Australia Road Trip (part one): Darwin to Uluru in a camper van
This is the story of 3 English girls: Sophia (myself) and Ellie, who take on their longest drive yet down the west coast of Australia. We also have non-driver Rose who sits in between us as we chauffeur her around for a month on our road trip.
My original plan for this series of blog posts was how to do an Australia west coast road trip on a budget. However, after our first week and $2000 down, this was not going to be cheap.
So instead I thought I’d capture the most interesting stories that came out of travelling in a camper van with two other girls for a month.
Also I want to pass on my knowledge to any of you wanting to undergo a similar road trip. I will explain how petrol, campsites and countless chocolate bars and diet cokes will drain your bank account dramatically. Nonetheless, it will be a trip I will never forget and would highly recommend it to anyone.
Camper van rental in Australia
For our rental we went with Travellers Autobarn in Darwin. It came to $3320 between the 3 of us ($1106 each). This covered us for the premium insurance and the camper van for 30 days. I would recommend going for the full insurance package because even if you just chip the windscreen you’re already paying $400. This works out to be more than the extra insurance itself.
Darwin ➡ Ubirr
I had volunteered the day before to be the designated driver for our first day of the road trip. However, the night before I got too carried away with the cheap gin and tonics. I suffered the consequences the next day with a hangover that made my head feel like it was about to implode. So I passed on my role to Ellie, our other responsible driver who didn’t overdo it and who took note on how to operate our new home for the month.
Our main man Rupert at Travellers Autobarn laid out all the information about our new van.
Here’s what we learnt:
- There is a gas canister which you can fill up at caravan sites. To turn it on, you turn the knob to the left and there’s a yellow lever that you turn so it’s vertical. To turn of, turn to the right and bring the lever on to its side.
- There is a hose which you attach to a tap, usually found at caravan sites, so that you can use the sink.
- There is also a power cable which you can use at powered sites, allowing you to use the microwave and charge phones.
- You should turn the fridge down at night so it doesn’t make too much noise.
- To make up the beds is quite self explanatory but don’t be lazy and definitely put them back before you start driving, especially the top bunk as everything moves around.
- They advise you not to drive at night as animals may be on the road and could write-off the van or seriously hurt you. Travellers Autobarn do not insure you for night time driving.
After driving to MacDonalds, but not the drive-thru as the van was too tall, we made our way out of Darwin and onto Stuart Highway to enter the Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu National Park
We entered the monotonous woodland area with countless trees and bushes for kilometers at a time. The late afternoon silhouettes on the road were extremely trippy as the trees stand very closely together. Their shadows gave the illusion that we were traveling at a lot higher speeds and my eyes started to cross.
It took a while to get used to the feel of the van. Any gust of wind in this tall and non-streamline vehicle sent my steering off course thus making tipping over a big threat. I would recommend cruising at 40km/h around corners, this is just for the first day though.
Aboriginal rock art
Just in time for our first sunset of the road trip, we got to Ubirr, an Aboriginal rock art site. It is a 1km circular walking trail that displays several rock art sites.
The Aboriginals used the rock art to tell stories that their ancestors had passed down. Many were drawings of animals and their first encounters with Europeans, who came to Australia in the 1780s. The act of painting was generally more important than the artwork itself. It seemed younger paintings covered many older figures, which date back 4,000 years ago. They used red ochre to stain the rocks and a lot of the original paintings are still intact.
The best place to watch the sun dip below the horizon is up the 250m climb on top of a rocky lookout that overlooks the Nadab floodplain.
Just before dark we managed to find Meryl campsite, where we bartered down to $10 for the vehicle. It offered no power and the toilet block was nearly impossible to find in the pitch black. This was the start of our “feral” stage. The outdoors became our new toilet as we were too afraid of the dark to venture away from the van. We made up our beds and tucked into our first meal of the trip, chicken salad wraps. It was a very hot night, all the sheets and sleeping bags were unnecessary.
- Full tank included in the price.
- Total km = 287km
Ubirr ➡ Dunmarra
We were all awake before our 6am alarm went off as the cockatoos chirped among themselves and the sun had already risen. We prepared our breakfast of cornflakes and brushed our teeth to freshen up.
We had a big drive to do today so we set off through Kakadu National Park and experienced our first kangaroo crossing. A dingo then ran out on to the road from no where. A typical Australian scene.
We sped down Stuart Highway all the way through to Katherine, where we took a lunch break. While Rose and Ellie went in search for the toilet, I was in charge of looking after the van. People had warned us about the locals trying their best to break into cars in the Northern Territory. We hoped they wouldn’t do anything if we stayed inside. So that’s what I did. It was only until we drove off did we notice a group of women disperse after they had been hanging around waiting for us to leave the van alone.
Dusk driving to Dunmarra caravan park
Dusk was upon us and we were still far from our campsite. The only thing to do was look out for potential road kill and avoid swerving into the side of the road. One amusing piece of road kill was a dead cow that had been recently hit and had blown up like a balloon. This became a theme throughout our Australia road trip.
We camped at Dunmarra caravan park which was $8 per person. It was a powered site and even had a lamb spit roast for $19 per person. We had pumpkin soup and bread for dinner instead.
- $50 each petrol
- Total km = 616km
Dunmarrra ➡ Alice Springs
We had a long day of driving. We made it to Three Way roadhouse for 11am, which was the perfect time to try their homemade pie. It truly deserved the title of ‘the best’ pies in the Northern Territory. Maybe even in Australia. This is a highly recommended stop.
Australia’s must-see road trip stops
We drove through Tennant Creek and to Devils’ Marbles. The Aboriginals believe these large rounded rocks were carved by a serpent, a bad spirit, hence why they belonged to the devil.
The next stop was extremely surreal. A service station obsessed with the idea that there had been UFO sightings in the area. The bar was covered in news-clippings about backpackers and travellers being chased by alien type figures and disappearing in the Australia outback.
On the road you will see that people in the Northern Territory have somewhat of a sense of humour. For example, termite hills have been dressed in t-shirts and caps, transforming them into snowmen – an unfamiliar scene in Australia. I think some of the communities have too much time on their hands but they do amuse you while speeding down the never ending straight highway.
Cruising into Alice Springs
We were on the outskirts of Alice Springs. The girls were asleep and I had been driving the afternoon stint. I estimated another 90km to go until we got to the main town. All of a sudden the petrol light flashed a red warning. Without panicking Ellie and Rose, I slowed right down to 80km/h to drive economically, a tip I’d learned from a friend’s mum. It was to drive slower and in 4th gear with minimum breaking. I’d also remembered seeing an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson drives from France to England on a full tank and drove at a much slower speed when he was running low. So this is what I did for 45 minutes on my own.
Rose eventually woke up and then so did Ellie. They both questioned why I was cruising in neutral. I continued to creep all the way into town, anticipating the worst. To our surprise we managed to crawl all the way to the doors of the first petrol station in Alice Springs.
We then found Heavitree campsite, just outside of town, which was a powered site and cost $44. It was an extremely cold night and I woke up shivering. At one point it reached minus degrees. All the sheets and sleeping bags were necessary. Who thought this would be possible in Australia?
- $60 each petrol
- Total = 868km
Alice Springs ➡ Yulara
We drove around Alice Springs to see what it offered. Turns out there are no springs in the town as the name would suggest. It was extremely cold and the hostile locals made us feel quite nervous so we were happy to leave and make our way straight down to Yulara, on the border of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
We arrived at Ayers Rock resort campground just in time for sunset. It was $69 for a powered site. We put a deposit down for Monopoly, keeping us entertained for hours. I even won by getting very lucky with the community chest cards. It wasn’t the first time my competitive side came out in Australia, winning a few Monopoly games.
- $33 petrol each
- Total = 445km
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
After 4 days of continuous driving, we finally reached the entrance to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It took us 2,216km to get here, which is the equivalent to driving from London to Serbia.
Aboriginal culture at Uluru
Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is the biggest stand alone rock in the world. The Aboriginals call it Uluru but the white Australians named it Ayers Rock.
At the Culture Centre there is a video representation on how the white Australians first came across the Aboriginal tribes of Uluru (Anangu) in the 1930s. They introduced to the tribes tinned food in exchange for dingo skulls, which the Australia government paid them for at the time. These new foods brought in deadly diseases, such as diabetes.
In the video at the cultural centre it made the Aboriginals seem like animals, as they seem scared of these mysterious tins and the humped camels that the ‘white fellows’ arrived on. The Aboriginals have only been classed as ‘people’ since 1967. Before then they were legally known as ‘fauna and flora’ in Australia.
Australia and the Aboriginals
The Australians took over more and more of their land and brought cattle in that destroyed much of the bush tucker and scared off many of the animals that the tribes hunted. This meant many Aboriginals starved to death.
In the 1900s, they introduced the White Man Law, which legalised the use of Aboriginals as slaves in Australia. Police and white Australians exploring the rock, pushed the Aboriginals away from Uluru and other nearby camps.
The Peterman’s Aboriginal Reserve was originally set up to protect the Aboriginals. However, in 1951 there was an application to allow tourist flights over the rock. In 1958 land around Uluru was taken out of the reserve without taking any consideration of the Aboriginal tribes living in the area.
In the 1960s the tribes earned money by selling dingo skulls to the government but decided to stop paying them and gave them rations instead. The Aboriginals then returned to making traditional artifacts and paintings to sell to tourists, which they still do today as a source of income. They were then hired as workers and cleaners in the National Park but when tourists started to complain about them, the council started to hide them away but “they always came back to protect Uluru“.
The Aboriginals say:
“The Spirit of the animal in the rock is not of the white people and we have a more spiritual connection to the land. The white people should listen to us and learn, and pay us more attention. We are the only people who truly understand this place. We’ve lived by their white man law but we still don’t gain any respect or attention.”
In 1978 Uluru was declared as a National Park within the Northern Territory. This meant that the Aboriginals could no longer claim it as their land. However, in 1983 the government decided that Uluru shouldn’t be part of the Northern Territory but of the Australian Government, to respect the significance of Uluru for all Australians as a national symbol.
Now the Aboriginals apparently have real control of how the park is run. Many are on the board of management and only ask that the tourists respect their sacred areas by not walking over them or take pictures. The tribes live there safely and have given back to Uluru their Aboriginal spirits.
You can drive around the entire rock to get a feel of how big it is, but it is very disrespectful to climb to the top. Many Australians ask if you have done the climb and are surprised when your answer is no. Some are still not aware of the spiritual significance of Uluru and by disrespecting their spirits which live inside the rock, can in turn disturb the Aboriginals’ way of life.
A great way to see the rock is to get to the sunset car park at around 4.30pm to secure a good spot. The sun sets behind you casting a red glowing shadow on the rock. It’s very chilly but worth watching the shades turn.
The caravan site has free gas BBQs which is perfect for a sausage sarnie.
Uluru ➡ Connor’s Well
Before setting off from Uluru, we took advantage of the showering facilities and then made our way back to Alice Springs. We also filled our small gas canister for $15 in a caravan park. It shouldn’t normally last only 6 days, but in such freezing conditions, we needed copious amounts of hot drinks and a little extra heating.
Connor’s Well campsite
In all the excitement of reaching civilisation and fast food, we had a binge stop in a car park. We needed a snooze to get us out of our fried chicken coma before making it to a free campsite, Connor’s Well, 92km out of town. Out of boredom we decided to see how many marshmallows Rose could fit in her mouth. It was 18.
It also got down to minus 5 in the night and frost was on the ground when we woke the next morning.
- $45 each petrol
- Total km = 565km
Connor’s Well ➡ Warlock
Due to how cold it was in the morning, it forced us out of bed earlier than normal. We were desperate to get into the front seats with the heating on full blast. We zoomed back up to Katherine where it was a lot livelier than last time. The rodeo had been in town and a fun fair was kicking off. In all the excitement we treat ourselves to an Eggs Benedict and an unbelievable butterscotch cheesecake at the local Coffee Club.
Ellie got excited after a group of army men crossed the road and almost flipped the car over as she enthusiastically turned into the petrol station. It was the most testosterone we’d seen in a whole week.
To reach another free campsite, we had to drive into the night. After 5.30pm the roadkill started to appear and curious kangaroos hopped to the side of the road. A dingo even took a chance at crossing. To avoid hurting any of the animals and making a huge dent in the van, I dropped down to 50km/h.
Because the van is not insured for nighttime driving, I would really advise aiming to get to a campsite by dusk. We reached the Warlock campsite at 8.30pm and had our latest night of the week after steak, egg and salad.
- $50 each on petrol.
- Total km = 963km
How much did we spend in one week?
- Darwin – Uluru – Katherine = 3744km
- Petrol costs per person = $238
- Camping sites total = $162 (including gas canister)