Home to the world’s oldest living culture, the Northern Territory’s history is a rich tapestry of interwoven traditions and lives, all played out against an ancient landscape of rock formations, monsoonal forests and desert sands. Aboriginal society has the longest continuous cultural history in the world. Settlement in Arnhem Land dates back more than 50,000 years and the region’s Yolngu people still live semi-traditional lives. At the time of British settlement in 1788 at least 300,000 Aboriginal people, speaking approximately 250 languages, inhabited Australia.
More than 80 indigenous language groups live in the Northern Territory, with approximately 40 indigenous languages still spoken today. The largest language groups include the Red Centre’s Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri and east Arnhem Land’s Yolngu. Approximately 50 percent of the Northern Territory is Aboriginal land.
Darwin is the only Australian location to have been a major WWII battlefield. More bombs were dropped there than at Pearl Harbour. On February 19, 1942, it endured the first and worst of 64 Japanese air raids that took place over two years and resulted in 243 deaths, including many civilians. The city was bombed to near devastation. To this day, Darwin maintains a major military presence.
Significant WWII historical sites in Darwin include the Wharf Precinct, the WWII oil storage tunnels, Bicentennial Park, the Darwin Military Museum at East Point, the Aviation Heritage Centre and Burnett House at Myilly Point. War history can also be revisited at the Tiwi Islands, Adelaide River, Katherine and Alice Springs.
European Exploration and Settlement
The first European contact with the people of northern Australia was between the Dutch and the Tiwis in 1705. In 1824, the British established the first European settlement in the Northern Territory at Fort Dundas on Melville Island, one of the Tiwi Islands, but abandoned it five years later.
Darwin Harbour was discovered in 1839 by John Lort Stokes, Captain of the Beagle, who named it after former shipmate Charles Darwin. Darwin was founded in 1869. In 1871, Alice Springs was established as a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph line between Adelaide and Darwin. The line, completed in 1872, connected Australia to the world and opened up settlement in the NT as never before.
Makassan trepangers from Sulawesi in Indonesia visited the coast of northern Australia for centuries to fish for trepang, commonly known as sea cucumbers. Trepang was used for its healing properties in pharmaceuticals and was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
For centuries Makassans traded with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, including the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, to supply the markets of Southern China. This was the first recorded trade between inhabitants of mainland Australia and nearby Asia. This trade has influenced the language, art, economy and genetics of the people of Northern Australia.
Nature is the one of Northern Territory’s greatest assets and the region is home to some of Australia's most extraordinary plants and wildlife.
The Northern Territory has a diverse climate, ranging from tropical monsoon to desert, which supports an intriguing range of more than 4000 native plant species. There are the grasslands and shrubs of the deserts, and the eucalypts of the north. Woodlands and scrublands dominated by Acacia species (including mulga, gidgee and lancewood) are found across the NT. Among these vast landscapes, there are smaller areas of rainforest, mangroves, heathlands, swamps and paperbark forests. In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park there are more than 416 species of native plants. An intimate knowledge of the diverse range of flora and fauna is vital to support life in the remote areas and Aboriginal people have sourced food and medicines from the landscape for more than 30.000 years.
The Northern Territory supports a wide diversity of native animals including birds, insects, reptiles, marsupials and mammals. Six out of the seven species of marine turtles found in the world are found in Territory waters. They are the Green, Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Flat Back and Loggerhead turtles and all six are listed as threatened. But crocodiles are undoubtedly the most fascinating animal in the Northern Territory. There is almost a one to one ratio of crocs to humans in the north, so you’re sure to come across them in Territory waterways.
In addition to the native animals, the region supports a large number of exotic animals, including horses, donkeys and camels, as well as aquatic and marine animals. Cobourg Marine Park, on the Cobourg Peninsula in Arnhem Land, has 250 recorded fish species alone.
The world’s most famous rock, Uluru/Ayers Rock, is an inselberg and the largest single piece of exposed rock on the planet. Nearby, Kata Tjuta/The Olgas is a group of 36 rock domes that date back about 500 million years. Complete the 9.4km base walk around Uluru then take the Valley of the Winds Walk at Kata Tjuta.
Central Australia features the MacDonnell Ranges, Petermann Range and the Harts Range. The Northern Territory’s highest peak, Mount Zeal, 1531m, is part of the West MacDonnell Range, which features a series of dramatic highlights and can be accessed on the Red Centre Way.
The sandstone escarpments and plateaus of Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park form some of the NT’s most incredible scenery. The escarpments are punctuated by waterfalls and line the floodplains. Kakadu and Arnhem Land are renowned for both their natural and cultural features and provide many opportunities to discover the landscape and the indigenous lifestyle.
The coastline of the Top End includes three of Australia’s largest islands, Groote Island, Bathurst Island and Melville Island. Together, Bathurst and Melville Islands make up the the Tiwi Islands and offer unique indigenous cultural experiences.
The Northern Territory is home to the world’s oldest river system, the Finke River, and Kakadu National Park encompasses almost the entire catchment of a major monsoonal river system. The Northern Territory’s extensive river systems include the Alligator River, Adelaide River, Daly River, Finke River, McArthur River, Roper River, Todd River and Victoria River.
Alice Springs is surrounded by a red sand sea the size of Europe. The Simpson Desert stretches south from Alice towards the South Australian border and the Tanami Track goes more than 1000km to the north-west and into Western Australia. The desert is imprinted with spiritual significance for the local Aboriginal people, who see Dreamtime stories give meaning to its striking landforms.