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.
am in love and his name is Darwin. The thought of leaving him, of going home to Sydney, has my mind abuzz with excuses for staying longer. And then they call my flight. Bugger. I’ve been here for 96 hours and I’m bewildered. 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 nicest hotels. I’ve witnessed the most beautiful 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. Where have the last four days gone?
THURSDAY 10am It takes about four hours to fly to Darwin from Sydney. This is just enough time to research my destination, break the tray table (twice) and spill a drink on an Australian cricket legend (sorry Merv). 12.30pm The Thrifty Car Hire person is cheery and helpful – a real outback ambassador. “Did you hear Darwin has been selected to host the Asia Pacific Outgames in 2014. Watch out or we’ll have Mardi Gras too,” she informs me. “Hands off,” I mutter as I head out to my car. 12.50pm I check in to the Darwin Central Hotel. True to its name, the hotel is central. 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. She’s glad to be in Darwin but slightly miffed at having to stay in a hostel. Every hotel room in the city is booked out. I tell her about Darwin scoring a place in Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Cities For 2012 and she’s not surprised, “I’ve been
coming here for years and recently the flights and hotels have been packed. It’s incredible how beautiful it is up here. It’s got a pumping nightlife, amazing cuisine, great shopping and you’re on the doorstep of the one of world’s greatest wildernesses. I went fishing the other day and before we could get the fish in the boat, a crocodile attacked the fish and then a shark attacked the crocodile.” Crikey! Even though it’s winter it’s a little too warm to sit outside, so we head over the road to the bottleshop to grab a bottle of wine. Make sure you bring your ID. You can’t buy takeaway alcohol without it in the Northern Territory. 5.30pm I farewell Irene and catch a cab to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. They’re on Thursday and Sunday evenings from April through October. There are about 60 food and
The only thing not cool about Darwin is the climate. It’s hot, but then so are the guys up here – it’s a trade-off and for me a no-brainer. 200 hundred craft stalls. It’s a pleasant, relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. As the sun fades to red on the horizon, I pause to savour the landscape before heading back to town. 8pm One of the best ways to select a restaurant when travelling is to follow the crowds. Eateries are busy for a reason. This logic leads
me to the Vietnam Saigon Star. 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.
FRIDAY 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 modern without being too abstract or clinical. The staff are attentive but never overbearing. Saxon the assistant hotel manager is professional courtesy personified. 12pm Drive into town. It’s only a 10-minute walk but it’s seriously warm and humid. Darwin has a great variety of shops and galleries and I spend the afternoon exploring them. The 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 I’m close to tears as I finish the last mouthful. 11pm Throb nightclub. It’s like the Goldilocks of clubs: everything is just right. James the executive manager and Miss Vogue Magazine are gracious hosts and make sure I have a perfect evening. With sexy guys, a fun, friendly crowd and top-notch drag show, Throb has all the ingredients for a great night out. SATURDAY 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. >>
Left: Tim exercises caution – saltwater crocodiles can be extremely aggressive. Above: Silent but deadly – the estuarine crocodile.
Throb is Darwin’s only gay and lesbian nightclub. Is it me or is it getting hot in here?
>> 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 66 DNA
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 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
TRAVEL 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.
Top: Tate, the pilot from Albatross Helicopters. Bottom: The Vibe Waterfront Darwin.
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.
SUNDAY 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 honey?” 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.
MONDAY 5.30am Commence screaming and running about knocking over furniture. 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, but then so are the guys up here – it’s a trade-off and for me a nobrainer. So much so that no sooner has my plane touched down I’m already planning a return trip for Darwin Pride later this year. 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. H For more go to darwinpride.com.au and throbnightclub.com.au DNA 67