Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Croc and roll

Day 5 (Mon, 4 June 2012)

Our last day in Darwin. We didn't want to go far so we just walked to Crocosaurus Cove on Mitchell Street. It seems to me rather odd to have a crocodile park right in the CBD but it sure is convenient for tourists.

Just a tip: many of the maps and brochures available at hotels or information centres offer a 10-20% discount coupon off admission prices so look out for one and save yourself some moolah.

The stars of Crocosaurus Cove are the Australian saltwater crocodiles. They're huge, with unnerving, creepy eyes and powerful jaws. That's one reason I won't be visiting an outback swamp any time soon.

We watched the handlers feed some of the larger ones. Methinks they're uncomfortably close to the reptile.

The fun part was when they allowed visitors to feed some of the smaller crocs. These are much more active and awake and would leap up to grab at the meat. Very Crocodile Dundee except safely behind a glass railing.

Of course, Andre decided to have a go. You basically affix a piece of raw meat to the end of a fishing pole and dangle it enticingly at the snapping crocs.

Here's a video of Boy Wonder in action.

We saw a couple of ladies get into the "Cage of Death" where they're lowered in a glass tank into the crocodiles' enclosures. It sounds way scarier than it actually was. The crocs were totally uninterested in the two supposed pieces of bait and ignored them completely, even when the ladies started yelling and splashing water at the predators. According to the handlers, the crocs are very sluggish and sleepy in winter. Either that or the ladies are not their type. Heh.

Crocosaurus Cove also has a 200,000 litre fresh water aquarium where we saw barramundi (the local favourite for fish and chips), sawfish and whiprays. Both the sawfish and the whiprays have a funny design - their eyes are on top but their mouths at the bottom. Imagine trying to eat a moving prey that way. God has a sense of humour!

Crocosaurus Cove also boasts the world's largest collection of Australian reptiles, which I found both fascinating and creepy. It was lizards, snakes and more lizards galore, terrifying for this lizard-phobe. Big, small, with long tails, tail-less - they were all there in their full glory. Many of them were extremely active, scrabbling on the glass like they were trying to escape.

Then the handlers brought out a Northern blue-tongued lizard and allowed visitors to hold it. They assured me it's a slow moving lizard, not one of those zippy ones. "Blue-tongued" is aptly named - the lizard looks like it has been sucking on a blueberry popsicle. Both my kids volunteered to hold the lizard. I stayed far away and forbade them to touch me until they had washed their lizard-contaminated hands. Whaaaat??

One of the highlights of the visit though, was a live demonstration of a snake-feeding. This is actually not as easy to arrange as it would seem, as snakes can be satisfied with a feeding as infrequently as once in six months. The handlers first tried to interest a tree python with a dead rat but to no avail.

They then brought out another python and this one was apparently starving cos in a flash, it snatched the rat off the handler's tongs and wrapped its coils around the unfortunate rodent. It then tried to gulp down the rat the way Adam Richman from Man vs Food scoffs down hamburgers.

According to the handlers, the entire eating process takes about 30 minutes. Contrary to popular belief, snakes don't unhinge their jaws to swallow a large prey, they just have very loose and flexible muscles in their jaws.

The rat is halfway down the snake's throat here, not sure if you can see it properly. We couldn't get too close as the snake, if feeling threatened, can cough up the prey and strike at you instead.

Crocosaurus Cove exceeded our expectations. We thought it would be small since it's in the city centre, and frankly, the trip was planned more as a time-filler. But as it turned out, it's totally worth the admission price - it's educational and you get to see more than just crocs. The fun part is being able to do some hands-on stuff, like feeding the crocs, holding the lizard and watching the snake feeding (ok, that's not hands on, unless you want to volunteer as bait).

In short, it was a very nice way to wrap up our Darwin holiday.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lazy days

Day 4 (Sun, 3 June 2012)
To be honest, we kinda ran out of activities to do by the 4th day. Darwin isn't one of your hustlin' and bustlin' cities, which is one of the reasons we chose to come here. We're not one of those families who like to cram a lot into one holiday. We just want some R&R.

In the morning, we made our way to yet another market, this time, Nightcliff Markets. After yesterday's experience at the Parap Markets, we decided to have breakfast first and upon reaching the market, we're glad we did cos we found that the two markets are pretty similar. In fact, we recognised some of the vendors we saw yesterday! So basically, they travel from one market to another hawking their wares. Something like our pasar malams back home?

Darwin has a large population of aborigines and many of them sell their arts and craft at the markets.

For lack of another planned activity, we decided to make a trip to Casuarina Square, which is one of the largest shopping malls in Darwin in the residential district of Casuarina. Did the typical Singaporean thing - shopping at K-mart and Big W. One thing about these Australian stores, they have a fantastic range of chic household items at very affordable prices.

And while food in Darwin is non-descript at best, there are a couple of food items we really like. Funnily though, they're from the supermarket.

1) Their tv dinners. Readily available at Woolworth's or any of their supermarkets, these microwavable tv dinners come in a crazy assortment of flavours and are very reasonably priced. Although we didn't buy them for dinner, we found that they make a hearty breakfast, before starting a day of activity. Much more satisfying than cup noodles or sandwiches from a cafe.

Here is a sample of the ones we bought - some cost as low as A$4 each for a sizeable portion. We only picked the ang moh meals though, we didn't trust pre-packaged Asian food to suit our tastes.

2) The Aussies are known for their milk. No surprises there, their milk is creamy and rich, something about the Australian cows? (even chocolates from here taste better).

But during this trip, we made a Eureka discovery and that's their fantabulous Iced Coffee. We bought this one day because I needed a caffeine fix and then realised that the name is actually a misnomer as there's hardly any coffee in it. It's really coffee-flavoured milk. But wow, it tastes absolutely divine! We couldn't get enough of it. Their chocolate milk too, is yummilicious (see how I'm fusing my adjectives? It's THAT good!)

Since we didn't do much today, I'll talk a little about the Darwin city centre. It's small and neat, consisting of just three parallel streets - Cavenagh, Smith and Mitchell - so it's almost impossible to get lost.

Our hotel is extremely conveniently located in the centre of Cavenagh Street, directly opposite a huge Woolworth's, which is great if you're like us, always needing to stock up on stuff like juice, fruit (and coffee milk!)

Mitchell Street is where most of the restaurants and cafes are located, and there's where we go for most of our meals.

Eating out isn't cheap in Darwin, especially with current strength of the Aussie dollar, and they're not exactly a culinary capital. However, we did stumble upon this modest Turkish restaurant one night, called Istanbul Cafe, on Knuckey Street (adjoining road at the end of Mitchell Street).

It's run by very friendly immigrants who are clearly also extremely hardworking as the restaurant opens for breakfast all the way to late at night.

The food is authentic and satisfying. We liked it so much we went back twice. We tried their kebabs, mixed grill and pides. The pide with spinach and ricotta cheese (middle pic) went down very well with the kids.

Across the road, there was an ice-cream bar so we ended the leisurely evening with a decadent dessert. Why not? We're on holiday!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

From bars to stars

Day 3 (Sat, 2 June 2012)

Early in the morning, we made a trip to Parap Markets to check out the weekend market scene. It's not very big but has your typical fresh fruit and vegetables, and arts and craft. Food stalls also dot the market and it would appear that it's a Saturday routine for many, having breakfast at the market.

We bought our Chinese rice boxes from one of the many Asian food stalls and sat down at one of the picnic tables for our brekkie.

Who says you can't have ice kachang for breakfast?

There were many stalls selling handicraft and local artworks. Rather pricey though.

After breakfast, we paid a visit to the nearby Fanny Bay Gaol. For about 100 years, it was the main jail in Darwin. It's now a museum and entry is free, which I thought was mighty generous.

When you first enter the premises, you see a large courtyard flanked by the main buildings.

This one of the two original main blocks with 16 stone cells. (In the absence of actual prisoners, Andre is my de facto demonstrator.)

Each cell has a narrow doorway, with a bed in one corner and a latrine and sink in the other.

A separate confinement wing with padded cells for the mentally disturbed was added to the facility later on...

... as well as an infirmary.

The most gruesome part of the jail though, has to be where the gallows are. Here's where hard core criminals were executed. In 1952, the final hangings were of two Romanian immigrants who were found guilty of murdering a local taxi driver.

Lesley-Anne attempted to infuse some art into this sombre place.
Time for something cheerier so we grabbed a quick lunch in the city centre and took a stroll by Cullen Bay, a place similar to Singapore's Keppel Bay where private boats are docked.

Yet another gorgeous beach.

That evening, we were in for a special treat. One of Darwin's most unique attractions is the Deckchair Cinema. Located on the Darwin Waterfront, this open air cinema is open every night during the dry season and screens a wide range of movies.

Saturday's programme is a double bill but we could only stay for the earlier 7.30pm show which was Hugo. The second movie was A Few Best Men, rated M15+.

The box office only opens at 6.30pm but there was already a snaking queue by 6.15pm.

Once inside, you can choose between the many deckchairs or sit at one of the tables behind if you're there to grab some dinner.

The movie is timed to begin at 7.30pm so that you can enjoy a leisurely meal or catch the typically beautiful Darwin sunset over the harbour before the screening. Snacks are sold at a fixed stall and you can get more substantial food from an external vendor that has a kiosk set up nightly.

Pick out a couple of cushions to make your seat more comfortable!

We picked the deckchairs at the front row.

Some families simply laid out blankets right up front and sprawled out on the grass. Watching a movie amidst the starlit sky - what could be more magical?