Darwin is a beautiful city of stunning sunsets, attractive gardens, beautiful skies, vibrant sunsets, turquoise waters… and history around every corner!
Tucked away in the remote ‘Top End’, this tropical city is closer to Indonesia than Sydney and is the only city in the sparsely populated Northern Territory.
Port Darwin was discovered in 1839 by Captain J.C. Wickham, who named it after Charles Darwin, a naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. However, this town that grew up near the harbour was originally called Palmerston and it wasn’t until 1911, the name was officially changed to Darwin.
Originally founded in 1869 as a trading outpost it quickly grew when gold was discovered in 1871 some 200-kilometres south at Pine Creek… but it’s the history of war and cyclones that has shaped Darwin.
This small tropical city has taken quite a battering over the last 150 or so years; first by the Japanese air force during the Second World War and later by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, which took 65 lives and devastated the city.
Consequently, it has been rebuilt several times since it was founded in 1860… then to add insult to injury they also must contend with those destructive little wood eating termites.
As a result, it is now a remarkably sophisticated, serene and clean, termite proof city and one of Australia’s thriving business capitals. In business and industry circles, Darwin is described as Australia’s gateway to South East Asia.
Darwin played a prominent role in World War II, when between February 1942 and October 1943 the Japanese conducted over 60 air raids on the city resulting in one of the biggest airlift activities in Australia’s history when more than 30,000 people were evacuated from the then population of 43,000 people.
These frequent Japanese bombing raids gave rise to the nickname ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbour’ – or ‘D-Town’ as it is affectionately called by my Mum and Dad who both served in the arm forces.
With invasion an ever-present threat in this isolated city, so came the construction of the Stuart Highway connecting the Top End with the first reliable road link between the Darwin and the rest of Australia.
Even though Darwin may have been devastated by these events there are still a few historic buildings that have survived the test of war and cyclones.
Government House stands proudly near the centre of town and is surrounded by beautiful manicured gardens, Lyons Cottage was the first stone house in the city when it was built in 1925, and the ruined Palmerston Town Hall is now used for open-air theatre performances.
Darwin’s military history can be explored at the Darwin Military Museum, which brings the World War II period to life through its multimedia ‘Defence of Darwin’ exhibition. Part of the Darwin Military Museum, this exhibition was opened in 2012 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin.
Another significant military site in Darwin and an attraction with a difference is the ‘World War II Oil Storage Tunnels’ located on Kitchener Drive at the wharf.
Constructed during World War II by the Civil Construction Corps to protect the Darwin’s oil supplies from the Japanese they are an engineering feat in themselves and today house a collection of photographs of wartime activity.
The Darwin Aviation Museum is well worth a visit too, just to see the huge B-52 bomber parked under its roof. This B-52 is one of only two B-52 aircraft on display worldwide outside of the USA. There are many other aircraft on display including some domestic aircraft. One close to my heart is an ANA aircraft (Australian National Airlines) that later became Ansett Airlines of Australia. My dad worked for the airline for many years.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) is a worthwhile visit to learn about the impact of Cyclone Tracy and to find out about the local indigenous history and art. It is also home of the stuffed remains of Sweetheart, a boat eating 5-metre, 780-kg saltwater crocodile that will have you thinking twice about swimming in the Northern Territory waters!
Charles Darwin National Park on the outskirts of the city itself is a great spot for enjoying the Northern Territory’s unique nature, Aboriginal heritage and more World War II history.
This park is home to at least 11 bunkers that used to house ammunitions during the war. With one open for inspection it was quite interesting to wander through and read the detailed information describing the explosives that were used in the area, once referred to as the ‘bomb dump’.
There are also mountain bike trails spanning this park, with amazing lookouts over the Darwin skyline.
The Ghan also comes to Darwin and having met an older couple at the caravan park who were heading back to Victoria, we decided on something different to do… so we travelled 20-kilometres out of town to wave them off.
We are constantly on ‘Ghan watch’ (when we were in the right locations) on our trip but to date we had not had any success…
… but this was our lucky day, and thanks to Biddy and Frank, we arrived at Darwin Railway Station (at least 20-kilometres out of the city centre) just as the Ghan was coming in to town… and it did not disappoint – it looked quite majestic as it slowly rolled into a stop at the station!
Named after Afghan cameleers who traversed the route long before the train line was built, the Ghan travels an epic 2,797-kilometres between Adelaide and Darwin, stopping on its journey at Alice Springs and Katherine. It runs twice a week in both directions from June to September and once a week at all other times.
It takes three days and two nights… and I couldn’t image a better way to sit back, relax and capture the rich tapestry of our land while traversing the full length of the world’s largest island by rail! We will certainly add this trip to our ‘bucket list’ for another trip!
Some 80-kilometres off the coast of Darwin and connected by ferry services are Bathurst and Melville Islands, jointly known as the Tiwi Islands and nicknamed the ‘island of smiles’!
The Tiwi people had only limited contact with mainland aboriginal societies until the nineteenth century, so they developed their own distinct language and culture. Our friends Sandii and Neil visited and thoroughly enjoyed the trip so this will also go on our ‘to do list’ for next visit.
Over the years we have met many friends on our journey.
On the travelling road we have shared many experiences with strangers – some we may never see again but then there have been some we have continued the friendship with. Welcome to our blog Sandii and Neil (whom we met in Cooktown in 2012) and Wayne who will hopefully keep us company on our upcoming ‘Simpson Desert’ trek. Thank you all. It was lovely catching up with you in Darwin!
Darwin is known for its markets and is the proud home of the beloved Mindil Beach Sunset Market. This is one market you really should experience just to see what all the fuss is about… and catch one of the city’s most stunning sunsets!
‘Mindil Beach Sunset Market’ is most definitely one market we always enjoy when we visit! It is a great tropical market that only runs from April to October on Thursday and Sunday day evenings and is renowned for its Asian inspired multi-cultural food bonanza, local artisans and live entertainment.
This market is organised right on the foreshore of Mindil Beach overlooking Fanny Bay and spills out onto the sands where there’s normally a musician playing a didgeridoo and dozens of people gathering to watch the sun go down.
Darwin only has two seasons – the ‘Dry Season’ and the ‘Wet Season’ and even although we arrived well before the beginning of the Wet Season the humidity was already starting to build and the conditions were quite warm and humid. Not the most ideal conditions when we’re out riding the bikes… and on the downside we couldn’t even swim at the amazing beaches.
This is the ‘real’ Australia up here with endless stunning, but very empty beaches because of crocs and stingers (Box Jellyfish) that can inflict lethal stings upon humans! In fact, we hadn’t swum in the sea since we’d left the Gold Coast some months back.
The lethal stinger season in the Northern Territory and Queensland when box jellyfish can be found along beaches, in river inlets and offshore is from October to May. Unfortunately there is no season for crocs, they are all year round and the closest I wanted to get to one of those is at Crocosaurus Cove.
Crocosaurus Cove is in central Darwin and provides a great opportunity to see a variety of crocodiles up close. There are also other reptile and marine displays and the featured additional option is the ‘Cage of Death’ where two people can be lowered into a crocodile enclosure within a Perspex tube. We gave that a big miss!
So many people say you can’t swim in Darwin, but that’s not actually true. You might not be able to swim at the beaches, but Darwin is home to several public swimming pools, water parks, a recreational lagoon and wave pool and incredible natural pools not far from the CBD.
Lake Alexander is a man-made lake filled with filtered seawater and provides safe swimming from crocs and stingers throughout the year… but it is very shallow! This popular picnic and barbecue stop situated in natural surroundings at East Point Reserve is set on a peninsular of land overlooking Beagle Gulf.
The man-made beach at the Darwin Waterfront Precinct is protected from sharks, crocodiles and jellyfish and watched over by lifeguards. Situated right in the middle of the tourist area it is surrounded by restaurants, bars… and a wave pool where you can grab a rubber ring or a boogie board and ride the waves.
On the outskirts of the city is Palmerston Water Park and a little further out are the waterholes at Litchfield National Park and Berri Springs.
Darwin provides a wonderful environment for cycling too, with approximately 70 kilometres of well thought out cycleways and shared paths.
The path from the caravan park was an easy 10-kilometre ride for us to the city and once there the Darwin Esplanade wound its way along the south-western edge of the city.
It is a very enjoyable ride… and to the locals we became known as the crazy tourists on bikes. It soon became obvious to us that no one moves too fast in the heat up here, in fact it’s such a lay back lifestyle some people hardly move at all – they just take it easy, it seems without a worry in the world… ‘no worries mate!’
Right along the length of the 1.6-kilometre paved path there are benches, large areas shaded by trees, memorials, information signs, and beautiful look-out points.
In the large park area, a path snakes past the beautiful ANZAC Day memorial dedicated to all the armed forces, around the grassy lawns and through beautiful shaded areas. Here we could stop, look, and learn about different points of interest in Darwin Harbour including the nearby Navy Base.
Onward bound we continued through the back streets exiting at Mindil Beach, home of the beautiful sunset markets. This path then continued past the Sky City Casino and the Museum and Art Gallery. From the top of a small hill we had amazing views from Look-out Point where, in one direction we could see the whole of the Mindil Beach and the other, the beginning of Fannie Bay.
Further on we passed the sailing club finally coming to the end of the path at the World War II Museum and Lake Alexander on East Point Reserve.
From this point on we were guided by signs as we made our way through the northern suburb town of Nightcliff, home of the Sunday Nightcliff morning market.
The ‘Nightcliff Markets’ operate every Sunday morning through to mid-afternoon and provide fresh produce, a multi-cultural dining experience, local artisans and live entertainment.
Another market to get excited about on the outskirts of Darwin is the ‘Parap Market’, which operates every Saturday all year round.
Back on the bike track we continued, taking in the beautiful water views as we passed the Nightcliff pier and the popular foreshore café area eventually arriving at the lonely but beautiful beaches of the Casuarina Coastal Reserve overlooking Beagle Bay.
Here a footbridge provided a cycling entrance to the coastal reserve where the path divided into several different recreation areas to accommodate different activities – cycle and walking paths, mountain bike tracks and dedicated dog areas.
There is also a World War II artillery observation posts, a reminder of the area’s wartime involvement.
Located between the mouth of Rapid Creek and Buffalo Creek, this reserve includes 8 kilometres of beautiful sandy beaches fringed by Casuarina trees and dramatic sandstone cliffs. Behind the beaches and dunes are mangroves, monsoon vine thickets and paperbark forests.
The Larrakia Aboriginal people speak for this area as a sacred and significant site that includes Dariba Nunggalinya (Old Man Rock) just offshore, which is visible at low tide from Dripstone Cliffs lookout. Disturbing the rock in any way or the removal of shellfish at this site is prohibited.
From here bike paths formed a network through Casuarina Coastal Reserve where we were privy to a variety of birdlife – ospreys, sea eagles, cormorants and gulls soaring high overhead as we passed through the dunes.
Finally, it was time to retrace our path back to the Darwin CBD with the final sprint finishing at the gates to the caravan park.
We had spent almost the whole day taking in the sights and surrounds of some of Darwin’s top spots… and finally it was lovely to sit down and enjoy a refreshing watermelon we had bought from a fruit van – then carried all the way back to the park!
Darwin is a treasured country to its traditional owners, the Larrakia people.
More than 25-percent of the people in the Northern Territory are from aboriginal communities, a higher proportion than anywhere else in Australia… and while many of these people are prominent and active members of the local community many are also on the streets of Darwin – camped out and living in poverty on the fringes of town and wandering around without a cause.
Darwin has the highest rate of homelessness of any city in Australia, with an estimated two to three thousand people living rough at any one time. Many long grassers, a term used to describe Aboriginal people living rough, have come in to the city from remote communities to find a second home in the city where they finally get stuck in a cycle of homelessness.
We came across quite a few of these people as we rode our bikes off the beaten track and they were some of the friendliest and happiest people we had come across – from past experience we only had to smile and say hello to the gatherings along the side of the path to get a hearty response and a wave! It never fails to lift my spirits and I am sure it has the same effect of them!
On previous visits we have stayed at the Darwin Free Spirit Resort and being only 18-kilometres from the Darwin city centre it was the perfect place for us to use as a base to explore Darwin on our bikes.
This park is a relaxing tropical haven set amongst 28 acres of tropical landscaped gardens and pools with a range of cabins and powered and unpowered caravan and camping sites… but unfortunately this trip we were unable to get in as it was booked out – instead we booked into the Discovery Park a bit closer to town!
This was a lovely park too although very dry and dusty and not as large as the Free Spirit. The staff were very friendly, there were two swimming pools, a camp kitchen, a games/TV room, amenities and laundries located in two locations – with one being a little dated but still clean and maintained… but there was one downfall – the MIDGES!! After the sun went down, they were out in droves causing us to lather our bodies in dettol and reef oil – as recommended by the lovely Aboriginal lady in Katherine.
Midges live in the sand and mud of swampy waterways and mangroves and as we were close to both the irritating little insects were in abundance!
Finally, just when we felt we had adapted to the heat and humidity (our wardrobe consists of flip-flops, shorts and t- shirts)… it was time to move on and after farewelling Sandii and Neil at the Howard Springs Caravan Park we were on the road once again.
I expect we won’t connect our friends again on this trip as they head back home to Queensland and it is unlikely we will catch up with Wayne for some time as he will be moving a bit quicker than us into Western Australia.
The road from here leads back to Katherine then west to the beehive-striped Bungle Bungles Range in Purnululu National Park, Wolf Creek and along the Tanami Track to Alice Springs…