Having ticked off Broken Hill-Port Augusta into Alice Springs, I was ready to check whether how Nature's Ways stacked up as a family-friendly route. Well, that’s how we managed to con the boss into letting our rainbow unicorn-loving, event-co-ordinating guru, Loz, and her campfire-starting extraordinaire son, Coops, join in on the fun.
First stop of the day was the BIG4 MacDonnell Range Caravan Park in Alice Springs, which is set-up to the hilt with entertainment for the young whippersnappers. A few hours later, Coops and I were just getting to know each other – and by that I mean he was comfortable enough to jump off my head in a bid to make the biggest splash possible in the pool. Oh, and apparently that waterslide has a weight limit of 100kg. I must have scoffed down one too many burgers on the way up because the speed I built up on the way down was comparable to an F1 race car on nitrous.
KARLU KARLU (DEVILS MARBLES)
Just south of Tennant Creek you’ll find the Devils Marbles, which is arguably one of the best free camps in Oz. It’s crazy, you’re driving for hours and then, bam! Majestic big round boulders pop out of bloody nowhere.
Coops had a few hours’ worth of built-up energy, so naturally he was pretty eager to investigate these massive masses of ancient granite up close and personal. If you’re visiting here yourself, make sure you spend the night — the Devils Marbles look utterly spectacular at sunset!
DALY WATERS PUB
In the past this cool old pub has seen its fair share of mayhem from cattle stampeding through town and the odd drunken brawl between ringers. These days it’s an extremely popular and friendly spot to stop in and visit. Although rumours of a ghost, named Sarah, still haunt staff when they’re on their lonesome of a night.
A good chunk of the history is literally written on the walls, and over the last few decades visitors have added to the decoration, leaving mementos behind, with a heck of a lot of bras stuck to the ceiling too... strange.
Oh, and don’t forget to wrap your laughing gear around the famous crocodile slider!
Now this is the place you can have a great camping experience with the kids without really roughing it. Yep, after a few days of full blown caravan parks we finally had the chance to light a nice campfire to settle into for the night. And it was also the place Lozzie and I realised that Coops, like most young boys, was attracted to the good old naked flame – a bit like an ant to honey. For a first-time camper, Coops really took to the whole campfire thing seriously. So naturally it was the perfect time to teach Coops how to use a flint to light a fire, the funny thing is I learned a thing or two in the process – like why you shouldn’t explain to an eight-year-old kid in detail exactly how Indigenous folk used to make sharp spears with fire to harden the tip. Or how to restart the campfire in the morning using nothing more than a few dead leaves and the heat trapped in the previous night’s coals. Yep, imagine waking up to a kid on a mission in the morning! The good things is, while there are heaps of kangaroos and wildlife around the park, the only shots fired were from Cooper's camera, not the hunting spear – geez, that kid's mind is like a sponge!
Just two hours up the road we found ourselves floating around the natural thermal pools of Mataranka, a place I was adamant we had to visit on the way through. “Yuck, what stinks?!” Coops said, as we proceeded down the main wooden board-walk through the palm forest. “There’s bat poo everywhere...I’m not swimming in bat poo,” Coops declared.
Thankfully, that crystal clear spring-fed glittering blue water got the better of him. It might have had something to do with the water temperature, sitting at a luxurious 34ºC, and the inviting shimmer of light on the water’s surface after filtering through the tree canopy.
But, if you want my pick of the litter in terms of swimming holes, it’s just got to be Bitter Springs. It’s a completely natural setting apart from a few man-made steps, and I honestly reckon its one of the best spots up here. It was super interesting watching Coops gain a heck of a lot more confidence around a natural swimming hole the second time round. It got me thinking, isn’t that what experiencing new things and different parts of the country is all about; learning?
The Top End of Australia is world famous for its spectacular gorges, and Nitmiluk Gorge, previously known as Katherine Gorge, is right up there with the best of them. The Katherine river system actually comprises 13 gorges in total, and while you can opt to paddle upstream with a kayak tour, we decided to go for an early morning river cruise right up the guts of the two main gorges. It’s safe to say this place is nothing short of mind-blowing. It was intriguing to learn just a snippet of the knowledge the traditional owners have of the land. In fact, as we learned of an ancient method used to poison fish to help catch them easier, I’m pretty sure I muttered to Loz, “Geez, I hope Coops didn’t hear that”.
Naturally, this place is a haven for wildlife, too. Freshwater crocs can be spotted during the Dry Season and the area is closed for swimming in the Wet Season; apparently the big saltwater crocodiles like to explore the river system, too. Birdlife is abundant, and when you’ve had enough exploring for one day you can head back to the swimming pool at the main campground near the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre.
Naturally, one of the major highlights of this region is the saltwater crocodile. I mean these reptilian power houses are basically living, breathing dinosaurs. While you can see them in their natural habitat with a jumping-croc cruise, or by getting too close to the water (if you know what I mean), the world renowned Crocosaurus Cove was our poison this time around. The main reason being my little mate Coops had the opportunity to actually hold a baby crocodile. Yep, that’s a once in a lifetime sort of experience if you ask me. Then there are the hundreds of other reptiles, fish species and massive crocodiles sharing the spotlight too. We were lucky enough to catch the snake feeding show. Although, going off the look on Loz’s face I don’t think she knew what she was in for. Something about the reptile keeper handling a dead rat like it was a piece of chocolate put her off the experience. Weird, huh? Coops, on the other hand, was utterly entertained.
If you’re thinking of hitting the road to Darwin with your family and friends, don’t procrastinate. Stop worrying if there are enough activities for the kids to do, or if it’s too remote to explore on your own. Trust me, it’s more family-friendly then you think, and when you reach the city lights of Darwin you just can’t help but feel accomplished. If you ask me, I don’t think there is a better way to teach the kids about Australia – the real Australia! I saw young Coops go from being too scared to swim in a natural swimming hole, to grinning from ear-to-ear as he jumped off a 5m rock straight into the turquoise waters of Berry Springs. We witnessed his confidence grow with every place we visited, all while he gained an invaluable understanding of cultural significance and traditional way of life.
So go on, explore the Northern Territory with the family and get back to the basics of adventure. Heck, with any luck, your kids will get as much out of it as young Coops did...just make sure you supervise around the campfire, eh?
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #573. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!