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The Top End’s national parks – Mary River, Kakadu, Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) and Litchfield – feature in this self-drive trip. It includes various excursions, but there’s time to do your own thing too.

If you’re feeling adventurous, hit the road and discover the diverse landscapes and ancient culture of Australia's vast Northern Territory, where the outback meets the tropics. Kakadu is a timeless place whose pristine landscapes have barely changed over the millennia, and whose ancient culture dates back over 50,000 years. With over 1,700 plant species, a quarter of the country’s freshwater fish species and over one third of its bird species, Kakadu is Australia’s premier natural destination.

Read about travel consultant Chris Smith's trip to Australia's Northern Territory

Suggested itinerary

  1. Days 1-2 : Fly to Darwin, normally via Singapore

  2. Day 3: Darwin

    On arrival in Darwin, pick up your hire car and drive to your accommodation in the city. The remainder of the day is free to relax and recover after the long flight.

    Accommodation: Sky City Resort, 1-night

  3. Day 4: Drive to Mary River National Park via Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve

    Drive to Mary River National Park, with a stop en route to visit Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, one of several parks in the lower Adelaide River catchment area that provide a haven for wildlife around Darwin. One of the few wetland systems that is accessible all year round, the Adelaide River is one of several connected areas that make up the Top End wetlands, which are of international significance both because of their beauty and their importance to the Limilngan-Wulna Aboriginal people.

    Fogg Dam is an Important Bird Area with a range of resident and migratory water birds, and other wildlife that includes one of Australia’s largest snake populations (including water python and death adder). Large numbers of waders congregate at the dam wall at the end of the wet season, and a raised observation platform offers fine views. Saltwater crocodiles move into the area during the wet season, but by the time the dry season arrives only a few remain.

    Continue to Mary River National Park where – after checking in to your accommodation – you can spend the afternoon walking various trails. A short 20-minute trail takes you over the airstrip, through fields of termite mounds and onto the floodplains, whereas a slightly longer 30-minute trail takes you through seasonally-flooded forests where wallabies roam and birds nest; finally 45-minute trail crosses seasonal floodplains, offering maybe a glimpse of a buffalo or two wallowing in the mud.

    Accommodation: Wildman Wilderness Lodge, 2-nights

  4. Day 5: Explore Mary River National Park

    This morning take an exhilarating 90-minute air-boat safari on Mary River Wetlands (April to June only). Departing directly the lodge, you head out over the Mary River floodplain to encounter its abundant birdlife, saltwater crocodiles and perhaps the odd water buffalo. Skimming over the reed and lily-beds, stopping occasionally to take it all in, there is no better way to appreciate the beauty of this unique landscape.

    The rest of the day is free so you can arrange your own activities depending on your specific interests – there’s no shortage of ideas to choose from. Then join a late afternoon excursion to Leichhardt Point, leaving around an hour before sunset and driving through forest and across savannah to stop for sundowners and watch the sun go down over the wetlands. The water level varies with the season, but the wetlands teem with birdlife, and there’s a wide variety of flora and fauna.

  5. Day 6: Drive to Jabiru township in Kakadu National Park via Mamaluka Wetlands

    In the morning we suggest taking an organised activity in Mary River National Park with a private naturalist guide to get the most out of your stay, as there is so much to see and understand. In the afternoon, drive to Jabiru township via Mamukala Wetlands, where you can stop to visit a bird hide to see  the spectacle of thousands of migratory magpie geese congregating to feed; there’s also an observation tower with fine views over the wetland.  Several trails start here, from an easy 30-minute walk to a somewhat more demanding two-hour walk.

    Accommodation: Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, 1-night

  6. Day 7: Explore Kakadu National Park

    Optional morning scenic flight or panoramic helicopter flight over Kakadu National Park from Jabiru airstrip. In the afternoon continue to Yellow River and check into your accommodation, then drive on to Ubirr Rock in time for sunset.

    Ubirr lies within the East Alligator region of Kakadu, and is famed for its rock art. These depict creation ancestors as well as animals from the area such as barramundi, catfish, mullet, goannas, long-necked turtles, pig-nosed turtles, rock ringtail possums and wallabies. Three main galleries of art can be visited and national park rangers, many of whom are indigenous, give talks at all these sites. The summit of Ubirr Rock offers a panoramic view of the floodplains and escarpments.

    Accommodation: Gagudju Lodge Cooinda, 2-nights

  7. Day 8: Explore Kakadu National Park

    Start the day with a visit to nearby Warradjan Indigenous Cultural Centre just one kilometre from the lodge. Named after Warradjan, the pig-nosed turtle, the centre was developed by Kakadu’s Aboriginal traditional owners, and its displays illustrate the stories they choose to share with visitors. These provide an illuminating insight into both traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture. 

    In the afternoon take a superb two hour wildlife sunset cruise on the Yellow River Billabong, a perfect outing for first-time visitors who wish to witness he Kakadu Wetland’s beauty and incredible wildlife - such as the legendary salt-water crocodile, buffalos and wild horses. With its diverse landscapes ranging from untouched coastline to mighty river systems, from rocky escarpment to billabong and floodplain, the World Heritage site of Kakadu is home to one third of Australia’s bird species, and warrants a close look so you can fully appreciate its immense natural diversity and cultural significance.

  8. Day 9: Drive to Nitmiluk via Gunlom

    Drive to Nitmiluk (aka Katherine Gorge) via Gunlom – the aboriginal name for Waterfall Creek Falls – a magical combination of waterfall and serene plunge pool. Depending on the season, the falls may vary from a roaring torrent to a gentle trickle down the cliff-face. The pool at their foot is one of Kakadu’s most picturesque spots, and a popular swimming hole where you can enjoy a refreshing dip in crystal-clear pools free of saltwater crocodiles. Alternatively known as UDP Falls, they are perhaps most famous for their appearance in the movie Crocodile Dundee. Access is restricted in wet season (Dec-Apr). A steep climb to the top of the falls affords sweeping views of the hills and ridges of the less-visited southernmost region of Kakadu National Park.

    The flat easy walk to nearby Murrill Billabong is great for birdwatching.

    Accommodation: Cicada Lodge, 2-nights

  9. Day 10: Explore Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge)

    Take a morning two hour cruise in Nitmiluk National Park to discover the cultural significance of the first two gorges to the traditional owners of the land – the Aboriginal Jawoyn people.

  10. Day 11: Drive back to Darwin via Litchfield National Park

    This morning set off for the drive back to Darwin. We suggest you break the trip with a stop to explore Litchfield National Park approximately 130 kilometres southwest of the capital of Northern Territory.  A 1,500 square-kilometre-park was established in 1986, Litchfield National Park features numerous waterfalls which cascade from a sandstone plateau known as the Tabletop Range, monsoon rainforests, intriguing magnetic termite mounds and historical sites. Four-wheel-drive tracks lead into some of the more remote parts of the park and the surrounding region.  Continue to Darwin and check in to your accommodation.

    Accommodation: Sky City Resort, 1-night

  11. Day 12: Depart Darwin

    You are free until it’s time to drive to the airport to hand over your hire car and check in for the flight back to the UK.

  12. Day 13: Arrive UK

Key info

Our trip ideas are offered to inspire you and can be tailored to suit your requirements.
  • Duration and price including flights from/to UK: 13 days from £3,495 pp
  • Duration and price excluding international flights: 10 days from £2,195 pp
  • Single supplement: From £1,155
  • When to go: Apr-Nov
  • Activities available:
    • Birdwatching
    • Boat trip
    • Culture
    • Nature drive
    • Walking
Featured locations:

Darwin

The capital and largest city of Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory, Darwin lies on the Timor Sea. Originally a pioneer outpost, the area is the ancestral home of the Larrakia Aboriginal people and gateway to the impressive Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land.

  • Where: Northern Territory
  • Excellent for: City stopover

Mary River National Park

150 kilometres east of Darwin, Mary River National Park consists of various small reserves that protect the catchment area of the river and its floodplain. Freshwater billabongs, paperbark and monsoon forests offer excellent opportunities for watching wildlife, fishing, bushwalking and photography.

  • Where: Northern Territory
  • Ideal for viewing: saltwater crocodile, magpie goose, black-necked stork, white-bellied sea eagle, water buffalo
  • Excellent for: Walking safaris, Vehicle safaris

Kakadu National Park

Lying 240 kilometres east of Darwin, Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park. Covering almost 20,000 square kilometres it is a place of huge biodiversity whose rare endemic animals include more than a third of the country’s bird species and a quarter of its freshwater and estuarine fish species.

  • Where: Northern Territory
  • Ideal for viewing: saltwater crocodile, agile wallaby, antilopine wallaroo, flying fox, sugar glider
  • Excellent for: Walking safaris, Vehicle safaris

Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge)

Nitmiluk a.k.a. Katherine Gorge is a system of 13 immense gorges carved from the region’s ancient stone over the millennia by the Katherine River. The gorges are of huge cultural significance for their traditional owners, the Jawoyn, for whom Nitmiluk is the place where the spirits of creation dwell.

  • Where: Northern Territory
  • Ideal for viewing: freshwater crocodile, saltwater crocodile, great bowerbird, osprey, Gouldian finch
  • Excellent for: Self-drive
Suggested accommodation options are shown below. Please contact us for further recommendations.

Cicada Lodge

The luxury Cicada Lodge makes a perfect base from which to explore Nitmiluk Gorge and its ancient landscape. The architect-designed lodge delivers a high standard of service, and its contemporary, sophisticated style fuses international, modern Australian and indigenous design.

Gagudju Lodge Cooinda

Located right in the heart of Kakadu National Park, the indigenous-owned Gagudju Lodge Cooinda offers 48 spacious air-conditioned rooms where you can relax and re-energise in cool comfort with convenient access to all the park’s attractions and amenities, and enjoy a variety of activities.

Kakadu Crocodile Hotel

From its cool marble foyer to its unique crocodile-shaped exterior representing the area’s most famous inhabitant, Kakadu Crocodile Hotel is a comfortable retreat in a superb location in Kakadu National Park’s wilderness, and an ideal base for exploring the Ubirr, Nourlangie and Jim Jim areas.

Skycity Hotel & Resort

Nestling in 12 hectares of tropical gardens beside the Arafura Sea, Skycity is a bustling resort with excellent accommodation, a wide choice of dining options, conference and event facilities and a casino. As Darwin’s only five-star oceanfront resort, it also boasts a private white-sand beach.

Wildman Wilderness Lodge

Situated in the Mary River Wetlands area with its teeming wildlife, halfway between Darwin and Kakadu National Park, amidst the lush wilderness of the breathtaking Top End, Wildman Wilderness Lodge is a small-scale, high-quality operation that offers an extraordinary wetland safari experience.