DARWIN is a city of vast, vibrant, brilliant, challenging and often confronting contrast.
A walk down Mitchell Street, the main pub-and-club thoroughfare on the Northern fringe of Darwin’s Central Business District, is like taking a trip through the various eras this fascinating city that lives right on the edge of Australia has endured.
In less than a kilometre it morphs from the latte, stainless steel and glass tower feel of Melbourne (an unusually warm one, but Melbourne none the less) – to a city that feels like it has been untouched since the rebuilding efforts in 1975 after the Christmas Day cyclone called Tracy flattened the place the year prior.
There are a lot of buildings in Darwin that feel untouched from the mid ’70s, when building tough and solid was the order of the day. There, the glass gives way to painted concrete breeze-block that have seen nothing but a change of colour in the last forty years.
Further along there’s a glimpse even further back in time as vacant lots filled with broken concrete, discarded waste and detritus sit beside humming bars and clubs, almost as if they haven’t been touched since the fateful moments in 1942 when the Japanese Zeros attacked for the first time on Australian soil.
Their contrast to the modern apartment blocks that line the nearby esplanade are stark.
Darwin has become an annual visit for many in the Australian Motorsport community thanks to the immensely popular Supercars round held each June or July at Hidden Valley, the rather excellent circuit located 15 minutes from the city and nestled in a nook of a valley, unseen by the main road to its North and the mangroves on the South but characterful and accessible at the same time.
For me, the trip has become something of a love affair and in a game of ‘which round would you attend if you weren’t working’, it would be the one.
Adelaide would feature because it is special and it is home. Bathurst, of course, for all the reasons that are blatantly obvious to anyone with a racing heart and I truly believe Sandown is a special place that is a must-visit, while we still have it.
But Darwin is the one trip I’d make first on my own dime in the unlikely event I became employed outside of racing.
Those who come from the South obviously love the weather: the 30-degree days and 22-degree nights make it an immensely refreshing change to the sudden onset of a Victorian or South Australian winter that occurs each May, in particular.
Few Beers taste better than the one first consumed when you get into town after a 25-degree temperature change from the South.
Then there’s the city, described above but so much more than what those words can convey.
There’s a gritty nature about Darwin and the way it can morph from modern metro to rough and tumble in a few paces, coupled with the ongoing issue of homeless people and petty crimes, make it a sometimes confronting place.
But there’s an element of Frontier Town in the air, too: as if it’s a place where the law is a little softer and people turn a blind eye to the troubles of you or the world and just get on with life at their own, sightly slower pace.
I’m not saying it’s the right way to live life, nor if it is even correct, but it is a thing I believe exists and I know others agree.
From the stresses of daily life there’s still an attitude amongst some Darwinites of ‘she’ll be right mate’ – Of having less stress and more chill.
For instance, I needed to add an additional night to my hotel booking, which given the demand during race week was secured well in advance of my flights.
On ringing, I asked about adding a night and the voice on the other end said, and I quote, “Mate the computer is off at the moment, and I can’t be bothered turning it on, so come and see me when you get here and I’ll sort it then, okay?”
The places we go help create that vibe, too.
Mitchell street, as mentioned above, is during the day a relaxing place for a beer while people watching as locals and backpackers alike interact over a cold beverage. At night it is party central, with bars like The Tap, Wisdom and Monsoons overflowing with enthusiasm, music and party-party attitude.
There’s many a sore head generated out of nights on Mitchell but every one of them tends to be worth it.
Then there’s the more relaxed pace of life that a Beer by the seaside at the Darwin Ski Club can generate, sitting on the wide lawn, music in the background and watching the sun set over the yachts and small craft bobbing in the harbour.
Five minutes away there’s Mindill Beach, whose eponymous markets are a must-visit on a Thursday night: a bustling, frenetic and pulsating melting pot of culture and humanity, food and drink and sideshows and stalls that never stops being incredible.
Annual visits to Darwin are not complete in my mind until I’ve had fresh Barra by the beach at the markets, followed by a bit-of-everything smoothie of local fruit. Magical.
There’s also few cities in Australia that convey such a sense of history either: the damaging effects of Tracy or the events of World War two are well documented in a series of excellent museums, memorials and memories scattered around the city.
The actual reason for our visit, of course, is excellent: imagine merging an event with the energy of an Adelaide 500 into a permanent circuit and you get the feeling. Territorians are passionate motor racing fans and come out in droves and there’s always something to do away from the racing, too.
Hidden Valley itself is also great. A government-funded facility that springs up new additions each year. It is not a stretch to place it alongside Phillip Island and Sydney Motorsport Park in terms of being a quality permanent motor racing complext and the track itself is a unique challenge for drivers.
The only drama I can see is that we only use it once a year for major circuit racing events. Should be more.
If ever there’s an example of government successfully investing money into Motor Racing events to attract people to their region, this is the one.
I make no apologies for this sounding like a travel guide, because if you ever go to Darwin these are all places I’d recommend you visit.
In the end, going to the Top End is an annual reminder for me of why I’m doing this job in the first place.
If going to some circuits isn’t much of an adventure, going to Darwin each year most certainly, absolutely and totally is.
And that feeling of adventure is yet to dissipate even in the slightest – even after nearly a decade of visits for me and more for others I spoke with on the weekend.
It’s a trip that revitalises my spirit for the sport and for the job and gets me through the grid of travel and stresses that can often be a byproduct.
Here’s to the annual Top End adventure: long may it remain part of what we do.
WORDS: Richard Craill
IMAGE: Dirk Klynsmith