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. 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 mould their temperaments and accentuate their tough, maverick image as outsiders in a land of “southerners”. And beneath the grizzled clichés you’ll unearth a potent, unforgettable travel destination, serving up raw scenery, world-class national parks and a beguilingly strong Aboriginal heritage.
The small but sultry city of Darwin, the Territory’s capital, is nearer to Bali than Sydney, with an unhurried tempo that regularly waylays travellers. Its location makes it the natural base for explorations around the Top End, as tropical NT is known. Most visitors make a beeline for the nearby natural attractions, most notably the photogenic swimming holes of Litchfield National Park and the World Heritage-listed, Aboriginal-managed Kakadu National Park, with its astonishing array of ancient rock art sites, waterways and wildlife: if croc-spotting’s a priority, you’re unlikely to leave disappointed. Arnhem Land, to the east of Kakadu, is Aboriginal land, requiring a permit to enter – some 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. Continuing south, a dip in Mataranka’s thermal pools and some colourful “bush pubs” are the highlights of the 670km to Tennant Creek, by which time you’ve left the Top End’s savannah woodland and wetlands to travel through pastoral tablelands. The Stuart Highway continues to spool southwards, passing the rotund boulders of the Devil’s Marbles and rolling on into the central deserts surrounding Alice Springs. By no means the dusty Outback town many expect, Alice is home to more than 25,000, making it by some way the largest settlement in the interior. It’s an enjoyable base from which to learn about the Aborigines of the Western Desert and explore the region’s natural wonders, of which the stupendous monolith, Uluru – formerly known as Ayers Rock – 450km to the southwest, is just one of many. The West MacDonnell ranges, a series of rugged ridges cut at intervals by slender chasms and huge gorges, start on Alice Springs’ western doorstep. On the other side of town, the Eastern MacDonnells are less visited but no less appealing, while the remote tracks of the Simpson Desert to the south attract intrepid off-roaders. To the west, lush Palm Valley is accessible via a rough 4WD route and linked to the yawning chasm of Kings Canyon via a dirt track, the Mereenie Loop. These sights combined make for a memorable tour of the Outback. Renting a 4WD is recommended to get the most out of the trip; there many interesting off-road tracks.