Darwin, the biggest settlement in the Northern Territory by some distance, is Australia’s only tropical capital city. And whether it’s due to the proximity to Asia – Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney – or the heat, Darwin has a distinctly different vibe.
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
This is immediately apparent when you visit what is arguably the jewel in Darwin’s crown. The Mindil Beach Sunset Markets run every Thursday and Sunday in the dry season, and do a great job of summing up the city’s spirit.
The food stalls act like a tour through Asia – Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Timorese and Sri Lankan dishes are amongst those on the menu. Aussie meals – kangaroo kebabs, for example – are available too, while it’s possible to venture further afield with Dutch pancakes, French crepes, Greek yiros and all-American hot dogs.
The other stalls are generally run by the people who hand-make the crafts sold on them, while there’s plenty of entertainment in the form of bands, artists at work and sideshow-style games.
The action all breaks for the magical sunsets, however. Standing with your toes in the sand of Mindil Beach as reds, yellows and oranges fill the sky is a humbling experience.
Of course, the other great way to take in the sunset is to get out on the water. A number of cruise operators head out for evening cruises, and the package is slightly different on each. Some concentrate on the food and drink, while others are more atmospheric, and are all about enjoying the tranquility on board a character-packed old vessel.
Most of these cruises depart either from the new Waterfront development or the rather swanky Cullen Bay Marina. If you’re up for a bit of star-spotting, it’ll probably be around the Cullen Bay restaurants and bars that you’ll have most success.
Cullen Bay and the Waterfront show off the new, stylish side of Darwin. The latter development has only recently been completed, and some of the shop and restaurant spaces are still waiting to be filled. It sure is an impressive site, however. Shiny new apartment blocks flank public parkland, while the centrepiece is Wave Lagoon.
On a hot day (i.e. Just about every day in Darwin), Wave Lagoon fits the bill rather nicely. It’s a massive public pool, where the high-powered wave machine regularly kicks into action and provides a stretch of surf that Darwin sorely lacks.
One of the reasons that Darwin needs something like Wave Lagoon, of course, is that the city’s beaches aren’t ideal for swimming. During the wet season, the water is plagued with deadly box jellyfish. Meanwhile, saltwater crocodiles can be found at any time of the year. At least 200 a year are pulled out of Darwin Harbour alone, and these man-eaters are really not to be messed with.
A far better way of getting up close to these magnificent (if somewhat antisocial) beasts is to head to Crocosaurus Cove on Mitchell Street.
Getting planning permission for this one must have been interesting – Crocosaurus Cove hosts giant salties in the middle of Darwin. Right on the main hotel, restaurant and bar strip, in fact.
Whilst there is possible to ‘fish’ for crocodiles – essentially dangling a piece of meat from a fishing rod, making juvenile crocs jump up for a feed – and watch the enormous 5m-long stars-of-the-show such as Burt and Wendell being fed from a much longer pole.
There’s also a museum section, which goes into the different crocodile species around the world.
The Cage of Death
But for a real crocodile encounter, the Cage of Death is the experience to go for. There’s no fudging the issue here – this is terrifying. Armed with just your swimwear, you walk down a ladder into an acrylic ‘cage’. It’s a see-through box, with holes between the panels for the water to get in, and a metal grille at the top.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a smart crocodile could easily find his way in, but you’ve little time to debate the issue as you’re lowered into the croc’s enclosure.
The guys behind the controls try to get you as close to the toothy predators as they can. Essentially, you are left swimming around in the water a metre or so away from the most efficient killing machine nature has ever devised. And they’re not babies either – Chopper, for instance, is 5.5m long and weighs 790kg.
What happens next depends largely on the crocodile’s mood. They are essentially lazy beasts, and if they’re not feeling hungry, they’ll probably just sit where they are minding their own business.
If, however, they fancy a light snack or decide that you are invading their territory, they will attack the cage. This is more likely during the wet season during the dry, but can happen at any time. When it does, there’s little option but to cower in fear and hope that the acrylic barrier does its job.
Otherwise, it’s a privilege to sit back and observe. Getting this close whilst living to tell the tale is an honour, and watching them move through the water is awe-inspiring. Of course, you can splash, bang on the cage and make as much noise as possible to grab the attention…
World War II Oil Storage Tunnels
But while modern Darwin is largely a joy, the city does have a fascinating history too. During World War II, Darwin was on the frontline. More bombs were dropped by the Japanese here than at Pearl Harbor.
There are series of fascinating attractions linked to World War II around Darwin, but the most popular are the Oil Storage Tunnels near the waterfront. In 1942, it was deemed that all of Darwin’s oil was in one basket – and that basket was a sitting duck for the Japanese bombers. So five enormous underground tunnels were built. They never ended up being used for oil storage, but walking through the two that have been opened to the public is an eerie experience. They’re dark and dank, and the panels of wartime photographs on the walls tell a moving story.
- David Whitley