Darwin: the Top End of Australia
On arrival at the airport in Darwin at 4:30am a power-hungry customs official ripped open our lovingly arranged bike boxes to check for specks of dirt on our tyres and panniers. Our hard work in Singapore paid off, nothing was found and we were given the green light.
We had arranged to stay with Glen and Ruth through the Darwin Cycling Club, and to our astonishment Glen had offered to pick us up from the airport, yes at 4:30am! ||
Walking out off the airport and into the eucalypt fragrant morning air we loaded our kit into Glen’s pickup and drove the 20km to their house. Ruth was already up and warmly greeted us with their lovely little pooch Miss Muffett. They showed us around their lovely home and the areas we had sole use over. To our amazement this consisted of a luxurious caravan for our sleeping quarters, outside table and barbeque area for reclining, undercover area to work on the bikes and a fridge packed with “a few things” so we “don’t have to rush out.” Imagine our amazement when we opened the door of the fridge bursting with all those delicious foods we had been craving during our time in Asia: bread, cereal, cake, cookies, orange juice, milk, bacon, eggs, fruit etc. We were in heaven.
As we lay down on our bed resting we couldn’t believe our luck, it was the perfect start to Australia and felt really good to be back.
Our generous hosts even offered for us to use Ruth’s car to drive into Darwin (Glen and Ruth live about 20km out of the city), so we went into the city and began reinstating our lives in Australia. We registered for Medicare (the national health service), picked up a parcel from Guy’s parents at the post office, bought a SIM card, investigated opening a bank account and purchased a few odds and ends from the local outdoor store.
By chance some friends from Germany were in Darwin too, having just completed their travels through Western Australia. We gave Jessica and Hendrik a call and managed to meet up for coffee and cake before they flew out the next day. It was great to see them again and share tales of our respective adventures.
On our first evening, Ruth and Glen invited us for dinner and cooked a delicious Asian style prawn dish. In the tropical north of Australia, life mainly takes place outdoors, so their living room is pretty much outside, fully set up with sofas and a TV. We were lucky to arrive at the start of the dry season (“the Dry”), which is warm but not too humid, whereas “the Wet” is very hot and humid with a lot of rain and kicks of by intense storms known as “knock em down” storms.
Darwin, situated at the very top end of Australia, is a really long way from anywhere else and still feels a bit like a frontier town. The population of the greater Darwin area is around 120,000, and the closest city is Denpasar in Indonesia, 2 hours flight away, so Darwin is in a way closer to Asia than to anywhere else in Australia. The Stuart Highway which connects Darwin with Adelaide and which we are planning to cycle on, was only fully paved in the 1980s, and most other roads in the Northern Territory are still unpaved dirt roads which are often only passable by 4WD and frequently closed in the Wet due to flooded rivers.
Darwin is home to a population of Aboriginal people that are obviously facing many of the social problems that exist in many of the other Northern Territory towns. It is evident in the way they loiter around the shopping malls, sometimes looking quite listless and sitting under trees near the roads. As a counsellor and having grown up in a remote Aboriginal community, Ruth was able to explain some of the social problems amongst the Aboriginal people to us. These are often caused by alcoholism (later on we came through several Aboriginal areas that had prohibited liquor in their area to combat this problem). Teenage pregnancies are quite common and unemployment is high. This problem is exacerbated by what is called “sit-down money”, which many Aboriginal people receive from the government and which seems to discourage many of them from working.
Around half the land in the Northern Territory is owned by Aboriginal clans or is currently under claim (the “traditional land owners” have to prove a lasting connection to the land or the existence of sacred sites for their claim to be accepted). Glen has an intimate knowledge of these issues as his company works with Aboriginal land owners to assist them in business ventures and developments such as road houses, fuel stations and helipads. Whereas there are few Aboriginal communities left in the south of Australia, the issues around traditional land rights and the social problems that come with the uprooting of the Aboriginal’s traditional life style are very real in the north of the country.
After a couple more days sorting out chores and putting the bikes back together, Glen and Ruth took us out to the Mindil Night Market which takes place in Darwin every Thursday and Sunday night. We set up our chairs on the beach to watch the sunset. We were very lucky as the Arafura Games happened to take place while we were there, so we were able to watch a couple of running events on the beach right in front of us, without even getting out of our seats.
The Mindil market is very diverse, with lots of mainly Asian food stalls as well as a handicraft section. Even though we split up to get food from different stalls, we all came back with exactly the same thing, and it wasn’t even Asian: Souvlaki!
Whilst we were keen to hit the road, we also did not want to miss the opportunity to visit Kakadu National Park. It was a decent detour on the bikes, but quite doable in a couple of days by car, so we looked into car rental and eventually found one that did not limit us to only 100km per day – a ridiculously small distance in the vast expanses of northern Australia. We left on Friday morning for Kakadu, planning to be back on Sunday for BBQ pizza night with Glen and Ruth, and setting off on the bikes on Monday.