In spite of its torrid climate and often disastrous history, DARWIN manages to feel young, vibrant and cosmopolitan, a mood that’s illustrated as much by an evening on buzzing Mitchell Street as it is joining the fitness fanatics cycling, hiking and jogging through the lush parks and waterfront suburbs. One of the fastest-growing cities in Australia, its population of 75,000 is made up of more than sixty nationalities and seventy different ethnic backgrounds, a fact reflected in everything from Vietnamese restaurants and Greek tavernas to Chinese temples. To fully appreciate Darwin you should allow a minimum of three days to absorb its heritage buildings and wildlife attractions, visit the gleaming new waterfront quarter and enjoy the raucous nightlife.
Day-trips from Darwin include the popular Litchfield National Park as well as the Aboriginal-owned Tiwi islands, a thirty-minute flight from town. Crocodylus Park, on the city’s edge, makes for a great day out when combined with the excellent Territory Wildlife Park. To really appreciate Kakadu, you’ll need more than a day – try to allow for at least three.
Setting up a colonial settlement on Australia’s remote northern shores was never going to be easy, and it took four abortive attempts in various locations over 45 years before DARWIN (originally called Palmerston) was established in 1869 by the new South Australian state keen to exploit its recently acquired “northern territory”. The early colonists’ aim was to pre-empt foreign occupation and create a trading post – a “new Singapore” for the British Empire.
Things got off to a promising start with the 1872 arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), following the route pioneered by explorer John McDouall Stuart in 1862 that finally linked Australia with the rest of the world. Gold was discovered at Pine Creek while pylons were being erected for the OTL, prompting a goldrush and construction of a southbound railway. After the goldrush ran its course, a cyclone flattened the depressed town in 1897, but by 1911, when Darwin adopted its present name (a legacy of Charles Darwin’s former ship, the Beagle, having laid anchor here in 1839), the rough-and-ready frontier outpost had grown into a small government centre, servicing the mines and properties of the Top End. Yet even by 1937, after being razed by a second cyclone, the town had a population of just 1500.
During World War II, Japanese air raids destroyed Darwin, killing hundreds, information that was suppressed at the time. The fear of invasion and an urgent need to get troops to the war zone led to the swift construction of the Stuart Highway, the first reliable land link between Darwin and the rest of Australia.
Three decades of postwar prosperity followed until Christmas Eve 1974, when Cyclone Tracy rolled in overnight and devastated the city. Despite the relatively low death toll of 66, Tracy marked the end of old Darwin, psychologically as well as architecturally, and most of the population was evacuated before the hasty rebuilding process began. Over the last couple of decades links with Asia, and an influx of Aussies seeking warmer weather and a slower pace of life, have transformed the city into a vibrant multicultural destination. In 2004 tourism and the mining industry were boosted by the completion of the Darwin rail link with Alice Springs (and Adelaide). More recently, the billion-dollar waterfront regeneration project and the discovery of vast amounts of natural gas offshore in the Timor Sea have attracted more migrants and money.Read More
Jumping crocs on the Adelaide River
Jumping crocs on the Adelaide River
Seeing crocodiles in their natural habitat is one of the Top End’s undoubted highlights, and at the Adelaide River Crossing, 64km east of Darwin on the Arnhem Highway, you can join a jumping crocodile cruise. The spectacle involves enticing the river’s wild saltwater crocodiles to surge 2m out of the water to snap at bony offal on a string. While the cruises make it safe and easy to take great photos, it’s slightly worrying to think that the crocodiles are being trained to associate boats and people with dinner time. Sea eagles swooping in to snatch the meat from the crocs’ jaws add to the drama and – ethics aside – it’s an astonishing spectacle.