We give you 12 ways to go beyond the Northern Territory’s travel icons – exploring the landscapes, wildlife and ancient culture that make this part of Australia so unique.
Australia’s Northern Territory is unlike any other place on Earth. Spanning an area roughly the same size as France, Spain and Italy combined, this enormous wilderness is made up of monsoon forests, palm-lined beaches and deserts the colour of autumn leaves.
The northern half is called the Top End, home to the iconic UNESCO-listed Kakadu National Park – Australia’s largest park, known for its escarpments, wetlands and Aboriginal rock art. The semi-arid southern half is called the Red Centre, famous for Uluru (or Ayers Rock); the 3.6km-long monolith that lies 450km away from Alice Springs.
While there’s no doubt that Uluru and Kakadu are among Australia’s greatest landmarks and well worth a visit, there are so many other incredible places to visit in the Northern Territory that are well worth extending your trip for. To only visit these two sites would be like spending a week in the UK and only seeing Big Ben and the Cotswolds!
With that in mind, here are 10 locations that will take you beyond the Northern Territory’s travel icons – exploring the landscapes, wildlife and ancient culture that make this part of Australia so unique...
The Top End is the Northern Territory’s tropical heartland, with a balmy climate that makes it a year-round place for al fresco living. Every trip here should begin with a stay in the region’s coastal capital, Darwin – famed for its sunsets, markets and abundant seafood. The city’s close proximity to Asia has influenced the gastronomy, so you’ll find a bowl of laksa just as easily as you would an Aussie BBQ. After a few days here, pack your bags and head off for these Top End adventures...
In the Tiwi Islands, it would be easy to forget you are in Australia where dusty golden shores give way to tropical rainforest. This archipelago of islands, namely Bathurst and Melville, lies 80km north of Darwin, accessed by a 30-minute flight or a ferry that runs three times a week. The welcoming locals have given this paradise the nickname the ‘Island of smiles’.
While the islands themselves are beautiful to behold, the real reason to visit is for the local culture. Almost 90% of the residents are of Aboriginal descent, and their traditions remain strong. The local passions are art, fishing and ‘Aussie rules’ football – all three of which you can experience on a trip. The art scene is especially prevalent, earning the locals acclaim not just in Australia, but in galleries around the world.
Wanderlust recommends: Watch artists at work in one of the numerous design centres, or pick up a piece to take home
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, Bullo River opens their doors for guests to experience the wonder of a working remote cattle farm, with a focus on environmental and indigenous conservation.
Bullo River Station is just 800km from the capital city, Darwin – but it’s a whole different world. You can feel the difference after a visit to Bullo, an experience that is both grounding and transformative.
As a guest you choose your own adventure. Whether that be the wild charm of station life, spending the day in remote waterfalls, or going to an outdoor gallery of Aboriginal rock art – all before winding down for the day at the homestead.
Did you know? This vast 500,000 acre property is not only home to around 4,000 Brahman-cross cattle, but also a huge variety of local fauna species including wallabies, dingoes, wild buffalo, a myriad of birds, fish and crocodiles.
Nitmiluk National Park is home to majestic escarpments in sandstone country, where 13 gorges cut through the landscape, creating cliffs that glow in the changing light. Indulge your sense of adventure on foot, by boat, by canoe or by helicopter.
The park has over 100km of walking trails that can be as easy or as challenging as you like. A popular half-day hike from the visitor centre leads you to ‘Northern Rockhole’ – a single-drop waterfall that you can swim beneath. For a more challenging adventure, consider the Jatbula Trail; a one-way 62km walk to Edith Falls that takes around four days to complete, camping along the way.
Wanderlust recommends: For the best viewpoints and photos, visit Pat's Lookout or Baruwei Lookout.
Arnhem Land is aptly named. This enormous stretch of protected wilderness is a land in and of itself, covering nearly 100,000 sq km in the northeast corner of the Top End. The region is made up of vast gorges, winding rivers and rocky escarpments; and it is a place not limited by imagination – a stronghold of traditional Aboriginal culture.
While you could spend weeks exploring this vast area, the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula in the West is well worth a visit. A marine park known for its sand dunes, coastal grasslands and coral reefs, it’s the perfect place to embark on a camping trip, or try your luck in a world class fishing destination.
Did you know? The Garig Gunak Barlu marine park also provides habitat to a large variety of other aquatic life – six of the seven species of marine turtles in the world inhabit the waters here.
The town of Mataranka may be small, but it offers a large sense of freedom and calmness. The area was made famous by the 1908 novel We of the Never Never, by Jeannie Gunn – an Australian classic that tells the author’s personal journey moving from Melbourne to the remote cattle station of Elsey nearby.
“When the heart is happy, it forgets to grow old,” she wrote of her time there – a sentiment many travellers will echo after time in Mataranka’s pastoral landscapes and restorative hot springs.
Bitter Springs & Mataranka Thermal Pool are some of the most fantastic places to swim in the whole Territory. They’re fed by an underground spring and sit constantly at a naturally warm 34 degrees, surrounded by pandanus palms and tropical rainforest.
Wanderlust recommends: Pool noodles or floatation devices up the relaxation levels as you soak in the clear blue water.
A true blue outback pub - the Daly Waters Pub is a colourful outback establishment, clad in corrugated iron, draped with bougainvilleas and crammed with decades of memorabilia. It’s the kind of place that you get to, and you want to leave a part of yourself. The bar is plastered with Polaroids and the roof is draped with various items of clothing.
You’ll find this endearing Aussie stopover approximately 600km from Darwin, the perfect place to explore on a road trip between The Top End and the Red Centre, especially if you are driving between the Icons.
Did you know? Daly Waters is home to the most remote traffic lights in Australia.
The Northern Territory’s Red Centre is the image most travellers conjure when they picture Australia, though the reality is so much more impressive. In this expanse of raw, weathered land – made up of mountain ranges, rocky gorges and undulating deserts that glow red – you’ll witness some of the best sunrises, sunsets and starry night skies that you’ve ever seen.
Start your adventure in Alice Springs, a fascinating town that acts as your gateway to the outback. Take a hot air balloon at dawn, roam the red landscapes by camel, or explore some of Alice Springs’ funky cafés, bars and restaurants. After a few days here – exploring the arts galleries, kangaroo sanctuary and museums – continue your Northern Territory adventure in these Red Centre destinations...
The West MacDonnell Ranges stretch for over 100km of Australian outback, and on a clear day, the sun shining on the red rocky mountains against the bright blue sky is so vivid it will make your pictures look photoshopped.
In what are affectionately known as the West Macs, swimming in one of the park’s many permanent water holes is a great way to cool off in the afternoon sun – a true desert oasis experience.
Wanderlust recommends: One of the most spectacular places to cool off is Redbank Gorge – where you can glide between tall ochre cliffs in a tyre tube, breathing in the fresh air between the awe-inspiring walls while you float by.
Just an hour south down Stuart Highway you’ll find the iconic Karlu Karlu, or Devil’s Marbles The gigantic boulders are believed by the local Warumungu Aboriginal people to be the fossilised eggs of the Rainbow Serpent – a great and powerful deity considered the creator of human beings.
Best seen at sunrise or sunset, the rocks shine a remarkable red against the golden sky, and the reserve .
Did you know? You can learn about the Dreamtime story of the site on an interpretive walk through the fascinating formations.
It might not be as instantly recognisable as Uluru, but Kata Tjuta is just as impressive as its famous neighbour. Kata Tjuta is a group of large, ancient rock formations, consisting of 36 domes spread over an area of more than 20km.
The sandstone domes of Kata Tjuta are believed to be about 500 million years old, and the name Kata Tjuta is a Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal word meaning "many heads."
Don't miss: Valley of the Winds walk. This 7.4km walk is steep in places, but the circuit is worth the effort! You'll go between the domes, through creek beds and to the Karu and Karingana lookouts. The entire circuit takes about four hours. The walk is best during the early morning hours, before the large crowds arrive, and when the wildlife is more active.
Rainbow Valley is named for the rainbow-like rock bands that turn from red to orange to purple in the morning and evening light. Well worth the day trip from Alice Springs, this historic valley has huge Aboriginal significance, as well as fascinating geological formations that can be viewed on foot or from your 4WD – many of which are at least 350 million years old.
Photographers are especially fond of Rainbow Valley’s colours. If you’re keen to capture that perfect ‘outback shot’, camp overnight in one of the two reserves, then rise early to watch the sunlight transform the valley’s sandstone ridges and bluffs: they glow almost luminescent in the half-light.
Don’t miss: You can take an Aboriginal art tour (with Rainbow Valley Cultural Tours), where your guide will take you to historic rock art and engravings that would be impossible to find on your own.
Kings Canyon, in Watarrka National Park – a few hours’ drive from Uluru – is distinguished by its 300-metre-high sandstone walls, where palm trees grow in the crevices.
The best way to explore is via the Rim Walk, a moderately challenging 6km hike that begins with a 500-step climb (which is why most walkers start at sunrise to avoid the heat). If you can make it to the top though, you are well rewarded: 360-degree panoramas look out over the ruby-red sand dunes for miles.
The route then descends into an area known as the Garden of Eden, a shaded oasis full of rare desert plants surrounding a lush waterhole. The site is sacred, so swimming isn’t allowed, but just being in such a tranquil spot – miles from anywhere – is a life-affirming experience.
You’ll spot Chambers Pillar long before you reach it. This 50m-high solitary column towers above the Simpson Desert, with flat land circling it for miles. The pillar holds historical significance, both to 19th-century explorers of the area – who used it as a guiding landmark – and to the Aboriginal community, who’s mythology holds that the pillar is the spirit ancestor, Itakaura, who turned to stone after being exiled for choosing the wrong wife.
Part of Chambers Pillar’s appeal is its remote location – the last 44km of access must be traversed by 4WD. This fun, thrilling drive across the desert is a highlight in itself, bumping across the rocky landscape with nothing but hazy blue skies for miles.
Chambers Pillar is most photogenic at sunrise or sunset, so it’s best to stay at the campground nearby. Make sure you head out of your tent after dark: treat yourself to your own thousand star camp meal under the huge outback sky, said to be one of the best in the world.
Getting there and around
Pre/Post Covid, the best and easiest way to reach the capital, Darwin and the international airport, is with Singapore Airlines from London and Manchester via Singapore. Darwin is only just over four hours flying time from Singapore making it a fast, convenient and affordable Aussie gateway.
Darwin is also well connected to the rest of Australia with domestic flights and you can also fly to Alice Springs and to Uluru from most Australian cities. The Ghan train connects Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs with Adelaide in South Australia. There is also fantastic road networks through the Territory and beyond, for people with more time. The NT is a great self-drive destination with well-maintained highways, well signed roads and lots of rest stops and roadhouses.
When to go
The Top End’s dry season runs from May to October with balmy temperatures between 21°C and 32°C. With little to know rain and with a Low humidity, this is the perfect time for outdoor adventures such as hiking, cycling and camping.
The wet season is November and although the temperatures are still in the high 20s, be prepared for the humidity. The dramatic storms and monsoons is a great time for visitors who want to watch the lush land burst into life and enjoy dramatic skies.
As for the Red Centre, their summer falls from December to February, autumn is March to May, winter is from June to August and spring is September to November. January brings the most rain while the rest of the year it is fairly dry. Autumn brings the pleasant warm days and cols nights and spring is also great temperature-wise with the added thrill of the thunderstorms. Perhaps surprisingly for Australia, the winter months in the Red Centre sometimes brings freezing temperatures with a picturesque layer of frost draped across the landscape.
Where to stay
From campervans and lodges in nature to luxury hotels and accommodation suitable for children, the Northern Territory has accommodation options to suit every kind of traveller and all budgets. You can find some great accommodation options on the Northern Territory website.
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