From Kakadu to Uluru, from Darwin to the outback, the Northern Territory has stirring landscapes, abundant wildlife and a soulful Indigenous story.
Call that Australia? This is Australia. Ever since Crocodile Dundee brought Kakadu to the world's attention, the Northern Territory has been on the radar for its impressive portfolio of quintessentially Aussie landforms: Uluru and Kata Tjuta rising improbably from the desert; the great sandstone escarpments and pristine coastline of Arnhem Land; and the vast (and we mean vast) stretches of outback flecked with sand dunes, gravel plains and monsoonal mangroves. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, it's hard to escape the feeling that here lies eternity, and that human beings are very much secondary to all that wild beauty.
Native Australian Wildlife
The Northern Territory's astonishing and varied terrain provides habitat for some of the last and largest surviving populations of native wildlife in the country, animating an ancient and thinly populated land. Kakadu is the obvious star, whether for birding or mammals or saltwater crocs in the East Alligator River. The West MacDonnell Ranges, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Pungalina–Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary are all very different, but each offers the chance to witness Australia's charismatic fauna. And way up north, in the remote Cobourg Peninsula, marine mammals and sea turtles add depth and excitement.
If wildlife animates the Australian outback, it is the Territory's Indigenous population that gives it soul. And unlike elsewhere in Australia, it's relatively easy here to cross the cultural frontier and meet Indigenous people on their terms. It could happen when your Indigenous guide takes you on an intimate exploration of country. Or as you sit in quiet conversation with artists at work in one of the Territory's many Indigenous art centres. Or when you lose yourself in the rituals and ceremonies of an Indigenous festival. Wherever it happens, it will provide some of the more special memories from your time here.
While it's easy to identify the more obvious elements of the outback's appeal, there's one thing that's less easy to quantify: its strange, almost mystical allure. There's something about this place, an intangible call that defies easy explanation, something spiritual that echoes through so many moments out here. You'll feel it when you first lay eyes on the Rock, as the sun dips below the horizon beyond the escarpments of Kakadu, and when you stop in the middle of nowhere and find yourself enveloped by silence. In such moments lies the mysterious call of the outback.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Territory.
It takes a lot more than the busloads of visitors to disturb Ubirr's inherent majesty and grace. Layers of rock-art paintings, in various styles and from various centuries, command a mesmerising stillness. Ubirr is 39km north of the Arnhem Hwy via a sealed road. Part of the main gallery reads like a menu, with images of kangaroos, tortoises and fish painted in X-ray, which became the dominant style about 8000 years ago. Pre-dating these are the paintings of mimi spirits: cheeky, dynamic figures who, it's believed, were the first of the Creation Ancestors to paint on rock. (Given the lack of cherry-pickers in 6000 BC, you have to wonder who else but a spirit could have painted at that height and angle.) Look out for the yam-head figures, where the head is depicted as a yam on the body of a human or animal; these date back around 15,000 years. The magnificent Nardab Lookout is a 250m scramble accessed from the main gallery. Surveying the exotic flood plain, watching the sun set in the west and the moon rise in the east like they're on an invisible set of scales gradually exchanging weight, is humbling to say the least.
Spectacular Katherine Gorge forms the backbone of this 2920-sq-km park, about 30km from Katherine. A series of 13 deep sandstone gorges have been carved by the Katherine River on its journey from Arnhem Land to the Timor Sea. It's a hauntingly beautiful place and a must-do from Katherine. In the Dry the tranquil river is perfect for a paddle; in the Wet the deep still waters and dividing rapids are engulfed by an awesome torrent that churns through the gorge. Plan to spend at least a full day canoeing or cruising on the river and bushwalking. It can get crowded in peak season. Nitmiluk Tours manages accommodation, cruises and activities within the park. The traditional owners are the Jawoyn Aboriginal people who jointly manage Nitmiluk with Parks & Wildlife. The park was handed back to the Jawoyn in 1989; 'Nitmiluk' means 'Place of the Cicada Dreaming'.
The gigantic granite boulders piled just east of the Stuart Hwy, 105km south of Tennant Creek, are known as the Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu in the local Warumungu language) and they’re one of the more beautiful sights out here. The Marbles are a sacred site to the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, who believe the rocks are the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. On 27 October 2008 ownership of the land was returned to their care. Although the owners are the Alyawarre people, the Marbles also carry great spiritual significance for other Aboriginal groups, including the Kaytetye, Warumungu and Warlpiri people. Such are the extremes of temperature out here that the boulders undergo a constant 24-hour cycle of expansion and contraction, hence the large cracks in many of the boulders. There are five signposted walks around the Devil's Marbles, from the 20-minute, 400m Karlu Karlu Walk departing the day-use area to the 1½-hour, 4km Nurrku Walk that takes you away from the crowds. If you've only time for one walk, make it the 30-minute, 800m Mayijangu Walk from the day-use area to the campground, with a 20-minute, 350m add-on up to Nyanjiki Lookout. Unless specifically permitted to do so by signposts pointing you in that direction, respect local beliefs by not climbing on the rocks. A 15-minute walk loops around the main site. Wildlife possibilities include small black-headed goannas in the rocky clefts, while birds to keep an eye out for include zebra finches, painted finches and fairy martins that build bottle-shaped mud nests on the underside of some boulders. Complementing Aboriginal explanations for the existence of these strange formations, scientists argue that the boulders are made of granite that originated with the hardening of volcanic magma beneath the earth's surface; this could have occurred nearly two billion years ago. The granite then pushed through the surface thanks to the complex interaction beneath the granite and softer, surrounding sandstone. Once atop the earth's surface, the boulders' shapes were formed over millions and millions of years by the weathering of wind and water, as well as extremes of temperature. This process changed the outer layer, although the core of each boulder remains largely unchanged. They range in size from barely 50cm across to those with a diameter of 6m. This geological phenomenon is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset, when these oddballs glow warmly. The campground has remarkably hard ground, pit toilets and fireplaces (BYO firewood).
The entire wilderness of remote Cobourg Peninsula, including the surrounding sea, forms the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. It's a stunning, isolated place and one of the loveliest spots on Australia's northern coast. You'll likely see dolphins and turtles and − what most people come for − a threadfin salmon thrashing on the end of your line. On the shores of Port Essington are the stone ruins and headstones of Victoria settlement − Britain's 1838 attempt to establish a military outpost here. It's an eerie place, echoing a doomed dream to build a city in such remote country. Fishing is big business up here, and fishing charters and tours often come in search of mackerel, coral trout, trevally, threadfin salmon and barramundi. Boat hire is possible in a couple of places, but you're better off organising it through one of the tour companies before you arrive. The waters of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park are home to six species of marine turtles – green, loggerhead, olive ridley, hawksbill, flatback and leatherback; some of these nest on remote beaches in the later months of the year. In the park's inland billabongs, watch for the northern snake-necked turtle. Whales, dolphins, various shark species and saltwater crocodiles are all found in the waters off the coast – swimming here would be extremely dangerous. Mammal species, though elusive, are always possible to see, especially around dawn, dusk and overnight. Species include dingoes, echidnas and northern brown bandicoots. The park is also home to more than 200 bird species. Sleeping There are two camping grounds in the park with shower, toilet, BBQs and limited bore water; generators are allowed in one area. Camping fees (per person per day $16.50) are covered by your vehicle permit, but if you fly in you'll have to pay them. Other accommodation is available in pricey fishing resorts. Information At Algarlarlgarl (Black Point) there's a ranger station with a visitor information and cultural centre and the Garig Store, which sells basic provisions, ice and camping gas. Permits to visit the Cobourg Peninsula are handled by the NT Parks & Wildlife Commission. It can also arrange permission for you to stay overnight in the national park. The camping fee is $232.10 per vehicle, which covers up to five people for seven days and includes a camping and transit pass (the transit pass on its own costs $88). This fee must be paid six weeks before you intend to travel.
If you only have time for a couple of stops in the East MacDonnell Ranges, make Trephina Gorge Nature Park (75km from Alice) one of them. The play between the pale sandy riverbeds, the red and purple gorge walls, the white tree trunks, the eucalyptus-green foliage and the blue sky is spectacular. Depending on the time of year, you'll also find deep swimming holes and abundant wildlife. There's a rangers station and campground with barbecues, water and toilets. The Trephina Gorge Walk (one hour, 2km, marked with orange arrows) loops around the gorge's rim. The Ridgetop Walk (five hours, 9km one way, blue arrows) traverses the ridges from the gorge to John Hayes Rockhole; the 8km return along the road takes about two hours. Along the way, birders will want to watch for the yellow-throated miner, dusky grasswren and even budgerigars. Other hiking possibilities include the Panorama Walk (one hour, 2.5km, red arrows). The delightful John Hayes Rockhole, 9km from the Trephina Gorge turn-off (the last 4km is high-clearance 4WD only), has three basic campsites. From here, the gorgeous Chain of Ponds walk (1½ hours, 4km loop) leads past rock pools and up to a lookout above the gorge. Note that a couple of elderly tourists died after getting lost while hiking here in February 2017, after a sign was washed away by heavy rain – always stick to marked trails, and carry sufficient water at all times. The road in off the Ross Hwy is sealed for the first 3.5km, then turns to gravel, with some (usually shallow) water crossings to the gorge car park. On your way to the gorge, take the turn-off signed 'Ghost Gum'. Just 300m off the main track, you'll find what is believed to be Australia's largest ghost gum, which may be 300 years old and hence predates European settlement in Australia. It's a magnificent specimen.
Food is the main attraction here − from Thai, Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese and Malaysian to Brazilian, Greek, Portuguese and more − all at around $6 to $12 a serve. But that's only half the fun – arts and crafts stalls bulge with handmade jewellery, fabulous rainbow tie-dyed clothes, Aboriginal artefacts, and wares from Indonesia and Thailand. Mindil beach is about 2km from Darwin's city centre; it's an easy walk or hop on buses 4 or 6, which go past the market. As the sun heads towards the horizon, half of Darwin descends on the market, with tables, chairs, rugs, grog and kids in tow to enjoy the sunset. Peruse and promenade, stop for a pummelling massage or listen to rhythmic live music. Don't miss a flaming satay stick from Bobby's brazier. Top it off with fresh fruit salad, a decadent cake or luscious crêpes. Similar stalls (you'll recognise many of the stallholders) can be found at various suburban markets from Friday to Sunday.
Head to Desert Park, where the creatures of central Australia are all on display in one place, including many that are extremely difficult to find out on the trail. The predominantly open-air exhibits faithfully re-create the animals' natural environments in a series of habitats: inland river, sand country and woodland. It's an easy 2.5km cycle to the park. Pick up a free audio guide (available in various languages) or join one of the free ranger-led talks throughout the day. Try to time your visit to coincide with the terrific birds of prey show, featuring free-flying Australian kestrels, kites and awesome wedge-tailed eagles. To catch some of the park's rare and elusive animals, such as the bilby, visit the excellent nocturnal house. If you like what you see, come back at night and spotlight endangered species on the guided nocturnal tour (bookings essential).
Run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), this ground-breaking wildlife reserve 136km south off the Tanami Track covers 2620 sq km and is on the front line of attempts to save Australia's native wildlife. By building a fence to keep out feral cats, foxes and other species that have killed countless native mammals and birds, AWC has been able to reintroduce numerous endangered native species. Camping ($10 per person, cash only) is possible, as are self-guided tours of the sanctuary. Camping here is open from April to September. The sites are unpowered, but there are toilet and shower facilities with drinking water. Although some sections of the sanctuary are off-limits while conservation works continue, options for exploring include 300km of trails (information sheets and interpretative notes are available). Short birdwatching walks and escarpment lookout points are also accessible. Part of the Great Sandy Desert, Newhaven belongs to the Ngalia Warlpiri people – a successful native title land claim was finalised in 2010. AWC works in close partnership with the traditional owners, and many of those employed here come from the local community. Landscapes are varied, from rocky desert massifs and sand dunes to salt lakes, clay-pans, spinifex plains, and mulga and eucalyptus woodlands. These varied habitats have long provided shelter for species such as the black-footed rock-wallaby (one of 27 mammal species) and the great desert skink (one of 83 reptile species), as well 170 different types of bird. Once nonnative predators have been removed from the area, AWC hopes to introduce 11 nationally threatened or endangered species such as the mala (otherwise known as the rufous hare-wallaby, currently extinct in the wild) and the golden bandicoot.
If the tourists won't go out to see the crocs, then bring the crocs to the tourists. Right in the middle of Mitchell St, Crocosaurus Cove is as close as you'll ever want to get to these amazing creatures. Six of the largest crocs in captivity can be seen in state-of-the-art aquariums and pools, while you can be lowered right into a pool with the crocs in the transparent Cage of Death (one/two people $170/260). If that's too scary, there's another pool where you can swim with a clear tank wall separating you from some mildly less menacing baby crocs. Other aquariums feature barramundi, turtles and stingrays, plus there's an enormous reptile house (allegedly displaying the greatest variety of reptiles in the country).