Last updated 10 June 2020
The time is ‘right’ to visit the Northern Territory before it gets too hot.
On the cusp of the dry season, here’s five new must do’s for Darwin.
This was my second visit to Darwin, I’ve shared some other favourite experiences from my first trip.
The Tiwi Islands are a chain of nine islands 80 Kilometres (50 miles) north of Darwin. The two larger islands, Bathurst and Melville have been inhabited for at least 7,000 years and the Tiwis are the first Indigenous peoples to have made contact with the Dutch explorers, in the early 18th Century.
It is easiest to visit the Tiwi Islands by tour – access to explore on your own is by invitation only. I visited the smaller of the Islands, Bathurst, with a population of 2,000 in May 2019 on a one-day AAT Kings Tour. In conjunction with a local Tiwi tour guide, our group met and talked with Tiwi residents and took part in a welcoming smoking ceremony.
Jacinta, a softly spoken Tiwi elder, and two other Tiwi women demonstrated their painting skills. Jacinta spoke about the special role women play in passing on their culture through stories shared during foraging walks with the younger generations. I recognised her from the ‘wedding scene’ in the movie, Top End Wedding, a rom-com starring Miranda Tapsell (Sapphires) and Gwylim Lee (Bohemian Rhapsody) mostly filmed in the NT,
It was a few days before the island’s official viewing of the movie. Before heading to Darwin I’d managed a sneak preview before its Australian release on May 2nd. The Tiwi love song played at the end of the movie had me reaching for the tissues. The wedding scene is filmed at a small Catholic church on Bathurst Island. The Catholic mission was established on the island in 1911. We visited the church building (no longer used as a church, but still used as a gathering place) on the tour. No one on our tour group had seen the movie, so they weren’t as excited as I was to be walking into the location for a major (special) scene from the movie.
A song is sung by the Tiwi Island’s Wanigatunga women’s choir and Jacinta is featured. (Locals are included as extras in the movie.)
I told Jacinta she was a star and asked if I could have my picture taken with her. She shyly obliged not sure what the fuss was about. (She hadn’t seen the movie yet.)
The island has a blossoming local art scene that plays an important role in the culture and economy of the Tiwi Islands. At one of the local art studios, Tiwi Design I watched the steady brushstrokes of local artist Alan. I asked him about his inspiration for his work.
A shy man, he spoke about the meaning behind the artwork he’s created for 30 years. Each of his paintings embodies a story with cultural significance in his community.
This is a full day’s excursion. It takes just over two hours to travel there and back again by ferry. So while travel time is half a day, to spend time with such gentle people and receive an insight into the culture of this ancient aboriginal community, its worth the effort.
Outback Floatplane Adventures
I’ve written a story about this incredible half-day tour from Darwin out to Sweets Lagoon here. The tour starts with a scenic floatplane ride across Darwin Harbour out to a remote lagoon where you land for breakfast. An airboat ride on the waterways of the Finniss River.
The tour includes many opportunities to meet resident saltwater crocs in their habitat and revel in the stunning NT scenery.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park is a three-hour drive from Darwin. This year I was lucky enough to visit Kakadu twice within the space of a week. I visited Kakadu for a day and a half on my AAT Kings Tour and then I returned with some friends for the Taste of Kakadu Festival during the Park’s 40th Anniversary.
In its third year, the 10-day festival which celebrates Kakadu’s indigenous cuisine, culture and country was running from May 10th to 19th. Visitors choose from an assortment of interactive food experiences, designed to give an insight into how Australia’s oldest living culture – estimated to be 65,000 years – have for tens of thousands of years prepared native foods, including crocodile, buffalo and barramundi – flavoured with local fruit and bush herbs.
To appreciate the spiritual connection I recommend connecting with an indigenous tour. On Yellow Waters at Cooinda, regular tours are conducted by indigenous guides. During the Taste of Kakadu, we enjoyed an unforgettable sunset cruise with canapes and drinks.
I’d done the same tour (morning tour) three days earlier on my AAT Kings tour, with guide Dennis. Was it going to be boring doing the same tour?
No. Alternate time of day made a difference.
Being a sunset cruise (4.30pm – 6 pm) golden hour was incredible, the water taking on a sparkling hue. The animal’s behaviour was also different from the morning tour. I’ll forever remember this large saltwater croc lying on the embankment, jaw open – completely still. He looked comical (and fake.) According to our guide, this is their method of cooling their body after a warm day.
There are over 5,000 rock art sites within the park and many of them are within easy access of the walking trails. A 1.5-kilometre circular walk at Nourlangie (Burrungkuy) incorporates ancient rock art sites including the Anbangbang rock art gallery. This well-preserved gallery depicts the Creation Ancestors and Namarrgon the lightning man with saratoga fish (Guluibirn) from the billabong.
In the shadow of the Arnhem Land escarpment has a one-kilometre circular track with many preserved rock art sites. One ancient rock drawing of a Thylacines – a Tasmanian Tiger dates back 4,000 years before the animal’s extinction. A moderately steep, but well-signed climb brings you to the top of a rocky outcrop with stunning views over the Nadab floodplain. They say the sunset is spectacular from the top of Ubirr.
Crocosauraus Cove is in Darwin’s CBD on Mitchell Street. Initially, I wasn’t going to bother, as it all seemed very touristy and I was concerned about the crocs being caged.
Is it cruel to the animals?
I learned many of the crocs found at the Cove have been ‘removed’ from various locations. They represent the troublesome crocs that would have been exterminated had it not been for Crocosauraus Cove who agreed to take them in. As mentioned above my local friend highly recommended the experience, so before my afternoon flight home, I found myself at the front entrance right on opening time ready for my 9.30am “Cage of Death’ experience.
Crocosaurus Cove provides loads of educational information about crocodiles. The handlers at the feeding shows provide interactive information about crocs. And I know this is not how the crocs would ‘naturally’ live in the wild, but because they have presented problems where humans live, they are no longer in the wild.
This post is not a place to debate whether you should or shouldn’t go. I did and I enjoyed the experience. After observing crocs in their natural habitat and performing on the Adelaide River, I was blown away by how close you can get to these wild animals at Crocosaurus Cove, as well as how much additional information I gained.
Tour Tub Darwin City Explorer
If you’re after a comprehensive tour that covers the War history Darwin and the NT experienced this is the tour.
Locally owned and operated this half-day tour is fully guided with visits to many historical locations and museums. A small bus picks up from local hotels (for an additional $5 they will collect from outer caravan pickups.)
Find my review of the tour here.