9 must-do activities in the Top End
Australian Geographic Editor-in-Chief travels to the Northern Territory to experience the very best of the Top End.
1. Visit a rock art site
Kakadu’s National Park’s Aboriginal art represents one of the oldest historical records of the world’s continuous culture, with over 5000 sites across the park. The paintings tell the story of Creation Ancestors and also chronicle on the changing landscapes over time. There are X-ray animals, Mimi Spirits and contact art which depicts early European encounters.
Ubirr Rock Art Site is one of the two most significant sites within the park along with Nourlangie (Burrungkuy) Rock. A circular walk takes you through the largest gallery of rock art paintings in all of Kakadu and up to the top of a lookout from where you enjoy a 360 degree view of the Nadab floodplain.
There is a nominal fee for entering World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.
2. See crocs up close
Jumping croc cruises abound along the Adelaide River near to the Arnhem Highway. The crocodiles are lured with a piece of meat suspended above and leap up in a surprisingly elegant way to snatch the treat. The operators assure me that crocodiles jump naturally as part of their hunting technique and that they are only given small morsels of swamp buffalo that doesn’t interfere with natural feeding. I must confess that seeing these giants burst from the water literally within centimetres of my face was one of the biggest thrills I have ever experienced.
It’s easy to mix up the operators along this section of river so leave enough time to ensure you are in the right place for your prebooked tour and, if travelling in wet season.
3. Air boat safari
Air boats, developed originally for Florida’s Everglades, skim across surfaces and are great for getting about on vast shallow bodies of water at speed. I explore the Mary River floodplain with cheery pilot 23-year-old Jack Abel, who clearly loves his job as he pivots and weaves through carpets of lotus lilies and around stands of gnarly old paperbarks where magpie geese and egrets look on disdainfully from twisted flaking boughs.
The Mary River delta system, which stretches for more than 200km in the Top End is said to be the most densely populated area of estuarine crocodiles in the Southern Hemisphere… if not the world.
It’s a thrilling ride and the watery views are beautiful. Jack explains the almost magical water-resistant properties of the lotus lily leaves that blanket the surface and how the roots form a vital part of the diet of traditional inhabitants of the Top End. I just loved every minute and before I knew it, the ride was over.
4. Bird spot
Kakadu National Park is one of only four places in Australia that is dual World Heritage-listed for their outstanding natural and cultural features and has more than one third of all bird species in Australia including the endemic white-throated grasswren and the banded fruit dove.
For bird spotting, head along to Kakadu Bird Week each October or try Mamukala wetlands in Kakadu, Australia’s largest terrestrial National Park. There’s an observation platform with an interpretive mural. Enjoy a huge array of birdlife from this spot or take a 3km walk around the edge of the wetlands. Allow about 1-2 hours for the walk. Species regularly seen here include all the usual waterbirds like magpie geese, jacanas and black-necked storks. Always be croc vigilant near water.
5. Discover war time history
A visit to a modern day Darwin is a step back through Australia’s military heritage. Traces of WWII are still visible and accessible around the Northern Territory and Territorians keep the history alive in the most contemporary of ways.
Darwin itself was the target of more than 64 air raids from 19 February 1942 to November 1943 and, as a result, there are many fascinating sites to uncover in what is now a vibrant, modern city. On any visit, you can easily discover underground oil tunnels, gun emplacements, explosive storage areas, and more, on guided tours, walks, cruises, and in contemporary museums using the latest computer technology.
Located at East Point Reserve, the Darwin Military Museum and the Defence of Darwin Experience play wartime footage and interviews with WWII vets, and have curated a captivating collection of artefacts including uniforms, weapons and artillery pieces. To top it off, the museum houses a café which is steeped in lush tropical gardens – the perfect way to cap off a day of exploring!
A recent addition just minutes from Darwin at Stokes Hill Wharf, is the multi-million-dollar Bombing of Darwin Harbour and Royal Flying Doctor Service Experience. Cutting edge virtual reality transports you from modern-day Darwin into a world at war… from bombs falling and sinking ships at Stokes Hill Wharf to the wing of a Japanese bomber for a bird’s eye view of the city. Ghostly holograms eerily tell the stories behind every day people during the Bombing of Darwin
Visit the Darwin Military Museum on Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Arm or take the Stuart Highway to the Adelaide River township, approximately 90 minutes’ drive from Darwin. The Adelaide River war cemetery is Australia’s largest and a sombre reminder of the Northern Territory’s role in WWII. 434 servicemen and 54 civilians killed during the air raids on Darwin are buried there.
6. Swim in a safe place
Litchfield NP is a vast sandstone plateau that absorbs a huge quantity of freshwater during the Wet and then gradually transmits it via numerous waterfalls that cascade dramatically from the top to the plains below. You can swim in safety in the vicinity of a number of these but always check the signs before entering any water body in this part of Australia. I checked out dramatic Florence Falls from the lookout before heading for Buley Rockhole, which people had recommended, for a cooling dip. These gentle tiered pools are rightly popular and I was advised to get there early. The water is clear and warm and there are plenty of spots to ease into the water and cool off. Later in the day, I swam at Wangi Falls.
Wangi has great facilities including a café and was very busy the day I visited (a Sunday). Once I swam out across the plunge pool to the twin falls however, I left the crowds behind me on the shoreline.
7. Experience island life
A 2.5 hour leisurely hour ferry ride across the picturesque Darwin Harbour will transport you to a place that’s nicknamed the ‘Island of Smiles’ because of the hospitality and friendliness of its people. The tropical Tiwi Islands – Melville, Bathurst and a selection of smaller islands – are famous for their traditional lifestyle, Aboriginal art and pottery, and for the Tiwi peoples’ absolute love of footy.
Head to the Tiwi Islands, where a rich tapestry of Aboriginal culture is intertwined with Melanesian influences. Take an organised tour from Darwin to meet the Tiwi people, famous for their bark paintings and wood carvings. The coastal Aboriginal people are culturally and linguistically distinct from their mainland counterparts with culture, art and stories expressed through vivid lines, patterns and colours, and in carvings, fabric and pottery.
Tiwi culture places great influence on athletics and each year in March they play the Aussie rules Tiwi Grand Final with its accompanying Art Sale and you don’t need a permit to visit during this event.
You can get to Bathurst or Melville Island by air or by ferry – it’s just 2.5 hours from Darwin and Both Tiwi Islands Adventures and Sealink offer day trips. Permits are required for any travel outside of the main townships. Please contact the Tiwi Island Regional Council on 08 8944 4480 or visit their website
8. See Aboriginal art and culture close to Darwin
The Northern Territory is about to launch a series of Arts Trails – that bring to life our extraordinary world class art and cultural centres, galleries, museums and events among them, Provenance Arts. Darwin’s newest social enterprise, on the Stuart Highway just out of Darwin CBD, is 100 per cent owned and governed by Injalak Arts, a registered Arnhem Land charity. It’s a retail, exhibition, cultural and tourism and events hub which opened in July 2018. It promotes ethical art, crafts and souvenirs from a range of Aboriginal-owned art centres. Provenance Arts showcases how Aboriginal crafts are created, how to spot genuine artwork and the perfect basket weaving technique with in-gallery demonstrations and the chance to sit and chat with master weavers.
9. Visit the Windows on the Wetlands Centre
Not far from the various croc jumping cruise operators along the Adelaide River, you’ll spot the Windows on the Wetlands Centre in its lofty position atop a hill right on the Arnhem Highway 60km from Darwin on the way to Kakadu NP.
The building, with its striking curved roof echoing the contours of the landscape, offers superb views across the Adelaide River floodplain and in the wet season is an excellent spot to watch the free light show provided by those breathtaking lightning storms that define that time of year.
The centre stands upon Beatrice Hill, one of the highest points overlooking the Adelaide River floodplains, a turtle dreaming place and an important cultural site for the Limilngan-Wulna people and is known as Ludawei. The interactive displays explain the Aboriginal and European histories of the area, its ecology, seasonal changes and the abundant wildlife of the northern coastal wetlands.
The guides are knowledgeable and helpful and can advise on other things to do in the area.
For bookings and further information: phone 08 8988 8188. Entry is free.
Opening hours – 8.00 am – 5.30 pm daily.
Kiosk – open weekends from 10.00 am to 3.00 pm.