What springs to your mind when you think of Australia? If it is crocs aplenty, inhospitable climates and staggeringly beautiful nature, then the Top End is definitely the most ‘Australian’ part of the country. Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, is where most people begin their explorations of this area. Darwin is tiny, but is the biggest town/ city by far in the territory; which gives you an idea of just how sparse and rugged this area of Australia is.
The red centre (which includes Alice Springs and Uluru and is a lot further south in the Territory) is well worth visiting, but many of the Northern Territory’s best attractions are in the top end – not too far away from Darwin.
So whether you’re an Aussie, touring with your family or backpacking Australia, check out this guide for some of the best top end camping trips. If you’re interested in one of these weekend trips from Darwin, rent or purchase a campervan (I recommend checking out Gumtree for some fantastic deals!), pack it up with some road trip essentials, and visit these amazing spots in the top end!
Kakadu National Park – 2-3 days
One of the most famous and spectacular national parks in the country, the enourmous Kakadu is a must-visit. This UNESCO world heritage area is located around 3 hours east of Darwin and is home to Aboriginal art dating back over 20,000 years, out of this world landscapes, saltwater crocodiles and amazing swimming spots – just make sure that you don’t get the last two attractions mixed!
Kakadu is hot, and the best time to visit is just after the wet season. This time of year, the temperatures are bearable and the waterfalls are in full flow. There are lots of campsites, both paid-for and free, around Kakadu.
Litchfield National Park – 1-2 days
Kakadu’s little sister, Litchfield, can be done as a day trip from Darwin. It’s not quite as breathtaking as Kakadu, but it’s well worth visiting; it has more waterfalls than Darwin, and some great croc-free swimming spots.
There’s also the dramatic Lost City and lots of four-wheel drive tracks. It’s only an hour south of Darwin, and it is free to enter and explore. Of course, if you have the time, then it’s a great idea to camp at Litchfield. You’ll be able to take in all of the park and enjoy at is your leisure, which you will be thankful for in its heat! There are paid-for campsites near the national park, and free camping spots around the area.
Katherine – 2-3 days
One of the other major towns of the territory (a hilarious title considering its size!), Katherine encompasses both the town and Nitmiluk National Park. You could easily spend a couple of days exploring and camping in the national park, which is home to many gorges, including the sizable Nitmiluk Gorge (also known as Katherine Gorge), and the popular hiking spot and swimming hole Edith Falls.
There is also plenty to do in Katherine itself; visit the School of the Air to discover how children in remote communities are educated, check out some of the fascinating Aboriginal art galleries and laze around in the Katherine Hot Springs, situated a short drive out of town. A day can easily be spent just enjoying the town of Katherine and the unique culture that comes from hanging out on the edge of the Australian outback.
Mataranka – 1-2 days
A little further down the Stuart Highway, Mataranka is great for those who want a mini outback adventure without driving too far from Darwin. The tiny village was the inspiration for the book ‘We of the Never Never’ and is a great spot for fans, but it also packs a punch with natural wonders as well. The Mataranka Springs are popular with locals and passers through, and are a great way to cool off when driving through the heat of the Top End.
But my personal favourite are Bitter Springs – which not so many people know about. Surrounded by trees, these glittering blue springs look absolutely magical. You can get in at one end and let the water drift you to the other end, gazing at the beautiful surroundings as you go. And there are some great rocks to check out under the water too – so bring your snorkel! There are campsites in Mataranka, as well as free camp spots along the Stuart Highway on its approach.
Tennant Creek – 2-3 days
Down into the real outback is the tiny town of Tennant Creek. If you haven’t got the time or desire to drive all the way down to Alice Springs and the Red Centre but want to experience a slick of Territorian outback, Tennant Creek is a great stopping point.
Heading down the Stuart Highway, you can stop at Mataranka for a dip and spend the night at the famous Daly Waters Pub (a travellers’ hangout) before approaching Tennant Creek. It doesn’t seem like there is much going on in Tennant Creek on first arrival, but there is much more than meets the eye here.
Check out The Pebbles, a site of Aboriginal significance; learn about Tennant Creek’s rich mining history to discover exactly why a town was built here; check out the spectacular Barkly region on one of the many walking trails. There are also 4WD tracks, Indigenous art galleries and Lake Mary Ann which is the perfect spot for a dip.
Tips for camping in the top end
- Throughout this post, I’ve mentioned free camp spots and paid-for campsites. What’s the difference? I hear you ask. Paid-for campsites are what you expect – campsites that you pay a fee to use. They will include amenities like toilets, showers, a camp kitchen and maybe a pool (which is sometimes a must-have in the heat of this top end!).Free camp spots are, as the name suggests, free. They sometimes have a toilet, maybe feature a BBQ, and not much else. I wrote a post about free camping in Australia where you can read more about this budget accommodation solution!
- If you are using free camp spots, take care not to camp too close to any water. Saltwater crocodiles are rife in the top end, and they are merciless when it comes to their victims.It is better to be safe than sorry – so if you are unsure about any body of water, even if it is just a little creek, stay at least 50 metres away from it. If you are using paid-for campsites, this shouldn’t be an issue.
- You might have heard that spiders and snakes like to kick around in Australia. To avoid having one in your caravan or tent when you’re camping, make sure you always keep the doors closed. Most spiders and snakes aren’t aggressive, but you may be a long way from help so it definitely isn’t the ideal place to get bit!
- The top end is hot. The best time to do most of these trips is during the dry season; the coolest months are probably May, June and July. The exception to this is maybe Litchfield National Park, where the waterfalls are spectacular in the wet season.
- Even if you’re visiting in the depths of winter, chances are you’ll be very warm when sleeping! If you can invest in a battery-operated fan, your body thermometer will thank you.
- Mosquitoes are also a problem. There is no dengue or malaria in Australia, but they’re hella annoying. Don’t forget your DEET.
- Some of these trips include driving for a few hours in the outback. This will probably be completely unlike any other driving you have experienced and you’ll have to make sure you’re well prepared for it.The golden rules are take plenty of breaks, don’t drive at night, don’t think you can drive too much in one day and swap drivers more often than normal. Driving in the outback is an amazing experience, but it does come with its risks!
- Take way more water than you think you’ll need (I drank about six litres a day when exploring Kakadu in 40 degree heat), stock up with all the food you’ll need in Woolies before you go and make sure you have car essentials; oil, coolant, a spare tyre and a jack at the very least.