As we drove towards Darwin, we visited first the Window on the Wetlands Centre on top of Beatrice Hill. This is a good interpretive centre built by the NT National Parks and Wildlife Commission to educate visitors in the subtleties of the wetland environment. Our second detour was the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve which proved to be an anticlimax after all the wetlands we had seen over the past few days. It is essentially a narrow elevated causeway leading through a wetland and reaching nowhere in particular There is a turning loop at the end so one is not forced to reverse back the two or three kilometres or single lane road. We didn't stop.
When the telephone service came back, we booked a site in the recommended caravan park at Lee Point on the northern extremity of Darwin and made our way there to settle in for a few days. By chance, the site we had booked was next door to that occupied by Sandra and Ray in RDO. We had happy hour with them and retired to the Motley as the blanket of the night began to flow over the sky from the east.
Laundry and shopping day. We went to the Casuarina Square which is just like all the other big shopping centres in Australia (and I suspect in all other "developed" countries). Surprise surprise, we met up with two other motorhomer couples of our acquaintance who both happened to be in the same place as us at the same time. We stopped and had coffee and a chat with them.
We had happy hour with Sandra and Ray again and we were joined later by Max and Carol Allan who are parked down in caravan city.
We went into Darwin to check out the geography and find the places we want to visit while we are here.
We found the Darwin Wharf Precinct on the Stokes Hill Wharf, had a cup of coffee from the only coffee shop on the wharf. While we drank it, we pondered on the purpose of a ship called Southern Supporter which was loaded with amphibious vehicles and obviously equipped to put them ashore where there are no unloading facilities; I assume it works in the oil and gas exploration business somewhere in the Timor Sea. Somebody later told me it supports the lighthouses in the Area.
We drove into town and came upon Parliament House which was open for visitors and which impressed me despite the furore over the enormous cost at the time it was built in the early nineties. We also visited each of the historic points on the hill including Government House, a plaque commemorating the lives of those lost in the first Japanese attack on Darwin in 1942, and the benchmark where the accurate location of Australia was first determined and which remained the origin of all Australian surveying until fairly recently.
We returned to the Wharf to have barra and chips for lunch and very good it was too.
Our drive back to Lee Point took us through the city, Cullen Point, Mindil Beach, East Head, Fannie Bay and Nightcliffe. Our impression of Darwin is that it has more parks per head of population than anywhere else in Australia, that the place reminds one of Canberra, and that the population are, by and large, transient.
We were pleased to have the Bettisons at our happy hour in the park. They have been staying at their daughter's house a few kilometres away doing all sorts of fixes and chores for her and I suspect they will be glad to get away later this week.
Jean had an appointment with a local doctor to refresh one of her prescriptions so we were out fairly early.
We spent the middle of the day at the Museum which, while being small, is quite modern and very interesting. It has a natural history display which covers most of the wildlife you will see in NT and an art gallery which covers the whole range of aboriginal art from the oldest rock paintings to paintings by today's aboriginal artists, some of which show considerable European influence.
The highlight of the museum is a Cyclone Tracey display. On Christmas Eve 1974, Darwin was devastated by a cyclone so severe that 200 people died, most of the houses were destroyed, all the power, water and sewerage services were out, virtually the whole population was evacuated and the town was put under military control for a week. The display includes a dark room where the sounds of the cyclone are replayed so that one can get some idea of the frightening intensity of the experience. An ABC news film made the point that the town had been hit by a cyclone only a few days before and no-one took Tracey seriously until the morning after when the unprecedented destruction became evident. The northern suburbs lost 98% of the houses. It is amazing that a town which was stripped of most of its houses and all of its trees less than thirty years ago shows absolutely no outward signs today.
We had a household chores day. Jean did some sewing, I washed the truck, the trailer and the car and we both did a little shopping.
In the evening we went, at the invitation of the "family", to Robbie Robins Reserve on the east side of Darwin (we are on the north side) for happy hour. We took Max and Carol with us to save them getting their Coaster out. When we arrived there was no-one at home! We set up anyway on the basis that somebody has to be first and waited for others to arrive. In the end there were all eight of the "family" and ten other visitors apart from we four so it was a pretty lively affair. We didn't leave until it was dark and had a very late dinner by time we got back to the caravan park at Lee Point.
We spent the day at the Territory Wildlife Park which is fifty odd kilometres (thirty odd miles) from Darwin. This is a zoo set in a large tract of bush which includes some monsoon forest and some open woodland. The exhibits are spread along a road serviced by a shuttle train so that one can see everything without walking ones feet off.
We chose to concentrate on a few things to ensure that we had plenty of time to see the animals.
The aquarium is very good. It follows the sequence of water habitats from the escarpment country down to the sea. The exhibits are set with the appropriate plants and the tanks have several species representing that particular habitat. As well as all the different kinds of fish, we saw turtles, crabs, a water monitor, a pretty big estuarine crocodile, and an impressive collection of anemones, clams and so on in the coastal waters tank. the centrepiece is a tunnel tank where one sees, from an underwater perspective, a whole range of large fishes including barramundi, saratoga, freshwater ray, freshwater sawfish and a host of other species.
The aviaries are also set up to demonstrate the various habitats with each exhibit showing typical species in their natural setting. The last few have a boardwalk giving raised viewing areas in the understory, the mid story and the canopy. The climax is a huge walk through aviary with the boardwalk slowly descending from the canopy down to ground level. Most of the birds we had seen in the wild but it is good to be assured of seeing them all in their native habitat. We were much impressed.
The path back from the aviaries takes one through the virgin monsoon forest. As we were crossing a stream, Jean spotted a wild water monitor under the water apparently waiting for fish to come within range. She chalked this sighting up as a particular success.
The raptor flying display is much like all the others one sees. The selection of birds was interesting. First up was a barn owl, a bird "of very little brain" which managed to fly to a perch and back albeit a little unreliably. The second was a magnificent White-bellied Sea-eagle which did everything asked of it including catching a dummy fish from the pond. The last was a Black-breasted Buzzard which showed off its innate skill of opening an emu egg by repeatedly throwing a stone at it. This bird could do this as soon as it came to the park as a fledgling before it could have had any training from its mother.
The nocturnal house had been recommended to us as much better than Taronga's but I felt quite at home as it is virtually identical. Some people don't have the patience to wait for the animals to show themselves and so sometimes come away saying the displays are not good.
Our visit had proved to be very worthwhile and we were very impressed.
We spent the latter part of the afternoon and the early part of the evening at the Mindil Beach Sunset market with the other Highway Wanderers who were in town. The food was pretty good, we had laksa, the company was convivial, and the sunset was spectacular.
We decided to extend our stay in Darwin by another week. In the evening we went to the Wharf to have dinner with the Browns who have just arrived in town after a long distance, very quick journey from the Gold Coast via Birdsville, Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy, and Uluru. It was good to catch up with them again. They both start work next week so they are having a hectic time renting a house and buying various bits of furniture and such.
Work day. I set about finishing the rewiring of the solar panels which I had started at Mt Isa in September 2000.
I awoke in considerable pain from the exertions of yesterday so I deferred the completion of the rewiring until later in the week.
Instead, I did some other necessary chores, defrosting the fridge, rehanging the doors of the kitchen cupboards to facilitate sweeping under them, and converting the door on the cupboard above the stove, which had often come in painful contact with my head, to swing upwards rather than outwards. Some improvements take some time to get to fruition, this one took four and a half years!.
In the afternoon, we visited the Browns for afternoon tea and happy hour in their new house. They have found a very nice place in Berrimah fully airconditioned and with a pool and spa. There is a mango orchard on the back part of the five acre block but the owners will look after that.
Sheree starts work at the private hospital tomorrow and Max starts work in the Defence Housing Authority on Wednesday.
I took the opportunity to borrow their telephone line to download the emails, upload some outstanding ones, and to update both the Motley and the Highway Wanderers websites.
I took a day off to let the body overcome the strains of the last two days.
In the evening we went to the Shady Glen Caravan Park to have happy hour with Jan and George. It is not nearly as nice as Lee Point and the fees are a good deal higher so its not surprising that they are planning to move to Lee Point this week.
We did some shopping and had lunch at the Thai & Chinese at Casuarina Square.
Two couples in four wheel drives had parked next to us. They were from Parmelia in WA which is close to Rockingham where the Reeds come from so we invited them over to happy hour at which they exchanged local info with George and Jan and we all bemoaned the fate of the world at length. I did my "It will all come good" bit so as not to end the conversation on a down note.
We went to the Indo-Pacific coral reef display. It is an amazing place, not the least for the fact that it was established a lady who started out as a childminder and taught herself all the marine biology necessary to enable her to set up totally self-sustaining marine ecosystems in tanks. These tanks contain all the elements of the coral reef in Darwin harbour and need no feeding or other attention apart from a circulating pump to keep the water moving and the addition of rain water to replace the water lost by evaporation. This display allows us to see coral in its natural state without having to go diving.
We took the opportunity to have fish and chips for lunch on the Wharf.
In the evening we went to Mindil Beach Markets and met up with the Browns. I satisfied my craving for laksa again and we discovered the delights of iced coffee from the best coffee stall in Australia.
In the afternoon, we went to the open day at Government House. I was extremely impressed. Darwin is about thirty years behind the rest of Australia in the headlong rush to consumer uniformity and Government House is about thirty years behind the rest of Darwin. Though it is small as Vice-regal residences go, and though is was damaged by Japanese bombing in 1942 and by Cyclone Tracey in 1974, it retains that old world charm which is so rare today. The rooms are furnished in red cedar and the verandah still has louvres all round to allow the breeze when appropriate while permitting a degree of protection against the worst of the weather.
The Administrator and his wife were charming to their many visitors and the garden was decorated by an Irish band who were good enough the play "The Wild Colonial Boy" for me to remind us of another occasion in Glendalough when an old Irish busker played it for me.
I finished the rewiring of the solar panels after only 22 months! To celebrate, I took the rest of the day off.
I woke up with a crook belly so I spent the day resting and drinking water. We had booked a harbour cruise for tonight so I changed it to Tuesday. By the evening, the guts ache had subsided so perhaps I'll be fit again tomorrow.
We visited the Fannie Bay Goal. Now disused, it has been restored by the Heritage Commission so that we can see how uncivilised we have been over the last hundred years or so. The most depressing building was the "Infirmary" which was used as an overflow cell block and later was converted to a place of execution to effect the last capital punishment in the Northern Territory in 1952. There is also an isolation block which was used to house children, lepers, and Vietnamese boat people, not all at the same time, but the concept of these classes of people all needing the same treatment is pretty barbaric.
We went into town to walk the length of the Mall. We might have been in Manly as the businesses here are just the same as those in the Corso and just as tatty. We couldn't find anywhere we wanted to eat so we went to the Wharf again for lunch. As we were leaving we watched Windward Bound, a sail training schooner which is presently circumnavigating Australia, set off on the next leg of its journey with its volunteer crew.
We went on the sunset harbour cruise on the pearling lugger. This turned out to be a really good choice. The boat is quite small and we only had twenty passengers but there was a comfortable seat for everyone and plenty of room to move around and look at the sights. There weren't many sights as it turned out as we only went from the Cullen Bay Marina, out through the lock, past the navy patrol boat base and Stokes Hill Wharf then into the middle of the harbour and slowly back to Cullen Bay.
The skipper of the boat was at one time a pearl diver himself and gave us a pretty good understanding into the cultured pearl industry.
Diving for oysters, though arduous and hazardous for the divers, is only a very small part of the process. Once the oysters are collected, they are graded and only the smaller male one are kept. They are put in mesh containers six at a time and returned to the sea on long lines. They are given some time to become accustomed to their captive state.
The process of seeding occurs in a specially equipped ship with large tanks, conveyers, and sterile laboratories. Each oyster is checked for health and the one in each batch us sacrificed to provide small sections of flesh to make a bed for the bead which is inserted by the technician into a carefully made cut in the oyster's body. The oyster is tagged to identify it as to time and place of capture and the identity of the technician. The oysters are returned to the baskets and to the sea. It has cost $260 per oyster to this point.
When all the work on a harvest is complete they are moved to a pearl farm in a remote and secret location where they are cleaned and turned every couple of weeks to ensure optimum conditions for pearl development.
After two years, they are returned to the ship and the individual technician who seeded that particular oyster. Eighty percent of the oysters have saleable pearls and the price can be as high as $1500 per pearl.
We had champagne and savouries and watched the sun setting.
Back to Cullen Bay and in through the lock in the dark was quite impressive until I found that the skipper used his radar to navigate.
It was quite late when we came ashore so we found a cheap fish and chippie and took the parcel down the road to the Esplanade where we had the whole park to ourselves. Very satisfying.
We had a quiet day doing a few chores and reading a bit. Jean had a swim in the afternoon.
In the evening we hosted a happy hour with several sets of visitors, the Lawsons, the de Kocks, the Reeds and some very nice New Zealanders.
Being our last day in Darwin, this was . . . . . . laundry day.
In the afternoon, I took Jean to the beach so that she could paddle in the Arafura Sea, she is intent on paddling in all the seas and oceans around Australia. We found some good examples of coral skeletons washed upon the beach and collected some for Kelly and Ross.
In the evening, we went to Mindil Beach Market, quenched our thirsts with real fruit smoothies, satisfied the laksa craving, celebrated our last Darwin sunset with crepes, and watched a young man from Adelaide doing a captivating if not very talented juggling act. We also watched a young man from somewhere in East or south-east Asia painting pictures with spray cans, newspaper and a small palette knife. we were so impressed that we bought one for Al. There is no doubt that Darwin has something special about it and the Mindil Beach Sunset Market captures some of that flavour.
After dinner, we visited Sheree at Berrimah to do another website update and to clear the email. She had had her furniture delivered from the Gold Coast and has taken a few days off to settle in while Max is in Canberra on a training course. She was having trouble with the TV antenna connector and had arranged with the estate agent for an electrician to fix it but had to wait until next Wednesday for him to come. I had some tools in the Little Motley so I carried out the repair so that they no longer have to do all their TV viewing on a 12 inch set in the bedroom.
We then all watched a very tense episode of ER in which Doctor Greene died. Apparently his death actually was reported in last week's episode but they did a reprise to wring as much pathos as possible out of it. As some of you know, I'm not much good with death, even on TV, and this was no better than any of the other such occasions.
A few reflections on Darwin.
Darwin has a reputation for captivating people who come here. Clearly it is not everybody's cup of tea but for those who are looking for a place with less of the stresses usually found in a modern Australian city, it has enormous appeal. As I have probably said before, the town seems to lag behind the rest of Australia by about thirty years which means it has the same laid back atmosphere which was found elsewhere in the seventies. Apparently this was so in the past, the seventies in Darwin were like the forties elsewhere, and so on. This means that some of the worst features of modern urban life are less evident here and hence the place feels good.
This is the first place I've visited in our travels which I am determined to come back to. Putting aside all the practicalities, I could easily live here. I haven't experience the "Build up", the period between the dry and the wet from September to December, which, from all accounts, is hard to bear, but I would love to see the Top End during the wet when its tropical nature is really revealed. Maybe we'll come back one April in the "blow 'im away, knock 'im down" season just after the wet when the best thunderstorms occur.
Tomorrow, we head of to Western Australia for some new experiences, some of which will be interesting and some will be delightful, but we will be sad to leave Darwin.