Travelling in Australia: The City of Darwin
Situated at the top of the Northern Territory, on the Timor Sea, Darwin is a multi-cultural capital city of approximately 125,000 people. This is in contrast to the rest of the Territory, which is sparsely populated. However, compared to Australia's other capital cities, Darwin is small - in fact it's the only major city where you can drive into the centre of town and have a good chance of finding a carpark pretty much straight away.
Once a pioneer settlement and small port established in 1869, the town was named after naturalist Charles Darwin, as the harbour had been discovered thirty years earlier by John Stokes, surveyor aboard the ship HMS Beagle; the same ship on which Charles Darwin sailed. Over the years it has steadily grown, both in dimension and cultural diversity to become a cosmopolitan coastal city with an international flavour. Small by major metropolitan standards but diverse and interesting. It's a unique place.
Getting to Darwin
Driving to Darwin from any major city is an adventure --it's long, hot, dry and challenging but it's also a rich experience.The red landscape is like an alien planet and you wonder how anything, let alone, anyone could live out there.
From Melbourne you travel up the Sturt Highway and can stop off and check out the opal mines at Coober Pedy, the eerie American base at Woomera, the extraordinary salt lakes nearby, visit Uluru(Ayer's Rock), Kings Canyon, check out the beautiful towns of Katherine and Mataranka and just generally enjoy the unique experience of travelling through Australia's red centre.
There's no speed limit once you get past civilization and you can travel for miles without seeing another soul. There are outback roadhouses along the way, some of which offer interesting cuisine, such as crocodile and kangaroo meat and they often have a small camping area, usually with a pool. In fact, wherever you stop along the road to Darwin you will definitely want somewhere with a pool as the heat can be unbearable once you leave the comfort of an air conditioned car.
However, if extensive driving over miles of red, scrubby sameness is not your style, there are flights from most capital cities, so you'll be there in a (relative) flash. You can also travel to Darwin in safety and comfort by rail, on the Ghan and, if you wish, take your car along too.
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Budget backpacker accommodation in central Darwin.
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Darwin Holiday Accommodation
Accommodation in Darwin
Once in Darwin, you'll need accommodation and if you're on a budget there's plenty of cheapish places to stay in close proximity to town -backpacker hostels, camping grounds and caravan and cabin parks. If you're a bit more flushed with funds, there's holiday houses, guesthouses, apartments, flash resorts and of course the usual spectrum of hotels and motels, that range from one to five stars.
As is the case with most places, you can find last minute accommodation deals online. Although tours and attractions are open all year round, the height of the tourist season in the Northern Territory falls in winter and spring, mainly due to the seasonal climate (see Darwin's Climate below) and people wanting to get away from the colder southern states at this time of year. In peak season, accommodation in Darwin central can be both fairly expensive and in high demand.
Frogshollow backpackers hostel boasts one of the cheapest accommodation deals in town and was voted Best BackPacker's in Darwin by Lonely Planet a few years ago . However, there's a few to choose from, so it's worth doing a little online research before you book in anywhere.
Places of Interest in Darwin City
- Pearl Divers Museum - the Australian pearl diving industry really began with the coastal dwelling indigenous divers who developed a trade in pearl shells but by 1877 there were 16 European pearling firms operating in the country. The museum takes you through the history of the industry and offers wares for sale.
- Fannie Bay Jail - this is a fascinating place that reeks of colonial cruelty. The sight of the bleak old gallows will chill you
- Darwin Museum and Art Gallery - set in lush a lush tropical garden on Darwin Harbour at Bullocky Point, the museum pronounces itself the city's 'premier cultural institution' and there is certainly a lot to see and enjoy there
- Holmes Jungle Nature Park- next to crocdylus park, the park will appeal to botanists and plant lovers. Set in a natural eucalypt woodland featuring pandanus and carpenteria palms, the flora makes you realise that you really are in the tropics.
- East Point Military Museum & Reserve- Darwin has the distinction of being the only city in Australia ever to be bombed - by the Japanese during WWII. The reserve is tropical and the museum is housed in the original bunker where the army planned Top End defence strategy during World War II. This would suit military buffs as it has an extensive display of war memorabilia, gun aiming equipment, photographs, plus a video of live footage of the bombing of Darwin
Day Trips from Darwin
Visit the truly spectacular Kakadu National Park via a day trip from Darwin. Kakadu is 171 km's southeast from Darwin; a mere hop, skip and a jump in outback travel terms. Hire a car or take a guided tour and once you're there, you can explore the park (it's huge though! ) or take it all in at once through a scenic flight.
Accommodation is available if you wish to stay there for a few days and since the park is half the size of Switzerland there's plenty to explore. Commercial hotels and motels as well as budget accommodation and camping grounds are provided. Kakadu is extremely rich and diverse in flora and fauna and is a protected area under the wildife and conservation act.
Aboriginals have lived in the area for approximately 40,000 years and they have landrights to half of the park. It's an area known for indigenous culture and within the park there are over 5000 art sites recording Aboriginal culture over thousands of years. Kakadu is also home to one of the most highly productive uranium mines in the world - Ranger Uranium Mine.
Litchfield National Park
Stunning Lichfield Park is an hour and a half drive from Darwin and well worth a visit. The Park covers over 1,500 square kilometers, and is home to a range of natural habitats, such as lush monsoon forests, termite mounds, strange and interesting rock formations, waterfalls and cascades.
It's not a good idea to visit the waterfalls during the monsoons as you might be swept away . On those hot territory days, the cool, deep water holes are extremely beautiful and lovely to swim in. They are deemed safe to swim in, yet I have heard the odd crocodile does appear from time to time. There's accommodation available for overnight stays which would give you time to explore the Butterfly and Bird Farm and the Coomalie Cultural Centre.
Between the 7th and 11th of August every year, the Top End hosts the Garma Festival which features a cultural exchange from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land. The Yolgnu culture is one of the oldest living cultures on earth, stretching back over 40, 000 years.
Arnhem Land, a few hundred kms North of Darwin, is home to one of the largest and most isolated Aboriginal Reserves in Australia and is a cultural stronghold. It's people are reknown as the keepers of many indigenous traditions - language, art, dance and song, myth, legend and aboriginal history.
The area was declared an aboriginal reserve in 1931 and has some striking features, including forrests, stunning rivers, gorges and pristine white sands. It's also famous for its aboriginal rock art, some of which depicts the arrival of European settlers. Arnhem land was first sited by Europeans in 1623 and was named after the Dutch ship Arnhem by explorer Mathew Flinders. Generally tourists are only able to visit the perimetres of the reserve and many of the mysteries within are guarded by it's indigenous owners.
You can't travel to Darwin without visiting Crocodylus Park, (15 mins. drive) simply because the crocodiles are just so mesmerising...and yes, frightening. Most of them are huge (4.7m and weighing half a ton) and you can watch them eating lunch - the sound of those jaws snapping together is something else. When they're not eating or active, a crocodile may lay as still as silent as a rock and in fact you may be convinced they are a rock until it's too late! The park offers a tour guide, who is well versed in matters crocodile and there's the obligatory museum and gift shop for browsing.
For more crocodile-themed adventures there is also Crocosaurus Cove, where you can enter the "cage of death" and swim alongside the crocodiles. Or, if that doesn't appeal you can enjoy a crocodile shopping experience, where you can buy crocodile skins, gloves, hats, handbags, teeth, wallets and sundry other crocodile products.
Throughout most of the top end it's recommended you confine your swimming to swimming pools as you never know when a lurking crocodile might appear, especially after floods; people have been killed swimming in the bay in Darwin.In truth, even swimming pools aren't 100% safe, as they have been known to make an appearance in the odd one. Still, no point in being paranoid and I believe no tourists have actually been eaten this way.
Tip: If you do ever get attacked by a crocodile, try to get on top and hold it's jaw shut. Although crocs have an extremely powerful closing jaw mechanism, conversely, they have a very weak opening one- a human can easily hold a crocs jaw shut.
Darwin harbour has much to offer the vistor - from wrecks, reef flats and rivers, to fishing and lazy cruising. If you're an enthusiast, some of the many varieties of fish include saltwater barramundi, mackerel, tuna, cobia golden snapper and coral trout. Half day charters operate throughout the year and cater to all types off fishing:light tackle sports fishing, high speed jigging or live bait fishing for barramundi.
If a relaxing, harbour sight-seeing cruise takes your fancy you can take an afternoon lunch or sunset dinner cruise and explore the sights of the city, including the architecture, mangroves and pristine white shorelines. Darwin harbour is quite large..larger than Sydney harbour and there's a variety of cruises to choose from, including short half-hour ride to a 3 hour cruise aboard the luxury, fully restored pearling lugger, Anniki.
The harbour really comes alive at night(or so say the tourist brochures) and you'll find plenty of seaside casinos, cafes restaurants, and clubs and pubs to hang out in and if you need something to wear you can check out Mindil beach sunsets markets which offer an array of merchandise.
After the bombing during WWII, Darwin harbour is sometimes referred to as Australia's "Pearl Harbour" due to the extensive damage and loss of life and indeed the two air raids on Darwin were planned and led by the same commander who orchestrated the raid on Pearl Harbour. The event took the town by surprise and left a permanent imprint on Darwin. As you explore the city you can find references to the event here and there - forgiven, but not forgotten.
Darwin has an abundance of warm, sunny days and as a coastal city, is less scorchingly hot than many inland parts of the territory. It has what is called a tropical savanna climate, which means it is high in humidity (average humidity is 30%) and has two basic seasons; the wet season, from November to April and the dry season, from May to September.
Thunderstorms and lightening are common during the wet season and a torrent of rain can come down suddenly and very heavily. From a travellers point of view, December to March is considered the most beautiful time of year in this tropical zone and the Top End is known for its fabulous sunsets. Light clothes are worn all year round and it's advisable to drink lots of water wherever you are in the Northern Territory.
Inland from Darwin in the Northern territory, the temperature increases and very hot days are followed by very cold nights. The Red Centre, in particular is scorchingly hot during the day, however in winter and at nighttime it can get cold, so rug up at these times if you travel through there.
Darwin's Average Seasonal Temperatures
31.6 to 32.6
31.9 to 32.7
30.5 to 32
32.5 to 33.3
1974: Cyclone Tracy
On Christmas day in 1974, a tropical cyclone shook Darwin to it's foundations and transformed it forever. 71 people were killed and 70 percent of Darwin's buildings, 80 percent of which were houses, were annihilated; the town was virtually destroyed.
Although Darwin had been hit by cyclones before, nothing of this magnitude had occurred and the disaster led to a complete rethink of the building codes. Prior to the cyclone, most of the houses had been built with only a basic structural concession given to the possibility of cyclones - many were old houses on stilts built in the 1930s and most of them didn't have a hope of withstanding the powerful winds from a direct hit.
The following year the Darwin Reconstruction Commission was formed and given the task of rebuilding within five years. It seemed an impossible job, yet by 1978 the city had recovered and was able to house it's population (although many had permanently left) in safer, stronger houses. In the years since, rebuilding has continued and Darwin has expanded significantly. It is now an entirely different place and the old Darwin has dissappeared.
PS: Darwin a Short Jump from Indonesia
Although small, Darwin has an extra significance because it is a gateway to the Asian countries of East Timor and Indonesia, and thus ideally placed for trade opportunities. Darwin is actually closer to Jakarta than Sydney and many tourists take advantage of daily international flights to visit Indonesia.
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