Exploring the Top End – Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Exploring the Top End
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

It is with a bit of reserve that I recommend the following trip. Quite simply, Darwin isn’t for everyone. If you came to Australia looking for good weather and sunny beaches you’re going to need to head elsewhere. Darwin is the meeting ground of sweltering days and waters teeming with sharks and crocodiles. It’s also a place of pesky insects, flies swarming you by day and mosquitoes pestering you by night. But if you’re the kind who likes things a little rough and rugged, you might have finally found your paradise.

Most Aussies and travel folk refer to this area of Australia as the “Top End,” in other words, the upper most part of the NT (Northern Territory). If you venture up to this area, you’ll most certainly fly into Darwin, virtually the only major city for miles upon miles. However, you will not (and should not) spend much time in the city. People don’t go to the NT to hang out in Darwin. They go for the national parks. And thank goodness for that. Darwin isn’t anything to write home about. Trust me.

So the first thing you need to do when you get to Darwin – if you’re not scheduled on a tour – is to get your rental car. This is a city where you should definitely book your car well in advance. Availability of cars decrease and prices increase the closer you come to your date of arrival. That being said, people always labor over the decision of whether or not to get a 4WD. The answer to this could go either way. No, a 4WD is not necessary. Most roads are accessible by your average economy car and they end up being much, much cheaper. However, if you can afford to spend a little extra, the 4WD is definitely the preferred vehicle. Some places, such as Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu, are only accessible by 4WD vehicles and they’re always nice to have on the off chance you’ll swing by.

Once you have your vehicle it’s time to hit the road. There are numerous options of where to head in the top end of the NT, but the most popular destinations are Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge, and Litchfield National Park. All three places are worth seeing and if you want to do the tour properly, give yourself about 7-10 days. Most travelers generally make a loop, starting with Litchfield and ending with Kakadu, squeezing Katherine in between.

The “top end” definitely offers some amazing sites that are unlike any other region of Australia, but there are some significant things a potential traveler must be warned about before heading up. One, beware of crocs! This isn’t a joke. Crocodiles are everywhere in the “top end” and they’re dangerous little blokes – not to be underestimated. The first thing you should know about croc safety is to never get in the water. Now I know as well as anyone that the Darwin heat can be brutal, and the water can look so inviting and completely croc free, but you should NEVER take your chances. Crocs have the uncanny ability to remain just below the surface of the water without being seen and then POW! they’ve come out of nowhere. So no matter what, don’t stick your toes in, don’t wash your hands, and don’t swim across any natural waters. Not even if someone bets you $1,000. I’m here to tell you, they would win that bet.

Secondly, Darwin is hot and the heat is not just sticky, it’s oppressive. Before going, you must prepare yourself for this. Likewise, when you’re up in the NT you’ll need to drink ample amounts of water. Unfortunately, dehydration is pretty common in the “top end.” Most people aren’t even aware how much water they’re using on a daily basis. So always keep a water bottle with you and always keep drinking.

Thirdly, bug spray doesn’t work. Go ahead and buy all the fancy candles you want and all the nice lotions and expensive sprays – I know I did – but also know that they’re going to be largely useless. The bugs in the “top end” aren’t ones to be bothered by a few little dainty defense mechanisms. They’re tough, obstinate things that will stick around regardless. Ready yourself for the new friends you’ll be having because trust me, they’ll be hanging out the whole week.

So here’s a little recap for those of you who might have zoned out between here and there: Fly into Darwin. Get out of Darwin as quickly as possible. Rent a car. Preferably, but not necessarily an SUV. Hit up Kakadu, Katherine, and Litchfield. You’ll be hot, but stay out of the water! Keep yourself hydrated and learn to love those bugs.

After I came back from Darwin I realized the “top end” can be a great place, but it takes a special person to really appreciate it. If you love to camp and if you don’t mind bugs and heat, buy your ticket now. But if the above doesn’t really strike your fancy, pocket your $400 airfare for a later date and get your buds to send you some postcards. The “top end” is fabulous, it just might not be fabulous for everyone.