Put your credit card on ice in Australia’s most budget-friendly destination: the adventurous, unbeatable Northern Territory.
Everyone loves a freebie, whatever your budget, and the Northern Territory is full of thrills, wild encounters and mind-blowing sights that will mothball your wallet for months. You might be happy to pay for them, but these Top 50 experiences won’t cost you a cent.
THE TOP END
1. Snorkel Bitter Springs
Tackle inland Australia’s best snorkelling experience in the warm, uber-clear thermal channels at Bitter Springs in Mataranka. Arrive at dawn to have them all to yourself.
2. Soak in Mataranka Thermal Pools
Simmering away at 34˚C and shaded by fan palms, Mataranka’s dreamy plunge pools are a spectacular place to soak. Downstream, spot freshwater crocodiles, and the little red flying-foxes that take flight in stunning sunset spectacles.
3. Sunset at the Devils Marbles
Precariously balanced and frozen in mind-boggling towers, Karlu Karlu’s gigantic granite orbs glow golden at sunset, luring rock-hoppers sky-high to precarious viewpoints. Located 100km south of Tennant Creek, there’s free entry and free Wi-Fi too.
4. Discover Wagiman Rock Art
Harbouring Indigenous rock art and gorgeous clear rock pools you can wade endlessly through, blissfully isolated Umbrawarra Gorge is accessible to all vehicles, 22km off the Stuart Highway, northwest of Katherine.
5. Fish the Mary River barrage
With more crocodiles than anywhere else on earth, the Mary River barrage is a thrilling fishing spot where salt and freshwaters converge. There’s camping, hiking trails and boat ramps, an hour’s drive out of Darwin en route to Kakadu.
6. Test the infinity pool atop Gunlom Falls
Climb the kilometre-long track above Gunlom Falls and collapse into the north’s highest plunge pool. There’s a campground and a big waterhole at its base, located in Kakadu National Park.
7. Croc-spot at Cahills Crossing
At the turn of the high tide, estuarine crocodiles slither down muddy banks to spar with anglers for the barramundi trapped on the wrong side of the causeway. Head to the East Alligator River in Kakadu National Park.
8. Catch Jabiru’s Mahbilil Festival
This free cultural, music, dance, art and bush foods festival hosts a stack of workshops, great entertainment and is super kid-friendly too, held every September (mahbililfestival.com).
9. Hang a bra in the Territory’s oldest pub
Daly Waters Historic Pub is not only a top travellers rest but just next door, Australia’s first international airport has been turned into an excellent (free) National Trust aviation museum.
10. Get weird at Wycliffe Well
Australia’s alien capital is one of the top 10 places in the world to spot UFOs and its fuel is amongst the cheapest between Katherine and Alice Springs.
11. Hike Katherine Gorge
Forget pricey gorge cruises and kayak rental, the cheap way to capture Nitmiluk’s best view is to hike your way to Baruwei Lookout in time for sunrise (and solitude), just 900 metres (one hour) from the boat ramp.
12. Tjuwaliyn Hot Springs
These steaming underground springs bubble to the surface at a red-hot 60˚C, mingling with cooler flows in gorgeous sandy pools along the Douglas River. Entry is free and a national park camp overlooks the springs, signposted 6km north of Hayes Creek.
13. Tour Ubirr
With sweeping rock overhangs and dazzling, 1500-year-old art, Kakadu’s best art site is a short, sealed stroll away (1km loop). Take a hike (or join a free tour) in the late afternoon for stunning sunset views over the floodplains.
14. Wake up at Yellow Water Billabong
Stroll the boardwalk at dawn to encounter Yellow Water’s crocodiles, buffalo, brumbies and lots of waterbirds – magpie geese, brolgas, comb crested jacanas and glossy jabirus too.
15. 4WD to Kakadu’s best falls
Leave the crowds in your wake as you rumble off the bitumen to the tremendous, sheer-drop waterfalls at Jim Jim and Twin Falls.
16. Stay at Little Roper Stock Camp
At the Northern Territory’s best stock camp, campers gather around the communal fire at dawn for free billy tea and $1 Johnny Cakes. Kids stay for free too, making it Mataranka’s best overnight family stay.
17. Bathe beneath Butterfly Falls
Adventure off-road into Limmen National Park (free entry) and spend a day soaking in the croc-free pool beneath Butterfly Falls where thousands of common crow butterflies flutter on cool, stone walls.
18. Stand beneath Leliyn Falls
Swim across this enormous waterhole for a pummelling massage beneath Leliyn Falls. Afterwards, climb the high trail to secret, secluded pools along the Edith River. The popular campground on its banks has grassy sites and a kiosk too.
19. Katherine’s Monsoon Springs
Gloriously tranquilising, don’t miss a soak in the Northern Territory’s most accessible hot springs, located in the heart of Katherine (free entry!).
20. Peer through the Window on the Wetlands
En route to Kakadu, this interpretive centre atop Beatrice Hill provides top watery views over the Adelaide River floodplains (free entry).
21. Immerse yourself in Indigenous Culture
Synthesise your Top End experience with a lap through Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, located close to Kakadu’s Yellow Water Billabong.
22. Bathe beneath Barramundi Falls
This deep plunge pool in Kakadu’s less-visited southern half offers a breathtaking swim, lofty plunge pools and authentic bush camping (12km off Kakadu Highway, 4WD recommended).
23. Tennant Creek’s Overland Telegraph Station
Self-guided tours here are free and full of intriguing Aussie facts like this one: in 1887, it took seven hours to relay a message from Adelaide to England via the Overland Telegraph line.
24. Flora River’s tufa waterfalls
Fish for barra, boat with freshwater crocodiles and watch the Flora River tumble over limestone tufa falls into swirling, jade-coloured pools. There’s a spacious, riverside camp, just 132km west of Katherine.
25. Take a Judburra day-trip
4WD south of Timber Creek to discover fossilised stromatolites, tour old Bullita Homestead, spot rare gouldian finches, dangle a line in the East Baines River and drive through Jasper Gorge in one long, dusty, exhilarating day.
26. Find the Gregory Tree
Find explorer Augustus Charles Gregory’s famously-carved boab tree (Ngalibinggag), spot truly enormous estuarine crocodiles basking on the banks of the Victoria River, poke around a Police Museum, and launch a boat from Big Horse Creek campground for your own barramundi dinner (try neap tides from late March to late May).
27. Petroglyphs & ancient artifacts
Hike past hidden rock art and climb the sandstone lookout known as Wyimny for top views over remote Keep River National Park.
THE RED CENTRE
28. Cycle to Simpsons Gap
From Alice Springs to John Flynn’s grave (of Royal Flying Doctors fame) and along the Red Centre’s best bush cycleway, this easy, breezy ride ends at Simpsons Gap where black-footed rock wallabies gather by the waterhole (17km one-way).
29. Alice Springs Rock Art
It’s the birthplace of Alice Springs where sacred Mparntwe caterpillar beings – responsible for carving out much of the Red Centre’s rugged landscape – are painted onto Emily Gap’s sheer rock walls. Find them 10km from town.
30. Brave Ellery Creek Bighole
Brace yourself for a chilly dip in one of the largest permanent waterholes in the West MacDonnell Ranges. You’ll spot rock wallabies at dusk and dawn and there’s a scenic bush campground close by.
31.Noodle through Redbank Gorge
Cathedral-high walls disappear into a narrow, twisting chasm of marbled red quartzite in perhaps the least-explored waterway in the Red Centre. Find it at the far end of the West MacDonnell Ranges (BYO noodle).
32. Hug a tree
Not just any tree but the largest ghost gum in the East MacDonnell Ranges: an impressive 300-year-old beauty with a tremendous, 33 metre-high trunk, located at the entrance to Trephina Gorge.
33. Shimmy through a mineshaft
There’s a ghostly collection of crumbling ruins to explore in Arltunga Historical Reserve, the site of the Red Centre’s first settlement built on gold. Arltunga’s excellent museum is free and thrillingly, you can self-tour three gold mines, dropping deep underground!
34. Ewaninga petroglyphs
Chiselled by the hands of a thousand storytellers, Ewaninga Rock Carvings turn this cluster of sandstone outcrops into one of the Red Centre’s most amazing sites, located 35km south of Alice Springs via sealed roads.
35. Climb Trephina Gorge
Climb to the lofty rim of Trephina Gorge at sunset to watch the sun carry its colours to the far horizon and throw them skyward in one shimmering crimson spectacle.
36. Gorge Out
Strap on your hiking shoes and hit the trail to teeter on the edge of mind-blowing Ormiston Pound. Afterwards, head for Glen Helen Gorge in time for a soak and a champagne sunset.
37. Climb the King of Canyons
Stand atop sunburnt sandstone walls for vertigo-inducing views of Kings Canyon, carved into the rugged George Gill Range 150 breathless metres below. Stroll on through the Garden of Eden, the Lost City and Kestral Falls in one exhilarating half-day loop (6km).
38. Rise and shine at Uluru
Leave your camp well before dawn to reach Australia’s most iconic landmark as the rising sun ignites its rosy sandstone walls. Afterwards, wake yourself up on the walking trail that loops for 10km around the base of Uluru.
39. Discover Anangu Culture
Pass through the Tjukurpa Tunnel at the entrance to award-winning Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre and immerse yourself in the storytelling, sand drawings, law and legends of Anangu culture (free entry).
40. What’s free at Ayers Rock Resort?
Take a didgeridoo lesson, a bush tucker tour, visit the Astor Hub or join a guided walk of a desert garden – just some of the free activities on offer to all travellers in staying at Yulara (download a program from ayerrockresort.com). Don’t forget: you can extend your three-day Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park pass at no cost, just ask the rangers at the national park entry gate.
41. Feel the wind in your hair
Windy walkways climb to inspiring lookouts over Kata Tjuta’s spectacular sandstone wilderness. The aptly named Valley of the Winds trail (2 hours) carves a breathtaking path, 50km west of Uluru.
Out & About in Darwin
42. Step inside the eye of a cyclone
Eyeball Sweetheart the crocodile – the NT’s biggest known catch, step inside the eye of Cyclone Tracy and check out art, natural history and more at Darwin’s excellent Museum and Art Gallery of the NT (open daily, 10am-5pm).
43. Catch sunset at Mindil Beach
Cool tunes, great food and distinctly tropical shopping draws a big crowd to Darwin’s famous beachfront markets from April to September.
44. Darwin’s Free Waterfront
Swim in the Recreation Lagoon (free entry 9am-6pm), watch free monthly movies under the stars (May to October) and join free Saturday morning yoga sessions during the dry season months.
45. Switch to free Wi-Fi
Log on throughout Darwin’s CBD, on the Waterfront, at Mindil Beach markets and at Top End national parks including Litchfield (Wangi Falls).
46. Litchfield’s Top 5
It’s Kakadu in miniature without the pricey entrance fee and a top day goes like this: plunge into Buley Rockhole at dawn, hike to hidden plunge pools above Tjaetaba Falls, cool down beneath Florence or Wangi Falls, take a stroll through the Lost City and finally, 4WD to tour historical Blythe Homestead.
47. Discover Indigenous Art
In Darwin’s CBD, three galleries showcase the work of Australia’s first artists – Mason Gallery, the Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery and Mbantua Gallery.
48. Ride the slides at Leanyer Recreation Park
Cool down with some watery fun at Darwin’s favourite play park. There are paddling pools for littlies, a skate park and shaded picnic areas too.
49. Stroll with wallabies at East Point Reserve
There’s 200 hectares of walking trails and military history to discover on Darwin’s scenic coastline, just east of the CBD, and precious few people to share it with.
50. Hot springs heaven
Head 40 minutes south of Darwin to bathe in bliss at Berry Springs Nature Park. The hot springs are crowd-free at dawn when wildlife gathers in the monsoon forest (open daily, 8am to 6.30pm). Perfect!
Time your trip: Visit from April to September for cool temperatures and clear skies.
Best Free Festivals: Alice Springs Beanie Festival (July); Kakadu National Park’s Mahbilil Festival (September).
Top Free Camp: The Pebbles, 16km north of Tennant Creek.
Be Croc-aware: Estuarine and freshwater crocs inhabit rivers, creeks and lagoons across the Top End so always obey signage posted around waterways and if in doubt, stay out of the water.
Contacts: northernterritory.com, discovercentralaustralia.com, visitkatherine.com.au, nt.gov.au, parksaustralia.gov.au, ayersrockresort.com.au.