Adventures in the Top End

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Darwin: Daring To Be Different

 

NOTHING prepares you for Darwin. That was the case the first time I went there in the early 1970s. Yet it’s the same again more than 40 years later.

You can build up all sorts of ideas on what Australia’s most northern city will look like. The reality is so much different.

Surprisingly different.

Having worked in the Northern Territory half a lifetime ago, the memories were so good that I hadn’t wanted to break the romance.

But it was time to go back.

Darwin was really a frontier town back in the early 1970s: one, maybe two, sets of traffic lights and a lift in the new government offices.

People just used to ride up and down. It was the same with traffic lights … sit there and watch them change, and watch them change, and watch them change.

There was the Hotel Darwin, the Vic, Don, Parap, Seabreeze and the new Lim’s at Nightcliff, as well as Berrimah.

Along the track were such classic outback pubs at Daly Waters, Larrimah, Pine Creek and Adelaide River.

They were roaring days: betting shops and some buildings in the central business district still made of corrugated iron. There were the wonderful high-set houses that attracted the cooling breezes underneath.

All sorts of people camped in the bush at Lamaroo Beach … right on the doorstep of town so they could go to the post office or employment service, seek work or wait for dole cheques.

What a mix of cultures, from the island and mainland indigenous people, the fishermen and traders from the South-East Asian islands, and the pearling fleet.

Then there have been the new arrivals from Europe. The backpackers and the tourists lured by the glory of Kakadu, and the journey to the Kimberleys.

The thrill of barramundi fishing, the crocodiles, the fantastic birdlife.

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My first trip there was a road and rail journey north from Pt Augusta on the old Ghan, named after the Afghan camel teamsters who brought supplies to the Australian Outback in the 1800s.

This time it was a road trip from the Sunshine Coast to Barcaldine, Longreach, Winton, Cloncurry, Mt Isa, Camooweal and a pop across the border … like picking fruit from low-hanging branches on the way home from school.

That early journey on the Ghan and then by road to Darwin started out as a working holiday in Victoria’s grape-growing region.

Yet it turned into a travel odyssey through the heartland of Australia with a couple of Canadians we chummed up with.

They were Agricultural Department fellows and two Aussies on board meant the car, a 1966 Holden station wagon, could travel free on the Ghan.

The journey included an oh, so dusty diversion to Uluru. The dust was as fine as talcum powder and got into every part of the car and backpacks.

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We then headed north again from the Alice, stopping every couple of hundred kilometres for fuel and a drink.

Pulling off the road just out of Wauchope, we set a campfire. Just the stars for a roof.

The Canadians were fascinated, but also cautious. What if something happened to us?

Far enough from the highway that we may never be found.

This time I had driven up from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, stopping the first night at Emerald before pushing on through Longreach, Winton, Cloncurry and Mt Isa.

I decided to sleep in the car for a few hours at Camooweal on the Queensland border, hoping to reach Three Ways in the Northern Territory for breakfast.

I pulled up near the police station, put the seat back and pulled a blanket over me.

But it was colder of a night than I remembered. And about 2.30am decided to drive through the night. There would be little traffic and the worst time for kangaroos and emus on the road is at dusk and at dawn.

As for roaming cattle and horses … well, you just have to be careful.

The moon was up so it would be a good drive – or so I thought.  A road sign just out of Camooweal read 270km to next fuel. Three Ways was 446km … not enough in the tank, even if I take it easy.

Driving across the Barkly Tablelands at night is a beautiful experience. The moon is your guide, darkness is around you. It’s as if you are drifting through space.

The road train drivers are about the only others sharing this time. You see their headlights on the horizon … kilometres away. And they dip them from high beam immediately.

It reminds me of the way people can be up here, away from the cities. Thoughtful, courteous. How you would like to be treated.

Almost three hours later, I see the Barkly Tablelands service station on the left. It’s in darkness, so I pull in near the parked road trains, lock the doors and bunk down in the driver’s seat.

An hour later one of the road trains quietly pulls out. So I open the car door … lights flash, the alarm sounds. I should have remembered.

Heaven knows what the truckies thought … another bloody tourist.

Fuel, a wash, bacon and egg roll plus coffee to go … it’s still quite a stretch to the Stuart Highway.

The girl behind the counter has a strong English accent. What is she doing way out here? Probably arrived in Darwin and they told her there was a job going doing the track. About 1200km down the track. But that’s the Territory for you.

I go to pull out of the parking area but wonder: Which way is it? Your mind plays tricks on you at this time of day and in such a remote place.

Some of the largest grazing properties in Australia are out here. And it’s so far between settlements.

The servo was on the left, right? So I need to turn left … yet my sense of direction seems to say right. It’s as if I am all at sea yet so far from the ocean.

I remember my cousin Jacko telling me about this all those years ago when he was up here.

I figure there is always a direction or distance sign within a little way of a settlement and decide to keep going. It’s the right decision.

Unlike Jacko who went 20-something kilometres before discovering his mistake.

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In the early morning light the drivers of what vehicles there are nearly all wave to you.

It’s like a “good morning” wave … road trains, army vehicles, RVs and caravanners.

The wave of fellow drivers. It must be a natural human behaviour. Do we crave connection … or is it recognition … especially in isolated areas?

We get the impression people in the outback are friendlier than city dwellers. But when out there you are more isolated so the need to feel part of something and connected grows.

In a way you don’t get that in cities because its almost too much connection. You’re exposed to more people so the desire to connect is kind of dampened.

Highways are a bit like that though. Truckies generally acknowledge each other

Off the main roads it’s different … people readily acknowledge you.

That’s the thing about places and spaces. You are dependent on others as well as your own preparedness, ability to cope with issues.

Erratic mobile phone reception in remote areas make you more aware. The way service drops in and out emphasises the isolation.

The time you have service on a road trip can vary anywhere from 1km to 20km from a centre. It can depend on whether you are on a rise in the road or a dip and can last for 10 to 20 seconds, for two minutes , 10 or even 20.

You takes some notes along the way, when you stop for photos – thoughts, ideas, observations and to give of an indication of when you will be at the next centre. Sometimes that can be 200km later.

Hopefully the texts will send while you have service and the responses will flow in from the last point of contact.

You don’t really need GPS if you stay in the main roads. The directional signs are generally enough. It’s really only when you reach Darwin, when you are looking for individual streets.

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And you remember that in a big city you can be lost in a crowd as it highlights the disconnectedness.

The road rolls out in front of you and at the Stuart Highway intersection it’s time to top up with fuel at Three Ways. Here they get you to pay or leave your credit card at the counter before you fill up. Once bitten by drive-offs, twice shy apparently.

There are a lot more road trains on this, the north-south highway between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin. And the road is much better than in the 1970s.

Then you had to pull over to the side of the road for an on-coming road train. And wait your chance to overtake one. Now there is a wide strip of bitumen and well formed edges.

Heading north, the country starts to change. At Elliott there is red dirt and a cup of tea at the servo.

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It’s a town … of sorts. Two hundred, two hundred and fifty kilometres maybe from anywhere else. The people just drift in from the desert and gather under the trees.

It’s still a long haul to Larrimah and Mataranka but they are two must-do places in the Top End.

The pub at Larrimah, NT. Photo: Erle Levey, Sunshine Coast Newspapers
The pub at Larrimah, NT. Photo: Leavearly.com

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The Stuart Highway at Mataranka, NT. Photo: Leavearly.com
The vegetation is more lush and tropical. The grasses are higher and greener, the trees as well.

After a long, hot drive through the centre, there is nothing better than the bush pub at Larrimah or to relax in the hot springs of Elsey National Park at Mataranka.

At the Mataranka servo there is a German girl behind the counter. I give her my credit card before filling up – like at Three Ways.

What’s this, she says, are we going to Bali.

Then she tells me about the changes in Mataranka … that we would have gone to the hot springs at the caravan park when we first drove through.

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The warm waters of Bitter Springs, Elsey National Park, Mataranka, NT. Photo: Leavearly.com
Elsey National Park is still a beautiful oasis, especially after such a long drive – crystal clear warm water, pandanus and cabbage tree palms overhead.

And turtles in the water. Take a waterproof camera … and take your time.

Katherine is no longer the dusty main street I knew but like any modern town in Australia, with divided road, traffic lights, new buildings.

The railway line now runs all the way to Darwin from Adelaide instead of just north from Larrimah.

The road into Darwin is good but long and there is always the danger of cattle or roos of an evening.

The road trains add another dimension … 60m long means you need to gauge speed and distance well.

Earlier that day, I saw a campervan full of overseas backpackers on the side of the road. It looked like they had misjudged when overtaking and the back of the van was ripped out – clothes and backpacks scattered in the dirt – showing how easy things can go awry.

The run in through Adelaide River is smooth as I have been following a road train in but I am not prepared for the divided roads, the flashing amber lights warning of traffic signals ahead. What a great idea. That and the turn left at traffic lights when safe to do so on red.

Driving into the night, it’s like I am descending in an aircraft. Yet the country is flat and Tiger Brennan Dr takes you right into the heart of town. The wharf area has seen so much revitalisation on reclaimed land.

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The heritage-listed 1934 Qantas Hangar at Parap in Darwin, NT.
As the closest point to Asia and Europe, Darwin is at the forefront of Australian aviation history.

It was the logical destination for flights coming into the country and the last fuel stop before flying over ocean.

The first flight from England to Australia was accomplished by Captain Ross Smith and his brother Lieutenant Keith Smith with mechanics Sgt Wally Shiers and Jim Bennett.

A memorial to their flight is at Fannie Bay, close to the end of the runway of the original Darwin Aerodrome. There is also a wide thoroughfare named Ross Smith Avenue.

A bronze plaque in a nearby street marks the exploits of Bert Hinkler, also known as the Lone Eagle. He was the first person to fly solo from England to Australia, arriving in Darwin on February 22, 1928, and the first to fly solo across the Southern Atlantic Ocean.

A relic from one of Hinkler’s hand-made gliders, presented to US astronauts in 1986, survived the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle disaster.

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Today, Darwin remains a major international airport and the Royal Australian Air Force conducts a variety of military aviation exercises with overseas nations.

There is the relatively new transport hub at East Arm, with container shipping, railway and highway enjoying good access to the city and to the south.

INPEX is the new driver of the economy: the processing of off-shore natural gas.

It sits alongside defence, mining, agriculture and government services as the foundations of the economy.

The Japanese company is extracting hydrocarbon liquids from an underwater basin north of Western Australia that is then sent to Bladin Point in Darwin Harbour by an 890km undersea pipeline.

The amount of infrastructure being put in place in these southern suburbs of Darwin is quite remarkable – mainly roads, bridges and shopping centres.

In the 1970s Lamaroo Beach was where so many travellers would ‘camp’ until they could get their life sorted. They had come overland from Europe then down through South-east Asia or they had wandered in from just about every part of Australia.

Some were hiding from their past while others were finding themselves.

Rainforest clinging to steep slopes that ran down to the shore …. a collection of sand and rocks then mangrove flats at low tide.

I remember seeing mud skippers flapping around on the mud. Fish that could stay alive out of water.

Maybe we did evolve from the oceans all those thousands of years ago.

There was a sign at Lamaroo … I will never forget it.

“Beware of falling rocks.”

And someone had added … “and of falling people.”

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My early knowledge of Darwin was mainly confined to what I had been told at school of it having been bombed during the Second World War. Apparently more bombs were dropped on Darwin than on Pearl Harbor.

The Darwin Military Museum at East Point feature events of February 19, 1942, when war came to the Top End.

The Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory highlights such events as boat arrivals over the centuries to the events of December 24–25, 1974, when Cyclone Tracy swept through and destroyed more than 70% of Darwin’s buildings.

These are profound experiences.

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Yet Darwin is also about today and it’s great to see Fannie Bay again and the collection of people enjoying the morning by the water at one of the best locations in the world.

It’s amazing to see the sunsets from the Sailing Club and realise Sydney Harbour fits into Darwin Harbour three times.

I meet Johnno, who walks 20km a day. It’s what keeps him going, keeps him from getting lost in the long grass as they say up here.And there are so many different trees, exotic fruits and flowers. Everything is bursting into life after the wet season.

The Parap markets of a Saturday morning and the Mindil Beach night markets on Sunday reflect the colour of this vibrant city.

Like Singapore, it has an early colonial feel to it but you realise how close it is to South-East Asia, not an Australian frontier town.

There’s a melting pot of cultures and a mix of frangipani and bougainvillea blossoms that bring a sweetness to the air of a morning before the heat of the day … and then of an evening.

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Darwin was always going to be an important part of Australia, a gateway to Asia. Now it is undergoing significant change.

It is different to the rest of Australia. And the people reflect this with their attitude and behaviour. It is good to see some of that romance retained, that mystique that comes from its remoteness.

Nothing quite prepares you for Darwin – and that is the beauty of it.

So much has changed but it still retains that rogue flavour.

In Darwin, everyone gets a chance at life. It could be a second chance, it doesn’t matter.

And you are only known by your first name. It’s up to you what you do with that opportunity.

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2 comments

  • The thing about Darwin is you can count on the seasons … it’s sub-tropical so the rains come in summer and the winter is dry … yet no matter what season you generally get good sunsets. This time I learned the best colours often come just after the sun slips below the horizon. Darwin is a real melting pot, so different from most of Australia – except perhaps Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef. Macassan fishermen had been in those waters many years before the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and British explorers sailed through …

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