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The Northern Territory (NT) is a vast open land with deserts, escarpments, monoliths, rain-forests, beautiful swim holes, and rivers where prehistoric creatures thrive.
The NT is more than twice the size of Texas. Yet, the tiniest state in the USA, Rhode Island, has almost five times more people. The amount of land compared to the sparse population was difficult to fathom until we experienced it by driving down the Stuart Highway which the locals like to call “the track.”
Size and Population FAQs
The Northern Territory is 548,600 sq miles.
Texas is half the size at 268,597 sq miles.
Spain, France and Germany together are still not quite as big. They are a combined 543,000 sq miles.
The population of the Northern Territory is 245,000 (2020). That is 0.16 people per square kilometre.
Rhode Island, the smallest state in the USA, has a population of 1,059,000 or 1,642 people per square kilometre.
The population of Spain, France, & Germany combined is 194,713,000 or 138 people per square kilometre.
Traveling through NT
Making travel plans through the Northern Territory (NT) was fairly simple; the number of paved roads is limited and free camping is abundant. Our biggest decision in NT was whether or not to do Kakadu with our 2WD bus Lil’ Beaut.
There are basically two paved routes extending across NT that form a sort of a humanoid kangaroo (see pic below). One stretches from north to south, Darwin to Adelaide right through the center of Australia. The second connects Western Australia to Queensland in the east (route 1 to route 66).
We put about 6,000 km (4,000 miles) on Lil’ Beaut just traveling on these few paved roads in the Northern Territory.
Traveling during COVID
Leaving Western Australia (WA) was bittersweet. Sweet because of the many wonderful experiences and bitter as it was a one-way ticket – at least for now. Western Australia still has closed borders to keep COVID out. We could leave but we knew we would not be able to go back anytime soon.
Western Australia was our home as we sheltered in place. We were then able to explore the state before leaving. If we had not been there when the world was hit with this virus, the entire state which is 1/3rd of Australia would have been inaccessible to us.
In July, the Northern Territory began to allow people to enter as long as they had not been in hot spots (parts of Victoria and New South Wales at the time we crossed).
The border crossing was fairly simple. In normal times it would have been a non-event. Border Patrol agents set up an outpost along the desolate road that connects WA to NT. They stopped all vehicles before allowing them to go through.
The border agent asked us a few questions, and we had to fill out some paperwork. After showing the agent our passports and completed paperwork he waved us along and wished us a good journey. With the borders being so strict in WA it was fairly easy to enter NT. There was nowhere else we could have come from on that road.
20 things to see in the Northern Territory
The best time to visit the Northern Territory is during the dry season from May to October, the cooler months from May to July are ideal. During the dry season, the heat and humidity are much lower and most roads are open.
The wet season is November to April. It would be a beautiful season to see but it is also easy to get stuck somewhere for long periods of time due to flooding. We went through NT fairly quickly (for us anyway) as we wanted to see it and most of Queensland before the humidity starts building again in November.
1) Keep River National Park
Our first stop in NT was Keep River National Park. There are a number of short hikes to viewpoints and a long beautiful hike at the north end that stretches across the flat plane and up to a viewpoint on the escarpment. We didn’t see signs of any other human being in the entire park. No other vehicles were on the road or at any of the parking spots or campsites.
It is a bit of a no man’s land right now because it rests between the physical border of Western Australia and the actual checkpoint into the Northern Territory. Since the Western Australian borders are closed not many people are going through this little gem of land.
2) Timber Creek
Heading east there are a number of stops with small hikes but we purposely planned to end up in Timber Creek for sunset. We hiked to the highest point in the area and were able to view the massive green valley all around us. On one side, a small park which is like a mini Bungle Bungle park has a few trails with interesting rock formations that are worth a stop.
One of the fascinating facts about Timber Creek is that it can find itself completely cut off by water during the wet season. From the view point at the highest peak behind the city we could almost envision the floods that would fill the low lying land.
Katherine is a major intersection in the Northern Territory. From here we could go North to Darwin 271 km north, or we could head to Alice Springs 1,041 km south. Not only is Katherine a great place to fill up on supplies there is something special right near the center of town.
Katherine is renowned for its hot springs. We were already hot with days above 90°F (32°C). Soaking in a thermal pool didn’t sound exactly inviting. Also, being in the middle of town we heard it could get crowded. Still, it couldn’t hurt to stop and see the springs.
As soon as I saw the water I just had to get in. The blue-tinged water was crystal clear and flowed through what looked like a small jungle. Vines, trees, and an abundance of vegetation crowded the edge of the waterway which was quite narrow in places. The white sandy bottom made the stream feel like something out of a fairy tale.
We crawled over a few rocks and into the hole where the spring bubbles up from deep within the earth. The water is the perfect temperature for a nice long soak, warm but not too hot. We tried to dive down under the massive rock from which the water was flowing up but it became dark quickly and too narrow to enter.
From this bubbling origin, the water becomes a gentle stream. Pulling up our feet we floated down the stream talking to a few other travelers passing through Katherine. When we reached the end of the swimming area we got out, walked back to the headwaters, and did it all again.
4) Edith Falls
Edith Falls is in the Nitmiluk National Park just 63 km north of Katherine. Just a few yards from the parking lot in Nitmiluk is a large plunge pool that rests at the bottom of Edith waterfall. Freshies (freshwater crocodiles) can sometimes be found here but they are shy and generally stay clear of humans unlike their massive cousins the Salties (saltwater crocodiles). This pool is monitored for salties and they are removed when found, keeping it a fairly safe swim hole.
There are short 40 minute hikes and full day hikes in the park. We followed the trail that lead to the top of the escarpment from which Edith falls descends and then follow the trail next to the stream into the bush for a little bit. There are a few more waterfalls and swim holes at the top. By the time we finished the loop we were ready to jump into the pool at the base of Edith falls no matter how chilly it was.
We put on our swimmers (swimming clothes in Aus), grabbed our snorkel gear and scurried to the plunge pool. The water is deep and cold but refreshing. Within two steps of the shore we could no longer touch the bottom of the plunge pool. Two sides of the pool are lined with the cliff face from which Edith Falls descends. Even with our snorkels, we could not see the bottom. Trin dove down but never reached the bottom of the pool.
5) Litchfield National Park
The water clarity mesmerized us in Litchfield National Park. The tablelands soak up water from the rainy season and slowly release them throughout the year creating continuous waterfalls and streams. Litchfields has great hiking and giant termite mounds, and magnetic ones as well. We spent a few days in Litchfiled and dedicated an entire article to this area about the crocodiles and crystal clear water.
6) Berry Springs
About 60 km south of Darwin is a spring that makes for a perfect getaway from the city during hot tropical months. Berry Springs flows from the earth and down a small waterfall.
I entered the shallow waters by the cascade and slowly floated downstream. The clarity of the water allowed me to see every detail along the bottom of the stream. A school of fish swam beside me as I let the current take me to the large plunge pool beyond.
The stream opens into a large pool that immediately drops off several meters. We spent a day in the refreshing waters of Berry Springs with Trins cousin Simon and his wife Eunice from Darwin. Afterwards we used the picnic area for a good ol’ BBQ.
Darwin is a wet tropical city on the coast of the Northern Territory. It is also the most northerly and smallest capital city in Australia. Even though it is the smallest capital it is still the biggest city in NT with a population of almost 150K (2018 census).
We generally spend minimal time in cities. We pop in, get supplies, check out the waterfront or main points of attraction, and get back out. Because we are not experts on what to see in a city I will give you a link to one of my Aussie friends, Paula Morgan, who has explored the city of Darwin. Check out Paula’s post on the top ten things to do in Darwin.
8) Mamukala Wetlands
The Mamukala Wetlands is an ideal spot for bird watching. It is also where I lost my sunglasses and Trin offered to risk being eaten by a croc to get them. Marmukala is 223 km west of Darwin so it can be explored as a day trip or as a morning stop on the way to Kakadu.
9) Kakadu National Park
Many say that Kakadu is Kakadon’t without 4wd. Don’t believe them! There is much to see in Kakadu even with 2WD only.
The highlight of our time in Kakadu was at Cahill’s Crossing. At this crossing, the massive salties (saltwater crocodiles) gather to eat the fish that are brought in when the tidal river rises.
Even without 4WD we were elated with what we were able to see throughout Kakadu. There are billabong hikes, hikes to the top of escarpments, and art walks to see ancient rock art from the Aboriginal people.
10) Bitter Springs
Bitter Springs 110 km south of Katherine on the way to Alice Springs. It is a tropical spring-fed thermal pool. Despite it being more remote than the hot spring in Katherine it is still very popular.
A mask and snorkel gave us a beautiful view beneath the surface as we floated downstream. The blues hues and rays from the sunlight streaming through the water made an eerie yet beautiful underwater world. Fish hide under the vegetation growing on the top of the water near the edge of the stream. We were told that occasionally freshies (freshwater crocodiles) can be found here too, but we didn’t see any.
We floated downstream a few times getting out at the end and walking back to the beginning enjoying each time just as much as the time before it. On the fourth trip back to the beginning we swam upstream from where everyone else was floating. It was there we saw a beautiful long-necked turtle and her young as we navigated the more narrow and deep passages of the stream.
Bitter springs tip:
For fun at Bitter Springs bring your swimmers (swimming suit), snorkel and mask, but don’t take your fins – please. Fins only stir up debris from the bottom giving everyone behind you a murky view. The current is just right for letting its guests float downstream at a gentle pace. Water shoes can be worn but are not necessary. Thongs can be left at the entry point. (For my USA friends – flip flops are called thongs in Aus)
11) Mataranka & the Elsey Homestead
Mataranka is just a boomerang’s throw away from Bitter Springs and is home to another thermal pool. This one, however, is more “developed.” The tiny stream which is a constant 34°C (93°F) is not normally deep enough to swim. One section however was dug out during WWII to provide a pool for officers. The sides have been reinforced with rocks creating a large pool to soak in among the palm fronds.
Mataranka was a nice dip but not as interesting for us as Katherine’s springs or Bitter Springs. Many grey nomads we talked to however liked Mataranka the best.
Next to the parking lot of the Mataranka pool sits a replica of the Elsey Homestead. It was constructed for the movie “We of the Never Never.” They took care to replicate every detail including the rough-hewn wood.
We borrowed the movie from the library in Katherine before heading down. It is based on a memoir by Jeannie Gunn who lived in one of the stations here in around 1900. The movie is a great way to see the landscape for this area and get a taste of what life might have been like in the Never Never over one hundred years ago.
12) Three Ways
Three ways is an intersection. Just as the name suggests you can go three ways here, north, south, or east. It may seem strange to put an intersection on a list of 20 things to see for NT, but I found it interesting. This turn is the only paved road from the northern territory into Queensland. Route 1 in the north turns into a dirt trek with creek crossings, suitable for 4WD only.
After we left Katherine there were very few intersections that we crossed before Alice Springs. Some turn offs were dirt roads others were paved but only extended into a small community beside the Stuart Highway. This is the turn we would take after exploring the Red Center by Alice Springs on our exit to Queensland.
13) Devil’s Marbles
Driving down the Stuart Highway covers a lot of very flat ground. Maybe that is why it is so strange to see large marble-like boulders appear on the horizon seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
It is an excellent place to stop and stretch journey-weary legs. For us it was a must stop as the geology was so intriguing.
14) Telegraph line
The Stuart Highway running through the center of Australia was originally the first international telegraph line on this continent. It enabled Australia to keep in touch with other continents.
Some of the old telegraph stations still stand and have been converted into outback museums. We wandered through a few of these stations along the Stuart Highway.
“Would you have taken an assignment here?” I asked Trin.
“Not sure, it depends,” he responded and we both contemplated what life here might have been like.
Those assigned to and living at stations were responsible for not only relaying messages over the telegraph but also for maintaining the equipment and the lines north and south of their station. They had to be self-sufficient since supplies only arrived about twice a year.
15) Alice Springs
Alice Springs, population 30,470 (2019), is the hub for many activities in the Red Center. It is the place to arrange tours and stock up on supplies. It is a long way from anywhere else but it does have a small airport for those who are pressed for time or simply don’t want to drive all the way to the Red Center of Australia.
16) West MacDonnell National Park
Just driving by the long scenic route through the MacDonnell mountain range is a worthy scenic drive, but there are also many beautiful hikes along the way. Many of them go to permanent waterholes hidden in canyons along the mountain range.
One of our favorite hikes was by Ormiston Gorge. A 9 km hike extends through a valley and up to the edge of the Ormiston pound, not that dissimilar to the Wilpena Pound in the Flinders range. The tail then extends down through the pound and out through a canyon. With a permanent waterhole for swimming at the end.
17) Kings Canyon
Kings Canyon has multiple hiking trails, however we feel that the rim walk is a must do. We suggest going early in the morning and taking lots of water. There are few places to find shade and the sun can be quite intense. Kings Canyon is definitely one of our top five sites in the Red Center.
The rim trail gives the best views of the colorful sheer cliffs in the canyon.
18) Tnorala / Gosses Bluff crater
The Macdowels end and the land returns to its flat plain about 177 km west of Alice Springs. But it’s as if the earth had once last say about returning to a flat land. In the distance from Tylers Pass near he end of the Macdowels the Goosse bluff crater adorns the horizon. It is thought to be the remains of an eroded impact crater.
We camped within sight of the crater near the bones of a camel long since past. It’s white skeleton the only thing that remained.
19) Uluru & Kata Tjuta
The ultimate Northern Territory destination according to many and a national icon of Australia is in the red center 470 km from Alice Springs. Uluru is more just a large monolith, it is filled with secrets each face telling a different story.
Not far from Uluru is the sister site Kata Tjuta. Kata Tjuta is also in the heart of Australia.
The paths that wander through Kata Tjuta lead us into narrow valleys squeezed between boulders. The conglomerate sits by itself out on the otherwise flat landscape of the region. Only Uluru rises from the horizon in the distance.
20) Camp in the bush by a ghost gum tree
Camping in the bush was one of the top highlights for us in the Northern Territory. It is so easy to find solitude and peace here.
On our last evening in the Northern Territory we were treated to a stunning sunset, as most of them are in the Territory and another peaceful evening.
The setting sun made the red earth almost glow. Smooth white trunks of the ghost gums stood out in a stark contrast as the sky behind them turned pastel. Darkness fell on the new moon night and the milky way stood out in brilliance.
Jack Johnson singing, “There were so many fewer questions when stars were just the holes to heaven,” echoed through my head as I stood there under the wonder of the universe. The sky above me was filled by the beauty of millions of lights shining out from an inconceivable distance.
The Northern Territory is not just a destination. It is an experience.