1. KATHERINE HOT SPRINGS, KATHERINE
A more northerly version of Mataranka and Bitter Springs, Katherine’s Hot Springs dish up shimmering blue waters, free of sediment right down to the clay bed, naturally warmed to a comfortable temp in the low 30s. Pull on the boardies and float underneath archways of foliage formed by the paperbarks and pandunas, in a selection of pools, manicured as part of a $2 million council revamp a few years ago; or soak in the spritzy water near low waterfalls, gazing down light-filled glens aflutter with common crow butterflies. A pop-up cafe, shipment container style, serves up lattes and cappas at the top of the stairs, laying the groundwork for the perfect outing – a swim to calm down and a long black to get going again. Stay at Riverside Tourist Park if you’d like to walk directly from your campsite (500m one way).
If you’re seeking other warm waters to explore, try out the hot springs at Berry Springs Nature Park, less than 50km from Darwin. Here the green-tinged waters aren’t quite as clear and there’s usually quite a few people in attendance, but to compensate there’s more space to spread out and swim, plus the aquamarine water, coloured by its rich mineral content, holds its own allure.
2. NITMILUK GORGE, NITMILUK NATIONAL PARK
The wide Katherine River, calm in the dry but surging during the wet, has throughout the eons carved a giant cleft in the landscape’s towering escarpment, exposing humungous rock walls that make the perfect playground for the adventurous-spirited. Daytrippers do little more than cruise on tourboats or complete the short Baruwei Lookout, leaving the depths of this spacious park untouched for those willing to explore a little further. Hire a kayak onsite and paddle between the sky-scraping sandstone, or venture on foot to Pat’s Lookout and beyond to Butterfly Gorge. Here, between slabs of cool shade, sunlight penetrates down through the back-lit canopy to strike the clear waters of a babbling brook, while common crow butterflies depart from fronds by the dozen, drifting like confetti. If this is your scene, consider booking in to multi-day hike the Jatbula Trail, departing from Nitmiluk Gorge and extending 62km to Edith Falls.
For quality hiking elsewhere in the Top End, head to Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu National Park, taking on as much as you please right up to the 12km Barrk Walk and cooling off within the shady sanctuary of highly detailed rock art galleries. Just beware that, even in the Top End’s “winter”, temperatures of 31 or 32 might be the best you get, so set out early in the morning or late in the day to avoid heat stroke.
3. EDITH FALLS, NITMILUK NATIONAL PARK
In the NT, bigger is in fact better, and size has never been an issue – particularly at the gigantic plunge pool fed by Edith Falls. Squinting over 150 metres of glistening water, bold swimmers in boardies ponder whether they’re game to doggy paddle the distance for a shower au naturel – or whether they’d prefer to marvel at the cascade from the shallows, splashing in the shade of pandunas. Those seeking higher ground tackle the gradual climb up the 2.6km Lelilyn Trail to access the elevated pools on the upper tiers above the main fall, enjoying blue-sky views from their very own vantage point on the plateau. Those in the know book their stay before donning the smugglers, camping within a short walk of the lower plunge pool at the national park campsite for $12 per adult. As the stars come out, grab a torch and wander to the water’s edge to croc spot while the curlews sing their eerie song.
If Edith Falls is up your alley and you’re keen to lounge around in yet more calm pools above waterfalls, visit the Upper and Lower Cascades in Litchfield National Park. A 3.3km walk to the upper and 2.6km to the lower transports leisure-makers along a river’s edge, before delivering them to a series of low falls cascading and spreading out over a flat rocky watercourse, which gathers in deep golden pools within the stream. Don’t miss Curtain Falls, below the Lower Cascades, where fine white strands of angel-hair trickle into a shaded pool circulating fallen yellow leaves.
4. JIM JIM FALLS, KAKADU
If you’re willing to put in a bit more work to uncover natural attractions, Jim Jim Falls might just be for you. A 50km corrugated track leads to the Garnamarr campground, beyond which you’ll have to engage 4WD-high to reach the main attraction: 10km of undulating track preludes the 1km human-powered rockhop up the gorge to two green-hued plunge pools, fed during the wet season by Jim Jim’s signature 200m torrent. As the dry season sets in, the falls stop falling — in contradiction to the wet season images in marketing brochures — but this is the very thing that makes the pools at their base swimmable. Firstly, because there’s no ripping currents or neck-breaking torrent, and secondly because it’s easier to control crocs when floodwaters don’t link bodies of water.
For a twist on the same theme, head to Gunlom Falls, also in Kakadu, via a slightly shorter unsealed track passing over various water crossings which, in the late dry season, ought to be bone dry. Just note that in August 2020 a sign stated that a 2.5m freshwater croc was sighted in the lower pool. Plus, the iconic upper pool, launched into stardom by Crocodile Dundee, is at present closed off at the request of traditional owners. For similar fun-filled 4WD action, head to Litchfield’s Lost City or across Tolmer Creek Crossing (40cm deep in August 2020) to Blyth Homestead.
5. BILLABONGS, KAKADU
Before ‘billabong’ rose to prominence as a surf brand in the mid-2000s, it was a backwater pool fed by floodwaters and persisting as a standalone, stagnant lake. Billabongs range from being a smelly disappointment to a haven for all manner of water-dependent wildlife, but with so many to choose from on Kakadu’s floodplains, success is guaranteed. Yellow Water, Jim Jim, Sandy, Bucket, Red Lily and Mardukal, along with the fabulous Mamukala wetlands, all support endless species. Crocs, tree frogs, water pythons, feral hogs and buffalo complement the flocks of brolgas, jabirus, rainbow bee-eaters, magpie geese and gangly swamp hens picking and pecking among the water lilies. At night, mosquitos emerge in earnest, paying little attention to the burning of citronella candles — so a billabong bash will be best enjoyed by those with an air-tight inner sanctum in their camper and, accordingly, an air-con.
If you’re after a billabong closer to Darwin, visit Fogg Dam 45 minutes from town. Carefully avoid giant orb spiders over the path while taking on the 2.2km Woodlands to Waterlillies Walk or the 2km Monsoon Forest Walk, and slowly drive over the dam wall, gazing out at the wetland either side — you can’t walk it right now, due to the presence of a “large estuarine crocodile.” To get closer to the action while staying safe, consider paying for a water-based or aerial tour — most of these are based out of Jabiru and Cooinda.
6. CROC SPOTTING AT CAHILL'S CROSSING, KAKADU
An afternoon at Cahill’s Crossing timed with the high tide makes the perfect prelude to the sunset at Ubirr. Take a left turn before the crossing over the East Alligator River, follow a short path through the forest, and secure your spot on the viewing platform for endless entertainment at what is commonly renowned as Australia’s most dangerous water crossing. It’s deeper and faster-flowing in the wet, but even during the dry you’ll see plenty of crocodiles (mostly saltwater) on the hunt, cruising calmly then sinking without a splash, or sunning on the banks and snorting loudly. Territorians in flip-flops flick lures for barra off the concrete crossing and its bouldered breakwall, but be warned that it’s best to enjoy from a distance, as fatal croc attacks have occurred here.
To take your adventure even further, arrange permits with the Northern Land Council or Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation and venture over the crossing yourself to take on West Arnhem Land, including the wild Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. To complete your foray into Australia’s truest wilderness, travel down Central Arnhem Road from nearer Katherine, making your water-logged way towards Nhulunbuly and the sandy, sun-kissed wonders of the untamed Gove Peninsula.
7. SUNSET AT UBIRR, KAKADU
A visit to Ubirr in Kakadu National Park at sunset is a rite of passage for the northern traveller. By tackling the 1.5km return walk to the lookout in the cooler evening, walkers both avoid the worst heat radiating off the rocks and soak in the most spectacular vistas. En route the plateau, well-preserved ancient Indigenous art decorates the sheltered rock overhangs, depicting (for the most part) animals traditionally relied on for food; rendered in ochre tones, the stylised two-dimensional x-ray cross-sections show the bones and organs within. Soon, sunset seekers attain the upper reaches of the spacious rocky outcrop, to be blessed with panoramic views over the lush green floodplains, framed by clouds glowing in the sun and yellow grasses flickering in the wind.
If you’d rather avoid the crowds, head to Nawurlandja Lookout in the evening instead. A climb up the slanted rock face elevates you to brilliant heights, providing views back the way you came towards the stratified vertical faces of Nourlangie Rock, with a billabong to its right for good measure and, on the slanted rockface itself, an eroded hollow bowl carved out by water over the years.
8. WANGI FALLS, LITCHFIELD
Campers experience a tropical idyll at Wangi Falls, one of the NT’s premier swimming holes. Monsoonal rainforest flourishes around the spacious green-tinged pool, orb spiders weave webs between the reeds, and the screeching of fruit bats carries from all around. With this much water, swimmers have space to themselves on even the busiest of days — whether they want to spread their toes in the sand in the shallows, or swim across to the submerged rock platform near the falls on the lefthand side and patiently await their turn to experience the private natural spa. The water in this deep inverted thimble in the rock shelf next to the gushing water is notably warmer than down below, having been heated in shallow upper streams and as it cascades over sun-baked rock.
For an equally mesmerising and safe plunge pool underneath a waterfall, visit the nearby Florence Falls, also within Litchfield National Park. This pool, accessible via walkways from both campgrounds, is enclosed on three sides by a rock amphitheatre, and on the fourth the stream trickles out over mossy rocks and gnarled tree roots. Swim over to the waterfalls, close your eyes, and submerge your head if you can handle the drilling stream; or simply soak up the serenity. Watch out as the harmless little archerfish might nip your toes!
9. MAGNT, DARWIN
While the natural attractions will steal the hearts of many, others yearn to experience the cultured side of the Territory beyond flip-flops and cold stubbies. A visit to the Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory (MAGNT), set on Darwin’s Fannie Bay, allows visitors to explore a range of interesting and informative displays and exhibitions for no cost at all. Admire high-quality Indigenous art, including pieces with a modern twist displayed against black walls under white light; wonder at the size of Sweetheart, the 5.1m taxidermied crocodile that terrorised boats in the 70s; remember the devastation of Cyclone Tracy arriving on Christmas Eve; uncover the fraught history of the NT frontier between 1911 and 1921; and roam among well-preserved natural specimens of the geological and biological worlds. See magnt.net.au for more info.
On the other hand, if you’re over high-brow culture and are after something a little lighter, book tickets to the Deck Chair Cinema (deckchaircinema.com) near Darwin’s waterfront to watch a projected flick under the stars. If you’d like to visit some of the communities producing Indigenous art, book a ticket over to the Tiwi Islands (no cars or campers can travel over, and you’ll need to book a tour). If you prefer ‘natural art,’ see what the termites have been up to at Magnetic Termite Mounds, Litchfield.
10. MINDIL SUNSET MARKETS, DARWIN
Have you really been to Darwin if you haven’t been to the Mindil Markets? Over 200 stalls gather the multicultural capital’s best in food, crafts, and services on the water’s edge under the palm trees. Locals and tourists alike roam between the stalls of artists, photographers, leatherworkers, tarot readers, jewellers, and masseurs, drifting into ever-different smells and sounds, from the didgeridoo to acoustic guitar. Historically held on every Thursday and Sunday during the dry season, with Thursday as the main event, COVID-19 has — for now — limited the markets to Sundays, from 4 to 9pm (check up-to-date scheduling before you go). In a way, a journey from south to north reaches its natural conclusion when, after having browsed the stalls, you sit on the calm, flat beach at Mindil and, tucking into a tasty takeaway meal of your choice — perhaps fried barramundi, a Spanish paella, or a tabbouleh-loaded kebab — watch the defined circle of the sun sink over the horizon. There’s parking on site or at the nearby casino for free; see mindil.com.au for more.
If you’re more keen for the ocean side of things, watch the sunset near Nightcliff Jetty instead, where you can walk or pedal along the oceanside cycle path, and still grab tucker at a food truck or foreshore cafe. Listen to acoustic guitar drift from nearby restaurants as the jetty lampposts turn on and glisten on the darkening water. Alternatively, if you’ve enjoyed the atmosphere of the Mindil Markets, visit the Darwin Waterfront in the evening. Hop into the enclosed swimming lagoon or the wave-generating pool before it closes at 6pm, then enjoy a meal at a selection of restaurants, here or on the nearby wharf.