As I oggle the deeply rutted, burnt orange country and ghostly gums, it feels like I’m driving into an Albert Namatjira painting, moving steadily towards the backdrop of mauve hills. Remarkably, we left Darwin about two hours ago.
I had put off exploring the Northern Territory, convinced that experiencing these primal scenes entailed arduous travel and pesky discomforts. How wrong I was.
Our Top End short-break involves a loop through iconic vistas – painterly savannah and desert, rainforests, wetlands, escarpments, gorges and waterfall-fed pools – accessed by way of leisurely drives and appealing accommodation.
Ditching the Stuart Highway, we take the ‘Northern Goldfields Loop’ and are soon treated to scenes of coquettish brumbies and minimalist bush that explodes with large flocks of black cockatoos.
We don't see a single car and have the Heritage-listed, corrugated iron Grove Hill Hotel all to ourselves.
We’ve missed the legendary end-of-month parties, but never mind. Dan – who invites us to wander amongst artefacts dating from the 1930s when this social hub sated miners and croc hunters (dig the Elvis shrine!) – is inclined to bring out his guitar when the mood is auspicious.
It’s a quirky, quintessential Outback encounter that reminds me the tropics are more about attitude than location.
The sole surviving mining town from the 1870s gold rush, picturesque Pine Creek has a sleepy charm that persuades us to base ourselves here. As we admire the slouching remnants of booms and busts, the cackle of the parrots almost drowns out conversation.
Home here is a spacious cabin at the Pine Creek Railway Resort, which references the town’s layered history. It’s a fresh, thoughtful set-up with a pleasant pool garden and an eatery that turns out hearty, delicious breakfasts.
As we drive out to Umbrawarra Gorge – a cliff-embraced haven of swimming holes and shaded beaches – gilded sunshine enlivens rock formations that resemble gargantuan marbles.
Other uncrowded day trips from Pine Creek include Douglas Hot Springs, Arches Waterhole and paperbark-hemmed Butterfly Gorge.
Apart from Katherine’s famous gorge – experienced by walking, cruising or kayaking – there are several hot springs in the region. Just outside of Katherine, master horseman Tom Curtain puts on a captivating show involving unhandled horses and super-clever working dogs.
More inspiration on the Northern Territory
A fantasy landscape of deep emerald pools fed by plunging waterfalls reveals itself at Edith Falls. Launching from rocks resembling solidified toffee, I float blissfully under a sky streaked with pink and white corellas.
Whilst I had expected Kakadu to be vast, the big surprise is easy access to natural wonders that feel gloriously remote.
Towering pandanus palms and crystalline creeks edge the short walk to Maguk, a huge pool encased within red-rock walls with shelves perfectly sculpted for jumping into the coolest inky-green water.
Our Kakadu base is centrally-located and troppo-stylish Anbinik Resort where our funky cabin boasts an open-to-the-galaxies bathroom and daybeds.
A sunset must is Aboriginal rock art site Ubirr: a sherbet-hued tie-dye that drips onto outstretched floodplains and the stone country of Arnhem Land. At nearby Cahills Crossing, crocodiles fish at high tide.
Another Kakadu essential is the sunrise and sunset cruises at Yellow Water, an up-close glide along billabongs bristling with jabiru that daintily dance on lotus carpets; as well as magpie geese, crocodiles and innumerable bird species.
Nourlangie, where Aboriginal rock art is set amidst spectacular landforms, is also situated in this section of Kakadu, along with accessible billabongs such as Anbangbang.
En-route to Darwin, it’s also worth stopping at the impressive Mamukala wetlands and Fog Dam.
Darwin feels every inch the country town, albeit with engaging cultural buzz. We overlook the vast harbour and tropical parklands from the wrap around balcony of our apartment at Mantra On The Esplanade – a friendly blend of luxe hotel treats and homely comforts.
A short walk leads to the breezy wharf precinct, the wave pool, galleries and acclaimed Deckchair Cinema. But one shouldn’t rush in the tropics, so we might just kick back on our balcony and watch the fired-up sun slip into the sea.