The Unspoilt Beauty of Australia's Top End

By Miguel Scaccialupo

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Australia's tropical Top End is undoubtedly one of the last great secrets of adventure travel, although the popularity of the region is now growing rapidly as word spreads about its magnificent, unspoilt natural beauty. The term Top End refers to northern region of Australia's Northern Territory, which includes the state capital city of Darwin and the town of Katherine. Darwin is serviced by many international airlines and also by the newly completed Ghan railway which connects southern Australian cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs in Central Australia.

The Top End is a tropical region closer to Asian cities such as Jakarta and Singapore than it is to major southern Australian cities. Temperatures in the Top End hover around a comfortable 30 degrees C (85 degrees F) all year. Like most tropical areas, the Top End year is not defined by 'summer' and 'winter' weather events but by what Top-Enders call 'the wet' and 'the dry'. These terms refer to the wet and dry seasons respectively, which should be taken into consideration when planning an itinerary for exploring the Top End as road conditions and access vary greatly according to season. Wet season flooding can occur from November to April, and may cause temporary closure of routes to some of the more spectacular but remote Top End destinations.

Among the many magnificent natural assets that the Top End is endowed with are Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, and Katherine Gorge.

Kakadu National Park is a World Heritage listed park located approximately 250km east of Darwin, and can be accessed via the Arnhem Highway from Darwin or the Kakadu Highway from Katherine. A return day trip from Darwin to Kakadu is possible, but in order to fully experience the magic of Kakadu a few days should be allowed. The name Kakadu, sometimes also spelt as Kakudju or Gagadju, is the name of the indigenous language spoken in the north western section of what is now Kakadu National Park.

The earliest recorded examples of European contact with the Kakadu area includes the visits of anthropologists Baldwin Spencer in 1912 and N. B. Tindale in 1928. Kakadu National Park is characterised by dramatic landscapes, exceptional Aboriginal rock art and a diverse and fascinating wildlife. Apart from a few areas, Kakadu does not consist of dense tropical rainforest but rather of flat tropical savanna woodland. The abundance of birdlife and other wildlife which flocks into its wetlands during the dry season demonstrates how important Kakadu is to the flora and fauna of the area, and in fact Kakadu's World Heritage listing was based primarily on its importance as a wetlands area. Kakadu contains over 1000 plant species, one quarter of all freshwater fish species found in Australia, and one third of all bird species.

Kakadu National Park is a large park of over 6000 square kilometres, and comprises several distinct sub-regions. The plateau subregion is a rugged sandstone formation which rises sharply to a height of 250 m from the lower lands to the north and creates some of the most spectacular scenery in the park. The escarpment extends for over 600 km and is the site of many major waterfalls and deep gorges. The lowlands subregion is a vast eroded plain with a numerous rocky outcrops to the north of the escarpment. The floodplain subregion lies to the north of the plateau and receives the full force of wet season monsoonal rains from November to March, when the region becomes a vast expanse of water. In the dry season the Kakadu floodplain is characterised by permanent billabongs. This area of Kakadu is famed for waterlilies and edible lotus lilies. The tidal flats subregion is a coastal salt water area characterised by mangroves and rainforest which can survive on sandy saline soils. Finally, Kakadu's southern hills subregion is located at the southern most point of the park where the headwaters of the South Alligator River run through stony woodland country.

Litchfield National Park is located about 130 kms south of Darwin. Its easy access from Darwin mean that more than a quarter of a million visitors visit the park annually, journeying to view the monsoonal rainforest, permanent spring—fed waterfalls, magnetic termite mounds, weathered sandstone outcrops and historic ruins. Litchfield can be comfortably explored in a one day drive from Darwin, although there is plenty of accommodation in the region of you wish to stay longer. Litchfield has its major attractions linked by sealed road, although a 4WD is necessary to access some of the more remote natural attractions.

Among Litchfield's most popular attractions are Wangi Falls, twin waterfalls that cascade into a large pool amid lush rainforest, and Buley Rockhole, a chain of small pools linked by small waterfalls. Both locations are accessible and popular swimming places. Other attractions include the steep and spectacular Tolmer Falls, a group of fantastically-shaped sandstone towers known as the Lost City, and the magnetic Termite Mounds, two-metre high thin towers aligned north-south to keep the inside of the mound cool against the heat of the sun.

Katherine Gorge, also known by the aboriginal name Nitmiluk, is located in Nitmiluk National Park about 300 kilometres south of Darwin. It is one of the most spectacular areas in the Top End, winding 12 km through 13 separate gorges with walls more than 70m high. The park is rich in Aboriginal rock art representing the spiritual 'dreaming' of the Jawoyn people, the traditional owners of the land. Unlike Kakadu, Nitmiluk National Park welcomes bushwalkers along its more than 100 kilometres of walking tracks that meander through the park, including a five-day trek to Edith Falls.

Miguel Scaccialupo is a freelance writer and regular contributor to New Territory and Uluru To Kakadu, both web publications focusing on Australia's Northern Territory.

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