There’s more to see in Northern Territory than just crocs and the rock. While these are two of the biggest draws to this remote region, the NT has plenty more to offer the intrepid explorer or wannabe Dundee. There are lush green wetlands teeming with wildlife, and barren red deserts where only dust seems to thrive. Grand gorges, colossal canyons and rugged ranges emerge from an otherwise empty expanse. Cattle stations, bush pubs and Aboriginal communities dot the map between charming outback towns and the cosmopolitan capital. From the red center around Alice Springs to tropical Darwin at the tip of the top end, through the bush and beyond, this is authentic Oz – and it’s truly awesome. Here are the top ten sights, cities and adventures waiting for you in the Territory.
1. Ayers Rock
The Irish have their Blarney, the Brits have their Henge, but no stone can compare to the world’s largest monolith, Ayers Rock, traditionally known as Uluru. This mighty presence looms out of the flat and barren desert, changing hues with the rising and setting sun. The Aboriginal stewards consider this a sacred site and prefer tourists don’t climb it, but many do. At 348m high Ayers is no Everest, but it is a steep and breezy ascent that requires a safety chain for support. There are various walks you can take around the 9km base revealing caves, waterholes, erosion patterns and ancient Aboriginal rock art.
2. The Olgas
Lesser-known but equally impressive are the Olgas, 36km due west of Uluru. The Aboriginal name is Kata Tjuta, which aptly means “many heads”. 30-odd conglomerate domes rise above the endless horizon of the desert plain. Rather than climbing up, you enter through and be enveloped by these rusty red formations. Take the 6km loop of the Valley of the Winds or the 2km Olga Gorge walk, and stick to the beaten track as it’s easy to get lost in this maze.
3. Kings Canyon
Australia’s grand canyon is another of the Red Center’s main geological attractions. This highlight of Watarraka National Park is a broad crescent-shaped break in the rugged sandstone of the Gorge Hill range, with sheer walls towering 100m from the valley floor below. Rim walks and valley trails let you explore the desert flora, fauna and landscapes, including the Lost City and the Garden of Eden.
4. Alice Springs
The Alice is the urban hub of central Oz, but it still oozes the laid-back charm of a quintessential outback town. It’s a comfortable base from which to explore the region’s rock stars, but be aware that most are not really in day-trip striking distance from Alice itself. The town has more than a handful of historical and natural attractions that give you a “fair dinkum” taste of central Australia, including the Kangaroo Sanctuary, Desert Park, Telegraph Station Historical Reserve, Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Aboriginal Australia Cultural Centre.
5. Devil’s Marbles
You’ll find these giant granite boulders scattered across the spinifex valley 105 km south of Tennant Creek. Some of the spheres stand alone and some are precariously piled on top of each other. According to Dreamtime legends of the Warramunga Aboriginals, these are the artfully arranged eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. The less romantic explanation is that the “marbles” were eroded over millions of years from a single granite mass. Whatever you believe, this site makes an amazing photo op.
6. Katherine Gorge
The Katherine region is where the red of the desert meats the green of the tropics. This is the fabled land of the Never Never, rich in Aboriginal and pioneer history. The grande dame of Nitmiluk National Park is the got-to-see gorge, a magnificent series of 13 narrow canyons that have been carved through the Arnhem Land sandstone plateau by the meandering Katherine River. These weathered walls are adorned with natural gouges, patches of vegetation and a few hidden expressions of Aboriginal art. Adventurers can paddle and portage a canoe through these chambers on a multi-day camping trip, or there are shorter scenic cruises too.
7. Kakadu National Park
The Top End’s top attraction is Australia’s largest national park and first World Heritage listing, located 200km east of Darwin. This legendary landscape is brimming with crocs, culture, wetlands, waterfalls and wildlife galore. Within its boundaries are mangrove swamps, monsoon rainforests, bilabongs, grasslands and a variety of ecosystems that dramatically change between the wet and dry seasons. It’s a paradise for walkabouts, birdwatching, rock art appreciation and croc spotting. No trip to the NT would be complete without a Kakadu experience.
8. Litchfield National Park
Some people consider Litchfield to be a smaller, easier to access, poor-man’s Kakadu but it is a worthy wonderland of waterfalls and wilderness itself. The park encompasses the Tabletop Range escarpment where a network of permanent springs cascade off the cliff faces into palm-fringed pools below. Spend a pleasant day dipping into the picturesque waterholes of Florence Falls, Buley Rockhole, Tjaynera Falls, Tomer Falls and Wangi Falls.
The modern, mellow, mini-metropolis of Darwin is Australia’s northernmost city and the capital of the Territory. It has an enduring reputation as a hard-drinking frontier town that’s a little rough around the edges, but there is also a civilized side to it with excellent museums, multicultural markets and an active arts scene. Closer to Singapore than Sydney, over 40 nationalities reside in this surprisingly cosmopolitan town. The sunsets along the harbour and wharf precinct are spectacular, but don’t bathe in the beaches as box jellyfish are out there.