24 hours in Darwin

Kate Nancarrow wades into murky water to feed fish and gets close to crocodiles at the Top End.

Darwin feels close to Asia and retains a certain rawness - with a marginalised indigenous population and an overlay of heavy-drinking backpackers - but we go on a family trip mostly to see the crocodiles. Snappy, predatory, awe-inspiring crocodiles have survived for millions of years and Darwin is their stomping and chomping ground.

7am

Darwin's best produce seems, strangely, to be sold in its supermarkets' car parks at weekend and night markets. Asian produce predominates and is fresh. Among the fruit and vegetable stalls, there's a bit of hippie tat and the now requisite Chinese massage stall. At Rapid Creek Market we tackle a mango smoothie ($4) and fruit salad ($5 for a huge plate) for breakfast but locals seem keener on an early-morning squid satay ($4) or sticky rice in pandanus leaves ($3).

Rapid Creek Market, Rapid Creek Business Village, 48 Trower Road, Milner. Every Sunday 6.30am-1pm and Fridays 3pm-late.

8am (but check tide chart)

Darwinites have been hand-feeding fish for 50 years and it's now a business called Aquascene, based at Doctors Gully at the bottom of Bicentennial Park. You buy a box of bread to hand-feed to the hundreds of milkfish, bream, catfish, mullet and barramundi that arrive with every high tide. There are so many fish and they are so large and so determined it becomes a spectacle. Add the frisson of danger that comes from wading shin-deep into murky water - stingers or crocs, anyone? - and it feels thrilling.

Aquascene's website provides a month's worth of high-tide times, allowing for planning.

Aquascene, $11 an adult and $7 a child for a box of bread. See aquascene.com.au.

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10am

The easy-to-navigate Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory showcases key moments in our northern history. We focus on Sweetheart, the huge crocodile that terrorised boaties in the late 1970s by chomping their dinghies as they went up the Sweets Lookout Billabong. Unfortunately for the five-metre Sweetheart, he drowned during capture and now sits stuffed alongside information detailing the contents of his stomach at death: pig bones and bristles, two long-necked turtles and bits of large barramundi.

The Cyclone Tracy exhibition is particularly moving after the summer we've had. Tracy destroyed 80 per cent of Darwin homes and 30,000 people were evacuated. Most evocative among an outstanding exhibition is the darkened room that plays the cyclone's roar. The combination of dark and noise and the thought of it going all night is moving. The museum also holds a fascinating maritime collection and extensive collection of regional indigenous art.

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Conacher Street, Fannie Bay. Open 9am-5pm weekdays, 10am-5pm weekends. Free admission. Phone (08) 8999 8264, see www.magnt.nt.gov.au.

11.30am

Attached to the museum and art gallery but open to the public as well, Cornucopia Museum Cafe stares out to the Timor Sea, with a wide, shady verandah holding about 20 tables. A much-needed respite from the heat, it has good coffee and statement-making strawberry milkshakes.

Cornucopia Museum Cafe, Bullocky Point, Conacher Street, Fannie Bay.

Midday

Darwinians might wish tourists came for the city's culture or cafes but they seem resigned to the lure of their wild beasts - so much so that they provide crocodiles in the main street.

Crocosaurus Cove is essentially a multilevel aquarium and zoo with a focus on local marine terrors. Huge crocodiles dominate - each given a large (high-walled) cage with a sunning deck and an area of water. Feeding times are 11.30am and 2.30pm, with the two handlers exercising plenty of caution. Daring types can swim with the crocs in the Cage of Death.

The fish exhibits are interesting, too - is there no end to the weird stuff in Territory rivers? - and include the sawfish, which is part of the ray family but with a serrated snout. They grow to five metres (some say seven metres) and add another reason to stay out of the water. Watch out for the spitting archerfish, too.

Crocosaurus Cove, 58 Mitchell Street, Darwin. Open daily 9am-7pm. Adults $28, children (4-15) $16 and family of two adults, two children $83.60, seniors $22. Cage of Death for two $160. Phone (08) 8981 7522, see crocosauruscove.com.

3pm

Everything else today is a build-up to this. Dead and stuffed crocodiles, or even caged and snoozy ones, aren't quite the same as seeing 600-kilogram reptiles propel themselves out of the water in pursuit of food. Adelaide River is an easy six-kilometre drive from the city and has three companies operating jumping-croc tours.

We go with the Famous Jumping Crocodiles, which has been at it since 1985. Basically, you chug along the Adelaide River in a small boat while the tour guide points out crocs cruising towards you - "Oh, here comes Ann Maree." The guide holds some dead pig out on a stick and the croc launches itself out of the water, snaps the pig in its jaws and disappears. It's primitive, spectacular and terrifying.

The crocodiles range from young females to battle-scarred males with feet lost during fights. And don't be worried you'll be there on an "off" day and you won't see a croc. Apparently, there are about 7000 crocodiles in the river and they appear about every 30 metres.

Famous Jumping Crocodiles, Adelaide River Bridge, Arnhem Highway, via Humpty Doo. Adults $38, children $25 (5-15 years, 4 and under free), family $105, seniors $36. Phone 1800 888 542, see jumpingcrocodilecruises.com.au.

5pm

At last, water you can swim in. Built to give some freedom to Darwinites struggling with the intense heat, stingers and crocs, the city now has two large man-made lagoons - one with waves, one without.

Built on a palm-fringed strip of sand and set up with tables and umbrellas, these pools have been a hit since they opened two years ago and offer a restful end to the day.

Darwin Wave Lagoon and Darwin Recreation Lagoon are part of the wharf precinct about 10 minutes' walk from the centre of the city.

The Recreation Lagoon is open daily 9am-6pm and is free. The Wave Lagoon is open 10am-6pm. Adults $8 a day, $5 a half day, children (aged 2-15) $5 a day, $3.50 a half day, children under 2 years free, family $12 half day, $16 full day. See waterfront.nt.gov.au.

6.30pm

Having cooled down at the pools, settle down in a deckchair and watch a film under the stars.

The Deckchair Cinema runs nightly during the dry months (April 27-November 11) in a parkland setting beside Darwin Harbour that adds free sunsets, sea views and bats overhead. Takeaway food is available - the Indian is particularly good - from 6.30 and wine and beer are available from the kiosk. You can bring a picnic and it's not compulsory to sit on a deckchair. The film starts at 7.30.

Deckchair Cinema, end of Jervois Road, off Kitchener Drive, Wharf Precinct. Adults $15, children $7, concession $11, seniors $9, family $30. Phone (08) 8941 4377, see deckchaircinema.com.

Jetstar ($212 and 4hr 15min) and Virgin Australia ($205 and 4hr 20min) fly non-stop from Melbourne while Jetstar (about $195 and 4hr 35min) and Qantas ($240 and 4hr 30min) fly non-stop from Sydney.

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