With Asia on its doorstep, the outback in its garden and diverse cultures at its heart – Darwin may just be our coolest capital. Sam McCue explores the northern tip of the top end, meeting a number of colourful residents along the way who share their top tips and tricks on exploring the city like a local. This is your essential guide to Darwin.
Sixty-something Darwin-born Dwyn Delaney will enumerate his city’s charms at the drop of an Akubra (his signature even includes a little cowboy hat sketch). He was named by his dad, who saw the code DWN, for Darwin, while unloading a beer truck – and then added a Y.
Delaney’s CBD shop, Delaneys Country and Western Store, is a trove of cowboy boots, jeans, hats and crocodile-skin belts. Hides are draped over the weathered leather sofa and the change room curtains are printed with cow skulls. Animal skulls, hand-painted by Indigenous artists, watch over the room; one wall bears tributes to Delaney’s dad and World War II history. The shop is also a platform for his unofficial tourism ambassadorship.
“Darwin is the gateway to Asia and the world, with a very big backyard,” he says. “It’s the gateway to the outback, great fishing and the outdoors. I love the freedom – and it’s on our back doorstep! It’s just a hop, skip and a jump and you’re there.”
About 12 degrees south of the equator, Darwin feels as though it’s part of Asia; it’s warm year round, though a touch cooler in the dry season when the rest of Australia is shivering through winter and also when monsoon rains flush the heat from the earth in the wet season. Most people visit in the dry but the wet is an unforgettable experience – the humidity, the smell of rain hitting dirt and the exhilarating tropical storms. Set on a peninsula, Darwin city has a long coastline and a rich history as the ancestral country of the Larrakia Saltwater People.
Visitors come and go for events like the Bassinthegrass Music Festival and the Darwin Festival but plenty of young professionals have headed north to fast-track their careers, with many staying well past their intended departure dates. Often it’s because they fall in love with a local or the capital’s increasingly sophisticated food and drink scene, eclectic culture and relaxed lifestyle.
As Delaney notes, you don’t have to go far for nature: East Point Reserve and Charles Darwin National Park are within minutes of the CBD, and you can reach Litchfield National Park in less than a couple of hours in the car. He always tells visitors to book a harbour cruise – Darwin Harbour is several times bigger than Sydney’s – and time it to see the sun setting over the water.
“The sunsets here are amazing,” he says. “You almost get blasé about it.” Cruises depart from Cullen Bay or Stokes Hill Wharf, such as the Streeter, an old pearling lugger whose crew invites you to bring your own snacks and drinks – ice-filled eskies provided.
Since the city faces west, sunsets are easily appreciated from land. Imagine a glowing blood-orange disc disappearing into the sea. Then imagine seeing it with a cold drink in hand at the Darwin Ski Club, Darwin Sailing Club, Darwin Trailer Boat Club or Pee Wee’s at the Point. Or sitting in the sand on Mindil Beach, Casuarina Beach, Fannie Bay Beach or Lee Point Beach.
Delaney’s far from blasé when he talks with pride about the city’s 150,000 locals. “We have 65 nationalities in Darwin and you don’t have ghettos – we all mingle. And Aboriginal culture, it’s still largely intact here. I think in Darwin and the NT it’s stronger than anywhere else in Australia.”
The Rapid Creek Markets (held weekend mornings) showcase that diversity. On my many visits I’ve bought white shell and red bead earrings from a softly spoken Aboriginal couple, Thai-style grilled satay from a stall called Territory-Style Kebabs and DTown coffee beans roasted on the premises by Christos. I see Ben from Cucina Sotto Le Stelle restaurant ordering a Vietnamese banh mi and chatting to Nana the mango seller. I see homemade chilli sauce, fresh tofu and soy milk, pandan leaves, jackfruit, lumpy bitter melon, dried mango, coconut pudding, taro and sticky rice. I see people of all descriptions lining up for juices and smoothies at Heavenly Fruits and fragrant soups and laksas from The Purple Lady.
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I meet Nina Fitzgerald – writer, soon to-be podcast host and former creative director of the National Indigenous Fashion Awards – at one of her favourite spots, Café de la Plage, where tree-shaded lawns adjoin Casuarina Beach and the sparkling sea.
“I like to be by the water. I swim every day in the dry season,” says Fitzgerald. “I ride my bike from home in Fannie Bay to East Point. How could you not? The water’s crystal clear.” (Much as I admire her faith in the Northern Territory government’s crocodile-management program, I’ll stick to swimming at Nightcliff Pool, where I can see and smell the sea from the safety of chlorinated freshwater.) “I love how random Darwin is – the contrast in the colours in the environment and the people who live here,” she says. “You can really reinvent yourself; you don’t have to stay in your lane.”
Environmental-scientist-turned-barowner Dom Wundke certainly didn’t stay in his lane. He was first lured from Adelaide to work with coastal Indigenous communities but a few years later, a new career beckoned and Darwin became home. Taking a punt, he opened a tiny wine bar at the back of a 1970s-era shopping arcade. “I fell in love with [Darwin seaside suburbs] Rapid Creek and Nightcliff,” he says. “I thought, well, the Beachfront Hotel is great but where’s the cosy neighbourhood space?”
Two years later, Dom’s Bar & Lounge has expanded, added share plates to the menu and won the inaugural Darwin Mango Cup cocktail competition with the Territori-tini – a white rum, mango, coconut and pandan creation garnished with a preserved salty plum.
Only 15 minutes from the CBD, Rapid Creek and Nightcliff are a little bit bohemian (according to a recent meme, the Rapid Creek starter pack includes a yoga mat, a keep cup and a Subaru). The swathe of accessible coastline extends either side of seabreezecooled Nightcliff Pool, edged by a well-used exercise path. Runners, rollerbladers and cyclists whiz past the families who gather to enjoy alfresco meals on their own patches of temporary seaside real estate.
Wundke rattles off the food joints that pop up along the foreshore several nights a week: “There’s the pizza guy [Cucina Sotto Le Stelle], Azadi Persian food, Rescue Me fish and chips, the Thai noodle van [Noi’s Pad Thai], The Potato Man and Ken’s Crepes.”
Former federal public servant, now community engagement officer with the Yothu Yindi Foundation (a not-for-profit focused on Indigenous wellbeing), Kate Bradbury also loves the area’s laid-back vibe. “There’s a lack of pretentiousness about life up here,” she says. “I don’t think the kids wore shoes for a very long time.”
Like Dwyn Delaney, Bradbury places a high value on Darwin’s proximity to national parks and wilderness areas. She and her young family head out bush every six weeks or so. “Last weekend we went to Sweetwater [in Nitmiluk National Park – permit required]. We drove down after work on Friday and went to this secret spot where we’d heard you could find Gouldian finches – and they were there!”
Recent posts on her Instagram account @lovenotestodarwin have celebrated the dry season – Damibila to the Larrakia people. There’s a sketch of a dog lolling by the bed in a louvred room, ceiling fan overhead, with the caption, “Damibila: cold winds and we’re like LET’S NEVER LEAVE”. Another shows the seasonal essentials: a tent, a beanie socks and slides, a campfire and chapstick.
“It’s easier in the dry but I love the wet,” says Bradbury. “You experience the weather really intensely – the storms, the lightning, the transformation.” That’s Darwin.
Dry season versus wet season in Darwin
If it’s winter down south, it’s party time in Darwin. From about May to September hordes of tourists, interstate family members and federal politicians flock north to enjoy the dry-season warmth and outdoor events like August’s Darwin Cup and the Darwin Festival. But off-peak visitors are rewarded with unique sensory experiences. The Larrakia people, traditional custodians of the Darwin region, call these times Dalirrgang or build-up; Balnba, rainy season; Dalay, monsoon; and Mayilema, “knockem-down” season. Here are three reasons to love the wet season.
The pace. Languid, humid days and nights encourage everyone to stop and smell the frangipani.
Chill out, have a beer by (or in) the pool, catch a breeze and a meal by the sea. Everywhere’s less crowded and the queues at the markets are shorter.
The weather. The build-up creates a powerful longing for rain; storms are welcomed with something akin to euphoria. Thunder roars, lightning flashes across the sky, steam rises from the roads and office workers kick off their shoes to dash barefoot across the wet streets.
The landscape. The thirsty land comes to life. Billabongs spill onto their floodplains and rivers tumble into roaring waterfalls. It’s lush and fertile and a thousand shades of green.