Darwin, between Nature and Culture
Travelling in a van is good, but it becomes difficult when you get to the big cities. Most of the time it is forbidden to sleep in vehicles, camping sites are costly and the nearest free parking spots are kilometres out…
So often we don’t linger. But in Darwin we did not have time to suffer. Stephen and his family opened wide the doors of their beautiful home, a stone’s throw from the beach and two and a half kilometres from the city centre. We had had the good fortune to meet Stephen in Tasmania a few months before ; he was there on transfer for his work. We love it when luck decides a stage of our trip.
We discover the tropical feel of the Top End and the relaxed atmosphere of the end of the dry season : free festivals, art and music on street corners, open air concert…
Darwin museum is a real nugget. The aboriginal art collection presents traditional and contemporary works of different aboriginal peoples across Australia. We could not take our eyes off the huge bark paintings in natural ochres. But each display in the museum is more fascinating than the next : the history and natural science collection, Sweetheart the croc who stole Australia’s heart, a beautiful series of photos about the metamorphism of animals or “how to pass oneself off as a venomous cousin when one is a small defenceless animal ?”, an arresting display about Cyclone Tracy that flattened Darwin in 1974…
As well, this evening in the museum garden, they announced the results of NATTIAA, an annual display of aboriginal art. On the grass facing the stage everyone is comfortably settled under their colourful shelters. A background of live music mixes with the sound of the ocean, the sun sets behind the palms : welcome to the tropics !
It is in that same ambience that we watch the concert given by Xavier Rudd, an Australian musician that we like very much. He plays with his orchestra : Xavier Rudd and the United Nation. The stage is set up in the theatre of greenery of the botanical garden. Bars in the bamboos and garlands of lamps in the trees. The great lawn facing the stage is divided into two sections : “Blanket parking” and “Chairs”. Everyone brings their rug or little chair, if you want to dance, that’s just a bit more to the front. There is room to move, everyone is relaxed, the sound of the didgeridoo vibrating us. We adored it !
If folks are “cool” here, it’s to compensate for the local fauna. “As long as you stay vigilant and look carefully where you put your feet there is no problem having a swim. It is not as if you were going to loll in the water, head in the air, day-dreaming, were you ! “. Ah, well, exactly, that’s just what we had done on the spur of the moment ! They speak a lot about crocodiles, but there are also Box Jelly-fish, hyper-dangerous, and mud-crabs which can easily cut off a toe, and even shellfish ready to inject you with a fatal dose of venom. One quickly learns that the turquoise water is at its best on a post-card.
Stephen spends part of his week-end in his little boat on billabongs, rivers and sea. The fishing rods are just a pretext. What he loves is to be on the water, photographing birds and enjoying the great open spaces. We go on board with him and discover the life of the water’s edge.
A billabong is a waterhole that fills in the rainy season and evaporates during the dry season, sometimes to disappear completely. Life swarms round billabongs. Jakana (a tiny kind of water-bird) hops from one water-lily to another. We saw two Jabiru close by on the bank : big birds much found in the paintings of the Northern Aboriginal people.
The boat slides over the water-lilies, the water is smooth as a mirror. Smoke of controlled burns rises from far away, there there is panic in the bush !
An incredible number of birds gravitate around the billabongs and rivers.
The crocodiles are less timid on the Adelaide river. We approach the bank slowly. “Stay in the middle of the boat and don’t hang your arms out !” said Stephen. The crocodiles waited to the last moment to launch themselves into the water, throwing us a dirty look as if to say “Just as well for these guys that it is siesta time and I am full, otherwise I would have gobbled you up alive“. We had no desire to disturb them further… “Uh Stephen, closer… ? Are you certain ? We can see them rather better from here, you know…“
We allowed these 4-5 metre monsters to go in peace, hoping not to be to be made part of their next dinner.
During our stay Stephen suggested we go catching crabs in Darwin harbour. Chicken carcasses in the traps piled on the front of the boat, we head for the mangroves. The traps had to be dropped making sure they dropped straight through the water and we hang the float in the branches. Hidden well enough not to attract the covetous but visible enough for us to recover them. It is frankly not straightforward to get one’s bearings in the middle of the tangled mangrove roots.
The next morning we went to lift the crab traps. The catch was not good, a single little crab that was too small. We released it. We’ll come back tomorrow.
Finally we catch two crabs. That evening Stephen and Fiona were not there so we searched the internet for how to cook them. Transferring the crabs from the boat to a bucket, from the bucket to the pot without losing a finger (or toe) is an epic story. Eating crab without pliers or nutcrackers is another ! But we will end up relishing them, these famous ‘mud-crabs’ which are more delicious than their name.
Fiona and Stephen lent us masks and snorkels. One morning, early, we went off to explore the aquatic life at Berry Springs, a nature reserve south of Darwin. A little waterfall enters a warm spring that feeds into a series of pools of different sizes. When our eyes drop below the surface of this warm water we are fascinated. Fish that are flat, some very elongated, some with long snouts, some purple with yellow spots, some more round with red stripes… We spent a magical time discovering the variety of nature.
Darwin Territory Wildlife Park is in the same area. There we found animals from the region, arranged by geographic and climatic zones : the billabong, the rainforest, the lagoon, the bush. The aquarium is fantastic ! We re-discovered the fishes we had seen the other day at Berry Springs. We also saw there the famous Barramundi, a big fish prized by fishermen here. A real marine monster ! The park is big, there is even a bus to drop off visitors in the different zones. We prefer to walk and discover the luxuriant vegetation and variety of the region.
Having a proper house, with vacuum cleaner and hose is the occasion to have a little dust-off with our Yellow Van which is no longer as yellow as all that. We took the opportunity to strip it down, (the blue tyres, a bit too retro), and photograph it from every angle. It is soon time for us to part with it, so we are preparing…
We can’t thank Stephen, Fiona, Tully and Luca enough. They welcomed us so warmly for those two weeks. We tried to insist on a bit of work for our keep, but no way “Enjoy’”
they said. We will remember delicious meals we shared, French language lessons and lively dominos evenings !
translated by Graham