Darwin: The “Mostest” Little City in Australia.
To say that I’ve learned a lot while traveling on my own is a gross understatement, but where my learning curve has shown the most dramatic rise, is on the subject of how to be a gracious host. Over and over I have been warmly greeted and then entertained by folks who have taken time out of their busy lives to make me feel welcome.
This certainly was the case when meeting Nan, the cousin of my friend Gayl’s husband, Tom. What a comfort it was to be picked up at the airport in this new city, and to be free from the stresses of finding a shuttle or cab to some little known address. I’ve come across lots of blog posts and Facebook postings that feature stories about good deeds and kindness shown to strangers. Over and over on my travels, I have been the lucky recipient of these acts of kindness. Nan is just this kind of person. She exudes benevolence. Nan showed me incredible hospitality for three days in Darwin, and after spending time with her, I felt like I had connected with some long, lost relative. And, I learned a lot from her about the city, including history and global politics.
Darwin is Australia’s most northern city, and the most diverse (with more than 75 ethnic groups–10% Aboriginal). It has the youngest median age of any city, and its population is the most transient. With just under 130,000 people, Darwin also has one of the highest crime and homelessness rates.
While driving around the city, Nan pointed out the Darwin Military Museum. I didn’t know that during WWII, on February 19, 1942, Darwin, seen as a key port and filled with Allied ships, was bombed by the same Japanese commander who a year earlier bombed Pearl Harbor…and they dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbor.
Next, we stopped at Northern Territory Library located in Parliament House and visited an exhibit about The Stolen Generations and Kahlin Aboriginal Compound in Darwin, which existed from 1913 to 1938. While many Aboriginal children were forcibly taken there, Darwin’s Aboriginal workforce and their families were required by law to live at the compound as were children of mixed descent. It’s an important piece of history because the people from the compound helped to build Darwin.
We drove around Darwin’s impressive harbor and stopped for a walk on the esplanade where I encountered, for the first time, crocodile warnings. All that water and no place to swim! Of all the deadly things that inhabit Australia, salt water crocs (salties) freak me out the most. I wasn’t up in this part of the world more than a couple of weeks when it was reported that a 40 something-year woman, with a friend she was visiting with in Queensland, decided to go to the beach at night(stupid). Her last uttered word, reportedly was, “Crocodile!!” Authorities searched for her body for a couple of days. Nada, zip, 0…. Death by crocodile? Terrifying.
I also learned something about the importance of Darwin harbor and how it is not only strategically placed as an entry way to Asia, but it is also the base for the Royal Australian Army’s border protection operations.
In 2015, the Northern Territory government(with clearance from the Defense Department) signed a deal for 506 million to lease Darwin Harbor for 99 years to the private Chinese company Landbridge, which purportedly has ties to the People’s Liberation Army. The U.S. was never consulted (nor were a host of other people) and only found out about it after the fact (an article in The New York Times). It is understandable that Obama was a little angry since the U.S. is an important ally, and the port hosts annual visits of more than 1000 marines. Since 2011, Darwin has been an important staging post for U.S. Marines, and up to 2,500 are expected to be on rotation.
Some in Australia see this harbor lease as a big economic boon, others see it as holistically short sighted. Although China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, it is not a major ally. (The Chinese also just bought Carlton Station also in NT for 60 million.) I point this out because a new goal of mine is to be a better informed U.S. and global citizen. I know little about foreign policy, especially from the perspective of other countries.
On a lighter note, Darwin is host to many bustling outdoor markets featuring delicious food from around the world. Nan took me to the Rapid Creek Market, one of her regular shopping stops, and my senses were overloaded with fresh, colorful, and exotic foods and produce.
Darwin’s climate is tropical, and features several “seasons:” cool dry, hot dry, build up, hot wet, cold wet. I was there the end of May, and it wasn’t very cool or dry. Build up is pretty rugged as the humidity soars and the clouds fill with moisture for weeks before finally letting loose the wet season. Suicide rates rise during this time. The only thing I can compare it to in Maine is what we call “cabin fever,” when spring never comes and it can be cold with snow well into April.
You have to love the warm evenings though! Sunsets in this part of the world are spectacular. Viewed from the patio of the Darwin Boat Club, or the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, pinks, oranges, and reds ignite the sky.
When previously in Alice Springs, I was advised by my airbnb host to be sure to go to Litchfield National Park, home to huge magnetic termite mounds and many stunning waterfalls that cascade into crystal clear pools. Without even mentioning this to Nan, she had already made plans to do just that the next day. The park is about a 2 hour drive from Darwin and the waterfalls are just off the main road. This is swimming at its best!
There is nothing more pleasing than the music of splashing water, bird chatter, and happy voices. Couple that with the silken embrace of clear, tepid water and I’m taken back to those old Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan movies I watched as a kid where he and Jane swam in exactly such a place. The only thing missing is an elaborate tree house.
My visit wouldn’t be complete without some art, and Darwin doesn’t disappoint. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has everything including a great collection of Aboriginal art and terrific views of the ocean from the huge veranda near the cafe. I was able to see the NATISSA winners(National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Art Awards) of contemporary and traditional media by established and emerging artists.
After three great days in this cosmopolitan city, I’m off to the east Kimberley and the real wilds of Australia. I’m told that 17 people last year “disappeared” (a good place to go if you want to disappear– not so good if you get lost and run out of gas).
As I travel farther west and north, the colors and mysteries of this land are a source of wonder. This quote by one of the artists captures it best: “I am not painting for pleasure. Out in the Top End, the land is not empty. The land is full of knowledge, full of energy, full of power.”