Darwin – a local’s guide to curries, crocs, culture and chilled sundowners

By Bev Malzard

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Once considered the wild west, Darwin was a haven for maintenance avoiding men; dodgy people who needed to disappear, 20th century vagabonds and a town with a drinking culture to set galactic records.

When Cyclone Tracy blew into town on 24 December 1974 and devastated the town and outlying areas, what rose from the flattened town and broken hearts was the origins of a new, modern city that would be a beacon to government, entrepreneurs, tourism activity, young go-getters, especially the migrant and refugee settlers – which has resulted in a busy, buzzy tropical town.

A tropical foodie heaven

Gone are the days of the slab of steak, three eggs and chips as regular fare, international cuisine is well and truly on the menu in some great restaurants but the place to get your spicy fix is the markets.

While traveling you may be hanging out for a flat white made by a topknot wearing chappie with tats and a goatee, a laksa or a tropical smoothie, Parap Market is where the locals throng to every Saturday morning. Fruit and vegies that you’ve only seen in Asia are on sale and while you tuck into a curry or roti, shut your eyes and taste the spice accompanied by the light aroma of patchouli – yes, this is where the new breed hippie has been reinvented. (You could probably give them a few tips from way back!)

The main place to hit just before sunset is Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. This is Darwin’s most popular tourist spot so arrive early and bags your spot on the beach. They operate from April to the end of October (the dry season). Munch a kangaroo sausage, a meal from the Roadkill Café. listen into the poetry readings, watch a dance troupe or pick up a few Aboriginal arts and Asian crafts. Don’t panic if you miss the magnificent sunset, there’ll be another one tomorrow.

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This is my best place to go

A fave sunset watching spot is from the less than posh yacht club, the Darwin Trailer Boat Club. The city’s oldest club (1954) started out as a modified caravan on the beach and now serves cold beer and fantastic food from the bistro.

Or sashay on to a yacht or a restored pearling lugger for a sunset cruise on the harbour, accompanied by a glass of sparkling wine to set the mood.

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We reckon you you can still find a decent steak and chips and an authentic burger here but here’s the lowdown on where to find the best eats in town:

Pee Wee’s at the Point; Little Miss Korea (for Barramundi Bibimbap), Alfonsinos, Char Restaurant, Hanuman and Il Lido. But as in any town, sometimes you just have to follow your nose and take a leap of faith.

Best pubs are The Precinct and Lola’s Pergola. There are many other watering holes of various persuasions.

The big hotels have fantastic restaurants and clever clogs chefs. Darwin’s signature dishes include amazing prawns from the Gulf and before you leave you have to seek out Penang Crocodile Curry and the King hit dish – Chili Mud Crab.

Some local pubs will serve you a family meal with surf’n’turf as the special and if you are nostalgic for the 80s there’s always the ‘parmie’ washed down with a cold beer. Bottoms up!

Darwin is home to the weird and wonderful and aside for some seriously lovely attractions you may want to step out of your comfort zone for;

1. The Helicopter Pub Crawl (three different pubs to share a yarn or two with the locals and a few bevies and the designated driver is a helicopter pilot.

2. Deckchair Cinema is an outdoor movie-going experience where you can watch the stars on the screen and overhead in the starry starry night sky. (It operated during the dry season, so take a picnic and enjoy the flix!)

3. Not quite a wild ride but close to it is the Airboat Tour of Darwin Harbour that takes you around the harbour and the mangroves. (An airboat is a flat-bottomed vessel that is propelled by a giant fan instead of a motor.)

4. The Crocodile Cage of Death . . . no explanation needed really. Get in the cage, get dunked and the crazed croc (very Darwin) is beneath you, mouth slavering for fresh meat. Or, croc swims in and eats food thrown by keepers. This is fun, go for it.

Two stories that are important are set at the Flying Doctor Service building on Stokes Wharf. As well as the Flying Doctor history and extraordinary work done across the Outback, there’s the Bombing of Darwin Virtual Reality experience. This is well done and tells the dramatic tales from 1942 of the devastation wrought and the individual human stories.

Fannie Bay Gaol Museum once housed Darwin’s most desperate criminals between 1883-1979. The cells and gallows are pretty gloomy but are often used as a backdrop for dinner parties! The rare gallows mechanism was modelled on the Newgate Gallows in England – as said previous, pretty gloomy and hairs-on-the- arm-raising.

Galleries and Museums

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is a corker – there’s so much discover and uncover here from maritime archaeology, sublime indigenous art, artefacts and culture to WWII and the story of Cyclone Tracy.

Two other superb museums in the Darwin Military Museum Precinct at East Point include: the Darwin Military Museum and the interactive installations at the Defence of Darwin Experience next door. When you reflect on the dusty hot town of Darwin as the first line of defence for an invasion of Australia in WWII and it being bombed mercilessly, it is a chilling thought as to what might have been.

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Overheard on a bus tour around Darwin after the tour driver was ‘mentioning the war’ and pointing out the various hot spots for bombings when a shy young German tourist asked the driver:  “Was it us who bombed you?”

Driver: “No mate, it was another mob, rest easy.”

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Movies set in the ‘Territory’

Some are from way back; what have you watched?

  1. Jedda (first film to feature Aboriginal people in starring roles, released 1955);
  2. We of the Never Never (1982), set near Mataranka;
  3. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and a worldwide sensation;
  4. Welcome to Woop Woop (1997);
  5. Ten Canoes (2006);
  6. Yolngu Boy (2001);
  7. Charlie’s Country (2013);
  8. Samson and Delilah (2009);
  9. Evil Angels (1988, Dingo spoiler);
  10. 10.Top End Wedding (2019) – a charmer and beautifully selling the Top End.

With so much to eat and see in Darwin, it really is the star of tropical Australia.

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