Famously lined with frangipani trees and magpie geese, Darwin's streets are also home to some of the country's most stunning murals.
I remember the first time I saw her. It was a Wednesday afternoon, the sun was starting to set over Darwin Harbour, and I was driving home along the Nightcliff foreshore after treating myself to a serving of fish and chips soaked in vinegar from my favourite food truck. Suddenly, there she was, in all her glory: three-storeys tall, in an Akubra, looking down at the street below. Her eyes met mine.
I had to pull over. I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. What used to be a plain white wall on the side of an apartment block had been transformed - seemingly overnight - into a breathtakingly bright mural of a woman. I needed to know everything about her. Who was she? What was her story?
I soon discovered the portrait by Irish artist Aches is of Denise Quall, a local Larrakia woman and descendant of the Dangalaba Kulumbirinigin clan, who is a celebrated artist in her own right. "I met Denise on the first day [I arrived in Darwin]. When I travel, I like to paint local people, someone who I think looks good or has a bit of character to them," says Aches, who found that character in Denise.
The mural of Denise is one of 100 in the city of Darwin. The capital of the Northern Territory - best known for its crocs, sunsets and fishing - has secretly been becoming a street art mecca with works to rival Melbourne's alleyways. The Darwin Street Art Festival is the longest-running event of its kind in the country, and - at the conclusion of last year's event - every major street in the city had its own mural. The milestone makes the streets of Darwin the largest public gallery in the territory.
As one of the biggest pieces in the open-air collection, the large-scale mural by Aches took a week to paint. Denise sat in the park across the road and watched Aches work from the early morning to last light. Some days, her grandkids would join her, sitting on her lap and pointing at the wall, saying "Nanna!" Other days, Denise's daughter would drop by to inspect the progress, often with tears of pride in her eyes. Every day, cars driving by would beep their horns in support and excitement.
"It's just magic," Denise says of the mural. "When I first saw it after it was finished, I thought 'It's so me'. My daughter says she can see a bit of my mother in there, too. I feel really blessed, and still sort of overwhelmed with it."
Stumbling upon the mural of Denise was quite the discovery for me. It was like finding my first grey hair; once I started spotting the artworks, I couldn't stop. Around every corner of every city street, murals jumped out at me.
In the CBD, on Dashwood Place, I meet a glamorous croc-woman by Melbourne artist Celeste Mountjoy (aka @filthyratbag). The pearl-necklace-wearing, red-lipstick-applying reptile is positioned next to an inspirational quote: "Those who say I am intimidating are jealous of my timeless beauty."
It's not about how they look necessarily, it's about a certain vibe they give off.
"I've always liked animals and their stupid faces, and I think they can express certain things that humans can't, so I love drawing them. I connect certain animals to people - like frogmen and dogmen. It's not about how they look necessarily, it's about a certain vibe they give off," explains Celeste.
So who is the croc-woman? "I'm not telling you that! She's a very glamorous and important woman."
The intrigue continues on Searcy Street, where local Mary Franklin (@onehundredwolves) has created a "spot the Darwin icon" piece jammed packed with Top End references. "Every time I look at it, I see something different," a passer-by tells me as I'm admiring the instantly recognisable motifs. There's the elusive million-dollar barra, our famous fireworks and a carton of the Territory's own Pauls Iced Coffee.
A block away, Shadforth Lane is known as Local's Lane because all of the artwork is by - you guessed it - locals. A garden of Sturt Desert Roses by visual artist and arts educator Polly Johnstone blooms near a "Boxing Croc" from painter and printmaker Franck Gohier, across the street from the crowd-favourite by Dion Beasley, who is the illustrator of the Cheeky Dogs kids books.
There's something for every art lover on the streets of Darwin. For Denise, her mural is so much more than just some paint on a wall. It's a work of art, a part of history and a legacy for her family. "It's like the pinnacle of my life," she says. At 12-metres tall, it's a pinnacle alright.
Read more on Explore:
Forget the Angel Wings mural on Melrose Place in LA. We've found the most Instagrammable walls in Darwin.
Play by @maxigig_art, Stuart Park: In a first for the artist, this mural by Maxine Gigliotti glows in the dark, bringing the catfish to life when the sun goes down.
Unthinkable by @gonketa_, Nightcliff Village: The Insta captions for this palm-printed mural by Jaycob Campbell write themselves... "Put your hands in the air." "Hands up if you're hot." "All hands on deck." Etc, etc.
Crocs in the City by @jeswri, Stuart Park: It doesn't get more Darwin than this: a bloke wearing crocs sandals, riding an inflatable crocodile, getting attacked by a real crocodile. Snap to it.
Poppies for the People by @mike.makatron, Darwin CBD: "Welcome to the jungle," screams this tropical-garden-scape from Melbourne-based artist Mike Maka whose mission is to bring more colour to the streets - and world.
Getting there: The major airlines fly to Darwin from other capital cities, and Bonza have launched new flights from the Sunshine Coast via flybonza.com
Staying there: Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront has rooms from $229 a night, and a five-storey mural of its own, featuring vivid blue skies and 11 varieties of birds, including the magpie goose, that fly high in the region. See vibehotels.com
Getting around: Download the Darwin Street Art app to explore an interactive map of the murals painted for the inaugural festival.
Explore more: See darwinstreetartfestival.com.au