Sunsets, Markets, Crocodiles and so much more…….
Not too long ago we found ourselves chugging along northbound on the Stuart Highway leaving South Australia and crossing the border into the Northern Territory. It was during the cooler months and like many others we were seeking the inviting climate that the top end of Oz is famous for and we were anxious to experience it for ourselves. We were ‘going with the flow’ as it seemed and after lots of km’s and passing many fellow caravanners along the way we finally found ourselves setting up our camper in Darwin. Keeping in mind we are talking June/July and we had spent a few weeks at Uluru where the overnight temperatures were -2 degrees and the day temperatures were never more than around 30. Literally within an hour of arriving in Darwin we were out shopping for a small pedestal fan- boy it was hot, 39 degrees from memory. It seemed to hit us instantly like a slap in the face as our bodies had not had time to acclimatise. Stepping out of the car was like jumping into an oven. And this is winter…Ahh! But put all that aside, a few days later we weren’t thinking too much more about it and started to enjoy and appreciate the fantastic weather of the north. Our bodies got used to it quickly and we were thankful that the humidity was low and it was more of a dry heat.
Weeks earlier, on advice from fellow travellers we pre-booked a great ensuite site at the very popular Hidden Valley Tourist Park. We only booked for 4 nights as we thought that would be enough- wrong! We tried to extend our stay but they were simply booked out. We were lucky to find another park just up the road which had sites available so we booked in for another week. Darwin impressed us with so much to do and its really laid back, holiday atmosphere. It really didn’t feel like a city at all.
One of the most popular and talked about attractions in Darwin, and considered by many as a ‘must do’ would be the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. During the months of May through to October, Thursday and Sunday evenings are abuzz with stalls, indigenous artists, entertainers and even masseurs and tarot card readers. But one thing is certain is that it would be impossible not to notice the aromas of over 60 food stalls with cuisine from all over the world (including my favourite Greek food). It’s free entry to the markets and as you browse the stalls and enjoy the live street theatre you are treated to that tropical night air of the north before making your way to the beach and enjoying one of the most spectacular sunsets you will ever see. Some even think its romantic and bring along a picnic to share. Now there’s an idea if that’s your kind of thing!
Whilst we are on the subject of markets and in case the Mindil Markets didn’t quite give you that bric-a-brac fix- the Parap Markets held every Saturday morning not far from the city may just tip you over the edge. We enjoyed the fresh local produce on offer, stocked up on some art and craft whilst slurping down some of the best freshly ground coffees.
During World War II, Darwin formed part of the frontline of defence for Australia and as such has a very rich and interesting war history. Particularly within the centrally located Charles Darwin National Park which already had its own indigenous history and forms part of a very special area of significant wetlands. We spent half a day checking out some of the old war bunkers and explored where live ammunition was once stored. I really appreciated the great information boards, displays and memorabilia. I learnt quite a lot myself during our visit and I think we all walked away with a better understanding and appreciation of the role Australia played during the war.
Other activities to be enjoyed in the Charles Darwin National Park are the usual bushwalking, bike riding and bird watching hobbies. We had lunch near the viewing platform that overlooks Darwin Harbour with great views towards the city. There are bbq’s and plenty of picnic tables to share and it was quite popular with locals too looking for an escape from the city or as a great place to meet up with friends, a very nice spot for some time out.
We found the suburbs of Darwin fairly straight forward to drive around, with major roads linking together with plenty of signs for the tourists to find their way. The city itself is mainly home to business offices and a few government buildings as well as the wharf precinct. However the main city block would be considered the hub for tourism with no shortage of tour booking agents, gift shops and eateries along the main street and the night life is known to get quite interesting. The main shopping precinct for the shop-a-holics would have to be the suburb of Casuarina where quite a large shopping centre exists with all the usual chain stores.
It would be impossible for me to mention all of the great attractions and features of Darwin in the few pages they give me here in this magazine, but I will list a few of our favourites. First up is the Deckchair Cinema which runs from April till November every night. The cinema has been around since 1994 and is operated by the Darwin film society and boasts around 250 deckchairs and close to another 150 straight backed seats. The relaxed atmosphere combined with a backdrop of stars, a tropical climate and a good film on the big screen makes an exciting evening out for anyone.
This next attraction is an absolute must if you have the kids or grandkids with you. The Darwin Wave Lagoon is simply awesome- a swimming pool that turns into a swell pumping and wave-rolling lagoon of fun. Every 20 minutes waves are generated and are sent bursting throughout the pool. It’s great just to witness the laughs and giggles that begin as soon as the siren sounds to signal that the next lot of waves are on their way. This place turns big kids back into little kids almost instantly. Rest assured that there are trained lifeguards on duty and plenty of space to relax poolside under the palm trees. I just want to be back up there right now!
As most of us know the top end is known for the wet season, the warm tropical climate and of course CROCS! We were amazed at all the warning signs erected at the beaches, lakes and boat ramps reminding us to be careful which made it quite clear that crocs inhabit the area. As such, there is no shortage of croc tours, boat hire and scenic flights that operate out of Darwin that promise croc-spotting and personal encounters with the intimidating reptiles (from a safe distance of course). But, for those more adventurous who dare get face-to-face with a salty, Crocosaurus Cove may be the place for you- right in the heart of the city.
We weren’t quite up for the “cage of death” experience during our visit, perhaps its name put us off? This is where you can dive underwater within the safety of a cage whilst some of the world’s largest crocs stare you straight in the eye. All of a sudden you find yourself double checking that the cage door is shut securely. But we did get a chance to hold a baby crocodile and the croc feeding was great to watch too. Crocosaurus Cove makes a great place to stock up on some very ‘top end’ type souvenirs- and to me the only good crocodile is either one that’s stuffed, made of plastic or starring in movies alongside Mick Dundee!
You will find plenty more to keep you busy in Darwin and plenty of activities that are unique to the top end. An ideal day trip for something a little more nature inspired would have to be a 50km trip south to the Berry Springs Nature Park. Although Berry Springs offers a myriad of recreational activities it’s pretty obvious that most people venture out to enjoy the crystal clear waters of the swimming lagoons and rock pools. The water is so clear that people suggest taking a set of goggles to try spotting a variety of native fish and other aquatic life. Thousands of tourists (and locals) flock to Berry Springs because of its beauty. You are literally swimming from pool to pool through the shade provided by the pandanus palms and rainforest like canopy. It’s honestly like a remote paradise and it was very much a highlight of our trip to Darwin. Signs will indicate where it is safe and not safe to swim, but like the whole top end, nothing is a guarantee and it is wise to keep up to date with any warnings of sightings or swimming hole closures.
I mentioned that Berry Springs is only 50kms from Darwin and is a convenient day trip however we decided to setup camp at the Tumbling Waters Caravan Park. It was nice and close and we were able visit Litchfield National Park also. Staying here allowed us some more time to explore some other great little road trips to Mandorah, Crab Claw Island and Dundee Beach- I really suggest you look those places up on a map and make some time to do some exploring of these areas for yourself.
I can ramble on so much more (and people who know me would agree with that) but I am running out of room here. Luckily the Northern Territory Tourism website has lots more information and suggested self-drive tours for you to check out. Allow yourself plenty of time and don’t rush your visit. Plan to explore the top end during the months of May to October where you will be able to experience the best of what the area offers. Alternatively visiting during other months will be put you there in time for the ‘wet season’, a time of the year that takes a special kind of planning but offers a whole new experience all together. We hope to get up there again someday and maybe even witness the area during the ‘big wet’.
Useful websites to help plan your stay
Our Top 10 ‘must do’s in and around Darwin
Visit the Mindil Markets
Take the kids to the Wave Lagoon and the Leanyer Recreation Park
Try your luck at fishing from the wharf or book a fishing charter
Sit and enjoy at least one sunset from the beach
Take a scenic flight over Kakadu and Arnhem Land
Take the ferry to Mandorah for lunch at the pub
Visit Berry Springs and have a swim
Get up close and personal with a saltwater crocodile
Take a self-drive tour through giant termite mounds
Catch a flick at the deckchair cinema