Darwin Diaries: Adventures in Australia's Tropical City

Darwin. It’s a laid back place, mostly friendly and people seem to have time to relax. We didn't see anyone in a big rush all the time we were there, although the heat may have something to do with that. Seriously warm, of course, mid 30's every day and then down to low 20's overnight.

Our Darwin accommodation was only a short distance to the Darwin CBD and the Casuarina Square Shopping Centre, the biggest mall in the Northern Territory. We enjoyed the tropical landscaped gardens, swimming pool, spa and the Runway Bar where we enjoyed a refreshing drink followed by some gourmet delights at Essence Restaurant at the Darwin Airport Resort

Darwin itself a small city and is situated on the coast of the Northern Territory. We drove down to the waterfront and saw that it had been recently modernised over the last couple of years. It was open with lots of expensive apartments, restaurants and cafes with a wave pool for the families and open grassed areas for people to relax. We finished walking around several stalls and made our way into the city centre. Going past the governmental buildings there were several tourist signs giving the history of various buildings and it was clear that the early years of the city was hard and tough, especially with the weather as it is the hottest part of Australia.

The city centre comprised of about 5 streets filled with shops. It was modern, clean and full of people for a Sunday and we fell in love with the place. After a look at the various shops, we headed off to the tunnels of Darwin. There is so much military history in the area due to the coast line being so close to Japan and during the early part of the 20th century the city was heavily armoured with weapons and manpower, especially during the Second World War. Tunnels were built for fuel and effectively they were fuel tanks. Now empty of fuel, tourists are allowed to walk through these long underground tunnels and there are various pictures going along the walls with information boards giving all information you could ever ask about the tunnels. The place really wasn’t looked after and there could have been more of an effort to give the place an updated look, however it was interesting and it was something that we hadn’t seen before.

The next day we decided to go on a ‘jumping crocodile’ cruise. This involved a drive south of about an hour and a bit into the semi outback going past smaller towns like Humpty Doo to Adelaide River. The cruise was about 45 minutes long on a boat going along Adelaide River with a Guy leaning over the top of the boat while holding what looked like a broom handle with a hook on the end that had meat hanging off it. It was explained that they had done the journey so often that they knew exactly where the crocs were, and boy did they know where the big ones were. Once the crocodile was located, they would tease it with the meat putting it in front of their nose and then when the croc wanted the food in its mouth then the crew would raise the meat in the air till the crocodile was using their body muscle to lift them out of the water to get the meat, giving the effect of them jumping. From where we were sitting in the boat, you could see at close hand the crocs in their full glory, from their teeth, their bodies, the pure muscle that they packed and how big they were. In the time we were out we saw plenty of crocodiles but only 4 of them jumping.

From here we drove to Litchfield National Park to Wangi Falls and had a salad lunch. A Salty had been spotted in the waterfall pool so swimming had been prohibited but when we got there it had been lifted. Didn’t stop us and we jumped in and played around the falls.  

Second stop Buley Rock Hole. Kim went for a dip but you couldn't really swim as there were too many people.

Third stop Florence Falls Plunge Pool after a descent of 135 steps we had a nice swim. It was lovely and a little crowed, but we still enjoyed it.

Final stop was Termite Mounds. We learnt how Grass Termites build Cathedral Mounds and Tree Termites hollow out trees - this is how didgeridoos are formed.

The next day we took a driving tour on the Bombing of Darwin which was really interesting. A lot of people have no idea the Japanese bombed Darwin during WWII. The Bombing of Darwin, also known as the Battle of Darwin, on 19 February 1942 was both the first and the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia. 242 Japanese aircraft attacked ships in Darwin's Harbour, led by Mitsuo Fuchida who had led the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the town's two airfields in an attempt to prevent the Allies from using them as bases to respond to the invasions of Timor and Java. The town was only lightly defended and the Japanese inflicted heavy losses upon the Allied forces at little cost to themselves.

The urban areas of Darwin also suffered some damage from the raids and there were a number of civilian casualties, including the postmaster, his wife. The raids were the first and largest of almost 100 air raids against Australia between 1942-43. We visited the key sites and learnt about some of the people who lost their lives during the raids. It also included a drive to the Military Museum, which is well worth a visit. The Darwin Military Museum (DMM) was founded in the mid 1960s by Lieutenant Colonel Jack Haydon and members of the Northern Territory branch of the Royal Australian Artillery Association. The Association, throughout it's numerous contacts, soon started accumulating war memorabilia from all over the Territory, other parts of Australia and internationally. Since then, several notable local collectors have also contributed greatly to the museum’s exhibits including the newest The Defence of Darwin Experiance (DDE). Set in four acres of tropical gardens by the sea, Darwin Military Museum and the Defence of Darwin Experience are not just for the military enthusiast, but for every member of the family.

Getting on the afternoon we headed to Minidil Beach markets. The markets are an awesome location to browse local handmade craft and to grab Darwin souvenirs.

Mindil Beach are the place in Darwin to watch the sunset, and there is no better way to do it than to relax with a delicious dinner in hand from one of the many food stalls. From Thai to crocodile, there are so many culinary options you’ll be wishing you could visit every week. As the sun dips into the Arafura Sea, food is the main attraction − Thai, Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese and Malaysian to Brazilian, Greek, Portuguese and more. Colourful arts and crafts vendors peddle their wares - handmade jewellery, natural remedies, artistic creations and unique fashion statements.

Shop till you drop, catch a fire show, stop for a massage or be entertained by buskers, bands and talented performers as you wind your way through the palm lined boulevards.

The next day we headed to Crocosaurus Cove. One of the most surprising things about Crocosaurus Cove is its location. You won’t find it out in the bush or hidden in the suburbs, but downtown, in Darwin’s most lively entertainment precinct, Mitchell Street. In among the cool bars and trendy eateries are some of the biggest and most dangerous crocs in captivity. And they’ve been given monikers to suit their traits, like Chopper, named after colourful underworld identity, Chopper Reid. The violent life of this 790 kg beast has left him severely battle scarred and missing both front feet. Or Houdini, who escaped from several croc traps before finally being collared.

The big fellas who call Crocosaurus Cove home are there because they’re injured, like Chopper, or they’ve become a danger to livestock in the wild, or they’re less than sociable among their own kind. Five and a half metre long Wendell ended up on Mitchell Street due to his disagreeable attitude towards the ladies at Darwin Crocodile Farm. We arrived in time for feeding. One way to truly appreciate the size of these monsters is to see them next to a comparatively small human holding a short, meat-tipped fishing pole. This is nerve tingling stuff and anyone contemplating a dip in a Top End estuary should see the show.

In a flurry of splashing water and snapping jaws a croc rushes forward for a quick snack before slowly retreating to lay in wait just beneath the surface. You can also come face to face with these giants on the safe side of their transparent enclosures. This is as close as you can get to a croc without losing body parts. There are activities at Croc Cove throughout the day and we were lucky enough to see a giant barramundi being fed by a scuba diver in the Cove’s enormous freshwater aquarium, which is also home to whiprays and sawfish.

Sawfish are odd creatures and it’s not just the saw-like extension to their heads. Okay it’s mostly that, but they also have peculiar human-like mouths that seemed to be coloured with just a hint of pink lippy. The reptile house is home to the world’s largest collection of Australian reptiles. Most of the animals are from the Top End, and include deadly snakes, tiny lizards, goannas and even an albino python. A handler wriggled a dead rat in front of the python’s nose and in a flash the snake had coiled around its hapless victim. Over the next few minutes we saw a rodent-sized lump slowly make its way towards the snake’s stomach. The enclosures have been carefully designed to resemble each species’ natural environment and it seems that happy reptiles are active reptiles. Nearly everything was on the move.

Crocosaurus Cove is about as hands on as an attraction housing some of the world’s deadliest creatures can be. There are opportunities to hold a baby croc, stick your head in a transparent dome among the hatchlings, and you can even fish for crocs with a hookless line, which Kim did all. But the Cove’s most famous attraction is the Cage of Death. In singles or pairs thrill seekers enter a perspex cage to be lowered into the lair of a big croc. The price was not our cup of tea, so we passed.

A highlight another day was to feed the fish at Aquascene where mullet, catfish, milkfish, bream and barramundi thrash about at high tide eager to be fed handfuls of bread. Nestling in a lushly wooded bay called Doctor’s Gully. Feeling those fish grabbing at the bread is a very strange sensation and the shrieks of laughter from the many of children there mingle, with informative commentary during feeding time.  We were fascinated to see so much marine life and the sense of whacky occasion this daily event evokes.  The grounds are festooned with a weird and wonderful collection of Asian statuary, inspired by discovering the find of a small statue of the Taoist God Shou Lao in 1879, possibly left by the Chinese settlers who landed here to mine the gold and silver.

The next day we woke a little bit tired, so we decided to spend the day in the relaxed manner. We went to the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre, the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and, at the end of the day, to the safe swimming beach at Darwin Waterfront. The enormous hangar housing the Heritage Centre’s exhibits is almost completely filled with a Boeing B52. This 8-engine behemoth, with its 56-metre wingspan, consumes a fair chunk of floor space and towers above all the other aircraft and displays. But for such a monster it’s remarkable how tiny the cockpit is. A retro Ansett ANA mobile stairway allows visitors to climb to the cockpit window and peer into the pilots’ cramped office. Inside the bomb bay there’s a theater showing a film outlining the story of the plane’s arrival in Darwin.

The B52 is just the centerpiece among an impressive collection of aircraft including a Mirage, a B25 Mitchell bomber, a Huey helicopter, a replica Spitfire and the wreckage of a Japanese Zero, brought down during the bombing of Darwin in World War 2.

In most places the local Botanical Gardens have a special section for tropical plants, but in the Darwin Gardens they’re pretty much everywhere. Only a short distance from the city centre, this is a great place to stroll through a dense rainforest while still within 10 minutes of a latte. Cyclone Tracy all but destroyed the Gardens in 1974 but thanks to the dedicated work of curator, George Brown, later mayor of Darwin, they’re now better than ever. It is a good place to spend couple of hours in a hot summer day. The Cyclone exhibit at the Museum shows Darwin before and after, and serves as a chilling reminder of nature’s wild mood swings. Head into a dark sound room and hear the cyclone’s fury, recorded by Father Ted Collins in various locations around the city.

There’s much more to see here including the indigenous art gallery with its clever Tjanpi grass Toyota, woven from desert grass, the natural history exhibition and the preserved body of Sweetheart, a ferocious 5.1 metre saltwater crocodile, responsible for a number of attacks on boats in the ‘70s.

A relatively recent addition to Darwin is the waterfront precinct with its modern accommodation, restaurants and cafes, recreation lagoon and wave pool. We spent rest of the day in the wave pool and then, after the dusk, had a dinner at one of the restaurants there.

After some lesser known highlight of a day at the races a couple of city center markets and a nice night market in Palmerston we headed back to Brisbane. We look forward to the trip back to the Top End.

Nestled at the top of Australia’s Northern Territory, Darwin is a haven for those seeking a blend of adventure and relaxation in a tropical setting. Imagine yourself basking in the warmth of balmy nights, dining al fresco on delectable Asian-fusion cuisine, and mingling with the city’s colorful characters. Darwin’s rich tapestry of Aboriginal culture is proudly on display, with vibrant art adorning city galleries and streetscapes, inviting you to delve into an ancient heritage. Whether you’re cruising alongside formidable saltwater crocodiles, exploring the bustling waterfront precinct, or simply soaking in the laid-back atmosphere, Darwin promises a holiday experience that is as diverse as its landscape.

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