Guide to Darwin and Surrounds
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Budget Guide for two weeks around Darwin, Litchfield, Kakadu and Katherine
THE NORTHERN TERRITORY
I’m going to go ahead an assume you’re interested in the NT for the adventure, the beautiful red dirt, nature, culture, hiking, maybe a bit of waterfall hopping? All of this can be found within a few hours drive from Darwin, and more! Outdoorsy people are totally in their element here. So jump in, don’t worry about the flies and get dirty.
READ: For South of Kakadu including Alice Springs and Uluru read this article
Distances from Darwin
Litchfield National Park 115 km, 1 hour & 20 min
Kakadu National Park 151 km, 1 hr & 40 min
Nitmiluk National Park 292 km, 3 hr
Elsey National Park 428 km, 4 hr & 20 min
Darwin (2 days)
This sweaty little city is the hub of the top end. But you’re probably only flying in, grabbing your car and some food and then heading out. Luckily for me I’m not that organised so I spent a little more time in Darwin than the norm. It has a sleepy vibe with a surprising nightlife. Most of the locals are from other areas of Australia and have come here for work, and are all very friendly.
Free things to do in Darwin
You’ve probably already heard about Mindil Beach Market with its mouth-watering Australian and Asian hawker-style food stores? Head there for sunset (Darwin has some of the best sunsets on Earth) and be blown away as bright colours erupt out from the Ocean. If you’re interested in a bit of history walk the main esplanade as it not only has great views but also displays information about Darwin Habour in the war along the way.
Where to stay in Darwin
Frogs Hollow Hostel – by far the cheapest I found and it was a great little place. 3 pools set about inside a beautiful garden, good air-con and working Wifi
Couchsurf – I did a bit of CSing in Darwin and found it pretty fricken awesome (thanks Sam!). Most of the houses will give you your own bedroom and the locals are super friendly and totally lovely. Highly recommend it!
Where to eat in Darwin
Other than the Mindil Market I found food to be really expensive in Darwin. There are a bunch of food places on Mitchell street and my fave Thai was Amazing Thailand with super tasty goodness for around $16 a meal.
Litchfield National Park (2-3 days)
Litchfield is a popular day trip from Darwin, but also a beautiful place to stay the night in one of the many bush campgrounds. It’s home to an array of waterfalls and cascades as well as the famous termite mounds that stretch as far as the eye can see. Most of the park is accessible by car, which makes it an easy and popular spot (aka a little overcrowded).
Free things to do in Litchfield
The park is completely free to visit! Sooo many awesomes. My favourite waterfalls were Florence (twin waterfalls with less people and a lot of afternoon sun) and Wangi falls (huge, sunny and a secret infinity pool a little up from one of the falls).
Where to stay in Litchfield
The campsites are all around $6.60 per night. If you have a camper van you are in luck. Stay at one of the beautiful waterfalls such as Wangi or Florence or at Buley Rockhole.
Where to eat in Litchfield
There aren’t too many places to eat here so bring some steaks to fry up on the free BBQ’s instead! There is also a little café at Wangi falls set in amongst the gum trees that looked pretty good.
Kakadu National Park (3-5 days)
Famous Kakadu; the ultimate Australian theme park. Crocodiles, cascading falls, natural beauty, vast landscape, red earth, Kakadu has it all. The very idea of outdoor adventure permeated here. And it surely doesn’t disappoint… unless you only have a 2WD like we did. Make sure you hire a 4WD for this leg of the adventure or suffer the consequences.
Things to do in Kakadu
Unfortunately for budget travellers it costs $40 to enter and stay in this park. Redeemingly the money goes towards traditional landowners and park maintenance (which I’m sure there’s a lot of). Jim Jim and Twin falls are the two main ones (4WD only). in our 2WD we were only able to head to Ubirr art site (sealed) and the Gunlom plunge pool (dirt). The Gunlom area was breathtaking.! A one km hike to the top of the waterfall takes you to a series of plunge pools (infinity pools) that go back as far as you can throw a stick. On your way here from Darwin, be sure to drop in for a crocodile jumping tour on Adelaide River. You’ll get so close to gigantic crocs you’d be able to touch them! For only $45 for the intimate cruise, we thought it was totally worth it.
Camping in Kakadu
There’s a lot of camping, some free, others from $5 – $15; check Wikicamps for prices. However, you’re going to need a 4WD to get to them. The two main resorts in Jabiru were accessible by 2WD but they both cost about $40 per night for a campsite. Stay at Jim Jim falls (4WD only) or Gunlom falls (2WD dirt road), or pretty much any of the other amazing waterfalls for free!
Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) (2 days)
Katherine Gorge is totally gorg-eous… Okay dad-jokes aside this place is breathtakingly beautiful and full to the brim with Aboriginal Culture. 10, 000 year old rock paintings, rivers, lookouts and falls all within easy 2WD access.
Things to do in Nitmiluk
You could do a boat tour of the gorge ($87) where you’ll see the landscape from the river as well as Aboriginal rock art, or you could walk to the lookout nearby to see far-reaching views of the whole, winding river system. To cool off head to Edith falls for a huge waterhole and a bit of bushwalking.
Where to stay in Nitmiluk
Camping – There isn’t really any free camping around Nitmiluk but there are some resorts with powered sites. Knotts Crossing has sites for $45 total.
Cicada Lodge – If you’re thinking of splashing out on an incredibly worthwhile hotel, Cicada Lodge inside Nitmiluk Park is amazing! Gorge views, great food and beautiful cabins, there are only 18 rooms available in this intimate setting.
Elsey National Park (1 day)
A short drive further from Katherine, Elsey National park is big on hot springs. There are a bunch of them scattered around including Mataranka Homestead‘s very own Rainbow Springs. All pools are free.
Things to do in Elsey National Park
My most very favourite springs were Bitter Springs thermal pools. Within a natural setting, winding down and in amongst the palms and banks. Float down the stream until the end where you can jump out and walk back up to the start. There is also Stevie’s Hole for a cooler dip and Roper River for exploring, canoeing or fishing.
READ: My Guide to the Northern Territory covers Daly River, the Devils Marbles, Alice Springs, the MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru
GETTING AROUND DARWIN AND SURROUNDS
I picture myself as a pretty thrifty person but even I found it really hard getting around without a car. Most backpackers without one will just pay for expensive day tours but I found it to be far more economical to hire a car with a friend. If you’re wandering what the cheapest car hire in Darwin is, I’ve found it! After looking online I was seriously put off by the prices, but Advance Car Rentals hire for as little as $35 a day with unlimited kms (most places have a max of 100km per day which restricts you to driving only around Darwin and maybe Litchfield).
This is where your online detective skills are going to come in handy. I found that hiring the van through an online booking agency was cheaper than booking through the actual company’s site. When booking, Motorhome Republic gave me a 25% off deal for a Britz Highball Van. Look out for these and compare lots of prices. We got ours for around $40 per day for 14 days.
Advance Car Rentals also hire 4WD cars for about $135 per day or Wicked Campers were the cheapest I found at $99 per day. Some places may charge extra for going off road, which sucks. My advice? If you’re serious about 4WDing, buy your own then sell it at the end of the trip.
Place: Top End, NT
Currency: Australian Dollars
$1 USD = $1.30
I was there: June 2016
Note: Thank you to Tourism NT for sponsoring part of my stay in the top end and Advance Car Rentals for your help hiring a sweet ride. Opinions are always my own and not influenced by my sponsors.