A Backpacker’s Guide to the Northern Territory

A Backpacker’s Guide to the Northern Territory
Kaeli Conforti
Author: Kaeli Conforti

After spending seven years working as a full-time writer and editor in New York City, Kaeli sold everything and embarked on a solo backpacking adventure through Southeast Asia before starting her Working Holiday Visa years in Australia and New Zealand. Kaeli’s writing has been featured by Forbes, The Points Guy, Budget Travel and The Travel Women, among other popular travel websites. Her greatest adventure: a two-month solo road trip through the Northern Territory and Western Australia while updating the Outback chapter of Fodor’s Essential Australia guidebook. Follow along with all her travel adventures on Instagram: @KaeliTravels

Backpacking in the NT

Sure, Australian cities are great, but there’s nothing like the Northern Territory. Where else can you spend the day hiking to beautiful waterfalls, admiring ancient indigenous rock art, seeing enormous saltwater crocodiles up close and partying the night away minutes from the beach?

The Northern Territory is a 1.4 million km2 land of wonder, home to incredible desert landscapes and rock formations, gorgeous gorges, natural hot springs and enough unique scenery, culture and wildlife to keep you coming back for more. It’s the stuff road trip dreams are made of, though the ride from Darwin to Alice Springs takes about 15 hours, plus another five to reach Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, so you’ll want to break it up a bit.

When to Visit NT

There are two seasons in this part of Australia: The wet season (October to April, when you’ll encounter intense humidity, thunderstorms and flooding in certain areas) and the dry season (May through September, when rain is scarce). Note that any body of water in the NT could potentially be home to crocodiles, so keep an eye out for signs indicating croc sightings.

Don’t want to drive from Darwin to the Red Centre? Fly into Alice Springs, then continue by car (or tour bus) to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. There’s an airport in Yulara, too, so you could always fly straight out to Uluru from other parts of Australia if you’re short on time.

Must-Visit Towns in the NT

You’ll have better mobile coverage and Wi-Fi access in larger cities and towns. In Kakadu National Park and along Stuart Highway, most roadhouses, fuel stations, attractions and visitor centres will offer Wi-Fi for free or for purchase.

1. Darwin

The biggest city in the NT, with plenty of pubs, restaurants, markets, cultural attractions and animal encounters to keep you busy. 

2. Katherine

Three hours south of Darwin, Katherine makes a good stopping point if you want to visit Nitmiluk National Park.

3. Alice Springs

12 hours south of Katherine, Alice Springs is the beating heart of Australia’s Red Centre. It’s also the last city you’ll encounter until Yulara to the west or Port Augusta to the south.

4. Yulara

The gateway to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, this tiny township is where you’ll find the only accommodation outside of Alice Springs.

Where To Experience Indigenous Culture in NT?

Learn about Aboriginal culture with Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours near Darwin or at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs.

If you’ve got more time, take a guided tour to Arnhem Land, a 100,000 km2 part of the NT that’s home to the Yolngu people. Most trips include transportation from Darwin or Jabiru to Nhulunbuy, several nights’ accommodation, meals and cultural experiences with an Aboriginal guide.

Guided tours to the Tiwi Islands are also available from Darwin, where you can experience a traditional welcoming ceremony, meet indigenous artists, learn about Dreamtime stories, share some tea with the elders and visit the oldest Catholic Church on Bathurst Island.

Driving Tips in the Northern Territory

  1. Obey the speed limits, as they can go up to 130kph and back to 50kph closer to town.
  2. If you see someone in distress, pull over and see if they need help. It’s considered a crime in the Northern Territory if you don’t.
  3. You could be fined for using your cell phone or other handheld device whilst driving.
  4. If you’re renting a car, read the fine print on your contract to see if they prohibit you from driving on unsealed roads. You’re typically only covered when driving on sealed roads.
  5. If you’re driving your own car on unsealed roads, consider getting a satellite phone.
  6. Avoid driving at night. That’s when kangaroos and other nocturnal creatures are active — and the chances of you hitting one are greater. 
  7. Always check road conditions before you leave so you’re aware of any bush fires or floods.
  8. Never leave anything interesting — including your Esky — in the backseat of your car, as theft can sometimes be an issue. Take it with you or lock it in the boot.
  9. Use backpacker groups on Facebook to see if anyone wants a lift so you can share the costs of fuel. Just make sure you meet your new travel mate ahead of time. It’s a long drive.
  10. Apps like Fuel Map Australia or GasBuddy can locate the cheapest fuel near you.

If You Don’t Want to Drive…


The Ghan is a luxury train journey from Darwin to Adelaide, with guided tours given at certain stops along the way. 


Greyhound Australia offers coach service between Darwin and Alice Springs, though the entire trip takes 21.5 hours. Their hop-on-hop-off Whimit pass gives you more flexibility to explore. 

Guided Tours

Choose a day trip or multi-day trip from Darwin to Litchfield, Kakadu, or Nitmiluk National Park or from Alice Springs to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park or Kings Canyon. Live out your Outback dreams by sleeping under bajillions of stars in traditional Aussie swags around the fire.


Camping is king in the Northern Territory, though it’s up to you if you’d prefer free camping or paying a fee for amenities like toilets, warm showers, pubs, swimming pools and security. Use apps like WikiCamps Australia and CamperMate to locate free campsites, which may or may not have toilets. For safety reasons, camping is not recommended in the Darwin and Alice Springs CBDs. 

Check out our breakdown of the best backpacker hostels in NT.


Darwin has lots of hotels and hostels, most of which are in the CBD along Mitchell Street.

  1. Novotel Darwin CBD Hotel
  2. Ramada Suites by Wyndham Zen Quarter Darwin 
  3. Rydges Darwin Central
  4. Hilton Darwin
  5. DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Esplanade Darwin
  6. Mantra on the Esplanade
  7. Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront
  8. Mindil Beach Casino Resort
  9. YHA Darwin Melaleuca on Mitchell

Kakadu National Park, Nitmiluk National Park and Katherine

In Kakadu National Park, Nitmiluk National Park and Katherine, there are plenty of campsites and caravan parks to choose from, as well as several affordable hotels.

  1. Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel
  2. Cooinda Lodge Kakadu Hotel 
  3. Nitmiluk Caravan Park
  4. Pine Tree Motel (Katherine)

Stuart Highway

On Stuart Highway between Katherine and Alice springs, you’ll find heaps of roadhouses and small hotels with campsites you can pay for in exchange for access to onsite pubs and swimming pools.

  1. Daly Waters Historic Pub
  2. Dunmarra Wayside Inn
  3. Devils Marbles Hotel

Alice Springs

Alice Springs has heaps of hotels and a handful of hostels in and around the CBD. 

  1. Mercure Alice Springs Resort
  2. DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel Alice Springs
  3. Crowne Plaza Alice Springs Lasseters
  4. Desert Palms Alice Springs
  5. Jump Inn Alice
  6. Alice Springs YHA 

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

If Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is on your bucket list, Ayers Rock Resort offers several high-end hotels, apartment-style lodging, a hostel and a campground. Near Watarrka National Park, Kings Canyon Resort has hotel and lodge rooms, glamping tents and a caravan campground.

  1. Ayers Rock Resort (Longitude 131, Sails in the Desert, Desert Gardens Hotel, Emu Walk Apartments, The Lost Camel Hotel, Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge, Ayers Rock Campground)
  2. YHA Ayers Rock Outback Pioneer Lodge
  3. Kings Canyon Resort 


1. Crocosaurus Cove

Brave the ‘Cage of Death’ for the ultimate Instagram photo with a crocodile.

2. Berry Springs

40 minutes from Darwin, a great spot to cool off on a hot day.

3. Territory Wildlife Park

Feed wallabies by hand, see a saltwater crocodile up close and learn about Northern Australia’s fascinating wildlife at this nature park 40 minutes from Darwin.

4. Jumping Crocodile Cruises

Where else can you see someone put a steak on a pole and go fishing for saltwater crocodiles? It’s a 90-minute drive from Darwin but definitely worth a stop to see these fascinating creatures in all their glory.

5. Litchfield National Park

An easy day trip from Darwin or else campsites are available throughout the park for overnight stays. Check out the magnetic termite mounds, see Tolmer Falls and go for a swim at Wangi Falls, Florence Falls or Buley Rockhole.

6. Kakadu National Park

Australia’s largest national park at 20,000 km2, where you can see Aboriginal rock art, hike to fabulous waterfalls and view Aussie wildlife in their natural habitats. Highlights include the Mamukala Wetlands, Ubirr, Nourlangie, Gunlom Falls, Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls, Yellow Water, Jabiru, the Bowali Visitors Centre and Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

7. Nitmiluk National Park

Do the Baruwei Walk at sunset for unforgettable views of Katherine Gorge. On the other side of the park, Edith Falls is a great spot to cool off in the oppressive Outback heat.

8. Elsey National Park

Home to a wealth of Aboriginal and WWII historical sites, fishing holes, Mataranka Thermal Pool and several hot springs, all naturally heated to 34 degrees.

9. Daly Waters Historic Pub

That famous bar where everyone sticks things on the wall or ceiling to commemorate their epic road trip adventure.

10. Wycliffe Well

The alien capital of Australia. The wall of newspaper clippings about UFO sightings and alien abductions in the area is enough to make you wonder, whilst the rest makes great fodder for your Instagram feed.

11. Devils Marbles (Karlu Karlu)

Stretch your legs with a hike amongst these magnificent giant boulders.

12. Kangaroo Sanctuary

Your chance to meet ‘Kangaroo Dundee’ and get some adorable photos of you holding and feeding baby kangaroos.

13. West MacDonnell National Park

A great day trip from Alice Springs. Stop by Ormiston Gorge, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Simpsons Gap and check out the legendary Larapinta Trail.

14. Watarrka National Park

It takes about 3-4 hours to complete the 6km Kings Canyon Rim Walk, which appeared in the classic Aussie film, ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’.

15. Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park

You likely know it by its former name, Ayers Rock. Whilst the climb officially closed in October 2019, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy this beautiful, spiritual place. Next door at Kata-Tjuta, the Valley of the Winds walk is worth checking out as well.