Sunday, 22 December 2013

14th Dec - Darwin, Australia

The airlines Wings Air and Lion Air collaborate to offer budget flights around Indonesian islands. You may buy a Lion Air ticket and find yourself on a Wings Air flight. Nothing particularly unusual about that, except the two airlines have different baggage weight restrictions, not only that but Wings Air had just reduced their included baggage limit from 15kg to a measly 10kg. That change was so recent that it was reflected in my return ticket, but not in my outward. Although the tickets were a total bargain at £11 each way, the girl at the check-in desk at Bali did require a little insistent prompting before her manager agreed that my old paperwork should be honoured. 

However, I didn't feel like testing the system again on the return, so I found myself crossing back over the Wallace Line for the fourth time in two weeks with more than half my luggage stuffed into pockets about my person, while a slimmed down lightweight rucksack travelled in the hold below me. Thankfully I didn't have to enter negotiations since the check-in lady at Lombok, kindly found me a seat on an earlier delayed flight, when she realised that my scheduled one would probably be late for my onward transfer to Darwin. Fortunately I made the onward flight from Denpaser to Darwin without any issues.
Heavy afternoon rains were delaying all flights.

Arriving at any airport at 3 in the morning is not conducive to an expeditious first day. When the $15 shuttle bus into town failed to show up, I joined several others in settling down for a snooze on the carpet at one end of the arrivals hall, head propped on bag, hat over face. At 5.30am the next shuttle didn't show, so I shared a $30 taxi into town with a fearful young German called Lucas. Arriving at Melaleuca, the first hostel I tried, I was thrilled to learn I could check-in immediately so proceeded straight to bed for a much needed kip. I needed the quiet and it was a comfort to be back in an anglophone country, but all this came at a cost. At $65 for a private room, all these prices were far higher than I'd been used to paying across Asia, clearly I was back in the first world.

Before noon, I ventured out into the heat of the Australian sun. Darwin is smaller than I'd imagined, but even so it's population of 122,000 were nowhere to be seen on a Saturday. The centre of the city was all but deserted. It was so very quiet, a car passing by every couple of minutes, or the sight of a lone pedestrian on a parallel street was all I had to convince me that I wasn't in some post-apocalyptic movie. After the relentless noise and hubbub of Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia this was very disconcerting.

Darwin is a city that has been regularly pruned. It was flattened a couple of times during WWII by the Japanese, and more recently late on Christmas Eve 1974, it was completely obliterated by Cyclone Tracey. While not causing anything like the number of fatalities of recent Typhoon Haiyan, it did similarly destroy 90% of the buildings and blow with gusts that were off the scale - the wind speed was just too much for the anenometers to record, (but were certainly over 135mph).
This is what's left of the old town hall, kept as a memorial to the big storm.
Darwin is a tropical town, so typhoons are not uncommon. Though we tend to identify the tropics with just two seasons, wet and dry; the Larrakia (the indigenous people who lived here before the white folk moved in), interestingly identifiy six seasons in their year, as listed in the photo below. 
The Larrakia aboriginals are a people that have lived around this coast for thousands of years, maintaining a diet high in shellfish, trading (and possibly marrying) with tribes from Sulawesi and Mallacas to the north and eventually welcoming the western explorers like Stuart, after whom the north-south Highway is named. Today aboriginals make up about a third of the population of the Northern Territories, a figure much higher than across Australia as a whole.

It's most unfortunate that a visitor's first impression of aboriginals when visiting this city is one of marginalised, unemployed, alcohol abusers. Though quite easy to understand how for a people so intimately interdependent on the land, to live within a city of commerce and concrete with tarmac under foot, must be alienating. Especially for those so comprehensively disenfranchised by the early colonial governments. Obviously a lot has changed in attitudes since then, considerable work has been done to restore Native Title (freeholds over tribal lands - a concept nonsensical to aboriginals but crucial for their protection from cultures of propriety). Tours run by and for the benefit of indigenous peoples are now popular, and representation at governing levels is becoming more common, but the damage has long been done and achieving an acceptable balance will take generations of better integration.

In a land of thirsty, sport-loving, coastal dwellers; water management is a popular topic. If someone isn't telling you about the difference between freshies and salties (crocodiles); they might be telling you about the need for a new desalination plant, while refilling their water bottles from one of these free public stations - great idea.

Here's the new Darwin Waterfront, a collection of apartments, hotels and retail premises arranged around a beautifully manicured lawn and a big wave pool by the harbour. The whole thing looks like an architects's visualisation, complete with just a smattering of happy, young picnicking families and an alcohol ban to keep the natives and english tourists out. At $8 for the whole day, the Wave Lagoon is very good value and seemed popular with the locals.

The building half hidden on the right is the NT Parliament House, known colloquially as The Wedding Cake on account of it being full of fruits and nuts and soaked in booze, (and looking a bit like a wedding cake).
Jutting out into the harbour is Stokes Hill Wharf with several good sea-food restaurants apparently.
In the far distance on the peninsular is the new LPG terminal, known by locals as the Esky. This is the source of a lot of Darwin's new found wealth. Petroleum gas from the rigs in the Timor Sea is piped down here to be cooled and compressed into liquid, it's then transferred onto new ocean going tankers to be ferried to markets around the world - most is sold to China.

This is the roof terrace at Melaleucas, one of several hostels on Mitchell Street, but the only one with a big pool and a bar on the roof. I misspent three evenings here with a raggle-taggle bunch of long termers, misfits and accidental tourists. Not all were backpackers, some were looking for cheap digs while casual labouring in construction, or off-shore rigs. The male-female ratio in Darwin is definitely favourable for the single lady searching for unreconstructed piper-alpha males.

A huge dark front rolls in over Darwin at dusk. Moments after this, squalls of rain came down, forked lightening x-rayed the sky, the streets turned to torrents and the storm drains overflowed.

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