The Northern Territory is a state of extremes. Covering one sixth of the Australian continent, it’s roughly the size of France, Spain and Italy combined. Despite the vast area it covers, it’s the least populated Australian state, having fewer than half as many residents as comparatively tiny Tasmania. Home to cyclones, flooded wet seasons, scorching dry seasons and man-eating reptiles, the NT can seem to tread the line between terrific and terrifying. Any visit to the territory, though, will swing you well into the “terrific” zone.
While the monolith known as Uluru is one of Australia’s most famed landmarks, there’s so much more to the region than this. The “Top End” refers to the northern quarter of the territory, including the capital Darwin and its surrounds, with a coastline that extends for more than 13,500 kilometres. The lush, tropical edge of the country is world’s away from the red centre. With untouched rugged terrains, jutting shelves of red rock, impossibly high gorges and icy cold fresh waterholes, the Top End is unparalleled in natural beauty. I’m serious – there is actually no place more beautiful on earth.
Here’s ten really good reasons to go there.
The best (some say only) time to visit the Top End is during the dry season (April to October). This is when the floods dry up and vehicular access again becomes possible. Fly into Darwin as a central starting point. The NT’s sticky capital rests on a swampy harbour and is a true melting pot (heat-induced, we assume) of culture and cuisine. It’s one of the few cities with a casino actually worth visiting – head there to watch the ocean swallow the sun and enjoy some ridiculously good food and cocktails.
You also can’t miss the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets (every Thursday and Sunday in the dry season), offering Thai, Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Brazilian, Greek and Portuguese food (to name a few). The Darwin Sailing Club is the ideal place to sink some tins – just remember to be polite and take your hat off at the bar, or rumour has it that you have to buy everyone in the place a round.
#2 Four wheel driving
When hiring a vehicle to tour the Top End, it’s well worth the extra dollars to upgrade to a four wheel drive. Using a 4WD puts you in your own lane and lets you manoeuvre yourself to those hard to reach pockets of isolated perfection.
Ours came with a pop top that housed a double bed, a heaven-sent fridge (what do you mean you don’t need cheese platters in the Outback?), a gas bottle and stove top, a sink, ample storage space and bonus table and chairs – everything we needed to feel like our vehicle was in fact our tiny, comfortable home for the ten days we used it. Plus it had air-conditioning, which was absolutely essential. While it does add to the bill, you can’t really put a price on that feeling of finding a secluded, empty gorge – complete with waterfall and swimming hole – dotted somewhere along a red, rocky 4WD track. (We swam for four hours without seeing another soul.)
Go slow in a low gear, and do some research first about how and when to let air out of your tyres and shift from two wheel into four wheel drive.
The first thing to know is there are two kinds of crocodile that populate the Top End – salt water crocs and freshwater crocs. Some people will say that it’s only the Salties that should be of concern to humans. Don’t believe them: freshwater crocodiles have been known to attack if they perceive themselves to be under threat (say, from splashing limbs). Grand as they are, these reptilian dinosaurs are extremely dangerous, so heed the warning signs and never swim in rivers or the beach. Only swim where there is specific signage allowing you to do so – most often at swimming holes at the top or bottom of gorges that crocodiles can’t get to.
If you want to see a croc in real life, a number of companies operate boat tours on the rivers, so choose your own adventure. Jumping Crocodile Cruises give you what the name says – an up close and personal experience with the creatures, who rise out of the water and snap their absurdly powerful jaws just metres from your quivering body. For a more chilled experience, head to the Mary River Wilderness Retreat and take a sunset cruise for some croc and bird spotting. And don’t be alarmed if a five metre long crocodile is slowly tailing the boat. He’s just waiting for someone to lean out. (Pro tip: don’t do this.)
#4 Katherine Gorge
Katherine is the easiest to access of all of the Top End’s stunning gorges. Looking like a picture from a brochure, and with the facilities to match, the spellbinding Katherine Gorge is like gulping from an oasis if you’ve been roughing it for a few days. The roads are perfectly sealed and the visitors centre alone is a lush, air-conditioned gigantic shed that’s part information centre, part gift shop and part restaurant (and the bathrooms! Bliss!). From here you can book helicopter rides, scenic flights, river cruises, kayaking and a variety of other adventures.
#5 Kakadu National Park
Kakadu is as vast in scale as it is in significance. Just over a two hour drive from Darwin, the national park is the timeless home to the oldest living culture on earth, that of Indigenous Australians. You’ll never be short of things to do – there’s scenic flights, hikes, camp grounds, rock art, and four wheel drive tracks, among other things. For croc spotting, head way out east to Cahill’s Crossing which goes into Arnhem Land (special permits are needed to enter this region). Just don’t get too close to the water.
Jim Jim Falls is the best swimming spot, if you’re up for the challenge. It’s a two hour drive to the campsite on an on unsealed road, followed by a very bumpy half hour 4WD track, then an hour long rocky scramble of a hike before reaching the icy cold plunge pool. But nothing tops that moment of jumping in and leaving behind the heady heat you’ve just battled through. A Kakadu park pass is just $25 for a fortnight, and you can buy it from a number of retailers in Darwin or shops within Kakadu.
#6 Hot Springs
You’d think that a dip in a hot natural spring would be the furthest thing from your mind in the middle of the sweltering heat, but it’s actually a really nice way to soothe your joints after hiking (and to provide the distinction between the humid air you’ve been walking through and an actual warm bath). There’s hot springs at Katherine and Mataranka, but you can’t go past the Bitter Springs in Elsey National Park for a short, refreshing stop off. It’s like a theme park ride – lay back and let the current steadily pull you through the warm, shady river until you reach the bridge signalling the end point. There you can climb out, walk back and start again. BYO floaties.
#7 Edith Falls
Edith Falls in the Nitmiluk National Park offers a set of spectacular waterfalls and plunge pools along a sweaty four hour return hike to the Sweetwater swimming hole. It certainly deserves a slice of your time. If you do this long hike, leave as early as you can in the morning and take plenty of water. Like an amazing oxymoron, the heat snowballs and you don’t want to be back later than noon. Once the walk is done, finish up at the Edith Falls upper pool where you can swim out and let the icy cold waterfull rush over your head. There’s also an excellent campground, kiosk and large, croc-free swimming hole here near the park’s entrance where you start the hike.
#8 Litchfield National Park
Often overlooked in favour of the massive neighbouring Kakadu, Litchfield National Park offers its own version of tropical splendour. There’s the popular Wangi Falls swimming hole (easily accessible via a sealed road), basic facility camping sites, gigantic termite mounds, a “Lost City” and heaps of walking tracks. If you’ve gone for the 4WD, dedicate a day and an overnight stay to the long, diverse off-road track from the north of the park to the south. There’s plenty of chilled-out hikes to secluded gorges along the way.
If barramundi is on the menu, rest assured that it will be what you should order. The Top End is home to the best barra fishing on the planet. Whether you’re there to catch for them yourself (check licensing laws) or just there to sample the freshest fish you’ve ever tasted, don’t go home without eating it at least once.
Yes, the powdered instant mash potato sold in a bag. The stuff that tastes just like butter and salt. When you’re roughing it, you can shamelessly enjoy a variety of food you’d find questionable in your day-to-day life. Packet noodles, trail mix with M&Ms mixed in and tuna spaghetti are shining beacons of deliciousness after a long day of driving, hiking and swimming.
Welcome to flavour country.
(All photos: Taryn Stenvei)