Route: A Darwin to Darwin loop via Mary River National Park, Kakadu National Park, Katherine & Nitmiluk National Park and Litchfield National Park
Time: Allow at least 7 days, but 10 is better!
Access: The main route is along sealed highways. 4WD is only necessary if you are keen to take side trips on specific 4WD tracks.
If the idea of an easy road trip which takes in some of Australia’s best national parks and natural attractions sounds appealing – we can’t speak more highly of driving ‘Nature’s Way’.
We all know the Northern Territory is blessed with some of the country’s best highlights – but many think that they are hard to access. The idea of a long, fairly intrepid and even off-road adventure comes to mind which, whilst appealing, doesn’t always make people feel confident.
We’d like to encourage some clarity around that idea however – driving Nature’s Way, which takes in four of the Territory’s best National Parks, is actually EASY.
It is a drive which begins from Darwin itself, a city worth spending at least a few days in. We highly recommend visiting the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets – an outstanding night market that operates every Thursday and Sunday between April and October every year. It is a celebration of multi-cultural cuisine, local talent, speciality arts and crafts, and an intoxicating sense of community and tropical culture right on the beach.
Darwin is also fascinating for its World War 2 history, which can be easily explored by a simple walk along Bicentennial Park, a lush stretch of green parkland along the waterfront which is also home to bike paths and soon, a children’s playground. The Cenotaph War Memorial has been located here since 1992, commemorating the men and women who have served in conflicts, as well as the Civilian Memorial, the USS Peary Memorial and monuments dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Bombing of Darwin. Significantly, the park looks out over Darwin Harbour, from which servicemen would have left our shores, and where Japanese Bombers attacked Darwin in 1942.
Another perfect place to spend your time in Darwin is also along the waterfront, where, along with a number of fantastic cafes and restaurants, are the water lagoons, the ultimate way to take advantage of the tropical weather and cool off.
The views from Darwin Harbour back onto the city are equally as impressive. And one of the best ways to enjoy it is on board a sunset harbour cruise. We jumped on board the 50ft catamaran ‘Sundancer’ with Sail Darwin for a three-hour champagne sunset cruise and joined fellow guests in a relaxing cruise around the harbour, while we were served gourmet canapes, bubbles (of course) and incredible views as the sun went down.
The perfect place to base yourself in Darwin is the BIG4 Howard Springs Holiday Park, just a 15 minute drive from the city. Situated in beautiful tropical grounds, you certainly feel you are in the tropics here and have all the space and facilities the whole family could ask for. Beautiful tropical pools, a range of accommodation to suit all travellers from campsites to 3 bedroom deluxe cabins, BBQ’s, a splash park, jumping pillow and much more. When we were there, there was even a food truck which visited to bring a range of international cuisines to us – it was just like Mindil Beach Markets on our doorstep!
Hard as it is to leave Darwin, with it’s cool cafes and tropical culture, it is an easy drive south-east down the Stuart Highway, and then onto the Arnhem Highway, before you reach Mary River just 1 hour and 15 minutes later.
Mary River National Park is one of the first Top End treasures we highly recommend spending some time in. The river itself is home to the highest population of saltwater crocodiles in the world and the perfect place to hop on a river cruise for some wildlife spotting. We stayed the night at Mary River Wilderness Retreat which offered cruises along the river with a local guide, and couldn’t keep our mouths shut as the number of crocodiles we passed kept multiplying.
The wetlands of Mary River are home to an enormous variety of wildlife, from the crocs, to buffalo, and of course, the amazing birdlife that call the Top End home. Also, it is one of the best places to catch one of Australia’s most famous sports fish – the barramundi.
We joined a fishing charter on Corroboree Billabong before the sun was up, and were privileged to witness the wetland around us come to life as dawn broke. From brolgas to magpie geese, jabirus to kingfishers, we lost count of the number of birds congregating around the landscape and at the edge of the water which was carpeted in water lilies. Thanks to the expert direction of our fishing guide at River and Reef, we managed to land a couple of barra in between gazing out at the spectacular scenery around us. Definitely worth waking up early for!
If you get back onto the Arnhem Highway and drive east, you soon find yourself in world-renowned and World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park. It’s only an hour and a half from Mary River to Jabiru, the township in the middle of the park where you will find the Visitor’s Centre, accommodation and facilities. It is the perfect base for your time in Kakadu, and you can head out from here daily to explore different parts of the National Park.
High on our list of Kakadu highlights are the ancient Aboriginal rock art sites. The rock art here is of international significance, with one of the greatest concentrations in the world. Paintings up to 20,000 years old can be found in the two main galleries at Ubirr and Nourlangie, representing the Bininj/Mungguy people and their relationship with their land and heritage.
At Nourlangie, the way aboriginal people have lived over the years is represented in the paintings that reflect the changing times – including paintings depicting the arrival of European people.
At Ubirr, x-ray paintings depict the freshwater period and share stories of traditional food, as well as early contact with white people. Also at Ubirr is the famous story of the Rainbow Serpent who travelled through the area and painted her image on the rocks to remind people of her presence.
Kakadu’s main floodplains and waterways are some of its biggest highlights. One third of all Australian bird species can be found here, and an aboriginal-guided cruise on any of the billabongs or waterways are the best way to see them.
We boarded a Yellow Water Billabong cruise at sunrise, unsure of exactly what to expect. As the sun rose in the sky, turning it a brilliant orange, the billabong around us ‘woke up’, treating us to one of the most breathtaking displays of wildlife we could imagine, including a very nonchalant saltwater croc who was happy to simply lie on the banks of the water and keep one eye on us.
Our guide happily shared tales of his land and his people, their relationship to the environment and what Kakadu represents to them. It has to be one of the best experiences we have had in all of Australia.
Of course, there are countless more experiences to be had in Kakadu and our recommendation is to spend as long as you have here, venturing out in the early morning and late afternoon (to avoid the heat) to experience as many as you can. From swimming in the natural falls and swimming holes such as Jim Jim and Gunlom Falls, to a (tame) 4WD adventure to Maguk (Barramundi) Gorge, Kakadu is chock full of treasures for the whole family, just waiting to be discovered.
One of the longest parts of the Nature’s Way drive is the 3.5 hour drive from Jabiru to Katherine. An easy drive along the Kakadu and Stuart Highway’s, Katherine is home of course to spectacular Nitmiluk National Park and world-famous Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge.
Katherine itself is a regional town of about 6,000 people with all the facilities you need such as cafes and supermarkets. But the main attraction is outside of town in the ancient landscape.
Nitmiluk National Park is the traditional land of the Jawoyn and Dagomen Aboriginal people, whose rock art depicted in caves and shelters throughout the park. And the Katherine River, which runs through the park, is the power behind the formation of Katherine Gorge – a series of 13 gorges carved into the sandstone landscape by the powerful water over thousands of years. You can explore several of the gorges by foot, boat, canoe or even helicopter.
We loved our boat cruise of 3 of the gorges, led by local indigenous guides from Nitmiluk Tours who welcomed us to their land and culture. And the 1.8km guided walk to the Baruwei Lookout which boasts spectacular views over the Gorge and surrounding park is well worth it.
In Katherine, we also highly recommend a visit to the Katherine Outback Experience, where local man Tom Curtain entertains with a live horse-breaking/working dog demonstration complete with his own country music!
After soaking up all the highlights of Katherine and Nitmiluk, Nature’s Way loops back towards Darwin, with one more amazing stop along the way. After travelling north on the Stuart Highway for around 2.5 hours, Litchfield National Park is a must-see. A popular day trip from Darwin, Litchfield is extremely family-friendly (as is the rest of the Top End) and full of stunning waterfalls, swimming holes, monsoon forest and those other-worldly giant termite mounds that dot the landscape like a graveyard.
Litchfield is the perfect place to have a picnic in the shade of a natural plunge pool then cool off in the water afterwards, perhaps swimming beneath a waterfall. Florence, Wangi and Tolmer Falls are all impressive and should be high on your list, and Buley Rockhole is a natural collection of spas and whirlpools carved out of the rock. For those interested in the local history, Blyth Homestead is a fascinating example of pioneer life in the outback but you do need a 4WD to get there.
Accommodation near Litchfield can be found in the nearby town of Batchelor which is just 14km away, and Darwin is just 2 hours further north up the highway when it’s time to drag yourself away.
Have you driven Nature’s Way, or wanted to see some of the many highlights along the way? Tell us about it in the comments!