Eight Places To Go Find Some Culture In Darwin
There's more to the Top End than crocodiles.
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Yeah, yeah, you think you know Darwin: it’s hot, it’s weird, it’s obsessed with crocodiles. And yes, it is all those things, but Australia’s tropical capital tends to be underestimated. Top end culture lurks in some unexpected places: it’s subversive, it’s intensely local, and it will get you away from the backpacker bars and FIFO/Army punch-ups that make walking down the main party drag of Mitchell St at night such a thrilling and dangerous proposition.
With great art, vibrant markets, a grassroots theatre and music scene, and an epic coastline from which to worship those spectacular sunsets, Darwin is very comfortable sitting at the intersection of the rugged remote outback with its pristine national parks, while remaining the most internationally-connected spot in Australia.
This is why Thai laksas remain the city’s official meal, while world-class Indigenous art can be bought on the side of the road as easily as in a gallery. Just this once, we’ve left out the many and varied croc experiences – a top end must – to sniff out some of the other best ways to experience the culture of this unique town.
Museum And Art Gallery Of The Northern Territory
Where: Conacher St, Fannie Bay, Darwin
Pro tip: Cornucopia Restaurant on site has water views and has just opened for dinner. The food is delicious and no one else seems to know about it yet, so you won’t have to book a table.
Want to see the stuffed corpse of one of the top end’s most enduring celebrities Sweetheart, the giant saltwater crocodile that was once the bane of fishermen? Or how about standing in darkness listening to the horrifying howl of Cyclone Tracy as she pulverised the city in 1974? Or maybe you just want to see some of the country’s best indigenous art? Whatever your answer: head to the MAGNT.
The bizarre and the beautiful is all on display at this museum, which also houses a Vietnamese refugee boat in a nod to Australia’s first wave of asylum seekers, and crafts from the Tiwi Islands and Indonesia. The room dedicated to Cyclone Tracy is a must to try and understand the scars Darwin still bears from the last time it was decimated and had to reinvent itself (and also to see the ace design in a replica 1970s suburban Australian living room. So much cane!). But there are also international travelling art exhibitions, such as the French Impressionist show touring until June from the National Gallery and showcasing the words of Daumier, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.
You’ll learn more than you expected to about this remote little corner; or you may have just been too dazzled by the extremely lifelike stuffed python eating a mouse to notice. Either way, you’ll have fun, and you’ll be doing it in sub-arctic aircon climes. Bliss.
Spun Stories At Eva’s
Where: George Brown Botanic Gardens, Gardens Road, The Gardens, Darwin
For fans of: This American Life and Richard Fidler, only super local
If the Garden of Eden had a café, it would be Eva’s. Think that’s hyperbole? Think again. Here we have an adorable weatherboard building – a heritage-listed 19th century former Wesleyan church, no less – nestled in the luxuriant green armpit of the Botanical Gardens. We’re talking creeping vines, community gardens, ponds; a regular city retreat, with coffee, cakes, salads, and huge tankards of iced cucumber water to help you beat the heat.
And every couple of months once the lunch rush has petered out and the sun begins to set, Eva’s is transformed into a storytelling hub for true tales about the Territory. At its inaugural event in late March, organisers were hoping for 40 people and got almost 200 spilling out into the surrounding garden and peeping in through the windows and doors.
For $7 you get six 10-minute tales on a theme about life in the Top End, such as navigating Tinder in a town dominated by soldiers, FIFO workers and fishos; what it’s like providing palliative care for the dying; and what happens when the police use your house as a spy base to bust your neighbour’s meth lab operation.
Organisers are hoping to make the event bi-monthly; June’s event is themed Going Troppo. In the Top End people lose their minds fairly easily, so there should be a top-notch array of the craziest ones.
Harriet Place Art Precinct
Where: Harriet Place, Darwin
For fans of: Reclaiming the streets with art.
Contact: Mayfair Gallery, Art Warehouse, Paul Johnstone Gallery
“Welcome to the arse end of town” boasts a building as you head out of Darwin’s CBD. It’s covered in a mural of bare backsides peeping out through curtains. And yes, you definitely want to go inside.
The burgeoning little art hub is appealingly raw: there’s a youth hostel and an auto-repair warehouse with jacked-up cars in various states of disrepair on this U-shaped street between three interesting galleries, with a shady park to take some time out in should you be feeling a bit overwhelmed.
The Arse End of Town, aka Darwin’s Art Warehouse, is the most prominent. You never know what you might find inside, but it will be something along the lines of a small studio, quirky jewellery, and the sculpture of a baby face made out of plastic dolls. Eeeeek! Owner Carol Phayer is running for Parliament next year and has some great stories for you if you’ve got time for a chin-wag.
Two doors down is the Mayfair Gallery, all about appropriation with its Monopoly-style business cards, showing sometimes amateurish but always cheeky works such as a portrait of Tony Abbott as Jesus with a flaming turd where his sacred heart should be. Owner David Collins wants to hold youth events and workshops, and will be putting on regular board game nights to get us in touch with our our inner kids featuring all the childhood classics (Guess Who and Connect Four, for starters). Out back are rooms he plans to rent out to artists in residence so there’ll be a regularly rotating body of work on the walls of a venue that might just be Darwin’s next best art establishment.
A few doors down is Paul Johnstone Gallery, the slickest of the three. Here you’ll find a small but finely curated selection of contemporary works, such as central Australian landscape watercolours from Hermannsburg, and upcoming show by artists from Papunya in central Australia. If you like your art ethical, these guys are worth a visit; they only work with community art centres.
There’s the sweet little Harriet ExPresso café next door, which is a great spot to while away an hour with a coffee, ruminating on the trippy art tour you’ve just been on. Keep an eye on their Facebook updates, as all three galleries try to hold openings on the same night, which can result in a decidedly mixed crowd spilling out into the street for an impromptu block party. Yew!
Where: Jervois Road, Darwin Waterfront
Pro tip: Bring insect repellent and plenty of it. Also watch your feet – possums have been known to pounce on unsuspecting movie-goers.
Ahhhh, the Deckchair. With its saggy-backed chairs bound to eventually throw your back out, and delicious catering from a rotating roster of local restaurants, it’s a uniquely Territorian night out at the movies. Where else can you watch a film surrounded by lush jungle while the possums and bats voice their approval from the trees? You might not always be getting the latest releases, but it’s your best shot at seeing a foreign language or indie film in the Northern Territory.
The 2015 program will be studded with a number of travelling film festivals, such as Flickerfest, The Banff Mountain film festival, The Greek Film Festival (sure to please the many Greeks that make up Darwin’s metropopoulos) the Italian Film Festival, and the Human Rights Art and Film Festival.
Running in the dry season from April til November, it’s a great way to make the most of six months worth of clear skies. But if you still can’t get enough, they also run Flicks in the Wet, a smaller program of foreign and indie films screening on Sunday afternoons from December to March at the local cinema.
Sunset Drinks At The Ski Club
Where: 20 Conacher St, Fannie Bay
Pro tip: This is one of the best places to watch a wet season storm roll out to sea.
Contact: on Facebook
To be fair, there’s hardly a bad spot to watch the sun set in Darwin. Residents regularly pull out the camp chairs and bubbly and set up for evening picnics along the marbled cliffs to salute the end of another day as it slides out over the Timor Sea with a near-religious fervour.
But the Ski Club is a goddamn institution. The name gets chuckles (it’s the waterski club, natch) and the venue itself is not much more than a tin shed, which makes it a terrifying place to be caught in an electrical storm, believe you me. But the charm of this place is feeling like you’re in a friend’s enormous backyard, sitting in plastic chairs and looking out over the palm trees while you neck a cold one.
Some nights there’s live music, and the revamped restaurant means it’s also a good option for dinner. Half a kilo of prawns on ice for $19, anyone? Yep. That’s living.
Where: Saturdays at Parap shopping village, Parap Road
For fans of: Asian street markets.
The imminent threat of a cyclone might be the only thing that could close the Parap Markets. Open every Saturday year round, this place keeps Darwinites going during the humid depths of the wet season when almost everything else has shut down and grown over with mould. Here you can get buckwheat pancakes, the Top End’s best laksa, and a little taste of heaven (aka a roti wrap stuffed with beef massaman curry. Until then, you haven’t lived). Fresh juice stalls boast queues to stop traffic, because if Territorians need one thing, it’s delicious hydration. You can also chat to local produce growers and buy dragonfruit, pomelos, and mangoes for a song.
There are no views in Parap, unless you’re after a good hard look at the locals. This is a favoured brunch spot, and you’ll find people sitting on footpaths and along shopfronts wherever they can get a spot of shade to eat and catch up on the week. It’s surrounded by shops and a couple of top-notch art galleries (you can’t go past Nomad or Outstation, showing indigenous works from around the NT). And if you decide you also want to buy a croc-leather belt or claw backscratcher, more power to you.
Brown’s Mart Theatre and Happy Yess
Where: In the Brown’s Mart theatre complex, Smith St, Darwin
For fans of: the legendary Old Fitz in Sydney
Darwin is a quirky and dynamic city, but due to repeated wipeouts via Japanese bombs in World War II and two ferocious cyclones, it’s not exactly known for its attractive architecture.
But don’t lump Brown’s Mart into that category! One of the few historic buildings still standing, this lovely stone complex dates back to 1885 and now houses both an independent theatre, and a seriously grassroots live music venue, Happy Yess.
Clocking off work on Fridays is all the better for being able to have a few drinks in the atmospheric Brown’s Mart courtyard, seeing in the weekend with free live local music. Plays are staged regularly by the theatre, while Happy Yess puts on always surprising gigs featuring everything from spoken word poetry to death metal. If you’re lucky, you might drop in on a reggae night and see Allen Murphy keeping the beat: once upon a time the drummer with the Village People before he defected to the NT, he’s living proof that you just never know who you might run into in the Top End. But Brown’s Mart is probably where it’ll happen.
Where: All over
Pro tip: The opening night concert is free, so BYO picnic blanket and get there early.
The crown jewel in Darwin’s arts calendar for a reason, Darwin Festival began as a revitalisation of the city following Cyclone Tracy’s devastation, and is now a cultural institution in its own right.
It follows the general NT rule of cramming everything excellent into the dry season so that you’re so exhausted come October that you sleepwalk through the heat until April. And BOY, is it excellent. The festival is a head-spinning line-up of theatre, music, storytelling, burlesque, street parties, and the northern Australian Aboriginal Art Sale, which is a fascinating look at an incredibly diverse selection from every art centre from WA across to Queensland.
The Festival Hub in Civic Park is packed with people eating and drinking at the outdoor street market and bar, featuring stalls from local favourite restaurants such as Hanuman and Il Lido. With fairylights strung up in the trees, tiki torches and free music it’s a magical place to while away the whole evening, or even just to drop in between shows.
The festival has attracted some seriously high quality performers, such as Saskwatch, All Our Exes Live In Texas, Courtney Barnett, Gurrumul, the Soweto Gospel Choir, and veteran actors Tom E. Lewis and Jack Charles touring international stage shows. It’s probably also the only festival where you’re likely to see a man in a monkey suit take a dump into a drag queen’s mouth alongside dawn meditation with Buddhist monks. Because that’s Darwin.