RESTAURANTS in Darwin are pretty fussy: 'No shirt, no shoes, no service,' warns one city centre eatery. Ties? Any establishment that insisted on customers wearing ties would probably go bankrupt, unless it was a bar. For virtually no one wears a tie in this frontier town, not even for work. It's not unusual to see Darwinians heading for downtown supermarkets barefoot and topless. Well, the men, at least. They're proud of being recognised by The Guinness Book of Records as having the biggest annual intake of beer per capita in the world. Not surprising when you see a Darwin 'stubby', a bottle that holds two litres of beer. It's a record they managed to hold on to in spite of the fact that the city eventually ran dry after a strike lasting several months at the local brewery, a strike that forced it to close permanently. 'Another brewery is planning to open here soon,' winked a Darwinian who was here in 1974 when Cyclone Tracy ripped the town to pieces, killing 66 and destroying 60 per cent of the houses. It's the 20th anniversary next month. Darwin's nearest neighbour of any size in Australia is Alice Springs, more than 1,500 kilometres down 'The Track', and Alice only has a population half that of Darwin, around 35,000. This isolation has spawned a host of eccentricities that have prompted citizens in the cooler climes of the East coast to warn of the dangers of 'going troppo' in the Northern Territory. Today, for instance, as the rest of Australia shouts itself hoarse watching the Melbourne Cup, Darwinians will be wagering a pretty penny on their own big race, the annual Noonamah Cup, which is always held on the same day as the country's most famous horse-racing event. Mind you, there will be no horses, no jockeys. The field doesn't run, it hops. Frogs are auctioned for not inconsiderable sums and then the punters stake their bets. The creatures have numbers painted on their backs, are placed in the centre of a large circle, and then they're off! The first one to leg it to the perimeter takes all. At the city's East Point nature reserve, Yvonne Bushby is busy making hamburgers at her mobile stall. She's Darwin's answer to the Bard, and knows all about the annual frog race. Next to the ketchup bottle on the counter are scattered copies of her first book of poems, Top End Topics. The words, like the burgers, coffee, tea, and soft drinks, are for customers' consumption, for a few dollars. Yvonne's poetry draws heavily on the city's crazy antics, such as the frog race, and its residents' famed thirst. 'I'm writing my first novel,' she says. 'It's got everything. Murder, prostitution, the lot. It's based on life in Australia in the old days. Do you know any publishers?' Her husband, sitting under the shade of a tree nearby, sipping a cold beer, interrupts. 'Good place, Darwin. But don't bring a pretty woman with you, and don't bring your dog. They'll steal your woman and your dog, too. 'Too many crocs, you see. If a man wants a swim to cool down, he'll throw the dog in first. If it comes back out, then it's safe to swim. If it doesn't . . . it's saved its master's life.' He might be exaggerating about the fate of Darwin's dogs, but he's certainly not spinning a yarn about the crocodiles. This very day, the city's daily rag, the Northern Territory News, carries a banner headline screaming 'New warning on NT croc attacks'. The salties, as they call saltwater crocodiles in Oz, are everywhere. Barely a water-hole for miles is safe. They're still pulling them out of Darwin harbour. But crocodiles are about to bring big changes in Darwin, and the pioneering lifestyle may be under threat, not from the jaws of these monsters but from development. The Crocodile Dundee films put the Top End firmly on the world tourism map. Americans in particular started flocking to Darwin, which is the gateway to the mighty Kakadu National Park. Tourism has become the Territory's second biggest dollar earner and the city is witnessing a building boom. A new Parliament building has just been completed in readiness for the NT being upgraded to a State within a few years, and a city which once had to turn to drifters to do its chores is now seeing an influx of settlers from other states, who are buying homes. The Northern Territory Tourist Commission in the city centre has been completely revamped, many of its staff brought here from various states to work on a grand plan to lure Asian tourists. It makes sense. Darwin is on Asia's doorstep, much closer to Jakarta than it is to Canberra. The local government is about to launch a major investment drive to bring in the cash to build more hotels in and around Darwin, and is looking to Hong Kong in particular. House prices are already higher than Perth, and rents are nearly on a par with Sydney's as companies from the big cities bite the Darwin bullet. Giant strides since an urgent re-development programme was launched in 1974 to rebuild a small town that had been hammered together with nails and wood, and blown to splinters by Cyclone Tracy. You can only fly to Darwin from Hong Kong via Singapore or Brunei, but direct routing has been offered to Cathay Pacific, and it can only be a matter of time before regular direct flights are taking off from Kai Tak. Territorians are famous for their tall tales, and many people have been frightened off travelling to Darwin by horror stories about the weather, in particular the Suicide Season, about now, when they say it gets so hot and sticky that Top Enders top themselves. It's all nonsense. The humidity is lower than that of Hong Kong in summer, and sea breezes blow in every afternoon. And in the wet, it doesn't pour non-stop for months, as the travel guide books would have you believe. The city has a host of off-beat attractions. The water at Doctor's Gully is so thick with fish at high tide that it appears to boil. They can be hand-fed. Every Thursday in the dry season Darwinians make a bee-line for Mindil Beach to watch the sun set and then scour the market for bargains. Its a very cosmopolitan atmosphere with cuisine from all over Asia, and a bit of bush tucker - kangaroo, emu, camel and crocodile burgers. And down in the harbour there are more than crocs in the water at night. A warehouse has been converted into the best seafood restaurant in town, Christo's, and patrons sit on the jetty watching wild dolphin displays. 'Yes, we like to spin a good yarn,' a Darwinian taxi driver confided. 'Maybe we really want to keep Darwin to ourselves. We don't want to lose that frontier feel.'