Wintering over in The Top End

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September 29th 2009
Published: September 29th 2009
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Clunk...whoosh...rattle...bang...slap...this has been my soundtrack for the last month, along with a mechanical cacophony backing track from industrial washing machines, driers and sheet folders in the Darwin commercial laundry where we’ve been working.

We’d planned to spend some time in the Top End capital to find jobs as well as avoid the cold and wet winters they get down south.

There are plenty of jobs in Darwin - a city which seems to have completely avoided the GFC. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country and the most expensive to rent or buy property. Since we came three months ago we’ve watched a whole new subdivision be developed along our road to the Lee Point caravan park.

First we applied to be shelf stackers at Woolworths - Rhys was turned down and they never got back to me at all - we presume because they knew we were travelling and they only wanted permanent staff. Surely it couldn’t have been a lack of skills or intelligence considering the dim-witted drongos they have working on the checkouts.

We wreaked revenge by shopping at Coles for the rest of our stay.

Our friends Robyn and
Jigsaw puzzle lightsJigsaw puzzle lightsJigsaw puzzle lights

catch the eye at the Mindil markets
Adrian, who saved us a place at the van park - the only way to get in at the height of the season when all ten parks are full, you can’t book and caravans line up outside the park gates each morning waiting for people to leave so they can get in (and this for one of the most expensive parks we have stayed at, with the crappiest amenities blocks, rudest reception staff (not you of course Robyn!!) and management that couldn’t give a toss. And we haven’t mentioned the midges yet!..)

Anyhoo - Robyn and Adrian were working at the laundry and were instrumental in us becoming similarly employed - a thing we thanked them for at the start and finish, but often during the actual work, “thanks” was more an ironic term.

Rhys was all excited about getting a delivery job while a driver was on holiday, until he realised his was the only truck without air conditioning and when he had to pick up sacks full of soiled (and I mean SOILED) laundry from an old people’s home and drive around town with in 34 degree heat, the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

the dark satanic millsthe dark satanic millsthe dark satanic mills

At the folding machines in the Darwin laundry...feed! feed!
was set to work in the finishing area, thankfully with clean linen, sorting towels, facecloths and bathmats. All of which were white, so it sounds like a kind of soothing job - which it was occasionally when the machines broke down and we had to do them by hand.

But for the most part it was a race against the machine - with my two co-workers, a young Thai woman and Filipino the same age as me, I was trapped in an eternal wash cycle as huge bins of hot dry laundry emerged constantly from the dryers behind us and we had to sort, fold, bundle and stack them ready for sometimes tetchy delivery guys with schedules to meet.

And in the continent’s hottest, sweatiest city, we were working in a steamy, noisy, machine filled factory. I now understand why so many people wanted to work in the chilled alternative universe of a supermarket.

Apart from coping with every part of my body being soaked in sweat from the minute I arrived, the trickiest thing was trying to understand what I was being told to do. It really was like working in a Chinese laundry - most
the sorting teamthe sorting teamthe sorting team

I'm obscured by 50 face cloths (not throwing in the towel)
on the factory floor were Filipino, Thai, Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese etc. When you have to yell above the booming and crashing of machinery, it makes the confusion of different accents much worse.

Try saying ‘bath mats’ and ‘face cloths’ in an accent that doesn’t cope with an English ‘t’ ‘th’ or any ‘s’ sound and you might understand why I spent the first of my five weeks spinning round in circles trying to find what it was that Aurora at the other end of the machines was yelling out for me to send through to her.

They probably think New Zealanders are particularly thick. However, once I’d worked out “long way lound!” didn’t mean put the long side of the bath mat through first, but the WRONG side up, and that their rather savage and minimalist poke-and-point communication wasn’t being personally rude but was necessary in the noisy environment, I started to work out what I was supposed to be doing.

The slightest eyebrow-raise means, “yes of course you stupid round-eye, we should be starting that great mountain of aged-care laundry now”.

There was still the fear of using machinery with big red DANGER and
Darwin Wharf PrecinctDarwin Wharf PrecinctDarwin Wharf Precinct

with new apartment developments
WARNING signs all over them that sucked towels from your hands with alarming speed and flung nylon strapping around bundles at a rate that I was sure could remove fingers. But by the end I was counting 50 facecloths with alacrity, feeding with speed and strapping with the best of them.

The blisters on my thumbs from chemical infused selvedges and bruising on my ribs from leaning as far as I could into the nasty metal cages to get the facecloths that were always left on the bottom, have now healed. The burning pain behind my shoulder blades from rapid and repetitive hauling of heavy, tangled towels is still there, but moving into a dull ache across my shoulders that a couple of dips in a Katherine Gorge hot pool or a day or so lounging on a beach in Broome should fix.

It was a very interesting experience, made tolerable of course by the fact that we were being paid - a necessity due to collapsed interest rates and an inability to keep to our monthly budget targets. But also because it felt like being back in the industrial revolution (not that I was there the first
the man-made lagoonthe man-made lagoonthe man-made lagoon

because you can't swim in the sea!
time you understand). Noisy, repetitive, physically hard, strictly regulated by time, no questioning, no thinking - you just become a part of the machinery.

Fortunately the machinery broke down more times than we did.

Since we had to get up at 5am to start work at 6am, we didn’t have enough energy at the end of each day to do anything more than throw ourselves into the pool, scrape a meal together then fall into bed. But we’ve managed to see as much as we want of Darwin and now “the build up” (increased cloud and humidity leading up to the wet season) has started we are keen to move on.

Darwin is an attractive city, with harbourside developments, lush vegetation with frangipani and palm trees everywhere, framed by a turquoise tropical sea. Unfortunately you can’t swim or even paddle in this very inviting sea because of the presence of deadly jellyfish all year round and crocodiles for much of the year.

Just before we came in July a crocodile was seen on Mindil beach - the main recreational beach where hundreds regularly gather to watch the sunset.

Wildlife isn’t confined to the water -
Wave poolWave poolWave pool

just as much fun as the sea - but not as deadly!
Darwin has a particular problem with midges - tiny tiny flies that should be singularly insignificant, but which inflict a bite so irritating it makes you question people’s position at the top of the food chain.

Some people aren’t bothered at all, but many - me and Rhys included - have an almost allergic reaction to their bites, which swell up into a blister that is very VERY itchy, goes all crusty and yucky with a tendency to get infected. And even MORE itchy.

We tried all the home-made and proprietary potions available, but eventually Rhys resorted to WMD strength Bushmans anti-insect spray and I didn’t emerge from the caravan after 4.30pm for happy hour drinkies without being fully clothed from head to toe, trousers, long sleeves and toe socks, no matter that the temperature remained at 32 with 70% humidity.

With the hot nights the itching got so bad I even resorted to antihistamine tablets. Midges live in mangroves, so we hope to avoid this plague as we go inland. And also hope the mozzies aren’t the dengue fever ones.

But Darwinians make the most of their outdoor lifestyle, when they can bear leaving their
The old Police StationThe old Police StationThe old Police Station

one of only a handful of colonial buildings which have survived cyclones and bombings
air conditioned malls and homes. Mindil Beach is home to the famous markets, every Thursday and Sunday in the dry season. Styled on Asian night markets, there is a mouth watering array of food stalls, excellent live entertainment and the usual suspects of jewellery, snake oil, bad art, Indonesian made clothing with Australian labels attached and stunningly kitsch items you think are the most amazing thing that you cannot do without. At the time.

Thousands of tourists and locals alike turn up each evening around 5ish, wander around the stalls or sit under the trees, drinking tropical fruit shakes and scoffing lemongrass squid satays or Thai curries and chilling out to a variety of live music. Then everyone strolls down onto the beach for the ritual of watching the sunset and taking stupid photos of each other in front of the sunset.

Mindil Beach is also the venue for one of Darwin’s trademark events - the Beer Can Regatta, apparently first thought of as an attempt to find a use for a large proportion of litter created by workers in the clean up aftermath of Cyclone Tracey.

The Darwin Festival was also on during our stay and
The old Town HallThe old Town HallThe old Town Hall

didn't quite make it through Cyclone Tracey in 1974, but they still use it as a venue for festival events and concerts
we managed to catch a concert by alternative Aussie rock band Augie March. After the opening two bars we looked at each other and said “Crowded House” and sure enough, their lead singer Glenn Richards features on Neil Finn’s new 7 Worlds Collide CD.

There were a variety of art exhibitions and for my birthday treat we did an aboriginal art gallery trawl (there are more than a dozen featuring local and regional indigenous artists) and made our first authentic aboriginal art purchase.

We also went to the festival closing ceremony where a thick layer of sand was laid on the grassy esplanade for dance groups from the region to present authentic ceremonial dance. The flicking up of sand forms an integral part of the dance and I really enjoyed it, apart from having to poke Rhys regularly to stop him from snoring.

And for those who missed the last blog, before we started our interment in the laundry, we ‘did’ the Kakadu National Park and a spur of the moment trip to Singapore.

Now we’re off due south to Katherine for a trip up the famous gorge, then Westward Ho! towards Kununurra - our first
Government HouseGovernment HouseGovernment House

A grand old lady which has fortunately also survived the natural and man-made disasters Darwin has experienced
time in Western Australia. The cyclone season doesn’t officially start til November 1, but in our minds it’s a bit of a race to get across the top and round the north-western corner to reach the Tropic of Capricorn by then.

We’re looking forward to some cooler weather now - you can have too much of a good thing and it would be nice to last for at least a few minutes after having a shower before you start sweating all over again.

Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 29


Buffalo CreekBuffalo Creek
Buffalo Creek

near to our camping ground - very beautiful, but the source of all our midges. Crocodiles too.
Sandy CreekSandy Creek
Sandy Creek

So inviting - except for the crocodiles...
Lee PointLee Point
Lee Point

from Sandy Creek
Mindil Markets entertainmentMindil Markets entertainment
Mindil Markets entertainment

the didgeridoo man from Humpty Doo. Honest. He was brilliant.
Mindil beachMindil beach
Mindil beach

waiting for the sunset

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