I’ve lost her already. It’s Saturday morning at the Darwin suburb of Parap and my sister’s somewhere in this maze. Amid market corridors, fruit and ice grind in blenders, mustard-coloured laksa is ladled into lunch boxes and ribbons of steam lift from giant woks.
“Have I seen you somewhere before?” A man selling bird of paradise flowers leans towards me. He looks like a Greek version of George Clooney. “As in, recently?” I ask, hoping he’s caught sight of my body double. “Very recently.” He sweeps his fringe from his eyes and points towards the Thai sweet stall.
“Just getting some car snacks,” my sister chirps guiltily when she sees me. She opens the arms of a cotton carry bag, revealing a knot of candied nuts, brown rice sushi and a twig of tiny bananas. “I’m like a kid in a candy store. “This feels just like Asia,” she beams.
Closer to Bali than it is to Broome, this northern capital is indeed exotic – from the tropical weather to the faces in its streets. The Asian food markets (and there are many) serve as a microcosm of the city’s diversity: 30 percent of Darwinians were born overseas, and at least a third of those have Greek heritage, while 11 per cent are Aboriginal. In all it is estimated that there are 60 nationalities represented in Darwin, a mix that brings depth, buzz and a slew of sensory experiences for visitors.
Parap is unbeatable for Saturday breakfast, brunch or lunch (Parap Place, Parap). This is Darwin’s longest-running food bazaar and, like Nightcliff Markets (Progress Drive, Nightcliff) 10 minutes north, they are open all year round.
At Parap, the Cambodian pancake stall is a savoury breakfast winner; as is the Lebanese food stall, the Cedar Tree, tucked inside the main square. We try the latter’s sambousik (savoury lamb puffs) and riz bi halib, (slow cooked rice pudding with rose water and orange blossom) before hitting the Stuart Highway to begin a road trip south.
After all, there’s a lot to see beyond Darwin’s city lights. The famous Kakadu National Park is less than four hours drive away – better left for more than a day trip – but just two hours beyond the city limits we can be at the foot of Litchfield National Park’s waterfalls … and just 45 minutes away is Berry Springs Nature Reserve, where it’s cool to duck dive through a chain of waterholes and surface underneath surprised black cockatoos.
Wildlife and waterholes
We head out of town on the Stuart Highway, turn left onto Arnhem Highway, and about 60km east of Darwin we hit BYO morning-tea stop Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve (Fogg Dam Road, Arnhem Highway). The wetlands are a remnant of early attempts to produce rice on the Adelaide River flood plains – a space that teems with birdlife such as jabirus, azure kingfishers and comb-crested jacanas.
While the east coast has its fascination with whale watching, a trip to the Top End isn’t complete without a close encounter with a croc and all along the Fogg Dam Road signs appear for ‘jumping crocodile’ cruises. Crocs up to six metres long literally leap from the river to snatch at meat dangled to tempt them.
Adelaide River Cruises (Adelaide River Bridge, Arnhem Highway) is a family-owned and operated business run by brothers Harry and Morgan Bowman for more than 20 years and now by Harry’s son Adam so there are plenty of stories – and histories of the local crocs – to share, all with a sense of humour. These quirky, intimate crocodile tours set out from a small rustic hut just beyond Fogg Dam.
On the way back to the city we have time to stop at Litchfield National Park (Litchfield Park Road, Litchfield Park) where waterholes can be reached easily by car. Crisp and crystal clear water makes Florence Falls (above left) a popular swimming hole, just 160 stairs down from the viewing platform. Wangi Falls is also popular while Curtain Falls is a more private swimming spot.
But, spoilt for choice, we keep going to Berry Springs Nature Park (Cox Peninsula Road, Berry Springs), about 50km from town. This trio of natural springs is Darwin’s version of a beach. The top pool features a mini waterfall, while the larger two pools allow us to stretch, float and daydream in waters fringed with mangroves.
There’s a saying among locals, I tell my sister: “If you don’t like sunsets, you won’t like Darwin.” But who doesn’t go weak at the knees at the sight of a sky radiant with every shade of pink as the sun goes down beyond the horizon?
At Doctors Gully, Bicentennial Park (the Esplanade, CBD) the land meets the sea, right in the CBD, and it’s one of the best places to view the natural artscapes that form as the sun goes down. But for even more stunning sunset spectacles, the WWII historical site at East Point Reserve (Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point) is a good spot to take a twilight picnic or it’s possible to end the day as it began and grab a snack from the Nightcliff Markets in the city’s northern suburbs then head to the Nightcliff Pier (Casuarina Drive, Nightcliff), or Mindil Sunset Markets (Maria Liveris Drive, The Gardens) rarely disappoint with a natural light show over the water at the end of the day.
But our day out isn’t over yet … an easy amble up the road leads to Rapid Creek’s open-air watering hole, the Beachfront Hotel (342 Casuarina Drive, Rapid Creek), or there are harbour-edge sports clubs closer to the city for traditional heat relief NT-style. We find our final resting place at Darwin Ski Club (20 Conacher Street, Fannie Bay) where we grab a couple of chairs under giant milkwood trees and let reggae beats and frosty beers cool the tail end of our Top End day.