Darwin in 1 day: 6 things to do

To many people, Darwin is nothing more than the starting point of a road trip through Northern or Western Australia. But even if that’s the case, it shouldn’t stop you from going out and exploring the city and its deadly delights. At least for as long as you can keep your head cool (oh, the heat!), your eyes open (oh, that jetlag!) and your arms and legs safe (croc alert!). A few tips.

“It’s hot in Darwin.” On the plane, the elegant, older lady in the seat next to us, starts talking. We tell her we’re headed to the capital of the Northern Territory and apparently she has lived there for over 40 years. Forty years, and the first thing that comes to her mind when thinking of the city is the heat. “It’s hot in Darwin”, she repeats with a more dramatic voice, as if she wants to make sure we fully understand. The high temperature is the reason why she moved (or fled?) to Tasmania with her husband. “People say the warmth gets more tolerable as you get older, but I for sure haven’t noticed!” She asks us where we are from and as we simultaneously answer ‘Belgium’, a sneaky ‘oh-my-god-you-will-suffer-so-much’-grin appears on her face. Belgium cold, Darwin hot, got it!

To do 1

Walk around Mitchell Street

Arriving in Darwin at 4.30 am has its pros and cons. Cons: 4.30am is about the hour that all pubs and shops start cleaning up their business, and all hotels and public areas have their sprinklers on. Not the best time to tiptoe around in slippers! Pros: the heat that people keep warning us about is nothing but a warm and gentle flow of air that welcomes us before sunrise. Plus, we can still grant ourselves the illusion that the calmth in the main streets merely has to do with the early hour. As we will later find out, Darwin is ALWAYS calm. Hence the saying: ‘Darwin is the only capital city in Australia where you can cross the main street blindfolded at any time of the day’. A shuttle bus brings us to the backpackers hostel Maleleuca on Mitchell Street.

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Hostel Maleleuca on Mitchell Street.

Two more hours and we get the key to our room, enough time to explore the neighborhood. Mitchell Street immediately gives the impression that this is the place to be, with its pubs and restaurants stacked on both sides. We walk towards the end of the road and the only people we come across are joggers and swimmers who benefit from the relative morning coolness, to run around the block or take a dip at Darwin’s waterfront. And Aboriginals sleeping off their debauch or walking around in a zombie-like state – as cliche as it may sound, it’s still true. Other companions are weirdly beaked birds (masked lapwings) pecking the wet lawn of the Parliament House. At this time we’re still in Mitchell Street by the way, which gives an idea of the length of the street (or the slowness of our pace).  

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A masked lapwing

To do 2:

Explore the waterfront

After a few turns, stairs and unattractive fenced construction sites, we reach the Grand Darwin Waterfront with its fancy appartment complexes, inviting lagoons and pretty modern Convention Centre. Nice place for a walk! In the meantime the sun rises with an amazing speed and so does the temperature. It feels like someone somewhere pulled a switch. Down =  pleasantly sultry, up = oppressively hot. And no in-between.

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View of waterfront as seen from the Harbour Walkway, a neat walkway + elevator that takes you right from the city to the waterfront.

The professional videoversion of the Darwin Waterfront:

And now our own Monday morning 6 am version…

To do 3:

Have an earlye Aussie breakfast

Time for brekkie! (Australian for breakfast). The Coffee Club is surprisingly busy – maybe it has to do with the large fans in each corner, providing a welcome breeze of cool air… 

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To do 4:

Walk around the Bicentennial Park

We stroll along some huge industrial ships and then head to the big green stripe on our map: the Bicentennial Park that runs the length of the waterfront. Lovely park indeed, with some nice views over the harbor when you have a peak through the trees.

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You’re never alone in the Bicentennial Park …

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A pathway in the Park leads us to Lameroo Beach. It’s a bit sad and deserted, there’s even a hawk circling right above us, which makes it all the more eerie when you know just a few feet away from you there’s box jellyfish in the water, along with saltwater crocodiles and who knows what other creatures that might accidentally get you killed. We continue our walk to the famous fish feeding site at Doctors Gully when the urge for cold water and a nap suddenly kicks in. Even through the cloudy sky, the sun has been heating everything up – including us, like frogs in a pot. Water! There’s no drinking fountains in sight – all the money was probably invested in the talking toilet in the middle of the park (‘welcome to Exceloo, your maximum use time is 10 minutes’), so we crawl back to Mitchell Street to buy some ice cold water and get our room key at the hostel, tired and slightly dehydrated. Hello jetlag… I guess it could have been worse after 27,5 hours of traveling.

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Lameroo beach
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Lameroo beach

To do 5:

Feed a crocodile (or don't)

To escape the sun (it really, really is hot in Darwin), and fight the emerging fatigue (we want to stay awake to get in Aussie time rhythm), we buy tickets to the nearby Crocosaurus Cove, a zoo of sorts right in the middle of the city. 27 dollar seems fair to see the largest collection of reptiles in the whole of Australia! Instead of cute and furry mammals, we meet snakes and lizards and other creepy critters.  There’s also an aquarium with spectacular fish and crocodiles (the harmless freshwater crocs or ‚freshies’ and the dangerous saltwater crocs or ‘salties’), the main reason for our visit. We witness salties snapping for food (you’d almost forget how dangerous these animals actually are when you see them jump so meekly for a piece of chicken on a stick) and watch people enter crocodile waters in the notorious ‘Cage of Death’ for a face to face encounter. It all looks a lot more innocent than it sounds : the caretakers even have to poke the massive animal to get his attention and make him swim around the cage. Can a croc grow tired of being scary? His name (Houdini) for sure isn’t helping… Still, I can imagine your heart pumping like crazy when one of the largest crocodiles on the planet (the largest one in the Cove is 5.5 meters long and weighs 800 kg) has its eye on you…  I prefer a baby croc for a close encounter so we head to another department and wait for our photo moment. When a caretaker gets in the room and pulls out a duct-taped baby croc from a desk drawer (did she just just do that?!), we decide to cut the poor little creature some slack and leave without the snapshot.

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Feeding a saltwater crocodile

To do 6:

Rock a snake to sleep

In a different room a snake gets fed: a water python swallows a (living) mouse while a bunch of uncomfortable tourists is watching. All we really want to do is look away, but it’s hard to get our eyes off the cold-blooded fella, with the mouse tale now sticking out of its mouth. It’s intriguingly disgusting – or disgustingly intriguing, both are applicable. After a whole series of other venomous, poisonous and simply strange creatures (the pig-nosed turtle wins the prize for originality), we get the chance of holding a water python by ourselves. A different and smaller one than the mouse swallower, fortunately! I’m the first one to hold the snake, convincing myself that there’s no reason to be afraid of an animal named Pretzel. The python immediately wraps his tail around my throat (“That’s normal, he thinks you’re a tree and tries to hold on tight”) but the whole 56 seconds he’s with me, he’s eagerly looking for a different tree. Trying to unwrap his tail is making it worse: pythons apparently don’t like their tails touched because it tickles. Pretzel is now handed over to my boyfriend and only moments later the python seems to be completely happy with where he is. No strangling, no seeking trees, no moving at all.  “He fell asleep! And that’s a compliment”, the French caretaker says. “You should be a yoga instructor!” While Pretzel is sleeping, the French girl explains that a bite from a venomous snake isn’t always fatal if it’s a defensive bite. Only when a snake goes out hunting, it produces a fatal amount of venom. That’s reassuring! I think… 

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More reptiles at Crocosaurus Cove.

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To do 7

Former Court House and Police Station

Out of the Cove and back in the streets of Darwin, we fail to find the Tree of Knowledge (how ironic) and have a quick look at the former Court House and Police Station. The information board turns out to be more exciting than the building itself: even back in 1883, an editor of the North Australian described the facade (made from porcellanite stone and cypress pine) as ‘a view suggestive of nothing more than a grocer’s shop’. It’s 4 pm when we arrive back at the hostel. We decide to lay on the bed for just a few minutes, but those minutes turn into hours. As novelist Tim O’ Brien would say: “Do we choose sleep? Hell no and bullshit – we fall! We give ourselves over to possibility, to the bed, to the pillow. And these choose for us.”

Summing up:

Things to do in Darwin in one day

  • Have breakfast at the Coffee Club (Kitchener Drive or Mitchell Street) 
  • Walk around the 30-acre Bicentennial Park (and the walk down to Lameroo Beach)
  • Visit Crocosaurus Cove on Mitchell Street
  • Walk down to the Darwin Waterfront, the Convention Centre and harbor
  • Go for a swim at the waterfront!
  • Have an ice cream at ‘Tramopoline’, right at the Darwin Waterfront
  • Take the Harbour Walkway and elevator for a nice view + interesting shortcut from the city to the waterfront and back
  • Visit the State Square (at the end of Mitchell Street) with Parliament House, former Court House & Police Station etc
  • Feed the fish at the Doctors Gully site (near Bicentennial Park)