The Northern Territory has always stood apart from the rest of the continent. The Red Centre of Australia and the Top End, the tropical north with its monsoon rains and cyclones, resisted white penetration longer than any other part of the country. The Northern Territory still has a high proportion of Aborigines in its population; and in this great expanse of territory they have been able to preserve more of their traditional way of life than anywhere else.
The relics of their culture combine with the unique landscape to give the Northern Territory its particular attraction.
In 1863 administrative responsibility for the 'Northern Territory of South Australia' was transferred from New South Wales to South Australia. In 1911 the territory was made the direct responsibility of the federal government in Canberra. Between 1926 and 1931 it was divided along the 20th parallel into North Australia and Central Australia.
Since 1978 the Northern Territory has had a limited degree of self-government. Under the Aboriginal Land Act of 1976 something like a third of the territory was returned to Aboriginal ownership.
The enormous size of the Northern Territory - extending for over 900km from east to west and over 1600km from north to south - means that it presents two very different aspects, the sun-drenched and arid center with its gorges and valleys carved out by erosion in past ages and the coastal plains of the north, subject to flooding in summer and dominated by the escarpment with its spectacular waterfalls and rock formations. It presents a contrast, too, between the ancient culture of the Aborigines and the amenities of modern civilization. With the development of mining and pastoral farming and the growth of tourism, travel in the Northern Territory now presents no difficulties.
Visitors to Aboriginal lands, however, must obtain a permit from the Aboriginal authorities - the Central Land Council in Alice Springs for the area south of a line between Kununurra and Mount Isa, the Northern Land Council in Casuarina for land north of that line and the Tiwi Land Council for Bathurst and Melville Islands. A permit is not required for traveling through Aboriginal land on a public road.
Aboriginal culture tours
A good way of getting to know the Aboriginal way of life is to take one of the Aboriginal culture tours which are offered in Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs under the slogan 'Come share our culture'. The tours are led by Aborigines, who take visitors round their ancestral territories and explain their ancient traditions.
Characteristic of the Red Centre are the camels - descendants of the camels brought in during the 19th C., mainly from Pakistan, along with their drivers (Afghans, familiarly 'ghans'), to provide an essential means of transport for travel in the hot and arid interior. Nowadays camels bred on camel farms can be seen in long caravans conveying visitors along dusty and stony tracks to the regular tourist sights. Another tourist attraction is provided by camel races, for example at Alice Springs.
The Northern Territory's first railroad line, opened in 1889, ran from Darwin to Pine Creek and was extended southward to Birdum/Larrimah in 1929, bringing its total length to 233km. It was closed down in 1976 because of damage caused by heavy rain and cyclones and its unprofitability. The railroad line from South Australia, construction of which started in 1878, reached Oodnadatta in 1891 but took another 40 years to reach Alice Springs.
The old railroad line followed the caravan route of the Afghan camel drivers, from whom the now famous Ghan desert railroad got its name. But torrential rain washed away the track bed, so a new line was laid farther to the west between Tarcoola (SA) and Alice Springs. Nowadays the Ghan express takes 20 hours to cover the 1559km between Adelaide and Alice Springs; from Tarcoola there are connections to the Indian Pacific linking Sydney and Perth.
The Ghan Preservation Society in Alice Springs has restored a section of the old Ghan line through the MacDonnell Ranges to Ewaninga and now runs steam- or diesel-hauled trains made up of old coaches through glorious mountain scenery.
Since the mid-1980s the Stuart Highway between Adelaide and Darwin has been asphalted all the way, making the transcontinental journey much easier than it used to be. The problems, however, are still the enormous distances to be covered, the heat and the monotony of the landscape, which adds to the tiring effect on drivers.
Roads and tracks
Before the asphalting of the Stuart Highway was completed a journey on the old track was still an adventurous undertaking. Improvements in the road system have enabled tourism to develop, but there are some who fear that the wilderness will lose its last secrets. But the Northern Territory is so vast that there is still plenty of scope for enterprising drivers who want to push themselves and their vehicle to the limit. For less adventurous travelers there are good roads negotiable by ordinary cars to the main tourist attractions, with only a few exceptions where there are stretches of particularly stony or sandy surfaces.
In addition to 'normal' tracks there are also tracks suitable only for all-terrain vehicles, following long-abandoned routes to remote cattle stations or mining areas or the old drove-roads, some of which extend beyond the boundaries of the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory Government Tourist Commission publishes a short guide to such tracks.
Trips in the outback on off-road tracks call for good equipment, sufficient supplies (water, food, fuel) and a good driver. Before setting out it is essential to inquire about the state of the roads and the supply situation. It is foolish to set out on your own: traveling in convoy makes it easier to cope with breakdowns or other hazards. And if you plan to travel in Aboriginal territory (except for transit on a public road), remember to apply in plenty of time for the necessary permit.
A less hazardous way of seeing the remoter outback areas is to join an organized outback safari, which will still be a great travel experience.
Tracks in the outback (selection)
From Mataranka via Roper Bar, Borroloola and Wollogorang to Burketown (QLD).
The Plenty Highway branches off the Stuart Highway 68km north of Alice Springs and runs east to Boulia (QLD).
Simpson Desert Loop
From Alice Springs via Santa Teresa and Andado into South Australia (Mount Dare Station); then south via Oodnadatta to Birdsville (QLD), or back via Finke (side trip to Chambers Pillar) to Alice Springs.
Follows the old road from Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort) via Docker River to Wiluna (WA).
Central Ranges Loop
From Alice Springs via Hermannsburg, with side trip to Palm Valley and Finke Gorge National Park (the only access to this park), to Kings Canyon.
From Alice Springs northwest through the Tanami Desert via Rabbit Flat to Halls Creek (WA); at Lajamanu a track branches off and runs into the northern part of the Northern Territory (all-terrain vehicle not essential).
The Big Run
From Katherine southwest via Timber Creek, the old Victoria River Downs station (once the largest cattle station in the British Empire), Top Springs and Kalkaringi to Halls Creek (WA).
The Cannonball Race
Taking advantage of the fact that in the Northern Territory there are no speed limits on roads outside built-up areas, the Cannonball car race is held every two years (even years) on public roads - mainly the Stuart Highway - from Darwin to Ayers Rock and back, a distance of some 3800km. The entrance fees are extremely high and maximum speeds of up to 300km an hour are reached. The idea of this breakneck race came from the Hollywood film Cannonball (with Burt Reynolds) about an illegal private race across the United States.