#1: Top secret spot – Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory Largely overlooked by anyone but fishing tragics (according to AT writer Craig Tansley, who visited recently, all but 30 tourists a year who make it to Groote Eylandt do so to fish, it being a game fishing destination of world renown) the landscape on the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria is scattered with remote Aboriginal communities, millennia-old cave paintings (some only being seen for the first time by anyone but the Indigenous residents), waterfalls and pristine pools perfect for cooling off in the far north heat. While it might seem like the final frontier, there are a few mod cons, including the Groote Eylandt Lodge, sitting at the water’s edge. But that’s about it really: according to Craig, they keep crocodiles as pets up there. Now that’s something you’ve just got to see to believe.
#1: Camping spot – Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory One of the Northern Territory’s most spectacular swimming spots has to be at Ormiston Gorge, 135 kilometres west of Alice Springs on the way to Kings Canyon. The gorge forms part of the Larapinta Trail, which runs the length of the West MacDonnell National Park. Camping here means you can take a few days to enjoy swimming in the waterhole, surrounded by cliffs of striking red rock lined with white sand beaches. Brace yourself though, even on a hot day the water is very cold. From Ormiston Gorge campsite you can also take off into the bush on the 2.4-kilometre Ghost Gum Walk; keep an eye out for the metre-long Mertens’ water monitor and dingoes, which will be after a sandwich or two from your pack. Secret tip: the kiosk here serves great coffee seven days a week – the camper’s medicine.
#2: Outback odysseys – Uluru, Northern Territory Last year was a big one for the Rock – the wishes, culture and law of the traditional owners, the Anangu people, were finally officially respected and from 26 October 2019, you’ll no longer be able to climb up this sacred place, an area of secret men’s business. It’s a decision that reinforces what a significant site Uluru is for its traditional owners, something that makes a journey to this most famous of outback destinations so rewarding. Uluru isn’t just a great photo opportunity, something to be conquered; it’s a journey to the core of Anangu existence and a part of Tjukurpa, the foundation time and place within which ancestral beings created the Universe, laws and cultural ways.
#3: Outback odysseys – Arnhem Land, Northern Territory Travelling to the far remote north-east of the NT is not easy; you could fly in but you’ll still have to sit in a 4WD for hours on sandy, ochre dirt roads making your way across rivers to isolated homeland communities, every one of which you’ll need permission to pass through. Heading here is not a holiday; you will sleep alongside its people, often under the stars, and eat traditional bush tucker that may push you beyond your culinary comfort zone, with staples like dugong and turtle eggs. It’s a journey through a wild and barely touched environment, of pristine white beaches and untamed, tropical bush, and the people that live there; you’ll find thriving communities of the Yolngu people, who have in many cases returned to their ancestral homelands from the cities. And what can be a more rewarding journey than that?
#4: Outback odysseys – Wilpena Pound, Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia An enigmatic landform that looks like a massive impact crater, Wilpena Pound is often (annoyingly for those who live here) mistaken for being the crater from Wolf Creek. In fact its mountain-ringed bowl is a result of a sedimentary syncline, something for school teachers to get excited about. Indeed, the Geologist’s Drive here is geologist pornography; or would that be just… geography? Come for challenging sunrise walks up into this natural amphitheatre including a section of the famous Heysen Trail, named for the artist who obsessed over the colourful gums in the region. At the end of the day, retire to luxury accommodation including the eco-villas at Rawnsley Park Station or Wilpena Pound Resort for glamping. And you have to drop into the Prairie at Parachilna, just under two hours north, for the feral food platter and fine wines at a traditional outback pub that looks country from the outside but is surprisingly metropolitan within. See, Wilpena Pound is so much more than a crater – ahem, we mean syncline.
#5: Camping spot – Bamurru Plains, Northern Territory The Northern Territory’s cattle stations can be bigger than some European nations. Take the 300-square-kilometre Swim Creek on the cusp of Kakadu National Park and the floodplains of the Mary River. It’s a vast, wild place where cranes, jacanas and kingfishers share the wetlands with brumbies, wallabies and crocs. In the middle of all this, just three hours’ drive from Darwin, is quite possibly the ultimate glampsite: Bamurru Plains. Taking in the view from the lodge you could be in the Okavango Delta, with buffalo grazing the surrounding floodplain. It’s fitting then that the accommodation channels a luxury African camp; the Safari Bungalows feature king-size beds on raised platforms open to views of the wildlife beyond with floor-to-ceiling mesh walls. Plus there are en suite bathrooms and an infinity pool at the central lodge to cool off in after you’ve been out on the water. Indeed, the best way to see this area is by airboat, the fan-powered water craft synonymous with high-speed chases in the Florida Keys. The guided tour skims you across the wetlands to get a close look at the birds, crocs and families of buffalo that call this place home, with a glass of Champagne and bush-tucker canapés to boot.
#5: Idyllic island – Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory All you need to know about the Tiwi Islands...
- The islands are nicknamed the Island of Smiles, reason enough to spend time there.
- The Tiwi Islands are made up of two islands, Bathurst and Melville Islands, which are located 80 kilometres north of Darwin.
- The Tiwi people are rightly famous for their art; visit Bathurst Island for the annual art sale in March to meet the artists and buy works, and then watch the footy Grand Final. The sale takes place at the Tiwi Design Art Centre, with additional arts and crafts from Jilamara Arts and Crafts and Munupi Arts and Crafts from Melville Island, beginning at 9am and concluding when the footy starts at 1pm.
- Tours led by an Indigenous guide are the best way to explore the diverse landscape of tropical rainforest cliffs, white sand beaches, dense jungle and idyllic rock pools.
#6: Outback odysseys – King’s Canyon, Northern Territory “We’ve landed on a strange, mysterious world,” Captain Kirk might have said if he’d beamed down onto the precipice of this canyon. Possessing a striking, grand beauty of sweeping orange sandstone cliffs 100 metres high, Kings Canyon, six hours south-west of Alice Springs and home to the Luritja people for some 20,000 years, demands to be explored. Walking along its rim you feel like you could be the first to set foot on some alien world, the buttresses of rock affording views of an oasis of natural pools fed by Kings Creek below. Once you’ve done the Rim Walk, head down for the spectacular Base Walk. And if you want to see the impressive scale of this deep wound in the desert, take a helicopter tour over it with Kings Canyon Resort.
#7: Outback odysseys – Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, Northern Territory Whether it’s an endless sea of red sand, or the minimalist aesthetic of a desert dotted with hardy shrubs and delicate wildflowers, the outback often comes across as homogenous expanses, spectacular as they are nonetheless. It’s when nature suddenly decides to get creative across these canvases like a frenzied Jackson Pollock that things start to get really interesting. Take Nitmiluk Gorge in its namesake national park, just 30 kilometres from the township of Katherine. In fact, 13 gorges here suddenly sink down into the wilderness of bush, a process that has taken the Katherine River thousands of years, witnessed over the course of many generations by the Jawoyn people. Allow them to show you their home with tours of raging waterfalls, ancient rock-art sites and cruises along the river by kayak or boat through their company Nitmiluk Tours. It also means you can enjoy it all with a stay at the gorgeous Cicada Lodge too.
#7: Alternative capital – Alice Springs, Northern Territory It’s your jumping-off point for exploring the outback of the Northern Territory, and a city of art and culture in its own unique capacity. Throughout the year, check out Aboriginal art in Alice Springs’ galleries and enjoy brunch and coffee at a funky cafe. Visit in springtime and you’ll find the city activated by the Alice Desert Festival, an annual event that brings together music and dance collaborations from traditional Aboriginal artists and contemporary acts; in winter, it’s time for the eccentric Beanie Festival.