At the top of the country’s centre, in the northern part of the Northern Territory you will find what embodies Australia. An ancient landscape marked by hot days under a merciless sun. It is the driest state in the country, a place that in contrast turns into a flooded place as the rainy season breaks loose. Temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius are not uncommon and the climate is rough and puts high demands on its inhabitants. The area is isolated and extensive, with dead-straight roads across sandy plains as far as the eyes can see. The Top End is a sparsely populated place that is straightforward and full of natural beauty. If you have plenty of time, there are countless national parks to discover. A trip here will not disappoint if you enjoy nature in large doses. Kakadu, Mary River and Litchfield national parks are only a couple of hours from Darwin. Or drive south towards the characteristic desert town of Katherine where the Nitmiluk National Park awaits. Discover cascading waterfalls and desolate wetlands. Stay a little longer and explore fascinating cave paintings, dare to get close to staggering high gorges and impressive termite mounds. But watch out for the saltwater crocodile that lurks under the water surface. They can grow up to six meters long and are much more dangerous than the freshwater crocodile.
The area has long been home to the indigenous people of Australia, they occupied the area for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived during the 1860s. Here lives the largest concentration of people with Aboriginal roots. Almost half of the state belongs to the Aboriginal community. East of Darwin lies the Arnhem Land Reserve, which has a fascinating history and is full of indigenous culture. Arnhem Land is a special place with great spiritual value. Access requires specified purpose and approval. You will gain a unique insight into the Aboriginal community if visiting.
Darwin with its 130,000 inhabitants is the state capital. The city is located just south of Papa New Guinea and East Timor, making it closer to many Asian destinations than cities within Australia. Darwin has endured a rough treatment over the years. During World War II, the Japanese bombed the city, killing hundreds of people and many buildings were destroyed. About 30 years later, cyclone Tracy passed through and created even more havoc. But these tragic events have not stopped the people of Darwin. The city has been built up again and again and evolved into a multicultural melting pot where people with varying backgrounds are intermingled. Nowadays it is one of the fastest growing regions in the country.
In Darwin, people with different backgrounds are intermingled. More than 60 nationalities are represented in the city. Many are Europeans and Chinese. In other words, this is a great place to get a taste of different cultures. There is an exciting range of restaurants that prepare Indian, Vietnamese and Greek dishes. There are many places to visit along Mitchell Street for food and drink experiences. If you want to see the city from above, you can do it together with Nautilus Aviation, which arranges several helicopter tours around Darwin and nearby national parks (wotif.com/things-to-do/20-minute-darwin-city-scenic-flight.a511010.activity-details).
Arnhem Land is an ancient place greatly preserved thanks to it becoming a nature reserve already in 1931. The rugged terrain ensured that the colonizers never had access to this mysterious place. Today the reserve belongs to the indigenous people and there are many tombs, rock carvings and sacred sites here. The area is almost as large as Iceland, and in order to get in, an issued permit is required where the purpose of the journey must be stated. The most convenient way is therefore to visit the area via a guided tour. If you visit Arnhem Land, it is important to show respect. Keep in mind that you are a guest in an area that is largely characterized by spirituality. There are several tour operators to choose from. Lords Safaris (lords-safaris.com) is a good choice. As an eco-certified organizer, they have access to parts of the area that no other organizers have.
The state’s greatest asset is the abundance of national parks. Here are some of the most beautiful places in Australia. Visit at least a couple of them during your trip. You will not be disappointed to have travelled this far. South of Darwin lies Litchfield National Park (nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/litchfield-national-park), a place very close to heart amongst the locals. Explore dramatic waterfalls that gush down in waterholes that are safe to swim in and try one of several good hiking trails. For those who prefer to travel with a tour operator, maybe a daytrip with AAT Kings where lunch and pick-up at the hotel is included might suit (wotif.com/things-to-do/litchfield-national-park-day-tour.a180462.activity-details).
Kakadu National Park (kakadu.com.au) is larger and more well-known. An entrance ticket is required, which you can purchase at the Visitor Information Centre in Darwin. To get around, a four-wheel drive is required, and a lot of patience. It takes its time to drive around the park. Some must-sees are the waterfalls Jim Jim and Twin Falls and the gorge Maguk Gorge and Gunlom Waterfall Creek. To get to all these sights, days are required. There are plenty of wildlife in the park, as well as ancient rock art. The park provides campsites. It is first-come, first-served basis that applies and you pay in cash on site. You can also stay overnight in permanent tents together with a tour operator if you want to play it on the safe side (wotif.com/things-to-do/3-day-litchfield-kakadu-national-park-4×4-adventure.a359962.activity-details).
Other interesting destinations are the crocodile dense Judbarra/Gregory National Park (nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/judbarra-gregory-national-park) or the Mary River National Park farther east which is well-suited for fishing adventures (nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/mary-river-national-park). Historic sites await you and you can camp in the park. Around 320 km southwards from Darwin lies Katherine, a small-town full of cultural experiences. There are several art galleries that showcase Aboriginal art and a good range of tasty food to try. Nitmiluk National Park (nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park-to-visit/nitmiluk-national-park) is not far from Katherine. The park adjoins Kakadu to the north and is known for its impressive gorges towering both sides of Katherine River.
About 100 km north of Darwin lies the islands of Melville and Bathurst, which go under the collective name of Tiwi Islands. Just as for Arnhem Land, this area belongs to the indigenous people and you must have permission to go ashore. Here is a community known for its artwork and with a love for Australian football. The most convenient way to get around is with an organizer. For example, the ferry company Sealink (sealinknt.com.au/tours/tiwi-by-design) or AAT Kings (aatkings.com/tours/darwin/tiwi-aboriginal-cultural-experience-by-ferry).
Read more on the home page Tourism Top End (tourismtopend.com.au) or visit the Visitor Information Centre at 6 Bennet Street in central Darwin. They are open weekdays between 08:30 to 17:00 and weekends between 09:00 and 15:00.
Planning and preparation
The Top End has two different seasons but be prepared for heat and humidity all year round. Tropical storms and cyclones are not uncommon. Dry season spans between May and October. The clouds dissipate and the rain decreases. At the beginning of the dry season, the area turns lush and green again, and waterfalls gushes in their full force. The longer into the dry season we come, the dryer the area becomes. Between October and December, the temperature continues to climb, and the rain starts to come more often. The pressure rises and when the year nears its end, the long-awaited rainy season returns to cools down the landscape. The beginning of the dry season is considered by many to be the best time to visit the area, when the waterfalls are well-filled and powerful, and the landscape is lush and green.
There are many flights to Darwin International Airport (wotif.com/Flights). You can fly to most cities within the country, but also to destinations in Asia. You can take the train called The Ghan (greatsouthernrail.com.au/trains/the-ghan) from Adelaide to Darwin. With a distance on 2,979 km, the trip takes three nights and four days. The train stops at Coober Pedy, Alice Springs and Katherine along the way. Greyhound’s buses can take you to the city. But the best way to get here is to have a car. Then you will to be able to make stops and take alternate routes along the way, making the journey into something more than just a way to get from A to B (wotif.com/Car-Hire). In order to get around between the national parks, it is necessary to have your own transport. Otherwise you should travel with an arranged tour along with others. There are plenty of these to choose from, from day trips to adventures spanning over several days. Some examples are Ethical Adventures (wotif.com/things-to-do/litchfields-gold-top-end-discovery-tour.a436183.activity-details), Wayoutback Australian Safaris (wotif.com/things-to-do/3-day-cicada-dreaming-safari-from-darwin.a359974.activity-details) and Crocosaurus Cove (wotif.com/things-to-do/cage-of-death-experience.a228353.activity-details).
Start your journey in The Top End’s biggest city, Darwin. Wander along Mitchell Street and down towards the seafront promenade. Make a visit to the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (magnt.net.au) at 10 Conacher Street. Learn more about Darwin’s history, take part in local works of art and various exhibitions. It is air conditioned and free of charge. A perfect place to spend a few hours on. If you have time, head to the exciting neighbouring Tiwi Islands and learn more about Aboriginal artwork and their interesting culture.
Many locals mean that Litchfield is better than the more famous Kakadu National Park. There is even a saying that says Kaka-don’t and Litchfield-do. Decide for yourself by visiting both. Do you have a car? A four-wheel drive? Good. Then you can visit the parks on your own. Enter via Bachelor and stop at the Magnetic Thermite Mounds’ impressive termite nests which can be several meters tall. Then go to Florence Falls. A sweaty walk awaits you from the parking area, so be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. In the west you can swim in the waters of Wangi Falls. The waterfall is not the largest, but the surroundings are incredibly beautiful. But be prepared for chilly temperatures. If you fancy more waterfalls, you can stop by at Tolmer Falls Lookout. And why not stay in the park for the night.
The next day you leave Litchfield and drive towards Kakadu. Take the Kakadu Highway and drive through some rugged terrain within the park. Park at Jim Jim Falls and walk the last bit down to the waterfalls. If you drive farther south, you get to the Twin Falls. Camp at Garrnamarr where you can take a shower and prepare meals. But don’t forget to bring your own drinking water. If you’re not tired of national park adventures, head to Maguk Gorge or Gunlom Waterfall Creek. After Kakadu, you finally drive south towards Katherine where the next part of the journey begins.