8-day road trip through Australia's Top End
A serious road trip through Australia’s central far north from Darwin to Katherine taking in Kakadu National Park gets you to the heart of this isolated region.
By Ben Groundwater
Journey into the heart of Australia’s rugged Top End to tussle with crocodiles, swim in deserted waterholes, immerse yourself in local Aboriginal culture and heritage, and get to know a few local characters along the way.
What to expect
- Get up close and personal with crocodiles and barramundi in Darwin
- Swim in a waterhole in Litchfield National Park
- Learn about Aboriginal culture in beautiful Kakadu
- Time: 8 days
- Distance: 974 kilometres (605 miles)
- Transport: car
- Nearest major city: Darwin
- Price: $
Day 1: Darwin
Your Top End adventure begins in a surprisingly civilised way: with coffee. Roma Bar, in the heart of Darwin, does a classic Australian flat white, served alongside breakfast staples like eggs benedict; the perfect way to set yourself up for a day of adventure. And that adventure begins close by at Crocosaurus Cove, the home of some of the largest saltwater crocs in the world. You can choose to view these prehistoric beasts from the safety of dry land, or you can hop into the “Cage of Death”, a glass case submerged into the croc tank. No job interview will ever feel daunting after an experience like that.
Be sure to keep the adrenaline pumping this afternoon with a unique take on the traditional Aussie pub crawl: a tour of the region’s best pubs by helicopter. The Airborne Solutions half-day tour calls in at three classic Top End watering-holes, including, on demand, bars in hard-to-reach spots like Crab Claw Island and Goat Island Lodge. It might be a bit of a splurge, but it will definitely buy you bragging rights. Finally, grab a late dinner at the Hotel Darwin, which dates back to 1940, before watching a film under the stars at Darwin's Deckchair Cinema (April to November). The open-air cinema shows everything from family favourites to foreign films, and the nearby kiosk sells a range of food and drinks. Spend the night at Darwin YHA.
Day 2: Darwin
It’s an early start today to indulge in a local passion: barramundi fishing. Darwin Harbour Fishing Charters offers the chance to catch prized local species such as snapper, trevally and mackerel, as well as try your luck at the famed barra. If you return to shore empty-handed, it’s time to head to The Trader on Winnellie Road for the sort of brunch that will set you up for the rest of the day – the cafe’s Reuben sandwiches are justifiably famous.
Once satisfied, jump in the car and head out to Berry Springs Nature Park, a 30-minute drive from Darwin, where there are plenty of shaded areas to relax and while away the afternoon, and a stunning waterhole in which to cool off. This evening, if it’s a Thursday or Sunday, make your way to Mindil Beach for the hugely popular sunset markets. Here, Darwin’s cosmopolitan nature is on show, with food from around the world cooked up fresh, and people from all walks of life gathering on the sand to watch the epic sunsets that mark the end of another great day.
Day 3: Darwin to Litchfield National Park
Hit the road today, heading out of Darwin and pointing south towards Litchfield National Park, a 1,500-square-kilometre (580-square-mile) reserve filled with tumbling waterfalls and crystal-clear natural pools. On the way, call into Humpty Doo, a classic outback town that’s home to the iconic Humpty Doo Hotel. Stop for lunch at this well-known watering-hole, which features in several Australian bush ballads. After Humpty Doo, continue south, calling past Manton Dam to check out the scenery, and then enter Litchfield National Park. Here, the main attraction is the chance to swim in cool, crocodile-free waters, at the likes of Florence Falls, Buley Rockhole, Sandy Creek Falls, Wangi Falls and Cascades. There are also plenty of great hiking trails in Litchfield, with everything from one-kilometre wanders to the 39-kilometre (24-mile) Tabletop Track. Tonight, cook up a feast on the barbecues at Litchfield Tourist Park, before setting up camp for the night or retiring to one of the on-site cabins.
Day 4: Litchfield to Katherine
This morning it’s time to jump back in the car and continue south on the Stuart Highway towards Katherine. On the way, pass Pine Creek, a former gold rush town that these days is home to only 300 or so people, though it still oozes character. There are a few historic buildings here, and – probably more importantly – places to stock up on snacks and supplies. Another hour south of Pine Creek lies Katherine, the third-largest settlement in the Northern Territory, though still a town of only 6,300 inhabitants. Time moves in its own gentle way in Katherine – no-one’s in too much of a hurry. When you've settled in, call into the Katherine School of the Air, where teachers conduct classes via radio with students who live on remote outback properties. Later, wander into the Katherine Art Gallery to browse its collection of Aboriginal art from the Katherine region and beyond. Tonight, have dinner under the stars at Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp. Local character Geoff Mark cooks traditional camp tucker, tells stories, cracks jokes and provides a little insight into the mindset of those who call Katherine home. Spend the night at the budget-friendly Palm Court Backpackers.
Day 5: Katherine
Though Katherine is interesting, the real attraction is Nitmiluk National Park, with its beautiful series of red-rock gorges and dazzling waterfalls. There are several ways to explore the park: with a boat cruise up the river, navigating Nitmiluk Gorge, learning about local Aboriginal lore and looking at cave paintings along the way; paddling your own canoe up the Katherine River; or on foot, maybe tackling the 4.8-kilometre (three-mile) Baruwei Loop Walk, starting from the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre (which is also a great place to grab a light lunch). Afterwards, soothe those tired legs with a soak in one of the Katherine area’s many thermal hot springs. There are warm pools at Katherine Springs, next to the river, as well as further afield at Mataranka Thermal Pool. Later, call past Cutta Cutta Caves, where limestone stalagmites and stalactites sparkle in the torchlight, before heading back into town for dinner at the Katherine Country Club.
Day 6: Katherine to Kakadu
It’s about a 90-minute drive from Katherine to Kakadu National Park, one of the most famous nature reserves in Australia. It pays to keep an eye out once you’ve reached the park boundary: buffalo have been sighted on the Kakadu Highway here, and there’s always wildlife to spot. The first port-of-call will be Cooinda Lodge, which offers budget accommodation and a campground in the centre of Kakadu. Here, set up for the night before grabbing a cheap lunch at the on-site cafeteria, and then head over to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre to learn more about the traditional owners of the land. This evening, take a sunset boat cruise on Yellow Water, a billabong just near the campsite, where native birdlife, buffalo and crocodiles can be spotted. Spend the night at Cooinda Lodge, either cooking a meal or eating at the restaurant.
Day 7: Kakadu
Get up early and make the nearly three-hour 4WD-only journey south-east to Jim Jim Falls, one of the most spectacular sights in Kakadu. This trip will take a good part of the day, so you’ll need food and plenty of water, as well as some sturdy hiking shoes to tackle the walk to the falls themselves, which tumble down huge cliffs. The track meanders through ancient forests hemmed in by high stone walls, with native wildlife like water monitors, peregrine falcons and other birds likely to be spotted. (Though be warned: if it’s summer, in the rainy season, the falls are only accessible via a scenic flight.) Afterwards, head back to the main road and onwards north to Jabiru, stopping at Mirrai Lookout for a quick photo, and calling in at the Bowali Visitor Centre to get your bearings. Later, set up camp (or get comfortable in a cabin) at Kakadu Lodge, where you’ll also be able to find a good-value meal for dinner.
Day 8: Kakadu to Darwin
There’s time this morning to appreciate one of Kakadu’s main drawcards: its Aboriginal rock art. Some of the best examples can be found at the Ubirr Rock Art Gallery, about an hour-drive north of Jabiru. The rock faces at this site have been continually painted and repainted for 40,000 years, and many of the images seen today were created about 2,000 years ago. There are paintings of animals, “X-ray art”, and even scenes depicting first contact with European settlers. After finishing up at Ubirr, head west on the Arnhem Highway back towards Darwin. Drive through tiny country settlements like Mount Bundey and Wak Wak, before returning to civilisation in the NT capital. Tonight, toast a successful road trip with a few sunset drinks at the waterside Darwin Ski Club.