Heads up for Darwin
WHENpacking for Darwin, keep it light, hold the dress to impress and forget about status symbols. They won’t be needed and you might decide they never were. Consider this uniquely egalitarian city an opportunity simply to be yourself.
On arrival at the airport, the frenzied race to the carousel is impeded by the saunter-and-stroll pace of the locals. The young receptionist at the hire-car desk could not be more helpful to the cursing traveller who has arrived sans driver’s licence. ‘‘Here’s my mobile number,’’ she says. ‘‘Can someone at home send a photo of your licence to my phone?’’ (I’d never give my mobile number to anyone.) ‘‘Leave your bags here if you like,’’ she continues. (She’s not worried about bombs?) ‘‘Leave them near those flowers. My boyfriend and I broke up and my friends are trying to cheer me up.’’ (Really? We just met . . .)
After a day or two, urban tension dissipates and you find yourself sitting on Mindil Beach hoeing into crocodile hot dogs and watching a setting sun the colour of red papaya. You acclimatise to the 32C norm and the open smiles (none of that ‘‘How can I help you?’’ professional falseness), and the unassuming cultural tolerance.
Sydney trades on its harbour and beaches, Melbourne on its cafes and shops, but Top End tourists must love the croc. You can be lowered into a glass enclosure (at great cost) in the city centre’s Crocodilus Cove to have them cruise alongside you; see them jump for raw meat off Adelaide River Cruises’ barge on the Daly River; or view them in all sizes at a plethora of animal parks.
While soldiers of the World War II allied forces frolicked in Fannie Bay and Mindil Beach free of crocfeasting, today very few visitors or locals take the risk. It is frustrating for visitors to Darwin that cooling off has more in common with council swimming baths at, say, Tamworth or Toowoomba than the inviting harbour foreshore.
A visit to Litchfield National Park (more convenient than Kakadu) is a must-do 80km day trip from Darwin. Be diverted by giant termite mounds and gobsmacked at what a short walk through seemingly featureless bush terrain can reveal. The majestic Florence and Wangi falls beckon swimmers while less challenging but more family-friendly are the warmer waters of Berry Springs, where a free aqua massage can bring squeals of joy. Pity about the chap who happens to mention the 3m croc fished out of the creek 20m upstream.
Darwin’s other preoccupation feeds into the contemporary nostalgic focus on the military. This was, after all, the first place in Australia to suffer a wartime attack and Darwin remains a strategic and engaged military presence. A visit to the Military Museum at East Point begins with a 20-minute documentary about the 1942 bombing of the city. The exhibits bring to life the collection of tanks, swords and memorabilia.
Darwin is restorative. It reminds you that it’s not a crime to be relaxed, non-competitive, free of expectation, non-patronising and even nice.