In the early nineties the Northern Territory ran a highly successful campaign on the theme “You’ll never never know, if you never never go". No truer words were ever written about one of the world’s oldest and most extraordinary landscapes and cultures. A trip which should feature on every bucket list.
Exploring the Top End of Australia offers the diverseness of Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks and Katherine Gorge all within a few hours driving of Darwin which can be taken in easily on a 7 day driving trip in the Top End.
The NT is the third largest land area for a State or Territory in Australia. An important consideration before you start planning your holiday, as it will affect the way you approach building an itinerary and what you do and don’t do.
The Northern Territory equates to roughly:
- Slightly larger than South Africa
- Twice the size of Texas
- Three times the size of Japan or Germany
- Five times the size of New Zealand or the UK
Important consideration for travelling within the Northern Territory
There are two distinct areas, 1600km’s apart:
- The Tropical North - Darwin, Litchfield Park, Mataranka, Katherine, Kakadu and Arnhem Land. There are only 2 seasons in the North. ‘The Dry’ - May to October and ‘The Wet’ - November to April. The average temperature in the north is 32 degrees Celsius all year round, it’s just raining or dry.
- The Red Centre - Tennent Creek, Alice Springs and the Uluru Area. There are 4 seasons in this area. Like most desert landscapes after very dry hot days the night time temperature can drop dramatically. February/March is the hottest time when the average daytime temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and the night time is 20 degrees Celsius. The cooler weather is around June/July when it’s 20 degrees Celsius during the day but can get down to 5 degrees at night.
When it comes to vehicle choice the most popular options are either 4 wheel drive or the more traditional camper.
- 4WD vehicles give you the option to travel on the unsealed roads of the Tropical North and the Red Centre. Within the NT National Parks there certain areas that can only be reached using a 4WD. Elsewhere there are other areas where it is advisable to have a 4WD and permits may also be required. Whilst a 4WD provides greater reach you will sacrifice the level of home comforts available in a traditional Campervan or Motorhome.
- Regular Motorhome/Campervans - offer a home away from home option of varying sizes and level of inclusions while still giving you immense freedom, but limit you to sealed roads. However, there are always guided sightseeing options that you can do from the central locations in national parks and regional towns. This option takes the stress out of navigating the roads yourself with the added advantage of the expertise of the guide.
What to do in the Tropical North
- Get a ticket for the Hop on/off Bus and spend some time orientating yourself
- Waterfront Precinct - Wave pool, Saltwater Pool, Café’s, Restaurants and Microbreweries
- Shopping - Smith St. Mall
- Stoke Hill Wharf - Royal Flying Doctor Service and Bombing of Darwin Harbour Experience Museum
- Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
- Darwin Botanical Gardens
- Crocosaurus - interactive reptile centre
- Mindil Beach Casino and Market
- Darwin Harbour sunset cruise
- Litchfield National Park - only an hour from Darwin and packed full of beauty. Spend at least 2 days. To experience the waterfalls, walks and swimming spots.
- Kakadu National Park - The UNESCO World Heritage listed National Park is just 3 hours’ drive from Darwin. Over 20,000 km², (about the size of Israel) with 25 campgrounds throughout the park you are never staying far from the sights. Kakadu is renowned for its vast array of waterbirds, from Brolgas and Jabirus to the woodland birds of Lorikeets, Cockatoos and Scrubfowl.
Take your walking shoes, there are the easy walks of less than 4km such as the Ubirr Aboriginal Art Walk, the Mamukala Wetlands Walk and the Nawurlandja Lookout walk. The longer or harder walks are between 10 and 12 km’s but most people with a reasonable fitness should be able to handle the Jim Jim Falls walk, Sandstone River walk and the Barrk Standton walk to name just a few. Parts of the park are only accessible by 4WD.
River cruises for crocodile viewing is the ONLY safely way to take in these ancient predators with the added advantage of seeing a lot of other reptiles and wildlife while onboard. A Ranger guided tour is also another must. It’s important to understand the significant relationship of the traditional owners, the Bininj and Mungguy people, with the land and the only way to do that is with their guidance.
What to do in the Red Centre
A camel ride, a hot air balloon ride, golf and hikes in the desert and immerse yourself in indigenous culture and history.
- ANZAC Hill - your first stop for a complete view over Alice Springs to familiarise yourself with the layout of the town.
- Telegraph Station Historical Reserve - The birth place of town. Be sure to visit when a guided tour is scheduled.
- Olive Pink Botanic Gardens - The gardens present the unique flora of the central arid lands of the Red Centre.
- Alice Springs Desert Park - check the daily schedule for the showings.
- Fauna experience - The Reptile Centre and The Kangaroo Sanctuary.
- Sound and Starlight Theatre to experience the outback night sky.
- Mbantua Gallery to view and buy indigenous art.
Close to Alice Springs
- Tjoritja West MacDonnell National Park - The park stretches west 161 km from just outside Alice Springs, so there is much to do and see. The park is the home of the Larapinta Trail but if the 223 km walk is a little too far for you there are many shorter more manageable walks that are just as interesting. Take in Ormiston, Glen Helen and Redbank Gorge. (some of the park is only accessible by 4WD).
- East MacDonnell Ranges - The park stretches 161kms from Alice Springs but only the first 75kms is a sealed road. Some terrific sites are within easy distance from Alice Springs such as the Emily Gap sacred site, Corroboree Rock and the 4WD accessed Trephina Gorge National Park.
Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park
Pukul naglya yanam Ananguku ngrurakutu (Yankunytjatjara welcome)
Pukulpa pitjama Ananguku ngurakutu (Pitjantjatjara welcome)
“This is Anangu land and you are welcome. Look around and learn in order to understand Anangu and also understand that our culture is strong and alive" - Traditional owner statement courtesy of Tourism Australia.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed - Uluru, is one of the iconic bucket list sights of Australia, not only is it spectacular to view sunrise, noon or sunset it’s also one of the most important sacred sites of the indigenous custodians.
Sunrise - The viewing area, Talinguru Nyakunytjaku, offers the ultimate spot for an amazing sunrise experience, head there before sunrise and get your camera ready. It has a car park and facilities attached.
Look closely - do the base walk, it’s almost 10kms around with two car park stations that you can start/finish the walk from (Mala is the best), there are a couple of water stations along the way but it’s important to take plenty of water and start the walk early so you can finish before the heat of day, it’s impossible to get lost. The Rock changes as you progress, the Mala section has terrific rock art and it’s a good section to take a guided tour so you can understand the significance of the ancient artwork. Follow the track around to the Mutitjulu Waterhole, on a rainy day (there aren’t many) you can see amazing waterfalls off the rock. There are some culturally sensitive areas of the rock that are clearly marked, put your camera away here.
Sunset - is more than just the changing colours of the rock, the red centre night sky is an essential part of the experience. This is also a good spot to get a good sunset view of Kata Tjuta.
Some think the 36 domes of Kata Tjuta (formally the Olgas) are more interesting than Uluru. Although the many walks and the Walpa Gorge are an amazing experience the cultural significance of the site is private to the Anangu people.
The Valley of the Winds walk - the walk takes about an hour and is a bit more of a challenge than circumnavigating Uluru, bit it’s worth the effort. Like everything in the red centre that involves physical exertion - start early.
Walpa Gorge - is a much easier and shorter walk amongst the sheer walls between to the two largest domes.
Stay - Camp ground at the Ayers Rock Resort, book as far ahead as possible.
Between the Tropical North and the Red Centre
Katherine - Elsey National Park and Mataranka thermal springs along with the Cutta Cutta Caves National Park deserve your attention in the Katherine area.
Tennent Creek - Karlu Karlu and Kunjarra, the Devils marbles and her pebbles, are granite boulders and exposed ancient outcrops. The traditional inhabitants of the area, the Warmungu people, believe the Marbles are part of the dreamtime legend of the Rainbow Serpent and not marbles but eggs.
Finke Gorge National Park - Palm Valley - 4WD required. If you are in a traditional Motorhome/Campervan take a guided tour. Don’t just drive on by the Finke Gorge NP, Palm Valley in particular is an oasis experience that should really not be missed.
Fly into Darwin or Alice Springs and pick up your choice of camper, motorhome or four-wheel drive. One-way rentals between the two centres is possible and common.