|Destination Darwin - Quick Facts|
January: 25 - 33°C
Australian capital cities don't come much more tropical, or exotic, than Darwin.
Perched on the edge of the Timor Sea at the very top of Australia, closer to Singapore than Perth or Sydney and looking as Asian as Malaysia, Darwin is a heady mix of the tropics and the outback, of frontier hardiness and urbane sophistication, extreme weather and genuine friendliness blended in a crucible of cultural influences.
Part of Darwin's rough and tough charm is its sheer tenaciousness.
Named after Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, the city is a good example of the concept of the 'survival of the fittest' in action.
The modern city of Darwin, which began life as Palmerston in 1869, was the fifth attempt at establishing a settlement on the northern coast of Australia. The previous four, which included Fort Dundas, Raffles Bay, Escape Cliffs and Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula, had all been miserable failures and it wasn't until the construction of the Overland Telegraph 1870 that the fledgling town really had a sustainable reason for being.
During World War II it was bombed more than 60 times - with the harbour full of warships it was a prime target for the Japanese. These days you can visit the East Point Military Museum, which is the original bunker where the Australian army planned the Top End defence strategy. The museum is open daily and has excellent displays, photos and dramatic live footage of the Japanese bombing Darwin. The oil storage tunnels, which were built as part of the war effort, are equally fascinating and wind beneath the city. Several are open to the public.
The city has also been seriously damaged by cyclones three times, the most devastating at Christmas in 1974 by the ruthless Cyclone Tracy. You can get a feel for what it may have been like to live through Australia's greatest natural disaster at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. The museum's Cyclone Tracy display includes a small, dark room where you can listen to a tape recording of the cyclone's screeching winds – it's quite as terrifying as if you were really there. There is also TV footage from the day after it hit and photographs of iron roofs crumpled up like tissues on front lawns. You may also soon be able to scuba dive around a ship that was sunk during the cyclone – but was only found in the massive harbour late last year. For the latest news on whether you can dive there yet, check with Cullen Bay Charters.
There are several cruises available on the harbour, with sunset cruises the most spectacular.Watching the sun fall into a blood-red sea from the deck of a restored schooner, 1950's pearling lugger, sailing ketch, catamaran or cruiser while sipping champagne is a Darwin moment not to be missed.
Afterwards, head to Cullen Bay Marina for a seafood dinner at one of the many seafood restaurants that line the boardwalk, or take a wander through the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Running from April until October on Thursday and Sunday nights, the markets have been a favourite gathering place for locals for the past 18 years or so. There's more than 60 food stalls from more than 30 different countries and 200 art and craft stalls. Shop for local souvenirs, get a massage, have your palm read, get a Tarot reading, watch the buskers and performing artists, listen to the live bands or just sip a glass of wine on the beach and watch the sunset.
The Botanic Gardens are nearby and make for cool place to escape the heat during the day. Or take a stroll along the waterfront Esplanade, stopping at Aquascene to hand-feed the hundreds of fish that come to shore in hide tide at Doctors Gully, finishing your walk at the beautiful seven-gabled Government House, surrounded by a white fence and magnificent tropical gardens.
Across the bay is Charles Darwin National Park, where a highlight is the WWII interpretative displays in heritage-listed 'bomb dumps'. The picnic ground has an interesting view of Darwin city across the bay.
There's more wartime history at the Aviation Heritage Centre, where you can check out the B52 bomber. The North American B-25D-10 Mitchell Hawg Mouth crashed about 60 miles west of Tennant Creek on 25 January 1945 and was recovered in 1974. Other exhibits include a spitfire, a Wessex helicopter, a Sabre jet and static displays of Australian aviation history.
For a wilder view of the Top End life, Crocodylus Park, just 15 minutes from the city centre, has lots of crocodiles as well as cassowaries, dingoes and wallabies. Further afield is the Territory Wildlife Park, about 45 minutes drive.
Operated by the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, this 1000-acre park showcases the native plants and animals of the region. Don't miss the free-flying birds of prey demonstrations at10am and 3pm each day.
Or head out to the Adelaide River Bridge, 70km from the city along the Arnhem Highway to join a Jumping Crocodile Cruise, where you'll spend 90 minutes cruising up the river, enticing the crocodiles on the muddy banks into the water to jump up and snatch a pork chop dangling from a big stick. Although these are wild crocs the slightly vaudevillian tour smacks a little of trained animals, but it is a good chance to get a close-up look at some huge crocodiles - especially if you sit downstairs, where you will be eye to eye with the giant reptiles through the large glass windows.
Another day trip not to be missed is Litchfield National Park, where you can swim in crocodile-free freshwater swimming holes fed by beautiful waterfalls.