DARWIN, Australia — One of the cheapest places for young travelers to spend a night here is in jail.
Darwin's youth hostel was originally built to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. In 1979 it was renovated to provide lodging for young travelers instead. It can now accommodate 48 visitors and offers air conditioning, a recreation room and a swimming pool.
You'll find the youth hostel at Beaton Road off Hidden Valley Road, Berrimah, a 15-minute bus ride from the center of Darwin. Buses numbered 5 or 8 from Harry Chan Avenue or Cavenagu Street in Darwin will take you to the Berrimah Hotel, 500 meters from the hostel. Greyhound, Ansett Pioneer and some tour buses will also drop or pick up passengers at the hostel.
Darwin, population 63,300, is the tropical capital of the Northern Territory. By bus it's a 21-hour trip north from Alice Springs, the dead center of Australia's outback. From May to October is the dry season; from November to April you may experience monsoonal rains. November is the hottest month--average maximum temperature is 34 degrees Celsius. July is coolest with an average maximum temperature of 31C.
A Touch of History
On arrival, ask at the tourist information office, 31 Smith St., for a free map entitled "A Walk Through Historical Darwin." It will help you locate points of interest, such as where Darwin was bombed in 1942--the only time war has touched Australian soil--and buildings that were damaged by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day, 1974.
A short walk from the center of town, at the end of the Esplanade below the YMCA, is a popular tourist sight called Doctors Gully. At certain times of day hundreds of fish swim up to the shore and feed from the hands of visitors.
The daily fish feed started 20 years ago when a local resident began throwing scraps to a few small mullet at high tide. Now visitors come at high tide and pay a small entrance fee to watch, or clutch chunks of bread that the fish nibble from the visitors' hands.
Feeding times depend on the tides. They are listed in the local free booklet "This Week in Darwin." Copies are available at the tourist information office or at hotel reception desks.
One of the most popular trips from Darwin is to Kakadu National Park, 136 miles east of the city. In 1981 it was placed on the World Heritage List. The park land is leased by its traditional aborigine owners, 300 people who are members of a group known as "alligator people." The park is jointly managed by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service and the tribal elders of the area.
Although this is the land of the alligator people you won't find any alligators here. You will, however, find plenty of crocodiles. Early explorers who named this area didn't know the difference.
Northern Australia is one of the few places where crocodiles still live in the wild. They have been sighted in most water courses in the park. Popular points for tourists to watch for them are at Yellow Water and on the banks of the South and East Alligator rivers.
Park rangers give lectures on ancient rock paintings. Commercial boat trips to sight crocodiles and other wildlife are available. One young traveler using an unlimited bus pass (Ansett Pioneer's Aussiepass) was able to reach the South Alligator Motor Inn in the park from Darwin at no extra cost. From the Inn she was able to join the Yellow River guided boat trip for only $9 (minus lunch). (Prices are in Australian currency.)
You can stay the night at the South Alligator Motor Inn even if you are on a tight budget. Three levels of rooms include low-cost dormitory style accommodation, in trailers. The $12 nightly dormitory rate lets you use all facilities including the restaurant, pub and swimming pool. Tent sites are also available at $3 per person per night.
The youth hostel in Darwin also arranges discounts with tour operators for trips to Kakadu. For example, Terra Tours recently was offering youth hostel guests a 25% discount on two-day camping trips from Darwin into Kakadu for $95 (about U.S. $65).
If you go to Australia on a tight budget one of the best sources of information is "Australia--A Travel Survival Kit" by Tony Wheeler, published by Lonely Planet. It's available from retail bookstores in the United States for $12.95.
Another good source of general information is "Destination Australia," a 120-page free brochure by the Australian Tourist Commission. It offers detailed information on services, prices, sights and includes helpful maps. For a free copy write ATC Distribution Center, P.O. 7049, North Hollywood 91605.