A jewellery stall at Mindil Beach Sunset Market

As soon as I stepped into the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, an hour after returning to Australia’s lonely northern outpost of Darwin, I could tell I was in that unique confluence of New Agers and old salts known as the Northern Territory.

A guy I might have seen in Goa was playing the didgeridoo, while three Aboriginal kids twirled themselves around enigmatically in front of him. A strapping local cowboy was flogging whips – along with crocodile skulls (only £50 each), crocodile-foot back-scratchers, crocodile-tooth hairbands and crocodile-skin earrings.

The next stall down in the makeshift assembly of shacks, on a patch of grass across a ridge from the ocean, was selling propeller planes made of beer cans; at the end of the row, a Chinese boy was busy fashioning Mickey Mouse out of balloons.

You don’t come to the “Top End” to be part of the mainstream. In a territory larger than Italy, Germany, Britain and Japan combined (with a population a hundred times smaller than that of Shanghai alone), you have to define yourself in bold colours against thousands of miles of red emptiness.

Amid the crocodile and mud-crab rolls at the market, I was offered soy candles, and saw tie-dye dresses for three-year-olds on sale next to “night-display, sound-activated” T-shirts. I took in Chinese-made tacos and Fijian-stirred milk shakes, goats’ milk soap and “dragon fruit sorbet”. Privileged urban refugees, eager to go back to the land, seemed to be bumping into indigenous people taking their first uncertain steps into a city life.

When people repeat the tagline about Darwin being closer to Bali than Sydney, they’re not just speaking geographically. The whole ferny landscape, white colonial bungalows, the rickety signs pointing down unpaved brown paths to the beach – not to mention the nose-ringed girls in harem pants and heavily tattooed dudes in singlets – can make you feel as if you’re in southeast Asia (with northern European prices).

I remembered, as I walked around, the first time I’d set foot in this otherworldly settlement – in 1988, the year of Australia’s bicentennial. The sudden explosion of tropical green after hours of flying over nothingness, the Jurassic Park landscape of Kakadu National Park a day-trip away, the scrappy little town of jungly gardens and larger-than-life eccentrics eager to market their reptiles (a multinational chain had constructed a hotel nearby shaped like a saltwater croc), had made me feel like I was on a different continent from Adelaide or Cairns.

Now, as I touched down again from Melbourne, my old college friend Nicolas greeted me, and I thought about what had drawn this lover of Goethe and Proust, who knew Paris, London and New York so intimately, to settle happily here for 17 years.

“There is the greatest concentration of dusky rats in the world right here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the map called Foggy Dam, an hour or so away, “which leads to the greatest concentration of fat water pythons. If we go out at dusk, we can see an enormous colony of pythons sunning themselves on the tarmac.” I told him I had something of a phobia for snakes, and he hastily reorganised our plans.

We found ourselves on a lazy terrace in Humpty Doo, a small town outside Darwin, surrounded by a mini-Eden of plants, talking to a friend of Nicolas’s who had died for 20 minutes the year before and felt that he had never fully come back from the other shore.

When people tell you that Australia is the most urbanised society on earth, what they’re really saying is that its residents cling to the cities because most of the country is annihilating emptiness. The few who settle in Darwin – or its Outback cousins Alice Springs or Broome – are those odd souls who love to live amid reminders of impermanence. The most significant event in Darwin’s history, other than Japanese air raids in February 1942, was Cyclone Tracy, which swept through on Christmas Eve in 1974; by the time it had passed, more than half of the city’s buildings were gone.

What do you do if live in a region with less than one inhabitant for every two square miles? One answer was afforded by NT News, the boisterous local newspaper, which informed me that one Territory man had racked up nearly 70 criminal charges in seven months. It also gave an admiring account of a local hero who had saved a mate the previous day by disabling a croc with a screwdriver. True to its renegade image, as I walked downtown, I passed many residents who seemed to be auditioning for an Outback chapter of the Hells Angels.

Faced with a tabula rasa, people can perhaps make of themselves anything they choose. Thus the native strangeness of faraway towns such as Darwin is compounded by the people who come there to fashion new lives. Signs in Hangul script pointed me to one of the town’s many churches; the man who took my breakfast order at the Holiday Inn was Indian – as was the man who collected the dishes. Even in 1891, it seems, seven in every 10 people here were Chinese, thanks to the booming gold mining industry.

Few foreign tourists fly all the way to Darwin for the city itself, of course. The main lure is the great nothingness around it. Head out of town and within an hour you’re in a grand, noiseless national park, canoeing between great sandstone cliffs or inspecting rock art that may be 20,000 years old or more.

People relax on Mindil Beach, a short walk from Darwin’s central business district

You can bush-walk through a monsoon forest or go fishing for barramundi, all led by indigenous guides (who, in the Northern Territory, represent one in every three residents). Every brochure in town offers trips to experience a “cage of death” or similarly named device, which allows you to draw perilously close to 15ft crocs as they leap from the water.

One evening I found myself at a chic Italian restaurant, at the bottom of Darwin’s tallest building, across from a quiet man who told me how he had fought in Vietnam as a teenager with the Australian army. He had so lost his heart to the region, he said, almost shyly, that he had stayed on in Laos after his service finished and lived in Bali for some years. Now a lawyer bringing his expertise to indigenous causes, he still kept a place in Saigon. “To be honest,” he said, “the reason I came up here to Darwin was that I didn’t want to live in Australia. I felt more at home in Asia. Just the smell, as soon as you arrive at the airport, the night sounds, the climate; the whole thing is Asia.”

The man next to me – his air of confidence and ruddy cheeks might have made him at home in a London club – turned out to be another lawyer, working with the “traditional owners” in the Tiwi Islands, a short flight away from town; he had spent years as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea. When she heard that, the woman across from us started reminiscing about growing up as part of a missionary family in so rural a part of New Guinea that she was “educated under the house by my mum”. It seemed an everyday assumption – and yet the lightly worn cosmopolitanism around the table seemed both the rising feature of Australia and a model for the rest of us.

I had thought, when I arrived and shuffled around the Sunset Market, that I was seeing the hyperdeveloped world meet the wilderness; the under-developed universe meet possibility, so that each side could check the other out. Perhaps I was. But every time I spoke to someone, whether white Australian or newcomer from somewhere very distant, I heard the intriguing sound of a fresh Australia defining itself in untraditional, unfamiliar ways. Darwin’s spirit seemed embodied by the mild-mannered, bespectacled young Chinese men, met all over town, who politely asked me in broad Aussie tones: “How’s yer day goin’?”

The next day when I woke up, the front page of the NT News shouted, “Man bites croc on snout”. But by now I was able to see that such braggadocio is in part a way of satisfying expectations. There were loud voices and startling attitudes everywhere I went in the Top End; but underneath all the swagger and noisy eccentricity, it was the land itself, its silences and distances, that seemed the real story, as haunting and humbling as anywhere on earth.

For information on visiting Darwin, see www.tourismtopend.com.au and www.australia.com

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