Darwin, NT, Australia
Leaving Sri Lanka behind, we boarded the plane to our next destination: Darwin, Australia, where the start of our next epic leg of our journey would be. But not immediately, mind you. First, we would check the local sights, eat the local food, drink the local beer and, most importantly, swim with the local saline crocodiles.
It’s plane insane
Bandaranaike International Airport likes to act secure. There was a passport check when driving in, another when entering the airport, followed by a bag and body scan. The baggage drop was inside yet another security check, and then there was a surprisingly easy one to get to the gates, where you didn’t even had to remove shoes or dignity. Too easy, I thought, as I filled my water bottle. And lo and behold, at each gate there was yet yet yet yet another security check, complete with having to remove every coin and drop of liquid. Goodbye reason, order and water. Hello insanity, stress and dehydration. When, oh when, will airports admit that their so called security checks do fuck all to prevent terrorism and only causes, at best, annoyance and dehumanisation, and, at worst, missed flights and nervous breakdowns?
JetStar is basically the Ryan Air of Southeast Asia and Oceania, and operated our last stretch, from Singapore* to Darwin. I have no problem flying Ryan style on 1-2 hours flights, but 4:30 is stretching my patience a bit.
We landed in the dead of night**, got a surprisingly cheap taxi to town and realised that the reception hours were way outside of our arrival time. After a brekkie at a nearby diner, we got hold of the front door code and could get in for some intermittent shut-eye in the common area in the back yard, awaiting our room. Since we had been up some 24 hours at this point, we immediately had a snooze as soon as we got access. Not fully rested, we just had a quick stroll in the afternoon, leaving the exploring of town proper to the next day. In hindsight, it might have been preferable to stay a day or two in Singapore for some good sleep, or more importantly, to catch a U2 concert, as their Joshua Tree Tour was playing those exact days.
Darwin, previously known as Palmerston (they changed the name after The Beagle landed and stayed for a while, with Charles being generally cool enough to make the entire population wanting to rename their town), has had a tough century. The modern architecture and lack of old buildings stem from either of two occasions: the Japanese bomb raids during WW2 and the devastating cyclone Tracy on Christmas eve of 1974. Rumour has it that Harold “Tiger” Brennan, the mayor at the time and renowned drunkard, had managed to sleep through the entire cyclone, waking up on Christmas day to find his roof, as well as a general portion of his town, missing. With 77 casualties and the biggest air lift ever in Australia, cyclone Tracy remains forever in the collective minds of Darwinians.
During an admittedly touristy bus ride, we got to see the surroundings, including the few remaining houses built ye olde way, the fancy Cullen Bay Marina neighbourhood, the completely still***, yet unswimmable (due to crocs, box jellyfish, or both) coastal waters and the wharf (complete with a spectacular lightning show on the far end of the bay), amongst other sights.
Due to its vicinity to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Darwin is known as the gateway to Asia, and as such, there is large diversity. Koreans, Malaysians and Chinese communities abound, as well as one of the largest indigenous population of any Australian town. The diversity expresses itself by means of the culinary scene. Fine dining can be found both in the city centre and by the marina, and, truly welcomed, craft beers are never far away. With cooking from many different regions, what I really craved was that sublime and typical fish of the country: barramundi. The surf and turf place we had chosen for the night was unfortunately out of barra that day, so we had to settle for some crocodile instead, in the form of nuggets and spring rolls. The next day, however, we finally got hold of that delicious fish, and within a bite, Caroline completely agreed with my ravings as well as my cravings.
Cage of Death
At the restaurant, we eat crocodiles. In nature, crocodiles eat you. Unless you are sufficiently protected by a plexiglass cage, of course. Dubbed “The Cage of Death”, we got our swimmers and goggles on, and was lowered into the personal pool of Axel (lovingly referred to as “Big Boy”), a 5 metre long, 900 kg heavy saline crocodile. These massive prehistoric beasts are nothing short of impressive, and the booming sound created when they snap their jaws shut with double the force of a Tyrannosaurus Rex makes you realise how helpless man is when facing nature. Man, yes, but mankind, no.
CAGE of DEATH. Don’t let the name scare you, though: it’s not really a cage, more of a plexiglass cylinder
We spent a lot of the day at the Cove, watching the feeding, petting the turtles and learning about the proper way to handle snake bites in Australia. 21 of the world’s 30 most venomous snakes can be found here, and their fangs are terrifyingly short. That has two implications: one, you don’t necessarily realise you have been bitten, and thus fail to act quick enough, and two, the venom doesn’t spread through the bloodstream, but rather the lymph system, meaning that amputation is pointless. Applying pressure to the affected limb will do the trick, and once in the hospital, they will probably be able to save you. Mostly.
All of these encounters made us eager to get to the outback, so that’s where we went.
A loooong journey filled with funny toilets in Singapore, different cultures clashing slightly with each other in the washrooms and the completely unfunny, overcrowded last leg of our flight to Darwin (those flights are ok if people are generous and caring with each others but that is a seldom experienced phenomena).
Somehow my face hardly ever works in the automatic passport check so that I had to be manually checked at the Aussie border was not a very big surprise (not for me but for Martin it was). But the extremely friendly and chatty lady who, very thoroughly, checked me was a pleasant surprise. She took her time, (much to the dismay of the line behind me) and talked about Tasmania. But hey, when in Darwin, one needs to talk about Tasmania. Right?
We arrived predawn. And it was warm, and humid, and warm. Did I say warm? Almost 30 degrees Celsius at 0500. So naturally we could not check in at our hostel, nor could we do touristy stuff. But there is always a coffee place open somewhere. My first meal in Australia was a ham and tomato sandwich with a fruit salad. Not bacon. Nope. That came later. The second brekkie. Hallelujah! After a baconfree two weeks in Sri Lanka, we ended the bacon drought in style. Full English style.
Darwin is the capital of the northern territories. C U in the Northern Territories. The no longer official slogan. Which these two swedes abroad just loved. Two stubby holders purchased. Check! C. U in N.T……
Hurricane Tracy and WWII made sure that only 4 houses in the the whole city were built earlier than 1945. The architecture is very modern, very cool, and rather interesting. An art deco but not as colourful.
In Darwin one does not swim in the sea, the rivers, the ponds or in any non constructed pools. If the salt water crocs misses you, the the jellyfish will kill you. So we decided to avoid the JF’s but not the crocks. In the Crockosaurus Cove one could see snakes, monitors, frogs, fish, turtles, gounas and of course the crocodiles. We had prepaid for the “cage of death” experience. That is to be lowered down in a (sturdy, very sturdy) plexiglas cage to swim with Axel, the very mighty, boat wrecking, tire slasher, ginormous crocodile. Wow. What a beast! Such beautiful creature. And so perfectly evolved. They say that if you go down to a river or lake at the same time three times in a row at the same time then you will be met by a Croc the third time. They watch, learn and kill. Very smart and cunning hunters. I did not anticipate my newfound fascination for this animal. Seriously impressed.
Martin also had to physically remove me from the snake venom medicine department of the Crocosaurus Cove shop. Did you know that most venoms affect your lymph system primarily? If you can stop the venom from spreading then you have a very good chance of reaching the place with antivenom ( also called hospital/health stations). So number one is to not move. Keep your muscles immobile. Number two is putting on a pressure wrapping. Aussies have developed a very cool compression bandage with little rectangles printed in top. If you stretch the fabric so that the rectangle becomes a square when you roll it around the limb ( the entire limb, fingertip to armpit, toes to your privates) then you have the exact pressure to keep the venom from spreading to the lymph nodes and reaching the blood stream and killing you. But since we are travelling with good tour companies they have all the necessary protection already in stock. And I’m returning to a Scandinavia with only one venomous snake. And it is a ridiculously weak venom compared to the hulks of Australia.
Darwin, a very friendly town. But so much alcohol and drugs. It was very sad to learn that so many of the native Australians we met were not originally from Darwin. They had left their families, clans, homes and were not welcome back. Ever. If one, as a indigenous person, chooses to drink, do drugs or smoke, then one is shunned and never allowed back. That was why we saw so many passed out drunk, and miserable people laying or sitting around. Very sad. Very, very sad. The further we travelled into the outbacks the sadder it would be. The open racism, the disdain from so many white Australians, were a shocking discovery. But we also met many, many allies of the original Australians. SO there is hope.
*) Which has adopted the insanity of individual pointless sec checks at each gate, but at least they have the decency to provide drinking water inside.
**) At 5-ish, so I suppose that some would call it morning
***) Due to its complex shelterness, Darwin is quite the opposite of a surfer’s paradise