I should have known that Darwin would be a little different when, on the 20-minute cab ride from the airport to my hotel, I noticed a quaint Aboriginal Art Store in a small strip mall. “Isn’t that cool,” I thought, “this place is legit Australia.” And then I looked at the store next to it: SEXYLAND – Australia’s largest range of FUN products for adults! I didn’t know it at the time, but in a way this was the perfect microcosm for what they call The Top End: 40,000 years of civilization existing side-by-side with the finest representation of modern society. Just how the tourism board drew it up, I’m sure.
The Northern Territory (NT) of Australia, which Darwin is the capital of, is just that—a territory. The locals just call it The Tear-a-tree, like Mick Dundee did. This makes sense because the only other tear-a-tree is the Australian Capital Tear-a-tree (ACT), where the federal government “operates” in Canberra. The rest of Australia is made up of six other chunks of land worthy of being called states. Lucky them.
Darwin sits on the Timor Sea, in the tropics, and is actually closer to Asia than to any other Australian capital city. The Top End, as the region is known, can feature downright abusive weather, with the summer wet season delivering monsoon-type rains and cyclones (as hurricanes are known in the Southern Hemisphere). According to a quick web search, Darwin’s rainfall totals during the wet season look like this: December – 10 inches; January – 15 inches; February – 12 inches. Three feet of rain in three months! Even people in Seattle are looking at that thinking: “Geez, that sounds terrible” because that much rain makes Seattle sound like Scottsdale. During the wet season, humidity is in the 70 percent range. If you’re not a meteorologist and you didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, just know that 70 percent humidity is muggy enough to make you sweat when you, well, breathe.
During my visit in autumn temps were in the 90 degree Fahrenheit range and Darwin’s beautiful harbor beaches were empty because…wait for it…crocodiles and box jellyfish live there, and both of them can kill you. No, seriously.
Hold on, I’ll go get the real estate listings for you; I can see you chomping at the bit. But wait, it gets better. On the bright side, the winter Dry Season is warm and sunny. If you’re getting the impression that the Northern Territory is essentially the last frontier of Australia, you’d be right. And the residents seem to pride themselves on that notion.
And well they should. Their city thrives today despite nearly being blown off the face of the earth on two occasions in the last 75 years—once by humans and once by Mother Nature. On February 19, 1943, Japanese forces bombed Darwin a couple of months after they were nice enough to devastate Pearl Harbor. The raids stunned Australia and left 292 people dead, including 91 Americans aboard the USS Peary, which sunk in Darwin Harbor. (As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a museum guy but the Defense of Darwin Military Museum had some great exhibits on the role Darwin has played in Australia’s military history.)
Three decades later, on Christmas Eve 1974, category 4 Cyclone Tracy blew ashore with winds reaching up to 135 m.p.h. and I don’t care how many reindeer you have at your disposal, you’re not stopping your sleigh on a rooftop in a 135 m.p.h. breeze. Turns out, by Christmas morning there weren’t many rooftops left for Santa to land on. Eighty percent of the homes in Darwin were demolished and 65 people perished. In the days following the storm, 26,000 people were airlifted from Darwin and re-settled elsewhere in Australia. Some never came back. It was like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but it happened about 1,000 miles away from anyone who could help. I’m pretty sure MSNBC blamed that one on George Bush, too. (The Northern Territory Museum has a large Cyclone Tracy exhibit, including a dark sound studio with a recording of the wind from that very night. It’s scary as hell.)
It’s partly because of the mass rebuilding process that followed that much of Darwin is, today, quite a modern looking place, particularly along its beautiful waterfront. A manmade saltwater lagoon has been built behind a huge rock jetty to protect the area from future Tracys and, one can only presume, to protect swimmers from giant, man-eating dinosaurs that swim. One huge area is roped off for swimming laps around four buoys and the rest of the lagoon was for recreational swimming. Next to it was a large lawn where people lounged in the sun. The whole area is unbelievably contemporary. High-rises are being built around the waterfront and will join several upscale condominium type buildings that already overlook the harbor. Beneath them, a number of waterfront restaurants and bars frame the lawn. There’s even a wave pool, where half of Darwin and their kids seemed to be frolicking. (That’s an underutilized word, I feel…frolicking. Go ahead and use it in a work meeting this week.)
Darwin is actually a surprisingly multi-cultural city of about 150,00 people. After English, the most popular languages are Greek, Italian, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Cantonese. With 30 percent of the 231,000 people who live in the Northern Territory being of Aboriginal decent, the Terra-tree has the largest Indigenous population of any state in Australia. Nowhere is the diversity more apparent than at the Mindil Beach Markets, an outdoor collection of 60 food vendors serving authentic dishes from all over the globe. The markets take place Thursday and Sunday nights during the winter months and the food is delicious. I had a Thai plate and then went back for a plate of roast beef and potatoes to make sure I didn’t spend my flight home the next day in the airplane bathroom. After dining on kangaroo the night before, I wasn’t in the mood for crocodile, which there was plenty of. I also have a karma-based food rule that says not to eat anything that could eat me. Just seems like asking for trouble. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but a chocolate frosted donut from Dunkin Donuts will never attack you because you ate the meaty parts of his brother and then made $3,000 boots from the rest of him.
In the “crafts” section of the markets, you could even get a Thai massage…yes, from a real Thai woman. Maybe a little too real, in fact. I strolled by and snuck a peek (because the tent was WIDE open) and saw a rather sizeable Thai women lying on a client’s back, which, to be honest, didn’t look like something you’d pay for. The massage table looked very much like a New York Yankees beach towel that had been laid over some blankets, all of which were on the ground. I saw no running water with which she might, if she felt so inclined, wash her hands between rub-downs. I decided rather impulsively that my oft-troublesome lower lumbar region felt fine in this heat. I’m sorry? What’s that, you say? Purell hand sanitizer will do the trick. I think not.
If you’re going to have food, you have to have something to wash it down with, right? Well, folks, you’ll never go thirsty in Darwin. It’s a city of hearty people, many of whom toil away at laborious construction jobs on things like the INPEX project, a multi-billion dollar gas processing plant that’s being built there. At quitting time, they seemed more than ready for a refreshing beverage. Throw in a few groups of backpackers and you can understand how things might get a tad loose on a Saturday night on Mitchell Street, Darwin’s main entertainment avenue. At one Irish bar called Shenanigans, there seemed to be a large turnout of burly men who looked like they’d been playing with heavy machinery all day. They danced (together, on some occasions), high-fived each other excessively, compared neck tattoos and hugged one another as if they were shipping off to war the next morning. I don’t mind the occasional beverage or six myself, but next to these people I felt like a Mormon. Still, the band was great, the people were nice, the drinks were cold and the atmosphere was lively, so I stayed a while.
The next morning I spent a few minutes leafing through several pamphlets at the Darwin tourist office to see if the ability to drink alcohol in enormous volumes was actually a requirement for Tear-a-tree residency. I found no evidence to support my suspicion, but I did get a good travel tip. A woman who worked there recommended I take a short cab ride that evening to Cullen Bay Marina, a very upscale community known for its sunset viewing. (Seriously, is there a better way to increase the price of real estate than to be known for sunset viewing?) Surprisingly enough, the tourist office lady wasn’t lying. The sun did, indeed, set—this happens every night, I’m told—and it was very pleasing to the eyes. The Top End is known for it’s spectacular sunsets and this one lasted nearly an hour. Couples sat on the beach hoping not to be eaten by crocodiles, I guess, and kids played under palm trees that lined the well-kept lawn above the sand. As the sky turned from orange to red to steely blue, I sat perfectly still and took it all in…while sweating profusely, of course.