DM and MM's Northern Territory 2008 Diary

Day 16 - Darwin

Friday, 29 August, 2008

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We rose at a leisurely pace this morning, having done all of the busy and strenuous activities of the trip, and now ready to settle into a few days of relaxation before heading home.

The first order of business was breakfast. We suited up with sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses to brave the tropical sun and headed out to find a cafe or something. We came across the Duck's Nuts, which the Lonely Planet recommended, and saw it had a good looking breakfast menu. The waitress seated us in a non-smoking section, but when people at the next table lit up and it drifted across, we got up and left to find somewhere else. After a bit of wandering, we found a place called Cafe Dolce in the Smith Street Mall. We both had muesli with fruit, yoghurt, and honey, and M. had a coffee with it.

Then it was a walk around the mall savouring the touristy delights of the souveir shops for a while, before we headed into a book store to get M. a new novel to read (having finished the one she'd brought with her). Getting on to 10:00 it was time to return the car to the hire place. Conveniently, it was located just a block from our hotel, and right next to a petrol station, where we filled up for the last time before dropping the car off. It was literally only about 15 metres drive from the pump to the rental parking spot.

Street art, Darwin shopping area

The car done, we walked back towards the mall for more shop perusal under the welcome shade of the awnings. Along a construction site near the mall were wooden horadings on which apparently local artists had been painting proper artwork, as opposed to random graffiti. Some of it was quite good. In the mall, we skirted the no doubt incredibly expensive Paspaley pearl shop, but M. was tempted by Di Croco next door, with its range of crocodile leather goods. She tried a few things but in the end bought only a pen for her dad for Father's Day in a few weeks' time.

Street art, Darwin shopping area

From there we continued south-east past the government precinct until we rounded the corner around a very tidy old stone cottage with an immaculate and colourful flower garden that turned out to be the Government House admin office. Across the street was Survivor's Lookout, a shaded pavilion erected as a monument to the survivors of the first Japanese bombing raid on Darwin in 1942, who took shelter nearby. The lookout gives a view over a pink bougainvillea across to a wharf area and the bay beyond. The area in between is currently under heavy development, with a multitude of semi-completed apartment complexes and hotels being erected by workers and heavy machinery, so the view was not at its best.

Climbing down a set of steps to a narrow road below, then another step into the cool of a heavily vegetated cliff, we came to the World War II oil storage tunnels. These were excavated directly into the rock below Darwin after Japanese attacks on Darwin's above-ground oil storage facilities during the war - Darwin being a major naval supply base at the time. The tunnels were excavated by hand, and it was astonishing to consider how long and how many men it would have taken to dig out the results we saw. Tunnels 5 and 6 were open for viewing and walking through, and presented a cool, dark relief from the heat and glare outside. Water seepage was obvious on the tunnel walls and floors - and also the reason they were never actually used to store oil. They were abandoned and sealed up immediately after being built, and only re-opened as a tourist attraction in 1992.

WWII Oil Storage Tunnels
World War II storage tunnels

The friendly old man outside gave us a brief lecture on the history of the tunnels before we went in, and when we came out we got directions from him to the Indo-Pacific Marine exhibition. This was not far away, but the walk was hot in the sun and along the road being used for the huge construction project, so not very pleasant.

The marine exhibition turned out not to be the large government-sponsored aquarium that I was expecting, but a relatively small and privately run husband-and-wife operation. They had spent years assembling collections of coral reef animals from Darwin Harbour and setting them up in living ecosystems in several tanks of various sizes. The tanks were impressive because the only thing they ever added was rainwater to replace evaporation loss. They neither cleaned the tanks nor fed the fish - skylights above each tank let in natural sunlight which provided energy for algae and corals, forming the basis of a food chain up to moderate sized reef fish that also included many species of starfish, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sponges, anemones, sea fans, and of course lots of corals. The tanks had a natural, slightly grungy look, rather than the clean and sterile look of many aquariums. This is apparently one of only three such natural marine exhibits in the world.

Before seeing all this though, we were ushered into a theatrette for a DVD presentation on coral reefs. It got tedious after 15 minutes or so, and we wandered out and looked for the cafeteria promised by the menu board outside. It turned out to be a tiny kitchen staffed by a woman who assembled our orders on to plates and served them to us on the single table, outside in the shade overlooking the bay. M. had a fruit scone (she'd wanted date, but the first thing the woman had told us was that she was out of date scones), while I had a plate of prawns with salad. The prawns were good, but ultimately not as filling as a lunch should be. The salad consisted of some lettuce leaves, tomato wedges, cucumber slices, and what I at first considered to be the strangest tasting coleslaw ever. Only after eating most of it did I realise the "coleslaw" did not contain cabbage, but was actually made of shredded carrot and coconut! Once this revelation had been absorbed, it was significantly more enjoyable.

And on feeding, there is actually a tank in the marine exhibition that does have a feeding routine, that belongs to a blue-ringed octopus, which is given a live crab once a day to chase down and eat. The octopus had just finished its meal as we arrived, spitting out the crab shell and then proceeding to move about the tank, changing colour in lightning fast flashes of electric blue pigment. It was very dramatic to watch. Also part of the exhibit was a collection of large flexible Fresnel lenses which could be borrowed and carried around to magnify the creatures in the tanks for closer viewing.

From the marine show, we walked back to the mall, taking our time through the heat. We stopped for a drink of water from the bubbler at the oil tunnels and the man there recognised us again and said, "Are you still walking around?" We made our way back down the mall, noting that in all of central Darwin there is not a single pedestrian crossing or traffic light. The traffic is so light that apparently there is no need for either - in the very middle of the city! The other thing we noticed was the relative emptiness and quiet of the mall on a shopping day. There were people around, but nothing at all compared to Pitt Street in Sydney. I don't think I've ever seen Pitt St as empty as the Smith St Mall here.

On the way back to our room, we stopped off at a nearby Woolies to buy some Weet Bix and milk so we can have simple, cheap breakfasts for our last two days. We also got some fresh apples and pears and I got a sweet chili scroll from Baker's Delight to supplement my prawn and salad lunch. Then it was back to the room for a few hours of rest out of the heat before venturing forth for dinner.


We left about 18:20 to seek out the restaurant Hanuman, described by the Lonely Planet as an Indian/Thai place with a good reputation. First we went via the hotel reception to hand back some spare carpark tokens, get information about a bus to take us out to the Museum and Art Gallery tomorrow morning, and book an airport shuttle bus pickup for Sunday. The map in the Lonely Planet said Hanuman was on Mitchell Street, about four blocks south-east of where we are staying. So we left via the hotel back entrance on Mitchell St and walked down, noticing that the streets had suddenly come alive with people, spilling out of bars and generally having a noisy time. Presumably they all stay indoors in the air conditioning during daylight and only emerge into the open air at nightfall.

By the time I judged we'd passed where Hanuman should be, we still hadn't spotted it. A quick check revealed us to be in the right spot. Looking around, we saw no restaurant matching the description, but we did see an empty shop with a "for lease" sign in it. Not wanting to leave without checking the possibilities, we went into the Crown Plaza Hotel next door and asked at the reception desk where Hanuman was. The guy there said it used to be in the empty shop right next door... but now it had moved to the other end of Mitchell St. When I asked exactly where, he said it was about four blocks down, next to the Entertainment Centre. As I was still expressing puzzlement, he continued: "Across the street from the Noodle House." At this, we recognised exactly where Hanuman must be, since we'd noted Noodle House directly across the street the first time we'd emerged from our hotel! The guy was obviously just trying not to say, "It's in the Esplanade Holiday Inn building," since he worked for a different hotel.

We walked the four blocks back to our hotel and lo, there was Hanuman, right next to the back door to the hotel. We'd walked right past it about five or six times already, and the name had never clicked until now. So we went in and requested a table, only to be told that it was booked out for the night - evidently a very popular place, since it was quite large. So instead we made a booking for tomorrow night and crossed the road to Noodle House.

We'd both been expecting that with a name like "Noodle House" it would be a cheap and cheerful short-order and take-away joint, but it turned out to be a full-on restaurant with table service. We squeezed into a slot that gave us a scant hour to eat before we had to clear out for someone else's reservation. That gave us enough time to sample a starter of vege spring rolls, then mains of vegetables with fried noodles, and Szechuan beef with rice. The food was pretty fast and very good and very filling. We paid and left by 20:00 as promised, and headed back to our room for a restful evening in.

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