Tipped as one of the top 10 cities to visit in 2012, Darwin is much more than a gateway to the outback, says Rachel Dugan
Like a wallaby caught in the headlights, I am standing in the middle of the Arnhem Highway staring at a monstrous 4X4 hurtling towards me.
It comes to a halt, pulling in just behind my pathetically urban- looking Nissan Getz.
We are 130km south of Darwin in the middle of the Mary River Wetlands.
The driver rolls down his window, and a snake-like plume of cigarette smoke uncoils itself in front of me. "That water looks pretty deep to me," he says, casting a wary glance at my car.
The subject of our concern is the angry-looking river dissecting the highway in front of us.
My destination was Wildman Wilderness Lodge, less than 40km away, a plush eco-lodge that promised a mix of boutique opulence and awesome nature.
But it is not to be. I swing the car around and head back for Darwin.
The tropical Territory's extreme weather is just one reason why this corner of Australia is often the first thing to be crossed off many a traveller's itinerary.
There are just two seasons: 'The Wet' (November to April) and 'The Dry' (May to October). The wet is characterised by afternoon deluges, dramatic thunderstorms and a heavy, draining humidity.
However, the trade-off is that the red-soil aridity of the outback is ousted by a lush, green spurt, and as I head back up the highway, I drink in the luscious landscape like a parched dingo.
Many tourists come to Darwin on their way to somewhere else. Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, Ayers Rock or The Kimberleys mean that the city is often little more than a point of entry for many tourists.
But this gateway town's star is rising. 'Lonely Planet' named it one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit this year.
Darwin has been levelled twice since it was founded in 1869 -- by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and by Japanese bombers during the Second World War.
Just a few weeks before I touch down, the 70th anniversary of that blitz is commemorated with the opening of a AUS$10m Defence of Darwin Experience.
This new interactive facility has cemented Darwin's reputation as a bit of a hotspot for Second World War buffs and, on my return to the city, I head out to the East Point Reserve to have a look.
The exhibition is compact, which makes it perfect for the less-historically inclined, and is genuinely interactive -- when you enter you are given an ID card with the details of someone who was in Darwin on the morning the first bombs were dropped.
As you browse the exhibition, pushing buttons to hear various nuggets of historical fact and first-person accounts, you eventually find the individual whose card you have been given.
Appropriately enough, my card belongs to Irishman John Cassidy, an engineer on the Larrakia, which was moored in Darwin harbour along with 45 other boats and warships on the morning of Australia's Pearl Harbour.
Later that evening, I grab a drink on Mitchell Street, the buzzing strip of bars, cafés and hostels that forms the city's lively spine.
Darwin is a party town and there is a hedonistic vibe to the place, a lure that proves irresistible to the waifs and backpacking strays.
"It's where people come to get lost," a would-be tour guide tells me later that night in Shenannigans, one of three Irish bars in the town.
Food-wise, Darwin does not reach anywhere near the dizzying culinary heights of Melbourne or Sydney. But you can see it punch way above its weight in foodie terms if you take a trip out to one of the great suburban markets at the weekend.
I try out the Parap market and gorge myself on a variety of Asian fare. The papaya salad, all brought together in front of me by a tiny Asian lady with a massive pestle and mortar, is a revelation.
Despite being made from bland strips of unripened fruit, the fiery chillies, zesty lime dressing and pounded garlic make this Asian slaw a fragrant tastebud tickler.
Back in town that afternoon, I head down to the newly developed wharf area -- a slightly more relaxed alternative to the backpacker mayhem of Mitchell Street, and a great spot to grab a coffee or bite to eat.
Darwin may be coastal, but the presence of box jellyfish in the waters for a large part of the year means that all locals and tourists alike can do is stare longingly at the sparkling azure East Timor Sea.
If you want to cool down, then the new wave pool at the wharf -- adults AUS$5 (€3.90)/kids $3.50 (€2.75) is the way to go.
Alternatively, if you have transport, swimming holes at Berry Springs (one hour) or Howard Springs (half-an-hour) are a refreshing way to spend an afternoon -- and they are croc-free.
Yes, crocodiles. The Top End is, after all, 'Crocodile Dundee' Territory and we've all read the stories about unfortunate tourists meeting a grisly end in some billabong or swim hole.
On my last day, I venture back up Mitchell Street for another dip -- but this time it's more of a death-defying dunk.
Crocosaurus Cove houses not only some of the largest saltwater crocs in the world, but the continent's biggest collection of reptiles. This is an extremely child-friendly attraction, and kids get a chance to hold a baby croc and 'fish' for them in a pool teeming with juveniles.
Strictly for the adults, or mentally unhinged, is the cage of death -- a Perspex box lowered into three different adult croc pools over 15 nausea-inducing minutes.
The first thing I notice once inside, suspended a few metres above the first pool, is not the teeth marks on the outside, but the clanging of the chains above me. It has a disquieting, torture-chamber ring to it that only heightens my terror.
The thin veneer of bravado I'd been maintaining evaporates as croc handler Nigel lowers me into Houdini's crib and the water starts rising around me.
I take as big an inhale as possible when practically hyperventilating and dive for the bottom of cage.
Under water it's serene, and a sudden calm descends upon me as I get up close and personal with a croc for the first time. I am unbelievably near to Houdini, who sits nonchalantly on a rocky outcrop beside me.
All beady eyes and leathery skin, this throwback to prehistoric times is truly magnificent. I can't take my eyes off him, but am forced to resurface for a few gulps of air before going back down.
I'd love to say that Chopper, or big Bess in the final pool, forced high drama by launching an attack on the cage. They didn't.
In fact, there was very little movement from any of the crocs, and by the end I started to think about ways of provoking my toothy swimming buddies.
But I thought better of it, and exited the cage all limbs intact.
Sipping a cool beer a while later in Shenannigans and regaling a few new friends with my croc encounter, I start to think that the Darwin is a bit like the salties that roam it.
People are a little frightened, a bit turned off by the extremes of life in the Top End, but once you get up close, it really is a wonderful sight to behold.