Darwin

Darwin was originally called ‘Palmerston’ but being named after Charles Darwin is somehow fitting – it has been very much about the survival of the fittest. Darwin is a resilient city, having survived devastating cyclones in 1897 and 1974, and the bombings of World War II.

It’s a modern, laid back, tropical city with wide streets, low buildings and manicured lawns. With a population of around 80 000 people and all the facilities of a modern city, I imagine it would be a terrific place to live. Peak-hour traffic lasts for about a minute. It’s a young city with lots of young people who enjoy a good time. There is plenty of nightlife and an amazing range of restaurants. The weather is either hot and humid, or hot and dry, sometimes on the same day.

Closer to South-East Asia than it is to much of the rest of Australia, Darwin is a very multicultural community with an Asian flavour.

The first Chinese arrived in 1874, looking for gold. In the 1880s pearling attracted devil-may-care divers from Japan and the Philippines.

The Greek community sprung up in the 1950s and, more recently, refugees arrived from Vietnam and East Timor. Today there are some 70 cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The Darwin area is the traditional home of the Aboriginal Larrakeyah people. Their culture and history is vividly represented at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (on the cliff top overlooking Fannie Bay) and in the Aboriginal plant walks at the Botanic Gardens. One of their most important sites is Old Man Rock (Dariba Nunngalinya), visible at low tide off the Casuarina Coastal Reserve.

Wheelchair access is available to all main areas of the MAGNT via ramps although access to parts of the Maritime Gallery is restricted. Wheelchairs can be borrowed from the front entrance desk at no cost. Toilets designed for disabled access are located at the front entrance near the shop and near the Sweetheart exhibition (Sweetheart, of course, was a giant crocodile).

The Smith Street Mall is a focal point for locals and a good place to start exploring. Along the mall on the corner of Harry Chan Avenue is Brown’s Mart, the city’s oldest commercial structure (1883) and home to the Darwin Theatre Company.

Opposite, the ruins of the Palmerston (Darwin) Town Hall are a reminder of Cyclone Tracy. Christ Church Cathedral (down Smith Street towards the harbour) has a memorial to the victims of the cyclone. In the courtyard behind the church is an ancient banyan tree, the Tree of Knowledge that has long been a meeting place for ‘travellers, wise old-timers and free-thinking young people’.

Back towards the city is the Chinese Temple, which traces the history of the Chinese in the Territory. Heading west is State Square, dominated by the impressive extravagance of Parliament House (photo). Nearby the Supreme Court has an amazing Aboriginal-designed floor mosaic. Enter from Mitchell Street, which is the city’s eating and entertainment heart. Friday’s Northern Territory News has a Gig Guide and we will be keeping you updated here.

All areas of Parliament House can be accessed by wheelchairs, a ramp has been installed at its entrance and all levels can be accessed by lifts.

Off the square are the Old Police Station and Courthouse, the Overland Telegraph Memorial and Government House. The Esplanade runs along the western foreshore of the city and Bicentennial Park. The park has walking trails, memorial sites, lookouts and views that can include spectacular sunsets. At the southern end is the Anzac War Memorial, at the northern end is Aquascene, where you can hand-feed a variety of fish species at high tide.

Stokes Hill Wharf, stretching out into the harbour at the southern end of the central city, has a bar, restaurant, a pearl store and is screaming out for further development. The entrance to the Wharf Precinct has the Australian Pearling Exhibition and the Indo Pacific Marine, a living coral reef eco-tourism experience.

The Pearling Exhibition has wheelchair access and disabled facilities.

The harbour has plenty of tropical marine life and World War II wrecks that have become popular dive sites.

North of the central city, there are great views from the Cullen Bay Marina at sunset and sunrise, and plenty of good places to eat. Heading north on Gilruth Avenue, the Gardens Park Golf Course and Botanic Gardens are on your right, and on the left takes is Mindil Beach, a lovely white sand beach with safe swimming from end April to beginning of September. The Mindil Beach Sunset Market (photo) is a must for an eclectic mix of cuisine, craft, entertainment, beach fireworks and mixing with the locals. (Thursdays, May to October, Sundays, June to September).

Disabled parking is available at the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets and whilst access around the market is no problem, there is no direct wheelchair access to the beach.

Fannie Bay is popular with sailors, windsurfers and water skiers.

The Fannie Bay Gaol (photo) was one of Australia’s toughest from 1883 to 1979 as the old cells and gallows attest.

The Fannie Bay shopping centre is the heart of Darwin’s cafe society. The Parap Market, held Saturday morning in the Parap Shopping Village, are a year-round institution.

Fannie Bay Gaol has wheelchair access.

The northern suburbs around Darwin Airport are centred on Casuarina, which boasts the city’s biggest shopping centre.

At the end of McMillans Road is Crocodylus Park for a close-up, safe look at crocs.

There’s also the odd saltwater crocodile in the harbour and around the foreshores, but no one seems to mind. It’s just part of living in the ‘last frontier’. For a croc-free swim in a natural, spring-fed pool, head out to Howard Springs.

Crocodylus Park has disabled access.

To answer a couple of email queries…

Are stingers a problem in Darwin?

There can be stingers and they can be nasty.

It is best not to swim off the beaches between September and April because of the box jellyfish (stingers).

The locals have a saying, “Don’t swim in months with an ‘R’ in it”. A lot of them also have a saying, “Only drink on days with a ‘Y’ in it”.

You often read about crocodile attacks (often to tourists!). How dangerous are they?

Well, evidence points to the fact that crocs can’t be domesticated or house-trained but they aren’t as dangerous as the media would have us believe.

Like shark attacks, they make good headlines because they play on our fears. More people die from lightning strikes, bee stings and scuba misadventure each year than from crock attacks. You have about 3000 times more chance of being killed in a car accident.

For $108 you can get up close and personal in Darwin’s Crocodile Cage of Death (photo).

The photo right is a croc by the name of Brutus, BTW.

It would be a rare year when there was more than one death by crocodile in a year – that’s not too shabby considering that in the Northern Territory the ratio of human to croc is one on one – about 190,000 of them! Yes, they look mean, they can be ferocious, and in a human versus person fight, I’ll back the crocodile every time – but most human casualties come from human stupidity – drunken bravado, not observing signage or just plain stupidity. Crocodiles do not hunt down humans for food – but jump into a pond and they might say, “thanks for lunch on a platter”.

There are a number of myths about crocs. One is that they can outrun humans. They don’t really have the edge must past a lunge. Their stubby little legs aren’t designed for running. They are, however, designed for swimming (25km per hour over short bursts). Another myth is that they only eat rotten meat. They will eat any meat! Yes they store meat in crevices that will go rotten, but that could be just a back plan in case fresh food is scarce, or it may be a way of attracting fresh food, like crabs and turtles.

This is not to presume that their prehistoric brains have huge intelligence, just a huge survival instinct. If they were intelligent they might realise that they are a protected species. And quite often they break the law and eat each other. Some scientists think that this cannibalism is the secret to why they have survived through the ages – you see, they only eat the weak ones, so the strong ones survive to breed. Appropriately Darwinian really!