Darwin is the Northern Territory’s wild, tropical and remote capital city. A gateway to Litchfield National Park and World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, plus one of the best places in Australia to experience Aboriginal culture, Darwin is a true adventure travel hotspot. Despite being one of Australia’s smallest cities, Darwin is far more than merely a travel stop-off and has plenty to offer. Its proximity to Asia makes it one of Australia’s most multicultural cities, while the fact that it has already had to be completely rebuilt twice in its short history (after WW2 bombing by the Japanese and 1974’s Cyclone Tracy) gives it a genuine frontier survival spirit.
Things to Do in Darwin
Very popular with locals and tourists alike is the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Held every Thursday and Sunday night throughout the Dry season, the whole town seems to turn up to the markets, which are full of colour, food and music, all to the backdrop of a spectacular burning red sunset.
An essential trip, especially if on a family holiday, is to the newly redeveloped Wharf Precinct. The area of Darwin worst hit by the WW2 bombing has just been reborn as an entertainment quarter, full of restaurants, jet boat trips, a beach and an open air swimming pool complete with wave machine. The Deckchair Cinema, showing movies nightly under the stars, is another fun experience, while also worth a look is the fish feeding at Aquascene, plus the excellent (and free) Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Likewise, the Fannie Bay Gaol is another fascinating (and free) place to spend a couple of hours. Boat enthusiasts should head to Cullen Bay where you can jump aboard a sailing trip or book a sunset cruise.
A big part of any vacation travelling around the Northern Territory is getting to know saltwater crocodiles – the world’s biggest reptiles and perhaps Australia’s most dangerous animal. For starters, you have to be very careful about anywhere you swim – always look for signs warning of crocs in the area.
However, Darwin is the only place in Australia that offers two brilliant croc-related experiences for adventure travel enthusiasts. First is at Crocosaurus Cove, in central Darwin. There you can enter the ‘Cage of Death’, essentially a plastic box which is lowered into several different tanks with giant crocs. Sharing the crystal clear water with the huge dinosaurs and having them look you in the eye is as close as you’re likely to get to a croc and live, especially if they attack the cage, which is not unknown! The experience, however, is expensive and can be surprisingly underwhelming, considering the price, if the crocodiles show you little interest, which is often the case.
The second (and far cheaper) option, however, is more reliably entertaining. On the Adelaide River, just outside Darwin, you can go on a jumping crocodile cruise, during which the boat crew travel up and down the croc-infested river, offering lumps of buffalo meat over the side. The crocs, up to 5m, duly oblige by leaping from the water for the meat, often so high that their back legs leave the water. If you don’t have a car or campervan to drive out to the Adelaide River, it’s easy to organise a tour bus to pick you up from a Darwin hotel or travel centre.
Despite being a small city, Darwinians are renowned for enjoying a good night out. Indeed, alcohol consumption per capita is higher in Darwin than any other Australian city (which is really saying something!). The action is nearly all centred around Mitchell Street, where you can find everything from cheap backpacker pubs to cocktail bars.
An important factor to bear in mind when planning a vacation to Darwin, Litchfield and Kakadu is the tropical seasons. There are only two real seasons in the Top End: the Dry (May-October) and the Wet (November-April). The end of the Dry can be unbearably humid, a time when the locals joke about “going troppo”. The first sign of the Wet will be tremendously exciting lightning storms before the heavens open. The rains then lead to floods, which make some areas of Kakadu and other parks unreachable by car, even 4WD. However, you can still take scenic flights over Kakadu to see the waterfalls at their fastest and most dramatic. Perhaps the best time to visit this prt of Australia is at the start of the Dry, when all of the parks are accessible but there is still water crashing over the waterfalls. However, getting the timing exactly right is impossible to predict!
Getting there and away
Darwin is a long way from anywhere in Australia. The bus from Cairns, for example, takes a day and a half. As such, unless you have plenty of time to travel and are planning lots of stops, it makes sense to book a flight. Darwin Airport is just outside town and shuttle buses are easy and cheap to arrange. It’s also easy to rent a car or campervan once in Darwin. Take note that there are very few direct flights from Darwin to Sydney, with most stopping at Brisbane, Melbourne or bizarrely even Perth, meaning that it might take some shopping around to find a cheap flight on that route. One of the best ways to enter or leave Darwin is on The Ghan train, an iconic journey that travels all the way south through the Outback, arriving in Adelaide two-and-a-bit days later. Even better, hire a car or campervan and set off on the road south to Alice Springs or west through the Kimberley to Broome.