There aren't too many ways to arrive at the pub when it's on a tiny island in the middle of a croc-infested river more than 10 kilometres from the nearest main road. You could come by boat, which is what most people do. But who wants to be like most people? Today, I feel like a rock star, as I arrive in a helicopter!
It may seem extravagant ... and OK, it is! But up here in Darwin, a bar crawl can be a bit more difficult than in your typical inner-city suburb. Some of the most interesting pubs in this part of the Northern Territory are out of town, far from each other, and relatively inaccessible - so Airborne Solutions came up with the idea for a helicopter pub tour covering hundreds of kilometres (and quite a few schooners) in a day.
Touching down at our first pub at Goat Island, the grass and the trees whip about in the wash of the rotor. The only thing not moving is the crocodile submerged at the edge of the river, its beady eyes just above the water surface, watching us as we walk to the deck. I'm so concerned about the croc that I don't appreciate the real danger in the warning near the entrance: 'You are now entering a politically incorrect area'. The sign was put up by pub owner Kai Hansen, about Kai Hansen, for the amusement of Kai Hansen.
Kai bought Goat Island because "there are no traffic lights here". As he tells the story, he was living in a rural town near Darwin when the roundabout was replaced with lights. It was the final straw, so he started a bar, which ended a marriage ("She said, 'you drink too much already!'").
He now lives here with his dog and welcomes visitors pretty much every day - usually locals on boating and fishing trips along the Adelaide River.
The pub is officially called Casey's Bar, named for the "friendly" crocodile who used to hang around. But Casey hasn't been seen for a while and the theory is that the new crocodile, Fred, ate her. Kai, on the other hand, is harmless - but his politically incorrect humour is an acquired taste and probably easier to digest if you're not a young woman (who is likely to become the focus of it). You might have more luck with the buffalo burgers he serves.
Back in the air, on the way to the next pub, I spot several herds of feral buffalo and wonder if they'll find their way to Goat Island, one way or the other. There's lots to see from up here and I admire the Top End landscapes as we zoom over them. Our pilot, Sukhpal Singh, points out different landmarks and I'm careful not to lean too far out to look at them - after all, I'm in the front seat and there's no door.
Sukhpal has already warned me that the wind will be strong, so to hang on tight if I put my hand out while I'm holding a camera or a stubbie of beer. Yes, he warned us about holding beer out the open door of the helicopter. This is how you do pub crawls in the territory!
We touch down at the Darwin River Tavern in time for lunch, which is fortunate because this pub is renowned for its food. People often drive here from the centre of Darwin for the generous meals, even though it's about 60 kilometres away. The main bar feels like the Outback, with a red stone floor, hand-crafted wooden tables, and even a pet freshwater crocodile in the atrium. "You're in the Badlands now!" one local patron jokes with me while we're ordering jugs of beer.
This is how I imagined rural Darwin pubs to look, even if I expected more thongs and less teeth (sorry - just a joke!). It's why I'm surprised by our next stop at Crab Claw Island Resort, which is a misnomer only in that it's not actually an island. Leaving behind the ochre soil with sparse eucalyptus and tall termite mounds, Sukhpal flies us over the clear blue water and lands on a bright yellow beach dotted with palm trees and bungalow accommodation. Indeed, this is a resort, not a last resort, and I once again feel like a celebrity arriving on the sand by chopper. With drinks and food on the deck overlooking the water as the glowing sun sinks lower in the sky, I have to remind myself that I'm 40 kilometres from Darwin, not in Thailand or a Pacific island. (The biggest clue is the emu wandering around eating bok choy - I really thought this day couldn't get stranger.) But after an hour, we need to head back to base, with a final swoop around the city centre for good measure.
When it comes to epic experiences up here in Darwin, a helicopter pub tour soars above the rest, and you can take whatever you want from it. The total flight time of at least two hours means it's an incredible scenic trip; The variety of pubs visited gives you a taste of the quirky characters of the Top End; and a day of (moderate) drinking is a fun way to relax on a tropical holiday. As we all look for unique experiences around Australia, this one's got to be near the top.