This Way Out: April Orcutt’s Darwin, Australia, is a mix of wild and sophisticated
<em>Ed. Note: We sent travel writer April Orcutt on the road. Here’s the last in her series, This Way Out: Australia.
Sweetheart is a 16-foot-long crocodile. His mouth looks large enough to swallow an ice chest, but he can do no harm because he’s stuffed and sitting in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in the town of Darwin in Australia’s frontier north. He still looks ferocious, and I wouldn’t have wanted to encounter him in the wild.
Darwin, however – an isolated town that I expected to have a outlying, slightly barbarous, wild-West vibe – is really quite lovely. Although it’s indeed remote – located on a peninsula in Darwin Harbor off the Beagle Gulf along the Timor Sea – it has skyscrapers, high-end restaurants and access to a fascinating area for exploring nature.
I had gone there on my way to Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves jungle, marshes, forests, cliffs and rivers as habitat for a third of Australia’s bird species as well as many other animals – and as heritage lands for Aboriginal people who have lived there for 400 centuries. But, as a bonus, I found Darwin itself to be charming.
Nighttime brings out the city’s full beach-town ambiance: scantily clad young women and buff men drinking beer in open-air bars along the main streets. Funny as it sounds, though, Darwin doesn’t really have a beach. Well, it has plenty of beaches, but because of creatures such as the deadly box jellyfish and, of course, the crocodiles, people don’t go into the water.
Along the Darwin Waterfront near Kitchener Bay on the south side of town, though, the Aussies have created a protected waterfront lagoon the size of a football field and surrounded it on three sides by golden sand. This is where – while munching on house-made pizza sticks with basil pesto, crispy marinated haloumi, and pumpkin and goat-cheese arancini at Il Lido Tapas Lounge – I saw beach bunnies and bums actually swim in the water.
Out on undeveloped East Point, a natural peninsula extending a mile into the Beagle Gulf, people walked, bicycled and pushed babies in strollers beside trees and a mangrove-and-sand coastline. No crocs could be seen.
Back at the Museum and Art Gallery, Sweetheart’s mouth stood permanently poised to chomp. More than 1.2 million specimens of birds, butterflies, other animals, fossils, rocks, minerals are in the museum’s collection. The exhibition showing the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 includes audio of the storm’s ferocity, and visitors – especially those who lived through Tracy – are warned that they might find it disturbing. I thought some of the most fascinating exhibits were those that presented traditional Aboriginal rock art and contemporary indigenous paintings and sculptures, such as a life-size woven-grass pickup truck.
From the wilds of crocs in the sea to the sophistication and delicacy of some of the paintings in the museum, Darwin covers a wide range of experiences and lifestyles. Next time I’m in the area, I’ll definitely spend more time there.
Photos: April Orcutt
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory: