Rainy day delights
Darwin shines in the wet season
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