Before departing for the Northern Territory, I was discussing my trip with some Aussie friends. When they heard that I was going to Darwin, they raved about two things: the food and the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Darwin is a melting pot of Southeast Asian and Australian cultures, with immigrants from Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines making up a substantial portion of the capital’s population. As such, Darwin has more to offer than just Australian meat pies and wedges (this is not to say that I couldn’t survive on pies and wedges, because I happily could). And if Darwin is a melting pot, then Mindil Beach Sunset Market is the vortex that is produced when you stir it all up.
Every Thursday and Sunday throughout the dry season, hundreds of vendors selling everything from raw oysters to sarongs gather at Mindil Beach to peddle their wares, socialize and watch the sunset. Children run freely around the beach, frolicking with ice cream cones in hand and remnants of that afternoon’s candy still on their shirts. Tourists and locals mingle as they meander through the makeshift paths between booths filled with local musicians’ CDs and food stalls serving everything from roti to shaved ice. And since the market only operates in the dry season, you’re virtually guaranteed perfect weather throughout the evening.
As with any market, there are things worth knowing in advance. I went to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market not knowing what to expect. I left with plenty of tips for your visit to Darwin.
- Get there early – The market opens at 5:00pm and things are relatively quiet for the first 45 minutes or so. The parking lot can become a bit chaotic later in the evening, so do yourself a favor and just head up there right when it opens.
- Do a few laps – There’s nothing worse than buying a souvenir only to later stumble upon something significantly better. The vendors at Mindil Beach are tremendously friendly, so if you’re not sure that you’re ready to commit to that silver bracelet, ask the merchant to put it aside for you. If you don’t see anything better, go back and buy it. Just be polite and let them know if you’ve changed your mind so that they can put the product back out for others.
- Don’t stuff yourself all at once – The plethora of fantastic and authentic food at Mindil is worth sampling tapas-style. Grab some chili crab from one vendor and a chicken satay from another. Leave room for the mind-numbingly sweet desserts created with lychee, tropical fruits and plenty of ice and syrup.
- Don’t get the tacos – I love Mexican food as much as the next guy, but Australia is no place for Mexican food. I’ve spent enough time there to know this all too well. You’re not here for tacos. Stay focused.
- All that glitters is not gold – Just like any street fair or market, some vendors are selling authentic local goods while others are pushing schlocky crap to make a quick buck. Look at everything carefully, ask the merchant as many questions as you’d like and don’t be afraid to walk away empty handed if you’re not satisfied.
- Walk down the beach for the sunset – Mindil Beach is a mob scene around 6:00 in anticipation of the sunset. Nothing ruins a serene moment more than hundreds of digital cameras chiming. Around 5:45, take a stroll down the beach away from the masses and the market itself. Enjoy the sunset in solitude and then return for your next wave of curried everything,
- Learn to use a whip – Perhaps my favorite booth at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market belongs to Mick of Mick’s Whips. He sells, well, whips (along with various tchotchkes made from crocodile skins) and teaches anyone who’s interested how to use them in his whip arena. Even this Yank from New York City was cracking the whip before the night was through.
There’s not much else to it. It’s not rocket science, it’s just one of the coolest little markets in one of the most diverse towns you’ll find in Australia. For more information on the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, check out their website. Just be sure that you arrive hungry.
Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.