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.
No journey to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is complete without a visit to Kata Tjuta, a striking group of domed rocks huddled together about 35km west of Uluru. There are 36 boulders shoulder to shoulder, forming deep valleys and steep-sided gorges. Many visitors find them just as captivating as their prominent neighbour.
Nothing can really prepare you for the immensity, grandeur, changing colour and stillness of 'the Rock'. It really is a sight that will sear itself on to your mind. The World Heritage–listed icon has attained the status of a pilgrimage. Uluru, the equally impressive Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and the surrounding area are of deep cultural significance to the traditional owners, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal peoples (who refer to themselves as Anangu).
Kakadu is one of the world's great national parks, combining an astonishing array of attractions. Its wetlands and escarpments shelter abundant wildlife, and mysterious rock art that can date back 20,000 years. This is the traditional land of the Bininj/Mungguy, whose presence brings soul and spirituality to the experience of visiting here. Opportunities for exploring the park with Indigenous guides are many and there are abundant walking trails, tours, waterholes and 4WD tracks for self-guided exploration.
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.
Uluru is a beautiful, charismatic place. Its dimensions are one thing: Uluru is 3.6km long and rises 348m from the surrounding sands (867m above sea level). If that's not sufficiently impressive, remember this: two-thirds of the rock lies beneath the sand. This is a monolith textured with layers of profound spirituality and timeless beauty, the epitome of desert stillness and, in the plays of light and shadow that dance across its surface, one of the richest shows in nature.
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.
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.
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.
Reached off the Stuart Hwy 40km north of Katherine and a further 20km along a sealed road, Leliyn is an idyllic, safe haven for swimming and hiking. The moderate Leliyn Trail (2.6km loop, 1½ hours, medium) climbs into escarpment country through grevillea and spinifex and past scenic lookouts (Bemang is best in the afternoon) to the Upper Pool, where the moderate Sweetwater Pool Trail (8.6km return, three to five hours) branches off.