Northern Territory often has the reputation of being Australia’s adventurous “last frontier”, and its major city, Darwin, is the capital city that doesn’t feel like a capital city; things just seem to move at a different pace here. Although it’s Australia’s smallest capital city, there are a multitude of things to see and do, and it makes a great base to explore some of the Top End’s top spots.
For such a small city, there is lots going on in Darwin. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is a great, free museum with a variety of exhibitions on the Top End, from crocs to cyclones. Bonus — it’s a great spot to escape the humidity and enjoy some air conditioning!
Darwin is chock full of military history from its key involvement in WWII and there are plenty of places to learn more. There is the Darwin Military Museum Precinct on East Point, and SeaDarwin offers WWII cruises of the Darwin Harbour. During the dry season, the Deckchair Cinema is a delightful outdoor cinema located right on Darwin Harbour, which shows a wide range of old and new, popular and fringe movies. Crocosaurus Cove in the CBD offers up close and personal interactions with reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and of course, saltwater/estuarine crocodiles.
There are plenty of interactive presentations throughout the day, but for the most thrilling experience, have a go in the “Cage of Death,” where you’re lowered down in a thick plexiglass tube into the water to come face-to-face with one of their massive resident crocs.
Darwin is well known for its market culture, and there are plenty to choose from throughout the week. Mindil Beach Markets, which run on Thursday and Sunday nights during the dry season, is probably the most popular one. It’s easily accessible from the city and offers a huge variety of stalls from food to crafts, with the beautiful Mindil Beach offering a stunning backdrop, particularly as the sun sets. The Parap Markets on Saturday mornings are most known for its food offerings; it’s one of the best places to get Darwin’s famed Laksa, along with almost any other cuisine you might be craving. Nightcliff Markets on Sunday mornings are mainly for crafts, jewellery and other goods, but there are food stalls too; the chicken skewers and mango smoothies are especially tasty!
MANDORAH AND WAGAIT BEACH
Popular with the fishing crowd, the area around Mandorah (known as the Cox Peninsula) has some great hidden gems to be found with a little bit of exploring. Mandorah can be reached by a short passenger ferry ride from Darwin City, or you can do the 1.5 hour drive. If driving, stop at Berry Springs on the way to enjoy their beautiful hot springs.
After checking out the town of Mandorah (the jetty is a great fishing spot!) and nearby Wagait Beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand and red/pink rock looking out to turquoise waters, head west on Charles Point Drive, and keep a look out for a signposted track off to the right. This leads to a well-preserved crash site of a B-24J Liberator Bomber commonly used during WWII that tragically crashed during a training mission.
Back on the main road, continue west, this time looking for an unmarked track on the left; this track will take you to the best example of magnetic termite mounds that we came across in the Top End (yep, better than Litchfield!). The termite mounds are shaped so to maximise temperature control; they all face with the main axis north-south. Apparently, there’s also some natural springs around but we weren’t able to find them. Be aware that the tracks off Charles Point Drive can be inaccessible during the wet and precarious early in the dry season; even during our visit in July, there were still some pretty boggy bits around.
Dundee Beach is probably one of the most picturesque beaches in the Top End – such a pity you can’t swim there though (because of crocs year-round and stingers in the summer)! Nevertheless, it is a popular camping and fishing spot for locals and tourists alike. For those towing caravans, there is a caravan park in town, but if you have a trailer or tent and don’t mind forgoing the mod cons, tracks heading north and south from the township will take you to private beachside camping. Bring firewood with you as it can be difficult to find there, especially later in the dry season.
Another popular beachside destination close to Darwin is Gunn Point, located a 75km-drive east of Darwin. There is officially no camping allowed here but makes a great day trip from the city. Beach driving, fishing, and crabbing are all popular activities here. It’s also a turtle nesting area so depending on the time of year you may catch some nesting or hatching turtles. And remember, as above with Dundee Beach, swimming is definitely not advised!
THE ADELAIDE RIVER AND MARY RIVER NATIONAL PARK
This fantastic weekender from Darwin, which can be combined with a longer trip to Kakadu National Park, is guaranteed to get you up close to wildlife, particularly the Top End’s most notorious critter: the saltwater/estuarine crocodile. The Jumping Crocodiles of Adelaide River are the best way to fully appreciate the power and agility of these prehistoric animals.
Continuing further east, you’ll come to Mary River National Park. Here there are great fishing opportunities, 4WD tracks, billabongs for birdwatching, and a ripper campsite at Couzens Lookout.
If you have the time and money, hiring a houseboat on the Mary River is a must; it was one of our top experiences during our time in the Top End. You can book as many days as you like, but an overnight trip is perfect to explore much of the river, including Corroboree Billabong, and see just about everything’s that on offer in this spectacular wetlands.
You’ll see plenty of wildlife such as crocs (of course) and jabiru, have ample opportunity for fishing, and you get to spend the night watching the Top End’s famous sunset reflected in the waters, followed by a dazzling night sky. Don’t forget the mozzie spray and/or Thermacell though; the mozzies can be of epic proportions!
ADELAIDE RIVER TO PINE CREEK
The area between the town of Adelaide River (not to be confused with the body of water Adelaide River) and Pine Creek has some great hidden gems that usually only locals know about. These places can also be combined with nearby Litchfield National Park or be part of a road-trip including the Katherine region for a longer trip. Robin Falls is a short drive south of Adelaide River and can flow through the dry season depending on how the previous wet season was. There’s basic camping available at the bottom of the falls, then it’s a short walk that involves climbing over small rocks and fallen trees. You can unofficially climb to the top of the waterfall by following a “track” to the right, which leads to a small pool and more camping, which is reached by a 4WD track that tends to be a closely guarded secret.
Another, somewhat less closely guarded secret, is the existence of hot springs near Robin Falls and southern Litchfield National Park. Unfortunately we can’t remember the exact location of these springs —or that’s the story we’re sticking with at least! — but if you make friends with locals, chances are they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. These springs are definitely best during the dry season when it’s cooler; you’ll be surprised how hot they can get!
About halfway between Adelaide River and Pine Creek is Butterfly Gorge, a must-do for the adventurous type. There used to be hot springs here, Twujaliyn (Douglas) Hot Springs, but they have been shut indefinitely with various reasons given for their closure. Nevertheless, Butterfly Gorge is a worthwhile trip, with camping available at nearby Douglas Daly, or numerous bush camps dotted throughout the countryside. Depending on the time of year you visit, the start of the hike to Butterfly Gorge may not be the most inviting and may involve wading through manky, stagnant water, but don’t let that deter you! Persevering through that hurdle will take you to a beautiful large, croc-free pool surrounded by towering gorge walls. And it doesn’t stop there; following the water up the gorge will lead to a fun rock-climbing adventure that will take you to what will likely be your own private pool.
If you have a bit more time and a sense for adventure, there are countless other waterholes in this region, especially early in the dry season. So again, make friends with a local, or take a track and see where it leads!
If all your exploring is making you a bit thirsty, there’s no shortage of delightful country pubs in this area. The 303. Bar in Adelaide River is an institution and includes various paraphernalia included a massive stuffed 5m croc and a stuffed water buffalo from the Crocodile Dundee movie, while the Lazy Lizard Tavern has a lovely, cool interior for enjoying a bevvie or two.
And there you have it, a small taste of what’s on offer in Darwin and nearby. Next up, we’ll give you all the tips on making the most of a visit to one of the Top End’s most popular parks, whether you’re a day-tripper or have several days to spare: Litchfield National Park!