Having lived in Darwin, Australia for six and a half years, it’s a little city that won my heart in a big way. Situated right at the ‘Top End’ of Australia, on the most northerly tip of the Northern Territory, Darwin is a tropical city that never sees a winter, so it’ll be warm whenever you visit.
Its population is transient, and you’ll find a mix of nationalities as well as local Aboriginals, whose lands can be found in Kakadu, Litchfield and Arnhem Land close by – in fact a tour out to these lands is a must-do whilst you’re here. Here are a few of my recommendations for things to do whilst you’re staying here!
Darwin is a true hidden gem in Australia; this place doesn’t lack culture. It’s a city jam-packed with contrasting colours, food, history and its very own ‘Crocodile Dundee’ locals. A little-known fact is that Darwin holds the highest male to female ratio in Australia and this whole area is a playground filled with outdoor activities with plenty to explore.
The city of Darwin is pretty compact and easy to explore. where at its centre you’ll find cocktail bars, an outdoor cinema, a wave pool, plenty of restaurants serving all manner of multi-cultural cuisines and… a crocodile park. Crocosaurus Cove is the only place in the world where you can go cage diving with a crocodile, as well as giving you the chance to hold a baby crocodile, and buy your very own croc skin handbag all in one place.
Darwin is well-known for its spectacular sunsets, and I would say they’re some of the best I have ever seen. My favourite place to watch the sun come down would be in Fannie Bay or Mindil markets.
Fannie Bay has ‘counter feeds’ all along the bay where you can enjoy the sunset over your dinner. If you’re not familiar with the format – it’s a pub where you can order your food and be given a buzzer which will vibrate when your meal is ready to be collected at the counter… counter feed, obviously!
Alternatively, you can head to Mindil Beach Markets, where you’ll find food vans serving food from all over the world, plus stalls selling pretty hand-made territory trinkets. There are some health products you can only find at this market and I still get them sent over to me now I’m in the UK.
From the markets, follow the music and watch the entertainment along the way. Crack a whip like a cowboy, watch the fire twirlers on the beach and listen to the local didgeridoo band who have the crowd in a hypnotic state as they gather to watch their pure talent.
These markets run on Thursdays and Sundays, from the end of April until the end of October. Some of the stores will run again on a Saturday morning too at Nightcliff Markets (to the north of the city), if you’re not in town on the Sunday.
Whilst I lived here I worked for a small group tour operator, so I’ve probably been on every tour you can do in the Northern Territory - great experience for planning other peoples’ trips!
One of my favourite trips is a camping adventure that visits both Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, and heads over to Arnhem Land in the east of the Territory – an area which requires a permit from the tourist office if you want to visit. This is a place where I learnt a lot about the aboriginal history, culture and arts. Tours are normally quite a mixed bunch of people who all get on well together on their outback experience.
The drive out to Litchfield from Darwin is only about 1.5 hours, so you’ll have plenty of time to if you make an early-ish start. We spent half a day driving through Litchfield National park interspersed with cooling down in the many waterfalls… which can actually be surprisingly chilly!
We swam with the fish and with help from the local guide, safely jumped off the (recommended!) rocks into the plunge pools. In Litchfield, we visited all the main points of interest, including Florence Falls, the remarkable and absolutely massive termite mounds and Buley Rock Hole – all deep within the native bushland.
Next, we headed over to the Adelaide River to join the Jumping Crocodiles experience. The crocodiles were amazing! I had no idea how fast they were and how big they got, let alone know that they actually jump. The true dinosaurs of the Territory.
At the end of the afternoon, we headed to our camp near the river. Depending on the type of tour you do, you’ll either strike camper yourselves (on the cheaper tours) or you’ll stay in ready-erected permit tents with beds like I did – think glamping!
I hugely underestimated how big Kakadu National Park is - it’s the largest national park in the country and about the same size as Wales! That’s part of the reason it’s sensible to go with a guide – to ensure you don’t miss the best bits.
Our group travelled around by 4WD vehicle (thank goodness) because this is true Outback territory. At times, we ploughed through croc-infested streams and lumpy off-road terrain and it was a bumpy ride down to Jim Jim Falls! The children on the bus loved it – we were all laughing as we tried to aim our cameras to snap the shot to remember the rocky drive!
Kakadu is really green from November to April, and during these months the wildlife is really active. Our guide was keen to point out the different birds and explain what to look for throughout the food chain – everything has a natural predator except the crocs.
For our lunch in Kakadu we offered the local cuisine – green ants! In true bush-tucker challenge style, our guide picked up an ant, plucked its bottom off and popped it into his mouth. And unbelievably, he managed to get us all to follow suit and try one ourselves – so you may be challenged too!
After sleeping another night in Kakadu in our permanent tents, we were bound for Arnhem Land. I was excited about this part of the trip because I’d heard that the walks today would take us to see some of the amazing Aboriginal rock art that’s found in this special land.
I love taking photos and here I managed to snap photos of the real Australia exactly as I’d imagined Australia to be as a child in Arnhem Land.
I remember standing on top of the escarpments in Arnhem Land with views out over the wetlands. The feeling was special; being in the middle of nowhere but right amidst so much Aboriginal history. Our guide led us through the gorges and caves and we saw some of the oldest Aboriginal ‘X-ray artwork’ paintings on the various rock surfaces. Having a local guide is so handy; he pointed out the native insects and reptiles including the Territory’s own Frill-necked Lizard.
At the end of the Arnhem Land section of the tour, your driver will take you back to Darwin. This tour can be done in 4 days and 3 nights, but there are certainly longer tours available if you have more time, which allow you to take a slower pace and see even more. When you do get back to Darwin, I recommend the sunset dinner cruise out of Darwin harbour as the perfect way to end your trip!
South of Kakadu, Nitmiluk National Park is a wonderful area that encompasses the Katherine River and a dramatic network of 13 spectacular gorges and falls – including Edith Falls. A river cruise is a great way to explore here, and to feel dwarfed by the towering, steep, red sandstone walls of the gorges, carved out by the river. For a more active experience, you can also book a canoe tour at certain times of the year.
Further afield from Darwin, but still encompassed by Northern Territory’s amazing Outback are the treasures of the Red Centre - Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Kings Canyon. Regular flights connect Darwin to both Alice Springs and Ayers Rock airport or you could self-drive to the Red Centre. I’ve visited all of these places too so I can make sure you squeeze in as much as possible on your visit!