Crocs and a culture on the edge

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The existence of Darwin is itself a testament to the notion of survival of the fittest.

It took four attempts before a permanent European settlement finally took root here in the 1870s on Australia's remote northern shores. Three devastating cyclones and a massive Japanese air attack later, Darwin was still standing when Cyclone Tracy hit in the early hours of Christmas Day 1974. Lampposts were bent flat, houses were ripped from foundations and more than five dozen people were killed. Three-quarters of the population fled, and the Australian government debated whether settlement was even possible in such harsh climes.

Thirty years later, Darwin, known more for crocodiles than culture, is emerging as one of Australia's more cosmopolitan destinations. The population has grown to 107,000, double its pre-Tracy size. A rail link to the rest of Australia recently became a reality. And a nearly two-decades-long publicity campaign, kicked off by the exposure of Kakadu National Park, just east of Darwin, in the "Crocodile Dundee" films, is resulting in a tourist boomlet.

Darwin, named for British naturalist Charles Darwin, is the capital of the Northern Territory, a region twice the size of Texas. I imagined it as the rugged gateway to the Never Never, a vast wilderness that sweeps from the desert around Ayers Rock to the wetlands of Arnhem Land.

What my family and I found when we visited in August was not so much a frontier town as a place living on the edge of good times. Its art and cuisine scene are superb, but it's still a city whose surface isn't completely polished.

"They've knocked the rough edges off and spruced it up — and it's better for it," Ted Egan, an old bushman, explained. "Unlike the tropical paradise you see before you, when I arrived, Darwin was a hot, dry, dusty savanna of a town. It was a terrible place to live."

Egan is a genuine character. When I first saw him in 1981 at a concert near Alice Springs, he was banging an empty beer carton and singing, "There's a lot of bloody good drinkers in the Northern Territory."

He contended he couldn't write that song today. "Everyone now drinks Chardonnay and coolers," he said, "which tells you how much the place is changing."

Egan was indulging in nothing stronger than tea as we sat inside the hand-cut porcellanite walls of Government House. In 2003, his lifetime contribution to music, sport and reconciliation between Australia's Aborigines and whites was recognized when he was appointed administrator, the highest nonelected position in the Northern Territory.

"It's a great city with a larrikin style still all its own," Egan said of his rowdy city. "Get out and get into it. You'll love it."

My family and I took him at his word.

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A place to linger The challenge with exploring Darwin is not its size, but its weather, which is tropical and humid.

The business center consists of five parallel streets on a headland overlooking a large, unspoiled harbor. The main tourist points — Parliament House, the Indo Pacific Marine Exhibition, the excellent Museums & Art Galleries of the Northern Territory and the shaded George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens — can be covered in one sweat-soaked day, although you would be doing yourself a disservice.

Small as it is, Darwin is a place to linger.

Mitchell Street, for example, the site of a collection of backpacker accommodations, has become the gathering point for young people from around the world as they buy, sell and barter secondhand cars before embarking on the next leg of their Down Under experience. A party atmosphere falls over Mitchell Street each night as travelers and locals congregate at bars such as Shenanigans and Duck's Nuts for drinks and free "starving backpacker" barbecues.

Chili Backpackers, a comfortable, lively place, is one recently established haven. While we were visiting, my two boys, Brian, 12, and Colin, 10, found a public note reading: "Missing. $20 reward. Black mongrel. Distinguishing marks: One eye, ripped left ear, right hind leg missing, recently neutered. Answers to the name 'Lucky.' " It took my wife, Eva, some time to explain the Aussie sense of humor.

For the boys, the highlight of downtown Darwin was Aquascene. Rising on the tide to feast on bread, hundreds of fish — butterfish, milkfish, mullets and stingrays — gather in the shallows of Doctor's Gully, a sandy beach a few blocks from the city center. The cries of delight from Brian and Colin as they hand-fed the fish — some 5 feet long — were drowned out only by the Japanese tourists laughing, chatting and posing for pictures in the shallow water.

That night, we feasted at Mindil Beach, a weekly market and a local institution. Arts and craft stalls bulge with local paintings, rainbow-colored tie-dyed clothing and handmade jewelry, while street performers clog the pathways. We balked at the chance to learn to crack a whip from Mick, a friendly bushman, but grazed through a succession of tantalizing food stalls: Thai, Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, Greek, Portuguese and more, reflecting Darwin's cultural diversity.

Eventually, we joined the throngs on the beach. Sunset in the tropics is quick but spectacular, and seemingly half of Darwin gathers on rugs and canvas chairs to watch from Mindil Beach. As the top rim of the sun disappeared into the sea, we raised glasses of Margaret River Chardonnay to the dying light. Then we retired to the Road Kill Cafe (motto: "You kill it, we grill it"), a stall serving crocodile, kangaroo and emu, as well as witchetty grubs, an aboriginal delicacy.

The growing sophistication of Darwin is matched by its food, which blends Asian cuisines with exotic meats and elements of traditional aboriginal bush tucker. You'll find such dishes as crispy-skin double-roasted duckling with sour orange coconut curry sauce and wild rice, and grilled buffalo fillet on spiced potato with Kakadu bush plum glaze. We enjoyed both from the veranda of Pee Wee's at the East Point Nature Reserve, one of a spate of cool new outdoor eateries that allow customers to appreciate the tropical climate while watching the molten sunsets.

We also sampled "barra" burgers — barramundi, a sumptuous fish — at the end of Stokes Hill Wharf, which has been renovated into an outdoor dining strip. Darwinians gather at Stokes to catch evening sea breezes. Firm, white fine-grained fillets curled out from the edges of the buns.

"Mum," shouted our boys, storming breathlessly back from the dockside. "Crocodile!"

Delighted cries arose from the tourists around us as they crowded to watch the monster nonchalantly cruise past. The city of Darwin employs crocodile hunters like other communities employ dog catchers. In 2003, more than 100 saltwater crocodiles — some of them up to 16 feet long — were caught in the harbor.

"Is that why no one goes swimming here?" I asked Jenny Hardy, deputy director of the Legal Aid office and an old friend from university days.

"No," she said. "You rarely ever see a croc. It's the box jellyfish that you have to watch for. They're deadly, and they infest the water for eight months. You don't dare go in unless you're wearing a stinger suit or pantyhose.

"It gives swimming here a decidedly dangerous and kinky flavor."

Eva, born and raised in Europe, looked at me in wide-eyed horror.

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New art possibilitiesThe floor of Darwin's Supreme Court Building features a breathtaking mosaic made of Venetian glass. It's called "Milky Way Dreaming" and is based on a work that combines aboriginal mythology with shimmering Van Gogh stars. When it was created, the work caused a storm within the aboriginal community over whether sacred "dreaming" (or stories) could be depicted in such an unconventional manner. Tribal law resolved that it could be.

The piece exemplifies the way aboriginal and Western art styles are being infused with new possibilities. Aboriginal art is now found in the collections of great museums and galleries around the world.

Darwin has some of the best galleries in which to view modern aboriginal art. These include Framed, the Arnhemland Art Gallery and the indigenous-owned Raintree Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery. After several days of viewing, I had my heart set on an abstract work in vivid orange and black. The piece hung arrestingly on a wall at the Raintree Gallery, but time and money conspired against us.

Instead, we traveled 105 miles to the escarpments of Arnhem Land, the place to view traditional rock art. Australian Aborigines have the longest continual cultural history in the world. Recent findings suggest rock paintings were created as early as 60,000 years ago, although those in the public sandstone galleries of Arnhem Land date only from 20,000 years ago and some are as recent as the 1980s.

On the evening of our departure, we dined with my stepsister Christine, a flying doctor who has worked from Darwin for the last 12 years. When not traveling and camping in the bush, we stayed with her and her family for much of our visit. The conversation turned to the perils of life.

"Look, there's always a risk of cyclones, but every place has its dangers," Chris said.

"So," I asked, "it's like living on the San Andreas fault?"

"Yes, but with crocodiles and box jellyfish," Eva added.

"Don't forget the sharks and snakes," Chris said, laughing. "No, seriously. The chances of even seeing a croc or snake are extremely low, but still it gives Darwin an edgy frontier atmosphere. It's one of the reasons we love it."

That night, looking down from our flight, I leaned over and said to Brian, "Well, mate, there goes Darwin."

Turning to me with a grin, he said, "Yes, but it also answers to the name 'Lucky.' "

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Exploring Darwin

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Qantas has connecting service (with change of plane) to Darwin. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $2,097.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 61 (country code for Australia), 8 (the local dialing code) and then the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Darwin Central Hotel, 21 Knuckey St.; 8944-9000, fax 8944-9100, http://www.darwincentral.com.au . A plush 132-room hotel in the middle of town. Doubles from $125.

Botanic Gardens Apartments, 17 Geranium St., the Gardens; 8946-0300, fax 8981-0410, http://www.botanicgardensapts.com.au . Air-conditioned motel rooms and self-contained one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and townhouses from $110.

Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, 1 Flinders St., Jabiru; 897-92800, gagudjucrocodile.holiday-inn.com. A deluxe hotel shaped like a crocodile. Doubles, $125-$200.

Frogshollow Backpackers, 27 Lindsay St.; 8941-2600, fax 8941-0758, http://www.frogs-hollow.com.au . Well-regarded family-run hostel with pool and spa. Dormitory beds from $17 per person. Doubles with attached bath, $53, including light breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT:

Hanuman, 28 Mitchell St.; 8941-3500. Spicy Thai restaurant. I recommend the roasted red duck curry cooked with coconut and sweet basil. Main courses, $12-$21.

Pee Wee's at the Point, Alec Fong Lim Drive; 8981-6868. Tropical architecture and Australian Creole-inspired cuisine. Specialties include saltwater barramundi fillet grilled in lemon-myrtle butter on coconut plum rice. Main courses from $24.

Waterhole Restaurant & Bar, 21 Knuckey St.; 8944-9120, http://www.darwincentral.com.au/restaurant.htm . Located in the Darwin Central Hotel. Serves Australian cuisine with Asian and Mediterranean influences. Roasted kangaroo rump and mustard-crusted rack of lamb are two highlights on menu. Main courses, $15-$23.

Stokes Hill Wharf, Darwin Wharf precinct, south of city center. Alfresco food court serves varied cuisine, including Asian dishes and fish and chips. Meals from $5.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourism Australia, (310) 229 4870, http://www.australia.com .

— Greg Langley

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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