The local paper's front-page headline "Why I stuck a cracker up my clacker" confirms preconceptions about Darwin, Australia's remote northernmost city and the capital of the Northern Territory.
The story was about a 23-year-old local who, while partying with mates visiting from Queensland, put a spinning fire cracker between his buttocks and ended up in hospital with burns. The accompanying photograph of Alex Bowden doesn't even mention the live snake wrapped around the bottle of beer he's drinking.
The NT News seems to foster the image of Darwin as a wild frontier town teeming with larrikin locals and crocodiles. But it turns out there's a lot more to this city.
I saw for myself when I visited friends there in August, reputedly the nicest time to go because of the weather - fine, dry and a consistent high of about 30 degrees Celsius every day.
My friends and former neighbours moved there from Christchurch last year to rebuild their lives financially. They settled in quickly, getting good jobs with better pay and conditions than would have been their lot in New Zealand. Their three children are enjoying school and are busy with sport: athletics, Aussie Rules, rugby and surf lifesaving.
Because of Darwin's location, school trips can be a trip to Great Barrier Reef, Singapore, or even Japan for skiing. The kids can look forward to incentives to study at Charles Darwin University if they stay.
The living is easy. It's always warm and the infamous "buildup" and wet seasons are much more bearable these days with air-conditioned homes and cars and fantastic city facilities, such as the man-made lagoon and large wave pool in the waterfront development.
Monique Gale (formerly of Christchurch) actually loves "The Wet" because everything is lush and fragrant. The one negative they report is that rental accommodation is expensive.
Darwin locals are welcoming because they're used to people coming from other parts of Australia and the world for work, the lifestyle or because they're linked with the strategically important airport and large military base.
The locals I met were friendly and relaxed, and I was surprised to meet foreigners working everywhere I went. They were young travellers from Ireland, England, Germany and France who had found jobs in Darwin (population 127,000) and were replenishing their finances before continuing their travels north to Indonesia, west to the Kimberley and Western Australia, south down the centre to Alice Springs and further afield, or to the east coast.
The dusty land and scraggy trees you see as you fly into Darwin belie the many natural attractions in the Northern Territory.
I have dreamed of going to Kakadu National Park, but it's a two to 3 -hour drive from Darwin, and the only accommodation I could find cost $280 a night.
So I settled for Litchfield National Park, about 1 hours' drive away. It has bush walks, swimming holes, scenic waterfalls and magnetic termite mounds.
I borrowed a bike and tootled around Darwin on the cycle paths. The Defence of Darwin Experience (World War II museum) is excellent and so is the Museum and Art Gallery of Darwin, especially the Aboriginal art and Cyclone Tracy exhibition - although, as a Christchurch person, I had no desire to experience the simulation room.
The tropical climate means Darwin has many evening activities, such as the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, which is packed with locals and visitors, and has a huge range of food, live entertainment and stalls selling handcrafts, Aboriginal artwork, clothes from Indonesia, jewellery and T-shirts with sound-activated neon motifs on them.
The sunsets are spectacular and several evenings we raced down to the beach at Fannie Bay with cold drinks and watched the sun go down.
I enjoyed a Darwin Festival show, La Soiree, in a beautifully lit outdoor amphitheatre, and saw a movie at the Deckchair Theatre, where you can buy dinner or take a picnic and relax on a large deckchair under the stars.
Alex and his mates probably drink at one of the busy open-air bars full of tattooed patrons wearing Bintang (Indonesian beer) singlets, but there are also colonial-style hotels where you can have a cocktail by the pool, and stylish cafes and restaurants where you can get great seafood and coconut and lime gelato.
The local glitterati go to outdoor balls and I noticed the car park at the massive Skycity complex looked pretty full every time I went by. If I took my kids to Darwin I'd probably do the crocodile thing - a river cruise, Crocodylus Park and Zoo or Crocosaurus Cove. You can get lowered into a pool of crocs in the transparent Cage of Death at the cove, which is in the CBD.
No crocs crossed my path, and my friends haven't seen any either, except when they went on a tour. Mike Gales (formerly of Christchurch) saw one off East Point when he was paddling his surf ski.
Darwin is a frontier town with a history of disaster and recovery. It is also attractive and there's a lot going on. Darwin likes its tough image but it's also pretty sophisticated. This year it made Lonely Planet's top 10 cities list.
By the way, Alex avoided charges for possession of illegal fireworks. The police said he'd suffered enough. The headline was "Cracker man avoids bum wrap".
Lonely Planet top 10 "It was once easy to dismiss Darwin as a frontier town full of brawling fishermen, dreamy hippies and redneck truckers," says Lonely Planet in listing Darwin in its top 10 cities of the world.
"But with a pumping nocturnal scene, magical markets and restaurants, and world-class wilderness areas just down the road, today Darwin is the triumph of Australia's Top End.
"Beat the crowds to the redeveloping waterfront precinct with its wave pool, bars and wharf eateries; or score some brilliant indigenous art before East Coast galleries snap it up and charge double.
"Nose your way through the food stalls at Mindil Beach Sunset Market, then watch the sun melt into the Timor Sea. When southern Australia is chilling through winter, here it's blue skies, party nights and sleeping late."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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