The Northern Land Council takes in a variety of landscapes; from desert country to vast wet land systems, tropical savannah and coastal regions. In the Top End today, there are about 200 scattered communities ranging in size from small family groups on outstations to settlements of up to 3,000 people.
A substantial number of Aboriginal people also live in the four major, predominantly non-Aboriginal, centres of Darwin, Nhulunbuy, Katherine and Jabiru. But despite significant increases in the Top End's population over the past two decades and the outstation movement, large areas remain sparsely populated.
The Top End coastline is backed by landscapes of generally low relief, seldom reaching elevations exceeding 30 metres.
Further from the coast, plains rise slowly in height towards the south. The most significant departures from this general pattern involve areas of rugged sandstone plateau, the most significant extending from Kakadu National Park south-eastwards through Arnhem Land.
Top End wetlands are concentrated in the areas of low relief near the northern coast. They are some of the most extensive and remote wetlands in Australia and compared to those in southern Australia are generally in good condition.
Closer to the coast there are large mangrove swamps, salt marshes and seagrass beds, while major river systems have freshwater floodplains, covering thousands of square kilometres. These have permanent or seasonal swamps and can be dry or under several metres of water, depending on the season. They are home to large numbers of waterbirds, fish, mammals and reptiles, and are still widely used by Aboriginal people.
The Australian land mass has been subject to dramatic and dynamic changes over the past 20,000 years. About 18,000 years ago, the wetlands of Kakadu National Park were at the northern edge of the desert zone and sandstone outcrops like Ubirr and Nourlangie, which now overlook Kakadu's wetlands, were drier inland sites.
Today, standing on the rim of the escarpment around the Arafura Swamp in Central Arnhem Land, you look out over the largest paperbark swamp in northern Australia. There is nothing in the visible landscape to suggest that much of this vast freshwater wetland used to be a large saltwater estuary associated with tidal creeks fringed by mangrove.
The Top End is situated in the wet-dry tropics of Australia.
In the wet season, from November to April, 93% of the annual rainfall occurs; most rain is brought by the South-East Asian Monsoon when monsoonal troughs lie over the Top End coast for extended periods. Humidity is very high during the wet season and cloudy conditions keep maximum daily temperatures near the coast to 33-34 degrees Celsius.
The dry season, May to October, is marked by steady east to south-east winds and dry conditions with lower humidity and slightly lower temperatures than the wet season. Rainfall in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, is approximately 1,600mm per annum and decreases inland towards the south. For example at Katherine, approximately 300km inland, the annual rainfall is about 960mm.
Maximum temperatures increase and minimum temperatures decrease inland.