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Is this the ultimate road trip destination?
If you want a holiday that's rich in culture, adventure, relaxation and reptiles, the Northern Territory is hard to top.
Sitting on top of Ubirr Rock with the world beneath our feet feels like a promising start to a Northern Territory adventure. The landscape reminds me of Africa, with lush floodplains below, a red sun slowly setting and birds circling overhead. But around us are timeless reminders of exactly where we are – an important Indigenous site in the ominously named East Alligator River region of Kakadu National Park.
Steps away from the lookout is some of the best traditional rock art in the world: X-ray-style paintings of turtles, a powerful Rainbow Serpent, and even a thylacine – aka the Tasmanian tiger, thought to have died out on the mainland more than 2000 years ago. Most paintings are at least 1500 years old. That’s just a scratch on the surface for the Aboriginal people who have lived here for around 65,000 years.
Gunlom Plunge Pool.
Kakadu is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its outstanding natural and cultural assets. At 20,000 square kilometres, it’s about half the size of Switzerland. It certainly feels like we’re in the outback – a 1.5-kilometre walk around the site feels much further in the September heat and humidity. The traditional owners recognise six different seasons, though it’s more common to hear about the dry (April to October) and the wet (November to March).
We’ve stocked up on provisions in Darwin for our nine-day driving adventure, a 1700-kilometre loop taking in three of the Top End’s star national parks: Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Litchfield.
First stop is Jabiru, Kakadu’s main town, where we drop into the tourist office for up-to-date information on safe roads and waterholes. In this constantly changing landscape caution pays when it comes to avoiding floodwaters or untimely meetings with ornery crocodiles.
In Kakadu we stay at Anbinik Kakadu Resort in bush bungalows that are a bit like tents with tin walls. There’s a small fridge and we cook up steaks and veg on the nearby barbecue. It has everything we need but even with the ceiling fan we spend a sweaty night tossing and turning.
The next day we see a dozen saltwater crocodiles, the world’s largest living reptiles, from the safety of a cruise on the Yellow Water wetlands. Before dawn there’s a heavy mist rising off the billabong. Then as the sun rises we see the unusual long-legged jabiru stork, as well as wild buffalo, whistling ducks, and hefty crocs swimming among oversized waterlilies. Aside from we tourists with mouths hanging open and cameras clicking, there are no signs of civilisation. Watching the primeval creatures lurk and glide through the water feels like going back in time.
Clifftop views over Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge.
After the cruise we begin our odyssey of waterholes. We brave the dirt-road track to Jim Jim Falls, and when we’ve well and truly earned a swim after scrambling over rocks to get there, the nerves kick in. We’ve got the big cool pool to ourselves, and peer into the murky water for crocs. It’s cleared, of course – we’re sharing it only with fish.
At this end of the dry season the waterfall isn’t flowing but it’s still a beautiful spot to soak up the landscape. Twin Falls is also said to be worth a visit, but the deep-water crossing was flooded on our trip.
Over the next week we lose track of all the waterholes we visit, although Gunlom Plunge Pool stands out in our memories. After a steep walk, there’s a series of pools flowing one into the other, the final ones with views over Kakadu’s woodland. Although we’re sharing the area with 15 or so others, there’s a magic here, like we’ve stumbled across something secret.
For the most part, the driving is easy. The highways are in excellent condition and the speed limits generous. The corrugated red dirt tracks to waterholes are bumpy but easy to navigate. Still, there’s a sense that anything can happen here. When a bird hits our rental car’s windscreen we feel lucky to get by without a scratch, but later find the poor creature had ricocheted onto our side mirror and ripped off the cover. On another dirt track we hear a clunk and later discover it was our number plate falling off. Our tyres also take a beating, and changing one in 40-degree heat is a relationship test. Thankfully, we pass.
Ancient rock art at Ubirr Rock.
One of the best days of the trip is spent at Nitmiluk National Park, canoeing down Nitmiluk/Katherine Gorge, sandstone walls rising on both sides. At the end of each gorge we scramble over rocks and boulders, carrying our heavy canoes and water bottles. It’s hard work in the heat, and most people lose oomph early. Soon we’re paddling along the ancient gorge alone.
When we get hot we simply jump in the water then keep paddling, our wet clothes keeping us cool until we dry off and jump in again. We park up on a beach for a peaceful picnic lunch in the shade before gathering our energy for the return journey.
At our Katherine accommodation we step into the garden at night and see a dozen cane toads. Later, at the charming Rum Jungle Bungalows at Batchelor near Litchfield National Park, there are even more toads. At night we wear head-torches to avoid stepping on them. The manager says they’ll be rounded up soon.
By the time we reach Mount Bundy Station at Adelaide River we need a break from long drives and sweaty walks, so we sit by the pool in the day, watching cows and kangaroos, then at night have a drink in the outdoor bar with live country music and farm dogs. It’s a slice of outback heaven.
We visit yet more waterholes in Litchfield National Park. They’re as beautiful as Kakadu’s but more developed with busloads of tourists on day trips from Darwin. The waterholes here are more accessible, though, so better for families and older travellers.
From fertile floodplains to teeth-chattering red-dirt runs, it has been a diverse trip with countless waterholes, car trouble, enthusiastic guides and plenty of peaceful moments to just contemplate the stunning country around us.
*Images courtesy of Getty, Alamy and NT Tourism