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Darwin is a city on the edge, writes Megan Czisz.
It's on the edge of a continent and feels like it's at the end of the world. From the air it’s an incongruity, appearing suddenly from nowhere, just as you think you're leaving the wide brown land behind. It's a cluster of buildings at the remotest tip, a final outpost jutting out into the Arafura Sea. And it's at the edge of cool without even trying - Lonely Planet named it as a hot tip for travel in 2012, and someone is in the know because in the same year the number of Australian travellers visiting the Northern Territory increased by more than 10%.
But why not fly right over, all the way to Bali? It's no secret that Australians are flocking overseas in record numbers and the tourism industry is struggling to entice people into their own backyards. “I guess I should try and see more of my own country” is a common refrain when you meet Australian backpackers overseas. They lament that they've visited countries with names they can't even pronounce but have never made it further north than the Gold Coast casinos.
Above all else, Darwin feels different. A tour guide tells me that the population is transient, fluctuating with the wet and dry seasons. “It's the only place in the country”, he says, “where corporates wear stubbies and thongs”. A thousand kilometres from anywhere, the faces are diverse - it could almost be Asia. In fact, it's closer to Asia than Sydney or Melbourne could ever hope to be. It’s this diversity and its geographical and spiritual remove from the rest of Australia that means travellers visit, intending to stay a few days and end up staying longer than their visas could possibly allow.
It’s an oft-forgotten fact that the Northern Territory was Australia’s front line during World War II, when the Japanese bombed Darwin in the 1940s in an attempt to keep Australian forces busy while the war raged in Europe. Today you can follow the trail of the Top End’s military history at sites in and around Darwin.
Adelaide River War Cemetery
Rather than go all the way to Turkey, Singapore or France to pay your respects at one of the many Australian war cemeteries overseas, pay a visit to the Adelaide River War Cemetery, just outside of Darwin, the final resting place of those killed in the bombing raids on the city.
Charles Darwin National Park
Remnants of reinforced concrete bunkers can still be seen in this National Park that overlooks the city. Used to store munitions during wartime, they’re a stark reminder of the dark days of the 1940s and a fascinating relic for history buffs. Watch out for the mosquitoes – when the sign says they bite, they bite!
Other points of interest include the Defence of Darwin Experience, the Darwin Military Museum and other locations around the harbour. For more information on Darwin’s military heritage sites, visit defenceofdarwin.nt.gov.au
Whether they’re jumping for food on the Adelaide River, gliding silently through the wetlands at Yellow Water Billabong or snapping their jaws at kayakers who get a little too close at Katherine Gorge, a croc is the money shot.
2. Mindil Beach at sunset
There’s something about sunset over the Arafura Sea that draws people down to the beach every night to watch the colours change over the ocean. Unmissable.
3. A road train
The Northern Territory is home to some of the longest trucks in the world – and some of the longest, straightest stretches of road to match.
4. Outback roadhouse
No longer a common feature of road trips in the southern states thanks to progress and bypasses, the Territory’s remaining roadhouses are a place to get a hot meal, some petrol, a beer and a day old newspaper. The characters are as quirky as the decorations (stuffed buffalo, anyone?).
But only if it’s Territory Day. In the days leading up to 1 July, you’ll marvel at the number of fireworks stalls popping up all over the NT. It’s the only day of the year in the Territory when fireworks are permitted, and everyone gets into the spirit of things once the sun sets.