Explore Northern Territory
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.Read More
Top End weather
Top End weather
There is a certain amount of misunderstanding about the Top End’s tropical climate, usually summed up as the hot and humid “Dry” and the hotter and very humid “Wet”. Give or take a couple of weeks either way, this is the pattern: the Dry begins in April when rains stop and humidity decreases – although this always remains high, whatever the season. The bush is at its greenest, and engorged waterfalls pound the base of the escarpments, although it may take a couple of months for vehicle access to be restored to all far-flung tracks. From April until October skies are generally cloud-free, with daily temperatures reliably peaking in the low thirties centigrade, though June and July nights might cool down to 10 °C – sheer bliss for unacclimatized tourists.
From October until December temperatures and humidity begin to rise during the Build Up. Clouds accumulate to discharge brief showers, and it’s a time of year when the weak-willed or insufficiently drunk can flip out and “go troppo” as the unbearable heat, humidity and dysfunctional air conditioning push people over the edge. Around November storms can still be frustratingly dry but often give rise to spectacular lightning shows. Only when the monsoonal Wet season commences at the turn of the year do the daily afternoon storms rejuvenate and saturate the land. This daily cycle lasts for two months or so and is much more tolerable than you might expect, with a daily thunderous downpour cooling things down from the mid- to low-thirties.
Cyclones occur most commonly at either end of the Wet and can dump 30cm of rain in as many hours, with winds of up to 300kph. Frequent updates on the erratic path and intensity of these tropical depressions are given on the radio, so most people are prepared when a storm hits. Some fizzle out or head back out to sea; others can intensify and zigzag across the land, as many communities have found out to their cost from Cyclone Tracy (Darwin, 1974) to Cyclone Yasi (Queensland, 2011). Most recently, the weather cycle has become less predictable. Record rainfall during the 2010–11 season saw usually barren areas of the Territory, particularly the “Red Centre” around Alice Springs, turned green with wildflowers and shrubs.
Aboriginal people and tourism
Aboriginal people and tourism
Over a quarter of Northern Territory’s population are Aborigines, a far higher proportion than anywhere else in Australia, and half of the Territory is once again Aboriginal-owned land, returned following protracted land claims. As a tourist, however, meeting Aboriginal people and getting to know them can be difficult. Excepting the national parks, most Aboriginal land is out of bounds to visitors without a permit or invitation, and most communities and outstations, where the majority of Aboriginal people live, are particularly remote even by Territory standards.
The result is that the most visible Aboriginal people you see in the main towns of Darwin, Katherine and Alice Springs are those living rough on the streets, a sad sight that shows little signs of changing. Despite many years of intervention policies, limited progress has been made in alleviating the social problems rife in Aboriginal communities from domestic violence and child abuse to alcoholism and substance addiction. Aside from these bleak realities, for those interested in getting to the heart of the enigmatic Australian Outback and meeting indigenous Australians, the Territory offers memorable experiences, providing an introduction to a land that’s sustained a fascinating and complex culture for at least sixty thousand years. Some Aborigines have a new-found pride in their culture and identity, demonstrated in superb museums, successful Aboriginal tourism projects, and a flowering of indigenous art, media, music and writing.
The most meaningful contact for the short-term visitor will be from an indigenous tour guide or a knowledgeable non-Aboriginal guide. Always choose tours run by Aboriginal-owned companies. Keep in mind that most tours will only scrape the surface of a complex way of life – secrecy is one of the pillars that supports traditional society, so what you’ll probably learn is a watered-down version from people reluctant to give away closely guarded “business”. But if you’re content to learn about the meaning of the country for Aborigines, about languages, bushtucker, bush medicine and Dreamtime stories, going on one of these tours can be an enriching experience.
Buying and playing a didgeridoo
Buying and playing a didgeridoo
The eerie sound of a didgeridoo instantly evokes the mysteries of Aboriginal Australia, and these simple wood instruments have become phenomenally popular souvenirs, even a New Age musical cult. Authentic didges are created from termite-hollowed branches of stringybark, woollybark and bloodwood trees that are indigenous from the Gulf to the Kimberley. Most commonly they are associated with Arnhem Land, where they were introduced around 2000 years ago and are properly called yidaka or molo by the Yolngu people of that region. “Didgeridoo” is an Anglicized name relating to the sound produced.
Tiny bamboo and even painted pocket didges have found their way onto the market, but a real didge is a natural tube of wood with a rough interior. Painted versions haven’t necessarily got any symbolic meaning; plain ones can look less tacky and are less expensive. Branches being what they are, every didge is different, but if you’re considering playing it rather than hanging it over the fireplace, aim for one around 1.3m in length with a 30–40mm diameter mouthpiece. The bend doesn’t affect the sound, but the length, tapering and wall thickness (ideally around 10mm) do. Avoid cumbersome, thick-walled items that get in the way of your face and sound flat.
The key to making the right sound is to hum while letting your pressed lips flap, or vibrate, with the right pressure behind them – it’s easier using the side of your mouth. The tricky bit – beyond the ability of most beginners – is to master circular breathing; this entails refilling your lungs through your nose while maintaining the sound from your lips with air squeezed from your cheeks. A good way to get your head round this concept is to blow or “squirt” bubbles into a glass of water with a straw, while simultaneously inhaling through the nose. Most shops that sell didges also sell tapes and CDs and inexpensive “how to” booklets that offer hints on the mysteries of circular breathing and how to emit advanced sounds using your vocal cords.
Many Aboriginal communities forbid women to play the didge – as actress Nicole Kidman found out after she played one on German television to promote the film Australia. Besides being criticized for cultural insensitivity, Kidman was later informed that many Aboriginal groups believe that playing it makes women infertile.
The indefatigable Mr Stuart
The indefatigable Mr Stuart
If one man can be said to have put Northern Territory on the map it is John McDouall Stuart (1815–66). A diminutive Scottish surveyor with unlimited reserves of flinty perseverance, he led no less than six expeditions into the red centre, never losing a man in the process (a rare talent compared with his contemporaries). For the early British colonists the Territory was essentially terra incognita, a land of scorching desert that attracted only those willing to search for gold or ever-elusive grazing lands. However, in the late 1850s the need for a telegraph line to link Australia’s southern colonies to the rest of the Empire saw serious attention turn north. The government of South Australia offered £2000 to any man who could find a suitable route through to the north coast from where the line would be connected undersea to Java.
Stuart had a head start on many of his rivals, having already charted vast expanses of the desert by travelling light and relying on an uncanny ability to find water. He set out from Adelaide in 1861 leading a party of ten men on an expedition that would take a gruelling nine months to find a way through to the Top End. Along the way he suffered terribly from scurvy, was attacked by boomerang-wielding Aborigines, and had to be carried on a stretcher for the last few kilometres. On July 24, 1862 they finally reached their goal at Chambers Bay. Stuart’s journal records that when one of his men exclaimed “The Sea!”, they were so astonished, that he had to repeat himself, after which they gave “three long and hearty cheers”. Though he returned a hero to Adelaide, Stuart’s exertions had taken their toll and he died just four years later back in Britain. Today, along with statues in Adelaide and Darwin, he is remembered by the Stuart Highway and Central Mount Stuart as by well as the names he gave to features across the Territory from the Katherine River to the MacDonnell Ranges.
Area 51 – Down Under
Area 51 – Down Under
For decades there have been apparent sightings of UFOs in the skies over Wycliffe Well and the roadhouse here has well and truly capitalized on this. There is kitsch “alien-obilia”, a space ship on the forecourt and scores of newspaper articles inside attesting to the regular sightings of UFOs, if not necessarily bug-eyed ETs. The location has certain parallels with Nevada’s Area 51, a sparsely populated semi-desert, and the shady goings-on at the Pine Gap US military base near Alice Springs are just 400km to the south, fuelling the fantasies of conspiracy theorists. Rationalizations of the sightings include that they are merely “glowing birds” or the “Min Min Light”. Whatever the truth is, though it might be unfair to suggest that Wycliffe Well’s global selection of beers has any connection with the phenomenon, it does at least give you something to do while you watch the skies and wait.