Life at the top
Make the most of pools and promenades in sultry Darwin
1. Darwin Ski Club: My mother narrowly escaped death once at the Darwin Ski Club at Fannie Bay. But that’s no reason to avoid it. She happened to be seated under a coconut tree when it dropped its cargo. Thankfully it landed on the table.
Her gin and tonic intact, my mother put the incident behind her and took it as an exhortation to savour the Darwin sunset unfolding before her. Herein lies the chief reason to visit this tranquil setting just a few minutes from the CBD — not to dodge coconuts but to drink in this lateafternoon spectacular.
Cerise, apricot, pink and blue swirl above as another Top End day melts into the Arafura Sea. Entry is free, there’s a bistro and live music that is never too intrusive. It’s the ideal way to round out a Saturday after a visit to the adjacent Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which has a rich collection of indigenous art and a variety of historical displays.
There’s also a comfortable cafe: another ideal vantage point to take in the sunset, but without the random coconuts. More: darwinskiclub.com.au; magnt.nt.gov.au. 2. Strolling and Nightcliff: Perspiring is one of Darwin’s inevitable experiences. The tropical northern capital is not renowned as a place for walking, yet the flat and pretty topography is one of its charms. In the dry season months from June to September, before the sapping humidity of the wet season build-up, Darwin is ideal for strolling.
Among the many areas worth discovering on foot is the northern suburb of Nightcliff, about a 15-minute drive from the city. I’d say Nightcliff ’s a bohemian equivalent of Sydney’s Bondi, with a dash of Glebe. Test this comparison by visiting on a Sunday morning, which is market day, and nabbing a table at the aptly named Groove Cafe in the mall.
Here, under a wobbly ceiling fan, a typical weekend Darwin scene plays out: tarot readers and jewellery vendors sit alongside bustling Thai beauties poised over blenders concocting an array of restorative juices.
After the market, walk along Progress Drive to the Nightcliff foreshore route. About 20 minutes north you’ll come across a Darwin oasis, the Nightcliff Pool, arguably one of the country’s most picturesque for its spectacular sea views. 3. Pools and parks: Given the ever-present threat of crocodiles and box jellyfish, it’s depressing to look at the ocean knowing you can’t swim in it for much of the year, but there are several places to cool off inland. As well as Night- cliff, there’s Parap Pool, an ideal stop-off after exploring the lively Saturday Parap village market. The 50m pool and adjoining children’s splash area also have ample grass on which to find a shady refuge. A five-minute drive down East Point Road leads to another sleepy treasure, Lake Alexandria. This saltwater lake gives Darwinites a place to go to escape the stingers. The site has cooktops and showers, and there’s a bike path.
Darwin’s CBD is known for its wave pool, but it’s expensive and, ironically, prone to flooding. For an equally rowdy splash, it’s worth heading a little further northeast to the Leanyer Recreation Park (free entry) with its 50m pool and three serpentine waterslides. More: enjoy-darwin.com/ swimming-pool. 4. Government House: The majestic Parliament House is naturally the scene of the Territory’s best political brawls. But in 1918 hundreds of men stormed the nearby Government House in protest at what they saw as widespread corruption by administrator John Gilruth. When an effigy of him was torched in the grounds, Gilruth took the hint and sent for a ship to whisk him to safety.
Today the 1.4ha grounds of Government House, at the bottom of The Esplanade in the CBD, are a picture of serenity. Built in 1870 using porcellanite quarried from the cliffs of Fannie Bay and Larrakeyah, the house was made part of the National Estate in 1980.
Although it lacks the breathtaking view of the chief minister’s fifth-floor office across the road, Government House boasts terraced walks and a tropical grove of native and exotic plants to rival the better-known George Brown Botanic Gardens.
It’s hard to believe that more than 70 years after it was built, this Edenic residence took a direct hit when Japanese warplanes emerged from a tropical sun on February 19, 1942, hammering the city and surrounding areas.
Among the bougainvillea and the carpentaria palms stands a plaque in memory of Daisy Martin, an Aboriginal orphan and maid at the residence, who died in the attack. More: nt.gov.au/administrator. 5. Arts and minds: Follow the frangipani petals that litter the path to one of the city’s most charming spots, the Darwin Visual Arts Association. Behind the bright red doors, culture-vulture Darwinites comes to hang out, talk and share in the contemporary art scene. Open from 10am to 3pm, the DVAA is an artist-run space for emerging talents to work in as well as exhibit.
The time to go is the first Friday of the month, when the gallery hosts solo and group exhibitions. There’s a makeshift bar that opens on to a large garden. The atmosphere is friendly and no one will frown if you put an ice cube into your red wine.
There is also an artists’ market on the first Sunday of the month.
Then saunter up to the Deck Bar at the bottom of Mitchell Street, Darwin’s main drag, for a drink and to see how the public servants party.
Saturday morning is an ideal time to visit another Darwin art gem: Karen Brown’s gallery, which features works by acclaimed indigenous artists, including Angelina George, Dinah Garadji and Eva Rogers. More: karenbrowngallery.com; dvaa.net.au. 6. Bogart’s Bar and Grill: Few places are less convivial than Darwin Magistrates Court. I was there as a reporter at a bail hearing for a man accused of firebombing an insurance office. The man’s court-appointed lawyer waved me away as she disappeared into her office. No comment and much grief from my editor. That night I dropped in at Bogart’s Bar and Grill on Gregory Street. Is that the same lawyer sitting at the next table, staring into her gin and tonic? I venture over. Within minutes she’s given me a full briefing on the man’s motives and circumstances. I put it down to Bogart’s.
The waitresses may no longer get about in lingerie as they once did, but it’s still one of Darwin’s most relaxed haunts. It’s where the press and legal corps mingle in dark and shadowy surrounds.
The low-hanging horseshoeshaped bar is surrounded by cowhide armchairs and chaise longues that lead into a large dining room and stage, which once hosted burlesque shows. The decor may be deliberately kitsch but the menu isn’t. Lars Holm, the eccentric Swedish proprietor, has turned Bogart’s into one of the city’s most tasteful and affordable places to dine. Try it on a Friday night, when there’s usually a reggae duo. 7. Daytrip to Mandorah: The turquoise water boils and eddies as the skipper of the Sea Cat hits full throttle for the 15-minute ferry trip across Darwin Harbour to the shores of Mandorah.
Before long the Darwin CBD and the whitewashed walls of Cullen Bay marina blur in the heat haze. Local families busily stow their supplies as they prepare to head back home.
The Sea Cat docks at the isolated jetty and from here a short track writhes through the scrub to the main attraction: the Mandorah Beach Hotel. It’s a spartan set-up: the bar is long and opens to a large concrete space with tables and chairs — it could be a French Foreign Legion outpost in Djibouti.
But the familiar emblems of northern Australia suggest otherwise: polystyrene stubby holders are planted at each table and country music plays faintly above as lunchers take in the breeze and the vista. Some like it so much, they spend a few days by the pool at the bungalow-style accommodation.
Until 1849 the Territory was part of a military garrison that belonged to NSW, and at Mandorah it feels not very much has changed. More: seacat. com. au; tropicaldarwin.com/Mandorah.htm. Lex Hall is a former Darwin-based correspondent for The Australian. Next week in our secret seven series: Melbourne.
Angry locals stormed Government House in 1918 but today the 1.4ha grounds are a picture of serenity
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory