The emblem of an Afghan on a camel decorates the front of the Ghan train on its 54-hour journey from Darwin to Adelaide. The train is said to be named for the 19th century pioneers who explored Australia on camels, whose handlers came from Afghanistan.
Darwin – Long Read

One of the world’s greatest national parks

Photo by Stephane Lemaire

Darwin – Long Read One of the world’s greatest national parks

Hello Darwin, Australia’s northernmost capital city and a place apart, both in terms of its wild-eyed character and its remote location. It may not have the set-piece sights of the country’s bigger cities but it has ample personality, an often tumultuous history – and ready access to one of the world’s greatest national parks, Kakadu.

Ben Lerwill
Ben Lerwill Travel Writer

Darwin has no opera house. It has no cloud-piercing skyline, no harbor bridge and no 100,000-capacity cricket ground. There is no decent vineyard for at least 1,500 kilometers. But what the capital city of Australia’s grizzled Northern Territory does have, as you might expect from somewhere that takes its name from one of history’s most famous nonconformists, is a sense of individuality.

“Yeah, it’s always attracted outsiders,” says Allan Mitchell, city alderman, former policeman and burly local character. We are drinking morning coffee at a café on Darwin’s low-rise main drag. It is August, and hot. “This weather’s nothing,” he says. “We have an unspoken rule. You have to be living up here for two wet seasons, then you can start calling yourself a local. Eighty percent humidity, 30-degree heat, four months. People have a bit of a thing about southerners, you see.” He winks. “If yer not happy, go home.”

For travelers used to the gleaming towers and set-piece sights of state capitals such as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, Darwin’s understated center can come as an anomaly. But the little city, tucked away in the tropics of the so-called Top End, boasts arguably the most colorful history of the lot. Twice it has had to come back from the dead – firstly in the 1940s, when the Japanese dropped more bombs on it than fell on Pearl Harbor; secondly in the 1970s, when a devastating cyclone roared in one Christmas and left the place all but obliterated.

Today, thanks in part to the riches being generated by a natural gas processing plant offshore and a huge influx of immigrants, it is very much alive. It is closer to Bali than Bondi in distance – some would say in mood, too – and it has a hard-working, hard-drinking ethos typical of the Northern Territory. At once laid-back, scrappy-spirited and innovative, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in Australia, with its population of some 125,000 accommodating a lively jumble of different ethnic backgrounds.

The wide streets around the city center have a free-and-easy feel to them, particularly in the warmth of the day. Architecturally, I walk past a mix of restored colonial facades and – more commonly – understated modern buildings. There are few above three stories, and the pavements stir with a mix of jobbing backpackers, errand- running locals and a healthy number of domestic tourists. “It’s our first time in Darwin,” I overhear one impressed Australian visitor tell a shopkeeper. “And mate, I’ve gotta say – you’ve got a pretty cruisey city here.” Shorts, shades and brimmed hats are near-obligatory. Palm trees are never far away.

A “new Singapore” for colonial interests

Darwin’s history is an interesting one. Considerably younger than the big cities of the eastern seaboard, it was established in the late 1860s primarily as a trading post, a “new Singapore” for colonial interests. It was initially called Palmerston, in honor of then recently deceased British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. Then as now, of course, the settlement was in an isolated location, and it was only with the 1872 completion of the Overland Telegraph Line – an ambitious engineering project that for the first time provided 3,200 kilometers of pylon-hung wires between Australia’s south and its north – that it started to become a frontier outpost of real note.

The line also helped provide speedy communication to Asia and the rest of the world. It was an apt role for Darwin to play, given how international its population is today. “It’s always been like this,” Martin, a 20- something local of Estonian origin, tells me. “Gold was discovered when they were setting up pylons for the Overland Telegraph Line, so in the early days there were huge amounts of Chinese coming over. Brits too, of course. Then in later years a lot of Greeks and Italians. These days we’ve got everyone – Indians, Irish, Iranians, Filipinos, Indonesians. But at the same time it’s a very Australian city.”

For newcomers, one of the most atmospheric snapshots of Darwin’s multi-flavoured identity is found at the twice-weekly Mindil Beach Sunset Market. Held on Sunday and Thursday evenings, it sees thousands of people spilling into the area on and around one of the city’s best beaches. Smoking food stalls serve up everything from Vietnamese noodles and Dutch pancakes to emu burgers and Greek souvlaki. Palm-readers and performance artists tout for business while Mick Dundee types give stock-whip demonstrations. Close by, Aboriginal teens dance with rump- shaking abandon to live mash-ups of didgeridoo music and techno beats.

The sun’s fiery glow sets the waves alight

The beach itself is also a superb place to watch the sunset. I join the beer-drinking masses gazing out to sea as an orange flame-ball dips below the horizon. The sun’s fiery glow sets the waves alight and casts the few boats on the water in jet black. “What a bloody beaut,” says someone in front of me. Anyone looking out from this same beach just over seven decades earlier, however, might have been greeted by an altogether less soothing sight.

Early on February 19, 1942, Japanese forces launched a cataclysmic air raid on Darwin. More than 240 aircraft flew low over the city in two waves, dropping close to 700 bombs onto what was then a far smaller coastal settlement. At least 243 people were killed. It was the first time ever that mainland Australia had come under attack and news of the raids was, to avoid panic, hidden from the rest of the country.

Why Darwin? Essentially because the Japanese wanted to prevent the Allies from using the city as a base to move into Timor or Java. But while it was a case of Darwin’s strategic location coming back to bite it, more pertinent was the fact that these air raids – and the recovery from them – helped shape the city’s feisty, rough-and-ready character over the years that followed.

“See the top of those pillars?” says local historian Pearl Ogden, pointing up at the striking white exterior of Parliament House, the grandest building not only in Darwin but arguably the whole of the territory. It was constructed in the 1990s and has been the seat of the legislative assembly ever since. I follow Pearl’s finger and look up to where a series of support struts are splayed out – an architectural screw-you to the past, as it turns out. “The theory is that they’ve been made to look like falling bombs. See the bomb-tail stylings? They’re a way of saying that the past has made this city what it is.”

A tapas portion of tandoori char-grilled kangaroo

Inside, once we have passed the building’s airport-style security and reached the cavernous foyer, she continues pointing out details of interest. “The main Darwin post office used to stand right here, and this plaque on the floor pinpoints exactly where one of the Japanese bombs fell.” She touches the bronze lightly with her toe. “It killed the postmaster, his family and six young female telegraphists.”

They were far from being the only fatalities, of course. Darwin’s dead included black and white, teenagers and grandparents, seamen and airmen. They are remembered en masse at the newly revamped Darwin Military Museum, just as those that perished at the brutal hands of Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974 – considered the greatest national disaster in Australian history – are remembered at the excellent Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. The museum shows vivid period photos of Tracy’s cruel work: Darwin in tatters of corrugated iron and skeletal brickwork, a nature-crushed wreck.

Forty years is a long time, but it is remarkable nonetheless to see how the city has re-emerged so fully from the ruins. This is particularly true at Darwin’s newest, shiniest quarter – the multi-million-dollar Waterfront Precinct. One afternoon I follow a footpath around its gleaming arc of hotels, apartments and mod-Oz restaurants. A tapas portion of tandoori char-grilled kangaroo, you say? That’ll be sixteen bucks, please. There is an appreciably different atmosphere here to other parts of the city. It is an impressive spot, but does not simmer with the same character.

The whole development looks out onto a new, officially jellyfish-free “recreation lagoon”, which itself abuts a machine-generated wave pool. These are understandable indulgences when going for a quick dip in the wild can involve a higher than normal chance of being chomped or stung. This is a part of Australia where things unquestionably know how to bite.

I could even go into a croc tank in a Perspex box

“Not much time goes by without croc attacks being on the front page,” says Allan Mitchell and, in the city center, the popular obsession with the Top End’s toothy, scaly poster-boys has now been turned into a visitor attraction. At Crocosaurus Cove, I peer up close at some of the largest captive saltwater crocodiles on the planet, including Burt, a 5.1m, 700kg saltie who appeared in the film Crocodile Dundee. I could even go into a croc tank in a Perspex box. It is a well-marketed photo-op, and no doubt fairly nerve-wracking – the majority of the scratches are on the inside of the box, they say – but it is sad to see such huge creatures walled in by their surrounds.

Far better instead to head 150 kilometers east through wetlands and open country to one of Australia’s most celebrated tracts of wilderness: the extraordinary Kakadu National Park. Rare is the visitor to Darwin who does not also spend time in Kakadu, a 20,000-square kilometer, Unesco-listed expanse of crocs and cliffs, wallabies and waterfalls, ancient rock art and craggy escarpments. People talk about the special power of the place, and I too find myself rapt, not least on the morning I arrive, when I join Jaimee, a young local guide with a boat.

She steers the vessel out onto the ribboned waters of the park’s Yellow Water Billabong, and within minutes the scenery opens up to reveal deep landscapes of grass plains and far-off hills. It is another hot, near-cloudless day, and the morning has a scorched, brackish smell. We spot sea eagles and kingfishers, snowy egrets and crane-like brolga. Then the “salties” appear.

“He’s a big boy, this one,” says Jaimee, as we inch closer to a ton-weight male lying motionless in the mud and roots at the water’s edge. When we are ten meters away, it gives the merest hint of a movement, a slight motion of the jaws that makes the sight of its dinosaur- era teeth even more unsettling. It stays put as we back off.

A couple of kayakers got eaten, you see

“You can come down here with your own boat, but they don’t allow kayaks,” says Jaimee. “A couple of kayakers got eaten, you see.” And as the next hour unfolds, it becomes clear just how many crocodiles there are here. We see more than a dozen of them, sometimes immobile under trees, sometimes shivering silently through the dark water, sometimes startlingly close at hand on the banks, all scaly hides and reptilian bulk. Every one of them has dead, ageless eyes. “We got about 10,000 ginga in Kakadu,” she continues, using the local indigenous word for crocodile. “And they’ve seen plenty. They’ve been here for more than 200 million years.”

In the Top End, historical timelines come in so many different waves that it can be hard to get a sense of scale. What is now Darwin was first established as a European settlement in 1869. Kakadu, meanwhile, was declared a national park only in the late 1970s. But the park’s traditional landowners, by further contrast, have inhabited this area for anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 years. It has been called the oldest living culture on Earth.

The connection between local Aboriginal people and the land here is an extraordinary thing. There are thousands of recorded rock art sites around the park – mainly in natural shelters overhung by outcrops – and the paintings they hold are in some cases more than 10,000 years old. Daubed in red ochre, animal blood and other natural pigments, the pictures give an account of traditional life and beliefs during the many millennia before Europeans arrived, bringing guns, horses, alcohol and all manner of other unheard-of things. The rock art shows lizards and marsupials, hunters and boomerangs, magpie geese and mythical beings.

“To live off the country, you got to learn to listen with your eyes,” says Gleeson, a young indigenous local, when we meet two days later on the banks of the East Alligator River – so called because the first white men here mistakenly took saltwater crocodiles to be alligators. “You got to look for signs of fish, signs of bush food, signs of weather changing.” Close by, two men are dangling lines for barramundi at the water’s edge, not 60 meters from where we later see a pair of large crocodiles.

A big and beguiling natural wonder

Gleeson works with visitors, running boat tours along this stretch of the river, but for many Aboriginal communities, a life of relative seclusion prevails. Various clan groups continue to live within the park. It is true that the question of land ownership is even now a thorny one – a large uranium mine has occupied a site within the park since the early 1980s and is still a deeply incongruous spectacle – but the area as a whole remains a big and beguiling natural wonder. Kakadu is subtle at times and showy at others, bearing tens of thousands of years of human and natural history with the same quiet grace as the southern sky hangs its stars.

Back in Darwin a few days later, I spot the front page of the local tabloid newspaper. It reads “Sexy Kakadu Ghost Shock”, a story based entirely on a tourist snap judged to have captured a lewd shadow on an escarpment. The NT News is renowned for its colorful front pages – other recent headlines have included “Horny Roo Stalks NT Women”, “They Stole My Dog While I Was On The Bog” and, prior to a visit from the US President, “Obama Gets Croc Insurance”. Bizarrely, to my mind, it is the region’s only daily newspaper. I did not spot any ghosts in Kakadu, sexy or otherwise, but I take the headline as a further sign that even now, the Top End still takes pride in its own offbeat character.

On my last night in the city, I walk out to Stokes Hill Wharf on Darwin Harbor. Still a working wharf, it doubles these days as an evening entertainment option, serving up barra and chips and live music. From rows of outdoor tables, you can watch the sun go down on one side and the city fade to purple on the other. Families, travellers and smartly togged couples are all eating together.

It is only when I’m fed and watered, however, that an information sign catches my eye. It seems that this is the third wharf to be built on the same spot, its predecessors falling foul of an 1897 cyclone and Japanese bomb damage respectively. It is not a surprise to read. Kakadu’s story might be all about continuity, but Darwin’s has been more to do with overcoming the odds.

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