Vibrant, exotic and remote, Darwin has been battered by cyclones and bombed by the Japanese but not only has it survived, this faraway place has flourished.
Tim Warrington reports.
It’s a fine day for a romance.
But with over 3000 hours of sunshine in Darwin each year, when wouldn’t it be?
Perhaps the rainy season, from November to April? But I imagine even the great wet couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.
I’m seriously crushing on this remote Northern Territory city – home to about 135,000 people.
Despite being bombed by the Japanese in World War II and famously flattened again by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, the Darwin of today is a bustling hub of Aussie stalwarts and international adventurers.
I’ve been here four days, but I was hooked at my first sip of One Mile’s Red Ale at Darwin’s famed waterfront precinct.
I never thought it possible to cram so many superlatives into one long weekend.
I’ve eaten the best steak.
I’ve stayed in the swankiest hotels.
I’ve witnessed the most glorious sunrise.
I’ve seen the biggest mosquitoes, and the scariest crocodiles and snakes (fortunately I am bitten only by the former, so I am battle-scarred but alive).
And now I’m leaving.
I am hot and bothered and thoroughly depressed at the thought of saying goodbye. My mind is abuzz with excuses for staying longer. And then they call my flight. Bugger.
Where have the last four days gone?
10am: I city-hop from Auckland to Sydney and connect for the four-hour domestic leg to Darwin International Airport. The flight is just long enough for two feature length movies and to spill my gin and tonic on an Australian cricket legend (sorry Merv).
12.30pm: Darwin airport’s Thrifty Car Hire person is cheery and helpful – a real outback ambassador. “Did you hear Darwin made it onto Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Cities list?” she informs me. I know. And judging by the bustle in the terminal, I’m not the only one who got the skinny on Darwin’s travel accolade.
Travel publications that once derided the outback town as the haunt of beer-fueled backpackers and brawling rednecks, now celebrate celebrate Darwin as a must-see, must-admire Aussie destination.
12.50pm: I check in to the Darwin Central Hotel. True to its name, the hotel is central. Tick. And it’s clean. Tick.
1pm: Nap time.
1.05pm: Sleep eludes me, which must mean it’s beer o’clock. I catch up with my buddy Irene at The Tap On Mitchell. Mitchell Street is the main drag and caters to most refreshment needs. From cocktails to craft beers, Mitchell Street has it all. And a little too much. Alcohol flows so freely here that it has become one of Australia’s most infamous and unruly nightspots.
Irene is happy to enjoy a drink with me during the day but she won’t come here after dark. “It’s just too dangerous,” she says, “too many people spoiling for a fight.” She’s glad to be back in Darwin for a few days, but slightly miffed at having to stay in a hostel.
“Can you believe every hotel in town is booked out!”
Irene has been coming here for years and with each passing year the flights get busier and the hotels more crowded … and expensive.
“It’s incredible how beautiful it is up here,” she says. “It’s got a pumping nightlife, amazing cuisine, great shopping and you’re on the doorstep of the one of world’s greatest wildernesses.
She went fishing the other day and before she could get the Barra in the boat, a crocodile attacked the fish and then a shark ate the crocodile.
Even though it’s winter it’s a little too warm to sit outside, so we head over the road to the bottle shop to grab some vino for our next stop. Make sure you bring your ID. You can’t buy takeaway alcohol without it in the Northern Territory.
5.30pm: We catch a cab to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. They’re on Thursday and Sunday evenings from May to October. There are about 60 food and 200 hundred craft stalls. It’s a pleasant, relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. As the sun fades through reds and oranges on the horizon, we pause to savour the landscape before heading back to town and going our separate ways.
8pm: Deciding where to dine is easy. I just follow the crowds, who all seem to be heading to the Vietnam Saigon Star on Smith Street. It’s packed to capacity and has a line outside. I’m alone and happy to sit near the kitchen so I score a table quickly. The food arrives almost immediately and it’s both plentiful and delicious – highly recommended! Stuffed, I waddle back to my hotel for an early night.
10am: After a hearty buffet breakfast at the hotel, I check out and head to my next accommodation.
11am: Check in at The Vibe Waterfront Darwin – in a word: stunning.
Darwin’s waterfront has had well over a billion dollars spent on it in the last few years and I reckon the Vibe got a fair whack of that cash. It’s effortlessly modern without being too slick. The staff are attentive but never overbearing. The assistant hotel manager is professional courtesy personified.
12pm: Drive into town. It’s only a 10-minute walk but it’s seriously hot and humid. Darwin has an awesome spread of shops and galleries and I spend the afternoon exploring them. One standout is di Croco at 19 The Mall. It supplies superior saltwater crocodile leather to leading fashion houses in Australia and Europe, including Hermès.
6.30pm: Char Restaurant is sheer gastroporn.
It’s high-end dining in the Top End at its absolute best. It occupies a prime location overlooking Darwin’s green-lawned esplanade to the sea from the charming, heritage-listed Admiralty House. They cook a mean steak here and so they should. Restaurateur John Kilroy is a nationally recognised beef judge
11pm: As tempting as it is to sample the nocturnal scene as I head home down Mitchell Street, my 5am start makes sleep a more sensible option. Two police officers are chasing an Irishman down the street who appears to have misplaced his pants. He flashes his lucky charms one last time before they cuff him and haul him off to the paddy wagon.
8am: Coffee – stat!
9am: I’m off to Kakadu National Park today and I can barely contain my excitement. I’ve even brought a special Australiana driving CD.
As I zoom along singing to Gangagang’s’ This Is Australia,’ I have only road trains for company. When sign-posted you’re allowed to squeeze out a breezy 130kph, but even at this speed you should be able to see at least one clear kilometre ahead before you even attempt to overtake a road train according to the Essential Drive Guide To The Northern Territory.
Even at 130kph I’m overtaken by several 4WDs full of grey hair and bifocals, but this is fast enough for me.
I’m driving along The Natures Way, which is an 800km round-trip through some of Australia’s most spectacular natural scenery, tropical monsoon rainforests, expansive
floodplains and towering escarpments. I can see why the Northern Territory is touted as the ultimate drive holiday destination.
Having collected much of the insect world on my windscreen I pit-stop at the nearest service station to clean, refuel and check I’m heading in the right direction. With enthusiastic hand gestures the service station advises me to keep going straight on. Two hours later I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve gone the wrong way. I happen on the world’s smallest police station and Senior Constable “Tight Pants” confirms I am indeed lost.
Somewhere between CD tracks ‘A Pub With No Beer’ and ‘My Island Home’ I’ve missed
my turning. And I’ve missed my Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise. The friendly
policeman assures me I can reschedule but the main thing is to get off the road before
nightfall or I’ll have more substantial beasties bouncing off the car. I have five hours driving and four hours daylight yet.
6.30pm: I arrive safely at Gagadju Crocodile Holiday Inn, just after dusk. I am very late for
my compulsory media briefing. It’s necessary for safety reasons as well as the cultural
sensitivity of the area. It’s really about using common sense and being respectful.
The hotel is shaped like a crocodile. My room is situated somewhere in its lower intestine.
Getting lost is exhausting work so I retire early, but not before dinner. It seems fitting to
consume a crocodile salad while staying in a large crocodile, surrounded by crocodiles. It tastes a bit like fish-flavoured chicken.
8.30am: Coolibah Airport. I am somewhat disconcerted as Tate the pilot removes the doors from his helicopter. He tells me not to let anything blow into the rear rotor or we’ll crash.
And if we don’t die on impact we’ll be killed by the crocodiles or trampled by brumbies
(wild horses) that inhabit the area. I assume he’s joking but his delivery is deadpan. I’m not a fan of heights so I can’t say absolutely what happened during my 30-minute scenic flight but according to the photos I had a lovely time.
10am: Nourlangie art site. I’ve come to see the rock art but it’s pretty awesome to discover
Aboriginal people have been using the overhanging rock shelters for at least 20,000
years! There’s a pretty easy 1.5km walk around the site. Don’t forget your water bottle – even in winter it’s thirsty work.
1pm: Check in to Gagudju Lodge Cooinda.
1.30pm: At reception. “Do you have Wi-Fi?” The receptionist laughs. “It’s Mother’s Day,” I plead. More laughter. “I think there’s a black spot; my mobile phone isn’t working.” She points to a prehistoric pay phone. It’s my turn to laugh.
2pm: At prehistoric pay phone. The phone booth is full of thick cobwebs so I fashion a dialling wand out of a paperbark branch and dial from the safety of the footpath. I call my mother. “Where are you darling?” she asks, all crackly and distant. “In the middle of nowhere,” I reply. I am not lying. “Don’t get eaten by crocodiles,” she yells as I hang up the phone.
3pm: Begin afternoon stroll.
3.15pm: Stumble across sign warning of 6-metre estuarine crocodile in area.
3.16pm: End afternoon stroll. Return to safety of hotel room for the rest of the day.
5.30am: Commence screaming and running about knocking over furniture. I woke up with a large lizard on my face.
5.35am: Manage to shoo large lizard out of hotel room.
6.45am: Depart Sunrise Yellow Water Cruise. Yellow Water is Kakadu’s most famous billabong. As we silently pull away from the jetty, Reuben our guide talks us through what we’re likely to see during our two-hour cruise. He concludes his introduction by saying, “We can never guarantee what will happen on a cruise.” This does not sit well when followed by, “A crocodile could quite easily jump out of the water and grab you.”
7am: The sun begins to rise and the 20 or so people on the boat fall completely silent. It is quite simply breathtaking. Whoever came up with the saying, “red sky in the morning,
shepherds warning,” obviously hasn’t seen a sunrise in Kakadu. Reuben points out the local flora and fauna but almost every eye is fixed on the water. We’re all here to see the crocodiles. And they don’t disappoint. About eight or nine crocs in just under two hours. They float by silent, almost invisible in the murky, weed-filled water, fixing us with their cold, lifeless eyes. That’s it, I’ve seen enough.
9.30am: Back at the lodge I grab a delicious alfresco buffet breakfast, then it’s back in the car for the 3½hr drive to the airport. Darwin-bound, I accelerate reluctantly towards my departure. And then the funniest thing. In front of me on the road it looks like scores of eagles swooping down and collecting snakes off the road. And that’s exactly what it is. It’s like McDonald’s drive thru for birds. It’s a fitting start to the day as one-with-nature seems the theme of my return trip.
Thirty minutes along the Arnhem Highway I almost roll the car when a frog the size of a small cat appears on the passenger seat beside me. During the remainder of my journey
I see kangaroos, wallabies, lizards and lots more snakes and eagles. You really are surrounded by nature up here.
Darwin is cool. The only thing not cool about Darwin is the climate. It’s hot, really really hot.
No sooner has my plane touched down I’m already planning a return trip.
The Northern Territory is no longer a side excursion from the southern states for tourists with time on their hands.
For many international traveller it’s their primary destination when they come to Australia.
From Uluru to Kakadu, for a real Aussie adventure head to the Northern Territory.