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The road trip of a lifetime: The 7 things you must do in the Northern Territory.

Tourism NT
Thanks to our brand partner, Tourism NT

You're not imagining it.

Everyone you speak to is either a) currently on their way to the Northern Territory, b) just returning or c) madly planning a trip and working out the very best itinerary. 

We have written in the past (based on the hilarious 'bit' by comedian Geraldine Hickey) about how in every friendship group there is a personality called The Nicole.

Nicole is the organiser. She likes to read all the reviews of every hotel and dedicates six months of her life to researching a trip before she even buys the ticket. Nicole books the restaurants and once you're there she probably orders the food. She's driving the car. She's messaging you the night before you leave, reminding you to pack good walking shoes but also some sunscreen. When you inevitably forget sunscreen, Nicole. Brought. A. Spare

Everyone knows a Nicole.

And if you're reading this, it is likely you are the Nicole. 

Luckily, when we travelled to the Northern Territory recently, we went with our mum - the ultimate Nicole. Her actual name may be Anne, but she has the itinerary. She's up bright and early with her joggers on. She knows exactly where she's headed the moment she walks into a hotel because she's looked at so many photos online, and before you've even put your bags away, she's in the pool. 

The Nicole, of course, is after the seven things you absolutely must do in the Northern Territory. And, sweetie, we got you. 

The Earth Sanctuary

You've flown into Alice Springs (an easy three-hour flight for us from Sydney), and seamlessly rented a car. That night at sunset, you drive the 15 minutes from Alice Springs to the Earth Sanctuary for an experience you can only truly have in the outback: an astronomy tour.

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The Earth Sanctuary is located in one of the darkest regions on the planet, so the stars are brighter and clearer than you've ever seen them. At the Earth Sanctuary's Observatory, there are a number of Deep Sky telescopes allowing you to see a variety of celestial objects, all explained to you by brothers Ben, Dan and Tom Falzon. 

In this entirely sustainable, carbon-neutral venue, you'll have a once in a lifetime experience under the stars.

While there, we're appalled by just how little we know about the sky above us. Mostly, we can't believe Mum has made it to her mid 60s without knowing exactly what the Southern Cross is. But she encourages us all to pay strict attention to our guide, and for the rest of the trip she explains to anyone who will listen that she knows exactly where south is, and also what direction our final destination is - Uluru.

Hot air ballooning

Early the next morning, you're picked up from your hotel by Outback Ballooning. It's so early that you can still see the stars, and your guide points out constellations while checking the wind. 

The sun is slowly rising as you climb into the hot air balloon for your flight, and as you ascend, you can't quite comprehend the stillness. 

You're floating 1000 feet above the desert, watching the sun on the horizon. The light is entirely unique, and your guide explains that the earth below you is far greener than usual, thanks to the recent rain.

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After a gentle landing, you have a champagne breakfast, and cannot think of a more perfect way to start the day. 

Mum would like to exclusively travel by hot air balloon from now on, but luckily the car is also pretty bloody comfortable. 

Simpsons Gap

Still smug from watching the sunrise, you drive 20 minutes to Simpsons Gap - a stunning natural phenomenon carved out of the West MacDonnell Ranges. Water flows through the gap between the cliffs, creating a peaceful, scenic spot to sit and marvel at the wonders around you.

Simpsons Gap. Image: Supplied.

At dawn or dusk, you might spot the black-footed rock-wallabies, and if you look close enough, you'll see rich vegetation all around you - including delicious figs (that we taste). 

It's not hard to see why this is a spiritual site for the Arrernte people of Central Australia.

While at Simpsons Gap, we do a bush tucker tour with Rayleen Brown, a local Indigenous food expert, who introduces us to traditional foods like quandong jam, wattle seed dukkah, and kangaroo. Learning about the foods that have been enjoyed by Indigenous communities for over 60,000 years is fascinating, and to do so in such a special area is a privilege.

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The beautiful landscape at Simpsons Gap. Image: Supplied.

You follow the walking tracks around the area and take breaks in the shade, marvelling at the colours around you. The contrast between the rocks and the sky is striking, and entirely unique to this part of the world. 

Mum tells us that she visited Simpsons Gap almost 50 years ago on a school trip, and she has vivid memories of it. She's been telling us for weeks about all the places we're going on this holiday, so it's nice to go somewhere she remembers and can tell us a little about. 

Glen Helen Gorge

Back in the car, you drive from Simpsons Gap to Glen Helen Gorge. The journey is a little over an hour, but you're transfixed for the entire journey by what you're seeing out your window. You're in the desert, and you can't take your eyes off it. 

You arrive at Glen Helen Gorge, and you're immediately taken aback by a towering sandstone wall that changes colour with the light.

The following morning at dawn. Image: Supplied.

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It's time for a swim in the waterhole, where you lay on your back and look up at the red quartzite cliffs. 

The water is the perfect temperature for a refreshing dip after a hot day, and you'd be happy to float for hours. 

The perfect late afternoon swim. Image: Supplied.

We've had a packed day, and we need some downtime before an action-packed few days ahead. Being the Nicole that she is, Mum refuses to leave while we've already dried off and wandered about, which is fair enough given that she's done most of the groundwork for the entire trip. 

Kings Canyon

The next morning, you drive from Glen Helen to Kings Canyon. It takes two and a half hours but you stop along the way because you see a group of wild horses you simply must get a closer look at (from a safe distance, of course).

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Our new friends. Image: Supplied.

At Kings Canyon you're glamping, and spend the day spotting dingoes and exploring the campsite, which has a pool and a restaurant. 

The next morning, you're up early to do the Kings Canyon Rim Walk - a 6km circuit that takes you through the appropriately named Garden of Eden, as well as a section of sandstone domes known as the Lost City.

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You've never seen anything like these rock formations, and are humbled by their sheer size. 

The Field of Light

After lunch, it's a three and a half hour drive to Uluru. On the way, you stop at Mount Conner or Fool-uru, the rock formation many tourists mistake for Uluru, and is breathtaking in its own right.

That evening, as darkness falls over Uluru, a rock which has stood tall for more than 500 million years, the Field of Light illuminates.

Internationally renowned artist, Bruce Munro, was inspired to create the Field of Light Uluru after a visit in 1992. He was overcome by the desert's energy, heat and brightness, and decided to represent the connection between all three in an art installation.

In local language Pitjantjatjara, the exhibition is named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku which translates simply to ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’. 50,000 spindles of light cover more than seven football fields, and you can stroll through what looks like a fantasy garden.

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It’s impossible not to lose yourself in the beauty of it all, and then you find yourself looking up at a blanket of stars, impossible to see anywhere but in the desert.

Sunrise camel tour

One of the best ways to explore Uluru, arguably Australia’s most significant landmark, is actually by… camel.

You can do an express camel ride in the morning or afternoon, or take your time at sunrise or sunset and watch the changing colours of Uluru up close. 

An expert cameleer (honestly, the people you meet in the NT…) leads you through the outback, sharing their endless knowledge about the wildlife and ecology of the area. 

Central Australia is all about doing things differently, and a camel tour through Uluru and Kata Tjuta fits that brief perfectly.

So if you're a Nicole, take this as a sign to plan your Northern Territory itinerary and recruit your fellow travellers. If you're not a Nicole, send this article to the Nicole of your group, and ask them (politely) to get booking immediately. 

All roads lead to the Northern Territory – a place to reconnect while exploring Australia's natural wonders. Start planning your Northern Territory road trip by downloading the  NT Drive Guide.

Feature Image: Supplied/Mamamia.

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Tourism NT
All roads lead to the Northern Territory – a place to reconnect while exploring Australia's natural wonders. Experience ancient culture first-hand, take your pick of adventure activities and watch the days roll from burning sunsets into clear starry nights. Plan your trip today.