Tucked away in a remote corner of Australia’s Northern Territory – known as the “Top End” in the local vernacular – sits the bustling and vibrant city of Darwin. A bit of a hidden gem for travelers, Darwin boasts warm, tropical weather all year long, not to mention some of the most spectacular sunsets that you could ever hope to see. Visitors can elect to relax on a tranquil beach, sail the open waters of the Timor Sea or venture deep into the vast and wild Outback in search of crocodiles and wallabies.
Deftly blending that famous Aussie-hospitality with a laid back vibe that is all its own, the city has a unique feel to it that is unlike any other you’ll find on the continent. While Darwin is a growing city that is likely to play a vital role in Australia’s economic future, its inhabitants certainly know how to leave work behind and have a good time. Nowhere is that more evident than the Darwin Lion’s Beer Can Regatta, an annual event that is equal parts beer bash and charity fund raiser, with a hefty dose of nautical mayhem mixed in for good measure.
As the name implies, this regatta features boats made almost entirely out of beer cans, which the owner and his friends have no doubt put a lot of effort into emptying. Those cans are then combined with a variety of other materials – such as PVC pipe, plastic water jugs and whatever other buoyant items they can find – to create a mostly-seaworthy vessel that is capable of competing against other entrants both in aesthetic value and speed out on the water.The actual regatta takes place on Darwin’s popular Mindil Beach on a Sunday in July. The most recent version was held a few weeks back and featured a variety of boat designs that both amused and impressed the substantial crowd that gathered to take in the festivities. Notable entrants included the “Crocket Ship,” which bore a more than passing resemblance to the crocodiles that are so common in the Northern Territory, and the “Grog Monsta,” a massive boat constructed from more than 50,000 cans that came equipped with a powerful water cannon designed to harass any would-be rivals.
The Beer Can Regatta is an all-day affair that includes a number of activities both on and off the water. For instance, kayak races allow youngsters in attendance to get in on the action while a spirited tug-of-war competition gives teams a chance to flex their muscles. A thong-throwing contest (the shoes not the underwear) is also quite popular with this year’s winner managing to toss his footwear an impressive 51 meters.
But the real highlight, of course, is the competition between the crews of the various beer can boats. Throughout the day they challenge one another to a variety of races in the waters just off Mindil Beach, earning prizes as they go. The enthusiastic crowd cheers them on while some of them get an early start on building their own boats for next year by emptying a few cans on their own.
Those preliminary races are just a warm-up for the real competition, however, as it is the Battle of Mindil that caps the competition and determines just who is the true champion of the event. During the battle the teams search for “booty” hidden under the water while using water cannons, flour-bombs and balloons filled with tomato juice to rain down destruction on their foes. The first few minutes of this final competition are pure chaos as the boats attack each other with little regard for finding the hidden treasure, which is simply represented by a plastic bottle tied to buoy hidden out on the course. In order to win the battle, the “booty” must be claimed and then taken to shore and delivered to the starters’ table. That gives other teams an opportunity to steal the prize for themselves, although, by that point of the competition some of the boats wouldn’t exactly be described as ship-shape any longer. Once the booty has been placed in the hands of the judges, the Battle of Mindil is over and the champion of the Beer Can Regatta is crowned.
While the event is a raucous affair that features plenty of eating and drinking, it is all done for a good cause. Sponsored by Darwin’s chapter of the Lions Club, the Beer Can Regatta is used to raise funds for a number of local causes. For 40 years the Regatta has brought the city together while managing to raise thousands of dollars that go directly back into community projects. The premise of racing boats made primarily from beer cans may sound silly, but it has some serious implications for the city.
The date for the 2014 Beer Can Regatta has yet to be decided but you can bet that next year’s competitors are already planning their entries. After all, if you want to launch a winning boat, you need to start emptying beer cans early.
I was sitting in the Speakers Corner Café in the stunning (and unexpected) Parliament House in Darwin, a rare marriage between a Southeast Asian bungalow and a po-mo shout in light and glass; all around-as everywhere in central Darwin-were plaques recalling the Japanese air raids on the place in February 1942, and markers announcing, “An enemy bomb fell here and killed 10 people.” The biographies of some of the employees of Darwin’s post office who were lost in the attack were on prominent display on every side. And Sachiko Hirayama, a sweet, elegant and determined young woman from Nagasaki was telling me about how she was hoping to bring Japanese tour groups here to visit the sites where they had lost loved ones and so put old fears to rest.
Hirayama had been appointed by the Northern Territory’s new Chief Minister, Terry Mills, to act as a liaison with Japan-and such is the strangeness of the small town set amidst a huge territory thirty times the size of the Netherlands (with 1/60th of the population) that, within less than 24 hours of my return to Darwin last August, I bumped into Mills at a little café. Just one day before, he had been named Chief Minister and brought the Country Liberal Party back into power in the Top End after 11 years. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked me where I lived.
“Japan,” I said, and his eyes lit up. “The second call of congratulations I received was from the Consul-General of Japan. I am really interested in Japan. Seriously!” The fact that Japan is the Territory’s largest trading partner-and that the Japanese oil development company INPEX had already sunk $100 million into the exploration of gas fields nearby–was surely one reason; but it really did seem as if Darwin was suddenly realizing how well-placed it was to become a global player.
“Darwin is closer to Jakarta than to Canberra,” Mills went on, pointing out to a local journalist that he wasn’t “fluent” in Bahasa Indonesia, but had studied it at university in Jakarta. Then he began talking about his work with the “traditional owners” of the Territory.This couldn’t have flowed more naturally out of my very first taste of Darwin on this trip: as soon as I got off the plane from Melbourne, on a hot Sunday night, I took myself off to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, and realized, as I looked at the crocodile-foot back-scratchers on sale, the crocodile skulls being sold for $75, the crocodile-tooth headbands and crocodile-skin earrings, that the Top End still boasts an improbable, fantastic mix of New Agers and old salts.
A guy I might have seen in Goa was playing the didgeridoo, while three Aboriginal kids twirled themselves around in front of him. A strapping local cowboy was flogging whips. The next stall down in the makeshift assembly of shacks on a patch of grass across a ridge from the ocean was selling propeller planes made of beer cans; these were deftly brought into the new multi-culti order by a Chinese boy at the end of the row who had fashioned Mickey Mouse out of balloons.
You don’t come to the Top End, of course, to be part of the mainstream; in a territory larger than Italy, Germany, Japan and Britain combined (with a population 1/80th that of Shanghai), you have to define yourself in bold colors against the thousands of miles of red emptiness. I was offered soy candles amidst the crocodile and mud-crab rolls at the market, and saw tie-dye dresses for 3-year-olds for sale next to “night-display, sound-activated” t-shirts. I could get Chinese-made tacos or Fijian-stirred milk shakes, goatmilk soap or “dragon fruit sorbet.” The only governing assumption-and maybe this spoke for something essentially Australian-was that the one thing I’d never find was anything that was available at Woolworth’s (though the local Woolies, not so far away, was a huge emporium, complete with its own large liquor shop).
Privileged urban refugees eager to go back to the land seemed to be bumping into indigenous people taking their first uncertain steps into city life. And kids who had just left Kuta or Ko Phi Phi were walking into Thais and Filipinos and Indonesians who had come here to experience the life the kids thought they were fleeing. As Terry Mills had pointed out, the tag-line here about Darwin being closer to Bali than to Sydney speaks to something deeper than geography; here was an ever more Southeast Asian town that just happened to be talking with an Aussie twang.
I’d been to Darwin before, in 1988, the year of the Bicentennial. At the time, the sudden explosion of tropical green after hours of nothingness below, the Jurassic Park landscape of Kakadu National Park nearby, the scrappy little settlement of ferns and larger-than-life eccentrics trying to market their reptiles (a multi-national chain had recently constructed a whole hotel nearby shaped like a crocodile) had all made me feel I was on a different continent from Adelaide or Cairns. Now, with the prospect of oil nearby, and with Darwin offering the last word in freedom from hustle-bustle with relaxing ocean views, the local glossy lifestyle magazine was shouting “Uber Luxe” on its cover and advertising $3.5 million penthouse apartments overlooking the one-story narrow main streets. I might have been in a piece of Miami Beach airlifted to rural Utah.
Yet for all the gestures towards urbanism, the question the Top End still seems to ask remains: what do you do in an area with a population density lower than that of Pitcairn (an island that boasts all of 66 people)? One answer was afforded by the pungent local newspaper, the NT News, which informed me, on arrival, that one Territory man had racked up nearly 70 criminal charges in 7 months, and which also gave an account of a local hero who had saved a mate the previous day by disabling a croc with a screwdriver. Much of Darwin seemed to have the outlandish air of an Outback chapter of the Hells Angels. A car parked downtown had “X-Men” all over its sides, and a huge portrait of a superhero (or his enemy) on the back, declaring, “An Agnostic, Dyslexic, Insomniac Stayed Up All Night Wondering if there was a Dog”; a “Toyota Rescue Vehicle” nearby had placed a sign on its back window advising, “Patience, My Little Grasshopper.”
When faced with a tabula rasa, people can make of themselves anything they choose, perhaps. So the native strangeness of faraway towns like Darwin seemed interestingly deepened by all the people who flocked there in order to rewrite their destinies. Signs in Hangul script pointed me to one of the town’s ubiquitous churches and three Chinese characters-nothing else-adorned a banner atop a high-rise. The man who took my breakfast order at the Holiday Inn on the Esplanade-and rather amazingly, they were serving up “English Bacon,” fleshy and pink, as well as “American Bacon,” crispy and streaked (I’d never known there was a difference)-was Indian. So was the man who collected the dishes. Even in 1891, I recalled, seven in every ten people here, thanks to the booming gold mining industry, was Chinese.
Australia, for me, is a land that overturns all foreign ideas of what is central and marginal, what the exception, what the rule: at the War Memorial Church, in the center of Darwin, I found signs on every side advising, “Please do not leave Bags or Other Valuables in the Pews Unattended,” perhaps the first time I’d ever been warned against robberies in a church. But the longer I stayed in the country, the more I could see that the real fascination of the lonely continent lay not in the brawny exterior, nor only in the old, deep interior, but in the constantly evolving interplay between them.
One evening I found myself at a chic Italian restaurant, at the bottom of the tallest building in Darwin, across from a quiet man who told me how he had fought in Vietnam as a teenager with the Australian army. He had so lost his heart to the region, he said, almost shyly, that he had stayed on in Laos after his service finished and lived in Bali for some years. He still kept a place in Saigon. “To be honest,” he said-now he was a lawyer offering his expertise to indigenous causes–”the reason I came up here to Darwin was that I didn’t want to live in Australia. I felt more at home in Asia. Just the smell, as soon as you arrive at the airport, the night sounds, the climate; the whole thing is Asia.”
The man next to me-his air of warm confidence and ruddy complexion might have made him at home in a London club-turned out to be another lawyer working with the “traditional owners” in the Tiwi Islands, a 30-minute plane ride away from the town, who had spent years as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea; hearing that, the woman across from us started reminiscing about growing up as part of a missionary family in so rural a part of New Guinea that she was “educated under the house by my mum.” It seemed an everyday assembly, and yet there was an easy, lightly worn cosmopolitanism here that seemed both the rising feature of Australia and one of the things it could teach the larger world.
I had thought, when I arrived, and shuffled around the Sunset Park, that I was seeing the hyperdeveloped world meet the wilderness, the underdeveloped universe meet possibility, so that each side could check the other out. Perhaps I was. But every time I heard a story of what had brought someone here, I heard the sound of a fresh Australia, which is defining itself by everything that’s around and beyond it. Darwin seemed in large part a mild-mannered Chinese young man-I met them all over town-in specs, politely asking, “How’s yer day goin’?”
The next day, when I woke up, the cover of the N.T. News shouted, “MAN BITES CROC ON SNOUT.” I’d already read about a “community garden activist” who had run for office even though he had been convicted of killing a man. But by now I was able to see that such headlines were partly bluster and mostly about trying to satisfy expectations. I met loud voices and startling attitudes everywhere I went in the Top End; but it was in the silences, in everything people didn’t say, that something much more haunting and unique kept coming through.
The Northern Territory of Australia is inviting travelers to explore the Outback Your Way with limited-time promotions designed to make it easier and more affordable than ever to visit that famous part of the world. The promotions include a variety of great options such as free flights, discounted accommodations and other upgrades designed to enhance the experience.
The Outback Your Way program is designed to give travelers flexibility when exploring the Northern Territory without emptying their wallets in the process. For example, one of the most popular destinations in the Outback is Uluru, also known as Ayer’s Rock, the iconic sandstone formation that has been sacred to the Aboriginal tribes for thousands of years. As part of this new promotion, when visitors book a three-night stay at the Desert Gardens Hotel, they receive a free tour of Kata Tjuta National Park, the location of that landmark. Similarly, travelers who book three-night stays in the Crown Plaza, in either Alice Springs or Darwin, also receive free touring options as part of those packages as well.
Those looking to explore the Outback in a completely different way can travel from Darwin to Alice Springs aboard the legendary Ghan Railway. The package includes two nights stay in both cities, a wildlife tour and a visit to the West MacDonnell Ranges, as well as a number of other activities. Traveling by train across Australia’s countryside is an unbelievable way to experience the natural beauty of the place and when booked six months in advance, travelers receive a $500 discount.
Other special deals that fall under the Outback Your Way promotion include a free helicopter flight over Uluru, complimentary internal flights when booking a comprehensive Australian travel package, a free sunset dinner cruise and much more.
If you’ve been planning an Australian vacation for some time but have been waiting for just the right opportunity, then you’ll definitely want to check out the Outback Your Way website. This is the perfect time to head down under and experience everything Australia has to offer.
Ever heard of Evotourism™? No? That’s because the Smithsonian Institution just made it up.
This month’s issue of Smithsonian magazine is all about Evotourism™, which they’ve decided to trademark so we all have to put that pesky trademark symbol after it. Not a user-friendly way to coin a new term.
As their new dedicated site says, Evotourism™ is the “Smithsonian’s new travel-information service that will help you find and fully enjoy the wonders of evolution. Whether it’s a city museum or suburban fossil trove, a historic scientific site overseas or a rare creature in your own backyard, we’ll direct you to places and discoveries that figure in the science of evolution or offer eye-opening evidence of the process of natural selection.”
The site lists a variety of places to learn about the evolution of life on our planet, from Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where you and your family can pose for photos in front of a dinosaur still encased in rock, to Darwin’s home just outside London. Each destination is given a detailed treatment with an accompanying article.
There are also some general articles on subjects such as the life and work of Charles Darwin. One important piece is an interview with Christián Samper, former director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that clears up many of the misconceptions about evolution, such as the common misperception that belief in evolution and belief in God is an either/or proposition.
The site is organized by theme, so if you have kids in tow or are a photographer, you’ll be directed to the sites that are best for you.
It’s a good list to start with, but of course there are many more sites to visit and the folks at the Smithsonian will be adding to it. They were modest enough not to include their own Natural History Museum in Washington, DC, surely one of the best Evotourism™ destinations anywhere. I’d also suggest the Science Museum in London, the Natural History Museum in New York City, and the Natural History Museum in Oxford, England.
For adventure travelers who want to get to the source, there’s the National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which has Lucy, the famous 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, and a display of skulls from the earliest human ancestors to modern humans in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance. Other rooms show the evolution of other animals.
What other Evotourism™ destinations would you recommend? Tell us in the comments section!
Earlier this week popular travel guide publisher Lonely Planet announced their selections for the top 10 cities to visit in 2012, with a few obvious choices making the list. For example, London, which will host the 2012 Olympic Games, was unsurprisingly given a nod, while Hong Kong and Orlando, two perennially popular destinations, earned the distinction as well. Other cities making their way into the Lonely Planet spotlight include Santiago, Chile; Muscat, Oman; and Cádiz, Spain, each of which is lauded for their cosmopolitan flair, cultural diversions, and vibrant nightlife.
Adventure travelers looking for a great base of operations will want to take particular note of the inclusion of Darwin, Australia on the LP list. Located in that country’s Northern Territory, the city of 125,000 is praised for its buzzing art scene, great cuisine, and laid back atmosphere. What was once a remote frontier town has grown into a fantastic urban destination that remains below the radar for many travelers. At least for now.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find a lot to love in Darwin and the Northern Territory in general. The place is well known for its fantastic fishing, with anglers visiting from around the globe to try their hand at landing the famed barramundi. Near by Litchfield National Park offers fantastic hiking and camping, not to mention some of the most amazing waterfalls and freshwater pools around, while a visit to the Tiwi Islands immerses travelers in Aboriginal culture. Other featured activities include sailing, backpacking, and swimming, with plenty of great outdoor destinations available to indulge the whims of even the most adventurous travelers.
And once they’ve finished exploring the Northern Territory’s wild side, visitors can return to Darwin and take a stroll through an art museum or wander the popular Mindil Beach Sunset Market. Afterwards they can sit waterside and enjoy a world-class meal, complete with fresh seafood and smooth wines, before taking in the city’s eclectic nightlife or retiring to a comfortable hotel for the evening. Who says that adventure travel doesn’t allow you to spoil yourself too?
Joining Darwin, and the other cities already mentioned, on the Lonely Planet list are Bangalore, India; Stockholm, Sweden; and Guimarães, Portugal. To view the complete list and read why the cities were chosen, click here.