Travelling on The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin 2021 via Uluru

Uluru at Sunset

One of the great Australian journeys is to travel from Adelaide to Darwin. Many choose to make this trip by car; towing their caravan. We chose to travel on The Ghan, with a week long stop over at Alice Springs and Uluru and then rejoining the train to head to Darwin. We share what to see and do to enjoy South Australia and the Northern Territory, on and off the train.

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What to do in and around Adelaide

Adelaide is one of our favourite Australian cities to visit. Not only is the City itself easy to get around, it also affords quick access to beautiful locations north, south and east of the City, to say nothing of the beaches.

On previous visits we have greatly enjoyed visiting the beautiful McLaren Vale Wine Region which offers not just some of Australia’s best wines, but also excellent dining options. At less than one hours drive from the City, this is a great option for a day trip, but if at all possible stay longer. You will find loads of beautiful accommodation choices including cottages, or for a quick visit we have previously stayed at the McLaren Vale Motel & Apartments. Check your options here. Alternatively, you can do a small group wine tour of McLaren Vale from Adelaide, with a leisurely pick up after 9 a.m.

But on this trip we based ourselves in Adelaide, where we enjoyed our stay at the Ibis, a comfortable clean and well located hotel, with well priced parking just a couple of doors down. From here you can easily walk to all that Adelaide CBD has to offer, including a nearby Haigh’s Chocolate Shop (not to be missed).

We have both visited Adelaide on several occasions, and this time our focus was on catching up with friends rather than seeing the sights. If you are planning your first visit, do make time to visit the incredible Adelaide Central Market, where you can buy provisions and indeed eat within the markets. These are one of Australia’s best food markets and are a must see; if you have the opportunity you might like to take a tour.

We did hire a car in Adelaide from our preferred company Europcar. We were able to pick up and drop off our vehicle on North Terrace, an easy walk from our hotel. This location also offers a convenient after hours drop off, perfect for our needs.

Having a vehicle allowed us to visit both the Clare Valley and the Adelaide Hills, a couple of our favourite spots close by Adelaide.

A dog sits outisde the stone building housing MItchell Winery in the Clare Valley
The faithful winery dog outside Mitchell Winery, Clare Valley

The Clare Valley is renowned for the excellent rieslings produced there. We made a visit to two favourites, Mitchell and Skillogalee, but there are many well known wineries in the region, including Pikes and Sevenhill. If you haven’t previously visited The Clare you may enjoy getting orientated on a full day tour which will cover history as well as wine tasting, and includes lunch. If you are not on a tour, we recommend Skillogalee for lunch (although we did note that at the time we visited the business was for sale).

If you are in Adelaide in Autumn, it is very worthwhile visiting the Adelaide Hills for the magnificent display of autumn leaves. We are fortunate to have friends who live in the Hills, so we drove up to have lunch with them and catch up. A visit to Stirling, or even better the Mount Lofty Botanic Garden will have you overloading your camera with beautiful photos. But don’t ignore the Adelaide Hills in other seasons, it is always a treat to visit.

Eating out in Adelaide

South Australia has a vibrant food scene, not just at the wineries. We were invited to the home of friends on one night, but enjoyed a couple of dinners out. We had a very pleasant dinner at La Rambla Tapas Bar and would recommend this, particularly if you are a wine lover; they have an excellent list. The food was delicious too. On another night, we were joined by friends for a meal at Jarmers Kitchen. Again the food was good; bistro style and casual, but on the night we visited it was very noisy.

Travelling on the Ghan – Adelaide to Alice Springs

I had travelled on The Ghan 10 years prior to this journey, but that journey was with my brother, and Rowan didn’t accompany us. My memories were totally delightful and brimming with positive emotions related to a special time. Sadly this experience was not quite as positive, largely due to the impact of COVID on our tourism industry. We departed Adelaide on a Wednesday, and this was the first Wednesday departure in some months (there is also a Saturday departure). We found ourselves on a train with some very inexperienced staff, and sadly that showed. COVID also meant dining car numbers were limited and split into two seatings. We were not given a choice, and our 8 pm seating ended up seeing us not eat until just before 9 pm, which was less than ideal. Having said that, the food was as excellent as I remember from my first trip, and accompanied by a good selection of wines to choose from.

A plate of food served for lunch on The Ghan
Lunch on The Ghan

We travelled Gold Class and were happy enough in our small but functional cabin, with bunk beds. If that is not your preference, then you may wish to travel Platinum Class where you have the option of a double or twin bed configuration, amongst other upgrade delights.

There were no excursions on this leg of the journey, but we did enjoy a crisp sunrise stop at Marla. From there we were delayed arriving in Alice Springs due to a Sydney COVID outbreak for which all passengers needed to be checked and re-checked. Fortunately there were no cases on board.

What to do in Uluru for 3 days

From Alice Springs we transferred to Uluru and we loved every minute of our time there. We used Emu Run for our transfer, and were very happy with them. Their core business for Uluru is tours, but they happily accommodate transfers as well.

We arrived at Yulara (where all the accommodation and campground are located) in the late morning, and were able to go straight to our lovely apartment at Emu Walk. We really enjoyed our stay here, in a clean, well equipped one bedroom apartment close to the Town Centre. We took some time to familiarise ourselves with the shops and restaurants nearby and then attended a Bush Food educational session in the theatre that services the Yulara complex.

We had booked with several group tours for our time at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and we utilised the services of AAT Kings. Our experiences with them were all good to excellent and we would recommend them for on ground services in the area. The activities we enjoyed with them were:

Uluru Sunset and Field of Light Tour – this tour departs the resorts around an hour before sunset. You will be transported to a viewing platform overlooking the Field of Light and Uluru. There is a short walk up the side of a sand dune (but not difficult to negotiate) to the viewing platform. There you will be served drinks and canapes (due to COVID our canapes were served in individual boxes). Watching the Sunset light up Uluru is spectacular and then you can watch the Field of Light twinkle into life as the light darkens. There is a short walk down to the Field of Light (take a torch or use the torch on your phone) and the actual Field is flat and easy to negotiate. This is a truly unique experience and I recommend it.

We also greatly enjoyed the Sounds of Silence Dinner, where the food was centred around bush food flavours, the wines were fair average quality and the night sky was simply stunning. We enjoyed a description of the constellations from a First Nations man with a great sense of humour. It really was a fun night, but do take layers because it gets cold quickly at night. Ask your travel agent to book this for you, or you can enjoy this as part of an Outback Highlights 5 day short break tour with AAT Kings.

The third tour we did, Uluru Sunrise and Kata Tjuta Tour, also with AAT Kings was excellent. We had two young females in charge; one driving the bus and a tour guide. The tour guide’s knowledge of the history of the area and the culture and traditions of the Anangu People was exceptional. It’s an early start for this tour but absolutely worth it for a different view of Uluru, and then the trip out to Kata Tjuta where you will have the opportunity to walk up through Walpa Gorge. Do wear good walking shoes for the walk as it is quite rocky, although not particularly steep. Whilst we both loved Uluru we have friends who preferred Kata Tjuta, so make sure you experience both. Of course you can also drive these areas on your own, but there is a lot to be gained by having a knowledgeable guide.

There are also options with AAT Kings to do a morning guided base walk around Uluru. We didn’t do this, in fact I wasn’t feeling fit enough for much walking at all. Rowan did do a walk around part of the Rock and loved it. He used the Uluru Hop on Hop Off bus. This allows you to walk more at your own pace, but with an eye to the somewhat limited bus schedule. Take plenty of water and some snacks with you on this walk, and do be culturally sensitive to places where photographs are not permitted.

Make sure you have time in your Yulara itinerary to just be in the area. We enjoyed wandering down to the Town Centre where you will see First Nations artists displaying and selling their art, and you may also have the opportunity to learn how to play the didgeridoo. There are several eating places around the square, we particularly enjoyed the food at the Kulata Academy Cafe where trainees from the National Indigenous Training Academy learn hospitality skills. There is also an information centre in the Town Centre.

What to do in Alice Springs

Both before and after our time at Uluru, we spent time in Alice Springs. We were very fortunate to have family and friends in the area which was a bonus, but do choose to spend some time in Alice as there is a lot to see and do in and around the town. Most accommodation in Alice is a walk from the town centre so keep that in mind when choosing your accommodation. Check your options here. We stayed at the Quest Apartments and can not speak too highly of the exceptional service we experienced. There is no restaurant associated with the Quest, but we had food delivered to our room, and also dined in other locations around town (see below). It is a pleasant 20 minute walk from the Apartments into the town centre, where you will find a large supermarket, art galleries and places to eat.

Looking over a waterhole at the entrance to Simpsons Gap
The entrance To Simpsons Gap

One of the lovely places just outside Alice Springs (18 kilometres) is Simpsons Gap. This is a particularly scenic spot in the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja) and a local friend drove us out there for a walk and a picnic. At the time we visited (May) there was quite a lot of water in the waterholes. We were saddened to see some people swimming there, despite signage saying swimming is not permitted. Again, please exercise cultural sensitivity here as everywhere else in the Red Centre.

Other sights in and around Alice include Standley Chasm, the School of the Air, the historic Telegraph Station and the so important Royal Flying Doctors Service. If you don’t have a vehicle at your disposal you can do a Best of Alice tour which includes the key destinations including Simpsons Gap.

Do make time to explore the art galleries in Alice Springs; we particularly loved the Yubu Napa Gallery where we were able to purchase some authentic clapping sticks for our Grandson. On many days you will also find local artists working at the rear of the Gallery, and of course there is a massive collection of paintings for you to choose from, as well as books and other information.

We also had a pleasant visit to the Araluen Arts Centre where we purchased a stunning piece of textile art for our home. We are currently excitedly awaiting the arrival of our purchase which was on exhibition until the end of this month. There is also a theatre in this complex, with a world class lineup of events on the calendar.

Our final treat in Alice Springs was to go hot air ballooning with Outback Ballooning, and we loved it. Yes it was another early morning start, but totally worth it. It was fun watching the balloon being prepared for flight and it was such a surreal experience to drift, largely soundlessly, across the landscape as the sun rose and lit up the West MacDonnell Ranges. The team were a great combination of fun and professionalism, and we enjoyed a glass of very pleasant bubbles and a snack pack after the flight. A couple of things to consider – you can’t wear anything loose like a scarf onboard, and it will be cold because you will be out well before the sun rises. I wore 3 layers – a tee, a knit and a denim jacket, jeans and a beanie and gloves, and I felt perfectly cosy. I was also glad of the gloves when we were asked to help pack the balloon away. Do wear something that you can easily wash, as our jeans in particular got quite grubby as we helped pack up.

A hot air balloon being fired up ready for launching
Getting ready for our balloon flight with Outback Ballooning

Where to eat in Alice Springs

As I mentioned above we have family and friends in Alice, so were well guided in where to eat and in fact between their advice and the reviews on TripAdvisor, we ate at what are ranked the top three restaurants in town. Each was a very different experience.

If you are not going to Darwin do take the opportunity to eat at Hanuman Alice Springs for great Asian food. If you are going to Darwin you can either do what we did and eat at Hanuman in both locations, or wait until you get to Darwin where we found the ambience and service to be superior.

We also ate at Sporties which is, as it sounds, a sports bar serving pub style food. It wasn’t fabulous and it’s not our scene, but it was one of the few options open on the night. The food is honest, don’t get me wrong, and do bring your appetite; we dined with my adult nephew who is not a small man, but when he ordered the entree size pasta for his main course I followed his lead and still could not eat it all.

If you are looking for good coffee and a delicious brunch or lunch we highly recommend House of Tallulah. The food and coffee are excellent and the staff delightful, welcoming and fun. In cooler weather it is a total delight to sit out the front and watch the world go by. Again bring your appetite as the servings are hearty.

Back on The Ghan – Alice Springs to Darwin

A week after our arrival in Alice Springs we rejoined The Ghan and had a very pleasant journey to Darwin. We had a more experienced crew and it showed. The train departed Alice Springs in the evening and we enjoyed dinner and a drink before having a reasonably early night. The following day we visited Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge). I had previously been to Nitmiluk and had such wonderful memories of this stunning location. I was not disappointed on my return, the natural beauty of this place is awe inspiring. We did the Two Gorges cruise and easily navigated the 2 kilometre walk between the two gorges, including 500 metres over a rocky surface. I note that the Journey Beyond Rail team describe this as needing a moderate to high level of fitness, I feel that is an overstatement as I was neither very fit nor feeling very stable at the time we walked, and I did not find it particularly challenging (but of course make up your own mind). If 2 kms seems too much you can do a shorter walk, which I recommend as you will still see a beautiful piece of rock art.

Water washing over rocks at Nitmiluk
Rapids between the two gorges at Nitmiluk

After our cruise we enjoyed a very pleasant lunch at the Nitmiluk Cafe, overlooking the Katherine River. A lovely experience all round. It was then back on the bus and onboard The Ghan for the last leg before arriving in Darwin that same evening.

What to do in and around Darwin

We stayed at the very pleasant Novotel Darwin CBD, located on the Esplanade. The rooms are some of the largest we have ever stayed in and we were fortunate to have a room overlooking the Esplanade and the water beyond. The staff were all pleasant and the facilities good. The property is not looking top notch, which I put down to a combination of the tropical climate and the financial impact of COVID, but having said that, everything was squeaky clean. The Hotel is located just a block from busy Mitchell Street, where you will find bars, eateries, a supermarket etc.

Litchfield National Park

After arriving from The Ghan we had just one night in Darwin before heading out to Litchfield National Park the next morning. This was just a day trip, and whilst Litchfield is beautiful we were disappointed in our driver who was very new to his role. Whilst safe behind the wheel, he knew little about the Park, the natural environment or the First Nations Culture. We also missed having a swim in a waterhole because the easiest one to access, Wangi Falls, was closed due to the presence of crocodiles.

Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land

We returned to Darwin that evening ready for a new adventure the following day when we headed off for a two day trip to Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land. We totally won the jackpot with our driver on this trip, and with the tour guides on both Yellow Waters and the East Alligator River. Our AAT experience on this excursion totally made up for our day in Litchfield. The only negative was the accommodation at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel where things really were shabby and not very clean. Yes the tropical climate is an issue, as is getting staff during COVID, but if I found that excuse implausible. Cleanliness in the midst of a pandemic is absolutely critical. Unfortunately this is the hotel used by AAT Kings, and so you will not have a choice if you tour with them, so one hopes that conditions improve given the feedback many have provided to management (check the reviews before deciding) . What was good at this hotel though was the food, and the entire restaurant team were delightful as well. However, if you choose to travel to Kakadu independently, you might like to check Cooinda Lodge – we had lunch there one day and it looked delightful.

Our itinerary was slightly different to that advertised on the AAT Kings site (it pays to be flexible during a pandemic), but we still loved every bit of our time exploring Kakadu. The rock art galleries at Ubirr were closed as an Elder had died and Sorry Business traditions were being conducted, but we still enjoyed the beautiful rock art at Nourlangie. As always, please if you are in this area understand that some art is not to be photographed, but most can be, read the signs and be respectful.

A rock art drawing of a kangaroo at Kakadu National Park
Just one example of rock art in Kakadu

Our cruise on Yellow Water was both educational and fun. It your tour guide is Dennis (with two Ns he will tell you) you will be in for a special treat; part education and culture, part stand up comedy. This area is beautiful and the water lilies were spectacular. We also saw a few small crocodiles and in the distance a Jabiru.

On the second day, we cruised on the East Alligator River with a very shy and delightful young Aboriginal man. We were privileged to be invited to walk onto Arnhem Land and learn more of the The Yolngu or Yolŋu people of this land, their cultures and their traditions, as well as to witness a spectacular spear throwing.

Whilst in Kakadu we also visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre which I absolutely loved. As well as the informative displays, including traditional weaving, it was a treat to just immerse oneself in the sights and sounds. There is also a small gift shop where you can purchase handcrafted, authentic, local-made arts and crafts as a memento of your visit.

At the end of our second day we returned to the Novotel in Darwin for 3 nights, before flying home. Our mission in Darwin was to enjoy not only the sights but also the amazing food culture.

Things to do in Darwin

As in any city, a great way to orient yourself and to get around all the sights is to use the Hop On Hop Off bus, and Darwin is no exception. You can purchase a one or two day ticket and there are two routes covered. I had done this trip on a previous visit so I spent some quiet time at the hotel after a busy few days. Rowan enjoyed the service though and felt the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory was excellent. It includes the Cyclone Tracy exhibition.

A very popular thing to do in Darwin is to attend the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets where you will find over 200 food, beverage, arts and craft stalls, and live entertainment. Unfortunately they were not on the evenings we were there, but if you get the chance don’t miss these iconic markets, where you will get a true appreciation of the breadth and depth of cuisines to be found in Darwin.

Being out on the water in Darwin is also a special treat and sunset is such a lovely time to do so. A 3 hour sunset cruise is a relaxing way to end your day, maybe check out this one.

Eating out in Darwin

Darwin is such a melting pot that you will be totally spoilt for choice when it comes to eating out, and you will find excellent food at a variety of price points. Some of our favourites were restaurants we pre-booked, and others were places we found on our wanderings.

We ate at Hanuman Darwin and absolutely loved everything about it, from the food to the venue to the friendly and efficient service. Hanuman is an iconic Darwin restaurant not to be missed if you love interesting Asian food with an Indian/Thai focus.

We also had a really delicious meal at Pee Wee’s at the Point, where you will find authentic local ingredients served in modern Australian meals. The location is beautiful overlooking the water, and unlike some waterfront restaurants the quality of the food matched the view – no resting on laurels here. Neither of us could resist the double roasted duckling with kakadu plum and tamarind jus, but there are other delicious choices on a well curated menu.

A much more casual option for good authentic food is Damasquino at Cullen Bay, serving Syrian food. This was a new cuisine for us, but if you like Middle Eastern food you will be familiar with the flavours and some of the dishes. This is a tiny restaurant in a shopping centre so do be sure you book. At the time we booked their website online system was not operating but we were able to book via their Facebook page where we received speedy assistance.

On our wandering around Darwin we found great coffee and yummy toasties at Aunties Home Cafe in Mitchell St, a tiny café with good attitude and food (some sweet treats too).

We would normally steer away from food courts, but don’t dismiss this option in Darwin, in fact if you walk into any shopping centre your nose is sure to be activated by the delicious smells. We greatly enjoyed some Indonesian food at Ayuriz on the Ground Floor of Darwin Central at 21 Knuckey St.

Travelling during a pandemic

There is no doubt that travelling during a pandemic can be challenging. As I write this blog post, South East Queensland has gone into lockdown and South Australia has closed the border to us. We were reflecting this morning that we were so lucky to have made this trip when we did.

If you are able to travel, be aware that service levels may not be what you are used to, whether that be being able to contact a tour operator out of hours, to the level of training that staff have received, and numerous other weaknesses. It is important to exercise patience, but that doesn’t mean not speaking up if something isn’t right. Find your own balance of patience and expecting the service that you have paid for.

And whilst you might not normally insure for domestic travel, I would suggest that you do so in these times. We recommend Cover-More having found them excellent when travelling in Europe, and we used them for domestic insurance on this trip. Whilst there are limitations on COVID related claims, Cover-More does cover you if you are diagnosed with COVID, or are a close contact of someone with COVID and need to cancel your trip.

Looking for more travel inspiration? Find our other travel posts here and find my packing tips in this post

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