Jetstar Top End On A Shoestring
The Top End On A Shoestring
1 March 2018
There’s much to see in the NT and it doesn’t have to be a costly adventure.
WORDS TATYANA LEONOV
There's not long to go... a few more steps, a quick scramble up the red-tinged rocks, and then a view touted as one of the best in the country awaits.
Ubirr is one of Kakadu National Park's most stunning sites, home to some of the world's stunning sites, home to some of the world's best-preserved rock art and renowned for its epic sunsets. Most people start with the largely flat 1km circuit, following a trail that weaves its way past rock art from various eras (newer illustrations are etched over older ones). Indigenous people once camped under these rock shelters and used the smooth rock faces to tell their stories.
Next, a 250-metre climb takes visitors to one of the best lookouts in the national park. If you’re lucky (and the timing is right), a kaleidoscope of oranges, pinks, and purples will sashay across the sky, accentuating the vibrant greens and dusty brown plains below. It’s an incredible way to finish a day of exploring. Best of all, the whole experience doesn’t cost a cent.
The Northern Territory is home to 24 national parks, 73 nature reserves, conservation areas, historical reserves and marine parks; some of the most spectacular a short drive from Darwin.
Kakadu National Park is the best-known and one of only four places in Australia dual-listed by UNESCO for it's outstanding natural and cultural values (Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Willandra Lakes Region in NSW and the Tasmanian Wilderness round out the list). Here, sites such as Ubirr and Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) provide some of Australia’s best rock art.
There are also plenty of other natural playgrounds – all you need to do is a bit of background research and arm yourself with a sense of adventure.
In the beginning, Darwin is surrounded by national parks, which makes it an ideal launching pad for Top End escapades. There’s Kakadu – of course – Australia’s largest national park covering more than 20,000 sq km. Nitmiluk National Park is another huge and beautiful area of NT vastness. The park is made up of 13 different gorges, offering spectacular hiking adventures and water-based activities. The smaller Litchfield National Park is full of beautiful waterholes, some showered by spring-fed waterfalls from the sandstone plateau above. Swimming in the waterholes at the bottom of these majestic waterfalls is an unforgettable experience.
There are plenty of other national parks close to Darwin too; Djukbinj National Park and Mary River National Park are both within driving distance. There’s even a national park close to Darwin International Airport: the Charles Darwin National Park is a lush expanse of wetlands and woodlands sitting on Frances Bay.
The easiest way to explore these ravishing wonderlands with greater access and freedom is to drive your own 4WD. Bring your own tent or campervan for more sleeping choices. Renting a car is a good option, although it’s worth noting that most rental companies don’t allow 2WDs on unsealed roads (some don’t allow 4WDs either; check the terms and conditions). For those who don’t want to drive, joining a coach or 4WD tour is the best way to experience these destinations — and there’s the added benefit of a guide.
A good night’s rest
Camping in the Top End’s national parks offers the greatest range of budget-friendly accommodation, ranging from basic bush sites to managed campgrounds with well-maintained facilities. How they function varies from park to park.
In Kakadu, the basic sites run on a first-in, best-dressed system, while the managed sites can sometimes be pre-booked. If you simply can’t holiday without knowing where you’ll sleep, there’s a range of accommodation options scattered around the park to fit your budget.
The township of Jabiru is the biggest hub and guests looking to splurge should stay at Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel. Sure, it’s not the cheapest option in town, but where else in the world will you find a hotel built in the shape of a croc? There are also caravan parks and campgrounds in Jabiru.
The Yellow Water region has a range of accommodation options, including rooms at Cooinda Lodge, spots to pitch your tent or set up your caravan at Cooinda Campground & Caravan Park, and Flash Camp – for campers who want to ramp up the luxury factor – set up from mid- June to mid-September. For anyone passing through, the lagoon pool at Cooinda Lodge is free for all. South Alligator Resort and Mary River Roadhouse are two more hubs, with a variety of accommodation options — and that’s just Kakadu.
The other national parks are comparably structured, with bush sites and managed campsites making up the bulk of offerings. Nitmiluk, for example, has a good choice of accommodation styles ranging from unpowered campsites to luxury lodging.
Wild at heart
The beauty of the Australian outback is that it’s largely free to explore. Experiences such as trekking through the fragrant bush, swimming in hidden waterholes, learning about ancient rock art, or kicking back in a camp chair and listening to the trees rustling, don’t cost a cent.
However, there are certain things you can only do as part of a guided tour and many are worth the expense. Cruising along the Yellow Water Billabong in Kakadu and through the gorges at Nitmiluk are two examples. The birdlife is abundant, the scenery is weird and wonderful, and cunning crocs can be seen lurking in the tranquil waters – watching people watch them – an experience that is both riveting and spine-chilling. It’s worth noting that guests staying at Cooinda Lodge receive a discount if they decide to go on a second cruise.
There are plenty of other tours across the parks. The free ranger program (from May to September) in Kakadu National Park is one of the best. Updated information is available online at parksaustralia.gov.au, and at the Bowali Visitor Centre in Jabiru and the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre in the Yellow Water region. The program – led by rangers and traditional owners the Bininj/Mungguy people – includes guided rock art walks and cultural activities.
Other top experiences are canoeing through the beautiful gorges of Nitmiluk and soaking up the beauty of Jawoyn Country at your own pace.
When it comes to Litchfield National Park, self-touring is a great option for those on a budget. There are plenty of information signs, signposted bush walks, picnic sites and campgrounds to make for a comfortable visit. At Wangi Falls there’s even free Wi-Fi. Many companies also offer day-tour packages departing from Darwin.
Activities in Nitmiluk National Park are based around Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge and Leliyn (Edith Falls), with a number of operators offering tours as well as accommodation, Nitmiluk Tours is one of the biggest. Highlights include swimming in waterholes, canoeing, cruising and hiking.
The five-day Jatbula Trail is a magnificent 62km track that takes in everything from rock art and waterfalls to rainforest terrain. It can be undertaken independently or as part of a tour.
Whichever park, or parks, you choose to explore, the Top End will leave you exhilarated and wanting more. It’s lucky, then, that Darwin is easy to get to and these parks are all a short driving distance away.