Whilst it is often overlooked by travellers in favour of the East Coast backpacker pilgrimage, the Top End of Australia's Northern Territory is not a destination to miss. The scorched landscape is peppered with swimming holes and waterfalls, infused with Aboriginal culture, and features some of the best wildlife experiences in the country. It's the perfect place to get off-road and experience the real “outback” Australia, exploring the wilderness and sleeping under the stars.
Before getting out into the wilderness though, Darwin, the Northern Territory's capital and main access point, is well worth taking time to appreciate with a stroll along the waterfront, and an ice cold beer at a water’s edge bar on the scenic Cullen Bay Marina. On Thursday and Sunday nights the Mindil beach market indicates Darwin's status as a genuine cultural melting pot, with authentic street food from all corners of the world – Greek pastries and the Vietnamese spring rolls among the tastiest – enjoyed all the more thanks to the picture perfect sunset.
For something a bit different, try exploring the city on a Segway tour. The 55 acre botanical gardens have Boabs, Cycads, and hundreds of other tropical and monsoon rainforest plants on display, and East Point and the Casuarina Coastal reserve provide additional opportunities for those wanting to get off road.
For the best backpacker accommodation in Darwin, head to Mitchell Street, and check into the Youth Shack if you’re looking for an exciting party hostel, or Chilli’s for a more easy-going vibe. Both are great choices, close to all the action, only a couple of doors down from each other, and you’re able to use the facilities in both, as they're owned by the same person! If you’re in Oz for the long haul then the Job Shack, based at the Youth Shack, offers fantastic support for backpackers on the working holiday visa – one hostel resident had even picked up an interview on the day he arrived!
Foodies should head down to Chow! on the waterfront, which serves exceptional Asian Fusion cuisine (another nod to Darwin’s multicultural heritage), and Monsoon’s has some great Aussie pub grub – including schnitzel larger than your face – and also offers the best party in Darwin, so stick around for a beer or two. Or more. If you’re feeling a bit tender the following morning then Alley Cats, just next to the Youth Shack, has exceptional coffee and serves some wonderful breakfasts and pastries.
The Tiwi Islands, Bathurst and Melville, are a couple of hours’ boat ride from Darwin and home to some world-class Aboriginal artists, several aboriginal museums and art galleries, and provide opportunities to create you own art print, take part in a traditional welcome ceremony, and enjoy some tea and damper for breakfast. Something a little bit different for the culture seekers!
Once you venture out of Darwin in to the vast national parks, the Northern Territory really starts to shine as a destination. Kakadu spans an area the size of Wales, and is absolutely stunning. Pack your swimming kit and take a dunk in some spectacular swimming holes, waterfalls, and natural infinity pools at sites like Gunlom and Maguk. Bliss! Wildlife cruises on the Yellow Water Billabong give you a chance to see the impressive buffalo, some wonderful birdlife including Jabiru, sea eagles, and magpie geese, and bring you up close and personal with the Northern Territory’s most famous residents – the esturine, or saltwater crocodile. The closest thing the planet has to a modern day dinosaur is incredible to see, and this isn’t a “stay glued to your binoculars and hope to catch a glimpse” kind of excursion, you will definitely see some crocs, and they’re more than happy cruising along a few metres from the boat. The world’s biggest reptile is not camera shy in the slightest, photo opportunities will abound. On a side note, if anyone’s panicking about the quick transition here from swimming to crocodiles, the park rangers regularly sweep the swimming holes for crocodiles, so you’re safe, don’t worry!
The national parks also provide a wonderful insight into aboriginal history and culture. The art sites at Nourlangie Rock and Ubirr feature rock paintings that have lasted hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, and climbing to the top of Ubirr gives incredible views for miles across the plains – think the opening scene of the Lion King and you’re getting the idea! The award winning Top Didj Cultural Experience is a must visit just outside of Katherine - learn from the top Aboriginal artist Manuel Pamkal, about the significance of his painting style, how Aboriginals lived off the land, do your own traditional painting under his guidance, and even throw some spears.
The other national parks in the Top End can't match Kakadu for size, but hold their own in terms of natural beauty. Wangi Falls and Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park are great swimming spots, and both close enough for a day trip from Darwin. Nitmiluk National Park features the breathtaking Katherine Gorge, best experienced by kayak, with plenty of little beaches and outcrops where you can pull up on your way to enjoy swimming at different spots, or just chill out in the sun.
A few final notes extolling the virtues of the Northern Territory, the first being that it isn’t as far away as you might think! Australia is a vast country, and a quick glance at world map confirms that Darwin is as close to Singapore as it is to Sydney and Melbourne, making it about 5 or 6 hours closer to the UK, and is only 2 hours from Bali, making it a feasible add-on for a trip to South East Asia. It's also worth mentioning not to worry about the seasons! As the top end has a tropical climate, you will hear “wet season” and “dry season” thrown about – yes, the wet season is hotter and you do have the rain, but the rain will be for a short period each day, not continuous, and this brings with it other advantages. You will hear locals refer to the “green season” as much as the wet season because of the vibrant effect it will have on the landscape, and it also means that the ever-spectacular waterfalls will be in full flow! It’s worth the extra heat. If you’re planning a trip down under, don’t leave out the top end, it’s full of amazing things to do and see – the incredible landscapes, scenery, and wildlife, cultural experiences, great food, and plenty of opportunity to explore the outdoors all combine to make a top class travel destination.
Written by Stuart Pares: Fellow Travel Buddy & Explorer