An adventure seeker's mecca, the Northern Territory teems with spellbinding national parks, Aboriginal culture, clear waterholes, desert monoliths and tropical town charms.
By Jennifer Pinkerton
Despite its geographical footprint, this is a territory rather than a state because of its small population. Just over 250,000 people live here – less than half the headcount in Tasmania.
A village feel makes Territorians some of the friendliest folk you'll find. Strong indigenous cultures offer thriving art practices, ancient storytelling and deep spiritual tradition. And diverse national parks provide striking landscapes.
Above all, the Northern Territory is fun. To venture beyond Australia's big cities to the Outback of the Red Centre and the Top End tropics is to launch yourself into an out-of-the-ordinary travel experience. The Northern Territory is a place that stays with you.
- See the glowing red monolith Uluru at sunset
- Swim below towering waterfalls in Kakadu
- Eat Asian food at Darwin's markets
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Top things to do in the Northern Territory
See the sunset at Uluru
Standing 350 metres (1150 feet) high, ringed by ghost gum trees and waterholes, Uluru is a giant sandstone rock and a spiritual Dreaming site for the local Aboriginal Anangu people. Uluru is at its most captivating at sunset when the rock's surface shifts through a gamut of colours. Spend an afternoon walking the 10.6 kilometre (6.6 mile) base trail before relaxing at one of the two designated sunset viewing area.
Walk the West MacDonnell Ranges
Drive 110 kilometres (68 miles) beyond Alice Springs to the gentle West Macs, a landscape characterised by ochre soil, cliffs and royal blue skies. Swimmable creeks and semi-arid desert walks abound. Ormiston Gorge is a jewel in the West Macs crown. Its four hour Pound Walk leads visitors into an ancient valley, across a dry creek bed and past a shimmering waterhole flanked by ghost gums.
Swim at Mataranka Thermal Pool
Further north, 420 kilometres (260 miles) shy of Darwin, luxurious 34° Celsius (93° Fahrenheit) waters that glow turquoise due to their mineral content lie inside Elsey National Park. The sandy-bottomed Mataranka Thermal Pool is alive with fish and freshwater turtles. Explore it with a snorkel in hand. The site's sister lagoon, Bitter Springs, is a 10 minute drive away.
Canoe inside Nitmiluk National Park
With a network of 13 gorges that cradle the Katherine River, Nitmiluk National Park is ideal to explore by canoe, thanks to its placid waters, scenic surrounds and low-lying rock shelves. Hire a canoe from Nitmiluk Tours (AUD$57) and paddle your way to Butterfly Gorge for a picnic and swim. Or escape the busier gorges and take a guided three day canoeing tour (AUD$1090) with Gecko Canoeing.
Take a scenic flight over Kakadu
World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is famous for its dramatic waterfalls, and hosts all six of the Top End's ecosystems: stone country, wetlands, savanna woodlands, tidal flats, hills and basins and flood plains. See it from above on a scenic flight.
Eat at Darwin's Mindil Market
The lively Mindil Beach Sunset Market runs on Thursday and Sunday nights from April to November and features street performers, kids’ rides, musicians, craft stalls and an eclectic range of Asian food stalls. Try local favourites such as a Thai papaya salad (AUD$6.50), or be bold and visit Go On Be Game, a stall serving kangaroo, crocodile and buffalo fillet burgers (AUD$12).
Laze around Litchfield National Park
About 115 kilometres (70 miles) from Darwin, Litchfield National Park's Buley Rockhole is a series of descending, connected swimming pools with clear waters. Secure a small site all to yourself and lounge about as the stream bubbles past. From here, continue on to the park's signature swimming hubs, Wangi and Florence Falls.
Get an art fix on the Tiwi Islands
Dubbed the Islands of Smiles, the Tiwis – 70 kilometres (43 miles) north of Darwin – are accessible via charter plane (AUD$925) and boat (AUD$335). Take a three day trip (AUD$1485) with Sail Darwin and visit the islands' key art centres. The Tiwis specialise in wooden sculptures, traditional painting and vibrant, modern fabric designs. Artists are often around to have a chat and share the stories behind their creations.
How to get there
To explore Central Australia, catch the Ghan train from South Australia, or fly into Alice Springs with Qantas or Virgin Airways. Alice Springs is a two hour flight from Sydney. To arrive in the Top End, continue north on the Ghan or fly into Darwin with Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar or Tiger Air. Darwin is a 4 1/2 hour flight from Sydney. If you don't mind long distances, the Northern Territory is an ideal road trip destination – hire a campervan from Alice Springs or Darwin.