The Northern Territory is a wild and empty part of the country. Many consider it the “real Australia” – tough, mysterious and exciting. Although it makes up almost 20% of Australia’s landmass, its population amounts to only 198,000 residents – 1% of the entire population of the continent. It spreads over 1.35 million km2 (the size of France, Spain and Italy together). The main sources of income in this area are agriculture, cattle raising, goldmines, minerals, uranium, and, of course, tourism.
In terms of geography, the Northern Territory is subdivided into two completely different regions: the tropical north and the red center. The north (the top quarter of the Territory) is tropical – warm, wet and rainy. In this region you will find beaches, rivers, waterfalls and flooded areas, together with rainforests and savannas. The center, by contrast, is dry country, characterized by open spaces, sparse desert vegetation, few rainfalls, sources of water, and red sandstone chiseled by corrosion into a dramatic landscape of columns, cliffs, chasms, and canyons.
The Northern Territory offers its visitor modern cities and sites from the beginning of “white” settlement along with heritage sites of tens of thousands of years of Aborigine culture. There are 21 National Parks, some of which are among the most beautiful and famous on the entire continent. They contain pristine nature and dramatic landscapes: the desert with its vast spaces, red dunes and sandstone, deep canyons, shady valleys, savannas, swamps, waterfalls, tropical rainforests and beaches are only some of the attractions the Northern Territory has to offer.
Points of Interest
The Tropical North:
Darwin – the capital of the Northern Territory. Darwin gives off the general feeling of a relaxed tropical place. The town has a beautiful promenade with an amazing view of the bay from, which you watch the especially colorful sunset this area is famous for. Parallel to the promenade is Mitchell Street, a bustling street open 24 hours a day; it is the town’s entertainment center. Darwin is a modern, cosmopolitan, and thriving city. More details can be found in the cities category. Kakadu National Park – 153 km southeast of Darwin, is one of the biggest and most famous parks on the entire continent. It contains a variety of landscapes: cliffs, creeks, high waterfalls, savannas, rainforests, huge termite hills, wide flood areas, swamps, and beaches.
The park is home to many thousands of plant and animal species (including the “salties” – infamous saltwater crocodiles). It also contains over 5,000 archeological sites with relics (some over 20,000 years old) of local aborigine life, including some of the world’s most beautiful rock paintings.
Hiking paths are marked, and you can take guided tours. You can visit waterfalls and pools (swimming is forbidden in most of them, because of the crocodiles). Boat rides and wild animals watching, land rover rides, and even flights over the park are only some of the attractions the park offers its visitors. We recommend visiting the visitors’ center at the entrance of the park, which will provide you with maps and useful, up-to-date information. Another worthwhile place to visit is the aborigine culture center near Cooinda.
There are several camping sites in the park, and in the towns of Cooinda and Jabiru you will also find hostels and hotels. You may tour the park on your own (ideally with a 4x4 vehicle) or with an organized tour from Darwin. Entrance to the park comes for a fee, and you should set aside at least 2 or 3 days for it.
Litchfield National Park – 140 km south of Darwin. The park’s landscape is reminiscent of Kakadoo Par, but it is smaller and therefore a day or two is all you need to visit its central sites.
There are two roads leading to the park from Darwin. They join to form a circular route that crosses the park and covers most attractions. These roads are accessible by private car.
The park can be visited as part of a day trip (organized or independent), or you can sleep overnight at one of the well-kept camping sites within the park. Litchfield Park is very popular among locals and may be crowded on weekends. Additional information on Darwin, the Kakadoo, and Litchfield National Parks as well as other attractions can be found on the next site.
Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) is located next to the town of Katherine (about 320 km south of Darwin). The park’s main attraction is the beautiful, deep Katherine Canyon. During the dry season, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the canyon on organized boat trips, canoeing (organized or independently), or a refreshing swim. The park also offers a number of marked walking paths that may take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. You can sleep in the park’s camping grounds or in nearby Katherine, where buses go to the park and back. Additional information on the park, the town of Katherine, and other sites nearby can be found on the next site.
The Red Center
Alice Springs – with a population of 25,000, Alice Springs is the big city in Australia’s center. It combines a modern atmosphere with desert landscape. It is a good place for taking trips in the area, getting provisions and information, or signing up for organized tours.
The town offers a variety of accommodations and you should reserve at least a day or two for visiting it. Among the attractions it offers are historical buildings, observation points, art galleries, parks displaying the area’s unique vegetation and wildlife, as well as a number of museums with different exhibitions on local natural phenomena, aborigine culture, the area’s history, and characteristics of “out-back” life.
The McDonnell Ranges are ancient mountain ranges (600 million years old) to the east and west of Alice Springs. The mountains (and especially the western range) offer beautiful views of red cliffs, deep, impressive canyons, pools, and desert vegetation.
You can reach some of the closer sites by foot or bicycle from Alice Springs. Sites further away can be reached by private car or organized trips. There is a variety of hiking paths and roads in the park, making it suitable for a day trip or for longer trips. You can sleep on one of the well-kept camping grounds or in nearby Alice Springs.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The height of a visit in the Red Center is doubtlessly a visit of Uluru (or Ayers Rock). It is 348 meters high with a 9 km circumference. It is the world’s largest monolith, made of sand stone whose shades of color change in the course of the day from light brown to deep red. It is especially beautiful at sunset and sunrise. Uluru is also called “The Heart of Australia” and is one of its most famous symbols. The giant rock is of supreme importance to the Aborigines, who have marked its holiness by many rock drawings, for 10,000 years.
You can climb to the rock’s top, but this hurts the Aborigines’ feelings; they would rather have you go on one of paths that circle the rock. These paths, which range in length from one to ten kilometers, pass by water holes, natural caves, and rock drawings.
Kata Tjuta, about 30 km west of Uluru, is situated in an area named Kata Tuuga, meaning “many heads.” It is strewn with rocks (the highest of them towering to a height of 546 m) which erosion has chiseled into many strange shapes. The rocks are separated by narrow gorges, the most famous being Olga Gorge.
This area is less known than Uluru, but it is no less beautiful; some say even more so. There are several short hiking paths, of which we recommend those leading to Wind Valley (or Ghost Valley) and various observation points. If you want to find out more about local Aborigine culture, visit the park’s cultural center. It exhibits Aborigine heritage, the history of tourism in the area and the connection between the two. The park’s attractions include horseback or camelback riding, riding 4x4 vehicles or motorbikes, airplane tours, star watching, tours led by local Aborigines etc. Entrance to the park is for a fee and you should reserve at least one day for a visit.
It is forbidden to sleep in the park but nearby Yulara offers a variety of accommodations, food, entertainment, and touring facilities such as car rentals and information and signing up for organized tours. You can reach Yulara by plane, bus, or private car.
More - between Yulara and Alice Springs are 441 km of several interesting sites:
Ewaninga – concentration of Aborigine rock paintings.
Chabers Pillar – a sandstone pillar 58 m high above the surrounding plain.
Meteorite Craters – a grouping of some of the world’s largest meteorite craters.
The Watarraka Park, where the famous Kings Canyon is located, which appeared in the movie “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” This impressive canyon is 100 m deep, and there are several nice hiking paths along the cliff (not recommended for those suffering from fear of heights) and in the shady corners of the riverbed.
Rainbow Valley Park with colorful rocks and other impressive landscapes.
More information on National Parks can be found at the next government site
For more than 40,000 years, the Aborigines were the region’s sole residents. They lived in wondrous harmony with their surroundings and developed a singularly complex system of art, knowledge, beliefs, and culture. The first European settlers who came to the area towards the end of the 19th century fought the Aborigines, employed them as slaves, or as laborers paid with a pittance. They also tried to “educate” them and convert them to Christianity. All this affected the Aborigines and their culture cruelly, and today, only a few of them still live according their traditional way of life.
Today, the Aborigines make up one third of the population of the Northern Territory. Some of them have assimilated nicely into western society, but many others are unemployed, and crime as well as drug and alcohol abuse is disconcertingly high among Aborigines living in towns.
In 1976, the federal government ratified a law that allows Aborigines to demand ownership over the land they lived on. Consequently, ownership over most land in the Northern Territory was returned to its original owners, including a large number of famous tourist sites.
In order to learn about Aborigine culture, you can visit different art galleries and museums or participate in the special tours given by Aborigine guides that let you have a glimpse of their special knowledge, beliefs, and way of life. These tours are given on Twi island (about 80 km north of Darwin), in Arnhem Land (east of Kakadoo Park), in Manyallaluk (near Katherine), in Kakadoo and Urulu National Parks, and other places.
In spite of the isolation and great distances between sites, the Northern Territory offers many types of transportation: flights, trains, and buses connect the main points of interest.
Another way to travel in the Northern Territory is by private car.
Between Darwin and Alice Springs lies the 1,500 km long Stuart Highway. There is no speed limit on the Northern Territory’s main roads but drivers are warned of “road trains” (huge trailers), wild animals that may all of a sudden appear on the road, and fatigue – the result of heat and long distances.
Within the parks, some roads are not paved and good only for 4x4 vehicles. In the rainy season, many roads are blocked because of flooding and therefore, it is important to check out road conditions before traveling. You can do this in the tourist information bureaus in all towns.
The weather, too, is divided into two in the Northern Territory. In the north, there are two seasons: the dry and the wet season.
The wet season (October – March) is characterized by high temperatures, high air moisture, thunderstorms, and heavy rains (up to 1,3000 mm) that fall mainly during January-March. During this season, cyclone storms may affect beaches. The “stingers” medusa with its deadly poison infests the waters and makes swimming dangerous.
During the dry season (April – September), air moisture goes down, and temperatures are more pleasant. During this period, almost no rain falls. This is the best time for visiting the region. In the center, the year has four seasons: summer (November – March), fall (April – May), winter (June – August) and spring (September – October).
In summer, temperatures are high (above 400 C), making outside activities unpleasant and even dangerous. Some rain may fall during this season. In the winter, nights are cold (below 00 C on some nights), but days are warm and pleasant. This is the best time for visiting the Center.