I admit it; when I’m traveling and see something billed as “free,” my ears perk up. The air travel, lodging, and food cost a lot already, so balancing out my expenses makes sense. Some days are expensive, like scuba on the reef, and some aren’t, like our cheap yet enriching day in Darwin, which included a no-expense visit to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
It was our first full day in the tropical capital of the NT, which is blessed with pristine beaches, barramundi-rich waters, and access to a UNESCO World Heritage-listed park. Located on the far northern coast, or “Top End,” of Australia, Darwin is so remote that for locals it’s closer and cheaper to fly to Bali than to Australia’s big southern cities. In fact, Pan-Asian food and culture have exerted a great influence here, which is probably why the city is known as the Market Capital of Australia. Since it was Saturday, there was no question that our day would start at Darwin's most famous weekend market.
At the Parap Market, the specialty is laksa, a spicy coconut curry noodle soup that hails from Southeast Asia. We hopped aboard a free shuttle just outside the hotel and soon arrived at the sprawling food haven dominating a bustling square. Armed with an insider tip for the best vendor, we wandered around the maze looking for “Mary.” With hardly any signage to guide us, we decided to just stand in the longest line we could find. When we finally got to the front and ordered, we were relieved to discover it was indeed Mary. The soup was out-of-control delicious.
After ordering iced coffees from a hip-looking cart, we took a city bus (not free but cheap and reliable!) to the museum/art gallery, where we were immediately pulled into the aboriginal art and history exhibit laid out before us. Native Australians, who represent the oldest surviving culture in the world, have been making art across the continent for at least 60,000 years. The artwork, with its characteristic natural ochre pigments and thousands of meticulous dots and lines, captivated us for way longer than we had planned.
Next, we ventured into the Cyclone Tracy exhibit, an eerie look back at the 1974 storm that just about leveled the entire city late on Christmas Eve. There are bone-chilling news broadcasts, ghostly replicas of living rooms, and a pitch black cylindrical room designed to transport you to that frightening night, immersing visitors in the sounds and sensations of loud wind and crashing objects. I lasted about ten seconds. It was comforting to later learn that the hotel in which we were staying, the DoubleTree by Hilton Darwin, was the city’s tallest building left standing in Tracy’s aftermath.
Besides the danger of cyclones, Darwinians also have to watch out for giant saltwater crocodiles that inhabit beaches and freshwater rivers. One particularly nasty croc that spent years terrorizing local fishermen in the 1970s eventually became the museum's claim to fame, a 5.1-meter-long taxidermied specimen affectionately dubbed "Sweetheart."
If giant reptiles aren’t your thing, the hundreds of other stuffed or preserved species on exhibit are equally amazing. With a collection that overflows with unusual Australian fish, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals, the Transformations exhibit proves that evolution, especially on this continent, is the craziest thing ever. I’m sure Charles Darwin would be proud to know that not only is there an excellent museum exhibiting evolution at its finest/strangest, but that it’s located in a city named after him.
One of the most sobering creatures on display is a surprisingly large box jellyfish. Between the months of October through May, these “stingers” effectively close the beaches in Northern Australia. Their tentacles are so venomous, they can kill an adult human in 2 to 3 minutes, making them one of the deadliest animals on Earth. If you’ve seen the movie 7 Pounds, you may remember one making an appearance.
When the museum started to close, we lingered as long as possible before getting kicked out. Yes, the free air-con was a welcome refuge from the humid tropical summer outside, but even more, the place was fascinating in every corner, and we had only just scratched the surface. We ran to catch the city bus back to town, and got confused when the driver turned our money away. Apparently, our $3 tickets were good for three hours, and we still had ten minutes to spare.
Now’s probably a good time to remind you that I was in Australia practically for free anyway, with my DTour trip being sponsored and partially planned by DoubleTree by Hilton. They covered my airfare, lodging and a handful of excursions (not for Kristen). But even though I was practically paid to go to Australia, I still couldn’t turn down a free museum - being from DC, it's in my blood. Looking back, it’s hard to believe it was our cheapest day in Australia, considering it was so culturally rich with food, art, and history. A great reminder that, sometimes, the best experiences needn't cost a thing.
If you go:
Parap Village Market is open from 8am to 2pm on Saturdays. Go hungry and be sure to find the longest laksa line. Don't forget sunscreen! To get there from CBD, you can take a bus directly to the market - the most direct line is the 4 or 6. Cost is $3, and save your ticket, because it's good for three hours. There's also a free shuttle that picks up from major hotels - ask at your concierge.
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, 10am to 5pm weekends. Entry is FREE! The permanent exhibits, including Indigenous Art, Cyclone Tracy, and Transformations, are fantastic. To get here, ride the 4 or 6 bus to Conacher Street.
The Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Darwin sits on the picturesque Esplanade, the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the CBD or hopping on a bus to surrounding neighborhoods. Be sure to catch the sunset from your balcony if you've got Esplanade views.