It’s 100 years since South Australia gave away its seemingly useless northern lands to the Commonwealth and it’s been a tumultuous and exciting time ever since for the Northern Territory.

Story By John Dunn

This year marks the centenary of the Northern Territory, a land at once dangerous and inviting, harsh and life-giving. At 1,349,129 square kilometres, it is exceeded in size only by Western Australia and Queensland. Its population, though, at about 240,000, is the smallest of all the country’s states and territories. Its economy is relatively minimal, relying mainly on tourists, cattle, mines, gas and Commonwealth expenditure. And it is isolated from much of the rest of the nation – the nearest capitals, Adelaide and Brisbane, are more than 3000 kilometres away from its own capital, Darwin – a fact that is a major plus or a huge negative, depending on your point of view. There’s no doubt that most of its residents seem to like it that way and it contributes to a unique Top End culture.

Yet despite this isolation ‘the Territory’, as it’s generally known, is an integral part of Australia. With promising natural resources, unusual and attractive geographic features, and a fascinating mix of people who cope with uncompromising and ongoing challenges, it has a history that has seen, and overcome, perhaps more troubled times than anywhere else in the country.

This is the epicentre of the outback. It’s a place where early settlers came, principally cattlemen who ventured inland with hope and unshakeable optimism that the great grasslands in the continent’s centre and its north would provide the basis of a thriving and profitable industry. Such early dreams, and those of the miners who followed, have been largely fulfilled and today the Territory stands proudly with much achieved and with a determination that much more can be attained.

Darwin is a modern, bustling, cosmopolitan city sitting by a sun-dappled turquoise sea with high-rise commercial and residential towers, five-star hotels and upmarket restaurants all heralding developments in local commerce, domestic and international travel and overseas investment. The residents, now well over 100,000, comprise a blend of races – white and indigenous Australians are joined by Chinese, Greeks, Timorese, Filipinos and others – who live closely and harmoniously in a trouble-free mix perhaps not seen anywhere else in the country.

Its smaller sister, Alice Springs, is far away and flanked by the vibrant colours of the striking MacDonnell Ranges. It sits in what is just about the geographical heart of the continent, different in almost every way not only from anything in the Territory but from any other inland town in the nation.

This story excerpt is from Issue #78

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2011