For most Australians the Northern Territory – known simply as “the Territory” or “NT” – embodies the antithesis of the country’s cushy suburban seaboard. The name conjures up a distant frontier province, and to some extent that’s still the case. Within the Territory’s boundaries are some of Australia’s oldest sites of Aboriginal occupation and some of the last regions to be colonized by Europeans – even today, a little over one percent of Australians inhabit an area covering a fifth of the continent, which partly explains why the Territory has never achieved full statehood. Territorians love to play up the extremes of climate, distance and isolation that accentuate their tough, maverick image. Yet beyond the grizzled clichés you’ll find Territorians a cosmopolitan bunch who in many ways personify Australia’s early days of immigration and youthful optimism.
Travellers from around the world flock to the prosperous and sultry city of Darwin, the Territory’s capital, making it their base for explorations around the Top End, as tropical NT is known. Most make a beeline for World Heritage-listed, Aboriginal-managed Kakadu National Park to take in its astonishing array of wildlife, waterways and wonderful Aboriginal art sites. Adjacent Arnhem Land, to the east, is Aboriginal land, requiring a permit to enter – Darwinites think nothing of getting a permit every weekend to go fishing – while if you don’t want to go it alone, certain tours are authorized to visit the spectacular wilderness of scattered indigenous communities.
Around 100km south of Kakadu, the main attraction near the town of Katherine is the magnificent gorge complex within Nitmiluk National Park. By the time you reach Tennant Creek, 650km south of Katherine, you’ve left the Top End’s savannah woodland, wetlands and stone country to pass through pastoral tablelands on your way to the central deserts surrounding Alice Springs. By no means the dusty Outback town many expect, Alice Springs makes an excellent base to explore the region’s natural wonders, of which the famous monolith, Uluru – formerly known as Ayers Rock – 450km to the southwest, is one of many. This is one of the best areas to learn about the Aborigines of the Western Desert, among the last to come into contact with European settlers and consequently the most studied by anthropologists.