Things to Do in Northern Territory
A gigantic monolith of rust-red rock looming over the desert plains of the Australian Outback, Uluru (Ayers Rock) is more than just a postcard icon—it’s the cultural, spiritual, and geographical heart of Australia, one of its most impressive natural wonders, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nitmiluk National Park (formerly Katherine Gorge National Park) offers vast sandstone cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and a series of 13 gorges carved out by the mighty Katherine River. All of this dramatic scenery is located on the ancient lands of the Jawoyn people and is home to some impressive Aboriginal rock art sites.
With its waterfalls, waterholes, and lush rain forests, Litchfield National Park has no shortage of spectacular scenery. Just a short drive from Darwin, it’s also known for its magnetic termite mounds that tower up to 7 feet (2 meters) tall. These sculptural cairns were built by termites.
It’s hard to grasp exactly what you’re looking at when you see the rock drawings at Ubirr. Here, etched before you on ancient rock that springs from the red dirt Earth, are drawings placed here by Aborigines nearly 20,000 years ago. How the drawings have managed to survive for so long is a fascinating geologic story, but it's one that pales in comparison to the stories told by the drawings themselves.
Located in what’s known as the East Alligator Region of Kakadu National Park, Ubirr is a UNESCO World Heritage site that borders on desert magic. In addition to collections of ancient rock art, the site offers sweeping, panoramic views of the surrounding flood plains and fields, and includes a sacred “Rainbow Serpent” painting in one of the three different galleries. According to local Aboriginal legend, the serpent was involved in the very creation of Earth surrounding the site, and is regarded as one of the world’s oldest figures of early creation. To access the ancient rock art at Ubirr, follow the short, one-kilometer walking path that takes 30 minutes to complete.
Often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, the mighty Ayers Rock (Uluru), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park. This natural wonder, comprising 36 domed red rocks looming up from the desert plains, is a spectacular sight and one of the highlights of Australia’s Red Centre.
The drone of a didgeridoo, the chanting of the indigenous Anangu people, and the clapping sticks that drive their chanting and dancing can be heard as you approach the Tjukurpa Tunnel. This is your welcome to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre.
Tjukurpa is the story and the spiritual law of the Anangu people, and the Tjukurpa Tunnel is where you are encouraged to begin building your understanding of their way of life before your visit to Uluru or Kata Tjuta. Much of Tjukurpa is considered sacred and cannot be discussed publicly, so this is a fantastic opportunity to take in those parts which can be shared.
Artefacts and informational plaques are displayed throughout the tunnel, and documentary DVD’s are screened on a loop, providing fascinating insights.
After experiencing the tunnel, visitors can check out a cafe, souvenir shop, and indigenous art galleries, which are all owned and operated by the indigenous community. An information and booking desk operates, where indigenous tours of the park can be organised. Free Cultural presentations and tours are also frequently available.
The MacDonnell Ranges are a 400-mile (644-kilometer) stretch of mountains offering spectacular views and some of the top natural attractions in Australia’s Northern Territory. Visit the ranges to experience Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm, and the secluded water holes of Serpentine Gorge and Ellery Creek Big Hole.
The Darwin Waterfront Precint, a scenic waterfront area full of options for dining and play, exists thanks to an initiative by the city of Darwin that turned 61 acres of industrial wasteland into a thriving center for the city.
The area includes the Stokes Hill Wharf, a historical site that was constructed in the early 1800s by Darwin’s first European settlers and bore much damage from the 1942 air raid upon the city during World War II. These days, the wharf is home to a much livelier atmosphere. Award-winning dining, entertainment, shopping and outdoor attractions have helped transform the wharf precinct into one of the most celebrated parts of Darwin.
The wharf is connected to Darwin’s Central Business District by a dedicated walkway lined with parks, tropical landscaping and, of course, the waterfront itself. The lifeguard-patrolled swimming lagoons make for a great daytime spot to splash around, and the Indo Pacific Marine lets visitors get up close and personal to the coral ecosystems of the area.
There is a wealth of shopping and pampering opportunities at the wharf – a surf shop, a boutique gift store, a luxury hair salon and a day spa are just some of the offerings. Visitors shouldn’t pass up a stop at the StormBird Gallery, where stunning nature photography by local Jacci Ingham is on display. Restaurants along the promenade range from a traditional Irish pub and a tapas lounge to a Greek restaurant and an open-til-late gelato shop. Come nightfall, the deckchair cinema serves guests from its kiosk as viewers settle in to watch the nightly film at 7:30 p.m.
Cullen Bay is about10 minutes outside of Darwin. Its drawcard is a big sleek marina packed with yachts. In an uncertain tropical climate like Darwin's, this marina offers yachting traffic the security of a man-made environment with a locked waterway and sea walls that close. This means it's accessible in the low Spring tides and a registered cyclone haven - hence its popularity.
For the landlubber, Cullen Bay is an equally sleek oasis of shops, restaurants, bars and day spas. It's a popular place for visitors to stay, as its serviced apartments are so close to all these amenities- and water views. It's also close to the ferry terminal, so you can take off on trips to Mandorah and Tiwi islands.
The Defence of Darwin Experience chronicles the Northern Territory’s role in World War II through a number of powerful exhibits that educate visitors on how the war deeply affected the region and its residents. This multimedia museum offers fascinating insight into the fateful events leading up to and on Feb. 19, 1942, when the Bombing of Darwin took place, killing over 250 people, sinking 10 ships, and kicking off a period of nearly two years of bombings in the Northern Territory. Guests can view historic equipment and artifacts from the war and listen to somber stories of locals’ whose lives were changed forever, as well as firsthand accounts of those who went off to war to avenge the lives that were lost.
Immersive exhibits include the Bombing of Darwin Gallery with its 3D helmets and sensory footage illustrating what it would have been like to witness the bombings, plus StoryShare, where locals record their own stories to be shared with museum visitors. Travelers can also record their responses to all they see and learn at the museum. As one of Darwin’s most significant historical sites, the attraction is often included in guided tours of the city.
More Things to Do in Northern Territory
Across fields in northern Australia stand these tall magnetic termite mounds standing up to two meters high. As a habitat created by termites, they’re strategically built to face away from the hot sun and keep temperatures cool. Inside are complex and fascinating architecture and networks of arches, tunnels, chimneys, and various chambers. Thousands of termites live in a single mound and are known to last anywhere from fifty to one hundred years — which can also be the lifespan of one termite queen. Looking at the mounds it’s hard to believe such a small insect could create such a large, elaborate dwelling for itself.
There are several types of termite mounds, and in this case ‘magnetic’ refers to the way they are aligned (in conjunction with the earth’s magnetic field.) How the termites are able to consistently determine the north-south orientation to avoid the heat is unknown, and these structures remain a bit of a natural phenomenon.
Located in Nitmiluk National Park in the Top End of the Northern Territory, Edith Falls (Leliyn) offer gorgeous views over the river, tiers of rock pools and waterfalls that cascade through the gully. All that, along with the area's wildlife, makes Edith Falls one of Australia's most picturesque -- not to mention underrated -- natural attractions.
The falls are full of water year-round, but the clear, dry season between May and September is the best time to visit. Even so, the area surrounding the falls is especially lush and green during the intense rains earlier in the year, so visitors are in for a treat no matter when they go.
A visit to the falls typically involves swimming, and Sweetwater Pool, as well as both the upper and lower pools, are all particularly suited for the activity. Visitors to the falls during the wet season, however, may find that swimming is off-limits due to potentially dangerous conditions.
Those looking to earn their refreshing swim can first head to one of the two walking trails at Edith Falls. The Leliyn Trail winds around and above the falls in a 1.6-mile circuit, with multiple lookout spots, a river crossing and a few choice swimming pools along the way. The Sweetwater Pool track is longer at 5.3 miles, but the quiet swimming spot it leads to is worth it. Visitors can undertake the walk as a day or nighttime hike, but it should be noted that overnight stays require a permit.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) showcases a collection of more than 1.2 million natural history specimens and 30,000 art and cultural works. In addition to its seven galleries, MAGNT has a family-friendly Discovery Centre, providing visitors of all ages with fascinating insight into Australia’s history and heritage.
Covering around 114,000 acres (46,000 hectares) of central Australia, Finke Gorge National Park is one of the Red Centre’s most startling wilderness areas. The Finke River formed around 300 million years ago, and some sights, such as Palm Valley with its rare red cabbage palms, seem to re-create the landscapes of that lost world.
Australia’s newest parliament house was built in Darwin in 1994, and has been the seat of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly since then. It was designed in a postmodern style and built to suit the tropical climate of Darwin. The entrance features a Northern Territory coat of arms placed at the top of its ceremonial doors.
The building overlooks Darwin Harbor, sitting on the site of the former Post Office and Telegraph Station which were bombed during a raid in 1942. There is a state library, portrait gallery, and a massive Main Hall indoors, and the Speakers Green outdoor. The areas function both as parliamentary and government receptions and public exhibitions. Unique tributes to the symbols of the Northern Territory, such as a desert rose in the reception foyer, are present throughout.
Walpa Gorge is the shortest and easiest trail in Kata Tjuta. For what it lacks in length, however, it makes up for in dramatic views looking out over sandstone domes. Far less crowded than popular Uluru, Kata Tjuta is where Aborigines still practice cultural ceremonies. There’s a certain power to Kata Tjuta that emanates out of the rocks, and the 1.5 mile trail through the gorge is a way to experience the energy. Flowers here are in greater abundance than on neighboring Valley of the Winds, and the gorge is particularly scenic in afternoon when the valley is filled with light. A viewing platform at the end of the trail provides sweeping views of the Olgas, which have stoically weathered millennia of storms to be shaped how they are today. To have the gorge trail all to yourself, consider hiking at first light when the air is nice and cool.
Boasting dozens of aircrafts, engines and plane crash remnants, the Darwin Aviation Museum (formerly known as the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre) is the best place in Darwin for anyone with their head in the clouds. The enormous museum prides itself on its coverage of the fateful bombing of Darwin in 1942 and many other air battles of World War II. Its North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber is especially notable, as it is one of the last in the world and only one of two on display outside of the United States.
Other exhibits include an Auster biplane, a Japanese Zero fighter, shot from the sky in 1942, a Tiger Moth, the remains of a crash-landed RAAF Mirage jet, a Spitfire replica and even a few of the first attack helicopters.
Mindil Beach is absolutely Darwin’s most visited and best known beach. Home to the famous Mindil Sunset Markets, the beach offers a little bit of everything to the visiting traveler, including 500 meters of golden sand bordered by Bullocky and Myilly points to the north and south, respectively. The beach looks west out onto the waters of the Beagle Gulf, perfectly situated for visitors to sit back and watch the sun set over the waves. The markets showcase the best local creative talent and offer fresh produce while promoting sustainability, supporting locally grown talent and food and encouraging the use of public transportation to and from the beach.
The Mindil Beach Reserve, a large park dedicated to preserving some of the city’s original wilderness, sits near the ocean, and the SKYCITY Darwin, the city's casino, is nearby in juxtaposition.
Crocosaurus Cove comprises the world’s largest display of Australian reptiles. The 52,834-gallon (200,000-litre) freshwater aquarium is home to turtles, barramundi, whiprays, and archer fish, but it’s the saltwater crocodiles—some of the largest in Australia—that star. See them in displays designed to be viewed from three levels.
The Alice Springs Desert Park showcases the three main desert environments in Australia. Wander through sand, woodland, and river deserts and learn about their different plant and animal inhabitants. Take the short walking route through the park or explore further afield to find kangaroos and birdlife.
These days it’s commonplace for many schools to offer programs online, where you can receive a degree without ever seeing a teacher. Well, before the age of the internet, there was radio-- the means of how School of the Air in Alice Springs, Australia, nobly pioneered the idea to reach out to kids in obscure destinations without proper schools. One visit to the school premises, which is now complete with its own visitor center (Alice Springs School of the Air Visitor Centre), and you can share a moving experience that shows how the utilization of technology we take for granted has not only brought people together, but shaped lives.
Teaching primary and secondary level students since the 50’s, today students are outstretched as far as 502,000 square miles from the school. You can watch a film about the history of this truly unique school, and even listen in on live classes, which have since switched from the radio era to a highly more modernized and efficient broadband internet model. If you happen to arrive when sessions are closed, you may listen in on pre-recorded lessons, with interpreters on site to help you with translations and to field any questions.
Standley Chasm, also known as Angkerle Atwatye, or just Angkerle, is a place of great significance to the local Aboriginal people. A spectacular slot gorge, the deep, narrow chasm cuts through the tough quartzite of the native stone and puts on a magnificent display of color and form as the sun passes through the sky.
Surrounding the chasm is a lush valley and an abundance of walking trails. A short walk from the kiosk to the chasm is particularly rewarding at midday when the sun shines directly overhead. Another walk from the kiosk heads west and climbs to a saddle with views of the area's mountains and valleys. For more avid hikers, sections 3 and 4 of the Larapinta Trail meet at Standley Chasm and can be hiked as either long day trips or overnight hikes.
Standley Chasm is the easiest place to access the Chewings Ranges for those who do not wish to hike the Larapinta Trail. The Chewings Ranges are home to some of the most rare and threatened wildlife of the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Arnhem Land, one of Australia’s wildest and most sacred areas, lies at the lush northern tip of the continent. It was declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931 and remains a place of strong tradition with a distinctive culture and famous artwork, while also staying largely untouched by European colonization.
The beautiful landscapes provided by the area’s diverse ecosystems include rugged coastlines, rivers, remote islands, a rainforest, woodlands and bluffs. Arnhem Land is home to both saltwater crocodiles and gentle dugongs, for which this area works as an important conversation habitat.
Visitors drawn to Arnhem Land for its culture won’t be disappointed. Gunbalanya (also known as Oenpelli) is home to the Injalak Art and Craft Centre, where artists work and their wares are available for purchase. Tours often take travelers into the nearby bush to learn about the Aboriginal rock art, Dreamtime myths and bush tucker, the foods native to Australia.
Australia’s Top End is home to one-of-a-kind landscapes and ecosystems, and nowhere is it easier to witness this splendor than at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens. The gardens were designed around a huge collection of flora native to the region, from the lush Arnhem Land to the Tiwi Islands, and visitors can feast their eyes on replicas of displays of various local habitats – monsoon forests, coastal fore-dunes, wetlands, mangroves and woodlands. More than 450 plant species can be found here, at one of the only botanical gardens in the world that successfully hosts natural displays of both marine and estuary plants.
Other plants of note include the stunning Desert Rose tree, bromeliads and orchids. There’s also a rainforest gully that contains many of the gardens’ palm and cycad species alongside ponds and a waterfall. In addition to showcasing the local ecosystems, the gardens also allow visitors to gain insight into the area’s Aboriginal culture through a self-guided walk conveying information of Aboriginal plant use.
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