Rainy day de­lights

Dar­win shines in the wet sea­son

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - LEX HALL

THE young cou­ple stand at the edge of the wa­ter­hole for sev­eral min­utes be­fore ten­ta­tively ven­tur­ing in. She, with a ner­vous arm around his waist, anx­iously watches the tor­rent cascading down the rock face in the dis­tance. Heis much more fo­cused on ne­go­ti­at­ing the first steps, scan­ning the cool water, try­ing to see through the sepia rip­ples to the bot­tom.

Be­hind them a small sign of­fers a wel­come to Wangi Falls, Litch­field Na­tional Park, and a re­minder about the dan­ger of salt­wa­ter croc­o­diles. De­spite the sign’s breezy tone and as­sur­ances that the wa­ter­hole is reg­u­larly mon­i­tored, un­cer­tainty lingers.

On this typ­i­cal wet-sea­son day, when the sky is over­cast, the clouds swollen and the hu­mid­ity sap­ping, the body craves re­lief. But as you em­bark on the 70m swim to the rock face, it’s dif­fi­cult to chase away the fear of news­pa­per head­lines: the 4m rogue croc that at­tacked a fish­ing boat at East Al­li­ga­tor River; the death of an 11-year-old girl, snatched at dusk as she wan­dered off at Black Jun­gle Swamp; two chil­dren taken off the jagged East Arn­hem Land coast.

Even­tu­ally a more pleas­ant chal­lenge emerges — to scale the slip­pery rock face and slip be­hind the wall of water ham­mer­ing down. To look back through the spray, at the pan­danus and the stringy­barks, is a re­minder of why the North­ern Ter­ri­tory is so be­guil­ing in the wet. The dry sea­son has the ap­peal of con­stant sun­shine, low hu­mid­ity and tourist con­vivi­al­ity, but for sheer me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal drama the wet is with­out peer.

Over break­fast the next day at Curve Restau­rant + Bar in the Vibe Ho­tel on Dar­win’s re­designed waterfront precinct, a young man from Tourism NT tries to con­vince our small group of jour­nal­ists that the Top End really is worth vis­it­ing in the wet.

The opin­ion of the group is that, save the odd busshel­ter ad­ver­tise­ment, lit­tle ef­fort has gone into spruik­ing Dar­win’s at­trac­tions from Novem­ber to April.

With the fruit plat­ter start­ing to wilt in the heat, break­fast is cut short and the group whisked away for a scenic heli­copter flight with Air­borne So­lu­tions. It turns out to be a mas­ter­stroke, for one of the best ways to see Dar­win is from the air. Up here you ap­pre­ci­ate the scale of the city and its har­bour, twice the size of Syd­ney’s. You can also marvel at the azure wa­ters and the craggy coast­line that the Dutch and the French first skirted in the 17th cen­tury, leav­ing names on the map but no im­print on the land.

The ae­rial per­spec­tive gives us cause to re­flect on the city’s unique sta­tus as one of Aus­tralia’s re­mote out­posts. The names and the ge­og­ra­phy sug­gest as much: as you fly over the Ti­mor Sea you soon re­alise you’re closer to Manila than Mel­bourne.

As the chop­per leans into a pass over East Point, the newly ren­o­vated mil­i­tary mu­seum and World War II anti-air­craft gun em­place­ments come into view. It’s an eerie re­minder of Fe­bru­ary 19, 1942, when the first planes of the Ja­panese air force ma­te­ri­alised. Fly­ing with the sun be­hind them, they strafed Dar­win and Kather­ine for days on end.

While the scenic flight ac­cen­tu­ates the beauty of this mod­ern city, it also dredges up the bleak me­mory of Cy­clone Tracy which hit dur­ing Christ­mas 1974. The el­e­gance of one of the city’s most no­table build­ings, Par­lia­ment House, sur­rounded by palms and banyan trees and over­look­ing Dar­win Har­bour, is al­most in de­fi­ance of any­thing the el­e­ments can throw at it.

Back on the ground, the heat has in­creased. The clouds mass again and the air is thick with the an­tic­i­pa­tion of an af­ter­noon down­pour. The air­con­di­tioned rooms of the Mu­seum and Art Gallery of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory of­fer refuge and imag­i­nary jour­neys, to the cen­tral desert with its dot paint­ing and to Arn­hem Land with its in­tri­cate X-ray creations on bark.

A cav­ernous hangar over­look­ing the ocean houses an ar­ray of his­tor­i­cal ves­sels, prim­i­tive dugouts from Macas- san traders, outrig­gers, Viet­namese fish­ing boats that would be­come asy­lum-seeker ves­sels. They chart the long and rich his­tory of con­tact be­tween Dar­win and other cul­tures. This motley fleet con­jures mem­o­ries of an­other bro­ken down but equally sto­ried ves­sel of the Top End: the rick­ety raft that artist Ian Fair­weather made out of dis­carded drop tanks and hes­sian for his solo jour­ney from Dar­win to Java in 1952. It took the 60-year-old 16 days to ar­rive and the voy­age nearly killed him.

As I step out into the in­tox­i­cat­ing trop­i­cal heat and hear the water lap­ping against the clay fa­cades, the prom­ise of life-giv­ing rain is on the muggy breeze.

Lex Hall was a guest of Toga Ho­tels.

Vibe Ho­tel on the re­designed waterfront, above; an ex­hibit in the mil­i­tary mu­seum, top right; arte­facts at the Mu­seum and Art Gallery of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, be­low right; Wangi Falls at Litch­field Na­tional Park, far right

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