When you are exploring Darwin with kids you quickly discover little children and little crocodiles have a lot in common. They both have loads of energy, a wild sense of adventure and will happily climb over their siblings to get some food. Our family discovered that feeding baby crocs at Crocosaurus Cove was one of many child-friendly activities available in Darwin. Most of them were also educational – but don’t tell the kids. Everything was so much fun they will never know.
Darwin is packed with stories of courage, adventure and lucky escapes. After a bombing raid during World War II the city was flattened once again 30 years later, this time by Cyclone Tracy. Darwin’s courageous spirit remains along with a number of excellent attractions dedicated to its tumultuous history. Getting dirty and touching stuff won’t get your kids in trouble here. In fact, it is encouraged.
Some of Darwin’s best historical attractions have little in common with a traditional museum. Just out of town at the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre we were encouraged to handle the exhibits and ‘feel’ their history. Holding a bomb fragment from the World War II raid was deeply moving but this place is far from sombre. It was impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the volunteers who had plenty of tall tales to tell about the centre’s aircraft and artefacts.
Our eyes were immediately drawn to the B-52 bomber which dwarfs the F-111 sitting under its tail. On open cockpit days visitors can climb into the body of this mighty aeroplane and explore the crew areas. When the aircraft was flying, six men would have been crammed into this tiny space for up to 32 hours at a time. Even if you are not aviation enthusiasts when you arrive at this museum, you will be by the time you leave.
Darwin is a compact city which made it easy for us to get around. Our next destination, the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, was less than 10 minutes away by car. This free attraction is best-known for two things: Sweetheart, a 5 metre long crocodile with a story to tell, and a Cyclone Tracy display where documentary footage has been cleverly interwoven with historic recreations from the time.
Seeing the interior of a typical 1970s house with an old television showing the news brought back memories. One of the exhibits is a pitch black room where an original audio recording of the cyclone plays on a continuous loop. Like the families on Christmas Eve in 1974, we held each other close as we were surrounded by the tortured screech of tearing metal and banshee-like scream of the wind.
The thought of feeding a couple of crocodiles the next morning seemed almost tame after that. Our Big Croc Feed VIP Experience at Crocosaurus Cove included meeting some Australian native animals first-hand and coming face-to-face with one of the largest saltwater crocodiles on the planet. We started off easy with a tour of the reptile house where we held a turtle, a frill-necked lizard and an olive python.
Next it was time to feed Burt, the croc who starred alongside Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee. The Cove’s oldest and most famous resident didn’t seem interested in the meat dangling from my pole at first. However, he must have been playing to the crowd because just when our family least expected it, the wily croc launched himself into the air and ate the entire meal in one bite.
Feeding Burt was exciting due to his size (and showbiz timing) but our family preferred the fun of the juvenile crocs. Armed with a fishing rod each we dangled meat over the safety glass and watched as the little salties jumped high in the air then rumbled with each other in the water. Most of the attractions at Crocosaurus Cove are outside so bring a hat and plenty of water. We must have been hot because the croc-infested pools were starting to look inviting. Luckily our hotel was right around the corner so we went for a swim there instead.
Darwin has a reputation for expensive accommodation but there are bargains to be found, especially over the weekend when rates drop by up to 50%. We stayed at the Novotel Darwin Atrium where lush vegetation filled the lobby and cascading vines hung from the ceiling. Much to our surprise, even the palm trees were real. When you are travelling as a family there is something to be said for an older (refurbished) hotel like this one. Rooms were much bigger back then and most older hotel rooms are far larger than those which are being built now. Even the standard ones at the Novotel are enormous by today’s standards.
We decided to spend our last morning embracing Darwin’s endless summer at the Wave Lagoon at the waterfront precinct. Entry includes the use of boogie boards and water tubes. Older children (and their parents) can take on waves ranging up to 1.7 metres high while youngsters paddle in the shallow zone. Admission only costs a few dollars but you can swim for free at the nearby recreation area.
Across the road from the lagoon we discovered the entrance to Darwin’s World War II oil storage tunnels. It cost just $6 each to explore this vast underground storage facility which was built to protect fuel and oil from aerial bombardment after the 1942 bombing. Tunnels 5 and 6 are open to the public and travel 120 metres beneath the city. Clutching our complimentary postcard, we entered the tunnels which were built almost entirely by hand and never completed.
The project ran over time and over budget and was cancelled after the war ended. Rather fortunately, as it turns out. It would have ended up costing more than £1,000,000 and was an engineering disaster as the tunnels could never be used. We splashed through the trickling water beneath our feet which was the tunnels’ downfall. Water began seeping between the steel lining and the concrete walls almost immediately after the tunnels were built.
Two of them were initially used to store jet aircraft fuel but the water made it unusable. The tunnels were abandoned until 1992 when they were reopened as a tourist attraction to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. We paused to look at the World War II photographs on display while our son ran the length of the tunnel and touched its rusted walls. Whether you prefer to ponder the history which shaped this city or reach out and grab it with both hands, Darwin does not disappoint.
Disclaimer: The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism NT.
If you are looking for some more information about Darwin, check out our review of the Hilton Darwin, the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre and what to expect on The Ghan if you’re travelling to Darwin to board this iconic train.