Popular with tourists, not so popular with locals
I have been fortunate enough to have experienced the undiscovered gem that is the Northern Territory, both as a tourist and now as a resident. My first experience here involved hostels, tours, clubbing, tourist hotspots, late nights and early mornings. I spent almost two weeks with a friend, packing as much we could into every day, not realising that no matter how hard we tried, we had missed most of what the Northern Territory has to offer. I do have to add, we did some pretty incredible things on that trip, and on the trips to follow, some of which I will mention below as the best things to do in the NT, but I have since discovered much more.
I am surprised as an Australian, just how many international tourists visit the Northern Territory. The city is bustling with them, for most of them, this was their first and only stop in Australia, and even more surprisingly, a large majority of them, stay much longer than originally planned. This was my first clue. I wouldn’t say the Northern Territory is large in size, meaning there isn’t a lot packed in. Darwin is particularly small, and most of the Northern Territory is vast open desert or open woodland. So this led me to believe there must be more to the NT than endless sights and activities. The east coasters and my friends from down south turned up their nose when I shared my decision to move here. I got a lot of “be safe, its rough up there” and “what are you doing that for?”. Most Australians, other than those who have braved a trip here, aren’t the slightest bit interested in visiting our top end. They are really missing out.
Moving from Melbourne’s winter, I was extremely excited to feel the sun on my face and spend more time outdoors. I drove into the city knowing I had 4-5 hours until I was able to meet up with my new house mate. I had basic knowledge of the city layout and decided to find the botanic gardens, a place I had sought refuge from the heat before. Clambering out of my fully packed car, I found a delightful spot on the lawn in the shade. The sky is clear, the air is warm and it hugs your skin in the warmest embrace. Staring at the sky, I explore the tops of tropical trees that are unfamiliar to me. Large dark green shiny leaves and small nut looking fruits lead to heavy smooth giant looking branches and trunks. Bugs crawl through the grass and fly around my head, and birds of prey soar around the sky in search of their next meal. This place is so unfamiliar, so different its hard to believe I haven’t flown overseas.
After about a week of sweating profusely, I have adjusted to the heat. Which as I have learnt doesn’t mean you sweat any less, it just means you are more comfortable with it. I find myself less worried about finding shade, or cooling my car down. Air-conditioning even begins to feel strange. In my first week, I have moved into an apartment, found some casual work, visited two local libraries, popped into the quirkiest second hand bike store in the world (I’m sure) and watched a spectacular sunset at a waterfront bar (Lola’s). On my first weekend after moving into my place, I visited a place I had been to twice before, Litchfield National Park. This is a place of dreams, with several waterfalls and swimming holes dotted merely 15 minutes drive apart. The popular places are teeming with people for as long as they are open to swimming and the less known spots are frequented by the locals. Having seen the popular spots in past trips, we decided to discover somewhere new. Walker Creek has a day use area, and scattered camp sites along a small creek. Each camp site is suitable for a single group only, and has its own, exclusive water fall, plunge pool or cascade. It is a quiet and magical place, well worth the trek for an overnight stay.
Settling into life in Darwin happened before I had the chance to realise it. I was frequenting the local shops, taking walks along the beach, turning up for shifts at work, visiting friends down the road, making new friends almost daily, discovering new places to dine and exploring markets every weekend. My life had become a holiday. I swam almost every day, juggled friends invites, explored national parks on weekends, ate new and exciting food, attended an array of arts and cultural events, and learnt more and more about the Northern Territories unique environment. Overall, I found myself spending more time outside, being more active and taking more photos (I tend to gauge my quality of life by how many photos I take). I was starting to learn why those international tourists extend their trips to stay here longer. Life is simple, exciting and full of new experiences. Only just the other day I was greeted my a monitor lizard while emptying my rubbish. Life here is void of routine and dullness, it draws you closer to the environment and deepens your appreciation for the world around us. This is something thats hard to experience on a short trip here.
So a little insight from a resident, if you are planning on visiting, try to take it easy and give yourself time to learn the Darwin way of life. Here are some must do’s, things I do regularly and things that can give you the opportunity to experience more than just seeing the sights.
This is an experience whether your looking to buy something or not. Here, you will learn a lot about Darwin’s food culture and experience some social culture too. These markets showcase an extravagant array of asian fresh and cooked food, locked into the tiniest space, where smells and sounds collide to create an explosion of energy. It is difficult not to buy almost every type of vegetable known to man, as they all look spectacular compared to whats available in the supermarkets and are being sold at great market prices. It is a energetic, almost hyperactive experience, that excites you into participating. This is the kind of market locals frequent, but make sure you are prepared to sweat, it gets seriously hot in there.
You CANNOT visit Darwin without heading out of town to explore a national park. It should be a crime! The National Parks scattered close to Darwin are like nothing else you will find in Australia. They are unique here, and unique in the world. Kakadu National Park encompasses vast wetlands, tidal rivers and rocky escarpments. It is almost impossible to pick the best thing to do here, but if your limited for time (which you should do your best not to be) I would recommend watching a sunset at Ubirr Rock before dining at the Border store and 4WD to Jim Jim and Twin Falls. So far, these two places are amongst my favourite places on earth. They are really up there. If you have more time, grab a good map of the park, hire a 4WD, get permits to enter Arnhem Land and stop as often as possible. Just a few memorable experiences I have from Kakadu – Watching bower birds collect decorations for their nest, sun bake on the sands of a beach along side a deep dark swimming hole with a misting waterfall overhead, dive deep into schools of native fresh water fish, spend hours watching lizards watching me, be mesmerised by Australia’s best sunsets and fall asleep listening to a heard of brumbies graze their way through my campsite. There are loads more national parks and other natural sights throughout the Northern Territory.. all we need is more time!
I moved from Melbourne, where I was sure I had eaten some of the best food of my life. Surprisingly Darwin’s food scene has done well to compete. For such a small city, so far away from most of Australia’s key food production areas, you would expect to be eating a lot of frozen food, and in some cases you might. But if you delve a little deeper you will discover the food bowl of tropical Australia. The fresh tropical fruit here, mangoes, papaya, paw paw, lychees, and bananas are available farm fresh on every corner. The supply of a vast array of asian vegetables and influences from our northern neighbours will have your minds blown and tongues burning. Laksa is the true Darwin breakfast and you will find locals arguing over the which market stall the best laksa comes from. Restaurants serve seafood fresh from our tropical ocean and tidal rivers, barramundi and mud crab are the best examples. Considering all this, I believe the edge Darwin has over any other cities food scene is the experiences we have while eating. De La Plage serves modern breakfast and lunches from a small canteen situated in the middle of a grasses park, ocean front, with bean bags and picnic rugs to dine on. The Deckchair Cinema showcases a buffet of food from a different darwin restaurant or caterer each night. Lola’s serve affordable burgers and pizzas on a colourful deck floating above the calm waters of the marina. Markets serve all kinds of asian delicacies, as well as crepes, coffee and smoothies and food vans frequent stunning beach front locations. But finally, these best thing about food in Darwin, is that it doesn’t take long to meet someone, who has a mango tree and is willing to share, or heads out fishing 3 or 4 times a week and supplies you with fresh barramundi fillets. Eating in Darwin is a celebration of the unique and precious environment we have and it is often discussed and shared.