Are you enjoying re-living Simon Reeve’s cross country adventure through Australia’s tropical reefs, indigenous history and jaw-dropping scenery? Why not take your own trip of a lifetime, travelling from the Northern territory capital of Darwin, through the legendary outback and on to the popular tourist mecca of Cairns, Queensland where you can explore the beguiling wonders of the Great Barrier Reef… Intrigued? So were we, so we travelled halfway across the world to test out exactly what Australia’s tropical north has to offer:
Darwin and the Northern Territory
Park your stress at the door as you step off the plane and set foot into the Northern Territory capital of Darwin. Embraced by tropical climes during its dry season (which runs between May and September), the city’s easy-going, relaxed ethos will soon suck you in as you take a stroll around its sun-soaked harbour front or hop from bar to bar on busy Mitchell Street.
Check into the Mantra on the Esplanade for a front row view of Darwin’s spectacular sunsets, or try the Adina Apartment Hotel where you can choose from a bustling selection of bars and eateries right on your doorstep, before taking in a film under the stars at the complex’s outdoor Deckchair Cinema.
Or if you fancy sampling some exotic cuisine, look no further than Mindil Beach Markets which attract locals and tourists in their droves every Thursday and Sunday, thanks to their extensive variety of food stalls. Once you’ve picked out your sizzling Chinese takeaway or jumbo Italian pizza, take it down to the nearby beach with your camera at the ready for a sunset that will blow your mind. See what we mean…
A military landmark
Did you know that on 19 February 1942 Japanese aircraft dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbour two months earlier? It may not fill the pages of our history books to the extent of the surprise attack on America, but fascinating relics of Darwin’s battle with their Asian neighbours are scattered throughout the city. Begin your bespoke tour with Offroad Dreaming by exploring the disused WWII oil storage tunnels on Kitchener Drive before heading over to Charles Darwin National Park to inspect its camouflaged ammunition bunkers, used to conceal resources from Australia’s aerial enemies. Then complete your Australian Second World War education by reliving the city’s two years of persistent bombing at Darwin’s Military Museum through first-hand accounts and interactive presentations.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
While large parts of Darwin were destroyed by the Japanese, thirty years later the city found itself razed to the ground yet again when Cyclone Tracy tore through the region on Christmas Eve, 1974. Pay a visit to Darwin Harbour’s Museum and Art Gallery to relive the sound of the 240kmph winds that made up the category four mega storm, before dropping in for a photo op with Sweetheart – the centre’s five-metre stuffed croc who terrorised those brave enough to jump in a boat on the local Finnis River during the 1970s.
And speaking of Australia’s native reptilian giants, make sure to stop off at Crocosaurus Cove in the heart of the city for the chance to get up close and personal with snakes, lizards and baby crocs, before sharing some daredevil downtime with the centre’s mighty beasts in the Cove’s infamous Cage of Death (left).
Fishing is one of Australia’s national pastimes and Darwin’s picturesque harbour – which stretches out to twice the size of Sydney’s – holds a wealth of exciting marine life. No, we’re not talking jellyfish and sharks – grab your line and head out on the water to fish for local delicacy the Barramundi and you might just encounter some Spanish mackerel, mud crabs and much, much more… For a top selection, head out just before or straight after the wet season (that’s March and April or August to December) and hire a local guide to point out the best spots. Just be sure not to get your toes wet as the harbour also plays host to a dangerous selection of nasties including crocs, sharks and jellyfish. And while you’re enjoying the water, round off your day with a romantic sunset sail aboard Darwin Harbour Cruises departing from Stokes Hill Wharf to witness the city’s skyline adorned with red, pink and golden hues.
Head into the Outback
Once you’ve toured the sights of Darwin, it’s time to head outside of the city’s perimeter into Australia’s infamous outback for a visit to Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks. Just 100km from the NT capital lies the breath-taking natural scenery of Litchfield. While you can explore the park’s natural waterfalls and exotic wildlife by yourself, get the most out of your trip by joining up with a NT Indigenous Tour for a first-hand look at the Aboriginal way of life, plus the chance to channel I’m a Celebrity and sample some local cuisine – that’s if you’re game enough to try local bush tucker kangaroo and crocodile…
And if you’re a fan of iconic Aussie film Crocodile Dundee, don’t miss an overnight stay in Mick Dundee’s back yard – book with WayOutBack Australian Safaris for a memorable two or three-day stay, taking in the sights of Kakadu National Park, 170km south-east of Darwin. Kick off your trip with a two-hour cruise along the Mary River Wetlands, but be warned – this isn’t just any old watering hole… It’s home to the highest concentration of saltwater crocs in the Southern Hemisphere so make sure to keep your hands and feet firmly inside the vehicle as you make your way through crocodile soup.
During your trip you’ll also have the chance to cool off in some of Kakadu’s idyllic swimming spots, from the thundering Jim Jim Falls to the tranquil natural infinity pool at Gunlom. Round off your excursion with a tour of some of the local indigenous artwork at Ubirr, dating back some 15,000 years, before a steep hike up to Nadab Lookout for a panoramic view over some of Dundee’s best-known locations.
Port Douglas and the Great Barrier Reef
Once you’ve had your fill of the Northern Territory, pack up your things and head to the sleepy pocket paradise that is Port Douglas. Located in coastal Queensland and accessible from Cairns airport (just a three hour flight from Darwin), this tropical hideaway with its quaint town centre has long been a favourite amongst celebrity clientele, from Pink and Claudia Schiffer to Lady Gaga – and even Bill Clinton. Book into the luxurious QT Resort on Port Douglas Road for a few nights and it’s easy to see why…
After you’ve basked in the rays by the pool, catch the shuttle bus into town for a stroll along Port’s low-key high street, filled with a delightful selection of local businesses and restaurants. Glance above and you’ll realise not one building stands above the tallest tree – look up and down the street and you won’t spot a single fast food outlet. A lesson in escapism. And while Port Douglas is famed for its postcard-perfect Four Mile Beach, make sure you head into town on a Sunday to peruse the community’s renowned markets, selling an enticing array of local goods and produce.
Although a trip to Port Douglas is far from complete on land. Take advantage of the Great Barrier Reef on your doorstep by heading out to sea on one of Quicksilver’s action-packed trips to Agincourt Reef for the chance to paddle alongside some of Australia’s breathtaking tropical marine life. Keen ocean adventurers can helmet dive, scuba and snorkel, but if you’re less than enthused about taking a dip, fear not – you can still witness the teaming coral blooms from a stationary observatory or sail through the depths in a semi-submersible. This cruise caters for all.
The Daintree Rainforest
Back on land, another vast ecosystem is waiting to be explored… The Daintree rainforest is said to be the oldest surviving rainforest in the world – uncover the wonders hidden beneath its dense canopy on a day trip with Down Under Tours, making sure to stop off at Mossman Gorge for a Kuku Yalanji Dreamtime Walk with a local guide, learning about the endless outdoor pharmacy utilised by the Aboriginal people. From leaves that can be scrubbed into shampoo, to the Yellow Walnut Tree which removes oxygen from the water, stunning fish for an easy catch – the beguiling qualities of the flora and fauna will have your mind boggling.
From a tranquil tropical retreat to a tourist honeypot, the city of Cairns is a staple of the Aussie backpacker trail. Brimming with cheap eateries and late-night bars, the seafront city has a local population of just 150,000, but dutifully caters for the tourists who visit in their droves, especially during peak season from June to October. Check into the centrally-located Hotel Cairns before heading out to explore the city’s palm-lined streets…
But besides a decent nightlife, Cairns is another destination playing host to the lush Daintree Rainforest that hugs the city’s perimeter. Survey the canopy in style by travelling above the treetops in a Skyrail cable car, stopping off to look out over dramatic Barron Falls as you complete your ascent to the rainforest village of Kuranda.
Upon arrival, lose yourself amongst the stalls that line the old town’s streets, before heading to the Kuranda Heritage Markets to get up close and personal with some native Australian wildlife. Have your camera at the ready for a stroll through the vibrant colours of the Butterfly Sanctuary before heading over to Birdworld to feed a selection of inquisitive parrots, macaws and the rainforest’s blue-necked Cassowary. And no wildlife experience is complete without the chance to meet and greet a crowd of friendly kangaroos – go and say hi at the Koala Gardens before enjoying a cuddle with one of Australia’s much-loved tree-huggers.
Tired yet? Put your feet up after a busy day by catching the Kuranda Scenic Rail for a winding ride past the falls and gorges that make up Daintree’s looming landscape. If you’re feeling indulgent, upgrade to Gold Class for a refreshing menu of local produce served to you as you weave your way back down to Cairnes.
And while the Cairns coastal mud flats leave a lot to be desired, you can get your fill of north Queensland’s white rolling sands and gentle lapping waters just twenty minutes out of the city at the Kewarra Beach Resort. Stay in a private bungalow, just a short walk from the beach amidst tropical trees and wildlife for a deluxe beach experience – and, you guessed it, yet more cracking sunsets.