Travel

Go Where the Outback Meets the Tropics on This Epic Top-End Road Trip

Cruise with crocs, swim under cascading waterfalls and bite into a dumpling burger.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Some people think about the Top End and imagine caravans and grey nomads roaming long desert highways. While it’s not far from the truth, the Top End is also an untapped opportunity for young travellers to find hidden waterfalls, climb mountains, watch incredible sunsets, and explore where the outback meets the tropics. 

The Top End of the Northern Territory occupies about one-sixth of Australia’s total landmass. Within these boundaries is a variety of contrasting landscapes, from desert roads to encompassing gorges and thermal springs. Home to the World Heritage-listed Kakaide National Park, remote Arnhem Land in the northeast corner, and the Katherine region, the Top End is an adventure lover’s playground. To experience the best of it, jump on Nature’s Way, a 550km drive (one-way) linking Darwin to the ancient cultural and natural wonders of Kakadu, Nitmiluk, and Litchfield National Parks.

READ MORE: 18 of the Best Nature and Wildlife Experiences in the Northern Territory

Know before you go

The best time to visit the Top End is May to October when it’s cooler and drier. November to April is when rains roll across the Top End. Although, during this time, the waterfalls are replenished, filling waterholes to the brim. The whole ecosystem is pumping with wildlife, which is both good and bad. During the wet season, crocodiles lurk in bodies of water, which makes swimming a risky activity. During the Wet, access to attractions in remote parts of the Top End may be closed due to flooding, but harbour cruises, ferries, and scenic plane and helicopter flights are still available at any time of year. Many locals and experienced travellers believe the Wet is the best time to visit because it’s when the land truly comes alive, but it depends on what you want to see and do.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Day 1: Sunsets, laksa, and a town called Humpty Doo

Chances are you’re flying into Darwin. Enjoy the day to explore the tropical lifestyle, go shopping, and dine at the waterfront restaurants. In the afternoon, flock to Mindil Beach Sunset Markets to sample the cuisine, check out the local arts and crafts, and view a sunset. If there’s one thing you should know about Darwin, it’s the sunsets. Here, sunsets are an integral part of the culture, with events based around watching them. Some will clap as the sun goes down, and others simply stop and watch the sun go down over the water. There are a few top spots to watch the sunset, including Darwin Sailing Club, Nightcliff Foreshore, Cullen Bay, and Fannie Bay.

Every Saturday from 8 am-2 pm, the Parap Village Markets offer a true Territory atmosphere: the sweet, spicy smell of laksa. Yes, laksa is the dish of the city—ironic, given the high temperatures all year round. Travellers will find some of the country’s best laksa here, thanks to the city’s proximity to Asia and its large Asian population. Mary’s is the famous stall known for its laksa, but we also love and prefer Yati’s seafood laksa. Either way, a big bowl of laksa only costs $9, and it’s some of the best you will ever have. There’s also local produce, arts and crafts, and street food from around the world to sample.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

If you’re a foodie like us, may we suggest a Darwin Gourmet Tour? This food tour can be done at lunch or dinner and is a great way to get a feel for the culinary scene in Darwin. Despite its reputation, the city is filled with amazing restaurants, from fine dining to street food. Phat Mango serves Australiana fare featuring local seafood and produce, including the iconic Humpty Doo Barramundi. Their cocktail alchemists also make some impressive drinks. Ella by Minoli is a relatively new restaurant hailing from MasterChef’s Minoli De Silva. Here, she brings her crowd-pleasing Sri Lankan food to the table. By the end of the tour, you might think you couldn’t possibly eat anymore, then you step into Snapper Rocks and are confronted with a whole salt-baked fish and salt and pepper crocodile.

Once you’ve explored darwin, it’s time to load up the car and hit the road. It’s a three-hour drive to Kakadu along the Arnhem Highway, but 30 minutes in, stop into Humpty Doo. Yes, it’s a real place. It’s the most famous town in the world— inspiring songs from Ted Egan and Slim Dusty. At the Humpty Doo Hotel, you will find the world’s biggest set of water Buffalo Horns, Brahman Bulls winning Beer Drinking Competitions, Horses in the Front Bar and plenty of Territory Characters. Try the trio burger, which is buffalo, barramundi, and crocodile burgers served with chips and salad.

After filling up, continue the drive to Kakadu. Cooinda Lodge is a village-style accommodation located beneath a canopy of trees beside Yellow Water Billabong and one of the best accommodations in Kakadu. Bunker down for the night or afternoon in the eco-lodges, and enjoy the shaded swimming pool and bistro-style dining.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Day 2: Crocodiles, scenic flights, and waterfalls

Start the morning on a Yellow Water Cruise around the corner from Cooinda Lodge. This must-do experience will have you cruising side by side with crocodiles in the billabong. It’s especially stunning during sunrise or sunset. The plains are teeming with wildlife, from birds to whistling ducks, magpie geese, and eagles hovering above in search of prey. Keep an eye out for the distinctive Jabirus and brolgas dancing on the fringes of the water, taunting any lurking crocodiles. In the morning, the water is like glass, reflecting the sunrise’s yellows, reds, and pinks. Birds are flying past in flocks, and the sounds are peaceful as you cruise along billabong. The cruise takes roughly two hours.

Our next stop takes us to Yibekka Kakadu Tours for a rock art exploration in Burrungkuy (Nourlangie Rock). Here, you will find incredible rock shelters full of ancient art and stories told by a local guide with ties to the art and region. Learn the history of over 65,000 years of Bininj culture and observe the area’s rock art and raw landscapes.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

After the cruise, head to Maguk Gorge, a lesser-known watering hole in Kakadu. Follow a 14km four-wheel drive track off the Kakadu Highway and a 1km walk through monsoon forests and creeks to get to the natural waterfall. Take a dip and cool off from the harsh Top End sun. A secret track takes you to a series of rock and plunge pools at the top of the waterfall, but it’s a wild walk through forests and up rocky escarpments. There are no signposts, instead, try and find a local to take you there. We couldn’t even begin to describe the steps you need to take to get to this magical spot, and we don’t want you wandering off into the unknown.

It’s time to take to the skies to get the lay of the Kakadu land with Kakadu Air. You have plenty of choices, from 30-minute helicopter tours to 60-minute scenic flights. Either way, seeing Kakadu from the air is the best way to understand the land and see its natural gems. Soar above the snaked Adelaide River, spotting crocodiles on the banks and other wildlife on the ground. Watch the colour change as the floodplains wind seaward, then disappear into the horizon. Marvel at the rock formations and ancient escarpments below.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Start the short journey to the small township of Jabiru, where the infamous Crocodile Hotel is. The hotel is actually shaped like a crocodile. The restaurant is located in the belly. Drop off your belongings and check-in, then jump straight back in the car and head to Ubirr. The lookout is a 1km walk and climb up rocks, but the view from the top is worth it. Every sunset, Ubirr is packed with locals and visitors looking to take in the famous Ubirr sunset, which stretches across the floodplains, weaves through the woodlands and illuminates the dark ribbons of rainforest in the distance. An entry fee is required to enter Kakadu National Park. Save time on your holiday and purchase your Kakadu park pass online before you leave home.

When the show is over, carefully climb down and spend the night at The Croc.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Day 3: Downshift in hot springs and a river gorge cruise

Start the cruisy 3.5 hour drive to the Katherine Hot Springs, where you can float down a narrow river of natural thermal springs. It’s a well-shaded area, and perfect for a picnic lunch. Although, if you can hold off on eating while at the spring, it’s only a short drive to Maidens Lane, a little local secret spot serving the best food in town. You can indulge in a brunch, or skip straight to the lunch menu and get the Dumpling Bird—served on a milk bun, with fried chicken dumplings, slaw, cheddar, nuoc cham sriracha mayo and fried shallots. You won’t find anything else like it. The milkshakes are legendary, better yet, they’re served in old school steel cups.

After lunch, hit the road and punch in Cicada Lodge on your map. This luxury eco lodge is the best place to base yourself in the Katherine. It also doesn’t hurt to enjoy a luxury pamper, especially after all the hiking and swimming.

best things to do top end

Nearby, drive to Nitmiluk Boat Jetty and board the Nit Nit Dreaming Two Gorge Cruise. We suggest two, because one gorge isn’t enough. For two hours, float down the first gorge, passing by large boulders, rock pools, and sand banks. Depart the boat, and take the short walk over the boardwalk to the second boat which takes you to the second, and most impressive gorge. Ancient cliff faces tower over the boat, reminding all passengers the magic and enormity of the impressive gorges. You can take photos as the captain turns the boat to face the narrowest part of the gorge. It’s a special sight to see. There’s also the option of canoeing down the gorge.

In the afternoon, if you have a little bit of energy left, take the staircase to Baruwei Lookout for sunset, which is accessed around the corner from Cicada Lodge. It’s a steep staircase, but when you get to the top, there’s a viewing platform and more rocks to climb to watch the sunset spill over the gorge and stretch out over the forest.

best things to do top end
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Day 4: Swimming holes, toasties, and wild brumbys

Skip the breakfast buffet this morning, we have something extra special for you. it’s a 30-minute drive to Black Russian—a tiny caravan wedged in a building serving the best toasties in the Northern Territory—dare I say Australia. The menu is filled with options from smoky bean jaffle and cheesy chipotle chicken to the steak sanga and a classic smoked ham and cheese. You can also get your caffeine fix here, before turning back onto the highway for another 3.5 hours to Florence Falls. Located in Litchfield National Park, Florence Falls cascade into a plunge pool, set deep within a monsoon forest. Looking more like a scene out of Jurassic Park, this waterhole is great for kicking back on a pool noodle or unicorn floaty.

Nearby is Buley Rockhole, a series of small cascading pools, offering different levels of depth, which is great for kids. Spend a few hours exploring the waterfalls and hikes of Litchfield National Park from Wangi Falls—the biggest swimming hole in the park—to Tjaetaba Falls—a hidden gem with a tough hike.

Cap it all off with a stop by the largest termite mound in Litchfield, before making the drive back to Darwin. Keep an eye out for wild brumbys on the side of the road. They’re often frolicking in the bush.

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Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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