Revisiting Darwin

October 8, 2023
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IN September 2023, I flew to Australia to spend a month in Australia’s Northern Territory and its capital, Darwin: a city I’d visited once before but hadn’t been back to for years.

At about 12.5 degrees south of the equator, Darwin lies at what’s colloquially known as the ‘Top End’ of the Northern Territory and, indeed, of Australia (though Cape York, just south of Papua New Guinea, is slightly nearer to the equator).

Map data ©2023 Google. For scale, the shortest distance between Darwin and Alice Springs is around 1,250 km. North at top for this and for the Google aerial/satellite views that follow.

As you can see from the map just above, Darwin is much closer to Indonesia, Timor-Leste (East Timor), and Papua New Guinea, than it is to the national capital of Canberra or to any of the capitals of Australia’s various states. These are all off the map to the south.

Since the middle of the first decade of the present century, natural gas has been piped into Darwin from the Bayu-Undan field in the Timor Sea, 502 kilometres out to sea in the direction of Timor.

This is quite controversial, as the field is much closer to Timor-Leste than to Darwin. However, the private-sector developers of the field were unable to reach an agreement with the Timor-Leste government, so they piped it to Darwin instead. Anyway, what this story shows is how Darwin really does face north.

My arrival in Australia, from New Zealand, was pretty harrowing. The plane developed a fault, so we circled for an hour while it was sorted out. I got some good night shots of Melbourne, though.

Melbourne from the plane, while we were waiting to land

Then I arrived in Darwin by way of a domestic flight. Though styled as Darwin International Airport, the airport is not very big. The reason the airport is so small is that the population of Darwin only comes to 140,000 even when satellite towns are included.

Darwin Harbour. Imagery ©2023 Google, Airbus, Maxar Technologies, CNES/Airbus, TerraMetrics. Map data ©2023 Google.

As you can see from the aerial image just above, Darwin’s airport separates the downtown and the older suburbs such as Parap, where they have the Parap Village Markets, from newer suburbs such as Casuarina, where there is a huge shopping mall, to the north.

The City of Darwin website explains how the city got its name:

In 1839, the HMS Beagle with Lt. John Lort Stokes aboard sailed into the waters of what is now known as Darwin harbour. Stokes named the harbour after his former shipmate British evolutionist Charles Darwin but contrary to popular rumours, Darwin himself never visited the area.
Darwin was originally founded as Palmerston in 1869, although the port was always known as Port Darwin. The town’s growth was accelerated when gold was discovered at Pine Creek in 1871. In 1911, the budding young settlement was renamed Darwin.

Stokes was a legendary navigator who also spent four years sailing around the coasts of New Zealand, correcting some of Cook’s errors and creating usable charts. In Darwin, Stokes Hill and the subsequent Stokes Hill Road and Stokes Hill Wharf may be named after him, though it seems equally possible that Stokes Hill was named after an unrelated former captain of the Beagle, Pringle Stokes.

The City of Darwin’s pre-1911 name lives on as the name of its biggest satellite town, the City of Palmerston, whose population is included in the metro total of 140,000.

An even smaller population, some 90,000 in all, inhabits the whole of the rest of the Northern Territory. That’s a very small population in a huge area!

On the other hand, Darwin is very fast-growing. At the time of its destruction by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, of which more below, the population of Darwin was only 47,000. The entire city was rebuilt, and another 90,000-plus have been added since that time.

In 1939, the non-aboriginal population, apparently the only one measured at the time, was counted as 3,653.

Because essential workers are required, they can more easily get Australian residency and a work visa if they come to Darwin than to other Australian cities. And of course, when you look at where it is on the map, Darwin is the gateway to Asia as well. So, the city is very multicultural.

In fact, this whole part of Australia is completely different from the rest. That is why I came here in my twenties, as it was close to Indonesia and South-East Asia, which I also planned to explore back then on a big OE, the first of my travels whereby I ended up on a Chinese junk (but that’s another story).

Darwin sure has changed since then. Changed for the better, actually. The choice of food is glorious these days.

This time around, I stayed in an Airbnb in Parap for A$70 a night. Most of the motels and hotels are $200 a night in the same currency.

(All the prices I mention here are in Australian dollars. So, I will leave off the A before the $ from now on.)

Parap really is a nice little community, a great place to stay. It has a bakery, and a beautiful cafe called Laneway, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The downtown area of Darwin, to the south of Parap, is vibrant, but it’s good being out of the actual downtown all the same.

Amazing murals, downtown

All in all, there are eight precincts of Darwin, each with its own attractions.

Signboard describing the eight precincts of Darwin

As for the climate, it is, of course, tropical. As far as white Australians are concerned there are two main seasons in Darwin, the dry season which is generally cooler, more pleasant, and better suited to outdoor activities, and the wet season, which is in every respect the opposite. On the other hand, aboriginal traditions divide the seasons more finely.

The Gundjjeihmi Calendar, seen in the museum MAGNT Darwin

The Parap Village Markets are open during the dry season, which was just ending when I arrived in late September.

A stall at the markets known as Mary’s Laksa is said to sell the best laksa, a kind of spicy coconut noodle soup popular in Malaysia, in the world. Thanks to high levels of Asian immigration, Darwin is the ‘laksa capital’ of Australia: indeed, the city is hosting a month-long Darwin International Laksa Festival as I write this post.

From where I was staying, it was also very easy to walk down to Mindil Beach. Much of Darwin is on a sort of elevated plateau separated from the beaches by cliffs and bluffs, so you tend to go down to the beach.

One of the main routes down to Mindil Beach is the historic Nurses’ Walk, which runs up and down between the beach and the site of the old Darwin Hospital. It was used as long ago as the 1920s, and got the name Nurses’ Walk after the Darwin Hospital was moved to the top end of the track just before World War II. It’s funny to think of walking exactly the same route as nurses a hundred years ago, or during World War II.

And soldiers and sailors and airmen too, for the beach was very social: there’s a good article about it here, ‘A Market for Memories’. The article includes the origin of the name. Mindil is a local aboriginal name for the edible base of a kind of grass, very much like an onion.

Mindil Beach has its own Sunset Market, which A Market for Memories refers to. The Mindil Beach Sunset Market is open twice a week in the late afternoon and evenings in the dry season. In fact, this is the biggest open-air market in Darwin, the inspiration of the title ‘A Market for Memories’.

Mindil Beach Sunset Market

I had four large prawns there for $20, and nachos. Delicious!

My prawn dish

A couple of days later, took photos of the sunset from nearby Bundilla Beach. All these beaches face west, so they are good for tropical sunsets.

Sunset at Bundilla

The day I was at the market, I saw some lovely aboriginal textiles on sale.

And there were some aboriginal chanters as well, who appear in a video a little further on. The most immediately local aboriginal group is called the Larrakia Nation. The Larrakia are the traditional owners of the Darwin region, and currently number about two thousand overall.

Larrakia Services Office

Information panel about the Larrakia people

And then I bought myself a crocodile tooth from a guy called Mick, a sort of real-life Crocodile Dundee who had been hunting crocodiles for thirty years. Along with the teeth, and the meat, which is something of a local specialty, crocodile skin is also used to make an expensive kind of leather. You could get wallets for $180, bags, whips, belts, and other things that Mick made from the crocodiles he’d hunted.

Mick had been a crocodile hunter for thirty years. But he said that he didn’t need to catch any more crocodiles now, as he had enough skins to last him out. Plus, there was getting to be more and more red tape associated with permits to kill crocodiles in any case.

Mick added that people didn’t swim in Darwin Harbour anymore, even outside of the peak stinging-jellyfish season — which is something else to worry about around here — for fear of being eaten by crocodiles.

Mindil Beach warning sign

It seems that the number of crocodiles is starting to build up again now that it is no longer so easy to bag one (and turn it into a bag, for that matter). On the other hand, they now provide eco-tourism services: I’d like to have seen this!

There are places where people can swim all the time, including pools in downtown Darwin and Parap, and Lake Alexander close to East Point.

The northern part of Darwin’s inner suburbs. Imagery ©2023 Google, Airbus, Maxar Technologies, CNES/Airbus, TerraMetrics, Landsat/Copernicus, Sinclair Knight Merz. Map data ©2023 Google.

Despite its name, East Point is located to the north of the inner city and faces west. It gets its name because it is on the eastern side of Darwin Harbour.

Shortly after I arrived, I walked to the inner city through the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens just to the east of Mindil Beach. It was only a thirty-minute walk. The next time, I caught an Uber just to escape the 35-degree heat of the end of the hot-dry season known in the Gundjeihmi calendar as the Gurrung and the already-building humidity of the oncoming, pre-monsoon, Gunumeleng.

The botanic gardens, looking very dry

Just to the south of Mindil Beach, there is an area called Cullen Bay, which includes a yacht marina created in the early 1990s.

The downtown area of Darwin. Imagery ©2023 Google, Maxar Technologies, CNES/Airbus, TerraMetrics, Landsat/Copernicus, Sinclair Knight Merz. Map data ©2023 Google.

Cullen Bay

Yots Greek Taverna, Cullen Bay

The first-ever Darwin Kite Festival was being held at Cullen Bay while I was in town. Very little happens in Darwin and whenever anything does happen, everyone turns out. It was packed.

Kites near Cullen Bay

Here is a short video I made which shows a scene of the Kite Festival, followed by the aboriginal performers at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market.

I also saw a curious statue of a rearing crocodile at Cullen Bay!

Crocodile statue, Cullen Bay

Ferries run from Cullen Bay, to Mandorah on the west side of Darwin Harbour and to the islands known in English as the Tiwi Islands, which lie about 80 km out to sea and are mainly inhabited by another aboriginal people of the region called the Tiwi, whose way of life is relatively undisturbed. People who don’t live there have to get a permit to visit this group of islands.

The regular city buses in Darwin and Palmerston run seven days a week except for Christmas Day and Good Friday. The bus system is also quite good for shoppers. It includes three full interchanges in downtown Darwin, in Palmerston next to the Palmerston Shopping Centre, and at Casuarina next to the Casuarina Village Shopping Centre Casuarina, the huge Casuarina Square Mall and Coles Casuarina: so, you are really spoiled for shopping choice at Casuarina. There is also a busy bus stop outside the Woolworths on Cavanagh Street, downtown.

This post will be continued by Part 2, out in a few days!


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