First things first… The Northern Territory is wild, from the croc-infested waters to the eagles overhead.
But for all its massive expanse, a mere 230,000 people live up here.
Darwin, the NT’s capital, is a multicultural city with a taste of Asia, as Indonesia is on its back door.
You can also expect to hear some of the oldest languages in the world as Australia’s first people still speak in their native tongue and English can often be their third or fourth language.
Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge, Arnhem Land and, of course, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Red Centre all deserve photographing.
There are plenty of travellers through the territory because adventure is at every corner.
Darwin is a truly tropical city. A bloody long way from anywhere, it’s the type of town that attracts people who are really trying to get away from it all, and those lured by the stunning scenery right on the city’s doorstep.
The prevailing vibe is part far-fl ung outpost, part tropical resort. It’s an unusual town and one that you shouldn’t miss.
Darwin is the centre of the NT’s tropical Top End, which essentially experiences only two seasons: “the Dry” from May-October and “the Wet” from November-April.
The Dry is peak season, the most pleasant – and busiest – time to visit the tropical north. However, the Tropical Summer (a fancy, tourist-friendly name for the Wet) brings its own attractions.
Darwin’s diverse population and proximity to Asia means that the city has more than 50 different nationalities.
Two events have largely shaped Darwin: the city was the Australian frontline in WWII when many bombing raids were made by the Japanese.
Darwin also had to be re-built after Cyclone Tracy destroyed most of the city on Christmas Eve, 1974.
Of course, for many travellers, Darwin is mainly a gateway to two of Australia’s biggest attractions: Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. Tours to these two places are available from every hostel and travel centre in town.
Arriving in Darwin
You can get an airport shuttle to your accommodation one-way (check beforehand to see if your hostel does free pick-ups).
Getting around Darwin
Darwin is a relatively fl at city and it’s easy to find your way around on foot. Buses run regularly (the main city terminus is on Harry Chan Ave, near Smith St) and most hostels offer cheap or free bike hire.
Aquascene: Everybody goes to feed the fish here. Times vary with the tide, so check at your hostel
Botanic Gardens: Walk along the coast to the NT Museum, with great examples of Aboriginal art and natural history. Free.
Cage of Death: At Crocosaurus Cove you can jump in an acrylic cage and come face-to-face with a giant saltwater croc. Not for the faint-hearted.
Diving: All-year wreck diving in the harbour from WWII, Cyclone Tracy and refugee boats.
East Point Reserve: Has nice views, plus walking and cycling tracks, wallabies to feed at sunset and safe swimming in Lake Alexander.
Indo-Pacific Marine: Quality, interactive marine displays. Well worth a visit, even for those fresh from the reef.
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets: The thing to do while you’re in Darwin. These evening markets (Thursdays and Sundays) get absolutely packed during the Dry.
There’s every type of food imaginable, great music and even the chance to try cracking a whip, all with the backdrop of the beautiful sunset over the ocean.
Museum of Arts and Sciences: Natural history, Aboriginal culture and art. Free.
Wharf Precinct: With great fi sh and chips, weekend entertainment, jet boating and even a pool with a wave machine, this newly redeveloped part of the city is rapidly becoming one of its most popular corners.
Deckchair Cinema: An outdoor cinema on throughout the Dry season, features alternative and Aussie movies, with booze on sale. Bring a picnic.
Out on the town
The city’s reputation as a hard drinking town is well-earned but perhaps a little out-of-date.
These days, the only people who drink the famously massive “Darwin stubbies” are tourists, but that’s not to say the locals don’t like their brew. There’s no doubt the heat makes you crave a cold beer like nothing else.
Darwin’s boozing scene is a combination of big, old-style pubs with wrap-around verandahs (like the Victoria Hotel, or “Vic”), swish new minimalist bars and laidback outdoor drinking spots (the sailing and ski clubs).
Darwin is a backpacker-friendly town, which means the jugs are cheap and you can be guaranteed to get cheap meals every night of the week.
Adelaide River Bridge Crossing: 66km east of Darwin, it’s the site of the famous jumping crocs which leap a full body-length out of the water.
Howard Springs: 26km south of Darwin on the Stuart Hwy. Crocodile-free swimming hole in a rainforest. Avoid on weekends, as it gets very busy with locals.
Berry Springs: Less than an hour south of Darwin and less crowded than Howard Springs.
Mt Wells: Historic tin mining area. Spectacular 100km wilderness view, nine billabongs, rare bird species, wild horses and a high concentration of freshwater crocs.
Lake Bennett: Great hostel and camping area beside safe swimming lake, with abundant bird and animal life.
Litchfield National Park: Pristine wilderness area comparable to Kakadu, but smaller, more manageable and mostly croc-free. Waterfalls, swimming holes, monsoon rainforest and great bushwalking. Camping available (permit required).
Territory Wildlife Park: Set on 400 hectares of bushland, this attraction features a 25m high walkthrough aviary and an underwater viewing tunnel.
Tiwi Islands: Bathurst and Melville Islands are 30 minutes by air from Darwin.
They are Aboriginalowned and run and offer a unique opportunity to experience the history, culture and environment of the Tiwi people.
Truly the Top End, to the east of Darwin is the beautiful Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land.
Largely uninhabitable and fi lled with swamps, wetlands, waterfalls, ancient culture and angry crocodiles, exploring these areas is a great privilege and the greatest respect for the land, its native owners and the wildlife must be given.
Get too close to the wrong creek bed and you may end up as lunch.
However, with a guide, this rugged land is an Australian must-do experience, up there with the Great Barrier Reef and 4WDing on Fraser Island.
This Aboriginal-owned, jointly-managed World Heritage area is listed for both natural and cultural values and has immense scenic beauty.
Its sandstone escarpments – most famously at Ubirr (where some of Crocodile Dundee was filmed) – house some of the world’s greatest rock art dating back over 20,000 years.
And you’ll be hard pressed to fi nd a more stunning place than Jim Jim Falls – a massive waterfall accessible only by 4WD and trek by foot.
Twin Falls is another popular spot – a white beach beneath a double cascade waterfall.
Also, some of the Aboriginal owners now work as rangers and there are a number of Aboriginal tours.
There’s an entry fee to get into Kakadu which contributes to the upkeep of the park.
Look for a tour that goes off the beaten track, as well as taking in the major sights.
Nearby Jabiru has all the services you’ll need. Crocs are abundant, so stay away from the water unless you know it’s defi nitely safe.
Mary River, the vast wetlands 170km east of Darwin, are among the most beautiful in the Top End.
The Window on the Wetlands Interpretative Centre provides an ideal introduction to this area.
There’s barramundi fi shing in the Mary River, as well as freshwater billabongs.
Home to the biggest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world, the area is also well-known for its birdlife.
An area of more than 94,000 spectacular square kilometres, Arnhem Land is Aboriginal-owned, home to many different clan groups and is a cultural stronghold from which the didgeridoo originates.
Access is available through a limited number of tours and safari camp operators as well as visits to community art centres.
The crossroads of the south, north, east and west, Katherine is your last stop before venturing into the great red unknown that links Darwin and Alice Springs.
Crossing from Broome and the Kimberley you’ll hit Katherine too after a lack of civilisation.
A town with all the mod cons, make sure you stock up before moving on.
Your main reason for visiting, however, is the Katherine Gorge. Enclosed in Nitmiluk National Park, this is one of the NT’s “Big Three” along with Kakadu and Uluru.
There are over 13 gorges with more than 100km of walking tracks set in rugged terrain, just outside of town.
You can explore the spectacular surrounds by canoe or cruise boat, foot or helicopter.
The canoe is your best bet, getting intimate with nature.
There are freshwater crocodiles in the water and swimming is reasonably safe, but be careful not to go to the beaches where the crocs have made nests for their eggs.
Check with the rangers to see if any salties have been spotted in the area before you take the plunge. Start at the information centre.
One of the two major centres between Darwin and Alice Springs, Tennant Creek is well situated for a break from the road.
An important place to stock up on fuel and munchies, it’s a gold mining area, although major open-cut mining stopped in 1985, and you can still fossick in limited areas with an inexpensive Miners’ Right.
Further down the track towards Alice Springs, you’ll stumble across the Devil’s Marbles, bizarre boulders in the middle of a flat landscape with Aboriginal significance.
Stand in the middle of the split rock or “hilariously” pretend to be pushing one down the hill.
It’s one to add to the comedy photo collection.
When you make it to Alice, it’s time to stop for a while and soak up the atmosphere. Try hot air ballooning across the outback – it’s breathtaking stuff at sunrise, with unbelievable views, or go camel riding and watch the sun slowly set over the town.
Getting around Alice Springs
The town centre is walkable, although some places are a little further afi eld. ASBUS, the public bus service, is useful for those staying in outlying camping areas.
Out on the town
Once the sun has set behind the ranges, this little town comes to life, with a number of lively little pubs, populated by everyone from real-life cowboys to footloose and fancy-free travellers, in the Todd Street/Mall area.
Best of the bunch include Bojangles (a packed, cattle-station-style restaurant and nightclub), The Rock Bar (crammed with backpackers boozing after their Uluru tours) and the Todd Tavern (a locals’ pub, often with live music).
To find out what’s on when, check out The Alice Springs News.
Around Alice Springs
The scenery around Alice Springs is dramatic.
To the east, the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges are easily accessible by car and have some good walking trails and picnic areas.
The Western MacDonnells have an array of spectacular gorges and ancient landforms.
They can be explored by hiking the Larapinta Trail, by bicycle on a specially developed cycle track or by road.
Another “don’t miss” national park, as iconic to Australia as the Sydney Opera House and kangaroos, is Uluru–Kata Tjuta NP.
Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (also referred to as the Olgas) are the heart of the Red Centre of Australia, attracting thousands of travellers each year to check out their intriguing shapes and how they got there.
On seeing the sheer size of Uluru, you may well be dumbfounded by its enormity – no matter how many times you’ve seen pictures of it on tacky souvenirs.
“The Rock” has a circumference of 9km and towers more than 300m above the fl at and desolate surrounding scrub. It is believed that two-thirds of it is still beneath the sand.
At sunset, the Rock changes from a series of deep, dark reds through to an unusual grey.
Many people don’t realise this spectacle is just as amazing in reverse at sunrise – it’s worth getting up early to view.
The entire place has deep signifi cance to the Anangu people of the region, who own the area and jointly manage it as a World Heritage area.
Please respect areas that have been fenced off as sacred sites and refrain from photography where asked.
There are excellent walks around the base including Aboriginal guided walks. The Uluru/Kata. Tjuta Cultural Centre explains many of the natural and cultural features of this monolith – as well as explaining why you don’t climb to the top.
Visitors can technically climb Uluru (weather permitting), but the local Anangu people, who consider the Rock their most sacred site and as such don’t climb it themselves, ask tourists not to.
Anyone with the slightest inkling of respect for Aboriginal culture should do likewise and not climb.
Spending some time walking around its base is an experience you will not forget quickly. It is easy to be astounded by this mysterious phenomenon, with its changing colours, its immense caves and Aboriginal legends.
As Uluru and the Olgas are within the Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park, you can only stay at the Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara, so expect the prices to be accordingly high.
The Olgas, known to Aboriginals as Kata Tjuta, is a collection of weathered domes, dominated by the 546m Mt Olga, and form an amazing contrast against the surrounding desert.
A number of walking tracks provide access to key features. The Valley of Winds is the best.
Kings Canyon, or Wartarrka, is 310km south of Alice and is one of the region’s most dramatic geological features and is many people’s favourite destination in the Red Centre.
Full of surprises, the eerie weathered rock domes of the Lost World sit in stark contrast to the breathtaking views from the 300m high canyon rim nearby.
The barren desert makes up the majority of the Northern Territory’s south end. Heading to South Australia you’ll come across the odd outpost like/ Eridunda, where you turn right for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
As you drive down the Stuart Highway towards Coober Pedy and eventually Adelaide, dried creeks and rivers crack away from the vast Simpson Desert around 100km to the left.