Friday, 24 August 2012

Darwin: What does it mean to you? We've all heard of it; most of us have never been there. It's one of those far-off places you never really need to go to that's not really on the way to anywhere.

Until recently my experiences with Darwin had been refuelling stops.

The first time I was travelling with Prime Minister Helen Clark and her party on our way to East Timor to join in the independence celebrations. I remember it was boiling hot, and we were accommodated not in the salubrious abodes I had become accustomed to following around the PM, but at the Darwin Air Force barracks.

I was assigned a tin shed for the night. The air con didn't work and the bunks had no sheets or pillows. There was nothing for it but to go out and get hopelessly drunk, which I managed so well that I couldn't remember which hut was mine when I finally staggered back from town.

Darwin's sunset market

I ended up breaking in to another barrack, fortunately unoccupied, collapsing unconscious on the bunk, and finding my way back to my own assigned hut the following morning just in time for roll call.

 The second time was slightly less boozy but for the same reason - a refuelling stop on the way to Bali for a winter holiday.

Indeed air craft have used Darwin for this purpose for yonks. Qantas used Darwin as its major fuel stop for all flights heading to Asia and Europe right up to around 30 years ago.

The Japanese also found reason to stop in Darwin - just long enough to drop bombs on the place during World War Two. It's a little weird to think our neighbour, so close to home, was bombed during the war, but then Darwin is a lot closer to Bali than it is to Bondi - let alone New Zealand.

There's a big memorial to the devastation caused by the Japanese on Darwin's spiffing new waterfront complex, down on the harbour. It makes for sobering reading.

The redeveloped waterfront in Darwin - complete with wave pool and shark net

Darwin is a city that's used to being flattened, sadly. The Northern Territory Museum up here has an amazing and quite heart-wrenching exhibit on Cyclone Tracy, which tore through the city on Christmas Eve, 1974, smashing the place to pieces.

More than 90 percent of the town's houses were destroyed, more than 70 people lost their lives, and something like 19 boats sank during wind gusts of over 270 km/h.

It's amazing Darwin recovered, but it has - and that brings me to my third visit here. Finally, I've left the airport, and the drinking strip on Mitchell Street (which I couldn't remember anyway). And I've been pleasantly surprised.

Darwin isn't really a city, even though it calls itself one. It has a few high rises, but they're all apartment blocks, and the CBD is only three streets wide. But it's big up here, and when you've been driving through the Outback for a month and the most impressive sign of civilisation you've seen is the pub in Borroloola, it may as well be Sydney or even London.

There's a laid-back vibe, befitting a tropical capital. The locals stop work at 5pm, and good luck finding much open before 9am. The sunsets are magical, the beer's cold, and there's plenty of pubs doing a decent barra and chips - or a curry, if you'd prefer.

Darwin's proximity to Asia means the cuisine up here runs the full Pacific Rim gauntlet - Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, Indian - take your pick.

Last night Katie and I went down to the sunset market at Mindil Beach; a must-do for any visitor to Darwin. Every Thursday and Sunday evening, the entire town it seems congregates on the sand to watch the sunset, while in the park behind food stalls and markets set up selling every conceivable dish and bric-a-brac.

Life's a beach: Sunset on Darwin's Mindil Beach

The place is a mess of tourists, locals with their kids, vendors touting their wares, screeching birds, and some old bloke blowing on a didgeridoo. It's magic.

We've used Darwin as a bit of a refuelling stop ourselves. Chuckie got a long-overdue service and its third windscreen since we set out and we managed to replace some of our camping gear that broke or got smashed along the way.

Tomorrow we're heading for Litchfield National Park, to the south-west of Darwin, before plunging into the Red Centre for a few days in Alice Springs.

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