The Northern Territory

The Northern Territory is authentic Australia at its wildest. From the beating cultural heart of Uluru (Ayers Rock) to the outback pubs, parks, and livestock stations that light up the global imagination, the Northern Territory defines and defies, and is a crucial part of the Australian spirit, culture, and identity. From the 50,000-year-old traditions of Arnhem Land, to the Crocodile Dundee landscapes of Kakadu National Park, to the cosmopolitan core of Darwin, the Northern Territory is as soul-satisfying as it is rough-and-tumble. And it must be experienced to truly understand “The Lucky Country” down under.

ULURU, AUSTRALIA - CIRCA AUGUST 2016: Uluru at sunrise under beautiful fluffy clouds, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Photo By Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock


When’s the best time to go to The Northern Territory?

The Northern Territory is a land of extremes—particularly the Top End (encompassing Darwin, Katherine, Kakadu, and Arnhem Land), where there’s a tropical climate with two distinct seasons, each with its own sights and experiences. Most visitors come in the dry season, between May and October, when the weather is cooler and there’s more access to area attractions. The wet season, however, is the time for waterfall chasers, storm watchers, and seekers of peace and quiet—the area virtually shuts down. The Red Center (including Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, and Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park) features four typical seasons; summer (December through February) is the hottest (and notorious for sand flies) while winter (June through August) tops out at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Visit Uluru between May and September when you might just see “the Rock” rushing with waterfalls.

How to get around The Northern Territory

Travelers can fly to Darwin straight from Asia, or connect to the Northern Territory via other Australian cities. The biggest two airports are in Darwin and Alice Springs, though smaller airstrips can be found in Katherine, Tenant Creek, and Uluru. Darwin is also a stop on many South Pacific cruise itineraries. Once in the NT, visitors can pick up their rental car or catch a tour bus and hit the open road.

Darwin and Alice Springs offer a range of rental car services, from four-wheel drive Apollo campervans and Britz adventure jeeps to your typical two-wheel drive station wagons. Four-wheel drive is necessary in certain parts of Kakadu National Park and on famous sand highways such as the Mereenie Loop. Coach and bus tours by the likes of AAT Kings operate throughout the state, as does the famous Ghan railroad from Adelaide to Darwin.

Can’t miss things to do in The Northern Territory

One of the miracles of the Northern Territory is the vast open spaces with no development or light pollution to block out the sounds of nocturnal species or the sight of glittering galaxies overhead. A number of night and astronomy tours are offered throughout the state, but none is as well produced as the Sounds of Silence dinner near Australia’s most famous “rock,” Uluru. The night begins with sunset drinks and canapés overlooking Uluru and progresses through a four-course dinner with matching wines set to Aboriginal dance and an astronomy tour of the southern sky.

Food and drink to try in The Northern Territory

Home to people from at least 70 different ethnic backgrounds, Darwin offers a tantalizing taste tour when it comes to cuisine. The city’s famous Mindil Beach and Parap Markets are a great way to sample the offerings: from roti and rendang to tropical fruit smoothies, fresh seafood, and wood-fired pizzas. More recently, a revitalized coffee culture has steeped the people with single-origin blends and “bronuts” (brioche doughnuts). The Outback specializes in foods of a different flavor, particularly “bush foods” like crocodile, kangaroo, and river barramundi, as well as indigenous fruits like the Kakadu plum.

Culture in The Northern Territory

The Northern Territory is the beating heart of Australian history and culture: It contains the ancestral homeland of the oldest living culture on Earth and all the art, music, dance, knowledge, and stories that have been passed down for the last 50,000 years. Uluru (Ayers Rock) is the most famous pilgrimage site, with a power and beauty that must be experienced to be appreciated. Arnhem Land is the other spiritual center, where artistic and cultural traditions have survived and thrived.

The different cultures and lifestyles of the Northern Territory have resulted in a true hodgepodge of events and festivals. You can find civic showstoppers such as Darwin Festival, a 16-day extravaganza of music, art, theater, and food, as well as the most awe-inspiring celebrations of Aboriginal culture in the country, such as Barunga Festival in the Katherine region. The Lasseters Camel Cup and Darwin Beer Can Regatta are two other celebrations you won’t soon forget.

Local travel tips for The Northern Territory

Crocodiles are no joke, especially if you’re visiting remote areas or camping in the wilderness. Estuarine, or saltwater, crocodiles are the largest terrestrial predators in the world. Ask a local and they’ll probably have a story of someone who got their hand bitten off. Don’t let that deter you from visiting, though; you’re safe in much of the Northern Territory for much of the year, and “salties” are a thrilling sight to behold. It’s just important to be croc wise: Never stand or fish along a river bank and always check for crocodile warnings—yellow signs depicting a toothy mouth ready to chomp.

Guide Editor

Serena Renner is a journalist and editor whose work focuses on travel, people, culture, and the environment. Her writing has been featured in magazines including VIA, The Intelligent Optimist, San Francisco, Australian Traveller, International Traveller, and AFAR—where Serena worked as an editor for two years. In October of 2013, Serena moved to Sydney’s Bondi Beach neighborhood, where she’s currently mingling with surfers, travelers, and artists and planning several years’ worth of Australian adventures.

Resources to help plan your trip
Balmy nights and some of the clearest skies in the country make for dreamy dinners under the stars. Add in ocean views and desert dunes, and al fresco dining in the Northern Territory is pure magic. Here’s the best of the batch.
From croc balls to mud crabs, Australia offers many dishes one might not at first consider food. But outback bushrangers have been hunting wild animals and raising livestock for generations, while indigenous people have lived off the plants and animals of Australia for thousands of years. Many restaurants and tours specialize in such cuisine, called “feral food” or “bush tucker,” depending on what it is. If you can’t hunt and gather yourself, hit up one of these iconic spots.
Relive scenes from Crocodile Dundee and We Of the Never Never at outback outposts across the Northern Territory. From their days of feeding railroad workers and the builders of the Overland Telegraph Line to their role in housing and revitalizing long-distance travelers, outback pubs are where the characters live and the memories are made, and many are as relevant today as they were in the late 1800s. Shout (buy a drink) for the patron next to you and you might have a mate for life.
Australia’s Northern Territory is home to some of the oldest artistic traditions in the world. As such, it’s one of the best places to buy authentic Australian Aboriginal art, which includes dot paintings, bark etchings, wooden objects, and pottery. But it’s important to make sure Aboriginal artists receive their fair share of profits when you purchase indigenous art in the country. These galleries, shops, and Aboriginal arts and craft centers are great places to start.
The most ethnically diverse state in the country—Darwinites descend from at least 70 ethnic backgrounds—offers myriad traditions when it comes to food, craft, and culture. Markets are a great way to explore the variety, and the Northern Territory is a leader in open-air bazaars. From the balmy and bohemian Mindil Beach Market in Darwin to the Aboriginal heartland of Alice Springs, here are a half dozen markets to plan your trip around.
While it may not have the San Pellegrino World’s Best rankings of Sydney and Melbourne, the Northern Territory is no stranger to fine food, and it offers the landscapes and night skies to match. From Darwin’s iconic Hanuman restaurant and open-air Pee Wee’s at the Point to the magical Tali Wiru experience held at a desert dune near Uluru (Ayers Rock), these dining experiences won’t disappoint.
Shelby Donley of Camelback Odyssey, a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council, has a fondness for one of Australia’s most rugged regions: the Northern Territory. She also, however, doesn’t mind luxurious comforts. The itinerary she created for AFAR Journeys includes cultural and culinary highlights of Brisbane, and opportunities to explore the Northern Territory while staying in top eco-lodges and resorts. For more details of her trip and other itineraries to Australia, visit AFAR Journeys.
From outback opulence to Aboriginal accents to waterfront enjoyment, accommodation in the Northern Territory is as diverse as the people and landscapes. If there’s one thing most all have in common, it’s the incredible natural settings and the opportunity to connect with land and culture.
As the monsoon rains peter out in April or May, the ground dries up and waterfalls slow to a trickle in the Northern Territory. But the water remains stored in deep plunge pools, and roads that were recently flooded open up for adventurous swimmers. Water-bound crocodiles are less of an issue in the dry season, but always research your swimming spot and check for posted signs before jumping in. On cooler days, hit the hot springs around Mataranka, keeping your eyes peeled for sea turtles.
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