WHEN YOU'RE PLANNING a trip to the Northern Territory, it pays to consult plenty of tourism websites and to talk with people who have already been there, picking their brains as you assemble a list of must-see destinations.
Your list of what to see in Darwin will probably include some World War II sites, the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, the Darwin Wharf Precinct, Fannie Bay Gaol, and many more tourist sites in the city. But there are also many interesting destinations within an hour’s drive of Darwin, many of which are often overlooked.
On a recent trip we went in search of some of these easily missed wonders that are literally on Darwin’s doorstep, and we found wetlands teeming with birdlife, natural springs and many other natural attractions with no entrance fees.
For our exploration of Darwin’s outskirts we were based at the Darwin Boomerang Caravan Park on the Stuart Highway, and 25km from the city centre. Coming up the Stuart Highway from the south, look out for the park on your left after you have passed the Arnhem Highway turn-off and driven through the township of Coolalinga. The tall palm trees at the entrance to the park can be seen from the highway, yet the park itself is actually set a hundred metres or so back from the main road, and is pretty quiet.
You’ll receive a friendly welcome at the park office and help with parking your van if you need it. This small caravan park with 58 powered sites has a lush, tropical setting with palm trees, and a mixture of concrete pads and grassed sites.
ON THE MAP
To get an idea of the geography of the area you can consult the retro-style wall map at the park’s entrance. Starting with the closest attractions, we visited Howard Springs, which is just 10km away. To get there travel north along the Stuart Highway and then turn off onto Howard Springs Road. This beautiful, spring-fed waterhole is surrounded by forest, with a shady grassed picnic area complete with gas barbecues.
Before World War II the spring was an important part of Darwin’s water supply. During the war it became a rest and recreation camp for servicemen, and in 1944 a weir was built to improve the spring-fed swimming hole. Unfortunately the waterhole is currently sign-posted “Permanently closed to swimming”. There’s an easy 1.8km forest walking trail with signs explaining more about some of the interesting plants and animals you may see along the way, including cycads (primitive palm trees) and fan and pandanus palms.
Another interesting and historic spring, also used as a rest and recreation camp for servicemen during World War II, lies about 35km south of the caravan park. Unlike Howard Springs you can still swim at Berry Springs, except in the wet season, when the pools may be closed. And the pools really are a spectacular sight. Dense forest comes right up to the water’s edge and the reflections off the mirror-smooth water are truly stunning. Water flows into another one of the pools in an attractive little cascade.If this isn’t paradise, what is?
But even paradise can have its dangers. Signs near the pools remind swimmers that estuarine crocodiles “are known to move into this area undetected”. That’s not exactly a comforting thought, so don’t go swimming if pool closure signs are in place. They do have crocodile traps to reduce the risk, and we saw on the news that a crocodile had been trapped in the vicinity the day after our visit.
Even if you don’t go for a swim, you can enjoy the picnic area, barbecues and interpretive centre, which gives more details on the history, flora and fauna of the area. There is also an interesting monsoon rainforest and woodlands walk, with sections of raised boardwalk to keep your shoes dry.
Another easy and interesting day trip from the caravan park is to travel just under 50km east along the Arnhem Highway to where the road crosses the Adelaide River. There’s a cafe here and a crocodile sighting boat excursion. We didn’t do the boat trip, but we did see plenty of replica crocodiles. We also stopped at Humpty Doo, where there is an iconic 8m-tall Big Boxing Crocodile statue next to the service station. It’s a popular spot to get a souvenir photo.
On the Arnhem Highway, a few kilometres before the Adelaide River crossing, there is a turn-off to the Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre. On top of Beatrice Hill and surrounded by the floodplain of the Adelaide River, the visitor centre has great views across a vast area of wetlands. Inside the modern air-conditioned building there are interesting and informative displays about the plants and animals of this area. Outside there is a picnic area and plenty of parking space for caravans and motorhomes.
We visited about a month after the Wet, so there was still quite a bit of water and greenery. Things become drier as the winter progresses, so visiting earlier in the season is a good idea if you want to see this special tropical wetland environment.
To see some wetlands up close, head back along the Arnhem Highway towards Humpty Doo and turn off on the 10km sealed road to Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. This dam was built in the 1950s to provide irrigation for the ambitious Humpty Doo Rice Project. The project was a failure, but today Fogg Dam is a wildlife refuge and is open to the public all year round.
There are several walking tracks at the reserve, each around 2km to 3km return, and each rated as easy. There is also a walk across the dam wall, which is basically a raised roadway with edges that slope gently down to the water’s edge. However, when we visited, this dam wall walk was closed (and still is at the time of writing) due to the presence of a large saltwater crocodile. Don’t even think of going for a swim!
But you can still drive across the dam wall, slowing down to have a good look at the birdlife. At the far end of the dam, make sure to visit the Pandanus Lookout, a tower that gives fantastic views across the extensive wetlands. This is a must for bird watchers, since the area teems with many species of water birds. Different varieties wade around in the water, all in close proximity, and surprisingly unconcerned about the presence of humans.
It’s only a 30-minute drive from Darwin Boomerang Caravan Park into the city centre. Even closer is Palmerston, which has a large shopping centre and is only a short detour from the highway.
On the east side of the highway at Palmerston we noticed a big ‘dinosaur’ and did a short detour to visit Finlay’s Joint, a combined garden centre, furniture and homewares store and cafe. The dinosaur theme continued when we got closer to Darwin and turned off the highway and onto Tiger Brennan Drive, which is an alternative route into the city centre.
This route takes you past Charles Darwin National Park, which is only about 5km east of Darwin city centre on the edge of Port Darwin Wetlands. This national park has some interesting walking trails where you can see cycads, palms that have survived since the time of the dinosaurs. And a set of stairs leads down to a walking trail into the wetlands, which are rated as one of the most significant in Australia. These wetlands cover an area of 48 sq km and include 36 different species of mangroves.
From the picnic area beside the main car park there are great views of Darwin in the distance, looking like it is squeezed in between the ocean and the primeval jungle. The city doesn’t spread much in this direction, so this national park feels more remote than you might expect.
The park has an interesting history, spanning many different cultures. Before the arrival of European settlers, this area was occupied by nomadic Aborigines. Then, in the late 19th century, Chinese market gardens were established near springs. During World War II the area was fenced off and used for the storage of explosives. You can still see the camouflaged buildings in which these “bomb dumps” were stored. Correctly called Armco magazines, they are scattered around the national park and some have historical exhibits inside.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
After a day of sightseeing it’s a pleasure to return to the Darwin Boomerang Caravan Park, where the shady, saltwater pool looked particularly inviting. The covered barbecue area next to the pool is the venue for the daily happy hour, where in this friendly park everyone is welcome to gather around and chat about the day’s events. About one third of the park’s residents are caravanners who travel up to Darwin every year and spend all of the winter months in the park.
The park certainly has plenty of amenities to keep both regulars and tourists happy. There is a well-equipped camp kitchen and two ablution blocks of differing styles. There is an older conventional male and female toilet and shower block, plus a more recently built block of four individual bathrooms that have a self-contained toilet, shower and vanity area.
One of the four family members who own and manage the park usually joins in the happy hour and this is a good opportunity to quiz them about local attractions and facilities. The park office also provides a tour booking service if you are keen to go further afield, maybe to Litchfield National Park or even Kakadu National Park with a guided tour group. Most tour operators will pick you up on the highway and some come to the park entrance.
If your caravan needs some maintenance after the long trip from down south, the park owners can recommend a local mobile caravan repairer who is happy to visit the park. They also organise a bus tour into Darwin every Thursday evening for the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. These markets are famous for their Asian-style food stalls and spectacular sunsets.
There are also plenty of eating options at or near the caravan park. There is an onsite tavern and a general store with takeaway food. Just five minutes’ drive away at Coolalinga there is a large supermarket and several cafes and takeaway food outlets. This four-star Top Tourist Park really has a lot going for it.
Source: Caravan World Apr 2011.