If you want to go somewhere that fulfils your Australian visions of dangerous creatures inhabiting every water hole, long stretches of open road, dry desert and bushland, stifling humidity and rough-as-guts characters, then go to the Northern Territory, or in particular, Darwin. This is where the stereotypes come from. Even as an Australian, who has grown up below the Tropic of Capricorn, visiting this unique Northern city is like travelling to a new country.
When I first arrived in Darwin for a two week holiday, I was struck by the raw nature of the city, but on closer exploration, I fell in love with its rustic charm, beautiful sunsets and fabulous night life. It was hard to push the place from my mind, so I returned the following year for two months, set myself up in a hostel dorm and partied the dry season away. There is so much more to Darwin than meets the eye, with untouched National Parks just a four-wheel drive trip away and a rich Arts culture that unfolds over the cooler months, Darwin is a rugged inspiration and should be visited at least once in a lifetime. Here’s a taste of what you can get up to when you arrive:
The first thing I often like to do when I arrive in a new place is to take a walk to get my bearings and, in Darwin, the Esplanade offers a great first impression. Located parallel to Mitchell Street, right by the ocean, there’s a footpath that runs past the war memorial and down a steep flight of steps on either side, taking you into the rainforest or, alternatively, down towards the lagoon. This used to be my favourite running track, though during the day, it is too hot for anything but a gentle walk.
The Deckchair Cinema
A wonderful experience on a balmy evening, relax in deck chairs under the stars and watch the film unfold on the screen in front of you. You can even buy some dinner here if you fancy and make a whole evening of it. Make sure you bring some mosquito repellant and a pillow for comfort.
Mindil Beach Markets
This wonderful attraction is about a half hour walk from the city centre. The markets are huge and extremely busy during dry season, with a multitude of food stalls, from Indian and Sri Lankan to Thai cuisine or even crocodile burgers. There’s something for every tastebud. If it’s shopping you’re after, be prepared to see some unique Australian products, like crocodile stock whips, belts, knife pouches and didgeridoos. Sand dragons mark prime position on the beach, where you will see some of the most spectacular sunsets of your life. The red sun sinks slowly in the colourful sky – it is like watching a painting change form. Be sure to bring your camera!
Another great market, this one is located in the suburb of Parap and sells lots of interesting arts and crafts, jewellery, fresh fruit shakes and tasty food. I recall having a delicious laksa here one day and listening to lots of live music. Darwin’s proximity to Asia means great food and I couldn’t get enough of it!
Burnett Heritage House
Built in 1938 and situated on Myilly Point, this National Trust building is a wonderful example of tropical colonial architecture, set high on stilts and with an open plan that allows natural cooling in this hot climate. The building has survived Cyclone Tracy, along with the bullets and bombs of World War II. You can stroll around the beautiful building, as well as enjoying afternoon tea in the gardens. A very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
World War II History
The Darwin bombings of 1942 left a significant impact on this Northern most city in Australia – find out more at the Darwin Military Museum. You can also visit the World War II oil storage tunnels in town, built underground to prevent further aerial bombings. For a small entrance fee, you can explore the tunnels, which offer historical information along the way. There are also a number of bunkers outside the city, situated in positions along the coast to watch out for imminent invasions.
Museum and Art Gallery
The Museum and Art Gallery houses a huge amount of Aboriginal art, an informative and interactive Cyclone Tracey Display and one of Australia’s largest crocodiles, just to name a few highlights! It is well-worth the visit and offers a delightful air-conditioned space to escape the heat, if it is just getting too much!
The Darwin Waterfront Precinct
This wonderful outdoor water precinct is a great spot to spend an entire morning or afternoon. With hundreds of eateries and bars, a wave pool and a general swimming pool, plenty of shady palm trees and freshly mown lawn, you won’t get bored. Take a picnic, a good book and your swimmers and you’ll be all set for a thoroughly relaxing day.
Partying and Nightlife
If you’re up for a party, you’ve come to the right place! Darwin’s famous Mitchell Street is crawling with pubs, clubs, restaurants and backpackers. Look out for happy hours, as well as promo staff handing out two-for-one drinks. You can actually have a relatively cheap night out if you plan it well! Start off with a jug of snakebite at the hostel (Youthshack and Melaleuca always had great hostel drink deals), before heading out for a few drinks at The Tap Bar or Shenanigans. Later, as the night rolls on, you will no doubt find yourself dancing at Wisdom or Monsoons. If you’re after a music-filled evening (and can play the guitar), Nirvana and Happy Yess host great open mic nights, plus you will usually score a free drink if you are brave enough to jump up on stage.
Either go cage-diving with these ancient beasts in the city centre or take a croc-jumping tour outside of Darwin. The latter is less cruel and, whilst its fabulous to see these beasts in action, I do not agree with feeding them from the boat. Having said that, coming face-to-face with one in the wild is also unappealing and I guess it’s good to know what to expect, whilst in a risk-free environment.
Spread over 18 days every August, this spectacular cultural event showcases music, theatre, dance, cabaret and much more, all over the city. The year I was in Darwin, there was a ‘Lunch box series’ – a selection of free festival acts performed over the lunch hour every day for the duration of the festival. You certainly don’t need money to appreciate the arts in this town.
Berry Springs Nature Park
A beautiful picnic area and swimming hole, surrounded by natural bushland and only an hour drive from Darwin, this makes for a great day trip. Just be careful to keep your eyes peeled for crocodiles – they are very stealthy creatures and have been known to nab the odd tourist for their meal, though they are well monitored in the popular swimming holes.
Litchfield National Park
Situated 120 km out of town on a sealed road, you can easily visit Litchfield National Park for a day trip, though no doubt you could take a bit more time to truly appreciate the magical swimming holes, waterfalls and walks.
Kakadu National Park
Covering approximately 20,000 km, this magical national park is brimming with swimming holes, waterfalls, amazing views and walking tracks, not to mention the giant termite mounds! Hire a four-wheel drive or take a tour to explore this region properly. I booked onto a three day four-wheel drive tour which, while expensive, offered a wonderful insight into the natural flora and fauna, as well as the Aboriginal customs and traditions of the land. By being part of a tour, the guide was able to take us to some of the best places, including Jim Jim Falls. If you are to take your own vehicle, be prepared for extremely rough tracks. Make sure you are well equipped for emergencies – you wouldn’t want to run out of fuel here!
As you can see, if you are visiting the Northern Territory, you certainly won’t run out of things to do. Just be careful! Along with stingers in the ocean, snakes in the bush and crocodiles in the water holes, you wouldn’t want your van to break down and end up like this!
Have you ever been to the Northern Territory? Where would you recommend visiting?