I am the type of person who likes to utilise public holidays fully. If a long weekend is on the horizon, I want everything to be simple.
As a local Aussie, heading “outback” might seem an easy, “she’ll be right, I’ll do it myself” sort of affair. In some places, sure, this may work, but from personal experience, if you are looking for a no-fuss holiday with limited time in a place as big as Australia, logistically it may not be as easy as you think.
At the centre top of Australia lies one of the most exciting cities in the continent. Often skipped over, Darwin is surrounded by ocean that you cannot swim in (because of crocodiles), full of FIFOs (fly in, fly out workers) and backpackers, and hosts large military bases, so to find an original “Darwinite” is quite a rare experience. It is the gateway to the incredible Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys. The city is always hot, has two seasons (wet and dry) and is truly like no other place in Australia. The people in this town work hard and play harder, as they have one of the best ‘backyards’ in the country.
Just an hours drive from Darwin you can cruise the waterways spotting crocodiles, birds and buffalo, hike to places with breathtaking views, swim in secluded waterholes (croc free) and explore waterfalls. Drive a bit further out and all of the above just gets bigger and better.
I never thought to visit ‘D-Town’ (as the locals call it) until my best friend moved there and I had no excuse not to go. The first time I spent the weekend with my friend and during the week, I took the opportunity to take a tour around Kakadu, Litchfield and Katherine Gorge. A year later I went back to Kakadu National Park, but this time, it was a girl’s trip, on a self-driven 4WD adventure.
So how did a group tour square up against the self-drive option?
Before we left
If I book a tour, it’s because I want everything to be easy. I look up dates online to ensure they match mine, check over the itinerary to confirm they are going to the main national parks I have heard of, and I check any additional funds I might have to budget for. If all of this suits me, I book it in.
To ensure we make the most of our limited time, pre-planning the itinerary is very good idea. However, when 4WD tracks are in play, as well as destinations that are in the middle of a national park where Google maps has never heard of (and your 4G might not work), it can be a little more time consuming and fiddly. We also needed to pre-plan meals for each day and shop for relevant food items, check we had enough swags/tents/linen for sleeping, and of course plenty of space to take all the gear with us. Oh, and we had to source a 4WD, which can be expensive, especially with no unlimited kilometres available in the top end – you don’t know what your final costing will be until the return date.
On the trip
Our meals were taken care of, and all we had to do was help put it together (under the guidance of our local leader). We spent ample time in each location to ensure we swam in the waterfalls, got our photos taken alongside a giant termite mound, or made a crocodile smile for the camera. The distances were long but because I wasn’t driving I could sleep in between each destination. As our trip was an Original style, we always came back at the end of a day to a proper bed in a permanent campsite where linen was provided.
Our guide/driver was excellent. He knew where to go, where the secret spots were to maximise the experience in the location (for example he sent me back down a creek bed, ensuring I turn at a rock, walk past a certain tree and then follow a pathway all the way along until I got to the top of some waterholes I would have otherwise missed, which of course turned out to be one of my favourite places), and he also knew about driving on 4WD roads and what to expect. He was extremely knowledgeable and I learnt a lot about Australia and our indigenous people, which I didn’t know previously. Going on this tour really made me change my perspective on a lot of things.
We had to do all our meal preparation before leaving Darwin. We had to know what we were having on which days, and to pre-pack and shop accordingly. We all shared responsibility of whose turn it was to cook, but we always had a delicious meal. We woke up after the sun would come up, have a bit of a lie in, casually eat some breakfast, pack up our gear and move onto the next place. As we were more casual we didn’t see as many places as on the tour, but we were able to hang out a lot longer in the locations we visited.
We did get lost a couple of times, and one time in particular thought we were at the right spot, set up camp and then realised we were at a dam instead of water hole so had to pack everything back up again and drive another hour before the we arrived at the right spot. We stopped off at the information centre to ask questions which had arisen throughout the trip and, whenever we came across a 4G signal, jumped onto Google to try get more information. There was a lot more freedom and flexibility but heaps more organising and thinking went into this trip.
We were dropped back at our relevant hotels, right at the time we were told. All we had to do was get off the truck, grab our bags and go. No cleaning up required.
We ‘guesstimated’ a time of arrival back into Darwin and unloaded the entire car. We returned home to not only dirty laundry (same as on a group tour) but we had to ensure all our camping equipment was clean and ready for its next use. We also had to ensure the car was tidy and full of petrol before returning it to the depot.
Overall, both options were just as great as each other. By touring you can see A LOT in a limited timeframe, have an awesome local leader who knows the best spots (and who will do all the driving for you without getting lost), you will learn about the country and meet some wonderful people.
The self-drive option is a cool way to see this big country, particularly if you’ve got a mate who has a local understanding of the terrain; you have the time to linger and explore, and the option to sleep in and slow the pace down if you choose.
If it’s a stress-free adventure through the Outback you’re looking for, a small group tour would be my pick. But, whatever you choose just make sure you get outside and see this incredible country we call home – as long as you’re doing this, you’ll always be on the right track!
Let us someone else take care of the driving. Check out Adventure Tours Australia’s range of excellent small group adventures now!