Northern Australia: Darwin and the Top End

In Australia's untamed northern reaches, if you've got the time, you can hang with crocodiles and wild kangaroos for $20 to $30 a day

By Jason Cochran,

Big-game safaris have become too darned big-ticket; even a cheap one to Africa typically hits you for $2,200 a week. So how can a frugal addict of Survivor or National Geographic live like Marlin Perkins for pennies? The backpackers know. They're not thronging Africa, paying luxury rates and dodging rebellions. They're in exotic Australia, where you slice prices in half to get the rough cost in U.S. dollars.

Australia's secluded, tropical Top End is the cut-rate home of your wildest Discovery Channel dreams. Unlike ecosystems in the rest of Oz - ravaged by feral cats, rabbits, and pigs - here there have been few extinctions since Europeans arrived. Better yet, a sensational exchange rate comes with nearly free access to thousands of square miles of pristine wilderness, English-speaking locals (well, sort of), and the best-preserved pockets of Aboriginal life anywhere in the world.

Leave your tent at home, because there's a safe place to sleep. Like the best seaside hangouts, quirky Darwin (the only settlement you could call a city up here) lures folks who drop by and never want to leave. Mitchell Street, the sluggish heartbeat of budget Darwin, hosts an eternal pub crawl where clean hostel beds are $10 and every other bar offers a trough of free meals (stir-fry, lamb, rice) to anyone who buys a $1.25 beer (prices cited in U.S. dollars).

Though it's tempting to spend listless weeks swilling beer from a "stubby" on the shore, the real draws to the Top End are two of Australia's least-tamed national parks, Kakadu and Litchfield.

Kakadu, larger than Connecticut at 7,336 square miles, is a World Heritage-protected site, and with good reason. A virgin wilderness in a country renowned for funky flora and fauna, Kakadu is home to a third of all Australia's bird species, many breathtakingly big. Not to mention termites that build 20-foot towers, a welter of wallabies, and 1,000 species of flies - most of which, sooner or later, will attempt to explore your nostrils. Many animals, including the endearingly named black wallaroo and chestnut-backed button-quail, are found only here. Others, such as the menacing saltwater crocodile, lurk in their thickest populations on Earth. On the nearby Mary River, our pontoon recently pulled nose-to-nose with dozens of dozing crocs, which set our teeth chattering nearly as loudly as our camera shutters. The Crocodile Hunter would have tinkled his khakis.

Down under on the down low

Yes, there's that pesky matter of getting to Oz, but light expenses on the ground will balance your initial transportation outlay. Happily, the Top End is best seen during its warm and dry winter, from June through August, when round-trip airfare prices from Los Angeles to Sydney (13 hours) ebb as low as $800. In fact, don't bother with the Top End during the sultry Aussie summer, because roads turn to pudding, animals disperse, and the sweat flows freer than Victoria Bitter. If you arrive via Sydney, you can fly to Darwin one-way (five hours, or about the same distance as Washington, D.C., to Phoenix) for $190 using Qantas's Boomerang Pass (800/227-4500), purchasable only in the United States, which gets you discount fares within Australia and New Zealand based on how far you fly. It's definitely the way to go if you want to hop around Oz. Then again, because Darwin is close to Southeast Asia, you might choose to tour Asia by flying Malaysia Airlines from Los Angeles (via Taipei and Kuala Lumpur) to Darwin (around $1,500 round-trip).

If you have time, go by road. Greyhound (011-61-7/5690-9888, greyhound.com.au) charges $386 for a six-month pass including unlimited stops along the East Coast from Sydney to Darwin. For $448, Oz Experience's "Fish Hook" route does Sydney-to-Darwin via the Red Center, stopping all you want for a year (011-61-2/8356-1766, ozexperience.com). I recently took an unforgettable drive south from Darwin, out of the tropical rain belt and through the eerie Gold Rush ghost towns along the dusty Stuart Highway (there's plenty of food and fuel), ending four days later at legendary Uluru (better known to some by its European name, Ayers Rock).

Australians, who cherish the family road trip in a way Americans have forgotten, also pride themselves on saving money, so most hostels provide plenty of private rooms, with communal bathrooms and kitchens, for couples and kin. In Darwin, the YHA (69 Mitchell St., 8981-2560, yha.com.au) and the more rambunctious Globetrotters Lodge (97 Mitchell St., 8981-5385, globetrotters.com.au) both charge $10 for a spot in a four-bed room, and double rooms go for just $23. If you don't like those, Mitchell Street in Darwin offers many others. Motels are plentiful, too. Value Inn (50 Mitchell St., 8981-4733, valueinn.com.au), smack in town, and The Capricornia (3 Kellaway St., 8981-4055), near Mindl Beach, lead the pack at $39 for a standard (but spotless) room, with A/C and TV, sleeping up to three. For its Tales of the City vibe, I favor the Mississippi Queen (4 Gardiner St., 8981-3358), inhabited by colorful misfits, where very basic beds ($17) are aboard retired campers, and the beer is served aboard an aging railway car.

Thanks to the exchange rate, nearly no meal in Darwin is out of range. Locals sniff at munching 'roos and crocs, but tourists tuck into them at Barra Bar (15 Knuckey St., 8941-0513), a greasy spoon where Australia's indigenous critters, including barramundi fish, cost just $3 a burger - which is ironic, considering the pains travelers take to see the same animals in their natural glory. Darwin's sea bounty and a booming Asian population prop up more authentic cuisine. Go Sushi (28 Mitchell St., Shop 5, 8941-1008) serves a la carte $1.50-$3 plates on a traditional rotary-belt bar (though the owner laments workmen installed it incorrectly, making it the only one in Australia to commit the Buddhist heresy of running counter-clockwise), and six helpings of high-quality sushi will set you back an unheard-of $8 to $10. Even five-star dining, such as braised rabbit or Sri Lankan lamb curry served in the garden of Twilight on Lindsay (2 Lindsay St., 8981-8631), runs just $20 for three gourmet courses with a glass of fine Australian wine from the Hunter Valley.

Darwin itself has a savage past. Early explorers died by the dozen trying to reach it, the Japanese blitzed it during World War II (killing 243 servicemen - battleships still litter the harbor floor), and Cyclone Tracy obliterated it on Christmas Day, 1974. To survive, the Northern Territory folk became ornery, and they know the values of beer, beach, and strangely unruly ZZ Top beards - blokes look like wallaroos got stuck on their chins.

Befitting the eccentric populace, pleasures in town are one-of-a-kind. The owners of Aquascene (Doctors Gully, 8981-7837, aquascene.com.au; adults $3) trained lumbering oceangoing creatures like milkfish and shovel-nosed rays to eat from tourists' hands during high tide. Over at Indo-Pacific (Darwin Wharf, 8981-1294, indopacific.com.au; $8), they've spent 30 slow years cultivating vats of fluorescent coral, sea cucumbers, and tropical fish-dazzling life unique to the local Arafura Sea. And at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (Bullocky Point, 8999-8201; free), expect a snazzy facility with bizarre displays like jarred jellyfish, dry-docked Indonesian sloops, and the worldly possessions of an elderly widow who died in 1995. Of course, Darwin also supports an array of touristy farms (about $10) where "jumping crocodiles" leap for raw chicken meat. Most visitors don't miss the ghoulish spectacle of a "croc feed."

If you can, time your visit for late July to catch the annual Beer Can Regatta at Mindil Beach, when ale-sodden Darwinites race flimsy boats made of empty cans. If you yearn for a dip, though, heed the posted warnings. Darwin is a nice town but it's still wild - depending on the season, waters teem with sharks, deadly box jellyfish, or snapjawed crocs.

Darwin's animal kingdom

When they're ready to fan out from town, folks flock to Kakadu, three hours southeast of Darwin, on a guided tour that includes food, 4WD vehicles, and camping. Of the many contenders jostling for business on Mitchell Street, Adventure Tours Australia (8936-1311, adventuretours.com.au) is the 800-pound kangaroo, including private billabong (water hole) boat rides and camping in tents. It has six itineraries with meals, including a three-day Kakadu romp for $288. Young travelers tend toward simpler (and cheaper) options such as the $200 three-day tours from Kakadu Dreams (8981-3266, kakadudreams.com.au), but in cramped vehicles. For Litchfield National Park, beloved in Oz for its waterfalls, swimming holes, and magnetically aligned termite mounds-flat as giant playing cards-Coo-ee Tours (8947-4066, coo-eetours.com) offers a full-day tour, complete with food and a croc safari at a private billabong, for $48.

You can tour the parks for even less on your own. It costs only $8 to enter Kakadu for two weeks, and space at bathroom-equipped campgrounds rents for just $2.70 per night. Bushwalks cost nothing (stay on dry land unless you want to become dinner), and timetables for free ranger-led walks and talks, as well as Aboriginal culture cruises ($15) and croc cruises ($17), are available at the Bowali Visitor Centre at Jabiru. Mechanically inclined backpackers buy and resell third-hand clunkers from the local car market (Mitchell and Peel Streets; $300 and up) for extended outback odysseys, but short-termers rent for around $21 per day from Territory Thrifty (8924-0000) or $29 per day for a 2WD camper from KEA (011-61-2/8707-5500, keacampers.com). Four-wheel-drive vehicles, required for the most spectacular spots such as Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu, cost about $86 per day before fuel (about $2 per gallon). Litchfield National Park is free to enter, and campsites cost $1 to $2.50 per night; it's two hours south of Darwin.

Besides crocs and walks (and nights so clear the Milky Way streaks the sky like the stripe on a billiard ball), tourists come to Darwin in search of Aborigines, Australia's oldest natives, who have dwelt in the region for some 40,000 years. The Top End is certainly the best place to learn about them, since Kakadu borders the vast Aboriginal territory called Arnhem Land. Tours there are too pricey and require permission, but Australians are mindful of their heritage, so nearly every organized tour to Kakadu includes a lesson in "bush tucker" (food found in the wilderness), Aboriginal traditions, or a visit to sacred sites such as Ubirr and Nourlangie, where you find rock art of untold antiquity.

This paradise won't last forever. In 2004, a proposed rail link between sleepy Darwin and the rest of Oz is poised to generate a deluge of industry and big money. Worse, in March 2001 the unstoppable cane toad, an alien species that poisons its predators, arrived in Kakadu. With Australian currency at a historic low and the ancient ecosystem of the Top End teetering on upheaval, there will probably never be a better time to go to this inexpensive wonderland. And if you're like many travelers, you'll certainly find no good time to leave it.

Keeping up with the Indiana Joneses

For Northern Territory tourist information (including Uluru/Ayers Rock to the far south of Darwin), visit northernterritory.com or ntholidays.com. Unless otherwise indicated, when calling from the U.S. precede all telephone numbers in this article with 011-61-8.