From crocs to curious fish that eat out of your hand, Darwin proves a hit with the kids, as Travis Godfredson discovered.
The Northern Territory has always been one of those iconic destinations that beckons every Aussie adventurer. There is so much history, culture, natural beauty and incredible wildlife – not to mention a very large rock – that it really is a rite of passage to spend some time there exploring. But the best part is that it's extraordinarily accessible for travelling families. We have three young children, four-year-old Molly and six-year-old twins William and Abbey, and by touring around Darwin we found a myriad of things to do to keep the kids entertained.
The Top End is world famous for its prolific croc population, and there are multiple ways to safely get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures. With all the build-up to the trip, the kids were restless to see a real-life croc, and they were not disappointed when we joined the ‘Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise’ on the Adelaide River. It's just one hour's drive from Darwin down the Arnhem Highway on the way to Kakadu National Park.
Our guide Damien was a true blue Aussie in the mould of the late, great, Steve Irwin, and as he introduced us to his crocodile crew the kids sat with jaws dropped as these three metre ancient beasts jumped out of the water to claim their prize – a juicy piece of meat held over the side of the boat.
There are predatory birds of all shapes and sizes here, too. Kites swoop to take small pieces of meat from Damien, who greets them by name. They are majestic birds of prey and it’s hard not to be impressed by them.
Crocodylus Park, just on the outskirts of Darwin, is another top place to see crocs – and even pat them. It is home to more than 1000 fresh and saltwater snappers ranging from baby hatchlings to full-grown adults up to 4.8 metres.
Here the kids can hold a juvenile and learn about what are one of the most ancient species on the planet at more than 200 million years old.
The park also gives young ones the chance to hang out with a bunch of other cool animals including playful meerkats and young tortoises, feed monkeys as well as see dingoes, blue tongue lizards, and even lions and tigers.
At the Museum of Art Gallery they kids can meet one of the NT's biggest crocs a five metre giant called ‘Sweetheart’. This big fella was the dominant male crocodile in Sweets Lookout billabong, a waterway located 55km southwest of Darwin in the Finniss River system. He had attacked a few dinghies in the late 1970s so the Parks and Wildlife Commission decided to capture him and relocate him.
Sadly, he passed away after 780kg beast got entangled with a log while under anaesthetic. Nowadays, Sweetheart stands as a monument to crocodiles at the museum and our kids were pretty impressed with him.
This is far from 'just another museum'. There is a rolling events calendar of fun stuff for the kids to do, including book reading, storytelling and activity stops through the various exhibition's and the museum's gardens.
SOMETHING'S A LITTLE FISHY
One of the coolest ways for kids to get right up close to the marine world is at the Aquascene fish feeding sanctuary on the water at Doctor's Gully. At high tide hundreds of fish swim up to the shallows to be hand-fed bread by eager locals and tourists. The fish are remarkably friendly – they have been doing this for more than 60 years. You can stand on the viewing platform's concrete stairs to feed all manner of species – milkfish, catfish, mullet, bream and rock cod – our kids were engrossed by this wonderfully close encounter. If you’re brave you can stand in the water so they frolic over your feet and around your shins as they gape for bites of doughy goodness.
NEW FURRY FRIENDS
Kids can never say no to a cuddle with a small furry creature, and the Territory Wildlife Park is the place to do it. Less than one hour from Darwin, the park consists of very deliberately zoned habitats to accommodate all manner of wildlife. There’s the monsoon forest walk, a wetlands, a walk-through aviary, rocky ridge and nocturnal house. The flight deck captured our kids' attention, with their favourites being a barn and a huge rescue wedge-tail eagle called Yarak.
The park encourages interaction between visitors and its inhabitants, and at the reptile enclosure the kids pat bush rats, a baby wallaby and stare at iconic Aussie blue tongue lizards. There's a wonderful conservation focus and, an educational opportunity as well. William befriended a cute spotted quoll and begged us to let him take it home once he discovered quoll populations are declining due to habitat loss, frequent burning and cane toad poisoning. There are 24 individual exhibits in the park's aquarium that follow a natural journey from escarpment country through waterholes and billabongs to the sea. The aquarium is home to turtles, crocodiles, rays, barramundi, a variety of sharks and coral reef fish.
BUDDING HISTORY BUFFS
Of all the cities in Australia, Darwin has the strongest wartime history. RFDS Tourist Facility offers kids the chance to learn more about this incredible service, and there’s also the great displays about the bombing of Darwin by Japanese planes on 19 February 1942.These stimulating stopovers aren’t dowdy dad affairs that leave the kids lunging for the iPad either. They're seriously cool and feature interactive displays that make learning fun. There’s even a hologram experience for the kids to learn about John Flynn, who started the RFDS. There’s also another hologram telling the story of Rear Admiral Etheridge Grant, Commanding Officer of the USS William B Preston, who narrates his own version of the Bombing of Darwin Harbour. The kids also got to sit in the cockpit of a decommissioned RFDS Pilatus PC-12 aircraft - very cool.
The Darwin Cenotaph, in the city's Bicentennial Park, is another unmissable historical spot. The kids can learn a little more history and then check out the view over Darwin Harbour.
JUST COOL IT
Another notable characteristic about the Top End is the heat – and sometimes you just need to beat it. Soothe tiny feet and flaring tempers with a refreshing dip at Berry Springs Nature Park, just a short drive along the Stuart Highway from Darwin. Here the kids can splash about in one of the many natural pools, go for a bushwalk or enjoy a picnic or snack from the kiosk on site.
Howard Springs Nature Park is another top spot where the kids can cool off in its series of man-made rock pools and then say g'day to local wildlife including turtles, barramundi and a snake or two. It's a great way to let them burn off some energy, especially if you are planning a longer drive that afternoon.
Flights to Darwin connect to each major city in Australia.
There are many and varied types of accommodation in Darwin, to suit all budgets. Our family hired a caravan and stayed in Discovery Parks Darwinhttps://www.discoveryholidayparks.com.au/nt/darwin/darwin
Family-friendly activities abound in Darwin. Visit www.northernterritory.com/Drive for more information on the sites and activities mentioned in this story.