It's a new territory after sunset

In the Top End, Barry Divola joins the party as the capital unveils its creative side the best way it knows how: outdoors and after dark.

ON THE drive from Darwin Airport into the city, my taxi driver told me it was a bit chilly earlier that morning. He had to put on a jumper before starting his 7am shift. It was noon when he told me this and 34 degrees outside.

How low could the temperature have been just five hours beforehand?

"It got right down to 19," he said with a sigh.

Yes, they think differently at the Top End.

For most of the rest of the country, August is the tail end of winter but in Darwin it's the waning days of The Dry. There are three seasons here. The Dry goes from roughly April-May to September-October, when the average top temperature is in the low 30s, there's not a cloud in the sky and not a drop of rain.

Then there's the build-up, when there's no relief from the oppressive humidity and the locals succumb to what they call "mango madness", as it's also the time the mangoes start dropping from the trees.

The clouds come in, the barometer climbs but the rain refuses to come. It finally does, with a vengeance, in November and December and the wet continues until March or April. And the cycle continues.

There's an old saying a local told me used to go around town: a tub of yoghurt has more culture than Darwin. The annual Darwin Festival, which is held over 18 days every August, is trying hard to change that perception and that's why I was in town for four days.

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Because it's Darwin, many of the events are held under the night sky and despite locals such as my cabbie talking about the wintry conditions, the evenings are balmy, the stars are bright and living is easy.

On my first night I headed to Festival Park, where many of the city's restaurants had set up food stalls and an outdoor bar was packed with locals and tourists. This space acted as festival central.

Fish-shaped orange lights hung from the trees and in the middle was The Lighthouse, a makeshift venue that was open to the sky and festooned like a virtual big-top in coloured lights.

Every night, local and touring acts played and I caught everyone from Darwin legends Jess Rebeiro and the Bone Collectors to young group the Aviators, who were the Territory's breakthrough act on national radio's Triple J.

One night, I danced in The Lighthouse at a "silent disco" wearing white radio headphones along with 100 other revellers. Anyone watching would have seen a bunch of people wildly dancing in complete silence and looking quite silly in the process; the headphones picked up what the two DJs were playing and a switch on one of the earpieces allowed revellers to toggle between the two.

The nearby Botanical Gardens Amphitheatre hosted everything from interstate performers Robert Forster and Augie March to the annual Indigenous Music Awards, where an audience of 2500 packed the grassy slopes of the gardens watching performances by Jessica Mauboy and emerging star Gurrumul.

There was plenty of theatre, dance, art, photography and other events spread across the program. I saw a blackly humorous play called Half Way There, which was part A Streetcar Named Desire, part Wake in Fright, set in an outback roadhouse. On another day, I ventured down to the harbourfront to descend into the World War II Oil Storage Tunnels, to see an underground exhibition of photographs depicting the remnants of artillery and armaments around the city.

It acted as a reminder: Darwin was the front line when the Japanese attacked more than 65 years ago.

By contrast with this slice of history, the harbourfront has been gentrified in the past couple of years, gaining a large modern hotel, waterfront shops, a man-made beach and a wave pool, where families on inflatable rubber rings and bodyboards bob around as artificially created waves up to 1.7 metres high roll through regularly.

On the second night of my stay, I went out to Fannie Bay to watch The First Astronomers? The audience sat on deckchairs and then lay on their backs as CSIRO astrophysicist Ray Norris and Aboriginal elder Bill Yidumduma Harney told us their stories about the stars, using a laser pointer to direct our eyes to the constellations.Their mutual respect and easy banter made for a fascinating evening under a clear night sky.

Everyone talks about the sunsets in Darwin and I experienced two from a couple of the city's best vantage points. The first was at the Darwin Ski Club, an outdoor bar set on a grassy expanse at Fannie Bay, where, with a cold beer in one hand and a camera in the other, I watched a big, red, fat sun descend through palms.

The other was at the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, a sprawling series of 300 stalls selling food (from fresh oysters to Asian noodles), clothing, jewellery, soaps and other gifts. A reggae band played as couples swayed and children ran in circles clapping their hands. A whip cracker put on a noisy and rhythmic display, then stood his distance as he allowed backpackers to give it a go.

As the sun dropped closer to the horizon over the water, the crowds spilled out on to the beach and sat there eating and drinking as they watched the day come to a fiery end and the sky turn a dozen different hues. You could spend every afternoon of your stay watching sunsets in this part of the world and never tire of them.

Darwin is a market city. The markets provide a social hub for locals and an escape for tourists, especially during the heat of the day. Apart from Mindil, you can check out Parap Markets and Nightcliff Markets, which share Mindil's Asia-meets-Byron Bay feel; and the Rapid Creek Market, a fresh produce market that is more for foodies than seekers of tie-dye T-shirts, sarongs, incense, knick-knacks and tarot readings.

Tastes of the Top was a magical final night spent dining al fresco in the ruins of the old town hall, with a four-course meal provided by four of the best restaurants in the Territory.

Eighty people sat at long tables, enjoying dishes served by chefs from Char, Moorish, Tasty House and The Italian.

After four days of festival fun, my time was up and I was in a taxi on the way to the airport with another cabbie espousing the appeal of his home town.

"I went to visit my daughter in Brisbane for two weeks last year," he told me. "I reckon a whole day of that time was wasted waiting for traffic lights to change. I was glad to get back up here again. Life's too fast down south."

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to Darwin, priced from $309. Virgin Blue flies to Darwin via Brisbane, priced from $269. (13 31 33, flightcentre.com.au)

Staying there

The Vibe Hotel has rooms priced from $255 a night. 7 Kitchener Drive, Darwin City Waterfront, (08) 8982 9998, vibehotels.com.au.

See + do

Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, off Gilruth Avenue, is open Thursdays 5-10pm, Sundays 4-9pm (May through to October).

Parap Markets, Parap Road, is open Saturdays, 8am-2pm.

Rapid Creek Market, Rapid Creek Shopping Centre, Trower Road, is open Sundays 7am-1pm.

Further information

See tourismnt.com.au.

FESTIVAL SNEAK PEEKS

THE Darwin Festival is on from August 12-29. The full program will be on the festival website from July 7. (08) 8943 4200, darwinfestival.org.au).

Sneak peeks include the premiere of Goose Lagoon, the Northern Territory Dance Company's ambitious production that combines traditional dance, songs and stories about native magpie geese, choreographed by Gary Lang.

Wrong Skin — the renowned Chooky Dancers are staging this show about forbidden love, loosely based on Romeo & Juliet.

In Wulamanayuni and the Seven Pamanuas, Tiwi Islanders perform verse, song, dance and puppetry in a traditional story that parallels Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Food events at the festival include market-to-table shows from Darwin's fabled markets to its best restaurants.

The Indigenous Music Awards, a festival focal point, is in the Botanical Gardens Amphitheatre.

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