MistyNites

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Darwin Delights

During the Top End’s dry season, the Mindil Beach markets run weekly, and having been recommended a visit, I was sure not to miss out. Returning to Darwin from Litchfield National Park, I asked to get dropped off there instead of my hostel and the place was buzzing. The sun was still up although lowering and there were crowds packed into the market itself as well as draped across the sand, which was now cool enough to walk on, many of them parked up with edible delights to watch the sunset. There was so much choice for food and the queues at many of them were long. Seeing as I was at the seaside, I opted for fish & chips, and was sadly disappointed with my choice. Nevertheless, I ate what I could stomach whilst the sky turned from orange through to red. Over three weeks into my Australian adventure, I’d been utterly spoilt with sunsets.

 

After the sun dipped below the horizon, I returned to the market which was amazing. Aside from the food stalls, there were some incredible craft stores, and I drooled over a lot of the stuff, wishing I had a big enough house and a lot of money to own it. I ate ice cream, and dutch pancakes, and drank iced tea as I meandered. I was told that Europeans are a great lover of Indigenous artworks, and true to my roots, I saw beautiful painting after beautiful painting. I was determined to find myself something made by an Indigenous artist that was transportable and affordable, and eventually gave in and bought an expensive satchel made by an Indigenous artist through a Co-op. It is so beautiful and was so expensive that I’m actually reluctant to use it, but it came with a photo and bio of the artist that made it. At the outskirts of the market there was entertainment in the form of fire juggling and whip cracking. Having gone round and round the stalls, darkness was now upon me, and being on a backpacker’s budget, I walked past the taxi rank and walked the streets of Darwin back to my hostel.

 

I had one final full day in Darwin and it was yet another scorcher. In fact the sun symbol displayed on my phone’s weather app for many days ahead on the forecast, and my whole time in Darwin had been a fairly steady 35-36oC. Despite the heat, it was going to be a day of walking. I headed to Cullen Bay marina, the picturesque and upmarket part of the city down the hill from where I was staying. There were some boaties eating and planning their race, and I people watched in the outdoor seating area of the cafe, against a background of boats. Nearby, a life-sized statue of a crocodile stands with its mouth agape, a friendly reminder that this is croc country. There are some boutique shops here and the Sea Link ferry to Mandorah on the far side of the immense harbour, and the Tiwi islands leaves from here.

 

I followed the path round the coast and back up the hill to a wasteland patch of grass that overlooks Mindil Beach. A black cockatoo strutted about near the top of a walkway through bush, down the hill to the beach. I walked as far as the bridge at the casino where more black cockatoos were causing a ruckus. Mindil Beach was deserted, partly because it was a weekday, and partly because the sand quickly gets too hot to walk on during the day. After admiring the view, I retraced my steps, happening upon some unusual birds as I returned to the bush.

 

I found myself back at Bicentennial Park, where I’d wandered on my arrival in the city a few nights prior. Overlooking the expansive Darwin Harbour, there are a myriad of viewpoints to look out from. I took my time, ending up at the war memorial and the lookout over Stokes Hill wharf. Round the corner from here is the Supreme Court, the Christ Church Cathedral, and the Smith Street Overbridge which crosses over Kitchener Drive a few stories below, and ends up at the Darwin Waterfront precinct where there is an incredible view and a lift that takes you down the drop in altitude.

 

On the hop-on, hop-off bus two days prior, I had spotted the WWII tunnels that dove into the cliffside, and had decided at that stage that I would go in them before leaving. However, now that I was here, I wasn’t overly fussed, my stomach demanding attention instead. Nearby, I took a table at Chow!, an asian restaurant. I regretted sitting outside as it was unbearably hot, but the food was incredible. I had seen laksa on menus everywhere in the city, and finally got hold of one to eat. I chose roast duck laksa washed down with a chilled cider, but between the hot weather and the spices in the soup, I was sweating buckets.

 

Winding my way to the end of the Stokes Hill wharf, I spotted a ray in the water below. I followed it for a while before it disappeared, and I pressed on to the recently opened joint venture of the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) and the Bombing of Darwin museum. I knew a little about the RFDS already thanks to an Australian soap called The Flying Doctors that aired in the UK when I was growing up, however like the cyclone that destroyed Darwin which I’d learned about at the Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory, I’d never heard about the bombing of Darwin that occurred in 1942 during the Second World War. On entering the museum, I was guided to a virtual reality headset experience which was incredible, and placed you right into the thick of the action via an animation. Although the exhibition was small, the videos and holograms meant it was easy to pass quite a bit of time here, and I was impressed with how well it had been done.

 

After indulging in some ice cream, I returned to the Waterfront Precinct and went to the Wave Lagoon. I’d made it here later than planned, and had somewhere to be in the evening, so I had only 40mins to enjoy the place. I couldn’t believe it when I saw someone in the pool who I’d seen regularly on my Queensland travels, and I managed to make an idiot of myself several times trying to get myself into the rubber tubes that are provided to ride the waves. I was only able to experience one cycle, and would have loved to stay there longer: the water was so refreshing. But I had booked myself on a sunset cruise and time was marching on.

 

I raced back to the wharf and boarded Sundancer, my sailboat for the evening. There had been a few options for cruises in the harbour, and I went for a mid-range price, which had included canapes and a glass of champagne in the price. However from the moment we left the wharf behind, not only was there a constant service of delicious nibbles, but the champagne was free flowing. After all the heat of the day, and the hours of walking, I found myself relaxing and frankly getting rather merry. I’m not a regular drinker, or a big drinker, but it felt great to let my hair down, and every time my glass ran dry, I was more than happy to accept a top-up. I did take photos of the passing scenery at the beginning, and then later as the sun was setting, but I spent quite a bit of time chatting with a fellow passenger, as well as sunbathing, and stuffing my face. I was positively pissed by the time we returned to the wharf which made for an interesting walk back to my hostel. Needless to say I woke up with a wicked thirst.

 

My flight out of Darwin wasn’t till the afternoon, so I had one last morning in the city. Long before I’d even booked my trip there, I’d heard about a place in the city where you could cage dive with crocodiles. Upon discovering of its existence, I told myself that if I ever made it to Darwin, I’d do it. Unfortunately, I had underestimated its popularity and didn’t bother to book ahead. When I was in Cairns, a few nights before leaving Queensland behind, I’d gone on the website to discover it was booked out for my entire stay. I was gutted. Nonetheless, I decided to spend the morning at Crocosaurus Cove, effectively a crocodile zoo, right in the heart of Darwin’s city centre.

I’m not a fan of zoos or aquariums, so didn’t have high hopes for the place, but it turned out to be bigger than I expected. I spent a good bit of time in the reptile house looking at the scaly creatures that inhabit the Northern Territory. The crocodiles outside were huge and included Burt, the crocodile star of Crocodile Dundee. I got to feed some juvenile crocodiles and watched as people took part in the cage-diving experience that I had wanted to do. Whilst I always leave these places a little sad at the enclosure sizes some creatures are kept in, it was still an interesting experience.

 

But finally it was time to collect my luggage, and jump on the shuttle to the airport. By the time I’d queued to check in my luggage, I didn’t have long to wait. At my gate, the flight was called and they requested row after row, but mine was never called. The gate emptied out and I sat there waiting and wondering. Suddenly, they announced the gate was about to close and I shot up and ran over. The ground staff crew gave me a curious look as I’d clearly sat there all along without boarding. I’m assuming I missed my row being called, but nonetheless, I was on my second domestic flight of my great Australian adventure, and another new region awaited.

Nature in the Northern Territory

Whilst it’s always interesting to wander round a new city, I’m really a lover of nature, wildlife and open spaces. So it was inevitable that my trip to Darwin would include a trip out of the city. Both Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks are within reach of Darwin, and I would have loved to have explored both, but alas, I really only had 1 day to spare, and that meant making the decision to do a day trip to Litchfield National Park, being as it was both smaller and that bit nearer to the city. Without my own transport, I looked around at the day tour options, made my choice and hoped for the best. My big bugbear with organised tours is being restricted to the itinerary that they set, meaning missing out on places, or not getting to stay for as long as I would like. I also hate being stuck with a group of strangers being ferried about the place, so if I have to use them, I’ll do my best to use a small group, locally run tour service, rather than a big group corporate tour company. Whilst this was an option for Litchfield, it meant an additional stop at the Adelaide river to go crocodile watching, something that I really wasn’t fussed about doing. It really came down to the choice between a big couch tour to Litchfield alone, or a small group tour to Litchfield and the crocs. In the end I chose the latter.

I waited outside my Darwin hostel in the early morning light, and was collected by my guide early. In fact everybody being picked up was ready early meaning we got out of the city ahead of schedule. There were only 7 of us which was great. As we were such a small group and had extra time, our guide decided to take us to the Window on the Wetlands visitor centre where we had time to peruse the display on the local flora and fauna, and have a look over the landscape from the upstairs viewing deck. Whilst the ground wasn’t as red here as I’d seen from the plane, there was definitely a frontier feel with forests bordering onto exposed arid ground. The access road to the Adelaide river crocodile cruise had a similar feel with a watering hole next to the road attracting wild cattle and a plethora of birds. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Australia, but despite hiking out bush in every state I’d previously visited, I was yet to spot a snake in the wild. As we trundled along next to the watering hole though, a snake suddenly appeared on the road and rapidly shot across to the other side, disappearing out of view as quickly as it had come into it.

 

I’d seen pictures of these crocodile cruises where they entice crocodiles to jump out the water with bait, and I am uneasy at wildlife being manipulated for the sake of a tourist buck as much as I am about the association that these wild and deadly creatures will make between the food and the humans. I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel about this part of the tour, and I wouldn’t have done it in any other circumstance, but I duly boarded the little boat and listened to the skipper tell us about the local crocs. They’d been sailing this river for years and had named the crocodiles they saw. They knew their behaviour, their personality and had a reasonable idea of their age. Despite my reservations, I had to give them their dues: they really did have a keen interest in the crocodiles.

The Adelaide river is broad, and even this far upstream could have quite a tidal influence. The water itself was silty and brown and so there was no way of telling what was in there. It didn’t take long for us to find crocodiles. Unlike the freshwater crocs I’d seen at Kuranda in Queensland, these saltwater crocs, or salties as they are known, are huge. Stumpy who was missing part of a leg was the first to come over and investigate us. Like an iceberg, it is a mere fraction of the beast that is visible above the water, and that is why they try to make the crocodile jump, to show off its hunting style and sheer size. They explained to us that they were selective with who they tried to bait, making sure they didn’t pick the same crocs each time, and gauging their behaviour as they went. So although Stumpy came over voluntarily, they left him alone, moving further along the river.  Next we found Candy, a female and although smaller than the males, still a good sized croc. She eyeballed us, circling the boat, and when the bait was lowered, she demonstrated a shallow jump.

 

Despite the dirty-looking water, it was a lovely river to cruise down. Even in between croc sightings there was an ever changing bank to look at. Our third crocodile interaction was with Cassanova, the largest of the crocs that we had spotted. He was absolutely massive, and this was apparent even before he jumped out the water, but when he did leap upwards, the extent of his size became undeniable. These are definitely creatures not to be messed with. He demonstrated his jumping skills several times before we left him behind to cruise back along the river. As we did, the crew started throwing meat morsels up into the air and suddenly multiple birds of prey appeared, and these kites swooped in with great skill to catch the meat in mid air. They followed us for quite some time along the river until the meat ran out.

 

I had enjoyed the experience, and was glad to have seen some wild crocs up close, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the way they went about it. As we left, there was still plenty of activity at the watering hole. Now, there were water buffalo and a large black-necked stork amongst the crowd of fowl. After watching them briefly, we headed onwards towards Litchfield National Park. Our lunch stop was interesting to say the least, a random cafe in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere that was run by a nudist. The food was fantastic, and after filling up, it was time to get going.

 

100 kilometres (62 miles) south-west of Darwin, Litchfield National Park covers 1500 square kilometres (932 square miles) and is most known for its waterfalls and giant termite mounds. There was no way I was going to see everything in just one day, so this was always going to be a highlights tour, but it gave me plenty of desire to come back another time with my own transport. Our first stop was at the giant termite mounds. I’ve seen termite mounds in Australia before whilst out bush, but these were different. Within close proximity there were two types: magnetic mounds which were thin and on a north-south orientation to aid with temperature control, and cathedral mounds which were comparative giants. One of the largest cathedral mounds was surrounded by a boardwalk, allowing a 360o exam of it without being able to damage it. They might be built by tiny insects, but these structures were impressive.

 

With several waterfalls to choose from, I didn’t know which ones we were going to get to see. Our longest and first stop was at Wangi Falls, probably the more well-known and busiest of the waterfalls. It was exceptionally busy with groups of people in and out of the water. Whilst everyone else got straight in the water on such a hot tropical day, I took a quick wander along a short walkway leading round the pool edge, viewing the scene from a differing angle and coming across some rather large St Andrew’s Cross spiders. I’ve seen these in Australia before but none this big and their webs were laced across the gaps between the foliage.

 

The water temperature was perfect, but it was murky so judging the depth was completely by feel. After hanging around in the shallows, I started swimming across to the rock face, initially straight across the pool, then around the edge where I could hop between the shallower parts. I’m not ashamed to admit I have a fear of drowning. If I can see the bottom below me, even if it is out of my depth, I don’t have a problem, but like out in the open ocean, the murky waters made me uneasy as I didn’t know how deep it was. Once at the rocks, the side was exceedingly slippy and it was difficult to find something to hold on to without banging my legs against the rocks or slipping into the water. Myself and one of my companions for the day worked our way between the narrow ribbon waterfall and the wider waterfall, above which a group of guys in their twenties were unbelievably scaling the rock face quite high up and jumping into the water below. They had some balls climbing up the slippery rocks and as much balls jumping into the water when you couldn’t see where the rocks stopped or the deeper parts were.

 

Eventually we had to get out of the water, and we tucked into the tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten as we dried off, then we were off to the next stop. Florence Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall with a plunge pool at the bottom of the gully. We didn’t have time to go swimming here, instead we took the path to the lookout with a view down onto the falls from above. The guys who had been cliff diving at Wangi were already here doing the same thing and we watched again as they scaled the steep rocky sides, finding narrower and narrower ledges to jump from. I’m not sure how it came up in conversation, but I mentioned to the guide about my experience licking the butts of green ants in Queensland, and before I knew it, we were all letting green ants bite our skin in order to lick their abdomens. I remember thinking the first time around that it was a sentence I never thought I would say, and yet here I was, once again licking ants’ butts.

 

Our final stop in Litchfield National Park was the Buley Rock-pools. Here we had time to go swimming again, and I really didn’t need much persuasion to get back in the water. A series of small waterfalls cascading down a gradient created a myriad of little plunge pools, some of which were just deep enough to sit in, and a couple that were deep enough to swim in. I sat under one of the upper falls letting the thundering water massage my shoulders and back, before moving to the deeper pool at the bottom. Again the water was murky and the rocks were slippery resulting in me accidentally kicking the rock with my foot. The cool water helped to dull the throb a little bit, but unfortunately my toe nail had separated itself partly from my toe. It didn’t detract from the experience though, and lazing in the pools was a nice way to round off the afternoon.

 

I had hoped we would see Tolmer falls on the tour as well, but it was now time to leave the park behind and head back to the city. It didn’t take long for the head nodding to start as most of us slept our way back to Darwin. The light was getting lower as we drew into the city, but the day wasn’t over yet. I got dropped off at Mendil Beach, instead of back at my hostel, ready to experience a Darwin gem.

Terra Australis – Northern Territory

When faced with the choice between a cheaper indirect flight and a dearer direct flight, I would normally pay a little bit more for less airport time. Hanging around in airports, whilst good for people watching, is a bane of travelling that I would happily eliminate, with hours of my life having been wasted in these culture-less man-made boxes. However, on this occasion, the direct flight out of Cairns was first thing in the morning, and when I booked my flights many months earlier, I had naively thought I would want the extra time in the Great Barrier Reef‘s gateway city, and for that reason I’d chosen to book an unknown regional airline, Air North, which took off at a much more civil lunchtime slot. As it turned out, I really didn’t get Cairns, and found myself spending the morning before my flight at the hostel and the nearby mall, eager to get away from the rather drab city. But I didn’t regret my choice of airline, and although it meant more airport time than I’d needed, I was actually glad to experience the route it took.

Leaving Tropical North Queensland behind, we were soon to leave land behind, flying over the Gulf of Capricorn, a large expanse of water that separates the top of the state of Queensland with the top of the Northern Territory. When we next hit land, there was a lot of bush but also a lot of red desert. It was exciting to see the arid landscape I’d seen so many times on the television. Our indirect flight landed in a tiny settlement called Gove. The runway was surrounded by red desert and it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere in the Outback. The only annoying thing about it was that we all had to disembark, and go through security in the tiny Gove airport building before being allowed back on the plane. Despite having just come from Cairns, I was selected to be taken aside for explosives screening. I was surprised at how many people were getting off in Gove and how many people were getting on. It was clearly a transit hub for the local area. But finally we were on our way to a city that I had longed to go to for some time, the Territory’s capital, Darwin.

 

People in Queensland had told me to expect a massive culture shock when I got to Darwin. A comparatively small city, it has the largest percentage of Indigenous Australians compared with any other city in the country. The way people talked about the place, they made it sound like it was a poor and ‘backwards’ city, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find when I landed. What I discovered though, was a city that I loved, and one that I would have loved to have had more time in. Over the course of 3.5 days, I packed as much of the local area in as I could, but with the benefit of a car on another occasion, I would love to go back and do more.

It was evening by the time I’d checked into my accommodation, and I was quick to dump my stuff and get out to the nearby Bicentenial Park where locals were out for an after work stroll. It was a well-maintained stretch of parkland with some views out over the wide expanse of Darwin Harbour. As the sun lowered, I wandered around passed packed bars, and up the main shopping street of Smith Street where I found a night market that the driver of the airport shuttle had told me about. There was a plethora of stalls selling mainly Asian-inspired food, and I tucked into a delicious meal of pad thai and sangria. The heat was worse than Queensland, and I struggled both outdoors and indoors. I escaped into the air conditioned space of a pop-up art gallery that was open late, hiding out there till I was guided towards the exit at closing time, sweating my way back to my hostel dorm, who’s air conditioning was wholly ineffective.

 

I prefer to do most of my city exploring on foot when I’m abroad, but in the tropical climate and with Darwin quite spread out, I acknowledged that this wasn’t going to be sensible here. With the rise of a hot sun the next day, I bought myself a ticket for the city’s hop on-hop off tour bus which gave me 24hrs use of their services. Up the length of Mitchell Street, packed with bars and youth hostels, the bus headed towards Cullen Bay, an upmarket part of the city with swanky apartment blocks overlooking a gorgeous marina. Round past the casino and Botanic Gardens, I got off in the suburb of Parap which has a Saturday market. The food options were almost the same as the previous night’s market and this was interspersed with fruit & veg and local crafts. After grabbing breakfast and having a wander around, I jumped back on the bus, completing its loop via Stokes Hill wharf and back around, getting off again at the Botanic Gardens.

 

I love visiting Botanic Gardens, some being better than others. There were some interesting patches within Darwin’s gardens, but exposed to the constant sunshine, I was going through water like crazy. Near the entrance was a beautiful fountain in a pond, and the vegetation was a mixture of colourful flowers and tropical canopies. Walkways wind through the various sections, revealing a waterfall and some trees I’d never seen before, including a chunky and nobbly boab tree.

 

Eventually I cut to the coast at Mendil Beach where I had my first interaction with some Indigenous Australians. I had already seen where some of the comments about Darwin by the Queenslanders had come about: there were many drunk Aboriginals wandering the city’s streets, and all the beggars that I had seen had also been Indigenous people. Here at the beach, a group of ladies sitting in the park said hello and I returned the greeting. They quickly went back to their native tongue as I passed. Under the beating heat the sand was too hot to walk on and it was deserted.

 

A path through some much desired shade brought me out a little along the coast at the Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory. Being one of the bus stops for the hop on-hop off service, I had planned on jumping back on the bus here and moving on, but at the last minute I decided to head inside. The museum is free to enter so I used this as an excuse to utilise the building’s air conditioning. In the foyer was a display of painted car parts by an Indigenous artist, and a little pond at the side had a resident hog-nosed turtle floating about. Apparently, Indigenous artwork is much-loved by European visitors. It is certainly a very distinctive style and I myself loved many of the artworks that I saw over my Australia trip. Had I been rich and a homeowner, I could have bought a whole personal gallery whilst I was there.

 

Aside from the gallery of artwork, there was a display of local fauna which of course included all the venomous creatures that reside in the territory, but what was most interesting to me was the area dedicated to Cyclone Tracy that devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974. I hadn’t heard about this disaster before, but living as I do in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city devastated by two earthquakes, many of the photographs of the cyclone’s damage looked all too familiar. This city too had suffered at nature’s grip and been rebuilt.

In the afternoons, the hop on-hop off bus has an added section to its loop of the city, heading past Fannie Bay to East Point Reserve. This was a popular area with locals, and one that I would love to come back and explore in depth. It was quite a way out of the city centre, and I was reliant on the tour bus to take me back. Unfortunately the last one left in daylight hours, and so I had just a couple of hours to explore. From the military museum where the bus stop is, I meandered to the cliffs of the coastline and followed the walking track back towards Fannie Bay. There was plenty of evidence of erosion along the cliff edges, and signs warned of crocodiles in the vicinity.

 

Once overlooking Fannie Bay, the skyline of Darwin was evident in the distance, and the beach was long here, being well used by families that were camped up under the trees cooking barbecues with friends and family. Most people were congregated around the strip between the beach and Lake Alexander, and presumably drawn by the smell of food, there was a mob of birds of prey swooping overhead. The smell of food was making me a little hungry and seeing the groups of people enjoying themselves together made me feel a tad lonely. By the time I’d wandered back to the Military Museum to catch the last bus back to the city, there was a lone bagpiper playing outside in memorium for a board member that had recently died. No matter where I am in the World, my little Scottish heart always bursts with national pride at the sound of a bagpipe.

 

Back in the city, I found a dumpling store down an alley and procured some yummy food to take to Bicentennial Park and eat. With the sun setting, it was just a matter of finding the desired vantage point to watch the sun go down. I’d been spoiled in Queensland with all the sunsets I’d witnessed there, so the Northern Territory had a lot to live up to. The sky burned a deep red as the sun’s orb faded below the horizon. It had been a good introduction to the city, and I’d made note of those places to go back to. But the next day I had an early rise to visit one of the nearby national parks. There was definitely much to see in the Northern Territory.

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