Barkly Tableland is a vast territory that has to be one of the most sparsely inhabitated regions in the world: it's about the same size as the United Kingdom, but home to just 5,900 inhabitants. The region roughly stretches from Newcastle Waters in the north to Barrow Creek in the south. Both of these settlements are connected by the Stuart Highway, the largest paved road that stretches right through the Northern Territory.
More than half the population live in Tennant Creek, a gold-mining village with the last gold rush occurring as recent as the 1930s. The second paved road is the Barkly Highway, which connects Tennant Creek all the way east to Queensland. Along the road are wide grassy plains with plenty of cattle stations to be found. These plains are among the most important cattle grazing areas in the Northern Territory.
The region has an average of about 140,000 tourists each year, most of them passing through on the way to the Red Centre.
The history of the Barkly Tablelands started in the late 1850s, when William Landsborough discovered the area and named it after Sir Henry Barkly, then the governor of Victoria. The completion of the Overland Telegraph Line in 1872, which allowed fast communication between Australia and Europe, led to increased settlement in the region. The Overland Telegraph Line connected Port Augusta with Darwin, a total span of 3,200 kilometres right through the Outback. It roughly followed the current Stuart Highway, where most settlements can still be found today.
Although Barkly Tableland is one of the remotest places in Australia, it is quite easy to get in with a 2-wheel-drive-car using sealed roads. The Stuart Highway (road 87) is a sealed road that crosses the region from north to south, and your best bet if coming in from Darwin, Katherine or Alice Springs. Incoming traffic from Queensland goes via the Barkly Highway (road 66), another sealed road in perfect condition. Even while using these quality roads, you are still in the middle of the Outback, so get plenty of fuel, drinks and food on board and make sure your car is in top condition.
More adventurous options are available using unsealed roads, but don't even think about these without having your car in top condition. Some of these roads can be done with a 2WD-car, but it's not recommended as they can be rough. Better rent a 4WD-car. Also make sure you carry plenty of fuel, drinks and food, as you might not see anyone here in days or even weeks. When in danger, never leave your vehicle as then you are a lot harder to be spotted from the air by rescue services.
Greyhound Australia (tel. 1300 473 946, Australian phones only) stops on most places of the Stuart Highway. Every day the bus from Alice Springs leaves at 7:30PM and arrives in Tennant Creek about 6,5 hours later. From Darwin, the coach leaves exactly at noon, passes Katherine at 5:25PM and arrives at Tennant Creek at 2AM (14 hours later). Bus travel is expensive, from Alice Springs to Tennant Creek costs AU$169, while from Darwin to Tennant Creek costs around AU$242.
Bus travel can be tedious though - sure, it's a way to get in, but getting around these vast distances is a nightmare. Having your own transport is definitely a better option.
It's possible to get into Barkly by air. There's plenty of land available, which leads to plenty of places for small airplanes or helicopters to land. The roadhouse Barkly Homestead has 1-2 kilometres long gravel airstrip available.
- Aboriginal cultural sites, such as Karlu Karlu.
- The Barkly region is also renowned for the cattle industry and encompasses some of Australia's largest and most historic stations. These include Newcastle Waters, Banka Banka and Brunette Downs. The Overlander's Way tourism drive follows the paths of many droving heroes who brought vast herds of cattle through the Barkly on their way to the Queensland coast.
Camping is popular way to experience the region. There are plenty of spots to pitch a tent or roll out a swag, but some of the best spots are dotted throughout conservation reserves in the Devils Marbles and the Davenport Range National Park - a 1120 square-kilometre area east of the highway about 250km south of Tennant Creek. The Park is dotted with waterholes that attract plenty of wildlife, birds and fish.