All of the cities and bigger towns I’ve visited in Australia have been familiar on some level, whether they felt like they could be anywhere in the Western world like Alice Springs, or distinctly Englishy like Adelaide. Driving into Darwin, on the other hand, I was reminded more of Southeast Asia than of Europe.
It makes sense in a way; well above the Tropic of Capricorn, Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney, and feels like a completely different country to the southeast coast. Coming into the city of the shuttle from the railway station and driving along the main drag of Mitchell Street, it reminded me of Phuket, with bars opening out onto the street, little Thai restaurants, and backpacker hostels pumping out the tunes. My hostel was one of these, full of eighteen year old Brits and Europeans out for a good time and making me feel very old.
In the day times, on the other hand, I felt comparatively youthful as I wandered around reading information boards surrounded by the same class of retired couples who had been on the Ghan. As well as the train travellers were the Grey Nomads, the Australian baby boomers who upon retirement buy a caravan, leave home – sometimes selling their houses – and spend months or years at a time driving around the country in a permanent state of vacation, often to the horror of their children.
Darwin is a bit of a confusing town; on the one hand it is a major city, the capital of the Northern Territory with an interesting history, lots of growth over the last few years, and a few hipster cafes to rival Melbourne, but on the other it feels like a bit of a backwater, left behind by the bigger cities in the southeast, with ugly buildings, tacky gift shops and few good restaurants. The buildings at least aren’t really it’s fault; all but leveled by Japanese air strikes in the Second World War, and then again by a cyclone in 1974, the city centre is all concrete. Having said that, the recently revamped Waterfront precinct is pleasant (despite reminding me a bit of the newer parts of Central Milton Keynes), and most of the inner harbour has been turned into a swimming area which is very pleasant. It’s also the location of the first attack on Australian soil by Japanese forces in the Second World War, which sank more ships than Pearl Harbour and lead to the city being evacuated.
Most people coming to the Top End go to one of the National Parks in the area, and I had booked on to a day trip to Litchfield National Park, which is a couple of hours’ drive away from Darwin and famous for having excellent waterfalls and swimming holes. Which surprised me when I heard about it, because I was under the understanding that northern Australia in general and this part of the Northern Territory specifically was Crocodile Country, which to me suggested that swimming anywhere might be a bad idea. But in typically casual Australian style, it was explained to me several times that I was perfectly safe for two reasons; it’s only saltwater crocodiles that kill humans, the freshwater crocodiles (or ‘freshies’) tend not to attack, and although saltwater crocs do come to Litchfield, it wasn’t the season for them to be there anyway. It was difficult not to see the crocodile warning signs stating a little too ambiguously for my liking that swimming was permitted, that saltwater crocodiles are not usually found here at this time of year, and that freshies rarely attack humans. But, I rationalised, the water was extremely clear, so I had a decent chance of seeing them coming, and besides there were plenty of people around who looked like they’d be slower swimmers than me.
I tend to think of waterfalls as a bit of a tropical backpacker cliché, but I have to admit Litchfield does it well. We went to three swimming spots with assorted walking trails, waterfalls, streams and pools, and all of them were lovely. There was enough signage and maintenance to feel like the area was looked after, but it was left alone enough that it still felt natural and serene, and although there were quite a lot of people, you never had to walk or swim far to find some peace and quiet. And of course, every carpark had seating areas and public barbecues. At Wangi Falls I climbed up the rocks into a hot tub-sized rock pool, at Florence Falls I swam behind a waterfall, and at the Buley Rockholes I just sat with my feet in the water, and it was all very lovely.