For the last year, my girlfriend, Claire, has been working and living in Darwin. People outside of Australia instinctively know that it may not be close to Melbourne and seem slightly reassured when I tell them it is only four hours away. Until they realise that is four hours by plane.
If you live in Scotland, where I’m from, in four hours you can fly to Morocco in northern Africa. Imagine Scotland and now imagine Morocco; how different and far away from each other do they feel? When I fly back to Scotland from Melbourne I will find that I have time to watch a film, eat a meal, get up for a walk and maybe shut my eyes for a bit, and still see the Australian land mass beneath me. By appreciating the size of Australia, you can begin to understand how it might not be the same all over.
In a previous blog, I wrote about Kakadu, near Darwin, being the place that I felt was uniquely Australian. And the Northern Territory, of which Darwin is the capital, is certainly viewed as being a bit unique by many Australians. There are generally two types of reactions that you get when you tell people that Claire is living in Darwin. The first includes eyes bulged, eyebrows arched, a raising and backward tilting of the head all accompanied by an exclaimed what?! This incomprehension signals that the person considers Darwin a backwater town that is like a last, uncivilised frontier of Australia. It is poorly governed, has a rudimentary economy and is home to vagabonds and wanderers. It’s all just a bit unruly.
In the second reaction, the eyebrows, for a brief moment, go the opposite way. They furrow and the eyes narrow slightly, whilst the head comes forward and nods gently. This person is curious and wants to know more.
The Northern Territory may be a bit unruly but a place where social rules are bent offers adventure and experiences to remember. A person could live in Melbourne or Sydney, Perth or Adelaide, and apart from a few landmarks, each may not feel substantially different to the other. It’s city living. But Darwin and the Northern Territory offers something different – it offers the outback with its sense of ruggedness and earthiness, and maybe even a sense of danger.
Danger is a crocodile being found in a swimming pool or taking people from the water’s edge. Danger is the heat killing people out for a walk because they became disorientated. Danger is a cyclone that can rip up towns and houses. Danger is a python so big that it ate the crocodile that could eat a human..
The chances are that you will mosey on without encountering any danger at all, but the outback can be rugged all the same. To get around, people have vehicles that can drive over rocky mountains and through croc infested rivers. And even with these mechanical beasts, there are certain places that you get to in single propeller planes or helicopters. You don’t look out on manicured countryside and think of an afternoon picnic; you look out on a red earth and wonder what it would have in store for you if you were brave enough to venture into it.
The Northern Territory is vast and sparsely populated. For a place that is 1.5million kilometres squared, there are only 250,000 people. The Northern Territory is bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined yet these three countries have a combined population of nearly 200m people. Alaska, that great wilderness of the northern hemisphere, is more densely populated than the Northern Territory! 145,000 people live in Darwin and 25,000 people live in the Northern Territory’s second city, Alice Springs, which is 1497 kilometres away. In between, there’s the odd dusty town and rusting buildings.
Recently we went to Katherine and went to one of its main attractions – Edith Falls. In between rapids and little waterfalls in the river, we found a pool that was still and warm to swim in. Being the busy Easter holiday weekend, there were maybe four or five other people there – but far enough away to feel that you had the place to yourself. In Melbourne, you can go walking in the Dandenongs on a Sunday and be greeted by a barrage of lycra-clad active-wear enthusiasts. In the Northern Territory, you meet a park ranger and a frill-necked lizard on the path.
I hadn’t realised this until contemplating this blog but when you go to the NT (look, all the locals call it that and I’m bored typing Northern Territory repeatedly), you go there not because of what man has made, but because of what exists in the absence of man. Sydney is the opera house and a big ugly bridge. Melbourne has a cricket ground and some kooky laneways serving expensive coffee. Meanwhile, the NT gives you deep gorges thousands of years old and escarpments bearing the marks of continental shifts from aeons ago. It gives you jabiru birds in the sky and huge prehistoric crocodiles in the water.
Although what attracts people to the NT may not be things that people have created, that’s not to say that there are not people who make the NT more interesting. Of course, there are people who were born in Darwin, grew up in Darwin, work in Darwin, raise a family in Darwin and continue to live in Darwin without a second thought. But then there are a lot of people who choose to go and live in the NT, and the type of person who chooses to go and live in the NT may be a bit more interesting to begin with.
At my work recently, a new person remarked that they had come to Melbourne from Perth (Australia) and were soooo glad because of the better coffee. Nobody moves to Darwin for something as mundane as the coffee. For some people who choose to go there, it doesn’t just seem to be about work or every-day life; it seems to be more existential. People go to broaden horizons or hide from mistakes of the past. They go to learn more about their country or escape a life gone wrong. They go to experience a different culture, test themselves somewhere else, or start a new beginning.
In those dusty towns and rusting buildings of the NT, you meet people and wonder how their lives had led them there. You feel as though you could sit down with a cold one and hear a tale that would not have finished after ten hours. Australia’s Broadcasting Corporation obviously feels the same as they are currently producing a series on the NT’s most colourful characters.
I write this blog as a frequent visitor but never inhabitant of the NT, and for some people living there maybe life does become about the taste of coffee. Maybe the unruliness does becomes tiring and wearing, or you begin to miss what a bigger city can offer in terms of culture and current affairs. Especially, when what counts as topical and important is the NT’s major newspaper putting this on the front cover.
Another day, the front page was a photo of a line umpire who had ran remarkably quickly at an Australian Football game. With such standards, it is understandable that a “Good for Darwin” party was not celebrating contributions to Darwin’s greatness, but gently and fondly mocking Darwin by judging something as being good, for Darwin.
The NT is currently running a tourism campaign “Stop Guessing; Start Doing”, and also has rather humorous videos by comedians sarcastically comparing Darwin to places like Melbourne. The sarcasm is perfect as it comes from an understanding that you don’t go to Darwin for the things you can get in Melbourne; you go to Darwin to revel in the difference it provides.