There couldn’t be a better time to visit the Top End than in the middle of winter, when the days are warm and dry, and the mercury hovers around the mid 20s. Perched on the northern edge of the continent, Darwin is closer to our Asian neighbours than to the southern capitals of Sydney and Melbourne. The city still has the air of a frontier town; it’s small, unhurried and friendly, popular with backpackers and adventure travellers, and has an incredible mix of resident cultures including indigenous, Asian, Anglo, and queer.
Darwin is proud of its restaurant and cafe culture, and rightly so. Check out Buzz in Cullen Bay, Twilight on Lindsay (2 Lindsay Street) and Cafe Uno in Mitchell Street. The terrace cafe attached to Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery is also worth a visit. While you’re there, drop into the Gallery itself, which houses a great collection of Aboriginal art and a powerful exhibition on Cyclone Tracey, which devastated this city on Christmas Eve, 1974.
If you’re lucky enough to catch Peter, the manager of local bookshop Absolutely (shop 6, Marina Boulevard, Cullen Bay) when he’s on duty, you’ll have stumbled across an unofficial but knowledgeable and friendly source of gay visitor information.
Gay and lesbian nightlife is not Darwin’s biggest drawcard. But Throb nightclub does a pretty good job of throwing the local queer community together with whoever else is in town and out for the night, while the Mississippi Queen is a long-running gay bar (in a converted train carriage) which attracts a few hardy souls most nights.
You absolutely cannot go to Darwin without experiencing the wilderness of Kakadu and Litchfield national parks. Hire a 4WD, grab some visitor info, loads of food and water, and head off into the sunset. Just beware of the crocodiles, and understand that the World Heritage-listed Kakadu is about the size of Switzerland, so don’t even think about seeing it all in one day.
Litchfield is an easy day trip from Darwin -“ be sure to stop for a swim at Wangi Falls. Alternatively, sign up with a guided tour group such as Odyssey Safaris (ph: 08 8948 0646) and enjoy a small group tour through the Top End. There’s a lot to be said for local knowledge, especially in the outback, which still -“ occasionally -“ claims the lives of unsuspecting visitors.
A 20-minute flight from Darwin gets you to Bathurst Island, home of the Tiwi people. Tiwi Tours (phone: 08 8978 3904) offer visitors the chance to get a taste of this unique indigenous culture which has not only survived white contact, but has managed to do so mostly on its own terms. The Tiwi Tour includes opportunities to view and buy Tiwi art (which is outstanding), and includes a traditional smoking ceremony, lunch, a swim, and a visit to ceremonial burial grounds.
Finally, there’s Darwin’s nude/gay beach, known as Casuarina Free Beach. It’s off Daribah Road, Brinkin, and is a bit of a hike from the city centre, so take a cab (and a mobile phone) or drive. Swimming is not recommended during the wet season because of the potentially fatal box jellyfish, but you should be fine during the dry. Sharks and crocs are known to call Darwin Harbour home, so be aware of the competition before you jump in.