It is November and we keep being asked this question by the shocked locals. Why would anyone choose to spend 6 months in Darwin during the ‘wet’ season? The reasons not to be here are easy; many of the tourist spots are closed (or operate on reduced schedules due to lack of access and presence of crocodiles), it is hot and humid, there is no swimming in the ocean due to particularly nasty stingers and crocodiles moving around, it is really hot and humid, the fishing dies off until the rains pickup and it is really hot and really humid.
So, what are we doing, aside from just being somewhere at the wrong time again? Well to start with we aren’t on a ‘tick the box’ holiday (we are happy to experience and be a part of what we can, wherever/whenever we are), Neon and I need a break from travelling, we’d rather not have to be working around cyclones on our way to Queensland and we also fancied a change of weather pattern (we hadn’t heard a good thunderstorm since leaving Kalgoorlie 20 years ago and Darwin apparently has some good storms).
The air conditioners on ‘Opal Lady’ were in serious need of service (not sure why we hadn’t thought to get that done before travelling north into the heat) and Cullen Bay Marina doesn’t allow liveaboards for longer than one month (and no pets), so we rented an apartment and settled in for the ‘wet’. At the end of November, we relocated the big girl to Tipperary Waters Marina. It isn’t as fancy as Cullen Bay, access through the lock is tide-limited and it could definitely do with some refurbishing (a total refit is scheduled for February) but we thought it sounded a lot like us. There is a wonderful community here. I think this is due in large part to allowing live-aboards (and pets); so the marina is home for some of the people here. The lockmaster, Dani and her family live on a boat opposite us and they take great pride in keeping the marina clean and tidy. Dani drains the marina down to 2m and refills it at each spring tide, which keeps the water very clean and the resident fish life happy and healthy. The Dept. of Fisheries measure water quality regularly and Tipperary is the cleanest marina of the 4 in Darwin
For the non-mariners out there: a spring tide is not a tide that occurs in spring. Spring tides usually occur twice a month when the Moon and Sun are both acting on the oceans from the same direction, causing higher high tides and lower low tides. (The opposite each month is called neap tides when they are pulling from opposite sides of the planet giving a much reduced tidal range to deal with). The Suz takeaway is that Spring tides can be exciting (I would refer you back to our experiences with currents and allowing for extra anchor chain through the Kimberley) and Neap tides are safer (relatively; we are still dealing with Mother Nature and lots of water).
This photo of the office shows the eclectic collection of chairs at the Tipperary Marina office, used extensively in the evenings for those needing to stretch their boat legs and for impromptu social gatherings. I thought the fairy lights were just for Christmas, but they stay on all year.
Tipperary Waters Marina is clean, the toileting facilities are clean and as I mentioned previously it is very friendly. There is always someone to throw a rope to when berthing, good local advice, regular byo-everything-bbqs and there will be someone to give you a lift to the Parap Hotel on Tuesdays for the $5 steak special [2020 update – it is now a $7 steak special]. If we don’t feel like cooking after a day of cleaning the boat, there is the award-winning Fish and Chips from ‘Frying Nemo’ on the boardwalk; it is very good, non-greasy food. Along with the Fish and Chip shop, there is also a regular take away café (9am for coffee if you want to catch up on the marina goss), a small grocery shop, and the Bamboo Lounge restaurant (despite their sticky chicken wings being divine, they claim to have the best Laksa in town, but Darwin takes Laksa very seriously, with everyone claiming to do the best Laksa in town). The No. 7 bus stop is at the rear of the marina car park (it takes you straight to the city centre bus exchange) and a chandlery is located just down the road. Our apartment is a 10 minute bike ride away (in the city).
We did have to crack out that ladder we bought back in Denham, to put up the ‘line of last resort in a cyclone’. The photo doesn’t show the actual holding line, it is well sized and just loops around the post, but it is held up by the lighter line that Peter is shown threading through the hole in the post. The idea is that if the pontoons fail, all the boats are still held to the rather hefty poles and have something of a chance of not ending up beached on top of each other along the boardwalk. We would rather not test out that theory.
Our apartment overlooks the river and we can watch the storm fronts coming through. They are usually short and sharp. It is inconvenient to be caught outside when one comes through, but at least it is warm. Peter loves looking at his radar map on the BoM (Bureau of Meteorology) to check what the weather is doing; I do mention regularly that he could just poke his out the window and watch the sky as you can’t miss seeing the fronts rolling through.
We both browned quickly in the last month of our cruise through the Kimberley. I broke out in very small white patches which look quite funny surrounded by dark tan. The white spots are places where the melanin in the skin has been overworked across the years and is now on strike for the duration – I’ll just have to get used to reverse freckles. We were sun-careful, but thought that we’d use Darwin to have a skin check-up at the local skin cancer clinic. I was told to thank my mother for making me wear sunscreen as a child, and that aside from some of those annoying dry skin patches that old people get (!), I’m good for another couple of years – Thankyou Mum. I met a marine police officer in the waiting room who was talking about how many of them are growing beards (the blokes), as it is easier than constantly putting on sunscreen; his doctor was most approving. Peter needed to have a couple of spots biopsied, but they came back fine. So, skin good – check.
This photo looks down on the Waterfront; a development behind Stock Wharf that has revitalised the whole area. We are Friday regulars for Margaritas at one of the many restaurants. There is an artificial beach free of stingers, although the odd cnidocyte (stinging cell) gets through. A play area for kiddies of all ages, includes a wave pool and parts of the ‘Bruce Munroe Tropical Light’ art exhibition (it is a free, 2.5km, self-guided affair, across the city centre). The Waterfront is a pleasant place to go for a drink or ice cream in the evening, and is conveniently located just below our apartment.
Getting around when you live on a boat poses a bit of a problem. We gave our bicycles a birthday service, as they needed it after months on the top of the boat. Shopping is limited to what we can fit on the bikes, which turns out to be a reasonable amount (with a bit of jiggling and appropriate bagging). The photo shows Peter riding in front of the impressive artwork that extends the length of the relatively new Tiger Brennan road development (they are mangroves that have been moulded into the concrete retaining wall).
We were pleasantly pleased with the bus service (of course you wouldn’t want to be in an actual hurry). Most places we need to go are within a trot of a bus stop and the busses are very clean and the drivers friendly and accommodating. And a bus trip can be very entertaining, as long as you have an understanding of where some of the locals are coming from. Last week we were trying to reassure a Japanese tourist that the rather loud group of the long-grass locals at the back of the No. 8 were just having a friendly conversation; they just speak loudly and the accents (and choice of vocabulary) can sound very aggressive if you are not used to it. Alcohol certainly makes a difference, but in this instance, it wasn’t a factor so there was nothing to be worried about – I fear he was not convinced. The Darwin population of 100 000 includes an ethnic mix of more than 50 nationalities, which makes Darwin gastronomically exciting to visit. This is really evident at the Mindil Markets (a weekly market during the dry season, set up along the beach-front at Mindil Beach). There is a multitude of cuisines to choose from; all ready to takeaway with a drink for tea on the beach. We managed to get to two before they stopped for the wet (they reopen in May).
I finally completed the 1st level (of 3) for my RYA boating course and enrolled in Spanish language classes (we are planning to stay for a month in Spain next year). The photo shows Neon helping with my Spanish homework; the conversations are very one sided.
Peter enrolled in the full Australian marine masters and went back to school full time, complete with homework. It has been generations since BEILBY and homework have had a happy co-existence, but he quickly adapted and breezed through the course.
As a city, Darwin is a big country town (population 132,000). It has a generally laid-back attitude; the attention to footy details (of all codes) and alcohol consumption would support this. Darwin drivers, including the bus drivers, have a loose relationship with the concepts of seat belts, indicating changes in direction and no knowledge at all of the distinction between green and amber traffic lights (and red seems optional if there is no other car traffic around). Maybe they are all colour blind? Peter regularly came back from rides laughing at drivers who just drove through the red light because no-one was around. Speaking of riding, one of the things we really love, is that in Darwin you don’t have to wear a helmet while riding on the cycle paths (of which there are lots). This seems eminently sensible and appears to work well (and let’s face it with those drivers there is no way I’m going anywhere near the roads).
Darwin-ites love to express their view and can be very opinionated about a range of things (mostly to do with what the council/Government is or isn’t doing). As a visitor I guess I am seeing the good and forgiving the bad. Bad; public drunkenness is obviously a problem that brings with it a whole slew of social, family and medical issues, but there are some good public education programs trying to tackle this. Good; public drunkenness on the busses is not tolerated and the patrons know this and just get off the bus when they are told to by the driver! Darwin works very hard keeping the city clean (there is not a lot of rubbish or bad smells to be found in the city).
Most every building with a visible side has some artwork painted on it.
One of the projects I particularly like is the ‘cooling Cavanagh Street’ project, in which a huge framework has been erected across the street to support climbing plants and a spray system – you can really notice the difference in temperature when riding through it.
There is a large and well-trained gardening workforce keeping the verges and public plantings looking lovely all around the city. Part of their job is to wash down and tidy up the parkland areas where the long-grass people sleep when they come in to town (I imagine so that the tourists don’t see that side of Darwin). Indigenous culture in Darwin and the Territory is generally alive and well. Some of the people whose land became the city lost their identity to alcohol, but I can see a generational change in the young ones and a sense of pride. It would be a crime to let them become another generation of disenfranchised youth due to a lack of opportunity – I really feel a hope for the First Peoples here.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, Peter and I enjoy a good museum or tourist information centre. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is a really pleasant way to spend a hot humid day in Darwin. There are dinosaur and astronomy displays; we were there for quite a while and the combination of western science astronomy and indigenous art astronomy was really well done.
Peter loved the Cyclone Tracey experience. Different houses had been recreated from the time to tell the story (sometimes literally from a radio set up) and it was funny how familiar the rooms were to our childhood recollections. The pieces of Tracey-damaged pylons on display just made you wonder at the power of these things. One of the art gallery sections had a display of very clever and sometimes quite poignant art by Therese Ritchie (she is now a local of 30 years). It took us ages to walk through that gallery as every piece really did have a story; some were pretty obvious political comments and others were just funny. Most of the art is what is called graphic design (I would call it pop-art, it looks like a comic) and photography. Her photographic portraiture is truly beautiful.
We had to do a second trip to the Museum and Art Gallery as we couldn’t fit it all in. While we were in Darwin, the touring art collection on show was Sydney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series! His was an odd style to be sure, but so iconic, and the whole set does tell the Ned Kelly story really well.
We were advised to visit the National Parks sooner than leave it for later, as once the ‘wet’ set in properly the roads would be closed. Litchfield National Park is the closest park to Darwin, and although I’d never heard of it before, it is well recommended by the locals. We booked onto a small tour group with Ethical Adventures NT (a family run jobbie) and headed off for the day with Rob and his wife Tracey’s wattleseed biscuits and mango muffins for smoko. Litchfield is not a ‘postcard pretty’ tropical type vegetation park, it is a dry savannah (dry is a relative term here, given the sweat that dripped of us all every time we left the bus to walk to a lookout or waterfall), but it is really interesting.
Rob explained the real problem that a plant called Gamba grass is posing to the environment. It was introduced as a feed crop for cattle and escaped (as have so many of the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ ideas introduced to Australia). It grows very tall and dries off in summer, just in time to act as an excellent fuel source for bushfires; turning what would otherwise be a relatively harmless grass fire into one that is intense enough to kill the trees. Ron has a little project pulling up the grass at one of the stops. [2020 note: the government has just announced an initiative (government word for a plan, that makes it sound like they have thought of something new themselves) for creating a ‘green army’ to help clear the Gamba grass]
Aside from the large number of most welcome water holes and falls, the Litchfield park is renowned for it’s termite mounds. There are viewing platforms erected just off the road so that tourists don’t keep trying to touch the mounds. Such tourist activity has resulted in the ‘death’ of quite a few mounds. Sensibly enough some of the larger, dead ones have been provided good tourist access for photos (see the photo of the Beilby’s in tourist mode) so there is no need to disturb any others.
Wangi Falls is the most popular weekend spot for Darwinites. The walk into the water is over pebbles and the pond gets quite deep over near the falls. The water under the falls is stimulating – cold! I could have just floated around there for ages but my fingers went wrinkly and lunch was calling (bbq barramundi and beef). The catering is good on Rob’s tour.
My apologies that the magnetic termite mounds is not a good photo (I was having a technical argument with my camera that day). They do align north-south, not because they are magnetic but to reduce the surface area exposed to direct sunlight and thus keep the mound cooler. They looked for all the world like a field of headstones.
On the way home we stopped for a drink at a really eclectic pub-come motel and I shared a lemonade with a group of teddy bears.
We would thoroughly recommend a trip out to Litchfield with Rob’s tour; it was a long, but really great day.
The following week the storms started coming through again.
Peter is somewhere on the road, riding back from the boat in the second photo. We got used to being rained on, a hazard of using bicycles – like I said before, at least it is warm.
And that is just our first month in Darwin!
Neon notes: “turea es aburrido” = Homework is boring.