Darwin: Just add water
IF THERE'S one thing most people think they know about Darwin and the Top End, it's that the best time to visit is during dry season, ideally June or July.
People will tell you, "Don't go during wet season - it's way too hot and the weather is terrible”. Wrong.
It might be warmer and more humid, but the wet season - December to April - is a terrific time to visit.
For one thing, the crowds are far smaller (if not non-existent), and secondly, accommodation and flights are often a lot cheaper. And thirdly, experiencing a Top End thunderstorm is like nothing else, and you need to put it on your bucket list right now.
You'll see it coming from miles away, like an apocalyptic cloud of doom. You'll see thick, bright thunderbolts like you've never seen before, branching out into hugely intricate webs, followed by thunder that will shake you to your core. And then the rain.
Last year's wet season was the best in five years, with Darwin recording more than two metres of rainfall. This year is even better again - January's rainfall alone is the highest in 114 years.
Standing on the rock face of Nawurlandja - a lookout point in the heart of Kakadu - I watched in awe as water gushed from the sky in the distance over savannah woodlands, the Arnhem Land escarpment just beyond. I had stood in the same spot in the dry season at sunset and watched the changing colours on nearby Nourlangie Rock with the same sense of awe.
Earlier that day, I had seen the landscape from above, on board a scenic flight with Kakadu Air. The escarpment that forms the border between Kakadu and Arnhem Land is a majestic sight any time of the year, but the sheer volume of water coming over the many waterfalls along the cliff face - not to mention the lush floodplains below - is something best seen following a decent spell of rain. Jim Jim Falls - inaccessible by road for most of the year - took my breath away.
While many areas of Kakadu are cut off or closed during wet season, that doesn't mean they're completely off limits. Kakadu Cultural Tours offers a unique half-day trip to Ubirr by boat and four-wheel-drive bus.
Ubirr is home to one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal rock art in Australia. It is also hosts one of the highest concentrations of tourists in the Top End during dry season. On this wet season tour, the 10 to 20 people in your group are the only ones at the site.
The drive to Ubirr comes to an abrupt halt when the road disappears under a swollen Magela Creek. That's when you hop off the bus and board a boat - keeping a wary eye out for crocs. The boat leg adds to the experience, weaving in and out of trees while the indigenous tour guide gives insights into the area.
The tour only runs when the water is high enough to cross by boat - having resumed last year after a three-year hiatus due to several dryer-than-normal wet seasons.
Jabiru is a good base for exploring Kakadu and is a two-and-a-half-hour drive east of Darwin. The famous Mercure Kakadu Crocodile - better known as the Croc Hotel - offers reasonable rates during the wet season, as does the nearby Kakadu Lodge.
Another option closer to Darwin is checking out Litchfield National Park. Several waterfalls and river systems are pumping at the moment and can be seen in a day trip. Beware, though - road access can often be cut off. Check with national parks before setting out.
Don't be put off by wet season naysayers. Dare to be different and reap the rewards.