Travel Tales: Overland Drive From Cairns to Darwin

LashWorldTour with giant termite mound on drive from Cairns to Darwin

Here I am with a giant termite mound in the Australian Outback

Travel Tales: Overland Drive From Cairns to Darwin

During my 9-month trip around Australia I explored the vast country via many different modes of transportation. When I first arrived in Sydney I met up with my then-German-boyfriend. He had bought a pick-up truck and luxury caravan, which we drove around the states of New South Wales and Victoria for two months.

Eventually we broke up, so I caught a train from Sydney north to Byron Bay. From there I cycled solo up Australia’s east coast, camping along the way.

After exploring the east coast as far north as Port Douglas and Daintree National Park, I hooked up with other international travelers on ride-shares from Cairns across Australia’s vast central plains up to Darwin then back down to Alice Springs and Uluru. From there I flew to Sydney to visit a friend and eventually flew back to SE Asia.

To get from the east coast to Darwin, I had considered cycling. I researched the trip and talked to other long-distance cyclists. I learned that it’s a rather extreme cycling route.

Landmark? Australia outback - photo by Ron Bennetts on Flckr CC

Australia outback – photo by Ron Bennetts on Flckr CC

Distances between towns and supply stops are so far that you need to carry enough food and water for at least three days. That requires pulling a trailer full of supplies.

In addition, you must camp out in freezing temperatures in complete wilderness and battle scorching heat every day, all the while completely exposed to the elements. No shade in sight. No thanks, too hard core for me, especially solo.

So while I was staying with friends in Cairns, I checked out message boards at numerous backpacker hostels around town, looking for a ride-share. I quickly found a group of travelers driving to Darwin.

All over Australia, at popular backpacker’s centers, campgrounds and budget hotels, message boards are loaded with messages from people looking to share rides to various destinations.

Cairns backpackers - photo by NeilsPhotography on Flckr CC

typical party at Cairns backpackers – photo by NeilsPhotography on Flckr CC

This all comes about because some visitors to Australia buy a van, car or caravan to drive around the country. When their trip is finished, they re-sell the vehicle before leaving the country. In the meantime, they often look for other travelers to join them on various segments of their journey to help share fuel and caravan parking costs as well as to have fun with other travelers.

As a result, this ride-share system is an easy and inexpensive way to explore the vast country, whether you want to buy a vehicle or you want to hitch a ride with those who have. It certainly worked out well for me to get from Cairns to Darwin and later to explore Australia’s red center.

For my first-ever ride-share, I hooked up with five other international travelers, driving in two vans. We hailed from Ireland, Holland, England, Germany, Canada and the USA.

Happily, we all got along really well, despite noticeable differences in temperament, interests and philosophies on life. We noted that our compatibility may have been due to that extra carefulness and super-polite manners used with people you’ve just met and want to get along with, rather than a natural affinity towards each other.

Everywhere but here? - photo by Will Ockenden on Flckr CC

Road sign in outback near Mt Isa – “Everywhere but here?” – photo by Will Ockenden on Flckr CC

It took us four days to drive from Cairns to Darwin, a distance of 2850 km / 1767 miles. From Cairns we drove south to Townsville then headed west into Australia’s wide open spaces. It was an exceedingly long drive, mostly through endless scrubby-tree country.

However, I was quite surprised at the variety of the terrain and vegetation. Some areas were pancake flat, others hilly, some very rocky. We passed through miles and miles of short scrubby trees but also drove through vast grassy plains and undulating, bare rocky hills.

Soil colors varied considerably from orange to rust to white to pale yellow to light brown. We saw sandy riverbeds, dry so long they looked like sand rivers. I thought it must be a great adventure wandering up one of those sand rivers. But our group plodded on down the road.

Occasionally we passed dead kangaroos along the road. Inevitably, flocks of hawks were soaring over the carcasses (not vultures, hawks).

Winton to Cloncurry Australia - photo by Geoffrey Rhodes on Flckr CC

The great Australia outback between Winton & Cloncurry – photo by Geoffrey Rhodes on Flckr CC

My European companions were completely dumbfounded at the vast open spaces, distances between towns, huge sky and star-speckled night skies. I was not nearly as amazed as them, having seen it all before (aside from kangaroos and some of the specific topographies) countless times since childhood, growing up in the USA.

I’d spent my childhood exploring the eastern half of the US with my family, mostly camping at national parks. I’d later driven across the entire country twice, also camping at various national and state parks. I’d already experienced vast open spaces, huge sky and billions of stars twinkling overhead in remote, unlighted wilderness. But it was certainly interesting to watch the Europeans’ reactions.

During our last evening in the outback we were treated to an amazing sunset. The sun went down instantly, followed by amazing horizontal stripes of intense color hovering over a completely flat, never-ending horizon. From the ground up, the colors changed from red to orange to yellow to the bright blue of the sky. I’d ever seen that particular kind of striking sunset before, nor since, despite all my travels.

On our final day we covered enough distance by midday that we stopped for a treat: Bitter Hot Springs at Mataranka. That proved to be an astounding experience.

Bitter Springs - Mataranka Australia - photo by Serendigity on Flckr CC

Bitter Springs at Mataranka – photo by Serendigity on Flckr CC

After driving all morning through unending scrubby trees, we took the hot springs turn-off. Just 7  km later we found ourselves in an entirely different world. There, in the middle of nowhere, was a hot river with the most crystal-clear blue water flowing underneath big beautiful palm trees. We stood there with our eyes bulging and mouths agape, muttering “wow”s under our breaths.

The weather there in northern Australia was actually warm enough for me to slip into my bikini and take a dip in the inviting warm river. I paddled around the crystalline water gazing up at tall palm trees and bright blue sky. I felt as though I’d landed in a luxury resort.

Umbrella Cockatoo - photo by JunCTionS on Flckr CC

Umbrella Cockatoo – photo by JunCTionS on Flckr CC

The Mataranka ‘oasis’ was filled with colorful chattering birds like cockatoos and parakeets. A rain-forest trail meandered along the river amidst lush palm trees and giant human-size termite mounds. And a life-size replica of an old settlers’ house was situated at the edge of the park, a remnant from a movie filmed there.

I could have happily stayed there for a blissful two or three days, maybe even a week.

Unfortunately, I only got one hour to luxuriate in the warm pool before my pals were ready to press on to Darwin. Apparently they were not nearly as taken by the luxurious oasis as I was.

We drove the remaining few hours to Darwin, arriving in the evening. We found lodging at various backpackers around town and said our farewells.

The following day, bicycle at the ready, I started my Darwin adventures. (story coming soon)


You might also enjoy these other stories from my Australian trip:

Exploring Alice Springs and Ayers Rock

Caravan-ing Around Australia

WWOOFing at Sanctuary Retreat – Mission Beach


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