For most Australians the Northern Territory – known simply as “the Territory” or “NT” – embodies the antithesis of the country’s cushy suburban seaboard. The name conjures up a distant frontier province, and to some extent that’s still the case.
Even today, a little over one percent of Australians inhabit an area covering a fifth of the continent, which partly explains why the Territory has never achieved full statehood.
Tucked away in the “Top End”, closer to Indonesia than Sydney, Darwin is the least known of Australia’s regional capitals – stunningly remote, buffeted by extreme weather, wild animals, and with an atmosphere like nowhere else in the country.
There are almost as many saltwater crocodiles as people in the Top End, and the region was home to Rod Ansell, the man who inspired Crocodile Dundee. At Darwin’s Crocosaurus Cove you can view, feed or even be lowered in clear plastic containers into the enclosures of these giant reptiles, many of which grow to over six metres in length.
If you prefer to see them in the wild, however, visit the nearby Adelaide River, where several agencies offer “jumping croc” cruises during which the “salties” leap out of the water to snap at morsels dangled from gingerly-held fishing rods.
Territorians love to play up the extremes of climate, distance and isolation that mould their temperaments and accentuate their tough, maverick image as outsiders in a land of “southerners”. And beneath the grizzled clichés you’ll unearth a potent, unforgettable travel destination, serving up raw scenery, world-class national parks and a beguilingly strong Aboriginal heritage.
More than 25% of the people in the Northern Territory are from aboriginal communities, a higher proportion than anywhere else in Australia. Some 80km off the coast of Darwin and connected by ferry services are Bathurst and Melville, jointly known as the Tiwi Islands.
The Tiwi people had only limited contact with mainland aboriginal societies until the nineteenth century, so they developed their own distinct language and culture.
Darwin is known as “Australia’s gateway to Asia”, home to over 60 different nationalities out of a population of just 135,000 thanks to its proximity to the Asian continent.
Southeast Asian communities have a particularly strong presence, which is most notable in the city’s cuisine. In fact, laksa – a spicy, creamy noodle soup found across Southeast Asia – has arguably become Darwin’s favorite dish.
The best places to sample city’s culinary diversity are the Parap Village and Mindil Beach Sunset markets, where you can find everything from authentic Vietnamese pho to crocodile tail sushi.
Darwin’s nightlife is famously lively, and is at its most raucous in the pubs, bars and clubs strung along Mitchell Street in the city centre. For something a bit classier, The Pearl, a hip bistro tucked away off the pedestrianized Smith Street Mall with a great cocktail list – try the espresso martini, I wasn’t a fan but Australians seems to love it!
Stokes Hill Wharf, which has undergone a major revamp, is another popular drinking spot, with an array of restaurants and bars overlooking a croc – and jellyfish – free lagoon and beach. For sunsets, the beachside Darwin Ski Club, north of the city centre, is hard to beat!
Some 150km east of Darwin lies KAKADU NATIONAL PARK, one of the most spectacular and varied wilderness areas in Australia, and World Heritage listed for both its natural and cultural riches. Kakadu derives its name from the Bininj/Mungguy people, the area’s traditional owners, who jointly manage the park with the Australian government.
Covering more than 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is a challenging place to appreciate in a short visit; aim to allow a minimum of three days, and consider either renting a 4WD or joining a 4WD tour. Try too to factor in a river cruise to get to more remote areas. The dry-season months are the most popular times to visit, with little or no rain, acceptable humidity and temperatures, and conspicuous wildlife. Towards the end of the Dry, birdlife congregates around the shrinking waterholes, while November’s rising temperatures and epic electrical storms herald the onset of the Wet. To see Kakadu during the Wet, which sees up to 1600mm of torrential rainfall between December and March, or the early Dry is, many argue, to see it at its best. While some major sights are inaccessible and the wildlife dispersed, the waterfalls are in full flow and the land possesses a verdant splendour that can be breathtaking.
Most roads are accessible to 2WDs, except where indicated; 4WD tracks are closed during the wet season, when even the highways can be underwater at times.
The capital of the Northern Territory has taken a bit of battering since it was founded in 1869: first by the Japanese air force during the Second World War and later by Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin in 1974. Add in some ferocious termites and it’s easy to understand why Darwin today has a modern look.
Darwin played a prominent role in WWII, when frequent Japanese bombing raids gave rise to the nickname “Australia’s Pearl Harbour”. An invasion was an ever-present threat, which prompted the construction of Stuart Highway, the first reliable road link between the city and the rest of Australia.
The Top End has a tropical climate with two seasons: the Dry and the Wet. Each season lasts for about six months.
The Red Centre, including Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and the Uluru region, has a semi-arid climate.Temperatures can climb during summer and winter nights can be frosty.
During Australia’s summer months, tropical storms fill the waterfalls in the Top End, and wildlife is at its most active. In the Red Centre, waterholes are ready to reward you with a refreshing dip.
Even throughout the colder months, the Top End remains welcoming and warm, while the Red Centre greets you with sunny skies and perfect weather for exploring.
Darwin is a thriving, prosperous and multicultural city with lively bars and wide-ranging international cuisine. It is lush, tropical, and the gateway to top-end outback adventures.