Darwin to Broome: a Tropical Wilderness Trek
Darwin to Broome
Est Driving Time10-21 days
- Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
- Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
- Deckchair Cinema
- Ancient rock carvings
- Cahill's Crossing
- Yellow Water Billabong
- Katherine Gorge
- Jatbula Trail
- Top Didj Cultural Experience
- Celebrity Tree Park
- Mirima National Park
- Purnululu National Park
- Wolfe Creek Crater
- Mimbi Caves
- Devonian Reef fossils
- Geikie Gorge
- Tunnel Creek
- Windjana Gorge
- Boab Prison Tree
- Cable Beach
- Gantheaume Point
Leg 1 Darwin to Kakadu National Park
Est Driving Time3 hrs
Of all Australian state capitals Darwin is the smallest, which serves to give the city a more intimate feel while still ensuring that you still have plenty of things to do and see during your time here. In less tropical parts of the Southern Hemisphere, May through October are colder, winter months but Darwin enjoys perennially warm weather. This means in spite of the time of year you’re still free to enjoy this city’s beautiful environs and visit its sandy beaches - opportunities that you certainly won’t want to pass up.
Before hitting the beach, those who want to get to the heart of what makes Darwin tick should start at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Travelers with children will appreciate the interactive exhibitions which will keep kids happy and occupied, while adults can browse the other exhibits which include everything from indigenous art collections to ‘Sweetheart’ a giant stuffed crocodile which terrorised Darwin in the 1970s.
Of course, it won’t be long before the lure of Darwin’s beaches proves irresistible - and there are a few to choose from! If you’re hunting for a little more than just a sandy spot to lie on, try Mindil Beach. It’s close to Darwin’s CBD, and is famed for its Sunset Markets. These dry season markets pop up at Mindil every Thursday and Sunday evening from last Thursday of April to the last Thursday of October. International street food is de rigeur at outdoor markets, and the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets certainly won’t disappoint in this regard, but there’s far more to enjoy here than just ethnic eats, jewelry and clothes. Market-goers will be treated to entertainment from magicians, musicians and street theatre performers as they browse the colourful stalls.
Most big cities will boast at least one decent aquarium and it would be easy to assume that they’re all pretty much the same (fish in glass tanks). But Darwin’s Indo Pacific Marine goes above and beyond the standard formula to create something truly unique. This marine exhibition has created a fully functioning tropical coral reef system that is entirely self-sustaining. This means that there is no human intervention in the system. No water filtration or replacement, no feeding… it functions just like a natural coral reef. Indo Pacific Marine even offers an experience that you would never be able to have at a real world reef: a night tour, which treats visitors to an ultra-rare glimpse of how a coral reef comes to life when the sun goes down.
If you’re hunting for more traditional entertainment with a unique twist, you can’t go past Darwin’s iconic Deckchair Cinema. Whether you choose to bring a picnic dinner or pick something up from the onsite food vendors, you can enjoy a delicious meal as the sun sets over Darwin Harbour before settling in for the feature presentation. BYO alcohol isn’t allowed, but you can pick up a drink from the Deckchair Cinema kiosk to enjoy during the movie. You might also want to bring along your own pillow, as deckchairs are supplied but you may want to make them a bit more comfortable.
As charming as this city can be, don’t forget that Darwin is just the first step on the incredible journey you have ahead of you. A few hour’s driving east will bring you to a place that will undoubtedly count among the highlights of your trip: Kakadu National Park.
Leg 2 Kakadu National Park to Katherine
Est Driving Time3 hrs, 30 mins
Kakadu National Park
Where exactly you go and what you do in Kakadu will depend on how much time you’ve decided to set aside for this leg of your trip. Fortunately getting around the park will be made much easier by the fact that you’re travelling in a motorhome. You’ll be able to move from attraction to attraction with ease and at your own pace, plus finding affordable accommodation is far easier when all you need is a campervan site.
If you’re itching to jump out of your campervan, don your hiking boots and strike out on foot, there are a multitude of stunning settings to discover. Weave your way amongst hanging vines and huge sandstone pillars on the Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk - you can even find park rangers there who are only too happy to help you gain a greater insight into the area.
One of the singular things about Kakadu National Park is that this area has been home to humans for 40,000 years, and to this day you can see vestiges of this ancient inhabitation. Rock art created by early humans still survives in Kakadu and if you want to catch a glimpse of these petroglyphs there are a couple places that you absolutely have to visit. Nourlangie Rock will take you on a circular route past an early indigenous shelter and a number of visually striking examples of Aboriginal rock art. Ubirr is another prime spot for rock art viewing, and those who climb all the way to the Ubirr lookout will be rewarded with a stellar vista of the surrounding country - the view is particularly beautiful at sunset, so if you can time your trip for late afternoon, you’re certainly in for a treat.
These walks are just a bare few of the countless tracks and trails in Kakadu National Park - which paths you choose to follow depends largely on what kind of experience you’re searching for. For more on the trails you could experience in Kakadu, take a look at this Parks Australia page designed specifically for those hunting for walking track information.
While the landscapes and history of Kakadu are certainly a big drawcard, the star attraction here is really the wildlife. 280 different kinds of bird, 74 mammal species and thousands of different insect species populate Kakadu National Park, and while listing the numbers can make it seem a little uninspiring, seeing this biodiversity in person is anything but.
You hardly have to go out of your way to see amazing wildlife in Kakadu, but there’s one kind of creature that calls the park home which you might want to take a little care about seeing. Crocodiles are relatively common in Kakadu National Park and it’s well worth your time to see one of these primeval monsters before you leave - however, as you might expect, there are safety issues to consider when in the vicinity of crocs. Freshwater crocodiles are usually harmless to humans, but their saltwater cousins are bigger, more aggressive and have been known to attack humans. Fortunately most saltwater crocs only visit Kakadu for the wet season. Regardless, all crocodiles need to be treated with the utmost respect and care - do not approach one, no matter what kind you believe it to be. Cahill’s Crossing is fantastic place to see crocodiles from a safe vantage point. There is a dedicated viewing platform, or you could head to the downstream boat ramp - just remember to stay well back from the water’s edge. If you’re travelling toward the end of the dry season, you might even be able see crocodiles lining up across the river to catch mullet on their way upstream.
Birdwatchers will find themselves in heaven here with hundreds of different species to spot, many of them found only in Kakadu National Park. No matter where you visit in the park, you’re bound to come across birds you haven’t seen before but those who are wanting the best birding opportunities possible should head to Yellow Water Billabong. Getting out on the water with Yellow Water Cruises is a popular choice for many, although between July and November you can also explore on foot along a billabong walk.
The attractions above barely touch on all that Kakadu National Park has in store for visitors - even if you had an entire itinerary just for Kakadu, it wouldn’t be enough; the only way to really understand how mind-blowing this place is, is to go there. Once you’ve finally managed to tear yourself away, a few hours drive will bring you to the town of Katherine.
Leg 3 Katherine to Kununurra
Est Driving Time6 hrs, 15 mins
Although Katherine is small compared to the city of Darwin, it’s still one of the largest settlements in the region and has a surprising number of attractions in store for those who choose to spend a little time here before setting off west into the wild. Keen anglers will relish the chance to snag barramundi, hikers won’t be able to pass up a visit to nearby Nitmiluk National Park and the culturally curious can get a true taste of indigenous customs and heritage at the Top Didj Cultural Experience.
Those hoping to unwind after the trip down from Kakadu National Park should consider popping down to Katherine Hot Springs when you arrive in town. Located just off Victoria Highway, only around five minutes from the town centre, this idyllic spot is nestled in the Katherine River itself. Don’t expect piping hot water - the springs are warm enough to allow you to soak at a comfortable temperature, but not as hot as commercial pools. On the upside, there’s no charge to enjoy Katherine Hot Springs and there’s a nice grassy space nearby where you can picnic after unwinding in the water.
You don’t have to be an avid hiker to appreciate Nitmiluk National Park but it certainly doesn’t hurt. This enchanting place has a little something for everyone - and if there’s one spot that visitors should make sure they enjoy before moving on, it’s Katherine Gorge. This isn’t a single gorge, but a series of thirteen gorges carved by the Katherine River, the region’s star attraction. Swimming spots can be found in abundance, and those looking to do a little more exploration can hire a canoe to embark on their own self-guided tour of this stunning area. If you’re looking to delve a little deeper into the riches offered by Nitmiluk, there’s plenty more to see and experience here than just Katherine Gorge.
Those who have a bit of time to spend in Nitmiluk National Park should consider tackling the Jatbula Trail. This 5-6 day trail has you following in the footsteps of generations of indigenous Jawoyn people, across terrain that shifts from open forest to sandstone plateau scrub to riverine landscapes. It costs $3.30 per night per person to walk the trail, and booking is essential so make sure you plan well ahead of time if you’re planning on trekking the incredible Jatbula Trail. Try to plan your walk between June 1st and September 30th - it is possible to walk the trail outside of these dates but due to extreme temperatures and the likelihood of flooding, it’s recommended that only very experienced hikers attempt Jatbula outside of the above dates.
Even if you don’t have time to trek across Nitmiluk National Park, you can still gain an insight into indigenous heritage at the Top Didj Cultural Experience. No matter which culture you’re learning about, it can get a bit dry if you’re just listening to people speak, which is why at Top Didj they do things a bit differently. Learning about indigenous culture is a hands-on business here. Lessons in spear and boomerang hunting are on the agenda, as is building a fire using only traditional materials and creating your very own piece of aboriginal art. Top Didj is run by indigenous artists from the Red Centre and Katherine regions, so you can rest assured that this is a genuine experience.
Judbarra / Gregory National Park
Once you’ve decided to move on from Katherine, head southwest down the Victoria Highway to discover the Judbarra / Gregory National Park. Around two hours of driving will bring you to the outskirts of the park, and another twenty minutes or so will have you arriving at the Victoria River Roadhouse, the perfect place to pick up some local info before exploring this striking place. While the wet season sees much of park made inaccessible by flooding and muddy roads, dry season travellers (especially those with a 4WD campervan) will find a multitude of hidden wonders to discover. For those in a 2WD, there are a number of walks and lookouts directly off of the Victoria Highway but if you have the freedom to go offroad in this park, you should definitely do so. For the perfect lunch spot, head about 10 kilometres west of the Victoria River and turn off to the Joe Creek picnic area. The access road is about two kilometres and unsealed but still suitable for most 2WD vehicles. The picnic area itself is impressively scenic but it pales in comparison to the sights to be seen on the nearby Nawulbinbin 1.7 kilometre loop walk. Guiding visitors up to the base of the escarpment cliffs and into thick tropical vegetation, this track provides views that you’ll remember for years to come. It’s a moderately difficult walk with a bit of climbing and clambering involved so go slow and be sure to bring plenty of water. About an hour and a half west of the Victoria River Roadhouse (and fifteen kilometres west of Timber Creek) you’ll come to the northernmost point of Judbarra / Gregory National Park, where a three kilometre access road will bring you to Gregory’s Tree - an iconic Boab tree on the banks of the Victoria River. This site is both sacred to the indigenous Ngarinman people and an important historical landmark in European exploration of Australia. The explorer Augustus Gregory carved a note into this tree in 1856 as a marker for any expedition members who became lost, and the inscription is still legible to this day. The site isn’t far out of your way and it’s well worth visiting Gregory’s Tree, both for the history and for the spectacular gorge scenery to be found nearby.
From Gregory’s Tree, it’s another two and a half hours to reach the end point of this leg at Kununurra. There’s no need to do the whole leg in one day - stopping somewhere like the Victoria River Roadhouse provides a great way to break up what would be a very long drive and allow you to spend a bit more time exploring this fascinating area.
Leg 4 Kununurra to Halls Creek
Est Driving Time4 hrs
However, as not everyone may be able to get hold of a 4WD, this leg will focus on the Great Northern Highway route that is suitable for all vehicle types - and takes you right past one of Australia’s most visually astounding landscapes.
Although the town of Kununurra itself isn’t packed with things to see and do, there’s a wealth of natural attractions surrounding it that you won’t want to miss. Before you head out of town though, take the chance to visit Celebrity Tree Park where numerous trees have been planted by famous people, including Rolf Harris (of ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ fame) and Baz Luhrmann (director of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby).
Mirima National Park
Just a few minutes drive outside Kununurra you can find Mirima National Park, also known as Hidden Valley National Park. Camping in the park isn’t allowed, but the access road is sealed bitumen, meaning that it’s super simple to reach Mirima. Those travelling in a 2WD vehicle should make a particular effort to visit, as the distinctive sandstone formations which characterise the park bear a striking similarity to the Bungle Bungles, one of Australia’s most impressive geological formations which can only be reached by 4WD. There are several walks in the area, from a leisurely loop with a wheelchair friendly boardwalk to an 800m ascent to overlook both Kununurra and intricate rock formations. Keep an eye out for wallabies while you’re in the park - and if you visit in the early morning or late afternoon, you might even spot a few dingoes.
Purnululu National Park
A little over two and a half hours south of Kununurra Highway you’ll reach the Bungle Bungles turn off, the point at which you can embark on an exciting adventure into Purnululu National Park. A 4WD vehicle is compulsory for this part of the journey, as the final 53 kilometres into the park is along Spring Creek Track which is a rugged dirt road. If you’ve booked a campervan rental that can handle the road, there’s no excuse to miss this amazing experience.
To get the most out of your time in Purnululu National Park you’ll want to spend a few days here - just make sure that you bring absolutely everything you need for the duration, especially an adequate amount of food and water, as there’s nowhere to stock up on supplies for hundreds of kilometres around. There are two camping grounds in the park, Walardi and Kurrajong. Both have camping fees ($12 for adults, $2.20 for children per night) and both campsites have untreated bore water available on tap - this water needs to be boiled before use.
Like any national park, Purnululu has a generous array of natural attractions and vistas, but it is primarily known for the Bungle Bungle Range which lies completely within the park. The layered sandstone domes of the Bungle Bungles are the most extensive examples of sandstone towers on Earth - you won’t have another opportunity to see something quite like this anywhere else in the world, so don’t pass up chance if you can help it. For the premium Bungle Bungles experience, consider taking an aerial tour. The view of the domes from above is absolutely unparalleled, with the orange and grey bands shown off to particularly spectacular effect. HeliSpirit offers a number of award winning helicopter flights, which will have you flying low over Bungle Bungles with the doors off and wind in your hair. Fixed wing flights also leave from Kununurra and offer a more expansive view of the area. Either way, you’re certain to come back with some stunning photos.
When you’ve managed to tear yourself away from this impressive place and have returned to the Great Northern Highway, you’ll only be a little over an hour away from the last destination for this leg; the town of Halls Creek.
Leg 5 Halls Creek to Fitzroy Crossing
Est Driving Time3 hrs
The land which Halls Creek sits on today has been inhabited for thousands of years, with many ancient trading routes and songlines passing nearby the modern town. Europeans came to the area for a short-lived gold rush, but the town soon shifted its emphasis to being a trading centre for cattle stations. Today Halls Creek is still a hub for the outlying cattle stations and the gateway to truly beautiful sights.
Undoubtedly one of the most impressive natural attractions in the area is Wolfe Creek Crater. Those prepared to take a full day to discover the world’s second largest meteorite crater can take a 150 kilometre drive south to explore on foot and those who would rather not spend so much time still have an excellent way to see the crater. Scenic flights leave from Halls Creek to fly over the 880 metre wide crater, and even swing north to get a look at the Bungle Bungles - ideal for those who didn’t get the chance to see them from above while in the area.
2 hours west of Halls Creek, just off the highway, is one of the region’s best kept secrets. The Mimbi Caves treat visitors to a glimpse of the distant past, a time when this whole region was covered by a tropical sea and the immense Devonian Great Barrier Reef stretched across the sea floor. The local Gooniyandi people have a strong connection with Mimbi Caves, and a visit to the caves with Girloorloo Tours will give you an insight into the spiritual significance this place holds for the indigenous custodians, as well as granting you a prime view of the ancient sea life which once thrived across region, now fossilised and embedded into layers of limestone. Be sure to book your tour ahead of time to secure your Mimbi Cave experience.
Having left the caves to return to the Great Northern Highway, another hour’s drive northwest will see you arriving in Fitzroy Crossing.
Leg 6 Fitzroy Crossing to Derby
Est Driving Time2 hrs, 45 mins
Geikie Gorge National Park
If there’s just one park you want to visit before you move on to the west coast, it has to be Geikie Gorge National Park. It is without doubt one of the easiest parks in the area to get to - located just 20 kilometres from Fitzroy Crossing and accessible by a sealed road, Geikie Gorge is open even to those who are making the journey in a 2WD. There’s a three kilometre walk along the eastern base of the gorge, and although trekkers should be aware that the terrain can be a little rough, it does provide fantastic views. However, if you really want to get the best out of Geikie Gorge National Park, a boat tour is the way to go. There’s no need to book in advance for the standard boat tours, you can just purchase tickets at the Gorge itself 30 minutes before the tour leaves. Along the way you’ll not only have front row seats to witness the multicoloured, multilayered cliffs, but you can also spot creatures like sea eagles, purple-crowned fairy-wrens and even the odd crocodile. Cultural boat tours, guided by the Bunuba people, are also on the cards though booking ahead of time for these tours is necessary.
Tunnel Creek National Park
While Geikie Gorge is almost on Fitzroy Crossing’s doorstep, Tunnel Creek National Park will take you about two and a half hours to reach but the journey is well worth it. After a short walk from the parking lot, you’ll come to the entrance of a cave. Those who struggle with claustrophobia need not worry - this cave is huge, so there’s no squeezing and scrambling required. What you will need though is a decent torch and shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. There’s a fair bit of wading involved in exploring the Tunnel Creek cave, so don’t wear your nice shoes. Shining your torch around will reveal a host of stalactites and mini waterfalls, as well as creatures in the pools. Fish inhabit the pools alongside a few little freshwater crocodiles which are harmless providing you don’t try to handle them. The natural tunnel is about 750 metres in length, and is one of the oldest cave systems in Western Australia. Those hunting for a little bit of easy access adventure won’t do better than a walk through the enchanting environs of Tunnel Creek.
Windjana Gorge National Park
If you’re taking the time to drive to Tunnel Creek National Park, it’s worth making a day of it and continuing about 45 minutes up the road to Windjana Gorge National Park. This is the only one of the three national parks to offer camping facilities, so if you want to break up your journey from Fitzroy Crossing to Derby, it’s the perfect place to do so.
Like most of Australia’s national parks, Windjana Gorge is rich in natural beauty with deep freshwater pools at the base of the gorge supporting an abundance of life, from fig trees and fruitbats to freshwater crocodiles. Windjana also has great historical significance, especially for the indigenous Bunuba people. This area was the centre of one of the few organised armed uprisings against the colonisation of Australia. The aboriginal rebel and freedom fighter Jandamarra led a number of the Bunuba in an insurrection, and a central event of the rebellion was an standoff with police forces at Windjana Gorge. He and his band continued to use hit-and-run guerilla tactics to harass police and settlers for another three years, using the area around Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge as hideouts, before he was killed at Tunnel Creek by a legendary Aboriginal tracker.
You could return to Fitzroy Crossing at the end of the day, but a far better option is to stay overnight at Windjana Gorge and make the journey (which should take a little over two and a half hours) to Derby the following day, as this avoids backtracking completely.
Leg 7 Derby to Broome
Est Driving Time2 hrs, 45 mins
Ancient trees, massive tides and a quirky festival all characterise this town, which although not overly large is still among the three biggest settlements in the Kimberley region. One of Derby’s hidden gems for art fans is the Norval Gallery. Even if you don’t consider yourself an art aficionado, this is great place to see genuine indigenous art and the owners are famously friendly - you can even buy a piece to take home if you like.
Without doubt the most famous attraction in Derby is the Boab Prison Tree. By this point in your journey, you will have seen countless boab trees, but none quite like this. This 1,500 year old tree with a hollow centre was once used as place to keep prisoners locked up overnight and although visitors aren’t permitted inside as this is now a registered indigenous site, heading seven kilometres out of town to see this distinctive and ancient tree is well worth the trip.
Visitors who are lucky enough to be in town for the Derby Boab Festival, are in for a real treat. Mud football, watermelon seed spitting and a Mardi Gras are just a few facets of this lively event - it’s normally held in the middle of the year, so be sure to check the dates to see if you’re able to make it to Derby in time for the unique attractions of the Boab Festival.
As strange as it may sound, the tides are also a major feature in here. Derby has the highest tides in the country, with the difference between high and low tides reaching as much as 11.8 metres. This makes for some fairly bizarre sights along the coastline at low tide, as wharfs and jetties tower above the wet sand below.
Once you’re ready to head on to your final destination, head south out of Derby until you once more join up with the Great Northern Highway. The whole drive will only take you about two and a half hours.
The last stop on your epic Australian wilderness road trip is more than just an end point, so make sure you set aside at least a little bit of time to explore Broome. Cable Beach is one spot that you have to head down to - not only is this a truly stunning sandy beach that boasts remarkable sunsets, but you can see it all from camelback. That’s right, there are three different companies that offer camel treks across the sands of Cable Beach, and for those who have never tried anything like this before, it’s a must-seize opportunity which is only available at a handful of locations on Earth.
For over a hundred years Broome has been a centre for pearling, and over the years many sacrificed their lives in this dangerous profession to bring pearls to the surface. The Japanese cemetery in Broome is the final resting place for 919 of these pearlers who came to the town to take part in the booming industry and never returned, and although there aren’t any English inscriptions, this place still has a deeply peaceful atmosphere and is a mute reminder of the mottled history of pearl diving.
Check the tidal schedule while you’re in Broome to time a visit to Gantheaume Point. This is a beautiful spot at any time, but at the extreme low tide you can see 130 million year old dinosaur footprints. There’s also an abundance of plant fossils to be seen embedded in the sandstone at Gantheaume Point - yet another window into the distant past that this trip offers.
If you have the time, consider heading up the Dampier Peninsula to Cape Leveque north of Broome. An historic lighthouse rises from the Cape and marks the western entrance to King Sound. Although the area is relatively remote, it is gaining increasing popularity due to its sandy beaches. If you’re lucky, you might even see whales that have come to the area to birth, playing in the waters offshore.
On your way back to Broome those hunting for a peaceful place perfect for meditating on all that you’ve seen over the course of your trip should detour to Sacred Heart Church in the Beagle Bay Aboriginal Community. This pristinely beautiful little church with a mother of pearl altar was constructed from hay bales with a concrete exterior but few would guess without knowing ahead of time. This diminutive visual treat provides an ideal way to round off the journey for those with a penchant for contemplation.
Sooner or later, it will be time to turn in the keys to your motorhome rental and head for home but although you have to leave this unique region behind, memories of your intrepid journey from Darwin to Broome are sure to stick with you for quite some time to come.
- A decent torch
- Hiking boots
- Old sneakers
- 20 litres emergency water
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