By Laura Dunn, Champion of Wonder
Photography: Jono Moin
It’s a tall order to capture the essence of the Northern Territory in writing. We certainly didn’t understand the pull of the place until we came here ourselves. The heat, the wet and the wild, create a truly magical destination. Put simply, the heart of Australia beats deeper and more strongly here than in any other place we’ve been, and we think everyone should visit.
If you’re on Larrakia land in Darwin with a reliable vehicle and some spare time up your sleeve, tackling the Nature’s Way loop is a great choice for families and more intrepid adventurers alike. The CamperMate app can help you plan and find what you need when you’re on the road, but it’s also worth checking the latest updates with Parks Australia before heading to World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.
Respect traditional owners
Always show respect for the Northern Territory’s traditional owners by not entering restricted areas, which may be sacred sites, ceremonial sites, burial grounds or homes.
How long do you need to explore the Nature’s Way?
Eight days is the bare minimum we’d allocate for the Nature’s Way, as you’ll cover well over 800 kilometres during the trip. Ideally, allow yourselves two to three weeks if you have the time or use Darwin as your base and do shorter trips into Kakadu National Park, Katherine and Litchfield National Park.
When is the best time to drive the Nature’s Way?
Autumn, winter, summer and spring don’t apply in the Top End, where we have the dry season (May to September) and the wet season (December to April), buffered by the build-up (October to December). For the most part, you’ll have the comfiest and easiest experience during the dry, which offers sunny days and nights cool enough to snuggle up under a blanket. While it is possible to explore during the wet, this comes with its own challenges: heavy rains with high temps, humidity, road closures and increased insect activity. All but the hardiest campers should avoid camping during the build-up, where sweltering temps and extreme humidity make for extremely uncomfy conditions. Luckily there are lots of accommodation options available during this time, including air-conditioned glamping tents.
Preparation and safety while travelling the Nature’s Way
While the Nature’s Way is a completely sealed road (except for specific sites off road in Kakadu) and covers some of the Northern Territory’s more populated destinations, one should always be prepared. Facilities and services are likely significantly further apart than at home, so always carry plenty of water and food and know where your next fuel stop will be. Never (ever!) swim in national parks or any natural body of water unless it’s marked safe to do so. Crocodiles are apex predators who can remain unseen in even the smallest waterways.
Darwin to the northern end of Kakadu National Park (255 kilometres)
It takes about 2.5 hours to drive from Darwin to the northern end of Kakadu National Park, whose traditional owners are Bininj in the north and Mungguy in the south. If you’re not a Territory resident, you’ll need to purchase a Kakadu Parks Pass. Off-grid campgrounds are available for first-in-best-dressed, payable in cash, so take some with you. Other accommodation alternatives include Mercure Kakadu Hotel (designed in the shape of a crocodile), Cooinda Lodge, Aurora Kakadu Lodge or Kakadu Lodge. There are a few food options throughout the park and a small but expensive supermarket in Jabiru. From north to south:
- Ubirr is a beautiful sunset spot, although it does get very busy. It’s an easy one-kilometre circular walk from the carpark, which passes some rock art on the way. You’ll need to scramble up some rocks at the end to be rewarded with 360-degree views of Arnhem Land and Nadab floodplain.
- Cahills Crossing viewing area on the western bank of the East Alligator River is a great spot to stretch your legs and have a bite to eat (you’ll need to bring food with you). Here, you can watch barramundi being reeled in by the locals. At Cahills, you’ll start to fully appreciate just how many crocs are in the area. Kakadu. It’s best visited at high tide for increased croc activity.
- Cooinda is home to the Aboriginal-owned Yellow Water Cruises, which take you by boat around Yellow Water billabong, where you’ll spot wildlife and birdlife galore. We recommend a sunrise or sunset time slot.
- The Warradjan Visitor Centre is open year-round and offers a great display and interactive activity to help you understand kinship. Artists and weavers often give demonstrations at Warradjan, too.
- Barrkmalam (Jim Jim) Falls is a 200-metre waterfall best seen from the air in the wet, with flights departing from Jabiru. In the dry, it’s possible to hike to the falls via a 2-kilometre return walk. However, you’ll need a 4WD to get to the carpark.
- Maguk Waterfall flows all year but is closed to tourists in the wet. Hike to the falls via an easy 2-kilometre return walk. This is another site where you’ll need a 4WD to access the car park.
- Gunlom Falls is one of Kakadu’s most iconic locations, made famous by Crocodile Dundee. Parts of the area have been closed to tourists since 2019, so check the Northern Territory website for details before visiting.
- Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin) Gorge is a special mention for those with a kitted out 4WD and off-grid camping capability. This stunning spot is a restricted access area with a limit of 40 people at any time, and you’ll need to apply for a permit and allow 7 days’ processing time for day or camping use. It’s worth it, though!
- Motor Car Falls is a wet season favourite surrounded by monsoon forest. Smaller than most of its surrounding siblings, although with a large plunge pool at the base, Motor Car is a 7.5-kilometre return hike, access is via an unsealed road. Check road conditions before visiting.
Moline Rockhole is an absolute beauty of a spot and kid-friendly. The unmarked turnoff is 5-kilometres south of Gunlom, past Mary River Station. Although it is a dirt track, you will need a 4WD for access.
Southern end of Kakadu National Park to Edith Falls (67 kilometres) and Katherine (62 kilometres)
At the southern end of the Kakadu Highway, take the Stuart Highway turnoff south towards Katherine, where the traditional lands of the Jawoyn, Dagoman, and Wardaman converge. There’s a variety of accommodation in the region, including campgrounds, motels and the more expensive Cicada Lodge. You can stock up on food in Katherine town. From north to south:
- Leliyn (Edith) Falls is a series of gorgeous cascades at the northern end of the Nitmiluk National Park and is family-friendly for day or overnight adventures. Edith Falls Campground has beautiful grassy campsites, picnic spots, and a kiosk. During the dry you can swim in all areas, including the large plunge pool a few minutes’ walk from the campsites. To swim during the wet, you’ll have to take the 2.7-kilometre Leliyn Trail Loop Walk to the upper pools, with the option to continue to Sweetwater Pool.
- The Katherine Hot Springs are five minutes from the Katherine township and are very accessible, offering wheelchair access. While usually open 7 am to 7 pm, they are sometimes closed due to flooding during the wet and remain between 25 to 32 degrees Celsius all year.
- Southern Rockhole is a gorgeous wet season waterfall tucked into the southern part of Nitmiluk National Park. Don’t forget your goggles and floaties! We recommend hiking the 4 kilometres in and booking the ferry out. If walking, be prepared with sun protection and water. It’s also worth doing the Buruwei Loop along the water to see the lookouts, although there are around 200 steps. If you’re visiting after a good wet, take a gander at the top pool (accessible to the left of the sign for Pat’s Lookout if you walk in; follow the track up the rocks to the right as you’re looking at the falls if you ferry in). There’s a kiosk at the visitor centre.
Nitmiluk Gorge tours are available at dawn, dusk, and during the day, each with its own attractions. You’ll be awestruck at the beauty and age of the place. On one tour, the guide explained that the portion of the gorge we were looking at was older than 1.65 million years. It’s hard to grasp.
Southern end of the Katherine region to eastern Litchfield National Park (325 kilometres) and Darwin (108 kilometres)
When you’ve finished in Katherine, jump back onto the Stuart Highway and head north towards Darwin via Litchfield. Litchfield accommodation is mostly off-grid, though campgrounds are also available in the nearby township of Batchelor, along with more expensive options in eco shipping container cabins. From east to west:
- Karrimurra (Florence) Falls is a stunning waterfall duo with a large pool at the base, swimmable all year and accessible via around 150 steps from the carpark. This popular spot gets very crowded, but it’s certainly worth a visit and offers camping.
- Buley Rockhole is just 5 minutes from the carpark, or an easy 3.2 kilometre walk from Florence Falls. Adults and kids alike will love the cascading pools and shady spots provided by the monsoon forest which surrounds it. Covered picnicking tables are also available.
- Tjaetaba (Greenant) falls walk is a 2.7-kilometre walk that ends in a gorgeous but small pool area. Visit late afternoon for the best sunset views.
- The Reynolds Track is one of our favourite Litchfield treasures, although it’s dry season accessible only and requires a 4WD. Follow Reynolds the whole way along to pop out on the southern end of Litchfield. You’ll find Tjaynera Falls (Sandy Creek) along the track as well as Surprise Creek, both offering camping.
- Wangi’s Falls are a crowd favourite with easy access, picnic tables, camping, and a kiosk open at limited times. Open all year but swimmable only in the dry, Wangi also offers some short walks.
- The Cascades are another of our Litchfield favourites, although the upper cascades are a 3.3-kilometre return walk. Turn left when you get to the top to find Curtain Waterfall or follow the waterway to the right for secluded and shady swimming spots. You might even find a natural rock slide right at the top during a good wet.
- Walker Creek track offers 8 beautiful campsites with site access to gorgeous swimming spots. Walker doesn’t require a 4WD for access, but you will have to walk in your gear to the sites, which meander along the creek. Campsites are booked online through NT Parks.
There are so many places to visit and things to see along the Nature’s Way. The above itinerary is by no means exhaustive. Instead, it’s a starting point highlighting some great destinations. Now all you need is to get out there and enjoy it.For more Northern Territory trip information, visit northernterritory.com/drive
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