The complete guide to Australia's Northern Territory

This vast world of wetlands, forest and desert makes a superb detour from the usual tourist trail Down Under. Just avoid the season of 'mango madness', says Kathy Marks
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The Independent Travel

IS IT FIT FOR HUMAN HABITATION?

IS IT FIT FOR HUMAN HABITATION?

The Aboriginal communities that dot the Northern Territory would say so, having lived for thousands of years in the roasting, arid Centre (as the southern part of the NT is called) or the hot and humid Top End (northern NT).

Europeans have not proved so adaptable. The Territory has fewer than 200,000 inhabitants scattered across half a million square miles, an area more than five times the size of Great Britain. Darwin, the capital, has a population of 100,000 and feels more like a large country town. Alice Springs has 27,000 inhabitants, while the other towns - Katherine, Pine Creek and Tennant Creek - consist of little more than a main street. The remaining Territorians live on sprawling cattle properties or in the Aboriginal settlements. You can travel for hundreds of miles without seeing a trace of civilisation.

The Northern Territory likes to see itself as a land apart from the rest of Australia; indeed, local time is 90 minutes behind that in Sydney (and currently nine-and-a-half hours ahead of the UK). It is marketed separately in Britain by the NT Tourism Commission (020-8944 2992, www.ntholidays.com).

WILL I GO TROPPO?

Yes, if you visit the Top End during the build-up to the wet season (September to November), when the extreme heat and humidity are unbearable, shoes go mouldy and locals dash from one air-conditioned building to the next. Going "troppo", also known as "mango madness", is blamed for increased violence, suicide and drunkenness. The best time to venture up north is during the dry season (May to August), with its warm days and balmy evenings. By contrast, the Centre - the southern portion - can be chilly at night during winter; summer is scorchingly hot. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit.

PLANE, TRAIN OR AUTOMOBILE?

Any of the above: as of this month, the capital of the NT is connected with the rest of Australia by rail. The northbound Ghan train leaves Adelaide in South Australia every Sunday. After calling in at Alice Springs, it travels up through the Red Centre and on to Darwin on a newly built rail link. The return trip leaves the Territory's capital every Wednesday.

The 1,847-mile journey from the Southern Ocean to the tropical Top End takes 47 hours. It has instantly become one of the world's great train trips. The train stops in Alice for four hours, giving passengers time to visit the Alice Springs Desert Wildlife Park; in Katherine, the stop is long enough to take a boat cruise at Katherine Gorge.

The one-way adult fare is $1,740 (£739) for a first-class cabin (Gold Kangaroo) and $1,390 (£590) in second-class (Red Kangaroo), with the Great Southern Railway: 00 61 8 8213 4592, www.gsr.com.au.

If you prefer to drive, Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468, www.holidayautos.co.uk) quotes £315 per week for a small car, including comprehensive insurance and unlimited mileage - a crucial ingredient, given the long distances in the NT. Other car rental companies may give lower rates but are likely to charge for any kilometres above 100km per day. There is no speed limit on the Territory's highways, but beware of the infamous triple-trailer "road trains", which are up to 175ft long. Some motorists hope they will become an endangered species thanks to the new rail line. Check your rental agreement carefully before you are tempted to take the car off-road.

By air, there is intense competition to and between the main tourist centres of Alice Springs and Darwin. The warring airlines are Virgin Blue (book through www.virginblue.com.au for the lowest fares) and Qantas (08457 747 767, www.qantas.com.au). If you book well in advance and choose off-peak days (Tuesday to Thursday), you could fly from Melbourne to Alice Springs for A$300 (£130) and from Sydney to Darwin for A$189 (£85). But before you buy, consider one of the many deals that give "free" flights within Australia as part of an international ticket. If you book through UK discount agents before 31 March for departures from 6 April until the end of June, you can get two free domestic flights in Australia included in a £675 round-trip on British Airways/Qantas from London or Manchester.

Darwin is the ideal gateway to the Northern Territory. The easiest access is from Singapore on Australian Airlines orfrom Bali on Garuda.

The city is isolated from the rest of Australia. It is closer to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, than to Canberra. The transcontinental Stuart Highway, which cuts south to the Southern Ocean, begins at a mini-roundabout by the Esplanade.

Darwin is 30 years old this year: the old city was destroyed on Christmas Eve 1974 by Cyclone Tracy. But it is worth lingering for a couple of days. The city has good facilities and decent beaches, combined with a slightly edgy, frontier-town atmosphere.

The sunsets are legendary, and there are several reasonable restaurants; the Waterhole (00 61 8 8944 9120) on Knuckey Street is one of the best, while crocodile and emu burgers are a speciality at the ubiquitous cheap cafés. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory on Conacher Street in Fannie Bay (00 61 8 8999 8211, www.dcdsca.nt.gov.au) has a fine collection of Aboriginal art as well as an interactive display on Cyclone Tracy. It opens 9am-5pm (from 10am at weekends), admission free.

The Mindil Beach Night Market (off Gilruth Avenue), held during the dry season, is a local institution, with craft stalls and eateries reflecting Darwin's Asian influence. You can get more information on Darwin by calling 00 61 8 8936 2499 or visiting www.tourismtopend.com.au.

I NEED THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Litchfield National Park, about 70 miles south of Darwin, boasts waterfalls, swimming holes and sweeping views over the tropical woodland. But most visitors are tempted by the landscapes and wildlife of the World Heritage-listed Kakadu. Australia's largest national park is a three-hour drive east of Darwin. Note, however, that most of the park's "sights" are scattered across the 52,000-square mile park, separated by wide swathes of monotonous scrub; in addition, some attractions - such as two waterfalls, Jim Jim and Twin Falls - are closed in the wet season. Other highlights, however, such as Kakadu's ancient Aboriginal rock art sites, are more accessible. The paintings are situated at Ubirr and Nourlangie, where there are signposted walks. Ubirr is a particularly lovely spot, with great views of the Arnhem Land escarpment, particularly at sunset. It was here that Paul Hogan declared in Crocodile Dundee (which was largely shot in Kakadu): "This is the land of the Never-Never." Accommodation - found mainly at Jabiru, the principal township - includes the Gagudju Holiday Inn (00 61 8 8979 2800), built in the shape of a crocodile. Kakadu is positively brimming with man-eaters.

DO I RISK BECOMING DINNER?

You should certainly be alert to the dangers posed by saltwater crocodiles ("salties"), which inhabit rivers, swamps and billabongs across the Top End, often far from the sea. Recent victims include a German woman mauled to death while swimming in a Kakadu waterhole. Warning signs are posted wherever the fearsome reptiles are present; by contrast, the freshwater crocs found in water systems such as beautiful Berry Springs - a cluster of thermal pools ringed by paperbarks and pandanus trees near Darwin - do not feast on humans. There are plenty of places to view salties from a safe distance, including Crocodylus Park (815 McMillans Road, 00 61 8 8922 4500) in Darwin, and Darwin Crocodile Farm (off the Stuart Highway, south of the city, 00 61 8 8988 1491). Both have daily feeding sessions.

Or join a "jumping crocodile" tour on the Adelaide River, 40 miles east of Darwin, where salties tempted by dangling pieces of meat leap out of the water (Adelaide River Queen, 00 61 8 8988 8144).

WHERE NEXT?

The small town of Katherine boasts the only set of traffic lights on the 900-mile Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs. It is the de facto capital of the Never-Never, the land beyond the coast of the Northern Territory. There are plenty of tours of the area, most of which can be paid for with a credit card - so you can see the Never-Never on the never-never.

Every trip traces the tortured course of the early settlers. Jeannie Gunn described the hardships in her autobiographical account, We Of The Never-Never. At the Mataranka Homestead Tourist Resort (00 61 8 8975 4544), 70 miles south of Katherine and close to where she lived, a replica of her Outback home has been built. The homestead is surrounded by graceful eucalyptuses and palms, whose leaves form a natural carpet on the surrounding land. But beyond that, the unforgiving nature of the terrain is revealed in the story of the postmen. The first mailman had a 1,000-mile round, and perished from thirst halfway through it in 1901. His replacement drowned 10 years later while trying to swim a flooded creek.

Katherine is also the gateway to Katherine Gorge, known as Nitmiluk National Park. Nitmiluk features 13 sandstone gorges which, in the dry season, you can explore on a two-hour boat tour or paddle through in one of the canoes available for hire. It also has 60 miles of walking tracks, ranging from short strolls to a strenuous five-day trail. Less visited is Leliyn (Edith) Falls, 40 miles north of Katherine, where you can swim in a heavenly waterhole, preferably at sunset, watching the sun's dying rays turn the gorge different shades of orange.

THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS TO ALICE?

Whether you travel by road or rail, you will see the terrain get harsher as you plunge deep into the desert at the heart of Australia. Finally, 900 miles south of Darwin, you reach Alice Springs. Alice is still a rough-edged town, which is part of its charm, but it also has, despite its size, a palpable buzz. It is the best place to buy Aboriginal art, since its galleries represent artists from remote NT desert communities. Try Papunya Tula Artists at 78 Todd Street (00 61 8 8952 4731, www.papunyatula.com.au). The town's "cultural precinct" houses a cluster of museums and arts centres. Alice Springs Desert Park (00 61 8 8951 8788) is an acclaimed wildlife park based on the Centre's varied habitats. On the second Saturday of July, the town hosts a day of camel races (00 61 8 8952 3040, www.camelcup.com.au). "Temperamental, vicious, selfish", promises the publicity; this refers to the animals, not the locals. A more surreal event takes place each year on the third Saturday in September, when a flotilla of vessels built from discarded beer cans races on the dry bed of the Todd River, in what is known as the Henley-on-Todd regatta (00 61 8 8952 3040, www.henleyontodd.com.au).

TAKE ME TO THE ROCK

The gigantic red monolith formerly known as Ayers Rock has now reverted to its Aboriginal name, Uluru. In 1985 the Rock - together with nearby Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas) - was handed back to its traditional Aboriginal owners, the Anangu, who manage the area as a national park (00 61 8 8956 2299, www.deh.gov.au/parks/uluru). Admission is A$16.25 (£7) for three consecutive days; under 16s free. A quarter of the fees go to the Anangu.

Uluru is that rare phenomenon: a much photographed natural wonder that is even more awe-inspiring in reality. It is majestic, forbidding and mysterious. The park's cultural centre has excellent displays outlining Uluru's significance to the Anangu as a sacred site. After reading them, only the most stony-hearted would contemplate climbing it, as thousands do every year. There is, anyway, no need - instead, walk around the Rock's six-mile base and observe how it changes in every light.

Yulara, a resort village 12 miles away, has several pricey hotels, a campsite and a youth hostel. The recent addition of Longitude 131, boasting luxury tents with incomparable views of the Rock, suffered a setback when 12 of the 15 lodgings were destroyed by fire last October. The re-opening has been postponed to 1 July. Call 00 61 2 9339 1030 or see www.voyages.com.au for more information.

Be sure to leave enough time to see Kata Tjuta, a collection of massive sculpted rocks which is almost as magnificent as Uluru.

AND SOME ABORIGINAL CULTURE?

The Northern Territory is home to nearly one-third of Australia's 200,000 Aborigines. Here, you begin to gain some insight into indigenous life and culture. A permit is required to visit or travel across Aboriginal-owned land; a good community to visit is Manyallaluk (00 61 8 8975 4727), about 60 miles south-east of Katherine, which has a thriving arts industry. You can drive there or take a one-day tour.

In Tennant Creek, the new Nyinnka Nyunyu Art and Cultural Centre on Paterson Street (00 61 8 8962 2221) is a model of its kind: a striking modern building with excellent artistic and historical displays.

In Kakadu, where Aborigines have lived for at least 20,000 years, take a cruise on the East Alligator River with Guluyambi (00 61 8 8979 2411), an indigenous operator, and learn about the Gagudju people's relationship with the land and the practical uses of local plants and trees.

A PATH LESS TRODDEN?

The West MacDonnell Ranges and Finke Gorge National Park, west of Alice, comprise the most underrated area in the NT. The Ranges consist of a series of orange ridges, punctuated by gorges carved by ancient rivers. A 10-mile cycle track connecting Alice with Simpsons Gap, but otherwise a car, preferably with four-wheel drive, is essential.

As you drive west, spectacular natural features include Ormiston Gorge, where a ravishing waterhole is ringed by ghost gums and black-footed wallabies hop around the richly coloured rocks. Stay at Glen Helen Homestead (00 61 8 8956 7489), 85 miles west of Alice; drive south to Hermannsburg, an Aboriginal community; then take the 4WD track to Palm Valley, an otherwordly place of towering brown cliffs and rare red cabbage palms. For a more rugged perspective on the MacDonnells, hike the 150-mile Larapinta Trail from Alice to Mount Sonder.

Additional research by Charlotte Martin

Arnhem Land: A wilderness that's the spiritual heart of NT

Many people regard Arnhem Land - the eastern half of the Top End - as the spiritual heart of the Northern Territory, if not of Australia itself. Certainly, there is something in the air that strikes you when you cross the East Alligator River in Kakadu and set foot in Arnhem Land for the first time. This pristine wilderness, an Aboriginal reserve since 1931, is a mixture of wetlands, savannah woodlands and "stone" escarpment country. The land is rich in natural beauty and indigenous culture. It is prized as a destination for fishing, diving, bushwalking and birdspotting as well as Aboriginal rock art. Access to Arnhemland is by permit only and numbers are restricted, so it may be more practical to visit on an organised tour. A good tour operator is Max Davidson's Arnhem Land Safaris (00 61 8 8927 5240). The only sizeable communities are found on the Cobourg Peninsula and at Gove. The Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge (00 61 8 8979 0277, www.sevenspiritbay.com) is an award-winning eco-resort in Cobourg, on cliffs overlooking the Arafura Sea. The Walkabout Lodge (00 61 8 8987 1777) in Gove arranges fishing charters.

Qantas flies to Gove daily from Cairns (A$230/£100 each way) and Darwin (A$140/£60). Road access is via Katherine. Access to Cobourg is via Oenpelli, east of Kakadu. Permits are available from the Northern Land Council in Katherine, Darwin and Kakadu.

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