By Cathy Anderson
Australia is a large country but, luckily, it comes with descriptive geographical monikers such as the ‘Top End’. While you might be not 100 per cent sure what ‘Top End’ refers to, you could be pretty sure it doesn’t mean Tasmania or Melbourne. The Top End of Australia actually refers to the northern-most parts of Australia, which includes the top of the Northern Territory between Darwin and Arnhem Land.
The Top End is rich in natural wonders – think Uluru and the wondrous Kakadu and Litchfield national parks – are on the bucket lists of Ausies and overseas visitors alike.
A rental campervan is the ideal way to explore the area, and to have the freedom to set your own itinerary as you go. There are many ways to see it all while still enjoying the air-conditioned comfort of your home on wheels. Many visitors often pick up a darwin rental campervan before continuing their journey north and exploring the wider northern territory.
Travelling in the Northern Territory differs dramatically to touring in the southern states of Australia; from the weather and speed limits to the wildlife – travellers need to do their research before they book their campervan, fly in to Darwin or Alice Springs to pick it up, and drive away to experience the Top End. But this is a holiday like no other, in a truly unique part of the world.
We chatted with Britz Campervans Australia’s Darwin branch manager Brian ‘Dutchy’ Holland, to get his expert advice on booking the right campervan, planning your adventure and the unique characteristics and experiences of travelling the Top End by campervan.
Q: What kind of holidays do people book to the Northern Territory?
A: It’s a mixture. In our peak time, during the dry season from May to September, we get more campervan pick-up and drop-offs at Darwin. People do a five-to-seven day hire and do Kakadu and Litchfield NPs then head south to Katherine and Edith Falls. Alice Springs is another common to pick up your hire campervans and do Kakadu, Litchfield then to Katherine and then a bit of the West MacDonnell Ranges and The Rock (Uluru).
Q: What vehicles do you have and how do you help customers decide what kind of vehicle to rent?
A: We’ve got the whole fleet from 4WD vehicles with rooftop and stand-alone tents to two-berth campervans with and without a toilet and shower to four-berth and six-berth campervans with toilet and shower. We ask customers the main question – how many people are travelling, as that will determine what they need. But we also ask them about whether they want a 4WD or 2WD vehicle. With the 2WD, you do get a toilet, shower and air-conditioning. You can go in to places like Kakadu and Litchfield national parks in a 2WD vehicle, and for those areas that are accessible only with a 4WD, you can book a tour.
Q: Why is a campervan a great way to see the Northern Territory?
A: The biggest thing is the freedom. Travellers can have a rough itinerary but don’t have to be rigid – make sure you have free time so that if you do like somewhere, you can stay. The beauty of the campervan is that you may have planned on only staying one night but you can stay two or three nights instead. You don’t have to book ahead.
Q: What kind of travellers visit the Northern Territory?
A: We get a lot of families in school holidays, and also throughout most of the year. We also still get couples who just want to travel or might be on their honeymoon or taking a year off and travelling in a hire campervan. We do get a lot of the older generation as well. They come up and hire and usually go for our 2 plus 1 which is a 2WD vehicle but they do some 4WD stuff as well. The Top End has obviously been on their list for a number of years so they eventually come up and do it.
Q: Are they all staying in campgrounds or holiday parks?
A: There’s a mix. Out in Kakadu, there are two main parks which have all the facilities like swimming pools and showers but there are other camping sites that have really basic drop toilet. In Litchfield, it is the same sort of thing. You can camp with fairly basic sort of stuff or caravan parks right on the edge of the park so you can get power and the air-con.
Q: What kind of things do travellers need to be mindful of when travelling in the NT?
A: Long drives. You have to drive a fair distance to get anywhere up here, Alice Springs is 1500km from Darwin and Uluru is another 450km further than that.
The wildlife. There is a lot of wildlife out here. The peak season here is winter, so everything dries out but you do still get a bit of green grass on the sides of the road. All sorts of wildlife goes to the road to eat – we have a lot of wallabies, kangaroos, cattle, wild horses and down further south are camels – so, like in many parts of Australia, we recommend our customers don’t drive after dusk
Crocodiles. Crocodiles are a fact of life in the Northern Territory and you do have to show common sense when you’re travelling. You can’t just jump into a swimming hole if you think it looks good. But our Territory gorges, rivers and waterholes are all very well signposted. And if you’re keen to see a croc up close, head to Crocodylous Park in Darwin or the Jumping Croc River Cruise on the Adelaide River.
Speed limits. We limit our customers to a maximum of 110km/h but we do recommend that they don’t exceed 100km/h for safety, even though the speed limit out on the open road is 130km/h. So they have to be aware that if they are overtaking a caravan or road train, something can be coming towards you fairly quickly.
Road trains. Road trains are large trucks transporting goods to and from the NT from other states. They can have three and a half trailers so they are quite long vehicles. Road trains can sit on 100km/h quite comfortably – they are not these old bloated things like they used to be. So when customers are travelling and see a road train coming towards them they can freak out a bit because they are so big and long. You just have to remember they drive for a living and will do the right thing. Just drive carefully.
Mobile coverage. Mobile reception is getting better, but you can still go for hundreds of kilometres without a signal. Telstra definitely has the largest coverage. If you are with Vodafone, you may as well leave your phone at home because it won’t work much!
Q: What are some of the best features of the Northern Territory?
A: There are waterways, rocks to look at, sand escarpments – there are so many different environments, from long drives through bush scrub to beautiful waterfalls. Early in the season, after our wet, it gets really vibrant – everything is so lush and there are so many colours. Obviously through the dry, you get no rain so it dries out, but then we burn as well. Our trees need the smoke to germinate, but even when it is burnt out you still get some vibrancy – it is so beautiful.
Q: What are some tips to help campervan travellers prepare for a trip to the NT?
A: Prepare for the heat. Even in winter, our parks will be 32-33C. Pack a hat, sunscreen and a good insect repellent as we have lots of sandflies here. And research the time of year you want to come – after the wet season some roads are still closed as they are flooded. We hate seeing people disappointed. But there is so much out there to see and do.
Q: What kind of drivers’ licence and experience does a customer need in order to operate a campervan?
A: Everything is on the car licence so you don’t need anything more than that. Some people get a bit nervous because they think rental campervans are quite big and, if so, we will just spend that little bit of extra time with them and have a drive around the block so they get used to the vehicle. We need to make sure they are comfortable with everything to do with the campervan.
Q: Is there a minimum hire period?
A: Yes, it is five days from Darwin to Darwin and that does vary a bit over holiday periods such as Easter. We do recommend a longer hire period so customers can take their time and really enjoy the Top End from their campervan. For one-way hires to any other Britz branch throughout Australia, there will be minimum hire periods.
Q: What happens if something happens when travellers are on the road and they need help?
A: We have 24-hour support with our On Road Care team. It is more isolated in the NT, so it is important to have that service. They can always contact us at the branch, too. We do have a TomTom maps system in the campervans and a tablet that has videos to explain features of the campervan if it is a simple question about operating something like the toilet.
Q: What are your top tips to anyone thinking of booking a motorhome from Darwin?
A: Try to book early we get pretty busy in the dry season and a lot of people ring and try to book for that week or the next and we are booked out. Prices vary but are similar to other cities. When you are planning your holiday and want some advice, contact us – we are really happy to help. It’s all about the planning and the research.