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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.