Cairns to Darwin

Planning your next motorhome road trip along this iconic and popular route?
Use our travel resource to be inspired and plan your next dream motorhome holiday.

Reef, outback and the tropics!

You’ve got it all on this road trip – natural wonder to world heritage listed national park, the outback spirit and the everchanging scenery, topped off with amazing wildlife experiences.

DISTANCE: 3,000 kms
SUGGESTED TIME FRAME: 14 days minimum
BEST TIME OF YEAR: May to September

Watch this video for a quick taste of the Cairns to Darwin route:

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Highlights of a driving holiday from Cairns to Darwin

Travelling East to West

  • Cairns is very easy to navigate around and is the ideal starting point for many different road trips. For example you could head north to Port Douglas, the Daintree and Cape Tribulation (sealed road) or you could travel west up into the Atherton Tablelands and over into the outback after visiting the Undara Lava Tubes. And of course the Great Barrier Reef and the Kuranda Sky Rail are other popular attractions in Cairns too.
  • There’s a couple of different ways to travel on the drive between Cairns and Darwin. One is to travel south from Cairns to Townsville before heading west on the Flinders Highway towards Mt Isa. The other option is to travel through the Atherton Tablelands, call into see the Undara Lava Tubes, and then head to Normanton. From there, a quick trip up to Karumba is a must to see the Gulf, before heading back towards Mt Isa. This second option is a dry season route, as it does see a lot of water during the wet season.
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  • Both routes from Cairns meet up at Cloncurry just west of Mount Isa. Between Cloncurry and Mount Isa you’ll see beautiful scenery through hills of red rock and soft green tussock grass. If you time your visit early or later in the day, the sun seems to make the red rock even more stunning. This stunning scenery surrounds Mt Isa.
  • There’s plenty to keep anyone entertained at Mount Isa with a good opportunity to stock up on provisions too. The popular things to do are the Underground Hard Times Mine Tour, visit the underground hospital, surface tour of a mine and the visitors centre at the ‘Outback at Isa’ centre.
  • Continuing west to the Threeways, is where the highway intersects the main north/south highway between Adelaide and Darwin, the Stuart Highway. You’ll see a few rest areas and towns/road houses to stock up on fuel and maybe an ice cream too!
  • At the Threeways, you may like to head 20 minutes south to Tennant Creek, which is one of the larger NT towns and known for its gold mining history, Aboriginal culture, and the history with the Overland Telegraph.
  • Continuing north, Daly Waters is a well-known historic pub which most travellers stop at, for at least a drink, but many stay overnight in the campground. A sense of humour is a must to enjoy the pub. It is well set up for travellers with plenty of interesting things look at and to read around the walls.
  • Mataranka is well known for the thermal springs where many a weary traveller has relaxed after their adventures. The thermal springs are a perfect 34 degrees Celsius. There are two springs to relax in – the Rainbow Springs at the Mataranka Homestead and Bitter Springs. The Rainbow Springs are in a camping ground at the homestead and also have a few walks around the area. Bitter Springs, the other thermal pool, is also worth a visit and is a little more open and does not have any flying foxes. Both are worth visiting.
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  • Katherine is well known for the Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. There are two areas in the national park to explore – the first is accessed by taking a sealed road behind Katherine for about 30km to the Nitmiluk Visitor’s Centre. This is where you can join a variety of different cruises which take you into the gorges, including Katherine Gorge. For those with energy, you can also hire canoes here. There are also walking tracks, and a place you can cool off with a swim. It’s important to only swim in the designated area, as the gorge is also a good place to spot crocodiles!
  • Heading north of Katherine after stocking up in town, drive to the access road to the Edith Falls. This is back into the Nitmiluk National Park, but a more northerly location. At Edith Falls there is a nice camping ground, and again places to swim. Take a walk up behind the first waterfall to another series of waterfalls for more swimming. Really is a beautiful area.
  • You’ll want to make sure you spend time in both the Kakadu National Park and the Litchfield National Parks before having a good look around Darwin. Head over to the Top End Route page for more detail.

Learn more details and useful planning tips about this route.

Grab yourself a drink, sit back and relax while you watch this 8-minute video providing more insight to help your road trip planning from Cairns to Darwin.

Cairns to Darwin route planning tips

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  • As you’ll be travelling in the northern third of Australia, it’s important to understand the seasons and best time to experience. This area is best visited in what is known as the 'dry season' which is roughly May to September, and through the winter months.
  • It doesn’t matter which direction you travel this route – probably more about what works in well with flights and your time before and after the motorhome trip from Cairns to Darwin.
  • You’ll find helpful information centres along your route, and generally there is no need to book campsites in advance – except around Cairns, Darwin and Mt Isa. Darwin and Cairns can be very busy in the Dry season, so great even if you can book to avoid disappointment. Other locations like Karumba can be busy if a fishing competition or other event is on.

We’d recommend a minimum of 14 days for this trip, but most of our retired clients take around 21 days to experience this route. Some also include this iconic route as part of a bigger trip down, heading back down the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs or Adelaide, or others may start the trip in Brisbane first.

  • There is plenty of freedom camping, which is free and low-cost camping along this route. Some days there will be longer km’s that you’ll need to drive, and you’ll see a number of rest areas that allow overnight parking – perfect while you’re travelling in a self-contained camper. Often with these, you’ll see an area ‘in behind’ the rest area where you can be further away from the highway.
  • Parts of this route are quite remote parts of Australia where you will see Roadhouses - this is where you can get fuel, basic grocery items and some also have an adjacent campground, if you prefer powered sites.
  • During some sections there will be longer distances between the roadhouses where you can get fuel, however there is no need to carry extra fuel inside your vehicle when travelling this sealed road.
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  • Refer to the Camps Australia Wide Guide book for locations for freedom camps which can be purchased along your route at some information centres, book or camping stores. You can also purchase an app called ‘Wiki Camps’ if you use a smart phone or tablet, plus the information centres en-route are a gold mine for local information.
  • As a traveller along this route, please do note some areas have alcohol restrictions.
  • See plenty of wildlife along this route also like Crocodiles (top third of Australia), Kangaroos, Wallabies, vast range of Birdlife including Cassowaries, Kookaburras and a range of parrots and maybe even a Dingo.

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