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Published: September 12th 2009
Getting into Darwin
We left Kunnunurra in the morning, joining the Victoria Highway
and shortly afterwards entering the state of the Northern Territory, commonly referred to as the "Top End". It literally is the top end of Australia and with a population of only 200,000 yet a land mass of 1,400,000 square km (around the size of Mongolia). So, very sparsely populated and very big.
It was also a big old way to go until we got to Darwin, it's capital. We first stopped at Gregory National Park
named after Augustus Charles Gregory
, an Englishman who explored this coast in the 19th Century and who left an impressive inscription of his arrival on a huge boab tree.
That night we camped nearby, my Aussie companion Locky roasted a chicken on the bbq
as we drank the rest of our beers that we’d picked up in Kunnunurra. The next day we drove further onwards to Katherine, joining the Stuart Highway (named after a mad 19th Century explorer who ventured up here by land from Adelaide down south). We stopped for lunch at the Edith Falls
a nice spot where we had also had a dip in the pool below the falls. Bloody freezing it was
but it was the first shower I’d had in days, even though when I got out the tough outback dirt was still on the tops of my feet. I needed a scourer or another 14 showers to get that stuff off.
We carried along the highway before stopping at Adelaide River
to visit the Commonwealth War Cemetery
. I’m always impressed by how well kept these cemeteries are, and there were plenty of British and Australian servicemen buried there, although the Americans re interred their dead back in America. There was a separate section containing the remains of those who were killed in the famous Japanese air raids on Darwin and surrounding areas in the Second World War (including the staff of the Post Office in Darwin). If anyone's seen the insufferable movie, Australia
starring Nicole Botox Kidman and Hugh Muscle Jackman then it features heavily in that.
We finally arrived in Darwin in the late afternoon with the sun shining bright and my first impressions of the place was that there were a lot of people sat outside cafes and bars in the sunshine. It looked very
inviting. Locky helped me get my stuff up into the dormitory
of the Youth Shack Hostel
, complete with swimming pool. We then met up a bit later after having showered (ah, the relief), shaved and put on a new set of clothes. We then got over to the improbably named Darwin Ski Club
- water-ski by the way, a bar and club down by Fannie Bay and literally by the sea. There we met up with Locky’s mate who we had bumped into in Kunnunurra. She had a few mates with her from Melbourne, so we had a jolly good evening. One of the girls, Vivienne, was Vietnamese Australian but her family were actually Chinese and came from Cholon (Chinatown) in Saigon where I’d actually visited. So we had a chin-wag, and as is the danger when you are amongst the Commonwealthers, a few examples of mimicry and they’re in your hands…I never thought being able to put on an accent from Geordie, Scottish to South African would win you plaudits but it did that night. Embarrassing.
Anyway, it went a bit bizarre after that, the place closed at about 11.30pm, and we got talking to an Irish fella collecting the glasses who was from County Roscommon in Ireland and actually not far
from where my mother is from. I’ve never visited this part of Ireland or even met my mother’s family from there so I was stuck for things to say to him sadly. Outside we struggled to get a cab back into the city but after a while one did come along and the girls all jumped in, said goodbye and left us on the side of the road!
Locky and I began walking back into the city eagerly looking for a taxi to come by and then Locky gets a phone call from the girls telling us to meet them in a pub called ironically “Shenanigans”. This kind of behaviour gets on my nerves but, hey, when you’ve been without female company for a long time, you’ll put up with a lot. The girls were leaving on an early flight the next morning so Locky ended up snogging one of the lasses and I ended up chatting to Vivienne who bore me half to death repeating herself about how much she loved her Irish boyfriend back in Melbourne. I ended up watching the Ashes live on the screen over her shoulders.
I met up with Locky again the
next morning to pay the rest of my half of the fuel and food costs of the trip. He was staying on in Darwin for a few days, with his cousin in town but despite congratulating ourselves on a good trip, I didn’t hear from him again. Sad really because underneath the stoical exterior and Aussie jack put a hand to anything he was also a quiet bibliophile with a big box of books in the back of his truck, a professional sea kayaker
and a non-judgemental good egg. I'll miss ya Lachlan Harvey.
Mindil Beach Market
So it was winter time in the Top End - the ‘dry’ season - sunny and hot as opposed to the ‘wet’ season when it is murderously humid and rainy. Subsequently there were a lot of backpackers in Darwin (to my surprise mostly French and German - but hardly any Brits) and which is why I couldn’t escape and stay with a couchsurfing host - they were inundated with requests and so no one was offering. One girl, however, did offer to meet up with me at Mindil Market
, a twice
weekly night market held at Mindil Beach.
So that’s what I did, I got a local bus to Mindil and met up with Ontario native Michelle and her Aussie boyfriend for some “hanging out”. They had met each other because he had had his bag and passport stolen whilst backpacking in South America and now she was living and working in Darwin. Coincidentally, also with us was a guy whom she went to school with back in Canada and were put in contact by a mutual friend - this was their first time seeing each other since then. Even weirder was the fact that I recognized him - he’d been working at from the internet café back in Broome - oh and we also shared the exact same age - born only a day apart. Weird! Anyway, I hung out with these people and ate some pretty good Vietnamese food from one of the stalls. We then walked to the Darwin Ski club and watched sunset with a few beers. Walking back with this guy through Mindil Market we stopped at a fishing company and somehow I was persuaded to go on a fishing trip with him. Unfortunately I
never made it because I went out on the piss the night before and was too wasted to meet him at 7am. Oh well.
Dicking about Darwin
The next couple of days I enjoyed sitting by the pool, topping up my tan and reading about convicts being sent to Australia; well I say convicts but more like poor bastards who’d gotten seven years hard labour for things that nowadays would probably get you a police caution. Inevitably some pretty horrible things happened in the early period of transportation, for example: when a man was convicted and sentenced to be sent to New South Wales, and essentially a life sentence because rarely would they be able to afford a return ticket once their sentence was completed. Their wives and children were not allowed to go with them so it effectively broke up the entire family. Worse, women who gave birth in prison had their children taken off them before being sent to the holding cells of the hulk ships before being sent on the long voyage to Australia, never to see them again. Prisoners who died on the terrible 3 months voyage down under were simply dumped overboard and food
was so rotten and so few that prisoners slept with recently deceased prisoners in order to receive their rations. I’m surprised how little we know about what we did to our criminals in the past and this book has really opened my eyes.
More history (yawn)
I walked around historical Darwin and the harbour - which was devastated by the surprise Japanese air raids on 19 February 1942 and which were the largest attacks ever mounted by a foreign power against Australia. They were also a significant psychological blow to the Aussies in that they realized that the motherland Britain was unable to defend them. The raids were the first of almost 100 air raids against Australia during 1942-43. The raid was made famous by the insufferable movie Australia
but also because more bombs were dropped on Darwin than the attack on the American Naval base of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The Governor’s House was still standing - rather modest and looking like a cottage than a regal palace but then incredibly the NT only started running its own affairs in 1978 - before that it was governed by South Australia. I then visited the Museum of
the Northern Territory, which had lots of local aboriginal art on display as well as a great exhibition on crocodilians and all their varieties. The wildlife section was pretty good too, just getting to see how many things can bite, sting and stab you in this part of the world. It was also a reminder of how as well as “Sweetheart” - a stuffed saltwater crocodile which started harassing local fishing boats along the rivers and was captured for removal Visited the art gallery of northern territory and walked along the water with crabs fighting me.
I spent an afternoon at the George Brown Botanical Gardens
which has a ring of John-getting-old about it but it was surprisingly relaxing. It’s not often you get to stroll through say, Madagascan rainforest or Bush savannah with a myriad of trees and plants producing exotic flowers and fruit.
I also spent a fair bit of time at the only free wireless place in Darwin - the Northern Territory Parliament Library; there I started registering for job alerts from Charles Darwin University and local government, but nothing was going. So I decided to jump ship and leave Darwin, but not before visiting
Kakadu National park, one of the most amazing parks in all of Australia, only problem being, how to get there having no wheels.
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