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The Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory is vast, with its boundaries encompassing a variety of contrasting landscapes and experiences across Darwin, Katherine, Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park. You’d be forgiven for thinking this part of the country was a desert wasteland, however it’s actually one of the wettest places in Australia - known for its floodplains, rainforests, waterfalls, rugged and rocky landscapes, abundant wildlife and excellent Aboriginal culture.
Let’s start in Darwin, the main (or only) city in the region. Named after Charles Darwin who visited aboard the HMS Beagle, the city has a small population of about 150,000. Darwin is easily accessible from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as nearby Asian centres such as Bali and Singapore (in fact it’s far closer to Indonesia than it is to the rest of Australia!). Or for a real treat, take the historic Ghan train which runs from Adelaide to Alice Springs (where you can get off for a few days to see Uluru/Ayers Rock) and on to Darwin. Hotels in Darwin are located centrally, close to restaurants and excellent craft boutiques selling authentic Aboriginal cultural art, one of the main attractions in the city. Along the Esplanade which runs atop a cliff plunging into the Beagle Gulf (again from Charles Darwin fame) is another strip of hotels which offer stunning views of the sun slowly dipping over the horizon at dusk.
In recent years, a billion dollar development has transformed the ‘Waterfront’ into the main tourism precinct. Here you’ll find a massive lagoon pool for the kids, plenty of great hotels and a long list of restaurants, cafes and bars. Jump aboard an evening dinner cruise on a traditional sailing ship for a tasty meal on the seas with stunning views of the city’s famous sunset. Other main attractions include Crocosaurus Cove where you can go cage diving in a crocodile enclosure. The city has a ton of history to be discovered, particularly to do with Cyclone Tracey and bombings by Japan in WWII, both events that almost wiped Darwin off the map.
2. Kakadu National Park
Leaving Darwin behind, the next popular stop is Kakadu National Park. Being the size of the entire Waikato region, Kakadu holds some of the greatest natural and manmade features in Australia. To really get the most out of Kakadu, a two or three day tour is recommended, especially in wet season when many of the attractions are inaccessible. Kakadu features over 280 species of birds, 60 mammals and over 10,000 insects - after an hour or two in the park, you will absolutely know why Aussie’s have those funny hats with the corks hanging off. Needless to say, this is the place to spot wildlife. Amongst the most numerous animals in the park are crocodiles which infest the majority of the rivers – take a cruise to see these ancient animals right up close. Another feature of Kakadu are the stunning wetland vistas, including an unmissable viewing area called Ubirr where you can see ancient Aboriginal rock art thought to date back to 40,000 BC. One of the most notable paintings is that of a Thylacine (the Tasmanian Tiger, not to be confused with Tasmanian Devils) which became extinct in the Top End over 2000 years ago (and are now extinct across all of Australia). The oppressive heat of the Northern Territory will no doubt get to you, but the good news is that there’s plenty of billabongs (croc free) to keep you cool.
3. Arnhem Land
Adjacent to Kakadu is a region known as the Arnhem Land. This is an incredibly sacred place to the local Aboriginal people and can only be visited by way of guided tour as special permits are required to enter the park. If you really want to immerse yourself in Aboriginal culture, then this is the place for you. Real Aboriginal guides take you ‘walkabout’ in the bush explaining the history and Dreamtime stories. You’ll see how Aboriginal people lived before Europeans arrived, and learn about everything from natural medicines to didgeridoos.
4. Katherine Gorge
South of Kakadu is the impressive Katherine Gorge. The gorge features giant red stone walls thanks to millions of years of erosion by the Katherine River. With its abundant waterways, including rivers, gorges, pools and waterfalls, the region is where the outback meets the tropics. For fabulous views of remote and dramatic scenery, take a cruise along the gorge and team it up with dinner for an even more exclusive experience.
5. Litchfield National Park
The last major attraction in the region is Litchfield National Park, a comfortable one and a half hour drive from Darwin. Often overshadowed by its much more famous sister Kakadu, Litchfield has actually been consistently voted the best national park in the country. The major attraction here is the waterfalls and billabongs, of which you have plenty to choose from – swim under the thundering waterfalls in crystal clear rock pools that are edged with pandanus… Bliss! Other attractions include a number of failed settlements which have now become ghost towns, and the Lost City, a rock formation of stone pillars which have resisted erosion and now resemble mini city skyscrapers. A lot of the attractions in this park can only be visited by 4WD’s so a guided tour of the park is a must (taking your rental car in there could end up being hideously expensive!)
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