December 05, 2022

Adventure and exploration in Australia's Top End

The Northern Territory is unique in Australia’s travel landscape with the Top End offering everything from ancient landscapes to adrenaline thrills.

The Kakadu Air twin-engined Cessna swoops low over the ancient precipes of Kakadu and Nourlangie Rock giving us a spectacular view of the primordial plains and wetlands below. These rocks are almost as old as time itself and hold immense cultural significance for the Gun-djeihmi people who have lived here for millennia.

“All things in the landscape were left by the creation ancestors. They taught Aboriginal people how to live with the land. From then on Aboriginal people became keepers of their country.

In Australia’s Top End, the great Rainbow Serpent holds the power of creation and re-creation over the land and the animals using water to form and mould the land, creating vivid rock formations and providing the basis for life and nourishment.

British colonists arrived at Palmerston in what is now known as the Northern Territory in 1869, carving out a small settlement in the harsh landscape and quickly coming under the age-old authority of the merciless weather. With little understanding of the subtlety of the seasons, they simply declared the two dominant patterns “wet” and “dry”.

For travellers to the Top End, the conventional wisdom is to visit during ‘The Dry’ when conditions are relatively comfortable and outdoor pursuits are uninterrupted by the all-too-predictable downpours of ‘The Wet’ and the stifling humidity that occurs in the early months of the year.

Yet for the indigenous Bininj/Mungguy inhabitants, infinitely attuned to the delicate variations of the weather, six seasons are recognised, taking into account experience gained not by advanced meteorological forecasts, but by thousands of years of living in this capricious realm.

Kudjewk is the monsoon season of unrelenting rains that gives way to stormy Bangkerreng around April, when skies begin to clear and plants start to fruit. When the lingering humidity disperses, Yekke arrives, drying the plains and grasses into June. As the air cools, Wurrkeng embraces the now dry landscape as wisps of smoke from hunters’ small brush fires can be seen. As August comes to an end, Kurrung brings dry heat and the last of the hunting is done before Kunumeleng ushers in the new rains and the cycle repeats … as it has since the dawn of time.

The vast plains and sheer escarpments of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, 200 kilometres by road from Darwin, is where the Bininj/Mungguy people have thrived for tens of thousands of years. It is perhaps the most identifiable environment of the Top End but Kakadu is not for everybody. A visitor needs to be adaptable, to be guided by the changing conditions and by knowledgeable locals. While the rewards for exploring this flowing, growing land at the height of the mid-year, southern summer are great. The Dry sees the Top End wearing her good manners, but the Wet has the Territory in the full force of passion.

Within Kakadu, and an easy couple of minutes by road from our accommodation at Cooinda Lodge, the famous Yellow Waters dawn or dusk cruise is truly a trip back to the dawn of time and is the Territory’s real-life equivalent of Jurassic Park. Have your camera ready as massive crocodiles cruise past eyeing you ominously, raptors wheel overhead, long-legged storks and brolgas wade in the swampy marshes while gregarious magpie geese honk loudly at the slightest disturbance. All this is a pattern of behaviour repeated over millions of years and portrayed in the many Aboriginal rock art sites throughout the park at locations like Ubirr and Nourlangie.

From the complexity of Kakadu, we travel west to the simplicity of Litchfield National Park, a popular and accessible location for both locals and visitors. Less than two hours by road, Litchfield is nature’s waterpark with effortless and safe swimming, fishing and boating. The freshwater pools at Florence or Wangi Falls are a delight and perfect for a refreshing cool-down after a brisk hike along Walker Creek. Visitors will marvel at the ancient escarpments, carved from the rock over millennia by water pouring off the plateau.

The waters of the Top End don’t just fall from the heavens, the many lush billabongs, vast tidal rivers and mangrove-lined estuaries sustain an enormous variety of life, especially fish. This perfect eco-system brings enthusiastic anglers from all corners of the globe, most with the sole objective of landing the Northern Territory’s famous trophy species, the giant barramundi (or Asian seabass).

But don’t be disappointed if the big “barra” eludes you because there are many other satisfying sport and reef fish like giant trevally, queenfish, Spanish mackerel, cobia, black jewfish, golden snapper, red emperor, coral trout and sailfish to console you. These can all be found at prime fishing spots from Darwin, the Tiwi Islands, Arnhem Land, Katherine, Litchfield to the Daly and Adelaide Rivers. Expert guides and charter operators are all ready to help you bring in that prize fish.

When you climb the prehistoric sandstone of Kakadu to the lookout at Ubirr and survey the expanse of primordial swamp stretching out to the horizon, you quickly understand the significance of water in this dynamic environment. It is the precious liquid that spawned life on our planet, giving rise to every living creature and the Top End is one place where a link to that very beginning is abundantly clear.

Back in Darwin, we are jolted back to the present day and have time to explore the famous Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, the home of Darwin's cultural melting pot of cuisines and the largest market running along the foreshore of Mindil Beach. Right next door to the sprawling casino complex of the same name, it’s well known for delicious food and the stunning sunset over the Timor Sea.

We cap off our Top End adventure with more excitement and a blast around Darwin Harbour on JetSkis from 00Seven Adventures. We aren’t mollycoddled either, tour leader Alex sets a blistering pace and we’re tearing across the waves in no time. ‘Go hard or gone home’ seems to be the motto.

And go home we must, but we take with us indelible impressions of both the ancient and the modern Territory, a place for reflection, relaxation and exhilaration.



Getting there

Qantas flies to Darwin, Alice Springs and Uluru:

Indicative flying hours

From Sydney: Darwin 4 hours 30 mins, Alice Springs 3 hours 10 mins, Uluru 3 hours 30 mins
From Melbourne: Darwin 4 hours 20 mins, Alice Springs 2 hours 50 mins, Uluru 3 hours
From Brisbane: Darwin 4 hours, Alice Springs 3 hours, Uluru (no direct flights)
From Perth: Darwin 3 hours 30 mins, Alice Springs 2 hours 45 mins, Uluru (no direct flights)

Indicative driving times

Kakadu National Park is about three hours from Darwin.
Uluru is about three-and-a-half hours from Alice Springs.

Northern Territory Tourism:

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