Many visitors to Australia find the sheer vastness of the country daunting and tend concentrate on the major cities along the East Coast. To do so, however, would be remiss, as they would miss out on the hidden gem of Australia: Darwin. The capital of the remote and sparsely populated Northern Territory is a quirky place with a bizarre history and relaxed vibe. With the rise in Australia of budget airlines over the recent years, it has also become much more accessible to visitors as well, and is only a 4 hour flight from either Melbourne or Sydney.
Darwin has had quite a catastrophic history. It was in the firing line during World War II and then was almost completely destroyed on Christmas Eve in 1974 by Cyclone Tracy. Since then it has been rebuilt as one of Australia’s most modern and multicultural cities. These days Darwin is alive with people drinking beer in one of its many beer gardens, shopping at a beautiful beachside market, clubbing into the early hours of the night, or watching an outdoor movie. Backpackers and travelers use the city as a launching pad for exploring the many stunning world heritage wilderness areas that surround Australia’s smallest capital city.
The best time to visit is between May – September, and during the dry winter months people flock to Darwin to enjoy its balmy evenings and to plan their adventures into the Outback. The Outback, for the most part, is made up of vast, empty spaces and long straight roads. Sparsely populated, it is some of the most alluring and dangerous landscape in the whole world. The best way to explore the area—which is known as the Top End—is either with a tour group or by hiring a car. The Top End is the quintessential Australian road trip, but it pays to be prepared before heading out into the desert. Always make sure you have plenty of water—if you break down in the outback it can sometimes be days before someone else drives past and temperatures can often reach higher than 120 degrees.
Once you have explored Darwin and packed up your car with supplies (make sure you take a spare jerry can of fuel just in case; it can be a long way between gas stations in the Outback) you are ready to discover some of the world’s most remote, desolate, and beautiful countryside. Here are four destinations not to miss:
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park is only 60 miles (100km) south of Darwin and is the perfect place to begin a Top End adventure. The park is serviced by the small town of Batchelor where there is accommodation and supplies. Though a few people choose to stay in Batchelor and commute into the park, the majority of visitors tend to camp at one of the National Park’s beautiful campsites.
Litchfield tourist sites such as the gushing Wangi and Florence waterfalls are easily accessible and provide a refreshing place to swim and escape the hot Australian sun—just watch out for crocodiles before jumping in (I’m only half joking. The Park Rangers try and get them all out before the park opens for the dry season, but it is always best to check first just in case). For the more adventurous there are some fantastic hikes that explore the ancient landscape, encompassing towering termite mounds, beautiful escarpments, and lush tropical rainforest. At night if you look up you can see more stars out here than anywhere else in the world. Landscape aside, there is beauty in the isolation itself.
Kakadu National Park
There are not enough adjectives to properly describe Kakadu National Park. Located 125 miles east of Darwin, the park is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey or half the size of Switzerland. It would be almost impossible to appreciate the full breadth of the park’s natural beauty and cultural significance in a few days, so it would be best to plan for at least three days to properly experience Kakadu National Park (though of course, any time is better than none). Though Kakadu is open all year round, by far the most popular time to visit is during the dry season from May – September when the roads are open and the entire park is accessible.
Kakadu is exceptionally diverse. There are vast rocky escarpments, powerful waterfalls, swamplands that are teeming with crocodiles and other wildlife, flood plains, fertile estuaries, and coastland. The park also contains some of the oldest known artwork in the world. The local Aboriginal people have been using the Kakadu region as a home for more than 20,000 years and relics from the ancient ‘dreamtime’ can be seen everywhere. There is something remarkably humbling about seeing artwork that predates Christ by some 18,000 years.
Because of the remoteness and harshness of the landscape (and the tendency for the wet season floods to wash them away) there are very few roads within the park. The best way to explore is by foot and there are numerous walking trails that crisscross the park (before you set out always make sure you register your hike at a park center). Another equally fantastic, but less physically demanding way to see Kakadu is by a boat cruise up one of the rivers or seeing the dramatic landscape by air in a helicopter tour.
It is surprising how refreshing hot springs can be even in the middle of the scorching desert. Located just outside the enigmatic township of Mataranka, the Mataranka Springs are literally an oasis, but thankfully not a mirage.
Surrounded by towering palm trees and with crystal-clear blue water, the springs remain a perfect temperature year round. During the cooler winter months (from June – August in Australia) the nights can get quite chilly so relaxing in the warm water until the early hours can seem like pure indulgence after roughing it in the Outback for a few weeks. Due to the absolute remoteness of the springs—260 miles from Darwin and 66 miles from the Territory’s second largest city, Katherine—there is also usually barely anyone there, though there is a small resort with campsites circling the tiny palm fringed oasis. The springs are on the way from Darwin to Alice Springs and Uluru, so there really is no better place to recharge and refresh before heading back out on the road for the long haul to Uluru (Ayers Rock).
Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta
After the Sydney Opera House there is no more iconic image of Australia than Uluru, the giant red sandstone formation plonked out in the middle of nowhere. It is impossible to truly understand what space and distance are until you have attempted to drive to Uluru. It is literally thousands of miles from anywhere of note (except the small city of Alice Springs) and requires hours and hours of dedicated driving to reach. As you finally get near the rock looms up from the otherwise flat land and dominates the entire surrounding landscape. Until you see it for yourself it is hard to understand just how confounding it is to find a giant monolith growing out of the otherwise barren, sandy desert.
For those who aren’t keen on dedicating at least 12 hours of driving to get there, there is an airport, resort, and campsite 9 miles from Uluru called Yulara. It is definitely the best springboard for exploring the surrounding region. The whole area around Uluru and Kata Tjuta (smaller rock formations a few miles from Uluru) has an ethereal nature to it and it is easy to see why it has been a sacred site for the local indigenous population for thousands of years. One of their more alluring qualities, Uluru and Kata Tjutua change color during sunrise and sunset, alternating from a deep purple to light red as the sun moves above or below the horizon. The changes happen over only about 15 minutes, giving the impression of the rock being alive, and like a chameleon changing its colors seemingly at will.
See Uluru (Ayers Rock) at sunrise on a tour.
One of the more contentious issues regarding Uluru is whether or not one should climb it. Many tour operators offer rock climbing tours, but apart from the fact it can be dangerous and many a person has plunged to their death doing so, the traditional owners of the land find the idea of people climbing on such a sacred landmark offensive, so many visitors choose to just admire it from the ground. Personally, I decided not to climb it out of respect for the traditional landowners. Though it is up to the person to decide, it is important to respect the traditional owners of the land who have considered this site sacred since before the pyramids in Egypt were built, so ancient is their culture.
Bill Bryson, in his book Australia, noted that only in Australia could you have a landmark as stunning as Kata Tjuta also known as Devil’s Marbles, and have no one know about it. Barely 22 miles from Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a collection of 36 rocks of various sizes, which geologists believe once could have formed a monolith bigger than that of Uluru. Called the Devil’s Marbles by earlier explorers, it is easy to see why. The dome-shaped rocks are scattered, seemingly at will, around an otherwise flat, expansive desert, as though a giant had been playing a game of marbles.
The ‘Valley of the Winds’ walk gives a breathtaking view of the true grandeur and size of these bizarre formations. Weaving your way amongst the giant sandstone rocks it is hard not to feel slightly dwarfed and awed by the awesomeness of nature and the elements. It has taken billions of years or rain, sea, wind, and sun to create Kata Tjuta as it is today and it is still constantly evolving.
It is an almost impossible task to fit the entirety of Northern Australia into a single blog post, or a single trip. Here you’ll find some of the most diverse and oldest landscapes in the world, ranging from marshland to desert, and sweeping mountain ranges to beautiful remote coastlines. There is really no other place in the world that you can be at the same time so alone and yet also so connected with everything around you. This is what makes the area so unforgettable, and well worth the extra effort to reach.
Read more: Things to Do in Darwin, Australia
- Cambell Klose