I’ve never talked to people about travel to Australia and had them say “you know, I’ve always wanted to visit Darwin.”
But ever since my visit to the city on the Indian Ocean, I’ve touted it to everyone who asks me about Australia. I don’t know how many people I’ve swayed with my pro-Darwin raving – but I’ve at least put it on the map of those who previously hadn’t thought much past the opera house and the monolith in the desert. Here’s everything that’s cool about Darwin, and everything you need to get the most out of your visit to the Northern Territory (aka the Top End) – outdoor adventures, dining and snagging a hotel room after a few days of camping.
Launchpad for Adventure
The promise of three nights of camping in the Outback brought me to Darwin. Tour companies vie for the chance to cart visitors into the Never Never. Trips can last mere hours or stretch into weeks. You’ll wind up fording rivers in off-road trucks, sometimes in water reaching the top of your wheel wells. You’ll hike to Jim Jim or Twin Falls. And animals? You’ll never stop scanning the water for salt-water crocs. The tours generally head to Litchfield Park or the monstrous slab of Outback known as Kakadu National Park. Wherever you go, have your camera batteries charged and plenty of room on your memory card.
Small City, Big Nightlife
Darwin is no Sydney. Heck, it’s not even Cairns. But its residents know how to have fun. Clubs and restaurants line the main streets. There’s no kind of food you can’t find. I was sad to hear that Lewinsky’s, my favorite wine bar in the world, closed a few years ago. But don’t fret too much. There’s plenty else to eat and drink. My favorite find was the Darwin Wharf Precinct; you can pick from a number of different selections at its food court. Being the culinary Indiana Jones I am, I picked the camel schnitzel. And I was pretty stoked to see a box jellyfish swimming near the pier.
Don’t Go Homeless
Darwin fills up pretty quickly. It’s remote, but is the place to be to see the Northern Territory. That kind of demand can make hotel rooms pretty scarce. So book a hotel well in advance. You’ll find everything from hostels to fancy four-star sorts of accommodations in Darwin. Even the low-budget choices can sting the wallet next to other Australian cities. Early planning can help your cash go further.
Shopping and Stuff
The Aboriginal culture takes front and center in Darwin. Numerous galleries sell art and Aborigine-made goods. Obviously, it can descend into kitsch – but you’ll see some genuine talent. And a few miles outside the city, you’ll find the Didgeridoo Hut – that’s where I snagged a beautiful eucalyptus didge -- and for a far lower price than I found in other cities. You can shop for the usual trinkets at the Parap Village Market, too. But the real reason to go there is for the food. Darwin is home to a diverse group of people, many from Southeast Asia. Parap Village Market is where you can get some great tastes of their cuisine. My favorite: Thai papaya salad with a hit of fiery flavor balanced with sweetness.
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A Guide to Darwin, the Gateway to Adventure in Australia’s Top End
If you’re off to Australia, you need to see the rugged Northern Territory. It’s rugged and untamed, and the port town of Darwin is a major gateway to all the fun. There are tons of trips departing Darwin – all ready to take travelers from Litchfield Park to the mighty Kakadu!
Everyone has a reason for traveling – shopping, lying by the beach, sightseeing, sampling cuisine.
It seeing wildlife is the reason you book long-haul flights, put Australia high on your list. The entire continent is too much for most people to explore in a single trip – especially us Americans who struggle to get two weeks away from the cubicle. If you want to maximize the number of creatures you’ll see, there’s one place you need to visit:Â The Northern Territory, or Top End as it’s often known in Australia. It’s a real Australian travel experience you’ll always remember.
If you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee, you’ve caught a glimpse of the Northern Territory.Â It’s littered with towns bearing lyrical names like Humpty Doo and Jabiru, most derived from Aboriginal languages. Among its centerpieces is the Kakadu National Park,Â Â measuring nearly 60 by 120
And each square mile of both the Top End and the KakaduÂ is overflowing with creatures of every size, shape and classification. The roads are rough. The distances are formidable. The routes are varying. And many of the creatures are fierece. That makes a guide a good idea. I highly recommend Wilderness Adventures.
During my time bouncing around the NT, here are some spots that yielded the best creature sightings (WARNING – mind your guides and everything they say about staying safe. Your life is on the line out there):
This place is absolutely crawling with crocs. You know you’re starting to get assimilated when you point one out to your travel buddies and shout “loogit at ‘un! He’s Â a’ least ite meetahs!” You also get a great lecture on the boat tour (which you should take, even though it costs extra) about the croc’s fearsome hunting and killing capabilites – along with a great explanation of how Outback charlatans wrestle crocs and live to tell about it.
But there’s more than crocs. You will see simply too many birds species to even remember half of them. And we’re talking big birds here, not sparrows. Just check the photos! On the way to the billabong, you’ll also get glimpses of wallabies bouncing all over. They’ll be moving fast, and the truck will be bouncing, so it’ll be hard to snap good photos. Not to worry – you’ll see them again.
There’s more here than old rock paintings. Those are cool, but get me within a few feet of a rock wallaby, and I’ll forget all about the paintings. If your guidesÂ are the adventurous sort (G’day, Amy and Grady!), they’ll egg you on to make you lick a green ant’s butt – which really does taste like lime and gets used in Aborginal cooking.Â You’ll see some cool insects and arachnids, along with the big rock where Mick Dundee stood to make a Bushman’s Phone Call – whipping a bullroarer around his head.
White Lilly Billabong
While most of our group went for a swim in this rare, totally croc-free billabong (at least that time of year), Sarah and I went creature spotting. We saw a very cool orange and gray snake, and some cool gray kangaroos! The lighting conditions were rough, and they were skittish. We had to be quiet to sneak a few photos.
This was also our first time seeing a kangaroo in full-speed flight. You might think they make a cute little hop at all velocities. But when they go to warp speed, their upper body seems to fold parallel to the ground, and they turn into a furry missile. I wouldn’t want to collide with one!
Fairly close to Darwin, which is the major hub for adventure travel, you’ll start seeing giant termite colonies. They certainly contain no animals that are cute and cuddly, usually being filled with millions of termites or ants. But they look so cool, like set pieces from The Dark Crystal.
Also, I noticed something interesting: A gray kangaroo at rest looks a lot like a termite mound from a distance. I’d have to guess that’s evolution at work. A perfect camouflage, rapid acceleration and awesome top-end speed must make kangaroos a hard proposition for a predator.
Yeah, it’s a tourist trap. But it also sells really reasonably priced didgeridoos – andÂ your chances of seeing cute creatures are pretty high.Â During my visit, the staff was caring for an oprhaned wallaby, a baby emu and sundry skinks and snakes.
The rise of Facebook as a great time-waster is pretty well-documented, and now aviation geeks have their own way to flush hours down the lavatory: Let me introduceFlightMemory.com, a Web site that lets you input all your commercial flights. It then tracks your time and mileage and plots it on a map. You can even order a poster based on your flight paths. (Thanks to Things in the Sky for the discovery.)
What’s kind of useful is that you can choose to enter the bare-minimum of details, or delve into
excruciating detail about every single thing the airline, TSA and airport employees did wrong – or you can praise them for those times when “customer service” isn’t a punchline.
I’m still working on getting my flights in, but I’ve made some headway. It’s quite a lot of fun, especially since it appears to be of German origin and translated by members of The Scorpions while they were on tour with Van Halen circa 1985 (“We can now offer you some new thingies for your pleasure – introducing the FlightMemory shop!” … tell me you couldn’t hear Klaus Meine saying that!).
G’day, mates, and welcome to the inaugural episode of “How to Talk to Aborigines.” I’m your host, Wandering Justin!
Alright, now … lesson #1. Traditional Australian Aboriginees are quite polite. They don’t like to disagree with people. I’m hear live with Outback Amy. Amy, give us an example then, love!
“I was out in the bush with some aborigine buddies. I found some plant and said to one ‘Gus, I can eat this, right?'”
“It’s good eating?”
“Will this kill me or make me sick?”
He didn’t want to disagree with his friend, so he didn’t. If you’re asking an aborigine a life-and-death sort of question, it’s best to be open-ended. For example: “Are there crocs in this billabong this time of year?” rather than “There’s no crocs in that billabong, right?”
You’ll remember this lesson if the need arises, right?
Ahem. I mean, remember this lesson if the need arises.
Okay: So I’m from the American Southwest. I know nasty desert roads. Hell, I survived the roads of rural Costa Rica. But little of that prepared me for the battering we’d take in the Possum today. We got rattled by ruts and beaten by bumps that would swallow lesser four-wheel-drive vehicles. Some rental car companies won’t even let their vehicles into certain parts of the Kakadu. This would be why. How rough were these roads? So rough that we stashed our trailer alongside a fairly civilized road. We’d get it on the way out of Twin Falls.
I’m not ever sure what time it was when we got to the beginning of the trek to Jim Jim Falls. It’s a fairly shady walk, and we twisted up and down through the trees lining a placid green river. Of course, in the wet season, there are crocs here. Sometimes they get caught for the dry season, which is why there are croc traps throughout the river. A few wet seasons ago, Amy says, a croc had a little touristschnitzel. Yes, another German. Eep!
During the one-mile hike, Dominique gave her ankle a good wrenching, followed by her knee. Dave stayed back, but the rest surged ahead. We scrambled over boulders to an inland beach at the base of a huge dry waterfall. Now, this is quite a trek, really. This is a like a giant rock monster took too many laxatives and pooped SUV-sized rocks over a quarter of a mile.
The top of the escarpment towers more than a thousand feet overhead. I can imagine this place gets dramatic during the rains. Tourists swam and lounged on a white-sand beach more scenic then anything you’ll see in Southern California. Except most of the bodies here weren’t quite as beach-ready, if you know what I mean. There was a main pool warmed by the sun, and another frigid pool that stays in the shade. Oh, my … the coldness of the water was totally epic.
We hung around for an hour and then turn the other way. We hopped into the Possum and headed to Twin Falls.
Now this is the most rugged road of all. The Possum tackled it pretty easily, but then there was a huge stream we have to cross.
“Pick yer bags up off the floor,” Amy said, “if ya don’t want ’em to get wet.”
The snorkle-equipped Possum plunged into the stream, water creeping nearly up to the top of the hood. Water sloshed around the cabin, getting most of us at least a bit damp. But we were soon out the other side and on the way to Twin Falls.
We pulled to a stop at the bottom of another large escarpment. I realized that I’ve forgotten my hat, though. Not such a big deal on the first leg, but we’ll eventually climb about 1,000 feet to the top of the falls. In really bright sunlight. Fortunately, Sarah had an extra white t-shirt, which I turn into a turban type of thing. I look ridiculous, but it beats having the sun fry my gulliver.
It was a short, fairly shady walk and we soon came to a boat landing. There, we waited a few minutes for Tony and his crew to ferry us up the river. During the wet season, this stretch of river is filled with … crocs! And yes, a German was eaten here, too.
The water is incredibly clear here. Tony dropped us at a landing, where we hiked the rest of the way to Twin Falls, just more than a half-mile. We stopped to make sandwiches with the food we carried in. I was low on water, but Amy told me the water is okay.
“It’s some of the best you’ll ever drink,” she assured me.
I got near a waterfall and fill my CamelBak. And yes, it was some tasty water. Nice and chilly, too! It streamed down from the escarpment in two huge sheets of water, where it collects into a pool before spilling over a natural rock damn and into the river that floats Tony’s boat.
We do the usual “eat and hang out” before hiking back out to get to Tony’s boat ride. From there, we headed up the escarpment. It’s not a long walk, but it’s fairly energetic. Dominique is sitting this one out because of her injury, and Dave goes back to check on her and use the toilet. Orla also feels nature’s call, because she went back with him. Apparently, heading off to use the toilet bonds people together: As we find out later, Dave used this time to engross (or just plain gross out) Orla with tales about his bowel movements. I didn’t think he was quite old enough for that sot of conversation!
Once we reach the top, it’s a fairly undulating walk through bush country. It’s very dry, and you’d never know there was a major body of water within a mile. But we got there soon enough, and everyone is in for a swim again. And I’m at the nearest waterfall topping off the Camelbak. I am still amazed at how quickly what seems so arid becomes so lush and watery. Terrain like this in Arizona would mean despair, dehydration and death. But here, the dryness turns into greenery and a flowing stream before you realize what’s happening.
The view from the top of Twin Falls is pretty spectacular. The rock is smooth and slick from the water that comes pounding down the basin. I’d love to see this in December!
We lingered, swam and took photos for awhile, and then we trooped back down the hill.
After our steam crossing and our battering on the trails, we hit smooth road and grabbed the trailer. We also made a roadside stop to gather firewood for the night’s campfire.
Then we were off to Sandy Billabong where to camp for the night. This billabong is known for its rather ravenous cadre of mozzies (that’s mosquitos, to those of you who haven’t been Down Under), so we’ll be sleeping in tents. I sensed this group’s fear of mozzies, not least of all from Orla, who still bears the marks of her encounters with the savage critters. Being a pale Irish girl makes it hard to cover up the welts!
Unfortunately, the rest of the crew prepares by marinating themselves in DEET, which makes it hard for me to breathe in the Possum. By the time we get out, I had worked myself into a ferocious headache, which was relieved somewhat by swallowing a large burrito or two.
Oh, and something else about Sandy Billabong – there are lots of frickin’ crocs here. Would you be shocked if I mentioned that a German got eater here? I think the only place where a German hadn’t gotten eaten was at Sydney Airport!
Grady, another tour guide, parked his crew next to us. He had a didgeridoo, which got passed throughout the camp. Now, I must admit … I hadn’t told anyone about this. But I actually enjoy building didgeridoos from agave, or century plant. So I have my fair share of experience on the didge. I’m not great at circular breathing, but I can make all sorts of cool sounds and can sustain a drone for a long time. So while most of the other folks sounded like a donkey that had wandered into a bean farm, I was doing all sorts of mad didge stuff – I must say not even the tour guides could keep up with me. Remember the flute-playing scene from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”? It was like that, but I couldn’t conjure any flames from the end of the didge.
With the exception of the DEET, it’s been another great day in the Outback. I am also completely grubby and filthy from two days in the bush without a shower. Still, I can’t say enough about what an amazing couple of days I’ve had in the Kakadu. Do not miss this if you visit Australia.
I was trying to keep calm, but I was kind of worried. Sarah was leaving bloody footprints all over the beach, and had also left a trail of red swirling in the water.
The beach two miles from the downtown area seemed nice enough, but there were lots of sharp rocks in the water. And Sarah was unlikely to slice her foot open on one. I tried to look casual as I sort of speed-walked up to the lifeguard. I mentioned that she had a little cut on her foot, and could he take a look.
Remember that Stereotypical Australian Bloke I mentioned? Well, this lifeguard – chubby; long-haired, laconic- was another. We started walking back to where Sarah was waiting a few hundred feet away, medical kit in hand.
“There’s no bleedin’ allowed on me beach!” he shouted as we walked.
Sarah cocked her head in confusion, looking puzzled even at long range.
“I said ‘stop bleedin’ on me beach!'” he yelled. This time, she heard him and was hysterical with laughter. Sarah asked him if he’d seen any crocs.
“Naw,” he drawled. “I haven’t seen one in hours!”
Let’s just say that he made a bad situation much more fun and memorable in a good way as he patched her up.
The day started off pretty routine: breakfast at one of the ubiquitous Coffee Clubs and some general walking around, scoping out didgeridoos, bush hats and last-minute items for the start of tomorrow’s adventure.
Darwin. What an odd place. It’s like a beachfront college town that collided with Tombstone, Ariz., circa 1850. It’s clearly a “what happens in Darwin stays in Darwin” hive of debauchery for the younger folks. And there’s just a hint of anything-goes lawlessness, along with four-wheel-drive trucks equipped with snorkels advertising it as a jumping off point to the wild lands to the south and east of it. Which is what brought us here, by the way. It’s also very diverse … I had more than a few startled moments when some young Asian woman would speak to me in a perfect Australian vernacular accent. Very odd, that combination.
On the march to the beach we stopped for a look around at the Botanical Gardens. It seems they were tearing down from a festival the previous night, and all I could think about was how much fun it would be to play a gig in Australia. The park had a lot of nice footpaths, and some of the vegetation was really nice and lush. It gave a good idea of what Darwin might look like without human influence.
Then was our earlier-mentioned stop at the beach. After that, we started the trip home, but sidetracked a bit to watch some cricket. That was kind of fun. I still can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on, but it was fun to watch people watching it: Now, this was just a practice. But the practice had spectators, and they bananas when something happened. What that something is, I don’t know – but they seemed to!
We also stopped to watch the elderly enjoy their sport of choice: lawn bowling! It was like a cross between shuffleboard and bowling. I can’t imagine Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski approving. But hey, it’s better than golf.
We finally made it back and grabbed a shower. Then, it was off to have a nice, early dinner. This isn’t easy in Australia. It seems that you have a narrow window of opportunity at a lot of the restaurants. At just before 6 p.m., that window had not opened. We walked up to a place Hanuman, which locals insisted was some of the best stuff in town. We walked in, and the place was virtually empty.
“Do you have a reservation?” asked the maitre’d. Sarah and I looked at each other like he’d grown a second set of buttocks in the middle of his forehead. Nobody has asked us for reservations in Australia, and this is the Top End! We told him no, but he seated us anyway after methodically consulting his reservation book.
Despite that beginning, we actually really like the place. The baramundi curry was pretty amazing, and we had a vegetable dish in a masala sauce that was just as good. For an Indian-influenced restaurant, though, it amazed me that they didn’t have mango lassi.
After dinner, we decided to walk to a wine bar we’d seen the day before. The reason we picked this one is because it’s called Lewinsky’s, which we both found hilarious – as it turns out, the place sucks far less than its namesake!
Now, Lewinsky’s has a pretty cool schtick. You buy a little pre-paid card and they give you a couple of glasses. Then, you go to this wall with a bunch of fancy-looking fountains. You stick the card in the fountain of your choice, and it gives you a sample of the wine inside it, deducting from your card. It’s pretty laid-back and allows you to go at your own pace. They also have a bar, where you can order stuff that’s not in the fountains.
Sarah was curious about a wine she’d heard of that was made from mangos. She asked the bartender about it, and the manager overheard.
So the manager -a 40-ish character who seems a lot more cheery ad mischievous than the stereotypical wine bar manager- bustled over and said he’d had a few bottles in the cellar for a few years. He had more than a bit of the stereotypical Australian bloke (henceforth called an SAB) in him. The company had sent them over, he tried one, and “hoped nobody would ever ask about it again.” But since we were curious, he’d open another up with us to see if age had done it any favors.
He emerged a few minutes later, and poured a yellow liquid into each of our glasses. He swirled it around, holding it up to the light.
“Looks like a specimen from a Tour de France rider,” he said, smirking.
It doesn’t taste much better. It has this plastic-like taste that gives way to a pine flavor. I don’t mind the pine, but the plastic is just foul.
“Just like I remember,” he said.
If all wine bars like this, I think wine would be more fun. No pretense, no snootiness. Just a bunch of people enjoying an evening in the same place.
Though was it still early, we headed back to the MOM. Tomorrow is the big one, when our real Australia vacation begins. We just have to get some sleep to get ready for the 5:30 a.m. wakeup so we can be ready to roll into the Kakadu National Park with Wilderness Adventures.
I can’t overstate this enough – I have set it in my brain that this is going to be the highlight of the trip. A real taste of the Outback. Morning can’t come soon enough.
The crew at Mom wasn’t cooperating, though. We were just about 30 feet from the front office, and every X-swallowing, lovey-dovey, high-spirited young backpacker was making a ruckus. And there’s god-awful European techno being played on the bar on the second floor. God, it’s heinous! Sleeping is a challenge – if you plan to stay at Mom, try to get a room as far from the front as possible. Apparently, we arrived late enough last time to miss all this fun.
NOTE: Not many photos in this entry. I chose not to lug the camera around during most of the day’s walking around Sydney.
I honestly didn’t expect to freeze my goolies off in Australia. Now, keep in mind, August in Phoenix is like being 10 feet up a dragon’s poop chute, but brighter. And when I think of Australia, I think of the arid parts of it.
But Katoomba is again rainy and socked in with fog. Unpleasant? Hardly. But this desert creature was unprepared. But no matter … we were soon on our way back to Sydney.
A few hours later, we found a place to stash our packs at the train station and began searching for Redoak. This pretty much turned me into a psychotic Captain Ahab, and I began wondering if the place really existed. I hadn’t fired up my GPS receiver, preferring to conserve its power for the Top End adventures.
So we got turned around. Misplaced. Hungry. Cranky. We made an emergency stop at some fast-food kebab place. And either it was really good, or we were starved silly. It went down pretty well, and gave us the energy to continue our quest for the one pub to rule them all.
Finally, we discovered Redoak! Oh, my, this place is good. The oatmeal stout is unearthly, with a hint of butterscotch to it. The Belgian chocolate stout and the holiday ale are also contenders. Some of the best brews ever. If we didn’t have to catch a flight, we would’ve been there for hours.
We finished our brew and bolted for the train, which dropped us square into the middle of the airport. Flying domestically in Australia is a breeze. The security lines are sensible, and they don’t seem to dig the whole “take your shoes off thing.” We boarded a 3/4 empty 767 for the four-hour shot to Darwin, up in the Northern Territory. It was definitely a bit dingy on the inside, not like the sparkling-clean 747-400 we had from Los Angeles.
Now, this flight rams home how few people live on this huge continent. We see nary a cluster of lights once we leave Sydney until we enter Darwin just past 10 p.m.-ish. Vast and empty. It’s like flying over the ocean.
While the plane was a bit rough around the edges, the service wasn’t. A pleasant flight crew, and a full meal. Anyone who complains about Qantas has obviously not experienced Northwest Airlines, or probably even American and US Airways.
Our first setback was waiting for us when we landed: Some Swiss twit thought my bag is hers and ran off to a hotel with it. She left me with her blue backpack. She saw blue and thought it was hers. Yeah, like blue isn’t a common color. Qantas largely kept me calm and got the situation under control. They sent us off to the hotel (Malalueca on Mitchell, or Mom for short), promising to get a hold of us when they tracked the person down. Eventually, the dummy realized her error and contacted Qantas, who hooked us up. She dropped the bag at the hotel at around 1 a.m.
On the bus ride there, a friendly Ozzy and his wife could tell I was fuming about my missing backpack. So he took it upon himself to lighten me up by telling some tall tales. He was going on about a huge snake that wandered into the Darwin Airport a few months back.
“Well, he was so big they put a hun’red gallons of fuel in’im before they realized it was just a snake!”
Well, how could that NOT get a laugh out of me?
I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I would run into a few more just like him throughout our stay. You can just call him the Stereotypical Australian Bloke. He’s politically incorrect, but doesn’t hold anything against other people. He isn’t really an intellectual, but has a certain practical sensibility. He’s also so friendly that he’ll make a Lutheran from Iowa seem like cocaine-addled New York stockbroker.
Speaking of the hotel, it caters to young backpackers. There’s a full kitchen, laundry facilities, a bar and a pool. Some rooms have their own bathrooms. Others are dorm style. For a room with a bathroom, you’re looking at about $120. Damn, Darwin is kind of pricey… Best advice: Get a room as far from the front as possible. More on that tomorrow night.
This, by the way, is clearly a party town. It’s well after midnight, and a lot of places are still open. And the partying shows no signs of abating …