Daly River and surrounds
Less than three hours’ drive from Darwin and you’re at arguably Australia’s best barramundi fishing destination: the Daly River. This 351km-long waterway winds its way past the town of Daly River and the indigenous community of Nauiyu and offers plenty for (obviously) the angler, but also Top End history buffs, birdwatchers and 4WD tourers.
The area has been the home of the Malak Malak people for eons, with the discovery of copper back in 1882 at Mt Hayward seeing Europeans arrive in more significant numbers. There is little remaining of the copper mine today, besides the mine shafts themselves. The next European visitors to the region were Jesuit missionaries, who established a small mission (now in ruins just near the Daly River Mango Farm) and then, much later in the 1950s Roman Catholics moved to the community of Nauiyu, now the area’s main town/centre, with the majority of the population Roman Catholic. Visitors should definitely check out Nauiyu; besides the obvious resupply and refuel opportunities, the community’s Merrepen Arts Centre is brilliant. Visitors can purchase indigenous artwork here in a variety of styles and formats, ranging from paintings to shirts and weavings. The community’s church is also worth a look.
Of course, it is the big (some say biggest) barramundi that most visitors to Darwin come to the Daly River for. Arrive just after Wet Season is over and the roads (and the Daly River Crossing itself) are passable and you’ll be in with a great chance of snaring that big barra. There are numerous accommodation options around here that revolve around the hunt for barra, or you can camp down beside the river itself if you wish. However, it’s not only the barra that are big; as with most Top End waterways, the Daly River is home to both species of crocodile and some of the saltwater crocs lazing on the river’s shore are indeed bloody huge – as in longer than some tinnies. Cruising along the river in your boat, throwing out a line for barra and ogling the massive crocs, is great fun though.
There are a number of short four-wheel drive adventures surrounding this area, including a day visit out to the community of Peppimenarti (you will need to apply for a visitor’s permit beforehand), or a trundle down to some of the nearby billabongs for some bird spotting. Alternatively, there’s the 1.5-hour drive to Oolloo Crossing and the chance to camp in this pristine, remote part of the area. The crossing here is rarely used due to the build-up of sand banks on the opposite side of the river (and you need a permit), but the bush camping on the banks above the river is great. You can even launch your tinny here if you wish to hook a barra or two.
As well as the same-named crossing on Oolloo Road, there’s the Douglas River Esplanade Conservation Area, slightly north of the crossing. This conservation area contains some fantastic thermal springs that are great for washing the dust off in, and simply relaxing. There are nine campsites here as well, with plenty to occupy both those on a day visit, or those camping. The Arches (a rock formation carved by the river’s flow) is well worth an hour of exploration, as is The Weir. Keep an eye out for water dragons, snakes and other native wildlife that live in this riverine environment.
Going from Daly River/Nauiyu to Oolloo Crossing and the Douglas River Esplanade Conservation does require some backtracking but a long weekend would make this more than worth the effort. For lovers of the big NT waterways, barramundi fishing, croc-spotting and a thriving indigenous culture, it’s a no-brainer.
Litchfield National Park
Just over an hour from Darwin, Litchfield National Park fulfils the cliché of transporting you to another world. In this case, one of huge waterfalls, big rivers, bigger wildlife, bushwalks, loads of swimming, excellent camping and prolific birdlife. The park is a microcosm of the Top End; smaller than its famous neighbour, Kakadu, Litchfield gives visitors with limited time the chance to gain a sense of the Top End’s timeless appeal. (See our Kakadu NP road trip story here.)
The township of Batchelor is the quickest way to enter the park from Darwin, and you follow Litchfield Park Road into the northwest corner of the park, where you’ll find all the famous attractions, such as Florence Falls, Buley Rockhole, Tolmer Falls, and Wangi Falls directly off this sealed route. The Tabletop Swamp and The Lost City are accessed via dirt racks off this main road. In this northern section, you won’t be alone – day visitors and tourist buses swamp this part of Litchfield during the Dry Season. Swimming in the Top End is generally a no-go due to the proliferation of saltwater crocodiles in the region’s waterways. However, most pools at the bottom of Litchfield’s waterfalls are checked by Parks NT at the end of the Wet Season.
For a more remote, wilder experience, we’d recommend spending just the day and night in this part of the park (and camping at Wangi Falls). Then we’d head south, via the 4WD-only track that takes you south from Greenant Creek. This track swaps between challenging and straightforward, with a big dose of fun. There are some great highlights along here, not the least being the water crossings – the Reynolds River, in particular, is a cracker – but also make time for a stopover at historic Blyth Homestead and a swim at Tjaynera Falls.
More water crossings follow as you continue south before Surprise Creek Falls, another fantastic swim spot and campsite. From here you continue to the park’s southern exit/entry and turn east on to Daly River Road and then back to the Stuart Hwy and Darwin. Yep, if there’s a city that has plenty of short – and unique – escapes, it’s the Top End capital of Darwin.