When you wake up in Darwin you’ll be met by a newspaper with a frontpage headline claiming that pet crocs are just as safe as pitbulls. Or that horny kangaroos are stalking local women. Or some other bizarre “Only in the Top End” story. Everyday is a slow news day in the Northern Territory because every day is slow. As the locals will tell you “NT” actually stands for “Not today, not tomorrow”. Darwin runs at a much slower pace to other capital cities.
It’s popular with hordes of grey nomads and backpackers as it’s an almost mandatory stop on a journey through to the Kakadu or down the highway to Uluru and the population has exploded in recent years thanks to mining and military bases. But it’s not just for fighters, FIFOs, fogies and foreigners. There are plenty of reasons to linger in Darwin for at least a few days before venturing out into the wild, open expanse of the Northern Territory.
Keeping wet (and away from crocs) in the dry season
Bombed in 1942 and devastated by cyclone in 1974, Darwin isn’t exactly the most picturesque place in Australia – unless you have an odd fondness for late ’70s concrete and new apartment developments. Darwin isn’t about buildings though – it’s just location, location, location. The sun rises and sets over water and during the dry season (May – September) the city is twice as warm and about five times more appealing than a winter’s day in Melbourne.
Well located on Mitchell St just near Parliament House and the Deckchair cinema, the Hilton Darwin is the only five star hotel in the city. Darwin’s other top offering is the casino hotel, which is out of the city near the night market and sure to end up including much more than just the accommodation.
Recently revitalised by a $12 million renovation, the Hilton also boasts a swimming pool on the tenth floor (well away from any curious crocs) and a fitness centre for anyone who feels that the weather just doesn’t deliver enough heat to really make you sweat. If you’re not staying next to a croc free swimming pool head to the waterfront where $7 gets you a pass to the very popular Wave Lagoon and a stress free swim with ten different wave patterns churned out throughout the day.
Mindil Market is a must
Thousands flock to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets on Thursday nights between May and October in time to watch the sun sink into the Timor Sea packing the beach but keeping a respectful (and perhaps fearful) distance from the waters edge. Get down early and take a spot on the sand away from the market buskers unless you feel that sunsets are somehow more spiritually meaningful when accompanied by pan-pipe renditions of ‘80s love songs.
There’s an Olympic variety of food with tempting competition from India, Indonesia, Japan, Spain, Greece, Italy, Vietnam and many other destinations but it’s difficult to ignore the chance to feast on Darwin’s unofficial mascot. Head to Be Game for barbequed croc served with a lemon myrtle and macadamia pesto, sour cream and crisp salad greens on Turkish bread. (Yes, it tastes a little like chicken. Deliciously gamey, salty, buttery chicken.)
Behind the row of food vendors the rest of the stalls offer the usual array of market crafts plus a few local specialties like crocodile skulls, crocodile leather and crocodile plush toys. It’s also the best place in Darwin to get a tasteful black velvet painting of a unicorn or fat Elvis. Above the Read Back Book Exchange on Smith St you’ll find an excellent gallery of Aboriginal art with work ranging from hypnotic dot paintings to Rothko-esque colour field canvases. The work all comes with certificates of authenticity and you even watch local artists at work in the studio.
Where to eat
Darwin’s proximity to Asia shines through in show in the excellent food on offer – especially for fans of seafood. Next to the Darwin Entertainment Centre and just round the corner from the Hilton Double Tree you’ll find a delicious mix of south-east Asian and Indian flavours at the Hanuman restaurant. A Darwin favourite since Sri Lankan-born chef Jimmy Shu opened the place back in 1992, it’s well worth a visit to laze beneath the fans on the open air deck and gorge on spicy delights including the restaurant’s signature dish of baked oysters marinated in lemongrass, sweet basil, ginger, chilli and coriander.
On the road to the Adelaide River, the Humpty Doo pub offers excellent pub grub including steak sangas, parmas and burgers (available in beef, barramundi, buffalo or croc options) and is the best place to get a taste of outback life without actually having to do any work. A XXXX to wash down your meal is almost mandatory.
A drink or two or three
Mitchell Street – a gauntlet of deep verandahs and front courtyards – lights up in the afternoon with high-vis vests as the tradies knock off work to knock a few back and remains busy until the early hours of the next morning. Find a seat under the massive tree at The Tap and spend a few hours trying to work your way through their deep list of local and international beers or head down to the waterfront to Mexican restaurant and bar Hot Tamale where the list of tequilas fills four pages of the menu. Ladies night at Monsoons packs in a rowdy crowd on a Thursday night lured in by a pair of buff blokes wearing nothing above the belt other than a bow-tie.
Further out of town – and across the road from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory – you’ll find the Darwin Ski Club where a backpacker will serve you icy cold drinks in the “Bali Bar” overlooking the beach and you’ll find it difficult to think of a reason to move. If you can drag yourself from the bar, the Gallery is home to Sweetheart the giant five metre croc, an excellent collection of Indigenous art and a display of Cyclone Tracy wreckage. There’s also a “black out” room filled with the sound of the storm, which should be avoided if there’s still a storm in your head from the night before.
After dark action that doesn’t come in a schooner
Darwin’s excellent Deckchair Cinema is on the water below parliament house and offers an impressively well-curated selection of movies from blockbusters and cult classics to art-house and foreign films. (You’ve never really seen Fargo until you’ve heard the quiet rustle of possums and birds punctuating those Minnesooootan accents.) The smell of citronella wafts over the cinema – and they stock a natural and locally produced bug-repellent at the bar – but a few mozzies will always fight through making the cinema one of the few places in town where long sleeves and pants are acceptable. There’s a bar (of course) and you can BYO food or buy dinner there (cash only). The menu changes depending on the day with chefs from Hanuman taking charge of the kitchen on Wednesday and Friday nights. The food is on offer from the time the gates open at 6:30pm until the screening starts an hour later, but the food can sell out very quickly.
The crocs in town are a croc
You can swim in the Cage of Death right in the middle of town at Crocosaurus Cove on Mitchell Street, but do you really want to have to admit that your tightly controlled close encounter with nature was on the backpacker strip across the road from Shenannigans Irish pub? Instead sign up for a tour and head an hour out of town past mango farms, the boxing crocodile monument, and the “world famous” Humpty Doo pub to the Adelaide River. Wallarro Tours will send you out on the murky brown water in a small boat with a man who happily mocks Bear Grylls and Steve Irwin as fakers and is on a first name basis with the local crocs and swooping hawks. The crocs come close enough to touch as they leap from the water to snap at dangling pieces of chicken – but unless you’re keen on winning a Darwin Award keep your damn limbs in the damn boat.
The writer visited Darwin as a guest of Tourism NT and Hilton Darwin. (Lead image: Tourism NT)