Hot and humid and wet during the rainy season, Darwin has its own charm and character, based not only on its geographical location, but also on history and a couple of significant natural events. On the 19th February 1942, during World War II, the city was bombed by the same Japanese force which struck Pearl Harbour. Darwin suffered a great deal of destruction from the bombings, which was which was kept quiet at the time, to not cause panic in Australia!
Then early on Christmas day 1974, Cyclone Tracy unleashed its fury, decimating the city. Much of Darwin had to be rebuilt after Cyclone Tracy, giving the cosmopolitan city a “youthful” look.
I was about to make my first trip to Darwin when the Australian Road Trip Movie Last Cab to Darwin was screening in Australian cinemas. The movie is about Rex (Michael Caton) a taxi driver from Broken Hill. Shortly after discovering he has terminal cancer, Rex hears a nurse from Darwin talking on the radio about trying to legalise euthanasia. The right to die on ones’ own terms sparks Rex’s road trip to Darwin. I ended up watching the movie to help me understand Darwin!
But this post is not a review on the movie – it’s about my first trip to Darwin. Brought about by the death of my dear old Uncle Barry. He wasn’t heading to Darwin like Rex to choose death on his own terms. Barry was already dead. Myself and a few other family members were returning Barry’s ashes to Darwin. Uncle Barry lived in Darwin for some 20+ years, but with the onset of dementia, he left his beloved Darwin for an aged care facility on the Sunshine Coast. Before dying, Barry requested for his ashes to be scattered in the south gutter, a couple of hours from Darwin Harbour. So I have my Uncle Barry to thank for bringing me to Darwin for the first time. It was early September, the dry season. I only had four days, but here’s my top 10 Darwin discoveries.
1/ Burnett House
Thankfully some of the city’s unique architecture survived cyclone Tracy’s fury – Burnett House is one of them. Designed in 1939 by architect Beni Burnett, the house was built before the advent of air-conditioning. It is two storied, with living and dining downstairs and sleeping areas upstairs. Downstairs is made from reinforced concrete column and beams to keep cool and potentially withstand strong weather. The upstairs walls are timber framed with fibro sheet cladding and cement louvres to be opened for air flow – an attempt to combat the humid Darwin weather. Burnett House is an example of ingenious design which withstood the double edged brunt of WWII bombings and a cyclone (the house lost its roof in Cyclone Tracy.) Testament to a style of architecture that is meant to last.
2 / Parliament House
Another example of interesting architecture is the Northern Territory’s Parliament house – said to be an example of contemporary “tropical” style. Opened in 1994, the building would not look out of place in Singapore. It is built on the site of the original post office and telegraph station, both bombed during WWII in the first air raids (a surprise attack) on 19th February 1942. Located in State Square at the end of Mitchell Street, you can easily walk to Parliament House from the esplanade. If you’re keen, there is a free guided tour departing from the foyer of Parliament House at 9am and 11am every Saturday from February to November. During the dry season (May to September) an additional tour is offered on Wednesdays at 10.30am. (Bookings not required.)
Sitting outside on a mild Darwin night watching a movie with the sound of the harbour water lapping in the background and the breeze gently blowing through the vegetation was special. I loved the deckchair cinema experience and recommend it as a perfect place to spend a balmy evening. Located at the base of the cliffs the cinema is easily accessible on foot by the set of stairs via the Damoe-Ra Pathway.
It’s a pleasant stroll if you happen to be staying in the city as we were, but if driving or catching a cab or wheelchair access is required, try the car park on the lower level, near the cinema.
We’d heard about the resident possums who often scamper across the ground at night time. We saw no possums, but this could be the result of our high octane movie – Mad Max Fury Road. The intensity of the music and non-stop action probably drove the little critters away!
Tip for visitors: either BYO pillow or cushion as the metal bars on the deckchairs get a little uncomfortable. The cinema actually provide cushions but our faux pas – due to the lateness of our arrival and lights dimmed, we walked straight past the cushions for patrons. With very few drive-ins operating in this country, this is an experience I recommend you look into if in Darwin for a few days. It’s best to book ahead and check the movie selection – they differ each night.
Address: Jervois Road, Darwin Waterfront. Screens films seven nights a week from April until November opening from 6.30pm
4 / Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
Visitors to Darwin AND the locals talk about these markets. Who hasn’t seen a sunset photo from the Mindil beach on social media? Featured on many Instagram pages (mine included) it is fun to be with the sunset worshippers with smartphones and cameras ready to catch the golden orb as it descends (rapidly) into the ocean. This is a spectacular sunset and the sky hues afterwards provide the perfect backdrop to enjoy the markets.
Mindil markets has a variety of stalls showcasing local arts and craft (not many places you’ll find crocodile skulls.) And don’t miss the beautiful indigenous art work. Delicious fragrances linger in the night air from an assortment of food stalls. An array of choices including Thai, Singaporean, Indian, Greek, Sri Lankan, Turkish, South American with one stall even selling snacks from Borneo. And for the mango lovers, the Northern Territory has an abundance of mango farms. Find the stall selling mango smoothies – perfect refreshment after consuming hot chilli flavoured snacks!
Gilruth Avenue, Every Thursday and Sunday evening between May and October. Thursday evening: 5pm – 10pm Sunday evening: 4pm – 9pm. Not open Wet season
5 / Parap Village Markets
These markets are a much smaller scale than the Mindil Markets. The Parap Village markets has a number of delicious food stalls and a selection of fresh produce to fill your basket. There are art, craft and fashion stands selling original market crafts. We stopped for an Asian style breakfast followed by a little shopping. Stall holders were very friendly and happy to chat, something which makes my market experiences all the more pleasurable. I couldn’t resist the “one-off” and reasonably priced jewellery pieces created by Laureen Ward.
Parap Shopping Village Saturdays from 8am- 2:00pm all year round
6/ Litchfield National Park
Don’t have time to travel to the famous Kakadu National Park? Consider Litchfield National Park as the perfect destination for a day trip. Just over an hour’s drive from Darwin on the Stuart Highway, the 1,500 square kilometre Litchfield Park was named after Frederick Henry Litchfield – a member of the first European expedition to the area. Litchfield Park has a number of interesting attractions including towering termite mounds, waterfalls and croc free rock pools, perfect for a cool swim! Litchfield boasts bushwalking trails in terrain that is Top End unique (from a landscape perspective.)
Decide on driving or take a day tour as we did. We chose a tour with AAT Kings for an overview of the park and the extra snippets from Rob our effervescent Tour Guide.
Entry is free and often the Art Gallery hosts exhibits. We were lucky on our visit to view Archibald Prize winning artist Ben Quilty’s Afghanistan exhibit (now finished.)
Sweetheart the enormous croc greets visitors to the museum. After years of terrorising fisherman in their dinghies, this giant croc measuring 4.7 metres was trapped, but unfortunately drowned when they attempted to move him. (This was July 1979 -pre Steve Irwin days!) Sweetheart is a not so subtle reminder that giant crocs are out there in the Northern Territory.
The Cyclone Tracy display in the Darwin museum provides a reminder of what Darwin went through on the day Tracy hit and in the weeks that followed. It was a terrifying reminder, hearing a re-creation of the sound of the cyclone as it screamed through the town tearing buildings and landmarks away from their foundations.
The Museum Gallery cafe overlooking Fannie Bay is the perfect for lunch or morning / afternoon tea . For southern visitors, a cool, refreshing beverage is essential in Darwin’s balmy weather. Tip: the café is licensed – so grab a cold wine or beer before or after viewing the exhibits.
8 / Darwin’s waterfront precinct
Darwin is surrounded by water but sadly, most of it is not safe for swimming. Unfortunately Darwin’s waterways harbours a few nasties: crocs and stingers. But along Darwin’s waterfront precinct, near the convention centre is a safe swimming area. Swim safely in the bathing beach and lagoons all year. Man made waves are produced at the wave pool. The recreation lagoon is ideal for kayaking, stand up paddle boards and canoeing. The kids will love these areas and so will you knowing they are croc and stinger free! And this is another place for watching sunsets.
9/ Chinese Temple and Museum
Here you can learn about the Chinese influence in Darwin, the role they played in WWII and their involvement in helping to build the railways out near Batchelor – the gateway to Litchfield Park. I discovered an interesting fact: Chinese custom says a temple cannot be rebuilt unless it has been destroyed by an “Act of God.” After the Chinese evacuated Darwin in WWII, when they returned they found their temple damaged and looted. They had to restore the building rather than rebuilding it, as this was not deemed an “Act of God.” It was re-opened in 1959.
Cyclone Tracy in 1974 wreaked its vengeance on the temple and destroyed it completely. This time it was deemed “an act of God” and the Chinese were allowed to rebuild. A new temple was opened on the current site in 1978.
Between 25 Woods and 8 Litchfield Street – Temple: Open daily 8am – 4:00pm Museum open between March and November Tues – Sunday 10am: 2.00pm
Looking for a place in Darwin to dine with water front views? Go no further than the Trailer Boat Club, a favourite of my Uncle Barry’s. Family friendly, this is yet another place to watch the sunset and enjoy bistro style food. Just heed the signs.
Other Dining choices:
Darwin has a wide selection of dining choices. We tried Hanuman and were treated to a selection of Thai and Indian dishes. Flavoursome and generous servings.
Char Restaurant – on the esplanade has a reputation for quality food as well as ambience. Balmy evenings and outdoor dining beneath aged frangipani and Poinciana trees interlaced with fairy lights and lanterns give diners a special experience. Main meals range from $45 – $60, but worthwhile to treat yourself.
I’m not sure why I’ve waited this long to see Darwin. It’s a little sad death made my first journey happen. I discovered, the capital of the Northern Territory has much to offer. So thank-you Uncle Barry – it is because of you I can now say I’ve been to your adopted city. And because of your love of fishing, I have caught my first deep sea fish.
I now know why you loved Darwin so much. Life is laid back, the pace is slow and in sync with the casual dress code. It’s a city which on the surface may attract a transient population, but when upon digging deeper, you find people put down roots, as they fall in love with it’s undeniable charm.
Remember, you don’t need an excuse like Rex, who was dying to get there.