From the iconic attractions of Uluru and Kata Tjuta in the Red Centre, to the undeniable wild side of the tropical Top End, there is plenty to see and do in Australia’s Northern Territory. But alongside the headline experiences are some surprising stories and unexpected gems.

Jim Jim Waterfall is located in Kakadu National Park, where you can see how the monsoon ecology has shaped the unique traditional culture of the Top End © Janelle Lugge / Shutterstock

1. It isn’t all desert

Northern Territory’s Top End is not a desert, but a tropical monsoon ecosystem, which cycles through Dry and Wet seasons each year. Skies are clear during the Dry, but many creeks and rivers continue to flow with cool, clean water. Sustaining life when there’s no rain, these perennial watercourses and pools provide exceptional recreational possibilities. 

And during the Top End’s tropical summer it can be very, very wet. Think tropical downpours, raging rivers and vibrant floodplains. This is a time of fertility and new growth. More subtly (and more intuitively) the Indigenous communities of the Top End recognize at least six seasons based on eons of observation of the cycles of plants and animals in addition to the climatic changes.

Kakadu National Park is the best place to see how this monsoon ecology has shaped the unique traditional culture of the Top End. For an Indigenous perspective, seek out local Bininj and Mungguy rangers and tour guides, who will help unveil the magic of this ancient land. Kakadu’s Bowali Visitor Information Centre and Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, both within the park, will also answer many of your questions and provide advice on what to see or do depending on the season.

Litchfield National Park is a compact park, close to Darwin, featuring a similar ecology of sandstone plateau and escarpment, monsoon rainforest and tumbling waterfalls.

Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park is a favorite place to plunge © pierdest / Shutterstock

2. The most beautiful places to swim aren’t the beaches

While you’d assume in a tropical climate that people would be flocking to the beaches – it’s actually the picturesque fresh waterways that boast the Territory’s best and safest swimming. 

The Top End usually enjoys an abundance of freshwater during the Tropical Summer. The deluge filters through wetlands and porous sandstone to top up the creeks with gin-clear water, and waterfalls, cascades and plunge pools – shaded by towering cliffs and monsoon rainforest – provide a refreshing escape from the tropical heat. Most of the pools teem with fish, so pack a pair of goggles to appreciate the underwater show.

Swimming and hiking go hand in hand for many of the Top End’s bushwalks. A cool, inviting swimming hole, complemented by a postcard-worthy waterfall, is the ideal conclusion to a trek in the tropics. It’s well worth walking up a sweat for the idyllic, refreshing dips in Litchfield, Nitmiluk and Kakadu national parks for the best Top End swimming prospects.

It doesn’t end with cooling plunge pools and waterfalls. Another aquatic surprise for visitors to the Top End are the hot mineral springs that bubble to surface and rejuvenate many a weary traveler. 

Best known and developed is the spring at Mataranka, which boasts low-key homestead accommodations and year-round swimming. Nearby Bitter Springs has become an Instagram hotspot, where the heavily mineralized, blue-tinged water gently flows through a palm-lined, sandy bottomed creek creating a picture-perfect natural spa. Other easily accessible hot springs include Berry Springs Nature Park, just an hour’s drive from Darwin, and Katherine Thermal Pools, found tucked away in the town center of Katherine.

South toward the center of the continent, where desert dominates, scarce water seeps through ancient mountain ranges to pool in sheltered water holes within narrow gorges, and some are large enough to allow swimming. Desert nights can be cold, and this usually means a chilly, rejuvenating swim even on the hottest of days. 

These serene waters reflect the surrounding burnished ochre cliffs, white-trunked eucalypts and the bluest of blue skies. Pools of freshwater are vital for desert wildlife, and raucous flocks of parakeets and zebra finches often create explosions of color and sound around these oases.

In the Western McDonnell Ranges, just outside Alice Springs, popular swimming spots include Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge and, perhaps the best of all, Redbank Gorge.

Exploring Darwin's street art scene with an augmented reality app reveals another layer of interest © Lindsay Brown / Lonely Planet

3. The capital city is vibrant, cosmopolitan and surprising

Darwin is filled with edgy street art, bold theatre, cool cafes, hidden bars and boutique breweries and distilleries. In recent years there’s been something of a revolution going on in the capital – and nobody’s complaining.

Darwin’s outstanding outdoor food markets are now joined by a small legion of hip, experimental restaurants combining international flair, local ingredients, and Darwin’s notoriously immutable casual demeaner. A great way to experience several of these restaurants is a three-hour lunch or dinner gourmet tour. Darwin Gourmet Tours offers small-group tours to Darwin’s best restaurants where you can experience a food appreciation event and meet the chefs behind the tastes. 

You can also sample drinks at Darwin’s hottest bars and some of its newest boutique distilleries. Walking tours take in the amazing street art refreshed annually at the Darwin Street Art Festival. Download the festival’s app to bring the art alive in augmented reality. 

After all that walking and eating, plonk yourself down at Darwin’s Deckchair Cinema, an exquisite outdoor cinema with drinks, food and a star-studded ceiling.

A group of people enjoys the Mindil Beach markets at dusk in Darwin © EA Given / Shutterstock

4. Some of the best places to eat are the outdoor markets

Outdoor markets celebrate Darwin’s proximity to Asia and its famous multicultural food scene. Sultry tropical atmosphere, thick with the aromas of lemongrass, chili and ginger combined with wafts from smoky charcoal grills, is all the advertisement Darwin’s foodie-focused markets need.

Mindil Beach Sunset Market is the place to head on Thursday and Sunday evenings, where the languid tropical air is an essential ingredient for memorable Asian, African, South American and Mediterranean street food. Other popular markets boasting food stalls include Parap Village Market, Rapid Creek Market, Nightcliff Market and Malak Marketplace.

All walks of life gather at Darwin’s markets for an unbeatable range of street food while shopping for clothes, souvenirs or second-hand treasures. One dish that has locals addicted and has risen to celebrity status in Darwin is laksa, and the outdoor markets are the place to head for this spicy, tangy Southeast Asian soup. And of course, there’s a Laksa Festival, a celebration of all things laksa that exposes the competitive spirit of Darwin’s best laksa stylists.

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