Things to Do in Northern Territory
A gigantic monolith of rust-red rock looming over the desert plains of the Australian Outback, Uluru (Ayers Rock) is more than just a postcard icon—it’s the cultural, spiritual, and geographical heart of Australia, one of its most impressive natural wonders, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
More than a dozen full-size aircraft are on display at the Darwin Aviation Museum (formerly the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre, including a rare Boeing B52 bomber and Japanese planes that crashed in Darwin during WWII. A must for anyone with a passion for planes, it’s one of the city’s most visited museums.
Nitmiluk National Park (formerly Katherine Gorge National Park) offers vast sandstone cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and a series of 13 gorges carved out by the mighty Katherine River. All of this dramatic scenery is located on the ancient lands of the Jawoyn people and is home to some impressive Aboriginal rock art sites.
Often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, the mighty Ayers Rock (Uluru), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park. This natural wonder, comprising 36 domed red rocks looming up from the desert plains, is a spectacular sight and one of the highlights of Australia’s Red Centre.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) showcases a collection of more than 1.2 million natural history specimens and 30,000 art and cultural works. In addition to its seven galleries, MAGNT has a family-friendly Discovery Centre, providing visitors of all ages with fascinating insight into Australia’s history and heritage.
Yacht-filled Cullen Bay attracts landlubbers with its collection of shops, restaurants, bars, and day spas in one of Darwin’s sleekest neighborhoods. The marina has space for 250 vessels, as well as an assortment of upmarket accommodations where visitors enjoy sea views and easy access to the ferry terminal.
Across fields in northern Australia stand these tall magnetic termite mounds standing up to two meters high. As a habitat created by termites, they’re strategically built to face away from the hot sun and keep temperatures cool. Inside are complex and fascinating architecture and networks of arches, tunnels, chimneys, and various chambers. Thousands of termites live in a single mound and are known to last anywhere from fifty to one hundred years — which can also be the lifespan of one termite queen. Looking at the mounds it’s hard to believe such a small insect could create such a large, elaborate dwelling for itself.
There are several types of termite mounds, and in this case ‘magnetic’ refers to the way they are aligned (in conjunction with the earth’s magnetic field.) How the termites are able to consistently determine the north-south orientation to avoid the heat is unknown, and these structures remain a bit of a natural phenomenon.
At the southernmost tip of Darwin, fronting the Beagle Gulf, Darwin Waterfront Precinct is the first port-of-call for cruise ships and a buzzing hub of city life. Seafront parks, a swimming lagoon, and a man-made beach draw city-dwellers to the waterside, while the many bars and restaurants tempt visitors to stick around after sunset.
The MacDonnell Ranges are a 400-mile (644-kilometer) stretch of mountains offering spectacular views and some of the top natural attractions in Australia’s Northern Territory. Visit the ranges to experience Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm, and the secluded water holes of Serpentine Gorge and Ellery Creek Big Hole.
Mindil Beach is Darwin’s flagship beach. With golden sands and palm-fringed shores looking out over the Beagle Gulf, it’s an idyllic spot for sun-seekers and swimmers. It’s also renowned for its tropical sunsets, and crowds turn out at sundown to watch the spectacle and browse the seasonal night markets.
More Things to Do in Northern Territory
It’s hard to grasp exactly what you’re looking at when you see the rock drawings at Ubirr. Here, etched before you on ancient rock that springs from the red dirt Earth, are drawings placed here by Aborigines nearly 20,000 years ago. How the drawings have managed to survive for so long is a fascinating geologic story, but it's one that pales in comparison to the stories told by the drawings themselves.
Located in what’s known as the East Alligator Region of Kakadu National Park, Ubirr is a UNESCO World Heritage site that borders on desert magic. In addition to collections of ancient rock art, the site offers sweeping, panoramic views of the surrounding flood plains and fields, and includes a sacred “Rainbow Serpent” painting in one of the three different galleries. According to local Aboriginal legend, the serpent was involved in the very creation of Earth surrounding the site, and is regarded as one of the world’s oldest figures of early creation. To access the ancient rock art at Ubirr, follow the short, one-kilometer walking path that takes 30 minutes to complete.
Owned and operated by the Anangu, the traditional owners of Ayers Rock (Uluru, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre offers a place for visitors to discover the myths, legends, and cultural heritage of Australia’s most famous monolith. Just south of the UNESCO-listed landmark, the cultural centre is filled with art galleries, fascinating exhibitions, and multimedia displays.
The Defence of Darwin Experience chronicles the Northern Territory’s role in World War II through a number of powerful exhibits that educate visitors on how the war deeply affected the region and its residents. This multimedia museum offers fascinating insight into the fateful events leading up to and on Feb. 19, 1942, when the Bombing of Darwin took place, killing over 250 people, sinking 10 ships, and kicking off a period of nearly two years of bombings in the Northern Territory. Guests can view historic equipment and artifacts from the war and listen to somber stories of locals’ whose lives were changed forever, as well as firsthand accounts of those who went off to war to avenge the lives that were lost.
Immersive exhibits include the Bombing of Darwin Gallery with its 3D helmets and sensory footage illustrating what it would have been like to witness the bombings, plus StoryShare, where locals record their own stories to be shared with museum visitors. Travelers can also record their responses to all they see and learn at the museum. As one of Darwin’s most significant historical sites, the attraction is often included in guided tours of the city.
The Royal Flying Doctors Service is the largest air medical response team in the world. The doctors fly an average of 40,000 miles (65,000 kilometers a day attending to sick people in the remote outback of Australia. They have 53 aircraft operating out of 21 bases with 964 staff members who attend to around 750 patients a day.
Crocosaurus Cove comprises the world’s largest display of Australian reptiles. The 52,834-gallon (200,000-litre) freshwater aquarium is home to turtles, barramundi, whiprays, and archer fish, but it’s the saltwater crocodiles—some of the largest in Australia—that star. See them in displays designed to be viewed from three levels.
Australia’s newest parliament house was built in Darwin in 1994, and has been the seat of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly since then. It was designed in a postmodern style and built to suit the tropical climate of Darwin. The entrance features a Northern Territory coat of arms placed at the top of its ceremonial doors.
The building overlooks Darwin Harbor, sitting on the site of the former Post Office and Telegraph Station which were bombed during a raid in 1942. There is a state library, portrait gallery, and a massive Main Hall indoors, and the Speakers Green outdoor. The areas function both as parliamentary and government receptions and public exhibitions. Unique tributes to the symbols of the Northern Territory, such as a desert rose in the reception foyer, are present throughout.
Australia’s toothy residents are the stars of the show at Crocodylus Park, a research, conservation, and education center in the Northern Territory. The park is home to crocodiles from around Australia and the world, as well as monkeys, marmosets, big cats, wallabies, kangaroos, and birds.
The George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens offer a portal into the diverse wilderness and tropical ecosystems of Australia’s Top End, all without having to leave the city. There are more than 104 acres (42 hectares to explore, including palm-lined walkways, a rainforest gully, and a vast variety of exotic plants and flowers.
Located in the Timor Sea, 50 miles (80 kilometers off the north coast of the Australian mainland, the Tiwi Islands are part of the Northern Territory, and offer rich Aboriginal culture and beautiful landscapes. Melville Island and Bathurst Island are the largest of the 11 islands and the ones that most travelers visit.
Offering sweeping views over Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges, Anzac Hill is named for its war memorial commemorating World War I ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers. Known to Aboriginal people as Untyeyetweleye or Atnelkentyarliweke, the hill plays a role in the Caterpillar Dreaming and Corkwood Dreaming stories.
Protecting some of Darwin’s most cultural and historically significant wetlands, Charles Darwin National Park is the home of mangroves and wildlife visible by walking, cycling, or simply sitting at one of the park’s many overlooks. A complex system of bays, waterways, and small islands, 31 of the 50 or so species of mangrove of the Northern Territory can be found here. Historically the Larrakia people called this area home with evidence suggesting the Aboriginals had inhabited here for thousands of years. Now it’s a wonderful place to take in views of Darwin city, the harbor, and the surrounding landscape.
The park is also home to concrete bunkers and shelters from World War II, which tell the story of Australia’s soldiers and are open to visitors. There is an impressive display of war memorabilia here, where ammunition was once stored and military tests were run. The park’s many paths can be used for both walking and cycling to take it all in.
Standley Chasm, also known as Angkerle Atwatye, or just Angkerle, is a place of great significance to the local Aboriginal people. A spectacular slot gorge, the deep, narrow chasm cuts through the tough quartzite of the native stone and puts on a magnificent display of color and form as the sun passes through the sky.
Surrounding the chasm is a lush valley and an abundance of walking trails. A short walk from the kiosk to the chasm is particularly rewarding at midday when the sun shines directly overhead. Another walk from the kiosk heads west and climbs to a saddle with views of the area's mountains and valleys. For more avid hikers, sections 3 and 4 of the Larapinta Trail meet at Standley Chasm and can be hiked as either long day trips or overnight hikes.
Standley Chasm is the easiest place to access the Chewings Ranges for those who do not wish to hike the Larapinta Trail. The Chewings Ranges are home to some of the most rare and threatened wildlife of the West MacDonnell Ranges.
Established in 1951 to provide educational resources for children living in remote areas of Central Australia, the School of the Air broadcasts lessons across an area of half a million square miles (1.3 million sq. km, allowing students to study in a virtual classroom.
The Alice Springs Desert Park showcases the three main desert environments in Australia. Wander through sand, woodland, and river deserts and learn about their different plant and animal inhabitants. Take the short walking route through the park or explore further afield to find kangaroos and birdlife.
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