It was dark by the time we touched down in Darwin, so we saw nothing of Australia on our approach. We knew from TV programmes that Australia has very strict customs regulations around food, plant material etc, so we weren’t surprised by the amount of form-filling we had to do. Happily we were able to tick ‘no’ to everything and were allowed through without being searched.
The arrangements for the shuttle bus had been rather vague. The online system didn’t save my flight number, and when I queried the statement in the email about the bus leaving 10-15 mins after the flight landed (no way would we get through customs and immigration in that time) I received an reply telling me that my flight number didn’t exist and I was actually on flight xyz from Alice Springs! Ummmm…. But happily we didn’t have to wait too long for the bus and although the driver had been expecting to see use earlier, it was no problem. Sensibly, large luggage was stowed in a separate trailer.
It was only about 21:00 when we arrived at the Zen Suites, but the front door was locked and the reception area was in darkness. A notice on the wall gave us a number to phone – but we had no working phone. Luckily a pizza delivery guy turned up and lent us his phone – our first taste of the helpfulness and friendliness that seems to be typical here (although in fact the pizza guy was from Lancashire!).
The apartment was amazing – all new and modern with a fully equipped kitchen (even a washer/dryer and a drawer-sized dishwasher), a living room with TV and DVD, and a windowless bedroom enclosed in frosted glass panels. There was no view as our patio window opened directly onto the side of the swimming pool – probably the reason it was cheaper than other rooms.
We didn’t bother with dinner that night. Early next morning we went in search of supplies, heading for a supermarket in the centre of town. As we had such a good kitchen, and eating out seemed so expensive, we planned to self- cater completely, and also bought a coolbag for the road trip. The price of things wasn’t too bad if you chose carefully – meat, dairy and some fish was cheaper than the UK, but bread was more unless you went for the cheapest own brand, and most fruit and veg was quite expensive. Beer was exorbitant at $3.50 for a small can, but some wine was very cheap – so we bought a 2 litre box. Although the apartment was costing a lot more than any previous accommodation, we would recoup half of it in food savings.
In the afternoon we walked down towards the Waterfront, a recently developed area of swimming pools, restaurants and apartments. The artificial pool was crowded with children – much busier than the natural lagoon with its box jellyfish warnings. An elevator up to an aerial walkway saved us the slog back up the hill. Our route took us along the pedestrianized part of Smith Street, the heart of downtown Darwin. But at 4pm on a Saturday, it was virtually deserted, and the shops were already closing. Although the waterfront had been busy, the rest was like a ghost town, eerily quiet. With its mostly low, modern buildings and straight, wide streets, at first glance it could have been the USA, or even an industrial estate in England, but there were reminders of where we were. Behind Browns Mart theatre, originally a mineral exchange and one of the few buildings in Darwin that could claim the description ‘historic’, a couple of ibis probed the turf with their long, curved beaks; a few aborigines sat under the shade trees; bright, chattering Rainbow Lorikeets fed in the trees near the hotel.
The next day we took a bus up to the Museum of the Northern Territory on Fannie Bay. It was clear that most people arrived by car, since we were the only pedestrians on the road from the bus stop. Darwin seems to be very spread out – life here without a vehicle must be quite difficult. It was a nice little museum, with a mix of aboriginal art and artefacts, natural history displays (so many poisonous creatures!), and a section devoted to the devastating Christmas Day cyclone of 1974. The latter, of course, is why Darwin looks so unremittingly modern – most of the older wooden houses were flattened that day.
From the museum it was an easy walk up over the low cliffs and through a stretch of coastal mangrove swamp (dry now) to Mindil Beach. It was Sunday, so the Sunset Market was just getting under way. This is one of Darwin’s “big things”, but it was fairly unimpressive really. Rather like a miniature version of the market area at Womad – the stall selling Indian textiles even smelled the same. The food looked good though, and the prices weren’t unreasonable considering the enormous portion sizes. It’s no wonder that most Australian women my age are so large – I feel quite skinny in comparison.
We didn’t eat at Mindil Beach though – a Greek salad was waiting for us back at ‘home’. After so long in Asia it was great to be able to get Mediterranean ingredients – feta, houmous, olives, rocket, wine. All hard to find and/or ‘luxury’ items in SE Asia, but cheap and easy to find here.
Another of Darwin’s free attractions was the Botanical Gardens, which meant another ride on the number 4 bus. It wasn’t as large or diverse as Singapore’s garden but it was much quieter – most of the time there was nobody else in sight, and it was hard to believe we were in the middle of the largest city for hundreds of miles. But then, with a population of less than 150,000, Darwin wouldn’t even qualify as a city in England. There hadn’t been much attempt to create different or exotic environments – it seemed to be more a case of preserving an environment that might have existed there naturally.
We needed to get a SIM card. One of the strange things about Australia is that it’s rather behind the times when it comes to the internet. Every cheap guesthouse in Indonesia had free wifi, although the quality was sometimes dodgy – in Australia we would have to pay in most places, or it would only be available in reception. Fortunately the Zen had just switched to a free service, so we could afford to wait a few days and then get a SIM that would last to the end of our trip.
Vodafone seemed to offer the best deal, but the coverage on the roads in the Top End was very patchy. Although we mostly wanted the SIM for data, the ability to call a breakdown service was also important. So we ended up with Telstra, which at least saved us a bus ride out to the mall at Casuarina, which is where the main shopping centre of Darwin seems to be now. Which explains why the city centre was so quiet on Saturday.
We also needed tickets for Kakadu park (not cheap at $25 each, but they were valid for 14 days) and a map. Although I’d downloaded a satnav app to my phone it didn’t show petrol stations and besides, I like to be able to see my route in some geographical context. The tourist information office supplied both, with friendly enthusiasm thrown in for free.
For a tourist, Darwin is pleasant enough but doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it. Because of the burglary and the availability of flights on our amended schedule, we ended up staying a couple of days longer than we originally planned, and really we had time to kill. But since our accommodation was so nice, it wasn’t exactly a hardship!