While few people fantasize about sticking their hands into snake pits or wrestling crocodiles like they’re Steve Irwin, engaging with wildlife is one of the appeals of travel to Australia. This is the land of marsupials, those curious mammals that give birth to premature young and nurse them in an external pouch until they’re grown. This is the land where snakes and crocodiles coexist with wild dogs and koalas, where you’re as likely to see an exotic bird as a domesticated cat. And in this land of natural marvels, there’s no place like the Northern Territory.
The Northern Territory is Australia’s top and centre. It’s where you’ll find Uluru/Ayers Rock, Kata-Tjuta or the Olgas, and the shifting landscapes of Kakadu National Park. It’s big and mostly empty of cities and human cultivation, so if you’re looking for wildlife on your travel to Australia, you better book a stay in the “Top End.”
The Inhabitants of the Top End and the Red Centre
The Northern Territory is massive, but lightly-populated. In its 1.4 million square kilometres, there are only a little over 240,000 people. If you’re talking about the territory’s inhabitants, you can refer to citizens as “Top Enders” or “Centralians,” but you might as well refer to the animals as its true inhabitants, since the wildlife far outnumber the humans here.
The Northern Territory is home to 400 bird species, 150 mammal species, 300 reptile species, and untold hundreds of species of freshwater and ocean fish. While most of these animals are not endemic to the territory, the territory does get its lion’s share of animals, especially in the tropical northern end. As the territory is massive, it’s not uniform in its variety of animals and plant life. Thus, on your travel to Australia, you’ll have to tailor your destinations within the territory to what kind of animals you want to see.
A Landscape of Birds
If you’re looking for birds, the Northern Territory is the right place to be. Although only a few species of birds, like the banded fruit dove and chestnut-quilled rock pigeon, are endemic to the Northern Territory, hundreds of bird species live in this Australia state for parts of the year, either using it as a stopover on a migration south or passing along its tropical shores in the north. No matter where you go in the Northern Territory, on your travel to Australia, you’ll find birds, but if you can only visit one wildlife spot, head to Kakadu National Park.
As Australia’s largest park at around 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu has plenty of variance within its borders, and you’re guaranteed some close encounters with animals if you choose to visit. However, the birds are a key part of what makes Kakadu so special.
Kakadu National Park contains more than a third of the country’s entire bird population. While not all the birds in the park are restricted to the region, the park does support many of Australia’s endangered bird species, among them the Gouldian finch, red goshawk, and partridge pigeon. You can find these birds in the bird sanctuaries set up throughout the park’s savannahs. The waterways are also rich with bird activity during the wet season. The billabongs flood, attracting exotic birds like egrets, jabirus, jacanas, kingfishers, and spoonbills. Many tours of Kakadu National Park are tailored around birdwatching expeditions, so it’s not hard to find excursions that accommodate your desires.
Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve is also a great spot to go birdwatching. This nature reserve is located 70 kilometres east of Darwin, along the Arnhem Highway, and is accessible all year around, although March until October offers the best season for birdwatching.
Where Reptiles Roam
Pop culture will never let us forget that Australia is home to crocodiles, snakes, and all manner of frightening reptilian wildlife. While most of these animals are not deserving of the fear and disgust that people level towards them, it’s smart to play it safe when going on wildlife expeditions in search of reptiles.
Aside from its exotic birds, Kakadu National Park is also famous for its saltwater crocodiles. River cruises are the best way to see crocs in their natural habitat – and from a safe distance. If you’d prefer a safer way to view these toothsome reptiles, head to Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin. This 3-story marine attraction features Top End crocodiles that range between the ages of three months and 80 years. It even features Burt, a crocodile made famous for his appearance in Crocodile Dundee. If you want to get your blood pumping during your visit, you can opt for the “Cage of Death,” which lowers you in a glass enclosure into the lagoon alongside the crocodiles, with nothing but a thin pane of glass blocking them from you.
While crocodiles are more imposing, skinks are the most common reptile in the Northern Territory, with over 100 varieties present within its borders. Even friendlier are the turtles that call the tropical Top End home. Five species of turtle live within the territory. Leatherback turtles, in particular, are found along the northern coast, where they set up their breeding grounds on the shorelines.
On your travel to Australia, if you head to the southern reaches of the Northern Territory around Uluru and Kata Tjuta, you’ll find plenty of non-crocodile reptiles to amaze you in the wild. The fascinating thorny devils call Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park home. These spiny lizards feast on ants and absorb water with their feet. The park is also home to perenties, the second largest lizard in the world, which dazzle with their black-and-white designs and long tongues. You can also find many venomous snakes in the park, like the mulga snake or the woma python, which can grow up to 2.7 metres long.
Don’t Forget the Mammals, Insects, and Fish
Although they’re not as numerous as birds or reptiles, many mammal species also call the Northern Territory home. Many of these species are well-suited to the dusty Outback, such as the Arnhem rock rat, pebble mouse, and desert bandicoot. Of course, when people think of Australia, they think of marsupials, that infraclass of mammals whose mothers carry their young in pouches. Unfortunately, the Northern Territory is not home to as many marsupials as the southern and eastern states, such as New South Wales and Queensland. You won’t find any koalas and not many kangaroos.
If you head to Litchfield National Park, around one and a half hours south of Darwin, you can find Wilkins’ rock wallabies and northern quolls. Litchfield is also home to incredible termite mounds that are two-metres tall and can be as old as 100 years. Some of these mounds are even constructed along a magnetic axis, aligned north to south so as to avoid direct sunlight as much as possible.
If you head along the coast near Darwin and Kakadu, you’ll also find some of the 25 marine mammals that call the territory home, including dugongs and snubfin dolphins. If you’re a water lover but fishing is more your beat, head 378 kilometres southwest of Darwin to Elsey National Park to spend your time canoeing and fishing across the park’s many waterways. Barramundi fishing is especially popular along the Roper River.
If you’re looking for the kind of wildlife you won’t find anywhere else, the Northern Territory is the place to visit on your travel to Australia. Its biological diversity and shifting landscapes are home to some of the most fascinating animals you’re ever to likely to see. There really is no place like it.