Never been to the Northern Territory and don’t know where to start? It’s easier than you think to make the most of its wonders.
At almost 1.5 million square kilometres and covering one fifth of Australia’s landmass, the Northern Territory is so vast that the uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking it somewhat inaccessible. But know where to start and it’s surprisingly easy to grips with this great unknown.
From wild swims and wilderness lodges to fine dining and caffeine fixes, here are nine ways a first timer can experience the essence of the NT – some you’ll expect, and others you won’t.
1. Hug a crocodile
You don’t have to go far to spot one of the Territory’s 100,000 ‘salties’. Crocosaurus Cove (check out our full Crocosaurus Cove story) in the centre of Darwin city is the easiest place to meet some prehistoric reptile friends.
You can handle a baby croc and get up close and personal with some of the centre’s more famous inhabitants like Burt, the star of Crocodile Dundee. And, if it appeals, you can enter the Cage of Death to experience Australia’s only crocodile dive.
One of our favourite places to see crocodiles is in their natural habitat at Kakadu National Park (visit our Kakadu guide). Jump aboard a dawn or dusk cruise on the spectacular Yellow Water Billabong and glide through the wetlands, which are teeming with flora and fauna both placid and predatory (find out more with our guide to Kakadu tours).
If you like your crocodiles with a little more verve, check out the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise on the Adelaide River, an easy 60-minute drive from Darwin. You’ll want to keep your arms inside the boat as five-metre crocs with names like Brutus leap out of the river to snack on hunks of dangling meat.
2. Go wild swimming
The NT is home to an array of spectacular wild swimming spots. In the Top End, we’re talking crystal clear waterholes, lined with luminescent green reeds and bursts of pandanus, often topped-off with an Insta-worthy waterfall.
While there’s some sweet spots closer to Darwin (looking at you Berry Springs Nature Park and Litchfield National Park), head to the south of Kakadu National Park to explore some of the Territory’s most pristine swimming holes.
Among our favourites (they don’t require a 4WD) is the famous plunge pools at Gunlom Falls – accessed by a manageably steep climb up the escarpment – which have been heralded as nature’s finest infinity pools. As you’d expect the pools can get busy during holidays and long weekends, but not to worry as the lower swimming hole, with its long-necked turtles, is just as special.
Further south down the Stuart Highway, you’ll hit Mataranka, famous for its soothing thermal pool (check out our guide to Mataranka). While it is lovely, especially in the early morning before the crowds descend, we prefer escaping to nearby Bitter Springs, a serene palm-fringed pool in spring-fed Elsey National Park, for some blue-and-emerald bliss.
In central Australia, escape the heat with a dip in pretty (though staggeringly cold) Ellery Creek Big Hole in the West MacDonnell Ranges, 90 minutes out of Alice Springs, which is framed by 400 million-year-old red cliffs.
3. Celebrate the best of remote Indigenous Australia
There are some fantastic Indigenous-run tours from both Darwin and Alice Springs that will introduce you to the rich culture and history of the Territory’s Indigenous people.
Pudakul’s two-hour cultural experience uses the beautiful Adelaide River wetlands to explore traditional bush medicine and tucker, while in Alice Springs you can spend the evening by the campfire with Arrernte man Bob Taylor (view our guide to Darwin tours). But if you’re up for more than just a taster, consider planning your trip around one of the many remote festivals that run during the dry season.
At the three-day Barunga Festival, visitors of all ages are encouraged to join in the festivities which include traditional dance (bungul), didgeridoo and spear-throwing, alongside high profile Indigenous and non-Indigenous acts. The Tiwi Islands footy grand final and art sale, held each March, is another unique opportunity to enjoy a celebration of remote Indigenous community life.
4. Fall in love with Indigenous art
Whether you’re an art lover or not, the creative offerings in the NT are tantalising. But they can be a tad overwhelming. Start by taking a broad look at the different Indigenous art movements in the impressive collections at the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin and the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs.
Once you’ve worked out what you’re drawn to, it’s time to find something special to take home. You could plan your trip round the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, which runs in early August and features around 200 artists, or check out Alice Springs’ lively and less formal Desert Mob art fair in September. Alternatively make sure to visit an Aboriginal art centre, where you can meet the artists and see them work. Purchasing art directly from centres is the ‘gold standard’ way to shop as it ensures artists are paid fairly for their work (check out our guide to buying and experiencing NT art).
If you’re short on time, some galleries that work directly with art centres include Darwin’s Outstation Gallery, Nomad Art and the Paul Johnstone Gallery, as well as Alice Springs’ Raft Artspace. If buying outside of an art centre, check that you’re making an ethical purchase by noting whether the gallery or seller is a signatory to the Indigenous Art Code.
5. Bag a barra in the wild
There’s nothing quite as thrilling as catching a barramundi ‘this big’ in the wild and nowhere that offers such diverse and magnificent settings as the Northern Territory.
Make like all the Darwin men on Tinder and get that monster fish shot with a bit of land-based fishing. Ron and George at Fishing and Outdoor World will set you up with a light spinning rod, a few lures and some local know-how. They recommend Stokes Hill Wharf, which is right in the city and has a dedicated fishing platform and artificial reef, and the jetty at Mandorah on the western side of the harbour (take a ferry from Cullen Bay). Just outside the harbour, the gorgeous Nightcliff Jetty is another popular spot (view our tips for bagging a barramundi).
Alternatively, there are plenty of charters catering for every type of angler. From an all-inclusive Tiwi Island fishing experience, to a day exploring the mud crab-filled creeks and coastal rivers of Dundee (90 mins from Darwin) to heli-fishing around the Top End, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a barra in the net.
6. Sleep under the stars
You don’t need to haul your tent and esky north, because the NT offers plenty of opportunities for bush luxury.
Top End Lodges like Wildman Wilderness Lodge and Bamurru Plains on the Mary River – halfway between Darwin and Kakadu – allow you to wake to a chorus of birds from the comfort of your stylish eco cabin or luxe safari tent (read our reviews of the stunning Bamarru Plains and Wildman Wilderness Lodge).When you’re not sipping G&Ts while brolgas dance on the floodplains, there’s guided fishing tours, mountain biking, bird watching and river cruises.
Further south, you can spend the day exploring the hauntingly beautiful Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park before retreating to the air-con and fine food at the Indigenous-run Cicada Lodge (visit our tops places to explore at Nitmiluk Katherine Gorge). At Uluru, make yourself at home at the ultra-luxurious Longitude 131°, nestled atop rust-red dunes, overlooking the Rock.
‘Camping’ doesn’t get more glamourous than this.
7. Experience gastronomy with a cheeky twist
Even in remote central Australia, you’re never too far from a good meal (or at the very least a decent barra burger). In Alice Springs, Epilogue Lounge is a stand out for its sophisticated tapas menu and live music. In the Top End, food markets and jovial Greek tavernas are making room for waterside food trucks, hipster cafes and slick, high-end restaurants.
One of Darwin’s coolest hangs is Little Miss Korea. At this industrial, graffitied space you can cook bulgogi barbecued beef and pork belly on your table-top grill at night (it pays to be careful after a dry martini or two!), and bulk up on bowls of bibimbap during the day. Other current faves include authentic Neapolitan deliciousness at Alfonsino’s Italian Porchetta Bar & Pizzeria (you can also catch its pizza with a view from its sister food truck Cucina Sotto le Stelle at Nightcliff) and the Needle in the Haystack food truck, which brings top-notch seasonal produce to the streets of Darwin (check out our other favourites spots for Darwin dining).
8. Grab a great cup of coffee
Whether you’re after a slow brew, pour-over or a quick ristretto, you barely need to work up a sweat sorting out your caffeine craving (and that’s saying something in steamy Darwin!). Our pick for the finest brew in Alice Springs is The Goods Coffee Shop; it’s a close contender to the hipster Coffee Horse, which serves cups from a caravan in the industrial precinct.
In the Darwin suburb of Parap, snag a spot at the communal table at Laneway Specialty Coffee for excellent Campos coffee and slick cafe fare, or take an adventure out to Casuarina Beach (25 minutes from the city) to the glorious De la Plage beach cafe at the Darwin Surf Life Saving Club, which occupies a grassy expanse overlooking the Arafura Sea.
9. See the world’s best lightning show
While the traditional ‘best’ time to visit the Top End is in the dry season (approximately May to October) when you can expect a drop in temperature and humidity and slightly cooler nights, there’s a whole swag of benefits to visiting out of season.
Head north during the wet season (November to April) when you can grab some great deals on flights, accommodation and tours. Generally speaking, it’s not as wet as its name suggests, and the sunsets and lightning shows are dazzling. The weekend markets run all year – so you can get your fill of laksa – and the rain (which isn’t constant, but is cooling!) brings raging waterfalls to Litchfield National Park, which are well worth a trip.