23 July 2018
BY ALAN YUEN
Think of Australia and one is likely to picture world-class cafés in Melbourne, vibrant city life in Sydney, and incredible beaches that are pretty much everywhere.
These are the mainstays of tourism Down Under for good reasons — but Australia has plenty more to offer, especially for those looking to venture off well-trodden paths.
The Northern Territory, which until now still remains under the radar, might be the next big destination on the bucket list of adventure seekers and nature lovers.
In only a 4.5 hour flight from Singapore, travelers to The Northern Territory will set foot on a land that is home to numerous natural wonders and wild coastlines. Just a few highlights for visitors: coming up close to saltwater crocodiles, interacting with Aboriginal people, seeing ancient rock art, exploring a vast desert landscape and swimming in natural waterholes overlooking mountain ranges.
The region is also home to one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks — Uluru (Ayers Rock), a massive 3.6km long and 348m tall sandstone monolith that is sacred to Aboriginal people.
The Northern Territory is poised to burst onto the travel scene, and there are signs that the world is beginning to catch on. Most notably, the New York Times placed it 12th in its annual 52 Places to Go in 2018 travel list.
The Northern Territory can be roughly divided into two areas: the Top End, comprising Darwin, Kakadu, Arnhem Land and Katherine; and the Red Centre, which encompasses Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Uluru.
Darwin, where all international flights land, is the gateway to the rest of the region. It is nearer to Bali than Sydney, which is reflected by a strong Asian influence.
This is clear once you’ve strolled through the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, where it is common to find vendors peddling laksa or satay. The beach is also a perfect spot to get comfortable and watch the sunset, which has a reputation for producing a gorgeous golden hour.
Darwin is also a jumping off point to the great outdoors. Litchfield National Park, a 90-minute drive from Darwin, has plunging waterfalls and waterholes to cool off. Kakadu National Park, a three-hour drive, is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site.
The park – an immense ecosystem nearly half the size of Switzerland – has been home to Aboriginal people for centuries, with extensive rock art sites depicting their customs and beliefs.
The Northern Territory’s Aboriginal communities have contributed to the rise in tourism. They are the world’s oldest civilizations, according to recent DNA analysis dating their origins to more than 50,000 years ago.
There are plenty of opportunities to learn about them. New Aboriginal partnerships allow visitors to explore the region and support the communities at the same time.
Surrounded by towering rock formations and unbroken horizons, the Red Centre’s landscape is harsh and unforgiving, but it is also where it derives its beauty.
Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, is a formation of 36 giant rock domes spread over 20 sq km, is among the impressive sites carved by Mother Nature over millennia. But nothing beats the awe of seeing Uluru for the first time. The 550 million-year-old rock, looming red, looks implausibly huge, even from a distance.
Don‘t be surprised to leave Uluru feeling like you’ve been through a spiritual experience — it has had that effect on people for centuries. The rock is one of the most sacred sites in Aboriginal culture as they believe that the spirits of the ancients reside in them.
It is still possible to learn and appreciate this complex tradition that has been kept alive by present-day Aboriginals who carry the Dreamtime stories and ceremonies passed down to them.
Just like a good cup of coffee, the Northern Territory is best savoured, not rushed. Besides, there’s just too much to do. Our upcoming 7-day itinerary takes you through the best of the Top End. And look out for our 14-day itinerary, which will take you on through to the Red Centre.
Although not strictly prohibited, it is not recommended to climb Uluru. It is a deeply sacred place, and choosing not to climb is to show respect for Aboriginal law and culture. The climb can also be dangerous. Travellers have died attempting it, and many others have been seriously injured. Instead of climbing Uluru, opt instead for a fascinating base walk around it.
Weather in the Northern Territory can be extreme. There are two distinct climate zones separating the Top End and Red Centre. The tropical Top End has two seasons. The ‘Wet’ season, from November until April, brings increased humidity, monsoonal rains and storms. Temperatures typically range from 25 deg C to 33 deg C. The ‘Dry’ season, from May until October, has balmy days and cool nights, with temperatures ranging from 21 deg C to 32 deg C.
The semi-arid Red Centre has four seasons. Summer can bring sweltering 36 deg C heat and monsoon rains. The best time to go is in winter, from May to early September, which brings long sunny days and cool temperatures of 20 to 27 deg C.
Jetstar Asia and SilkAir both offer direct flights to Darwin. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar Australia also have domestic flights from Darwin to Alice Springs and Yulara (Uluru).