Australia’s Top End, the northernmost part of the Northern Territory including Darwin and Kakadu, is a world away from the cities along Australia’s southeastern seaboard. With its tropical monsoonal climate, vast wetlands and gorgeous waterfalls, not to mention man-eating crocodiles, it’s more similar in some ways to South East Asia. (And closer, especially to Indonesia; flights to Bali take only 2 1/2 hours, half the time to most other cities in Australia.) But it’s also quite different to Asia. It has vast empty spaces, fast roads (with speed limits up to 130km/h) and largely pristine and rubbish-free natural environments.
The driving distances connecting this part of Australia are huge, even to Uluru in the southern Northern Territory. But fly into this region, either from other parts of Australia or the short flights from Bali, and it’s just the right size for a one-week road-trip. Freshly returned from a road-trip around the Top End, I’ll recommend when to go, what to see and everything else you need to know to head here on your next holiday!
Note: The author received a discounted rate from Britz and was a guest of Yellow Water Cruises.
When To Go
Australia’s Top End has two distinct seasons. The wet season lasts from November to April, the dry season from May to October. While it’s also fun to visit during the storms and greenery of the wet season, a road trip in general and the suggested itinerary is best suited to the dry season. Most of the roads and sights should be open. Although some may be delayed until late-May or even mid-June due to high creek levels or the need for repairs. (When I visited in early-June, Jim Jim Falls had just re-opened, while Twin Falls, the boardwalk at Yellow Waters and the loop walk around Anbangbang Billabong were still closed.) It’s coolest around July, while August onwards sees increasing heat.
One other wet season downside? Swimming is prohibited at most swimming holes, due to a combination of unsafe currents and the almost certain presence of saltwater crocodiles. At the start of the dry season, crocodiles are removed from managed swimming holes. Although they can close again if a crocodile is spotted, like happened to us at Wangi Falls.
Note also that some campervan and vehicle hire companies close over the wet season. It’s probably partially due to lower visitor numbers, but probably also to keep their vehicles out of flood waters! The Britz depot in Darwin is only open from March to November, with reduced opening hours in both March and November.
For my most recent trip, I choose to hire a campervan. While I’ve previously camped around the region (the cheapest option, if part of a longer road-trip from southeastern Australia), bringing or buying a tent and everything else is not practical for a one-week fly-in trip. Hammering pegs into the ground also is near impossible later in the dry season at some campsites! Alternatively, there are a number of lodges and resorts to stay at, but often these are not as close to all the attractions. And I’d much prefer to “bathe” onsite at a waterfall than have my own proper bathroom! A campervan thus was the perfect choice between camping or staying in a lodge. It also provided our wheels for the week.
Let me introduce our home for the week…
Our campervan was the 2-Berth Venturer booked through Britz, with a free upgrade to the Maui 2-Berth version. It’s not the cheapest 2-berth option from Britz. The cute and compact 2-Berth Hi-Top is available for about half the price (with prices varying over the season). However, we wanted the guarantee of an automatic transmission. The other big bonus was that the rear sleeping and kitchen area was air-conditioned, as long as we were plugged into a power socket at a powered camp site. Plus there was a shower and toilet (while we didn’t use the shower, the toilet was handy for night-time calls-of-nature), a larger fridge and a DVD player and LCD screen (which we didn’t find time to use). Everything we needed, except for groceries, was included. From bed linen and towels through to eating utensils and a kettle.
At first it felt daunting to be driving such a huge vehicle, especially when parking in Darwin! The various rattles of the cupboard contents also meant it was was a noisier drive than a typical car. But we soon got used to it and found it was a very comfortable home on wheels.
Day 1: Around Darwin – Stay in Darwin
Day 2: Jumping Croc Cruise – Mamukala Wetlands – Ubirr – Stay at Merl Campground
Day 3: Nourlangie – Anbangbang Billabong – Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre – Yellow Water Sunset Cruise – Stay at Cooinda Campground
Day 4: Day trip to Gunlom Falls, Maguk, Jim Jim Falls and/or Twin Falls – Stay at Cooinda Campground
Day 5: Yellow Water Sunrise Cruise – Drive to Litchfield National Park – Florence Falls – Stay at Wangi Campground
Day 6: Wangi Falls – Buley Rockhole – Berry Springs Nature Park – Return to Darwin
Total Distance: About 1200km, with majority of driving on Days 2 and 5
Camping Fees for 2 Adults: $30 per night at Merl, $47 per night at Cooinda (powered site), $13.20 per night at Wangi
Explore this itinerary on this map (click on the list of numbered destinations to view each on the map):
Darwin’s history has been defined by two events: its bombing during World War II and its devastation 30 years later by Cyclone Tracey. To find out about the city’s role in WWII, head to the Defence of Darwin Experience (adult entry $18 AUD) or alternatively visit the Aviation Heritage Centre (adult entry $14 AUD). We headed to the latter (not far from the Britz depot, while we waited for our vehicle to be ready). A variety of historic aircraft is on display, plus a looping video on the bombing of Darwin. The hanger though is dominated by a huge B-52 Bomber, one of only two on display outside of the US. It was gifted to Darwin due its role as a base for US operations.
To best explore Cyclone Tracey and the impact it had on Darwin, head to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (free entry). The highlight of the multimedia display is a recording of the terrifying sound of the cyclone. Don’t also miss out on seeing Sweetheart, the stuffed remains of a huge crocodile that used to reside near Darwin.
At sunset, if it’s a Thursday or Sunday night during the dry season, head to Mindil Beach Sunset Market. There you’ll find a huge selection of international food stalls, as well as arts, crafts and clothing stalls, and great views from the beach of the sunset. Alternatively, head to East Point, along with some drinks, and find a seat to quietly watch the sun sink into the water.
Jumping Croc Cruise
Heading south-east out of Darwin, it’s a 290km drive along the Arnhem Highway to Ubirr in the north-east of the park. Much of the drive is across floodplains and a few large rivers, with the first being the Adelaide River. Operating from its banks are three companies that offer cruises to see jumping crocodiles. It’s a natural behaviour of the crocodiles, although one that they definitely need to be encouraged to do as they like to be as lazy as possible, and a fun way to get a good view of these fearsome creatures.
We turned off at the Window on the Wetlands, to join a Spectacular Jumping Crocodiles cruise (adult tour $40 AUD), unique for being run by an all-girl team. They use either a small boat or a large one, depending on the number of passengers. We were in the large boat, which was probably just as well, as the three crocodiles that we saw jumping certainly propelled themselves well out of the water, tempted by hunks of buffalo meat. Afterwards, we were also treated to kites swooping down to the boat to feed on the meat offered by the crocodile-handler.
Along the Arnhem Highway, the best spot to stop and view the wetlands is at Mamukala Wetlands inside of Kakadu. With a long wooden hide shelter, its a great place to sit in the shade and spot the birdlife. The best time to visit is late in the dry season, when tens of thousands of magpie geese descend on the wetland. Although there are still numerous birds around earlier in the season.
To find out more about the wetlands, it’s also worthwhile stopping earlier (outside of Kakadu) at the Window on the Wetlands visitor centre. There’s plenty of informative and interactive displays, plus occasional free talks and a good view from up top.
Ubirr is one of the best preserved rock art sites in Kakadu and, in fact, all of Australia. The paintings vary between recent works since contact with white people (look out for guns and sailing ships), through to pieces that date back tens of thousands of years. Many of the works show the local wildlife that were caught and eaten by the Aborigines, from barramundi to turtle. Plus there’s a magnificent work of a rainbow serpent.
The ideal time to visit is in the late afternoon, because an excellent spot to view the sunset is from the lookout point. It’s reached by a rocky path ascending onto the rocks from halfway around the main walking loop. You won’t have it to yourself, but it’s still a brilliantly serene place to watch the sun descend over the green wetlands and grass plains.
The other exceptional rock art site accessible along sealed roads is Nourlangie, properly known as Burrunggui. One of the most stunning works depicts Namarrgon, lightning man, and a dreamtime story. It’s also fascinating to see the huge stone shelters amongst which the Aborigines formerly lived, particularly during the wet season. It’s worthwhile continuing a short way past the rock art galleries to the lookout. There you’ll be rewarded with impressive views of the surrounding rocky landscape.
Yellow Water Cruises
Heading further south in Kakadu, you’ll soon arrive at the turn-off to Cooinda. Cooinda is a great spot to stay (there’s powered camp sites, an onsite bar and restaurant, plus a great resort-style pool). Plus it’s also the home of Kakadu Tourism, an indigenous-owned operation who run Yellow Water Cruises.
We went on both the sunset and sunrise cruises. It’s hard to choose which tour was better. On both of them we saw plenty of crocodiles and birdlife, although the sunrise cruise stood out in this regard, with glimpses of buffalo, brumbies and wild pigs as well, plus extra close-up views of crocodiles, particularly as the day warmed up and they ventured up on the muddy banks.
Both the sunrise and sunset cruises run for 2 hours, with adults costing $90 AUD for the sunset cruise and $99 AUD for the sunrise cruise (buffet breakfast is also included back at Cooinda). If you can’t choose, you can take both cruises on consecutive days for the excellent price of $124 AUD (click here to book this special deal). Additional cruises also run during the day, with 1.5 hour tours costing $72 for adults and another 2 hour tour at 9am costing $90 for adults.
4WD Day Trips
Some of the best sites in Kakadu are only accessible by 4WD or along unsealed roads, that are off-limits with all hire cars unless you hire a 4WD for the whole trip and pay the far higher rental fees. To get to see the sites, I highly recommend taking a day tour, and leaving the driving up to someone else for the day.
We headed off with Kakadu Tourism on their Spirit of Kakadu Adventure Day Trip (adult tour $205). Depending on what’s open, the tour visits a couple of different sites, choosing from Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls, Maguk Gorge, Gunlom Falls, Gubara Rock Pools and more. There’s also the Footprints of the Past Tour that runs on selected days. It visits the Gunlom area, plus has sunset drinks back at Cooinda (adult tour $250).
Our guide for the day was Adam. We headed firstly to Maguk Gorge in the south, then north to Jim Jim Falls. Driving along the badly corrugated road into Maguk, I was glad that I wasn’t driving (especially in a campervan). Once we arrived at Maguk, it was a short walk in, including some rock-hopping across the creek. But then we were rewarded with a stunning plunge pool, perfect for a swim. After enjoying lunch, we headed to Jim Jim Falls, which involved quite a challenging walk in. During the wet season the 150m high falls are an absolute torrent, and leave huge boulders that you need to clamber over and around. The high cliffs mean that the water is cooler and not as enjoyable, but the scenery is spectacular.
Litchfield National Park
While the waterfalls and plunge falls in Kakadu generally require a hike in, those at Litchfield National Park are easily accessible. (Which also means that they can be crowded, particularly on weekends and during holidays with daytrippers from Darwin.) All three pools are different. First up, we swam at Florence Falls, which involves the longest walk (of a mere 400m down well-constructed stairs). A fairly small pool into which two cascades fall, you share the clear waters with curious black bream.
Wangi Falls is far larger, and probably the most popular of the pools. It has easy access via steps (instead of a clamber over rocks) and a long sand bar stretching out into the pool. Unfortunately we didn’t get to swim there. A crocodile sighting the previous day led to being closed, until the crocodile could either be trapped or, sadly, shot.
But my favourite waterhole in Litchfield was saved to last: Buley Rockhole. Scattered along the creek are small pools and cascades, creating the ultimate natural spa. Choose between sitting underneath a cascade and letting it massage your shoulders, or float in calmer waters.
Berry Springs Nature Park
Just outside of Darwin, Berry Springs is a beautiful spot to stop for a final swim in a natural pool. There are three main pools, with the main pool connected to the downstream pool by a delightful swim along the pandanus-lined creek. (Just be careful of the shallower rocks!) Signs do warn of the risk of bacteria and recommend to not swim, so make sure you don’t drink the water while swimming.
Entry & Tour Fees
All entry and tour fees are listed above. Additionally, to enter Kakadu everyone except for NT residents requires a Kakadu Pass. It costs $40 per adult during the dry season (April to October) or $25 during the wet season. It’s easiest to purchase it online, then save it to your phone or print it out.
Phone & Internet
Mobile phone coverage is sparse. Unless you’re with Telstra, you’ll only have coverage in Darwin, it’s southern outskirts and Jabiru. There is no reception for all listed campsites outside of Darwin. A useful upgrade with Britz is to hire the $10/day Bundle. It includes a GPS system with 1GB Wi-Fi (via Telstra), plus child seats/baby boosters, extra driver fees and a picnic table and chairs. You’ll then handily have internet access at Cooinda, plus a few other towns along the way.
What’s a road trip without the perfect tunes to accompany you? Make sure you bring some CDs to listen to, for once you get out of radio range on the road (i.e. across most of Kakadu).
Food & Supplies
It’s best to stock up before leaving Darwin or at least it’s outskirts, where a number of big supermarkets are located (check the GPS or Google Maps). Jabiru has a small supermarket, plus there are supplies available at roadhouses along the way. But prices are more expensive and the range will be limited.
Outside of Darwin, the price of diesel (as used in our campervan), shot up from around $1.10/L to $1.40/L. You’ll need about two tanks of fuel for the listed itinerary. There’s no way to get around paying the high cost for at least one of those tanks.
Make sure you always have plenty of water. Luckily, the campervan comes with a large watertank. It should last almost a week without using it for showers, but top it up when available at Cooinda. Most of the tap water is drinkable, except at a few spots (in which case it’s clearly signposted).
Always obey warning signs, particularly about looking out for crocodiles and not swimming in certain areas. Saltwater crocodiles usually kill around one person every year; don’t let it be you! It’s also best to avoid driving after sunset, due to the higher likelihood of running into wild animals after dark.
Note: The author received a discounted rate from Britz and was a guest of Yellow Water Cruises.