Exploring Australia’s Top End and Darwin with kids was definitely a little different to our usual holidays especially when we decided it would be a 4WD camping trip (insert totally shocked emoji). Having a 4WD enabled to access some of the more remote areas and to explore the best Australia’s Top End has to offer families.
It all started when I landed return for free flights from Melbourne to Darwin over the Easter/ANZAC Day week which we already earmarked for a short local break. Internal flights are very expensive in Australia and I had often looked at travelling to Darwin but with 5 people it always seemed a little out of reach and often just a much as travelling to Asia.
Jetstar advertised return for free Darwin flights, I logged straight on and got Melbourne return to Darwin flights for 5 people for $920. This price for a 5 hour flight from the bottom to the top of Australia is a bargain and I jumped straight on them. However, while the flights were cheap the flight times were pretty average. We arrived in Darwin at 1.30am and departed Darwin on our return at 2am arriving into Melbourne at 6.30am. There is a half hour time difference between Melbourne and Darwin.
Obviously these flight times would not suit everyone, our kids are well travelled now and I’m happy to say they’re pretty flexible little champions and they went along with it with very little fuss. They know the positives outweigh the negatives and just get on with it.
The Northern Territory is a massive area with so much to see and do. The first step was to narrow down our must see places with what is actually feasible. As always we wanted to see as much as possible without overdoing it which is often an issue for us!
Believe it or not I actually left all of the planning for this trip to Craig! I plan all our holidays and this time I felt he was in a better position to work out distances and plan what we would need vehicle wise. I have to admit while I won’t be handing over the reigns to trip planning for any other trips, Craig definitely did an amazing job of planning this trip.
We knew the top ticket items for the NT were Litchfield National Park, Nitmiluk National Park and Kakadu National Park. These three parks are quite reachable from Darwin and Craig decided we would do an anti-clockwise circuit from Darwin. The last week of April is the very end of the wet season so we knew we would have some issues with parts of the parks not being open due to seasonal flooding.
The Kakadu National Park website has a Kakadu Access Report, this was invaluable to Craig with making plans as he received daily reports outlining which roads and waterholes were open and which were closed after the wet season. This enabled him to thoroughly plan our route and I definitely recommend you subscribe to this email list.
We also knew that we wanted to access off road areas meaning that we would need a 4WD and not a motorhome. Originally we had wanted a roof top tent and a second tent for the kids however all those booked out so we went with the two tent option from Britz 4WD Outback Camper, see more below.
Britz 4WD Outback Camper
Craig spent a lot of time working out what would best suit our needs and where we wanted to go. Being a family of 5 it is always a little more difficult for us. We really had to think about how we would fit all 5 of us, our luggage and any camping gear we would need, the vehicle had to have space for it all.
Britz is definitely all over it! Our 4WD Outback Camper definitely ticked all the boxes. We are relatively good at minimalist packing these days and we each had a backpack which fitted nicely in the back of vehicle. Everything else that we needed for our trip was supplied by Britz.
Included were two tents, sleeping bag, sleep mats, bedding (sheet & pillow), towels, cooking utensils, camp chairs, 2 butane cook tops, butane, buckets for washing up, containers for left over food, pots and pans for cooking, a fridge/freezer that worked brilliantly. I was a little concerned the fridge would be pretty average but I was wrong, we had it down a bit too low and froze a lot of our food the first day, it was definitely adequate and there was enough room for at least 3-4 days off the grid. There was a great sized storage box for all dry food and we didn’t get through all the food we took.
We did purchase a small esky for ice to keep the drinks cold, like most Aussie men, Craig likes a beer after a big day and I have to admit I might have partaken in a bevvie or two some afternoons.
We set up the tents at dusk each night and would be up early and have the tents down by 9am, reason being that it gets very hot up there and you don’t want to be doing it when its too hot. This system worked well and meant that we were able to make the most of every day.
Darwin with Kids
Wondering what to do in Darwin with kids?
We decided to spend Easter in Darwin and then head off on the road trip from Easter Monday. I was surprised to find it was pretty quite in the Darwin CBD area and the weather was great so we were able to get out and about exploring Darwin with kids. I knew the rest of the holiday would be high tempo with moving from place to place each day so I wanted this part to be relatively relaxing.
WWII Oil Tunnels
We did a tour of the WWII oil tunnels, unbeknown to most Australians, Darwin played an integral role in WWII preventing a Japanese invasion. It came very close and there were a substantial number of bombs dropped on and near Darwin. After initial bombing took out a lot of above ground oil tanks, tunnels were dug into the cliffs below Darwin to store the oil ensuring supplies could not be bombed again by the Japanese. By the time the tunnels were completed, the stores were no longer at threat and therefore oil was never stored in these underground tanks.
If you are visiting the WWII Oil Tunnels, go as early as possible as it gets very hot under there and as it is a self guided tour with lots of reading, it can become a little uncomfortably hot. Young kids might struggle a little with all the reading as the information is on posters on the walls of the tunnels. There are four tunnels to explore and basically once you get to the end, you walk back to the entry to get out. A good experience and a lesson well learnt for young kids about Australia’s involvement in World War II.
Admission tickets are currently $8 per person, paid in cash on arrival.
Darwin Wave Lagoon
Right on the waterfront is the Darwin Wave Lagoon, definitely a highlight when visiting Darwin with kids and a popular place to visit in Darwin particularly given it’s hot most of the year. You can purchase your tickets at the kiosk behind the wave lagoon and the pool is open from 10am – 6pm.
The Darwin Wave Lagoon is surrounded by many of the popular hotels and private apartments on the Darwin Waterfront, many with Airbnb options for accommodation. Its an open area with beach frontage. During the dry season the area can get very busy so I recommend getting there early and reserving your sun bed. We only stayed a few hours and the kids were in the wave pool the whole time.
There is also a water play area for little kids with age appropriate fountains and splash pools. There is a grassed area however if it was very busy you would struggle to find a spot to sit. Wrist bands are provided so you can come and go from the area as much as you like. There are a few pubs and restaurants at the bottom of the apartment blocks so you won’t have to go far for some tucker.
There is also a free shuttle bus that goes around the main attractions of the Darwin Waterfront area, it runs over the lunch period and between 5pm-9pm each night.
Darwin Recreation Lagoon
This free to use area is protected by a sea wall which will keep out a once in 100 years storm surge. Mesh screens are in place to protect swimmers from marine stingers crocs. Lifeguards patrol the lagoon between 9am-6pm and keep an eye out for any marine stingers that might somehow find their way in.
The kids loved the floating obstacle course, we had recently experience one at home in the Yarra Valley but this one had slightly different obstacles so they were keen to get out there and have a go of this one. You need to pay for this though, $16.50 for an hour.
My kids are fairly competent swimmers so they didn’t need to be accompanied, young kids will need to have an adult out there with them. All people participating will be advised to wear a life jacket regardless of age and ability.
If you aren’t looking to have a go on the floating obstacle course, the rest of the recreation lagoon is free to use. The beachfront is sandy and there are loads of grass area around to lay down your towel. Its by far one of the best free things to do in Darwin with kids.
Want to get up close and personal with one of Australia’s oldest and most deadly animals? Sounds attractive right!
Located on Mitchell St, the main street of Darwin, Crocosaurus Cove looks kind of small from the outside. Inside however you’ll learn everything you need to know about the oldest reptile on earth, the crocodile!
We all know Australia does things big and deadly, our saltwater crocs are no exception. If you end up in a tussle with one of these bad boys, you’re almost certain to come off second best. Not only will you see a presentation involving a 4m croc but you can also meet some turtles and some of our other deadly locals in the reptile house! The Reptile House has 3 shows a day, 10am, 12.30pm & 4pm.
The big croc feeding show runs twice daily at 11.30am & 2.30pm. Definitely time your visit to take in one of these presentations as you’ll be blown away by the size and strength of these creatures.
You also have the opportunity to participate in the Big Croc Feeding experience if that’s something that floats your boat. Experience some of the saltwater crocs up to 4m in size jumping out the water lunging at a piece of meat on the end of a stick. You’ll have a VIP tour of the Cove with your own tour guide and the opportunity to have your photo taken with a baby salt water crocodile as well. Children must be over 4 to participate.
Fancy taking a swim with a 4m deadly croc? Of course you can do that here at Crocosaurus Cove in the Cage of Death. The cylindrical tube allows 2 people at a time to come face to face with Australia’s most deadly reptile. Now this kind of thing’s not for everyone, personally I like my crocs at a distance! I’m sure the kids will be impressed with a close encounter of the scaly kind. You must be over 15 years old to participate, kids 15-17 yrs must be accompanied by an adult. There are 11 experiences each day starting at 9.30am through to 5pm.
Darwin Hop On Hop Off Bus
I’m a big fan of the hop on, hop off bus, I think its the best thing to do in Darwin and a great way to ground yourself and get to know Darwin quickly. It’s also a great way to see a lot when you only have a short amount of time. The Darwin one is perfect as the city is pretty compact compared to other Australian cities so if there is anything you liked you would easy be able to return at a later date and the open roof top will enable you to make the most of the amazing Darwin weather.
You can purchase a one or two day pass (classic and premium options) however the premium options must be use on 2 consecutive days. You can expect the bus to make stops at many of Darwin’s main tourist attractions including the Flying Doctor Service Museum, Crocosaurus Cove (entry tickets included in cost of bus ticket), Darwin Botanical Gardens, Mindil Beach sunset markets, the Military Museum and much more.
Jumping Crocs & Nature Explorer Tour
If you are only visiting Darwin with kids and not exploring any further in the Top End, I strongly recommend doing the Jumping Crocs tour otherwise you are unlikely to see any crocodiles other than those in captivity. Its a half day tour which picks you up from your hotel and takes you to the Adelaide River a short drive from Darwin.
Visit some of the natural wetlands at Fogg Dam Natural Reserve which is home to about 1,600 crocodiles. From a very secure platform you’ll view croc feeding and amazed at how they jump from the water to catch their days meal. The Top End has a diverse range of birds, reptiles, mammals and marsupials in the region, your tour guide will point out some of the amazing birds and other animals that inhabit this area. You then relax in the air conditioned bus for the 60km drive back to Darwin. Tours are run on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturdays.
Tiwi Aboriginal Cultural Experience
Take a 2 hour cruise out to Bathurst Island from Darwin and learn about the Tiwi community that live here and get a good insight into the Aboriginal way of life. You will view traditional artwork depicting Tiwi ‘Dreamtime’ stories and you’ll also be able to view the traditional artists workstations. Bathurst Island has a museum telling the history of the Tiwi people and you can visit the Tiwi style Catholic Church.
Immerse yourself in the Aboriginal cultural through dances while the local Tiwi women perform several ceremonies for their guests. End your full day tour with a stop at a picturesque lookout and burial site. Learn about the rituals associated with the burial poles (Pukamani poles). You’ll return to Darwin about 5pm to Cullen Bay Pier.
The Flying Doctor Service Museum
The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides vital primary and emergency medical services to Australia’s remotest outback areas. The museum displays how the service has grown and developed over the years. There is a decommissioned service aircraft to explore and the museum tour is self guided.
You can hear about some heroic rescue stories of real life emergencies from both the survivor and the amazing doctors that attended to them. Exhibits include a virtual reality presentation that will make you think you were right there in the thick of it all.
Craig, create link for viator affiliate link please.
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Darwin Harbour Sunset Cruise
Did you know Darwin has some of the best sunsets in the country? What better way to see it than on a cruise with optional buffet dinner. I love sunset cruises, we did a Langkawi sunset cruise a few years back and it was so nice and relaxing. Meet at Stokes Hill Wharf the drop off and pick up point for the cruise. This cruise is definitely one of the best things to do in Darwin at night.
The cruise travels between Stokes Hill Wharf and Cullen Bay on a return trip taking 2.5 hours. The guide provides commentary regarding Darwin and the history of the city such as Darwin’s war time involvement and Cyclone Tracy which flattened the city in 1974. You can relax on the 3 level catamaran and enjoy your buffet dinner or just kick back and have a few beers while watching one of the most spectacular sunsets the country has to offer.
https://www.viator.com/tours/Darwin/Charles-Darwin-Sunset-Dinner-Cruise/d360-44650P1 – Craig insert link from Viator affiliate please
ⓘ Purchase your discounted Darwin Sunset Cruise tickets through Viator
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
If cruising isn’t your thing, you don’t have to miss out. Head to Mindil Beach Sunset Markets to experience the great art, produce and gifts and then walk on to the beach and watch the sunset on a glorious day. The market runs over the dry season between April and October on Thursday nights between 4pm and 9pm. There’s something for all the family including buskers, food stalls, arts & crafts, all surrounded by swaying palm trees with sand between your toes.
This is a free activity, we visited the site of the market on Easter Sunday just to enjoy a wonderful sunset and that was enough for me.
Rated as Darwin’s premier outdoor cinema, who doesn’t love to watch a great movie under the stars! The cinema is open 7 nights per week from mid April and closes in mid November, the cinema closes for the cyclone season. The Deckchair Cinema is run by the not-for-profit, community based Darwin Film Society, their aim is to enhance the diverse cultural experiences of the community by providing unique and alternative film experience to mainstream cinema in Darwin.
The Darwin Film Society aims to run a sustainable business both socially, financially and environmentally. They have implemented many strategies including no bottled water for sale, only Australian made, ethical and organic drinks, container deposit scheme, biodegradable containers and utensils, cane toad busts after screening and they hold community group fundraisers and all funds raised go back to the charity of the night on each Thursday night.
Top places to stay in Darwin
There are so many great places to stay in Darwin, Australia’s smallest capital city, but that doesn’t mean they pack less of a punch! You will find hotels or accommodation to match any budget. I have recommended a few below that I think are pretty reasonable for each price group. I tend to value a nicer hotel that has a pool if we are travelling somewhere hot. The kids are much more receptive to doing things if they can have a swim in the afternoon when we return to the hotel.
Budget Hotel Recommendations
Value Inn – located on the Mitchell Rd, right in the middle of the CBD, the hotel looks more like a motel. Rooms are basic but clean and the hotel has a swimming pool, perfect for those hot Darwin afternoons. The outdoor bar and cafe offers affordable meals and drinks and has a relaxed backpacker vibe about it. Each room comes with a car park outside the room, great if you are only stopping in Darwin for a night or two before hitting the road to explore the Top End.
Mid-range Hotel Recommendation
Darwin Travelodge – located one street away from Mitchell St, the main street of Darwin and a 15 min walk to the Darwin Esplanade. This is where we stayed and it was reasonably priced and has a Woolworth’s Supermarket right across the road. This meant we were able to walk across, do our road trip shopping and pack it all in the ute. The rooms were a nice size, the hotel is only 2 levels and the pool is located in the middle. We were all very happy with it.
Luxury Hotel Recommendations
Hilton Darwin – located in the Darwin CBD and only 250m from the Darwin Waterfront. The rooms are modern and spacious and the hotel has a bar, restaurant and outdoor pool. The pool has a sail above it to keep the hot Darwin sun off you while you relax in the pool. Mitchell’s Restaurant offers great Australian options on their menu including kangaroo fillet, barramundi and crocodile and overlooks the atrium lobby and bar. The Executive Lounge offers free continental breakfast each day.
Visiting the Top End with kids
If you are going to visit Darwin with kids, there are a few other places you should consider while you are there. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t get out and see a bit more than just Darwin. You don’t have to go far, Litchfield National Park is only 90 minutes down the road, effectively just around the corner by Australian standards!!
We were in the Northern Territory for 10 days, and other than Darwin, see what else we packed into our trip, what I recommend doing and the top places to stay while in the Top End while. I do recommend you hire a car if you can and drive to these places, however if you don’t want to drive I have linked in a day tour that you could book instead.
Litchfield National Park
As stated above, Litchfield National Park is only a short 90 minute drive from Darwin and it was the first stop on our Top End adventure. We were there at the tail end of the wet season so the vegetation was lush and green.
Some of the places we wanted to visit weren’t open yet or the access road wasn’t open. However, there are so many lovely water holes and waterfalls to explore that you’ll definitely find somewhere to explore. Below are my recommendations:
Sandy Creek Falls
While these are some of the more popular ones, if you have a 4WD you can go exploring off road and see what other places you can find like the Lost City. If a day tour is more your thing, click the link below.
We camped at the Florence Falls Campgrounds which works on an honesty system, you put your money in an envelope on arrival and place a receipt on your windscreen and the park rangers check them when they pass by. We went to sleep with this sounds of waterfall in the background.
Best place to stay in Litchfield National Park
If camping’s not your thing and you prefer a comfortable bed at night, see below link to accommodation options near Litchfield National Park.
Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmulik National Park is just over a 3 hour drive from Darwin and was previously known as Katherine Gorge National Park. Dotted with ancient art works telling the Dreamtime stories of the Jawoyn people, the national park is connected through a series of 13 gorges that are inaccessible during the wet season.
The river is also inhabited by both freshwater and saltwater crocodiles and when we were there canoeing tours hadn’t commenced for the season as the river had not yet been cleared of the salties. We did the Timeless Land 3 Gorge Tour which took us through three gorges with a short walk of 600m between them. We viewed some ancient Aboriginal artwork on the rocks during our walk.
Our guide was fabulous and had amazing knowledge of the area and the history of the gorges and its importance to the Jawoyn tribe. That’s not all you can do in that area though, there are many bush walks, canoe tours and helicopter flights to ensure you get the best out of your stay.
Make sure you stop at Edith Falls and Cutta Cutta Caves while you are in the area. We also went down to Mataranka to visit Bitter Springs. Definitely worth a visit for a swim in the crystal clear, naturally warm spring waters, too warm for Craig but I loved it. We got noodles from Big W for the kids and they floated from one end of the springs to the other which is about 100m.
A 4WD is not required in this area, it is pretty much set up for all types of vehicles. See link below for a day tour that will take you to Nitmiluk Gorge from Darwin, tour includes Nitmiluk Gorge and Edith Falls, you’ll also visit Adelaide River War Cemetery where you can pay respects to the many men and women who lost their lives during WWII.
Best place to stay in Nitmiluk National Park
We camped at the Nitmiluk Campground which was nice and green and lush. I understand camping is not everyone’s cup of tea so I highly recommend Cicada Lodge also located in the same area. There are other options in the grounds, please see link below to find the best place to stay in Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park.
Kakadu National Park
Probably the most famous of all Top End National Parks so you certainly can’t miss Kakadu. We spent 4 days in Kakadu and could easily have stuck around a lot longer. We did run into some issues with some areas not yet open from the wet season but as I said at the start we did expect that. If you want to get to the great places I really recommend hiring a 4WD to explore off road in Kakadu.
Craig had done a lot of research on waterfalls and waterholes as our plan was to get off the beaten track in Kakadu National Park. We stopped at the Mary River Roadhouse for a quick beer and we asked about a specific waterhole Craig had heard about. The staff were quite surprised that we knew about it and asked who told us about it.
It was a gorgeous little waterhole and we had it all to ourselves so I’ll share it with you! Exactly 6kms north of the Mary River Roadhouse is a dirt road, at the entrance there is a small pole with a metal tool box on top. Drive to the end and walk about 100m and bingo, you’re there! It’s got a couple of names, Lower Moline Rockholes and the Jawoyn name Ikoymarrwa but I’ve named it Our3kids Falls!
There are so many amazing places to visit in Kakadu but the two main waterfalls are Gunlom Falls and Jim Jim Falls, these are the ones you will see in every Top End promotional advert. We knew both were closed after the wet season from the Kakadu Access Report we had been receiving.
We got chatting to a family at the Mary River Roadhouse and they told us that they had just come from Gunlom Falls as it had opened the day before. We were ecstatic and instantly changed our plans and headed straight for Gunlom Camping Grounds. We ended up staying at Gunlom for 2 nights and it was amazing.
See photos below, I can’t explain how amazing it was. The climb up to the plunge pool at the top of the falls is pretty intense so if you are going up, go as early as possible and stay up there as long as you can. We did the top plunge pool in the morning, went back down for a late lunch then spent the afternoon at the Gunlom Billabong at the bottom of the waterfall. This billabong was made famous in the movie Crocodile Dundee.
Now you do need to be careful here, from the top plunge pool we saw a croc swimming around in the water below, it looked like a baby and would have been a freshie but you need to be alert. I was assured that the clearing process after wet season takes about 60 days and it would be highly unlikely to be a salty down there. Phew, thank god for that.
When then moved on to Cooinda Campgrounds and went out on the Yellow Water Cruise with Kakadu Tourism. Did we see crocs you ask? Did we ever! This is the place to see them in their natural environment and we even had one swim right up to the boat while we were all boarding. The tour guide said that never happens. We saw an amazing amount of wildlife especially birds and of course the crocs.
The tour goes down the East Adelaide River and I definitely recommend doing it if you are in Kakadu. Kakadu is definitely not the place to go exploring alone, there is a huge amount of crocs in the area and they aren’t far from the campground. The information provided by the tour guide was exceptional and the kids were engaged and listening the whole time.
We did a sunset cruise and I recommend that highly as it was a bit cooler as the sun had started to dip and we also got a cracking sunset which is my favourite part of the day. See below for a suitable tour from Darwin if you are looking for day tour rather than staying in Kakadu a night to two.
Best place to stay in Kakadu National Park
Now I have to admit, as much as I love camping the mosquitoes were terrible and it was the one place I struggled to camp. Don’t get me wrong the campsite was lovely, grassy and green with lovely clean restrooms with warm showers but the mozzies were deadly.
I highly recommend staying at Cooinda Lodge if visiting this part of Kakadu. The family rooms accommodate 4 and the glamping tents look very comfortable. I have added a Kakadu search box for you below.
Weather in Darwin and the Top End
Darwin and the Top End has two very distinct seasons, its either wet or its dry season. The dry season runs from start of May through till end of October and the wet season from early November until the end of April.
We arrived in the last week of April so we knew our visit would be touch and go weather wise. We were incredibly lucky as they had experienced a very dry wet season this year and a lot of the roads and waterfalls had opened early due to this. We experienced very hot and humid weather, it was around 35c every day.
When you have high humidity like we did, it means you will experience a lot of mosquitoes especially around the Yellow Water at Cooinda, which we did. You need to put insect repellent on around dusk. A plus though is that we didn’t have to many flies, the flies come with the drier weather. I do recommend visiting this time of year as the vegetation is very lush and green.
What to wear in Darwin
Darwin has a very relaxed laid back vibe, thongs are accepted everywhere including the pub! Light cotton breathable clothing is best in the tropical climate. Its Australia however and you can wear anything you feel comfortable in. The weather stays very stable during the dry season and its basically just very hot all the time. I wear a lot of light hiking gear that is light to pack and dries quickly.
I recommend cotton sleeves and long pants for the evenings to keep the mozzies off you. There have been cases of dengue fever in Australia however its very rare. Good quality repellent such as Rid or Bushman’s is highly recommended.
Darwin with kids and the Top End is what I now consider Australia’s best kept secret. I knew I wanted to get up there but the expense was what had been holding me back. I’m so glad we finally did it and we all enjoyed it so much. The kids had a ball and loved learning about the history of their own country.
I highly recommend any travel to the Top End of Australia. Its totally different to the rest of the country and unbelievably laid back, a big change for us city slickers from down south. I can honestly say that you can easily visit on a budget but if you want to stay in nice lodges, you can do that too.
The weather in the dry season is amazing for nearly 6 months of the year, if you can’t go in the dry season I definitely recommend not going at all. Its not the place to go in the wet and pretty much all of the national parks will be closed during the wet season.
Darwin is a great place to visit with kids, hit me with any questions in the comments box below.
Sal, Craig & Our3kids