Road Photos & Information: Northern Territory
A87   Stuart Highway (A87


Route Numbering:

General Information:

Currently the Northern Territory route numbers are being converted to alphanumeric, and as new signs are installed, they include an alphanumeric route number, and so there is a mix of route numbering on the same routes in some cases.

The Stuart Highway is one of NT's most important routes, linking Darwin, Alice Springs and the populated areas of South Australia, including Adelaide.

Named for explorer John McDouall Stuart, the first European to cross Australia from South to North, and it generally follows his route. The Stuart Highway crosses the desert of Central Australia to savannah grasslands and tropical wetlands in the North. 1


The Stuart Highway began as a dirt track servicing the construction of the Overland Telegraph in the 1870s and served to link the railheads until World War II. 1

Construction of the telegraph line had required the development of a track along the line’s route, to enable wagons and other vehicles to travel with loads of posts, wire, and other materials. An area of approximately two chains width (about 40 metres) was cleared on either side of the line and this became “the track” – the only transport route south. 2

For the whole length of “the track” there were frequent deviations. Detours were made to reach watering places and wet season detours were developed to avoid low and boggy ground. Tracks were continually deviated and altered by “self-help” travellers. There was no formal development or maintenance of the road, beyond the Two and a Half Mile (Parap) in Darwin, until the late 1920s. 2

From 1936 a low standard dry weather road was developed from Darwin to Adelaide River, roughly along the present route of the Stuart Highway. From Adelaide River a similar low standard road was developed southward to the railhead at Larrimah. However, construction and maintenance of these roads was given a very low priority because the same route was served by the North Australia Railway line. 2

When war loomed it became apparent that the railway could not meet all defence requirements. Planners saw a need for an all weather road to service dispersed military installations, particularly airfields, in the immediate Darwin hinterland. So, from May 1941, the Darwin Adelaide River section (115km) was upgraded to an all weather gravel road standard. The work was done by the New South Wales Department of Main Roads. 2

By early 1943 traffic between Darwin and Adelaide River had reached 2000 vehicles per day, mostly heavy lorries. The gravel surface disintegrated under this traffic and so it was decided to provide a bitumen seal – 6.2m wide to Adelaide River and 4.8m wide from there to Larrimah. 2

Similar work was done by interstate Main Roads teams on southern section of the Stuart Highway, with the result that by 1944 the highway was bitumen sealed, although some sections were very narrow. 2

Preview: Description:
Reassurance Directional Sign:
Distance sign at Arumbera near Alice Springs, November 2016.

Image © Paul Rands

Click here for the continuation of A87 in South Australia
Click here for the continuation of Stuart Highway as A1

1 NT Government Chief Minister's Office
2 Litchfield Shire Council
3 Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government
4 NT Lands Group / Department of Planning & Infrastructure

Last updated: 17-Feb-2019 8:41

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