A new Darwin dawns as the Top End city whets more than merely appetites for the deluge of wet season tourists.
Venice has its canals, Athens its antiquities, New York its zeitgeist buzz. Darwin has its storms. At this time of year, the Top End capital is where serious weather-watchers clamour to be.
Tourism stylists call it the “tropical summer” or the “green season”, but to locals it is simply “the wet”. With good reason: during January, the wettest month, Darwin can expect to receive almost half a metre of rain.
It is true that the Top End can be hot and sticky between November and April, with average daytime temperatures in the low 30s, cooling to mid-20s overnight. It is also true that the rain at this time of the year transforms the place into a lush wonderland dotted with frangipanis every shade of yellow, orange, pink and red, under brooding grey skies that flash and crackle. The storms scud in over Darwin Harbour, dumping torrents of rain, and the locals take their shoes off to cross the streets.
But before the monsoon arrives, usually in December or January, most downpours are brief, generally occurring in the mid- to late-afternoon, sending up plumes of steam from the roads. A storm can cool the air dramatically, often dropping the temperature to 25 or 26 degrees.
While the Top End receives most of its visitors in the perfect-day-after-perfect-day dry season (May to October), those who come during the wet find that it’s a good time to experience Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks without the crowds.
About 100km south of Darwin, Litchfield National Park has waterfalls cascading from a sandstone plateau and is dotted with huge magnetic termite mounds. It is usually accessible all year round, although most 4WD tracks are closed during the peak of the wet season and some swimming areas are closed during heavy rain.
World Heritage-listed Kakadu, located about 250km east of Darwin, is renowned for its towering escarpment and waterfalls, Aboriginal rock art and spectacular floodplains. A scenic flight will allow you to appreciate waterfalls such as Jim Jim and Twin Falls, which are at their most torrential during the wet season when road access is closed.
Fishing tours – in Darwin Harbour or beyond, or on one of the Territory’s extensive river systems – operate all year but the “run-off” at the end of the wet season gets barramundi (and therefore barramundi fishermen) excited. Around March is the best time to bag a barra.
It seems the lure of the Top End during the wet season is less of a secret than it once was. Rachel Beaumont-Smith, general manager of Darwin Harbour Cruises, which runs trips on the schooners Alfred Nobel and Tumlaren, says she is seeing more tourists during the traditionally quieter months.
“In comparison with 10 years ago, things are incredibly different,” she says. “The peak time was always June to August, but we now run Tumlaren all year round except February. We have up to about 36 people [on the vessel] in the dry season, 15 to 20 in the green. It’s a bit more exclusive, a bit more personal at that time of the year.”
Although the company’s policy is to cancel the cruise and reschedule if the weather makes it unsafe or unpleasant, that is rarely necessary. “It’s usually just a brief downpour,” Beaumont-Smith says. “Last wet season we had interstate guests who thought it was fantastic. It’s actually quite a selling point. We had farmers from country New South Wales [where it has been extremely dry] who just loved seeing these big, fat drops of warm rain. People are going, ‘Raining? Fantastic, it’s wet!’
“We have such a huge harbour and the majority of the vista is green bushland – so there’s nothing more amazing than seeing a squall of torrential rain coming across. Because they’re quite compact and you can see them, you can go around them. The temperature drops and it’s beautiful.”
Then there are the frogs. “The frog choruses are absolutely spectacular,” says Graeme Sawyer, coordinator of FrogWatch, an organisation that aims to protect native frogs and reduce cane toad numbers. “Rain often triggers the choruses of green tree frogs – basically it’s the male’s advertising call. At night in town, it’s predominantly green tree frogs. Further afield, in the immediate vicinity of Darwin, you’ll hear up to 26 species chorusing.”
Chorusing frogs, cool rain and the crackle of lightning… the sounds of a wet season in the Top End.
Darwin city has its charms, too. Attractions such as the museum, art galleries, fish feeding and Crocodylus Park are open year-round and easy to get to. Parap Markets are held every Saturday, and the markets at Rapid Creek and Nightcliff – where you can try a fiery pawpaw salad for a real taste of the tropics – operate every Sunday.
The city is transforming and debate flares – in the media, in cafes and on back verandahs – about issues such as whether tall buildings with generous setbacks will enhance or destroy “our lifestyle”. Twenty or 30 years ago, there was little debate and plenty of ad hoc construction.
Darwin prides itself on having twice risen from ashes and rubble – once after it was bombed repeatedly by Japanese forces during WWII and again after Cyclone Tracy in 1974. These days, it’s recognised that the way Darwin develops is as important as the fact that it’s developing.
The Northern Territory Government’s blueprint for Darwin’s growth is called Creating Darwin’s Future – A Tropical Harbour City. It includes, among other things, construction of a WWII museum next to Parliament House and development of a “ribbon of green around the CBD”. It’s long-term.
In the short term, the city’s face is already changing. Much of the transformation centres on Mitchell Street – Darwin’s backpacker strip and the location of many of the best and brightest bars, restaurants and other attractions. It seems every time you turn your back, there’s a new place to drink in Mitchell Street. The latest addition is Monsoons, a bar that tries to mirror its tropical edge-of-Asia location. Dark-grey, burnished concrete floors inset with granite reflect the dark wood and cane furniture, tiled columns and a carved timber camel. It’s the spot of choice for lunching public servants and offers a range of salads, burgers and curries.
Next door, Wisdom Bar and Cafe and, a couple of blocks down, The Tap on Mitchell attract locals and tourists to outdoor tables for cool drinks and pub grub.
For food that’s a cut above, the relocated and expanded Hanuman serves excellent Thai, Indian and nonya dishes and now offers the option of dining outside on a broad timber deck – complete with two spirit houses. Tables made from coconut shell, topped with mismatched plates, are a quirky counterpoint to the high-tech look of the long bar, which changes colour before your eyes.
In the same complex as the new Hanuman, the Darwin Entertainment Centre has redeveloped its front facade and created the Stars Deck, an indoor-outdoor bar that opened in October and caters for the theatre-going crowd.
Downstairs, there’s a new branch of the respected central Australian indigenous art retailer Mbantua Fine Art Gallery, representing the artists of the Utopia region.
Across the road, the Noodle House has expanded from its Knuckey Street origins into bigger and more salubrious premises. Inside it’s cool and dark with glowing pendant lights. The menu offers the same favourites as the first Noodle House, as well as the house specialty, steamed chicken and rice.
Also in Mitchell Street is the $29m Crocosaurus Cove, which will bring saltwater crocodiles and reptile displays, with associated shops, to the CBD.
One street over, in Smith Street, the long-awaited Chinatown development has so far provided only extra parking and Signatures cafe, which is building a strong clientele of workers grateful for another lunch option. But Chinatown stage two, a couple of years away yet, promises to celebrate Darwin’s Chinese heritage with a range of eateries and shops.
Even Smith Street Mall has changed. Paspaley Pearls has relocated into a lavish, mall-side showroom. New retailers in or near the mall include RM Williams and several boutiques selling designer gear: Epiphany for clothes, The Bungalow and Lotus Life Concepts for accessories and homewares.
Come this time next year, Darwin will also have a new convention centre, wave lagoon and public spaces as part of the dramatic redevelopment of its waterfront. Troppo Architects has been chosen to design the restaurant that will be a focal point for the waterfront project and, it is hoped, Darwin’s food scene. Meanwhile, everywhere you look, the cranes stand out against the skyline. It’s almost as if the city is being rebuilt a third time.
See & Do
Aquascene Fish Feeding
28 Doctors Gully Road.
+61 8 8981 7837.
+61 8 8981 5511.
Crocodylus Park & Zoo
815 McMillans Road, Knuckey Lagoon.
+61 8 8922 4500.
Mbantua Fine Art Gallery & Cultural Museum
93 Mitchell Street.
+61 8 8941 6611.
Museums & Art Galleries of the Northern Territory
Conacher Street, Bullocky Point.
+61 8 8999 8264.
Eat & Drink
Darwin Entertainment Centre
93 Mitchell Street.
+61 8 8980 3366.
93 Mitchell Street.
+61 8 8941 3500.
46 Mitchell Street.
+61 8 8941 7188.
84 Mitchell Street.
+61 8 8981 1833.
3/71 Smith Street.
+61 8 8941 3025.
The Tap on Mitchell
58 Mitchell Street.
+61 8 8981 5521.
Wisdom Bar and Cafe
48 Mitchell Street.
+61 8 8941 4866.
Shop 6, The Mall.
+61 8 8981 0883.
Shop 2, 18 Knuckey Street.
+61 8 8941 8470.
Lotus Life Concepts
Shop 1, 20 Knuckey Street.
Shop 19, The Mall.
+61 8 8982 5515.
Shop 23, The Mall.
+61 8 8981 1222.
Novotel Atrium Darwin
100 The Esplanade.
Gilruth Avenue, Mindil Beach.
Top End locals mostly experience tropical downpours from their backyards and verandahs. Visitors can replicate that local feeling at a number of restaurants and bars that have broad verandahs or paved outdoor areas with enough shelter
to keep you dry – most of the time, at least.
To see a storm coming in over the sea, try Crustaceans on the Wharf, Pee Wee’s at the Point, Evoo at Skycity Darwin or the Turtle Bar at the Beachfront Hotel, Rapid Creek. For an “at home in the tropics” vibe, go to Char Restaurant @ Admiralty
or Essence at the Airport Resort, where a heavy downpour will create a cool mist that envelops outdoor diners.
Window on the Wetlands, which is less than an hour’s drive south of Darwin, allows you to see storms rolling steadily in over a dramatic floodplain.
One of the best spots to spend a humid afternoon is Nightcliff Swimming Pool, set on a clifftop by the sea and cooled by fresh breezes. You can keep swimming even when
it’s raining – an unusual and surprisingly pleasant experience – but you will have to leave the water if lightning gets close.
Char Restaurant @ Admiralty
The Esplanade & Kentucky Street, Darwin.
+61 8 8981 4544.
Crustaceans on the Wharf
Stokes Hill Wharf.
+61 8 8981 8658.
Darwin Airport Resort, 1 Henry Wrigley Drive, Marrara.
+61 8 8920 3333.
Gilruth Avenue, Mindil Beach.
+61 8 8943 8940.
Nightcliff Swimming Pool
Casuarina Drive, Nightcliff.
+61 8 8985 1682.
Pee Wee’s at the Point
Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point Reserve.
+61 8 8981 6868.
Beachfront Hotel, 342 Casuarina Drive, Rapid Creek.
+61 8 8985 3000.
Window on the Wetlands
Arnhem Highway, Beatrice Hill.
+61 8 8988 8188.
Source: Qantas The Australian Way January 2008