Top 10 drives around the Northern Territory

Travel by car, motorhome or four-wheel-drive across the Northern Territory and you'll be astounded by the diversity of the landscape – from the desert sands of Uluru to the tropical Top End, to the thermal pools of Mataranka. Discover ancient rock art, Indigenous culture, pioneering history, incredible wildlife and sunsets you thought only existed on postcards.

Remember, this is a big territory; do your research, obey the croc warning signs and know how to change a flat tyre …

1. NATURE'S WAY – DARWIN, KAKADU, KATHERINE AND LITCHFIELD LOOP: 735 KILOMETRES

Starting and finishing in Darwin, this loop wins the trifecta – Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Litchfield – three of the best national parks in the Territory, all linked by sealed roads. Spend a couple of nights in Cooinda or Jabiru for Kakadu's Yellow Water Billabong and Ubirr rock art site before moving on to Katherine, the gateway to Nitmiluk National Park where you can explore the gorges by helicopter, water or foot. Litchfield National Park with its plunge pools and waterfalls is a fitting finale. Allow three to five days.

DON'T MISS

 Kakadu's Gunlom Falls for a swim in nature's infinity pool. See kakadutourism.com

2. GREATER LITCHFIELD LOOP – LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK AND SURROUNDS: 555 KILOMETRES

Within easy reach of Darwin, this is the perfect getaway, with most of the highlights accessible by sealed road, and some 4WD options for the more adventurous. Start with a Pelican Brekky at the Territory Wildlife Park (no, no, you feed the pelicans, you don't eat them) before visiting Litchfield National Park with its waterfalls, natural pools and dramatic landscape. From Litchfield head to Dundee Beach for world-class fishing or explore World War II history at Mandorah, Adelaide River and Batchelor. Allow three to four days.

DON'T MISS

 A picnic lunch and swim at Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park. See northernterritory.com

3. EXPLORERS WAY – ALICE SPRINGS TO DARWIN: 1500 KILOMETRES

Explorers have never had it so easy – a sealed highway connecting the Red Centre with the Top End, with the chance to go underground into limestone caves, bathe in hot springs and see Overland Telegraph remains. Stop at Wycliffe, famous for UFO sightings, Tennant Creek for the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art Centre, Daly Waters for its historic pub, Nitmiluk National Park for magnificent gorges and Litchfield National Park for swimming and hiking. Allow  five to seven days.

DON'T MISS

The spring-fed, thermal pools in the Elsey National Park. See nt.gov.au

4. ARNHEM WAY – KATHERINE TO NHULUNBUY: 730 KILOMETRES

If you're an experienced four-wheel-driver, love fishing adventures and are interested in Indigenous culture, this journey through East Arnhem Land to the Gove Peninsula is for you. The mainly gravel road passes open savannah woodlands, through the Mitchell Ranges and over several river crossings before reaching the modern town of Nhulunbuy. Note: Arnhem Land comprises vast amounts of Aboriginal-owned land (about 100,000 square kilometres) and permits are required. Allow two to three days.

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DON'T MISS:

A guided cultural tour with the local Yolngu people. See lirrwitourism.com.au 

5. RED CENTRE WAY – ALICE SPRINGS TO ULURU: 700 KILOMETRES

There are two main options for getting from Alice Springs to Uluru – a 445-kilometre drive on a sealed highway or a 50-minute flight. But a close inspection of a map shows a third option – a squiggly back road taking in the West MacDonnell Ranges, Gosses Bluff, Glen Helen Gorge, Kings Canyon and finally Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. This trip requires a 4WD for the unsealed sections and a permit to drive on the Mereenie Loop through Aboriginal land. Allow three to five days.

DON'T MISS

The historic Hermannsburg precinct, once home to Albert Namatjira. See northernterritory.com

6. WEST MACDONNELL RANGES – ALICE SPRINGS TO GLEN HELEN GORGE: 135 KILOMETRES

Whether you pack an overnight bag, or plan to finish the route in one day, you'll get major bang for your driving buck. Keep an eye out for rock wallabies at Simpsons Gap, enjoy a walk through Standley Chasm, marvel at the many colours of Ochre Pits and stare in wonder at the towering red walls of Ormiston Gorge. Glen Helen Homestead Lodge provides a range of accommodation. Allow one to three days.

DON'T MISS

Swimming at Ellery Creek Big Hole See nt.gov.au 

7. SAVANNAH WAY – CAIRNS TO BROOME: 3700 KILOMETRES

One of Australia's greatest adventure drives – linking Cairns in north Queensland with Broome on the Kimberley Coast of Western Australia – traverses the rich savannah lands of tropical northern Australia. From the Queensland border this route takes you through Borroloola, Cape Crawford, Daly Waters, the thermal waters at Mataranka, Nitmiluk National Park, and finally Timber Creek. The route is mainly sealed, with long stretches of gravel and challenging 4WD detours. Allow 10 to 14 days.

DON'T MISS

 Kayaking on the maze of waterways of Nitmiluk National Park. See nitmiluktours.com 

8. BINNS TRACK - SA BORDER TO TIMBER CREEK, NT: 2191 KILOMETRES

Running from Mount Dare on the South Australian border to the NT township of Timber Creek, this is one of Territory's newest 4WD routes. Named after Bill Binns, a ranger with NT Parks and Wildlife for 32 years, the track skirts the Simpson Desert on its way to Alice Springs, MacDonnell Ranges, Davenport Ranges, Tennant Creek, Gregory National Park, and finally Timber Creek. Allow seven to 10 days.

Don't miss: The domes of Karlu Karlu (also known as Devils Marbles) near Tennant Creek.  See northernterritory.com

9. OVERLANDER'S WAY – TOWNSVILLE TO TENNANT CREEK – 1550 KILOMETRES

Pack your snorkel and hiking boots for this epic trip from the ocean to the outback (on sealed roads), following a route that was important during World War II. After visiting Cloncurry and Mt Isa in Queensland, your first stop will be the Barkly Homestead, a welcome roadhouse after a long, unbroken journey. From here it's straight into the Barkly Tableland, with a detour to Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve. Allow six to eight days.

DON'T MISS

 Bird watching in Iytwelepenty/Davenport Ranges National Park. See nt.gov.au

10. OUTBACK WAY – WINTON, QUEENSLAND TO LAVERTON, WESTERN AUSTRALIA: 2800 KILOMETRES

Known as Australia's longest shortcut, this spectacular drive cuts through the middle of Australia. You'll need a 4WD as most of the track is on unsealed roads, but it halves the time compared with staying on the tarmac. Highlights of the NT portion include fossicking for gems at Gemtree, following an Indigenous art trail in Alice Springs and spending time in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Allow eight to ten days.

DON'T MISS

 Sounds of Silence dinner at Uluru. See ayersrockresort.com.au 

Kerry van der Jagt travelled at her own expense and with the assistance of Tourism NT

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