Closer to Bali than Brisbane, DARWIN offers a gateway into an altogether different and wilder world of SORBET SUNSETS, tropical flora and jumping crocodiles. Come here to get your tropical fix in DARWIN & the TOP END.
Spending a week in the Top End offers up ample opportunity to experience everything the tropics can throw at you: an abundance of water, sorbet sunsets, fronds the size of houses, crocodiles (from afar!), Indigenous culture and frosty mango smoothies thrown in for good measure. To ensure all items sit on the menu, side-trips out of Darwin to Mary River and Kakadu National Park are a must.
Darwin is Australia’s most northerly capital city, and the Top End one of the country’s most northerly regions. This largely flat, monsoonal sweep of land borders the Timor Sea and runs as far south as 400 kilometres below Darwin to Mataranka.
The monsoonal aspect here is key for travellers, as it divides the year into two clear-cut seasons: the rainy ‘Wet’ and the low-humidity ‘Dry’. I’m visiting in the Dry so I can see as much as possible. During the Wet, road and swimming hole closures mean there’s less to do, but also fuller waterfalls and fewer people around, too – so both seasons come with varying perks.
Instead of braving the backpacker strip in the city centre, I opt to rummage through the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens. Instantly, I’m drawn to a quaint cottage set at the garden’s entrance. Its grounds are littered with cane chairs, coffee tables and brightly coloured cushions. This, I discover, is Eva’s Botanical Cafe. It’s housed inside a heritage-listed church built in 1897. Granted, there are no mango smoothies on the menu, but there is a banana shake. I clasp my hands around the chilled glass and drink its entire contents with haste, before moving deeper into the gardens.
A rainforest section is alive with lacewing butterflies and behemoth fronds. It’s a haven of cool. And nowhere is this more the case than upon a bridge above the waterfall, set to the rear of the forest. From here, I explore the cycad garden and take in the diversity of palm trees. A passing staffer tells me there are over 450 species around me. My neck cranes to spy the trees’ upper branches, dotted with bouquets of red and orange fruit.
The sky shifts to a flirty shade of pink and I make the short trip to Stokes Hill Wharf, just south of the CBD, for a sunset harbour cruise. Aboard a vintage sailing boat, I sip bubbles and sigh with early-onset, tropics-induced satisfaction. The pinks now shift through a wheel of oranges, reds and yellows, like fireworks frozen on the horizon.
After a sleep-in the next morning, it’s time to head 65 kilometres east for the start of my out-of-town adventure, cruising on the Adelaide River to witness the famous jumping crocodiles. Sure, you can see these reptiles in Darwin at various aquariums and crocodile parks. Heck, you can even swim with them inside a suspended cage if you’re nuts enough to do so. But for me, zoo environments don’t quite sit right: nothing beats seeing crocs in their natural environment, patrolling the river for food.
Before long, I come face-to-face with a beast. Brutus is 86 years old, 5.5-metres long and once suffered a shark attack, which explains his missing limb. I spot him 20 metres from the boat, his snout and tail barely visible above the water. “This is no ‘logodile’ folks. Here comes the king!” shouts our guide.
When the animal leaps to snatch a hunk of buffalo meat dangling from a hook cast from the boat, Brutus’s whole body rockets into the air, feet included. It’s thrilling and shocking all at once. Jumping crocodiles are something you can only see in the NT, and watching these giants in the flesh flings my body into a goose-bump frenzy. Will anyone believe me when I say that I did this?
A further 195 kilometres down the Arnhem Highway in the township of Jabiru, I set off for Kakadu. First stop: Nourlangie rock art site. This towering escarpment houses shady art galleries in its lower section and glorious views of the Kakadu plains from up top.
All that remains now – tropical fix nearly complete – is a cruise along Yellow Water Billabong. This expansive plain teems with jabirus, sea eagles, a bounty of fish, and yet more crocodiles. As we coast along, another saltie sets sail in our direction. I start to fear the predators are drawn to me. “It’s the Top End, not you,” our Indigenous cruise guide Danny assures me, waving a hand to calm me down. “It’s wild up here.”
Wild and wonderfully another world away, I think as I gaze through a thicket of paperbark trees to the vast wetlands beyond.