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.
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.