DOROTHEA Mackellar might have been dreaming about the Northern Territory when she penned the most famous verse of her ode to Australia.
The swathe of sunburnt terrain crowning the continent has everything the patriotic poet describes in My Country’s second stanza, from the sweeping plains and ragged mountain ranges to droughts, flooding rains, and even a jewel sea.
While the Territory’s big-ticket items never fall from favour it’s the underrated experiences, as well as a few new encounters, being celebrated in 2018 with locals who live between the far horizons recommending tourists seek out the hidden gems to savour this wide brown land.
Uluru gets all the glory but there are unappreciated geological gems around Alice Springs worth attention.
Tourism NT marketing manager Tony Quarmby explains that no trip to Australia’s Red Centre is complete without perching in a private spot near the desert settlement to absorb the glory of an outback sunrise or sunset.
“Go (with tour company) Outback Ballooning at sunrise — you really get a sense of the desert landscape’s enormity — or head to Pyndan Camel Tracks at sunset where photos of the camel shadows on the red ground will become a trip highlight,” he says.
“The MacDonnell Ranges are scattered waterholes and gorges that cross Alice Springs from east to west and Two Mile, just past Glen Helen Gorge, is a great spot to camp beside the Finke River, which is the planet’s oldest river system.
“Redbank Gorge is my go-to place to hop on an inner tube and float through the rocky cavern, while families can camp at Rainbow Valley to take full advantage of those incredible sunrises and sunsets,” Tony says.
Darwin in the dry
When Australia’s south descends into winter, and days become short and gloomy, the dry season settles on Darwin bringing the agreeable temperatures that Walk Darwin’s Nerida Hart says tempt holiday-makers who are looking to escape the chill at home.
“Winter in northern Australia sees Darwin come alive and the warm weather and blue skies combine with the endless variety of outdoor activities, starlit nights, festivals and markets to entice travellers,” she says.
“Darwin has something for everyone, and every budget, from taking a stroll in the botanic gardens and biking in a national park to enjoying a picnic overlooking the Arafura Sea, partaking in fish and chips on a harbour cruise, exploring World War II ruins, or swimming with a crocodile.”
Red Centre cycling
Outback Cycling’s Jennifer Rajher says “riding in Central Australia is unlike anywhere else in the world” and, with 200km of cycling trails now surrounding Alice Springs, there’s never been a better time to embark on two-wheel sightseeing.
“When you’re riding through the bush the only sounds are your tyres on the dirt, the birds singing, and the wind blowing in the trees,” the biking buff enthuses.
“Outback Cycling offers bike tours for all types of cyclists but one of our favourites is the Mountain Bike Night Tour, allowing participants to see the stars like never before with wildlife spotting as common as many of the region’s animals are nocturnal.
“For those preferring sealed bike paths, the Velo Excursion is perfect with riders following the dry Todd River for 3km until the original settlement is reached with the Alice Springs Telegraph Station — the place where our guides tell the story of how and why the town exists.”
Kakadu National Park will host a traditional food festival from May 18 to 27, with “the nation’s most gifted practitioners of indigenous food working beside traditional owners to deliver a fresh take on bush cuisine”, and Cooinda Lodge chef Jack Higgott says barramundi will be a favourite ingredient.
“People come to Kakadu for the wildlife — birds, kangaroos, crocodiles — but the best attraction here is the barra,” explains the 19-year-old chef who recently won $10,000 after pulling a tagged Million Dollar Fishing competition fish from Yellow Water Billabong.
“Anyone that catches a barra and then brings it back to Cooinda to be cooked will remember it as a highlight of their trip — and a crispy-skinned fish with a mango and mint salad is Kakadu on a plate.
“Yellow Water Billabong is one of the most magical places in Australia. It’s a must-do for anyone coming to Kakadu, and the colours and the wildlife change so dramatically during the day so I recommend doing a cruise at both sunrise and sunset to see the beauty of the scenery.”
Australian Walking Holidays general manager Michael Buggy says the Territory conjures images of red escarpments and shady waterholes with exploring on foot — either a short stroll or longer multi-day adventure — a magical way to appreciate the environment.
“Whether you’re keen to explore Kakadu’s shady pools and wetlands teeming with life, or trekking the Jatbula or Larapinta trails further south, walking is the perfect way for nature lovers to experience the NT’s distinctive landscapes,” he says.
“World Expeditions offers walks in each region with the Classic Larapinta Trek in Comfort our top-selling trip globally — a six-day experience first offered in 1995 that’s constantly evolving and uses facilities at eco-friendly campsites, such as stand-up tents, off-ground beds and hot showers.
“The fact walkers carry a daypack, as well as the delicious meals in camp, makes the trip accessible to people who would not consider a holiday in such a remote destination.”
Wet season wonder
Darwin once hibernated during the wet — the “summer” months when monsoons regularly dump centimetres of rain on the Top End.
But travellers are discovering humidity has its advantages with local author Sue Moffitt adding that the season’s tropical storms, raging waterfalls and abundant wetlands are worth observing.
“I head to La Beach in Cullen Bay to eat fish and chips wrapped in paper while watching the impending storms roll across the harbour,” says the author of guidebook Darwin in the Wet.
“Out of town, Fogg Dam at dawn is a favourite — the wetlands come alive with masses of birds and pink lotus flowers and I love the Woodlands & Waterlilies Walk, and in Litchfield National Park I wander through Shady Creek and take a dip at Buley Rockhole before stopping for a picnic beside Florence Creek.
“Back in town, Knuckey Street has a string of new boutiques for my shopping days, lunch is at the tapas bar PM Eat & Drink for tasty morsels of seafood, and Alley Cats patisserie has been refurbished. Meanwhile, Stone House is a new wine bar with a ’70s-London vibe.”
Discover the Barkly
The Barkly, the vast patch of more than 300,000sq km stretching around Tennant Creek between Alice Springs and Darwin, is the Northern Territory’s most underrated region with local Roddy Calvert telling travellers to pause at Newcastle Waters which is a local hidden gem that’s home to “the ghosts of drovers past”.
“Come and say g’day to me and explore our museum at Battery Hill Mining Centre, throw on a hard hat and we will take you into the underground mine, or stay on the surface and feel the earth move as the stamp battery pounds gold-laden ore into dust,” Roddy explains.
“Our sunsets at Karlu Karlu or Devils Marbles always warrant getting your camera out, twitchers love the birdlife and quiet around Lake Mary Ann, arty people enjoy the Nyinkka Nyunyu Aboriginal Art and Cultural Centre, and history buffs like our quaint old Catholic church that’s surrounded by rose gardens.”