Darwin, Australia


In Darwin, Australia, Benita Lee discovers a region brimming with gorgeous national parks and abundant wildlife - all with a tropical climate

The Katherine Gorge cuts through Nitmiluk National Park

Though it's perhaps not as popular a destination as larger Australian cities such as Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, there are plenty of reasons to give Darwin a try. The tropical capital city of Australia's Northern Territory is the closest destination in Oz to Hong Kong and, as we discover on our journey, the climate's fairly similar to what we're used to here, with only two (real) seasons. The dry season runs from May to September, while the wet season goes from October to April, with November being the hottest month.

But, in contrast, life in Darwin is slow-paced and laidback, with more than 60 nationalities from different ethnic backgrounds living alongside the indigenous Larrakia people. Beyond the city limits, there's a vast region that makes for a great escape for those seeking a refuge in nature or an outdoor adventure, with numerous national parks, wetlands and wildlife – and, of course, plenty of crocodiles. Here are a few places to check out…

Crocosaurus Cove, Darwin
Within Darwin's city limits lies the unique Crocosaurus Cove (58 Mitchell St, +61 8 8981 7522, crocosauruscove.com; entry tickets from $141), an attraction that offers a close-up view of Australia's saltwater crocodiles, with some of the largest reptiles residing there. See the freshwater aquarium's fish feeding sessions, the daily Big Croc Feeding show ($619/show; children under 15: $374) and the reptile enclosure for a glimpse of the amazing Australian creatures.

Inside the Cage of Death

You also get a chance to hold a baby crocodile (and take photos for proof!), feed them with a fishing rod (just watch out for your hands – the crocs might be little but they sure can jump high) and experience the main event – swimming with the crocs for 15 minutes in the Cage of Death ($1,260/person), the world's only face-to-face experience with captive saltwater crocs. All you have to do is don your swimwear, pull on goggles, listen to brief safety instructions and climb down the ladder into the cylindrical cage. Once submerged, you can swim around the cage (if you're too scared to do it alone, go with a partner in a double cage; $944/person), while a five-metre-long crocodile circles around you. If you're 'lucky', you might get a terrifying glimpse of huge, wide-open jaws as it chomps down on the cage in an attempt to get to you – but no worries, the big cage thankfully has a 100 percent safety rating; nobody's been munched on yet!

Oh, and for ardent fans of hilarious 1986 film Crocodile Dundee, you'll be totally psyched to dive into the waters with the star croc Burt, who was featured in the classic Aussie film.

How to get there
The cove is within five minutes' walk of bus station Woolworths Darwin 070, via these buses: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 14, 15, 21, 22, 25 and 28.

Litchfield National Park
Located 100km south of Darwin, Litchfield is filled with beautiful flora and fauna including species like kangaroos, wallabies, possums, flying foxes and more, as well as historic preservation sites like Bamboo Creek Tin Mine, Blyth Homestead and various Aboriginal sacred sites. One of the popular attractions are the jawdropping Cathedral and Magnetic termite mounds – shapes made out of hard-earth that resemble rocks or ant hills – which can go up to six metres in height and house thousands of termites inside. If you're curious, poke a pin-sized hole in one – any bigger and you'll be damaging the mound – and watch as little termite soldiers immediately crawl out to patrol the area and guard against ant attacks; in less than five minutes, the mound is patched up from the inside and looks as good as new.

Temite mounds in Litchfield

The park is also home to a variety of magnificent waterfalls like Florence Falls, Wangi Falls and Tolmer Falls, which you can dive into for a refreshing dip in the crisp waters. The walking trail along these falls are picturesque but can be quite rocky, so be sure to put on appropriate footwear. Florence Falls' crystal clear waters are safe, but look out for strong undercurrents during the wet season; for Tolmer Falls, you'll be better off admiring the view from the lookout spot, as the bottom of the falls is closed to protect rare species of bats. Wangi Falls is probably the most popular attraction of Litchfield, with easily accessible boardwalks and platforms for amazing views – but take heed of the danger warnings, as people have perished while swimming due to the particularly strong undercurrents.

How to get there
Australian tour operator Adventure Tours Australia (52 Mitchell St, +61 3 8102 7800, adventuretours.com.au) offers tour packages to the park, starting from a three-day option ($4,300/person), where you'll head to Litchfield's waterfalls and termite mounds, Mary River Wetlands and Kakadu's Jim Jim Falls while staying at bush campsites. The tour departs from the Adventure Tours shop in Darwin at 6am, or you can arrange for them to pick you up at your hotel. Alternatively, you can rent a car from companies like Darwin Rent A Car (darwinrentacar.com) – Litchfield is roughly a two-hour drive south along Highway 1.

Nitmiluk National Park
Further south down Highway 1, about four-and-a-half hours away from Darwin, is the town of Katherine, which serves as the entry point into Nitmiluk National Park. Bordering the larger Kakadu National Park located to the north, Nitmiluk is fully owned and operated by the Jawoyn Aboriginal people and is the Jawoyn name for the park's key feature, Katherine Gorge – a series of 13 massive sandstone gorges carved out by the Katherine River, which features towering sandstone topography, waterfalls and numerous sites of cultural and ceremonial significance for the Jawoyn.

A boat cruise along Katherine Gorge

The most common way of exploring the gorge is on a boat cruise, which can be arranged through indigenous touring company Nitmiluk Tours (nitmiluktours.com.au; cruises start at $588/person; children under 15: $331), and will give you access to several different sections of the gorge (you'll have to get out and do a bit of hiking on rocky terrain to transfer boats in some areas). During the current dry season, there are plenty of excellent swimming holes where you can cool down or take part in canoeing activities. You might also see some freshwater crocs along the river banks, but fret not, they're mostly harmless. The wet season later in the year, however, brings out saltwater crocs – the more dangerous of the bunch. Be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife sightings, with birds like ospreys, cockatoos and honeyeaters perched around the area.

If you're driving down to the park, you'll likely need to stay overnight. There are numerous campsites around the park (from $141/night), but if you're looking for something luxurious, there's the brand-new, Jawoyn-owned Cicada Lodge (cicadalodge.com.au; rooms from $5,140/night), which just opened in March. Tucked away on the banks of the river further down the Gorge, the Lodge features 18 elegant, private rooms decorated with indigenous art pieces (on sale from $4,754). It also offers guests premium tour services, including scenic helicopter flights (from $3,576/person) that give you a glorious top-down view of the gorge, with activities like rock art tours and picnics along the way.

How to get there
Available until September, Nitmiluk Tours is offering a two-day trip package for $1,785, which includes a breakfast cruise and canoeing in the gorge, plus transfers from Katherine and accommodation at the gorge's tent village.

If you're staying at the elegant Cicada Lodge, you can get private car transfers from Katherine Airport for $791.

Jetstar flies direct to Darwin International Airport from $6,500 return. jetstar.com

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