Northern Australia: Darwin and the Top End
In Australia's untamed northern reaches, if you've got the time, you can hang with crocodiles and wild kangaroos for $20 to $30 a day
Thanks to the exchange rate, nearly no meal in Darwin is out of range. Locals sniff at munching 'roos and crocs, but tourists tuck into them at Barra Bar (15 Knuckey St., 8941-0513), a greasy spoon where Australia's indigenous critters, including barramundi fish, cost just $3 a burger - which is ironic, considering the pains travelers take to see the same animals in their natural glory. Darwin's sea bounty and a booming Asian population prop up more authentic cuisine. Go Sushi (28 Mitchell St., Shop 5, 8941-1008) serves a la carte $1.50-$3 plates on a traditional rotary-belt bar (though the owner laments workmen installed it incorrectly, making it the only one in Australia to commit the Buddhist heresy of running counter-clockwise), and six helpings of high-quality sushi will set you back an unheard-of $8 to $10. Even five-star dining, such as braised rabbit or Sri Lankan lamb curry served in the garden of Twilight on Lindsay (2 Lindsay St., 8981-8631), runs just $20 for three gourmet courses with a glass of fine Australian wine from the Hunter Valley.
Darwin itself has a savage past. Early explorers died by the dozen trying to reach it, the Japanese blitzed it during World War II (killing 243 servicemen - battleships still litter the harbor floor), and Cyclone Tracy obliterated it on Christmas Day, 1974. To survive, the Northern Territory folk became ornery, and they know the values of beer, beach, and strangely unruly ZZ Top beards - blokes look like wallaroos got stuck on their chins.
Befitting the eccentric populace, pleasures in town are one-of-a-kind. The owners of Aquascene (Doctors Gully, 8981-7837, aquascene.com.au; adults $3) trained lumbering oceangoing creatures like milkfish and shovel-nosed rays to eat from tourists' hands during high tide. Over at Indo-Pacific (Darwin Wharf, 8981-1294, indopacific.com.au; $8), they've spent 30 slow years cultivating vats of fluorescent coral, sea cucumbers, and tropical fish-dazzling life unique to the local Arafura Sea. And at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (Bullocky Point, 8999-8201; free), expect a snazzy facility with bizarre displays like jarred jellyfish, dry-docked Indonesian sloops, and the worldly possessions of an elderly widow who died in 1995. Of course, Darwin also supports an array of touristy farms (about $10) where "jumping crocodiles" leap for raw chicken meat. Most visitors don't miss the ghoulish spectacle of a "croc feed."
If you can, time your visit for late July to catch the annual Beer Can Regatta at Mindil Beach, when ale-sodden Darwinites race flimsy boats made of empty cans. If you yearn for a dip, though, heed the posted warnings. Darwin is a nice town but it's still wild - depending on the season, waters teem with sharks, deadly box jellyfish, or snapjawed crocs.
Darwin's animal kingdom
When they're ready to fan out from town, folks flock to Kakadu, three hours southeast of Darwin, on a guided tour that includes food, 4WD vehicles, and camping. Of the many contenders jostling for business on Mitchell Street, Adventure Tours Australia (8936-1311, adventuretours.com.au) is the 800-pound kangaroo, including private billabong (water hole) boat rides and camping in tents. It has six itineraries with meals, including a three-day Kakadu romp for $288. Young travelers tend toward simpler (and cheaper) options such as the $200 three-day tours from Kakadu Dreams (8981-3266, kakadudreams.com.au), but in cramped vehicles. For Litchfield National Park, beloved in Oz for its waterfalls, swimming holes, and magnetically aligned termite mounds-flat as giant playing cards-Coo-ee Tours (8947-4066, coo-eetours.com) offers a full-day tour, complete with food and a croc safari at a private billabong, for $48.
You can tour the parks for even less on your own. It costs only $8 to enter Kakadu for two weeks, and space at bathroom-equipped campgrounds rents for just $2.70 per night. Bushwalks cost nothing (stay on dry land unless you want to become dinner), and timetables for free ranger-led walks and talks, as well as Aboriginal culture cruises ($15) and croc cruises ($17), are available at the Bowali Visitor Centre at Jabiru. Mechanically inclined backpackers buy and resell third-hand clunkers from the local car market (Mitchell and Peel Streets; $300 and up) for extended outback odysseys, but short-termers rent for around $21 per day from Territory Thrifty (8924-0000) or $29 per day for a 2WD camper from KEA (011-61-2/8707-5500, keacampers.com). Four-wheel-drive vehicles, required for the most spectacular spots such as Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu, cost about $86 per day before fuel (about $2 per gallon). Litchfield National Park is free to enter, and campsites cost $1 to $2.50 per night; it's two hours south of Darwin.
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