From the vast wetlands, mighty gorges and waterfalls in Kakadu and Nitmiluk to the ancient indigenous rock paintings in Arnhem Land, the Northern Territory’s Top End is the glittering jewel of the north – and one of Australia’s 16 Ultimate Escapes
Soul-stirring and steeped in spirituality, the Northern Territory is an achingly beautiful part of Australia, home to larger-than-life scenery and six dramatically different seasons. With its ancient Aboriginal connection, the stories of the Dreamtime are shared on cliff-face galleries, creating the greatest and oldest collections of rock art in the world.
In national parks like the Kakadu, a pristine World Heritage wilderness awaits. Drift silently through rivers and lily-covered wetlands on a guided cruise, spotting saltwater crocodiles – leathery-skinned, prehistoric predators – peering from the water. Go on a rock art gallery tour, marvelling at 25,000-year-old paintings hidden beneath sheer escarpments and caves, finishing with a swim at the base of a tumbling waterfall.
To fully appreciate Kakadu’s grandeur, soar over the Arnhem Land escarpment and Gunlom, Twin and Jim Jim Falls on a scenic flight. South of Kakadu, Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) is another wilderness of surging falls, rainforest and mighty cliffs. Picnic, camp or swim at Edith Falls, which flow year round, or cruise along Katherine River through Katherine Gorge – sandstone gorges carved over millions of years.
During the monsoon, the wetlands swell with water and millions of migratory birds, including jabirus and dancing brolgas swoop across the floodplains. And if you like fishing, you’ve hit the jackpot. The Territory is famous for barramundi fishing – snare a prized catch in the Daly or Mary River or catch and cook mud crab or salmon in Darwin Harbour and estuaries.
Explore: Kakadu calling
Describing Kakadu as a park does not do it justice. This vast swathe of land encompasses more than 20,000 square kilometres. Whether you want to take a four-wheel drive tour through a jaw-dropping landscape of gorges, thunderous waterfalls and floodplains or float along on a river cruise, spotting crocs lurking in the water, www.kakadutourism.com/tours-activities/yellow-water-cruises/is an indigenous-owned company offering the whole kit and kaboodle of Kakadu tours. To boot, they offer flexible itineraries to suit your travel plans and even a hotel – the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, which from the air is shaped like a saltwater crocodile. All bases are covered, in other words. Phone: 1800 500 401.
Indigenous: rock art and wildlife
In the northwest corner of Arnhem Land, the sacred site of Mt Borradaile offers culturally sensitive tours to some of the most restricted areas of Australia. Davidson’s Arnhemland Safari Lodge, set on 700 square kilometres of sacred land, offers unmissable rock art tours; the ancient paintings depicting the first contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans with remarkable detail – ships and rifles are clearly visible. Wildlife lovers are spoiled here too. When the two billabongs of Cooper Creek flood in the wet season, it’s a birdlife bonanza with some 270 species flocking to the region, from the jabiru, with its elongated neck and crimson legs, to brolgas, night herons, kites and kingfishers. Phone: 08 8979 0413.
Adventure: fish the best barra
Big game anglers get a glint in their eye when the word “barramundi” is mentioned, and the warm, shallow waters of the Mary River flood plains are one of the best places in the world to fish for this prized catch. Guests staying at Bamurru Plains have exclusive access to a 100-sqare kilometre portion of the wetlands, and during the peak barra season of February-April, there’s even a dedicated fishing lodge. The expeditions are loads of fun, speeding along wetlands aboard an airboat, among water lilies and semi-submerged melaleuca forests. While most ’mundi are “catch and release”, the occasional fish can be handed over to the camp’s chef and cooked up for dinner. Phone: 02 9571 6399.
Indigenous: lunch like a local
Dip into freshwater pools beneath gushing waterfalls, fish for barramundi in the Daly River, and explore the rugged Litchfield National Park on a guided tour with a local. Your personable Aboriginal guide will take you to meet the riverside community of Nauiyu, and even show you the bush medicine cabinet – pointing out the clever ways indigenous tribes used the region’s plants, shrubs and termite mounds. You’ll splash about in clear, natural pools – far away from crocs, of course. As for lunch, well, let’s just say it’s quite the spread – a feast of wild-caught barramundi, crocodile and kangaroo with salads, fruit, Tasmanian cheeses and fresh breads. See: ntitours.com.au, 08 8983 1434.
Family: top end kids’ adventures
Venture North’s safari-style camp, set amid the savannah of the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, is a fine base for exploring all the big-ticket adventures, like the Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks, Cobourg Peninsula and Arnhem Land, and tours can be tailored for families. Even the most hyperactive littlie will be entertained with child-friendly activities like learning how to track animals, hunt for mud crabs, and even how to make a campfire (safely, of course). If you haven’t guessed already, the dominant theme here is fun, with next-to-no chance of hearing the dreaded, “I’m bored”. Phone: 08 8927 5500.
Luxury: swim in private pools
This stylish Jawoyn-owned lodge, located on the Katherine River in the Nitmiluk National Park has a wealth of luxury spoils (fabulous dining experiences, infinity pool, Bvlgari amenities – the list goes on) but one of its greatest allures is the location. Venture out to explore the sights, some of which are exclusive to guests staying at Cicada Lodge. Among them is a secluded swimming hole only known in the English language as ‘the art site’. Accessible only via helicopter, this pristine pocket centres around a surging waterfall, surrounded by a gallery of ancient rock art, painted by the local Jawoyn people. cicadalodge.com.au ; 1800 242 232.
Eco stay: glamp it up in the wetlands
You could bring your own tent and pitch it somewhere, messing about with tent pegs. Or, you could set your GPS and drive to the Wildman Wilderness Lodge, situated in the Mary River Wetlands area halfway between Darwin and Kakadu National Park, where you can glamp (that’s glamour camping, for the uninitiated) in an environmentally sensitive, timber-floored safari tent decked out with king-size beds, plump pillows, ceiling fans, ensuites and wide, shaded verandahs. During your stay, you can book an adventure flight or fishing tour, walk or bike through flood plains or boat along billabongs, watching as dragonflies and butterflies skim the water’s surface. The resident crocodile, a five-metre beast named Big Arse, means swimming is off-limits, but there’s no need to worry – the lodge has its own infinity pool. Phone: 07 5527 6860.
Getting there: Fly into Darwin to join a tour, rent a car or even charter a flight to your destination. Kakadu National Park is a three-hour drive, while Arnhem Land is reached by road in five, or by flying into Gove Airport. A 2WD will access most national parks, but you’ll need a 4WD to access gorges and waterfalls.
Eating there: Darwin is brimming with great restaurants, cafes and iconic outdoor food markets. Further out of town, classic outback pubs serve steak and barramundi with damper and icy-cold beer. Depending on where you stay, you can barbecue your own fishing haul over a campfire, or dine on a five-star degustation menu.
Staying there: Take your pick from five-star hotels and resorts, motels, B&Bs right through to caravan parks, campgrounds and hostels. Among the more special Territorian stays are eco-resorts, boasting luxury safari-style canvas tents set among nature.