You know you’re a Darwin local when you think Humpty Doo sounds normal.

I’m sitting in a breezy apartment overlooking the Timor Sea off the Northern Territory capital when my friend comes out with this gem.

A former Sydneysider turned Darwin resident, he’s reflecting on local quirks with a reference to the curiously named town about 50km south of here.

The observation comes as a relief. I didn’t want to be the first to say it, but there’s something endearingly offbeat about the Top End.

And, as I’d learned earlier that morning, you don’t need to go to Humpty Doo to experience it.

I am minding my own business at a bus stop on the way to Casuarina Square (Darwin’s answer to America’s mega-malls) when a fellow commuter strikes up a conversation.

Whether her gaydar’s kicked in or she just wants to unload, she’s soon recounting her failed efforts breaking into the Alice Springs lesbian scene.

Spurned in central Australia, she’s moved north for a new teaching job and, she hopes, more luck with the ladies. She wonders if her new address -“ in the suburb Fannie Bay -“ will prove prophetic.

The teacher gets off the bus a couple of stops before mine, but her entertaining conversation is the morning’s highlight. Casuarina Square, in Darwin’s thoroughly middle-class northern suburbs, is a sprawling and soulless affair that’s not worth the bus ticket.

If you’re after shopping with a more authentic flavour, head to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, north of the city centre.

The markets are held on Thursday and Sunday evenings from May to October to coincide with the Top End’s dry season (dates vary, so check the markets’ website).

After 20 years of trading, the markets remain a reliable tourist draw -“ with good reason.

Food stalls sell cuisine from 30 countries, including Sri Lanka, East Timor and the Netherlands, an indication of Darwin’s rich cultural mix.

Local artisans hawk handmade soap, jewellery and sculpture while masseurs and tarot card readers offer balm for body and soul.

Equally alluring is the setting on Fannie Bay. On the balmy Sunday evening I’m there, a picture-perfect ocean sunset is both a brilliant photo opportunity and a sublime accompaniment to dinner on the beach.

You can step back in time at the excellent Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, also north of the CBD at Bullocky Point.

The museum’s Aboriginal art collection is superb, as is a section devoted to Cyclone Tracy, which flattened the city on Christmas Eve, 1974. A recording of Tracy’s banshee-like winds in a darkened room is particularly unsettling.

About 100km south-west of Darwin, Litchfield National Park is an easy day trip away and another solid tourist favourite.

It’s best known for its waterfalls, croc-free swimming spots and a series of striking three-metre-tall termite mounds.

But even here, the Top End’s screwball side isn’t far away. On the way home, we pull in for a break at a general store on the edge of the national park. I’m browsing contentedly for a drink when I stop cold.

On top of the fridge, not far from the Coke and chocolate bars, something has caught my eye: a collection of jars containing preserved snakes -“ yours for as little as $10, although the dust around them suggests they’re not the best seller.

There’s no sign and no explanation from the shop owner. The reptiles, about a dozen in all, are just there, like any other souvenir -“ more evidence they do things a little differently up here.

Ian Gould visited Darwin with the assistance of Tourism NT. For more information visit the Travel NT website.

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