I’ve lived in Australia for all of my life and to be frank, I hadn’t thought to visit the Northern Territory. I say that with equal parts honesty and sheepish embarrassment. Apart from the odd high school camp, not many young people in my circle have the NT on their radar. We prance to other big capital cities or hop over to neighbouring south-east Asian islands before we choose to properly explore our own backyard.
A friend who recently went described it as a “carwash for the noggin,” which translates loosely to a balm for those who are weary and in need of some TLC. I must admit, I was sceptical when I heard her sell it that way, but I was happily proven wrong.
I toured Darwin city and Kakadu National Park and got a taste of the NT’s unparalleled views and experiences on offer. What has stuck with me in the weeks since is the continuous Indigenous care and connection to Country that keeps so much of the landscape pristine. I adored the locals’ banter that labels Australians living below the highest tip of the country ‘Southerners’. I became accustomed to the mildly chaotic mention of crocodiles and the emphasis on being ‘crocwise’ in every second sentence.
Being in the NT enriched my Australian experience. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but being in the Outback felt — if you’ll indulge me — life-affirming. Landing back on home soil in Melbourne, all I could think was, “Why hadn’t I gone before?” and “When can I go back?”.
For those planning to go up north, here’s a list of must-see places in Top End.
1. Yellow Water Cruise
At the top of my must-do list was the Yellow Water Cruise. The Indigenous-owned company operates year-round and takes visitors around the South Alligator River system in Kakadu National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage-listed National Park, might I add.
Yellow Water Cruise operates up to six cruises a day, mostly because the river and the wildlife on show change depending on the time of day. I hopped on a sunset cruise and it was well worth the early wake-up call. Seeing the sky change its colours and wildlife wake up, alongside the tour guidance of Murrambul man Dennis Miller, was beyond breathtaking. I learnt that one third of Australia’s bird species can be found in Kakadu, that some Indigenous communities carry water in the leaves of water lilies and that all hoofed animals aren’t native to Australia.
“I love Kakadu because it's my home and I love all the animals around here. I love educating the tourists and when people know more about a place, they protect it,” Miller tells Refinery29 Australia. “Because as Australians, we know a lot about other people's countries but some of us know very little about our own country.”
2. Aboriginal Art Tours
The Northern Territory has the highest population of First Nations people in Australia. History is living and breathing there, and that’s most notable in the incredible Aboriginal rock art that has existed for up to 20,000 years. It’s history that’s tangible; its impact when you see it is irrevocable.
The two main rock sites in Kakadu are found in Ubirr and Burrungkuy (Nourlangie). I was led by tour guide Victor Cooper from Ayal Aboriginal Tour; having an Indigenous person share culture was invaluable. We toured the ancient art by Bininj/Mungguy and I was subsequently moved by many of the longstanding pieces. How can you not be when you see handprints that have survived tens of thousands of years?
3. Maguk Gorge
Take a short hike through a monsoon forest, past a sandy and rocky creek, and you’ll wind up at Maguk Gorge: a lush watering hole that is nothing short of picture book perfect. The natural plunge pool was strikingly blue (and there were fish swimming at my feet!). I may or may not have taken a nice nap on the rocks too.
4. Darwin Festival
Darwin’s annual Winter Art Festival has been a staple in the town’s cultural scene for decades now. For 18 days in August, Darwin is transformed into a vibrant hub of events — locals and tourists alike can be immersed in live performances, dances, DJ sets, comedy, art installations and more. The toughest part was picking which food stall to eat at — my pick is the laksa (Darwiners are so proud of their laksa that they even have a whole festival dedicated to it).
6. Helicopter pub crawl
Three words I never thought I’d say together: helicopter pub crawl. But in the NT, anything is possible. For my first-ever chopper ride, I was taken for a (literal) spin. The private heli flies over the Northern Territory’s exquisite landscape through a gradient of thick trees, aqua blue water and red dirt. We stopped at a couple of pubs — Crab Claw Island, which is situated on the beach, and Goat Island, which is void of goats and political correctness (as the welcome sign will tell you). At the latter location, you’ll meet the eccentric local Kai Hansen, a cheeky larrikin who lives in proximity to a croc who he calls the ‘dumb blonde’.
7. Contemporary Indigenous Art
While ancient Indigenous rock art is a must-see in the NT, taking time to immerse yourself in contemporary art by First Nations artists isn’t to be slept on, either. The Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards are Australia’s longest-running Indigenous awards and serve as a platform for emerging artists to have their art featured in an exhibition.
Down Kakadu way, you’ll find the bright pink mural wall that marks Marrawuddi Arts & Culture. The community arts centre is owned and governed by Mirarr Traditional Owners. All artwork found there is created by Bininj (Aboriginal people) from Kakadu and the wider West Arnhem region. Pick up a coffee, peruse the jewellery offerings, wander through the artworks and converse with artists in the working space.
8. Champagne Sunset Sail
For a splash of luxury, take the three-hour champagne sunset sail around Darwin’s Habour. Drinks are flowing, classic tunes are playing, and the tapas is generous. The spacious vessel makes for a comfortable ride — before I knew it, the three hours were up and we left with new friends and memories to cherish.