The Northern Territory is not exactly the most commonly visited part of Australia, but it’s a truly unique part of the world and well worth a visit for a life-changing natural and cultural experience like none other. The Northern Territory is massive – it takes 18 hours to drive from Darwin in the north to the border with South Australia along the notorious Stuart Highway (with speed limits of up to 130km/h). So it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out where to go and what to do in your time there.
The Northern Territory is broadly divided into two areas – the top end, and the red centre. The red centre is the region around Alice Springs, including well-known attractions like Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kings Canyon. Whereas, the top end centres around the climactically tropical capital of Darwin as well as extraordinary, nation-sized national parks. If you’re looking for the perfect way to spend a week travelling through the most spectacular national parks of the Northern Territory’s top end, this one-week itinerary is for you – we hope you enjoy!
Day 0 – Darwin
Now, you’re free to start your journey wherever you like, but for the purpose of this guide we’ll assume you don’t have a suitable vehicle yet. Darwin, the relaxed capital of the Northern Territory, is the perfect place to start your trip. While you’re in Darwin, check out some of the great attractions there, detailed in our list of the Top 7 things to do in Darwin, Australia. The day before you head off on your road trip, pick up your hire vehicle. To maximise your opportunities, make sure you choose a 4WD vehicle – 4WD campers are available too if you want to keep your costs low. Stay somewhere with good parking options on the outskirts of Darwin and stock up on food and drinks for your trip.
Day 1 – Darwin to Litchfield
Get up nice and early to drive to Litchfield National Park, around a 1.5 hour drive from Darwin and a perfect day trip from the city – or in this case, a perfect first stop on a trip around the top end. There are two ways to get into Litchfield National Park – via Batchelor on sealed roads, or through Berry Springs, which features a more adventurous route including around 12km of unsealed road.
This map is a useful guide to help understand the geography of the park. As the park is effectively a single loop road, we’d recommend going through Berry Springs on the way in, and travelling through the park to end up in Batchelor on the way to your next destination. Take your time as you explore the many impressive sites throughout the park, including Cascades, Wangi Falls, Tolmer Falls, Florence Falls and the magnetic termite mounds. If you’ve got a bit more time on your side and you’re happy to go a bit off road, you can explore further to Tjaynera Falls and The Lost City!
At the end of the day, grab a cabin or camp site at one of the numerous caravan parks just outside Litchfield and relax, ready for a big driving adventure tomorrow!
Day 2 – Litchfield to Nitmiluk Gorge
Today you’ll head from Litchfield to Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, a 3 hour drive mostly down the notorious Stuart Highway. On your way, there are a number of great stop offs and detours. Stop off in Pine Creek to see a historical railway museum, drop in to the lovely hot springs in Katherine, and if you’re feeling up for a bit more driving, take a 1 hour (each way) detour past Katherine to the hot springs oasis of Mataranka (Bitter Springs). Be sure to leave enough time to get to Nitmiluk Gorge before sundown – you don’t want to be driving on the Stuart Highway at dusk! Stay at the Nitmiluk Gorge caravan park or Cicada Lodge.
Day 3 – Nitmiluk Gorge
Having arrived at Nitmiluk Gorge, today is for exploring everything this incredible part of the world has to offer. Importantly, this is a part of the world that is absolutely scorching hot year round, so be sure to start early if you’re hiking around, and bring PLENTY of water! If available, book a boat or canoe tour down the gorge – bookings can be made through Nitmiluk Tours. Stay the night at your Nitmiluk Gorge accommodation.
Day 4 – Nitmiluk Gorge to Kakadu
If you’re so inclined, start the day with another early morning hike through the national park (once again, bring plenty of water – you’d be surprised how hot it can get early in the day!), then drive out of the park and start to make your way to Kakadu, around a 3 hour drive. On the way, be sure to stop off in Katherine for fuel and supplies (it has major supermarkets and is substantially cheaper than the stores in Kakadu). Heading back toward Pine Creek, stop off at Leliyn (Edith Falls), a 15 minute detour along the highway.
Once you get to Pine Creek, take a right hand turn onto the Kakadu Highway and drive for another 40 minutes or so before you get to Mary River at the entrance to Kakadu. There are a range of other attractions accessible from the Kakadu Highway, so be sure to pick up a map at the information centre near the park entrance so you can decide what you’d like to check out. Assuming you reach Kakadu National Park just after midday, you should have time to spend a bit of your afternoon at Gunlom Falls, a surreal watering hole at the end of 40km of unsealed road. Another great attraction in this stretch of the park is Maguk Falls. Just a reminder that in Kakadu, crocodiles are everywhere so swim at your own risk!
Stay the night at Cooinda Lodge where there are well-equipped rooms and camp sites, and where you can book a sunrise cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong for the next morning (though at peak times we recommend you book in advance online)
Day 5 – Kakadu
Start your day with an early morning shuttle from Cooinda Lodge and enjoy an unmissable experience along Yellow Water Billabong. This once-in-a-lifetime experience will bring you face to face (though from a safe distance) with one of the deadliest creatures on this planet – the salt water crocodile. The billabong is absolutely loaded with crocodiles so you’re sure to see plenty in the water and on the banks, as well as an incredible array of birds and other wildlife. This is truly an experience you’ll never forget. While it is possible to go at other times, we would highly recommend the sunrise cruise for the best experience.
After completing the cruise, head back to the lodge and have some breakfast, then head to Nourlangie for rock art and the stunning Nawurlandja lookout – a moderately steep but rather painless half hour climb up and down. Once you’ve had your fair share of hiking in this incredible part of the park, head to Jabiru for lunch – be sure to check out the Mercure Crocodile Hotel.
After lunch, make your way to Ubirr, around a 1 hour drive from Jabiru. Stop off at Cahill’s crossing at the border between Kakadu National Park and the indigenous-controlled Arnhem Land. Arnhem Land is home to one of the oldest continuing cultures on earth and is only accessible with a permit, but you will see a range of locals and tourists making their way across the precarious causeway. During the dry season, as an added bonus, this is a favourite place for lazy crocodiles to hang out and pick up some unsuspecting fish. It probably goes without saying, but please stay well away from the crossing itself – stick to the lookout unless you’re in an appropriate enclosed vehicle.
Make your way onward to Ubirr, a rock art site with some of the world’s oldest works of art, including the famous rainbow serpent. Climb up to the top of Ubirr Lookout for another incredible vista and learn more about the history of this incredible place – this is a perfect place to go for sunset. Once you’re finished, make your way back to Jabiru where there are plenty of accommodation options from caravan parks to luxury hotels.
Day 6 – Kakadu/Arnhem Land
Today you can have an additional day to explore Kakadu, and there are certainly plenty of places still to go if you have the time. As a truly unique adventure, we recommend booking a tour of Arnhem Land to experience the remarkable culture and untouched natural scenery of the area. Due to COVID-19 this was unfortunately unavailable when we were there so we can’t speak from first hand experience, but it’s certainly on the top of our list for when we go back. Arnhem Land is only accessible with a permit, and we recommend you go with a tour company – check TripAdvisor for recommended companies.
Stay overnight in Kakadu for the final night of your top end adventure.
Day 7 – Kakadu to Darwin
This marks the end of this one-week itinerary. Darwin is an easy and uneventful 2.5 hour drive from Jabiru, so feel free to stop off wherever appeals along the way – there are just too many options to list in one guide!
Thanks for reading and be sure to comment below – what’s your favourite part of the top end? And do you have any other tips for travelling around this incredible part of the world?
One final note…
The global travel situation is constantly evolving throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Domestic travel options have reopened in Australia, and we’re looking forward to the day when Australia reopens to international travellers. We’re frequently researching the best options for travel once it’s safe again, so be sure to check out our articles on 5 places to travel to once borders reopen, and follow our blog and our social media accounts (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) for the latest updates. Thanks for reading to the end, here’s to another Better Break soon!