsville, consider spending a whole day in Cloncurry before moving on the next stage of your journey. This town is integral to the fabric of Australian history: the first ever Qantas flight landed here, and visitors can still see the original Qantas hangar. This is also where the Royal Flying Doctor Service was born in the 1920’s. Designed to help those living in remote corners of the Outback, this innovative service is as needed and appreciated today as it was at its launch almost a century ago. The John Flynn Place Museum & Art Gallery is the best place to visit for those hoping to learn more about the Service. History buffs won’t want to miss the Cloncurry Unearthed Museum where you can see the drink bottle of famed Australian explorer Robert O’Hara Burke and learn about the old Mary Kathleen uranium mine.
Less than an hour and a half west of Cloncurry you’ll discover the city of Mount Isa. Like many other Outback settlements, Mount Isa came into being thanks to mineral deposits, but unlike most of them it wasn’t gold that fueled the growth of this city. The land in this region is rich in silver, zinc, copper and lead - to this day Mount Isa Mines is one of the most productive mines in history, and the ore harvest doesn’t look like it will be stopping any time soon.
To get an idea of what mining life is like, you can suit up in mining attire, don head lamps and embark on a two and a half hour mine tour at the Hard Times Mine. It’s a purpose built mine so you won’t be obstructing any workers but it does include more than a kilometre of tunnels along with clanking, roaring machinery to make the experience as genuine as possible. Make sure to book ahead of time to guarantee yourself a spot.
Another fascinating spot you may want to check out before you leave Mount Isa is the Underground Hospital. After the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese during World War II, this unique hospital was constructed to ensure that no matter what, people would have access to medical care. Today knowledgeable volunteers can guide you through this incredible space and reveal the secrets of the tumultuous time period which necessitated the hospital. Just make sure to call ahead of time so you know there’s someone there to show you around.
From Mount Isa, you’re in for another epic Outback drive which will take you from Queensland across the border into the Northern Territory. You can stop for fuel and maybe a bite to eat in Camooweal, which bizarrely is considered a suburb of Mount Isa even though it’s located 188 kilometres to the west. This is the staggering scale of the Australian Outback. The remainder of your journey should take you a little over 5 hours. Always remember when embarking on these kind of Outback drives to bring a lot of water with you in the event of any unexpected delays. The recommended amount is 20 litres, plus 4 litres per person per day. This may sound like too much but there’s a chance it could save your life so don’t skimp on water.
Leg 4 Tennant Creek to Katherine
Est Driving Time7 hrs, 30 mins
Tennant Creek sprang up around a telegraph station but it was gold which really brought it to life in the 1930’s. To this day, it is a mining town (where manganese is extracted from the earth as well as gold) but now tourism plays a large part in Tennant Creek, offering visitors several intriguing opportunities to explore both the town’s heritage and the surrounding Outback.
The Battery Hill Mining Centre is the perfect place learn about Tennant Creek’s long mining history. Not only can you head underground to tour the mine, but you can even try your hand at panning for gold and keep any flecks or nuggets you find!
If driving through the Outback is not enough for you and you’d like to really discover this place on a more personal level, head to Kelly’s Ranch. Local man Jerry Kelly offers an internationally acclaimed experience that takes visitors on horseback through the Outback to uncover its secrets. This is no mere sightseeing trip though - Jerry’s knowledge of this environment is comprehensive and along the way he’ll teach you about the food, medicine and way of life of the Outback.
Before you leave Tennant Creek, don’t forget to gather whatever you need for the rest of your day’s journey, including fuel, food, water and all other essentials - it will be around four and a half hours before you approach anything close to “civilisation”.
Stop in at Daly Waters to stretch your legs, get a breath of fresh air and visit the Daly Waters Historic Pub. Drinking in the middle of a road trip is not recommended at all, but there’s another reason to visit this particular establishment. The pub encourages you to “leave your mark”, which means leaving behind something to adorn the walls or ceiling of this quirky place. Even if you don’t want to leave anything yourself, just taking a look around at the multitude of wildly varied objects that others have left is a fascinating experience.
After you’ve left Daly Waters Pub (and something of yours) behind, another three hours or so will bring you to your well deserved rest at the end of the day in Katherine.
Leg 5 Katherine to Kakadu National Park
Est Driving Time2 hrs
This is a popular holiday escape destination for the residents of Darwin as it’s less than half a day’s drive away, is a popular spot for barramundi fishing and also acts as the perfect launching point for an exploration of Nitmiluk National Park. If your schedule allows, be sure to take a little time to explore Katherine and the surrounding area - you might be surprised at the things you find.
There’s nothing better for washing away the dust and aches of the road than a warm soak; fortunately, Katherine is kind enough to provide just that. You’ll find the Katherine Hot Springs just off Victoria Highway, only five minutes from the town centre. This isn’t a built up bathing area - rather it’s part of the Katherine River itself. This gives the place a naturally serene air, though it does mean that during the wet season it may be closed due to flooding. Just be aware that the water here isn’t piping hot but rather pleasantly warm, which is ideal for a place that enjoys hot weather for much of the year. There’s even a nice grassy spot for a picnic after you’re done with your soak!
If learning about indigenous culture in a hands on way from directly from local indigenous artists sounds appealing, then you can’t miss the Top Didj Cultural Experience. Here you’ll have the opportunity to really come to grips with indigenous culture: trying your hand at spear and boomerang throwing, making a fire from sticks and creating your very own piece of indigenous artwork to take home with you as a souvenir are all part of the experience. This isn’t some gimmicky tourist trap that rips off indigenous culture for a quick buck, but rather has been lovingly created by the very people whose culture it celebrates.
Nature lovers won’t want to leave the area without first discovering the wonders in store for them at nearby Nitmiluk National Park. Located about 30 kilometres northwest of Katherine, this gorgeous wilderness area is well worth visiting. If you only have a little bit of time to visit Nitmiluk, without a doubt the one place you should go is Katherine Gorge. This is the central attraction of the park and is best experienced during the dry season when the waters are calm, perfect for swimming and canoeing. In fact, hiring a canoe can be a great way to discover the waterfalls and Aboriginal rock art at a leisurely pace, and get away from the more crowded swimming holes. Be aware that swimming during the wet season is actually prohibited, as potentially dangerous saltwater crocodiles enter the river when the waters rise.
If you want to devote a bit more time to exploring Nitmiluk National Park, consider following the Jatbula Trail for a once in a lifetime experience. This hiking track follows an ancient trail trod by the indigenous Jaowyn people. Following the footsteps of countless others before you, you’ll make your way through a surprisingly diverse array of landscapes. Walking the Jatbula Trail will take 5 to 6 days and is best tackled between June 1st and September 30th - flooding and extreme temperatures mean that Jatbula is best left to very experienced hikers outside of these dates. Bookings are required and there’s a $3.30 camping fee per person per night.
As tempting as it may be to spend all the rest of your holiday in and around Katherine, don’t forget that ahead of you is arguably one of the most exciting portions of your trip - taking in the wonders of Australia’s most loved national park: Kakadu.
Leg 6 Kakadu National Park to Darwin
Est Driving Time3 hrs
*If you would rather flip your trip on its head and start out from Darwin, that’s a completely valid option - just remember to book your Darwin campervan rental.
Kakadu National Park
It’s no secret that Australia is a country blessed with spectacular wild places - this itinerary has already included several of them - so it’s no small thing to say that out of all of these, many believe Kakadu National Park is Australia’s most loved. Perhaps it’s the startling variety of environments, or the multitude of different animal species - or the fact that humans have lived here for over 50,000 years and traces of this early inhabitation can still be seen today. Whatever the reason, there’s no question that Kakadu is a truly special spot.
The areas and attractions that you visit within Kakadu National Park will vary according to how much time you’ve set aside to explore. To make your time here worthwhile, plan for a minimum of three days in the park - but you’ll be better off setting aside five to seven days here to get all you can out of this vast place. Fortunately, staying in a motorhome allows you to move from place to place within the park with ease and at your own pace - not to mention saving on accommodation along the way.
Those keen to get out and about on foot will find themselves with a host of excellent choices ahead of them. Ubirr is famous for its indigenous rock art and if you visit between May and October you’ll come across rangers who can give you an insight into indigenous art and culture. Quite apart from the rock art, the Ubirr lookout offers breathtaking vistas over the surrounding lands. If you can time your ascent for sunset, the view is particularly stunning.
For an entirely different experience, journey through the vine forests and limestone pillars of the Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk - it’s not too far from Ubirr and will take around two hours to complete. Remember to bring plenty of drinking water as it can be quite hot, and never ever enter the water in this area as it is saltwater crocodile habitat.
These are just two different walks among an almost countless number of trails in Kakadu National Park - you’ll want to do a bit of research to find out which ones you’ll enjoy most. This Parks Australia webpage will help you figure out what exactly you’re searching for.
Kakadu’s landscapes are only half of the park’s appeal though. The wildlife in this park is not only prolific, it’s extremely varied: more than 70 species of mammal call Kakadu home but that’s small change compared to the reptile and bird species which come in at 117 and 280 respectively. The numbers may be impressive but seeing these creatures for yourself is infinitely more so.
Many who come to Kakadu National Park are looking to tick ‘seeing a crocodile’ off their list - fortunately, it’s not hard to do, but there are a few things that prospective croc sighters need to consider. Freshwater crocodiles are usually harmless to humans, but during the wet season saltwater crocs will often frequent the park. “Salties” are bigger, more aggressive and have been known to attack humans. Either way, crocodiles should be watched from a safe distance and regarded as potentially dangerous. Visitors also need to treat any body of water in the park as if it may have crocodiles in it. That said, there a number of spots where you can see these majestically primeval creatures in complete safety. Cahill’s Crossing is a favourite viewing spot for many. There’s a specially built platform from which you can watch the crocs, and if you’re visiting the park in August or September you might be lucky enough to watch these toothy monsters line up to snag mullet as the fish swim upstream.
With over 280 kinds of birds in Kakadu, it’s no surprise that this is a birdwatching heaven. It hardly matters where you go in the park as you’ll be surprised and delighted by a vast array of birds almost anywhere, but hardcore birdwatchers would do well to take a boat tour on the Yellow Water Billabong. In between July and November you can even explore the billabong on foot thanks to a boardwalk.
Any itinerary could only do a little to introduce you to the wonders that Kakadu National Park has in store, so make sure you do a little bit of research on your own to discover the way that you want to experience this incredible place. When you finally manage to drag yourself away from here, it will be time to discover the tropical city of Darwin.
You’ve already experienced sub-tropical Australia in Queensland, but Darwin is a truly tropical city with a wet and dry season and weather that stays warm all year around. And even though Darwin is Australia’s smallest capital there’s still more than enough here to offer a refreshing taste of city life after your days in the Outback. With its breezy coastal location, intriguing heritage and a whole raft of leisure opportunities, Darwin is the perfect way wind down at the end of an epic road trip.
If you want to discover what has made Darwin the city it is today, make sure to visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Kids and adults alike will be engaged here - children will love the hands on nature of the interactive exhibits, adults can appreciate rarely-seen Southeast Asian artifacts and genuine indigenous art, and the whole family will be awed by a giant 5.1 metre stuffed croc which became a monstrous legend in the 1970’s.
Don’t leave Darwin without a visit to one of its beautiful beaches - Mindil Beach in particular is a favourite among locals and tourists alike, particularly for its dry season Sunset Markets. In addition to the expected variety of international street food, you’ll also find street theatre, magicians and live music to keep you entertained as you browse the stalls.
You might think that once you’ve seen one aquarium you’ve seen them all, and most of the time you’d be right. But in the case of Darwin’s Indo Pacific Marine, you’d be dead wrong. Here they’ve created a fully self-sustaining coral reef environment that requires no regulation at all. That means no water filtration, no feeding, no water changing - everything is taken care of by nature. This makes for a radically authentic close-up look at a coral reef. Even if you’ve already experienced the real thing at Great Barrier earlier in your trip, Indo Pacific Marine offers one more unique attraction: night tours, where you can see how the reef comes to life when the sun goes down.
When it comes to entertainment options, Darwin certainly doesn’t disappoint. For example, you can pop along to the Deckchair Cinema for an amazing cinematic experience. Set at the edge of Darwin Harbour, you can watch the sun go down as you enjoy a meal amidst a beautiful tropical garden - and then there’s the feature presentation! BYO alcohol isn’t allowed but packing your own picnic is fine, though food vendors are also onsite for those who can’t be bothered with all that. Deckchairs are supplied but you might want to bring along a few pillows of your own for a comfier experience.
Eventually it will come time to turn in your motorhome rental and head for home, but although your journey has to end sometime, the experiences and sights of your Cairns to Darwin motorhome road trip will stay with you for years to come, hopefully inspiring many more adventures in the years ahead.
- Hiking boots / hiking pack
- Bathing suit
- 20 litres emergency water
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