The Top End of Australia is one of the country’s wildest places, but getting around is surprisingly easy.
This five day loop drive from Darwin through Kakadu National Park to Katherine and beyond follows sealed roads which are usually open all year and will lead you to some of the Top End’s most spectacular waterfalls, gorges and rock art galleries. You don’t need a four wheel drive, although if you do have one there are a few special spots where high range comes in handy, but there are plenty of off road day tours available that will get you out to the really remote corners. Going wild has never been easier.
Image credit: Mitchell Cox; Tourism NT
Day 1: Darwin to Jabiru
3hr | 256km
Take the Arnhem Highway turnoff, 34km from Darwin, and follow it straight into the heart of Kakadu. On the way, stop at the Adelaide River Bridge to join a Jumping Crocodile Cruise – it’s the best way to get a close up look at these fearsome reptiles as they leap out of the water just metres from the boat.
Check out the view across the floodplains at the Window on the Wetlands visitor centre at Beatrice Hill, learn about the many habitats of Kakadu at Bowali Visitor Centre and gaze on ancient rock art galleries at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie Rock), before heading up to Ubirr on the top of the escarpment for sunset – but make sure you take a torch for the walk back down.
The famous saltie shaped Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel is a very comfortable four star with all mod cons. There’s a pool, restaurant and bar.
Day 2: Jabiru to Cooinda
45min | 57km
There’s lots to see and do around Cooinda in the southern section of the park. Take a scenic flight – the best way to see the famous Jim Jim and Twin Falls in the wet season – and learn about both traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life at Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre or join a 4WD adventure tour. Don’t miss Gumlom Falls. It’s a bit of a steep climb up a rocky track to get there, but soaking in the views from the spectacular wet edge plunge pool at the top of the falls is simply sublime.
Another must do is the two hour Yellow Water Cruise to spot crocodiles and an extraordinary array of birdlife and wildlife – it’s a highlight of any visit to Kakadu. Cruises depart near Cooinda Lodge, a comfortable family friendly property with motel style units set in resort gardens.
Day 3: Cooinda to Nitmiluk
3hr 30min | 283km
It’s an easy drive south to Katherine from Cooinda, but aim to arrive with plenty of time to enjoy a relaxing dip in Katherine’s natural hot springs on the edge of town (they are free) before joining an afternoon cruise through Katherine Gorge. Now known by its traditional name, Nitmiluk, the chain of 13 gorges linked by a tumble of boulders and a string of rapids looks amazing in the late afternoon when the setting sun lights up the red sandstone walls. Wear comfortable walking shoes as there is some walking involved between gorges. You can also take a scenic helicopter flight over the gorge, or hire a canoe and paddle your own adventure.
Day 4: Nitmiluk to Litchfield NP
3hr 30min | 306km
Break your drive north at around the halfway point with a visit to Adelaide River War Cemetery. Australia’s largest war cemetery is the resting place for 63 civilians and 434 servicemen and women killed in the 1942 air raids on Darwin. Also remembered are 287 service personnel lost in Timor and other northern regions, but who have no known grave.
Make sure your swimmers and beach towel are within easy reach because the rest of today’s drive is all about getting wet in the wild. Popular with day trippers from Darwin, the waterfalls of Litchfield National Park are not only some of the most impressive in the Top End, they are also swimmer friendly, with beautiful crocodile free plunge pools and almost all are accessible to conventional 2WD vehicles. Waterhole hop your way across the park – spots to cool off include the shallow spa like pools of Buley Rockhole and Florence Falls where you can float in a deep pool fed by twin falls. Wangi Falls, the most popular swimming area in the park and the largest, even has wheelchair access into the pool and a kiosk.
Another highlight of the park is the Magnetic Termite Mounds, hundreds of 2m high flat edged spires all aligned north to south, to keep the inside of the mound from getting too heated by the sun. If you have a 4WD, follow the dusty track that winds through The Lost City, an area of bizarre sandstone block and pillar formations formed by thousands of years of wind and rain erosion.
Litchfield Tourist Park has cabins as well as campsites and is only minutes from the national park.
Day 5: Litchfield NP to Darwin
2hr | 140km
Spend an hour or two floating in the clear swimming holes at Berry Springs Nature Park, also a great spot for wildflowers and birdwatching with lots of fascinating reminders of the time in WWII when 100,000 armed forces personnel were based here. Just next door is Territory Wildlife Park, worth a visit just to see the bird shows and the chance to get a look at all those creatures of the night that are usually heard rather than seen, inside the nocturnal house. Other highlights include the aquarium and walk in aviaries full of Top End birdlife. Kids love getting up close to the wallabies.
Relax by the resort style pool at Travelodge Resort Darwin, located in the heart of Darwin.