To many of us living in the more populous states of Australia, the Northern Territory can seem like a world away. And indeed it is, despite the fact it is generally only a few hours flight.
A far cry from our bustling cities, the Top End is rich in pristine natural wonders, wildlife and birdlife, expansive inland waterways that touch the horizon, rocky escarpments and dramatic gorges just waiting for you to explore, and sunsets that you almost cannot believe. Not to mention a history and culture that surpasses almost any other on the planet.
The region can almost be overwhelming. With so much to discover and experience, it’s hard to know where to start.
We have travelled all over the Top End. From Darwin to Litchfield, Kakadu to Mataranka, Katherine to Arnhemland. We have not seen it all (who has?!) but every time we visit, it only whets our appetite to return again (which we do!). Each experience is different, and different seasons of the year have a marked impact on what you will see each time.
Here are our five favourite ways to experience the Top End.
Experience life on the water.
If you only do one thing in the Top End, make sure it is to rise before dawn one day and watch the sunrise from the wetlands. Whether it is a cruise on Kakadu’s Yellow Water Billabong, or an early fishing trip on Corroboree Billabong in Mary River, you will witness the magic of nature waking up all around you and coming to life in the glow of the early sun.
The huge sky is simply luminous in the golden light, mist rises from the water to uncover lazy crocodile eyes, spectacular birdlife and pink water lilies. Flocks of magpie geese break the dawn silence, and soon you are surrounded by the noises of nature. And watch the scenery around you change as the sun rises higher in the sky and your journey takes you further into the unforgettable landscape.
Ancient Rock Art Galleries
There is nothing more fascinating in the Top End than the stories behind it. And the world-class ancient rock art galleries such as Ubirr and Nourlangie in Kakadu National Park share some of the most fascinating records of Aboriginal life in paintings up to 20,000 years old – one of the longest records of any group of people in the world.
We once stayed at the Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge, exclusively set on aboriginal land at Cannon Hill and the homeland of the late Bill Neidjie, an indigenous elder who was instrumental in the formation of Kakadu. His granddaughter Natasha took us to the nearby Ubirr site, where we witnessed x-ray paintings depicting the freshwater period, paintings sharing stories of traditional foods and of course, the famous story of the Rainbow Serpent who travelled through the area in human form and painted her image on one of the rocks.
At Nourlangie site, closer to Jabiru, Aboriginal people have used the rocks as shelter for up to 20,000 years, and the environmental and social changes throughout the period are reflected in the art. After thoroughly exploring the site, time your visit to finish at the lookout at sunset, for a spectacular vista over the park under the burning sky.
For the more adventurous, a small plane from Jabiru will take you to Mt Borradaile in Arnhemland, and Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris. Stay at the eco-lodge or in bush cabins and let bushman Max, custodian of the area, show you this extremely remote piece of nature. The rock art here is touted to be some of the best in the country, depicting up to 50,000 years of aboriginal life among rocky escarpments formed millions of years ago.
Gorges, Waterfalls and natural swimming holes
If you’re ever worried about the heat of the Top End, never fear. There are countless ways to cool off, on and in the water.
Plenty of ‘natural swimming pools’ are safe to swim in (always check the signs). Some of our favourites are Wangi Falls in Litchfield National Park, the Gunlom “Plunge Pool” in Kakadu, Mataranka hot springs, Jim Jim Falls and Maguk Gorge in Kakadu.
For those keen on staying above the water, the waterfalls and gorges in this part of the world are simply astounding.
Many of the swimming holes also boast waterfalls (Wangi Falls, Maguk Gorge, Gunlom Falls and Jim Jim Falls) but there are others to add to your list. Florence Falls in Litchfield and Twin Falls in Kakadu will equally take your breath away.
And as for gorges, well, the most famous of all, Katherine Gorge, is simple unsurpassed. Take a boat trip or a canoe adventure along this most majestic of natural wonders, marvelling at the scenery and wildlife, waterfalls and Aboriginal art. There are actually 13 gorges in all, and there are walking trails, lookouts, swimming holes, camping spots and more, to ensure you maximise your experience.
Off Road Adventures
For the thrill seeker in you, there can be nothing better than feeling the Top End dust raised behind your wheels as you take on the challenge of this land.
Mary River National Park, on the outskirts of Kakadu, has several 4WD tracks for those with the right vehicle, experience and preparation. We took on Hardie’s 4WD Track and for a full day, experienced some of the best adventure this region can throw at you.
Circuiting pristine billabongs teeming with wildlife, passing through termite mounds twice the height of your car, taking on hills and gully’s that spit the dirt out behind you, and powering through river crossings that raise your adrenalin, this is a raw experience that will really see you go head to head with nature.
You simply cannot experience the Top End without being immersed in its significant culture. From the art galleries of Darwin, to Aboriginal led tours in the National Parks, the rock art galleries, and arts centres such as Injalak on the East Alligator River. The experience will open your eyes to the reason much of the area has been given World Heritage status, and enable you to connect with the oldest living culture on earth.
The traditional owners are happy to welcome you to their land and share their stories. From the Creation Time to the Rainbow Serpent, their changing lifestyle and customs, this is one of the most important reasons for visiting the Top End and will leave a permanent imprint on you when you leave.
Above all else, a respect for the land, it’s culture and inhabitants is the best way to get the most out of your Top End adventure and ensure it is conserved for future generations. It really is ‘another world’ and it is one that we are privileged to experience.