Although roughly 80% of the NT is in the tropics – the Tropic of Capricorn lies just north of Alice Springs – only the northern 25%, known as the Top End, has anything that resembles the popular idea of a tropical climate. It’s a distinct region of savanna woodlands and rainforest pockets – in the northeast, the Arnhem Land plateau rises abruptly from the plain and continues to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Much of the southern 75% of the Territory consists of desert or semiarid plain.
The Top End’s climate is described in terms of the Dry and the Wet, with year-round maximum temperatures of 30°C to 34°C and minimums between 19°C and 26°C. Roughly, the Dry lasts from April to September and the Wet from October to March, with the heaviest rain falling from January onwards. Indigenous Australians recognise between two and six seasons, which are observed through the movement and cycles of plant and animal species – including us tourists: ‘when storm come now they all [go] back to their country’ noted one traditional owner.
In the Centre temperatures are much more variable, plummeting below freezing on winter nights (June to August) and soaring above 40°C on summer days (December to March).
The most comfortable time to visit both the Centre and the Top End is June and July, though the Centre is pleasant as early as April. The Top End has its good points during the Wet – everything is green, and there are spectacular electrical storms and relatively few tourists. However, the combination of heat and high humidity can be unbearable, dirt roads are often impassable and some national parks are either totally or partly closed.