We’re very pleased to be here in Darwin – we were here with our daughter Katie and our friend Barb about 20 years ago, and it’s very interesting to see the changes over that period of time. We should say up front that we have visited most of the gorges, waterfalls, crocodile farms, Kakadu and other scenic areas before, so they’re not on our agenda this trip. This time we are more interested in seeing a bit more of Darwin itself.
We’re also excited that we have now travelled Australia from South (Port Augusta) to North (Darwin) along the Stuart Highway!
Howard Springs is about 23 kilometres out of Darwin and is probably best described as a “satellite” suburb, a bit further out than Palmerston. Like Canberra the roads are great and there is a lot of money being spent on infrastructure, but visitors like us really do need a GPS to find their way around. There are lots of round-a-bouts, for instance, and one way streets. Darwin has a population of about 150,000 with a substantial Australian and American military presence. We hear the jets and helicopters going overhead nearly every night!
After taking a little while to acclimatise to Darwin’s current temperatures of 22 to 32 degrees nearly every day, we drove Bertha into town to collect a hire car. Even then we had a little difficulty finding a parking spot for Bertha and we figure that sight-seeing is going to be a lot easier in something smaller.
Where else should our first visit be but to the actual Howard Springs? This is a beautiful and relaxing place, just down the road from the caravan park.
It was originally developed in the late 1800s and actually became Darwin’s water supply for several years until an upgraded facility for Darwin was implemented in 1942. Australian and US troops were based in Howard Springs from January to June 1942 and it later became a “rest camp” for active Australian troops to help preventing them going “troppo”. Aussies built the weir wall in 1944 to enhance the swimming hole.
These days it’s a great place for families to relax – there are BBQs, a toddlers’ pool, walking tracks, an adventure playground, and much more. Swimming is no longer allowed in the weir itself but it is stocked with several different species of fish, including barramundi, grunters, tortoises and so on. The water is quite clear and small and large fish can be spotted by the observant watcher. There are some water bubblers in the weir to keep the water moving and we swear we saw some very large barra enjoying something of a spa bath effect on the bubblers!
Darwin Fish & Chips Cruise
On Wednesday night we headed out to the Darwin wharf precinct to catch our cruise for dinner.
Once everyone was on board, our captain Ross introduced the crew-girl, Lou, and we headed out on a cruise around Darwin and Fanny Bay. Drinks were poured with diners having a choice of beer, cider, red or white wine, or bubbly (or soft drink)! Ross gave a very interesting commentary about the port itself, various construction projects that are underway, details of the military facilities and a whole lot more. It became very obvious that Darwin is as much a part of our northern Asian neighbours as it is part of Australia.
We made our way around to Cullen Bay where Ross drove the boat up to the beach so that Lou could get off and walk to the fish & chip shop to collect our dinner. Eventually Lou arrived back at the beach loaded with 23 fish & chips dinners and we headed back out to sea.
At this point all conversation stopped as everyone got stuck into very healthy serves of barramundi, calamari and chips. All this while the sun was setting majestically on the horizon.
Well fed, we then headed back to the wharf and just for a thrill (for the passengers anyway) Ross drove the boat a bit “fast”. And yes it really was fun going fast – not quite jet-boat speeds by very fast and very much fun!
It was very interesting to see some of the landmarks we had seen going out in the day-light all lit up and night. Parliament House looked particularly spectacular.
Eventually we were all back on dry land, and after thanking Ross and Lou we walked back to the car and drove home to Howard Springs.
Darwin City Heritage Walk
Despite the damage done by Cyclone Tracey or Japanese bombers in the war, there are still many beautiful old heritage buildings in Darwin, so we set off to explore Darwin on foot. The Visitor Information Centre is based in the “old” end of town and was a good base to start our walk. There are some beautiful old stone buildings here, including Browns Mart Theatre and the building now occupied by KPMG accountants. There is also the Old Town Hall which remains as a shell of the original building built in 1883. The Victoria Hotel, built in 1894 has survived every bombing raid and cyclone thrown at it and is still intact, but currently closed for business.
We enjoyed lunch in The Mall and nearby we found a statue dedicated to our old explorer friend, John McDouall Stuart. There is also a nearby water-bearer statue commemorating Darwin’s sister city status with the Greek island of Kalymnos. Darwin apparently has the largest population of expatriate Kalymnians in the world.
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
The Mindil Beach Markets are held on Thursdays and Sundays and are part of the “legend” of Darwin. How could we not go? The caravan park actually has a bus service to and from the markets for a very reasonable charge so there was no way were going to try to drive. Boy are we glad we caught the bus! The carpark was absolute chaos and if you were driving a white Land Cruiser – like so many caravanners do – you were probably going to have real trouble identifying your car after dark.
Despite the market’s legendary status, we didn’t really know what to expect. It turned out to be very cosmopolitan with many street food stalls covering just about any sort of cuisine you could imagine. From Road Kill burgers, to Thai, to Indonesian, to Greek, to Italian, you name it, it was probably there. Gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, dairy free – no problem. Smoothies, gelato, iced-coffee, and baklava – no-one was going to go hungry.
Other than food there were handcraft stalls, clothing, hats, souvenirs, tarot readers, masseurs, and if that didn’t keep you entertained there were whip crackers, fire twirlers and singers and didgeridoo players.
There were people everywhere, and there was a very high security presence which was kept busy and was most appreciated.
Of course there was the sunset – another beautiful sunset. Photographers like me can’t seem to get enough of them. The beach was packed with many people having brought along chairs and rugs to picnic on the beach and watch the sunset. We had to settle for back row seats but the sunset was still beautiful.
At 8.30 pm it was time find our bus. All present and accounted for we drove back to the caravan the scenic route, in the dark. Finally we were back home, stomachs a bit fuller, wallets a bit lighter, and sore footed; but we’re so glad we experienced the Mindil Market.
Bombing of Darwin Display
As most fellow adventurers will know, Darwin copped a hammering from the Japanese in WWII, with more bombs dropped on Darwin than on Pearl Harbour 10 weeks before. There were 64 bombing raids on Darwin and the bombing extended as far south as Katherine and also across to Broome, in WA. The signs of that damage are everywhere and there are many museums and displays as reminders of that terrible time.
We chose to visit the Bombing of Darwin display on Stokes Hill Wharf, which is where our cruise left from several days before. The facility is shared with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and it was great to be able to learn more about both these important aspects of Darwin’s history. Interestingly there was a naval vessel moored at the wharf when we visited the WWII display.
The displays here are ultra-high-tech and quite mind-blowing! We started off with a Virtual Reality experience of being right in the middle of the bombing of Darwin Harbour on 19th February 1942. It was amazing and like no other experience either Ann or I had ever felt. You were really right in the middle of everything – you could look around in every direction and you were surrounded with ships and planes and bombs and people and water and sounds, and you could spin around on your chair to see more. It really gave a fantastic experience of really being there.
There were more interactive displays relating to the bombings including a “ghost host” discussion from then Prime Minister John Curtain about various aspects of the bombing and the subsequent changes to Australia’s military and foreign policy. There was also a “ghost host” talk by a Japanese POW who had actually dropped some of the bombs. There was also a holographic “movie” featuring an American ship commander and his experiences during the bombings.
Technology really helped make this shocking aspect of Australia’s history come to life, and was a change from more traditional museums and displays on the subject. There was, however, a full size replica of a Japanese Zero fighter plane in the exhibition space.
Royal Flying Doctor Service Display
The RFDS display shares the same exhibition space as the Bombing of Darwin display, and utilises much of the same technology. Again, there are “ghost hosts” discussing various aspects of the flying doctor service.
The main element of the RFDS display is a hologram of John Flynn talking about his earliest inspirations to form a remote medical service, which actually started with camels before they even had a car, and then eventually through the introduction of aeroplanes as the most efficient and effective way to provide those remote medical services.
In addition to the high-tech stuff, there is also plenty of reading materials and historic documents on display, including some of John Flynn’s original correspondence. It’s also a bit hard to ignore the decommissioned RFDS Pilatus P12 aircraft – and you can walk through it, sit in the cockpit, etc.
The RFDS still provides services to 278,000 Australians and this display would surely have to be one of the RFDS’ best fundraising activities.
We would consider this as a definite “must see” for any fellow adventurers visiting Darwin.
After visiting the Bombing and RFDS displays, we enjoyed a seafood lunch on the wharf. Yum!
Parap Village Saturday Markets
On Saturday we visited the Parap Markets. This was very much in the spirit of the Mindil Beach markets but was located in a shopping centre in the suburb of Parap and was held on Saturday morning. Parking was atrocious but added to the overall experience I guess. There were plenty of street food vendors, clothing shops, handcrafted items, home décor bits and pieces and so on. Many of the stalls we saw at Mindil Beach were here at Parap. There were also entertainers playing guitar, didgeridoo and singing. Altogether it was another interesting Darwin experience.
After leaving the Parap market we headed a few kilometres into town and enjoyed a delicious meal at the Ducks Nuts Bar and Grill.
On our way home from the Ducks Nuts we stopped off at Fisherman’s Wharf where we stopped at Mr Barra and bought some supplies for the freezer that we will enjoy later on our trip back down South.
Last Day in Darwin
This morning our first adventure was to return the hire car, so we packed up Bertha and I drove her into town while Ann drove the hire car.
We were expecting the Darwin CBD to be very quiet but we were way off the mark. It was a totally different vibe compared to the many other times we had been there. All parking was free and I had a bit of trouble finding a double car park for Bertha, but eventually fluked one quite near the Thrifty office where Ann took the car. A cup of coffee seemed in order but most places were packed – it was brunch time and everyone was out having ‘big breakfasts’, ‘smashed avos’ and lattes. There were a few people who appeared to be nursing sore heads, and even at 10.00am there were plenty of people having beers – hair of the dog maybe? We eventually found a great table at The Tap bar and restaurant and enjoyed a very nice coffee under a huge tree – lovely and cool and the dappled light was very relaxing.
Back at Howard Springs Caravan Park we set up Bertha again and after a rest and a light lunch we set about cleaning and washing and generally getting everything prepared for our journey south, which begins tomorrow.
Still thoroughly enjoying the motorhome experience!