A tale of two cities

Australia’s only tropical capital,  Darwin gazes out confidently across the Timor Sea. It’s closer to Bali than Bondi, and many from the southern states still see it as some frontier outpost… But Darwin is a surprisingly affluent, cosmopolitan, youthful and multicultural city, thanks in part to an economic boom fuelled by the mining industry and tourism. It’s a city on the move but there’s a small-town feel and a laconic, relaxed vibe that fits easily with the tropical climate.

                                                                Lonely Planet, 2014

The last time I was in Darwin it was 1998. My world was aflame with anarchy, and I spent my time stomping solidarity into the dirt at Jabiluka, in protest against the threat of a sister uranium mine for Ranger. The wetlands of Kakadu, to the east of Darwin, and the Mirarr people whose land it is, face an ongoing battle with the deadly removal of yellowcake, though there are significantly fewer protest buses to help these days…

photo 1photo 2

In town, our days were spent parked up beneath the shade of the pepper trees on the Esplanade, toes curled into still-damp buffalo grass, brewing up tea in the billy, lounging, laughing and alive with the heady fervour of our campaign. At night, catching stars in longnecks, we would sleep on the grass until the rangers’ devious 5am sprinkler plot to move us on forced a retreat to the back of the Falcon.

photo 3

It didn’t matter that you couldn’t swim in the ocean; the seedy yet strangely exotic confines of the Hotel Darwin, a colonial dear who struggled with her hearing, brimmed with salt water and draught beer, potted palms giddy sentries that lolled against time-worn walls. Her crackly pool cradled hot bodies flush with Thursday’s dole cheque, and her patina was flecked with hiccuping shadows as the sun fell into the sea.

photo 5

Or we would drive out to the cool green waters of Howard Springs, a red-dirt slash deep in the jungle 35kms south of the city, and sink into a waterhole teeming with barramundi the size of small crocs that would brush up against our pimpled skin with lascivious delight.

Now? Like a sullen teen in a skin-tight dress and heels too high, Darwin is all show and no substance, her flesh exposed yet promising nothing. The Esplanade is off limits, save for a bikers’ meeting fringed with TRG (Territory Response Group, a tactical police division with a reputation that snarls). Howard Springs is barred to swimmers, a tacky playground for the kids where the fish look mournfully up sensible skirts. And the city skyline is cleaved in two by towering cranes that vibrate with the angry buzz of machinery from below.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 5

Darwin has its toes in the saltwater and its ears in the dirt. The nuances of its character have been forged by the tough-as-guts mentality of a people who thrive in this remote outback space, surrounded by water too dangerous to take a dip in, survivors of Japanese air raids during World War II and a cyclone that levelled the town in 1974 (Tracy, you bitch). They have a reputation for stoic understatement; “yip, it was blowy…”


Herald Sun

But the muscly brawls and stubbied banter I remember has been replaced. The Hotel Darwin was the victim of concrete cancer they say, though in a curious coincidence the demolition crew came in just 24 hours before the heritage order was slapped on her creaking frame, razing her to the ground to make way for a tourist village, which is, at its best, oxymoronic.

And the seditious lawlessness that holds hands so coyly with frontier towns the world over seems to have been cold shouldered, dropped in favour of cosmopolitan gated living and frozen yoghurt.

photo 4 photo 3

There is art beneath the cranes, and there are glimpses of the glory that is the tropics:

photo 1 photo 3 photo 2photo 3

There is tasty looking wildlife:

photo 5

and more art:

photo 2

But this brash young thing is all about the glitz and the glamour of her newest attractions, from the neon holler of the waterfront precinct – STEP RIGHT UP FOLKS, PLENTY TO SEE HERE! HURL YOURSELF INTO THE TREATED WATER! NO NASTIES! YES! WE HAVE FROZEN YOGHURT! AND A WAVE POOL! AND BANDY-LEGGED SECURITY WHO WILL ENSURE YOU ARE CONTAINED AND SOBER AT ALL TIMES! WHAT COULD BE BETTER? – with its metallic sand and murky depths, plastic tat and high-rise prices,

photo 5 photo 4 photo 3 photo 2

To her overly expressive signage, for those with little imagination I assume.

photo 3

Somethings remain steadfastly Territorian:

photo 4photo 2photo 5photo 5

And on a night out on the tiles the Cowboy and I glean more about Darwin’s botched facelift. A fella who does hair and his pretty Indo girl (fabulous hair) talk of excess, of salons across the Territory, Asian brides, fast lives and digging up Bagot Road just to use up the cash that is splashed around by the government.

Sipping genteelly from a fishbowl of lurid liquor, Damon explains that the Territory belongs to Canberra. It is wholly owned. So there’s little chance of a recession here, propped up as it is by the government, the military, tourism and mining. That also means no self-governance, but who needs that when there are rickshaws peddled by long-legged scantily-clad backpackers and late licenses and an armada of tacky hotels that breach the Esplanade like a badly steered invading fleet?

And really, who doesn’t like a gas mine off the coast, what with its dutiful employment record and killer profits?

At least Mindil Beach hasn’t changed much, with its smoky tang and bubbling lilt, the heady brew of a cosmopolitan society who still throng to watch the sunset over Fannie Bay:

photo 4 IMG_1088IMG_1162

And the sprinklers still work:

photo 3

There are moments that are ripe with the past – the girl with bi-polar and a sad story shares her chips beneath the whine of Baby Don’t Hurt Me; squaddies bail up a ringer in for a big one and shout him a night on the piss; Jesse, curled into a ball, sleeps beneath his ute, the healer in the back on guard; and an old fella invites us to go crabbing at Lee Point, “but mek sure youse brings plastic feet eh? Der’s crocs up der” – but mostly the city is concrete and steel, sapped of memory, its faded glory lost to the shadows cast by progress.

photo 5 photo 4 photo 3photo 1

photo 2photo 2

Heading inland, away from this flirtatious fringe with its skyscrapers and sun loungers, the sky reveals a ancient horizon. I can’t help but think that Darwin, with her blowsy revamp and hefty shopping allowance, has turned into a spoilt little rich girl, pearls dripping from freshly shot ears and diamonds on the souls of her shoes where once bare feet and a broad smile sufficed. More is the pity. 

photo 3

The road out of town


The soft cadence of the names that spill from the buildings in Punchbowl are lulling, Alafrah, Mervat, Baalbeck, Dounya, Sallam and Safadi, Akkaaoui, Kheir, Al-Nour, Alsati, Hamze, Khassoum & Moujalli.

This lilting vernacular weaves a cocoon of exoticism, evoking far-flung lands rich in  Byzantine and Assyrian glory, an other-worldly intrigue, of a people swathed in fabric, the scent of wooded spice, jasmine, cedar and pine on their skin.

In reality this weary suburb lacks the ornate promise of this rich ancestry. The roads spill with snarling traffic yet the shops are empty. The surge of noise that catapults around the corners is the grinding screech of movement, trucks, buses, low-slung WRXs and souped-up trolleys trailing angst and piloted by surly teens. The swarm of sound is only tamed by suburban streets that swallow it whole, choking it down into bellies aching with interference.

The air is soupy, a mix of bitter coffee, tar, rose water, cement and heavy pollution. It is a sickening mix and we retreat into the backstreets for a different perspective.

Here, life takes a laid-back approach. A bare-metal car snoozes peacefully beneath a tarp, heavy sun shutters droop contentedly and paint pots line up excitedly at the prospect of a little home improvement:

Beneath a stately power pylon, all gangly limbs and proud purpose, Arabic inscribed Christmas decorations either linger a little too long or are a touch presumptuous, and the beautiful face of the local independent stares confidently out of a green-hued placard calling for True Blue representation. The streets are tired but wide, threadbare lawns are kept shorn and windows sparkle, eyes peeping out at the world from behind every twitching lace curtain. This is the partially covered face of the proud Lebanese community that calls Punchbowl its own.

Soon though, the cool, garlicky calm of Jasmin 1 hauls us in from the sticky asphalt. The walls are alive with frenetic frescoes and gilt-edged back-lit inverted domes, a psychedelic renovation in honour of a Mediterranean homeland thick with Cedar trees, crumbling antiquity and camels, though everything else has a clean simplicity.

Frankly, Michelangelo could have had a go and I would still be here for the toum not the art. This rich, silky, pungent garlic sauce is not only incredible it is free, which spins the Secretary into another dimension. She orders more immediately and continues her frenzied flat bread jabbing.

We order up big. Crisp, vinegary pickles entertain the Tin Lid for a while, but he is soon more intrigued by the woman behind us who is wearing a burqa and her little girl, peeking out curiously from the cool depths of her hijab. They seem as intrigued by his flaxen locks and petrol blue eyes and the kids are soon flicking fatoush at each other, shrieking with laughter. The slightly-smoked baba ganoush is lapped up with hot bread and salty-sweet salad and charred chicken caked in garlic and spice has an earthy glory that sates us.

Picking coffee grounds from my teeth as we leave, in the chintzy depths of a tat shop I unearth a plaster cast Ned Kelly umbrella stand and a full-size BPA-free American Indian, while the Secretary has stopped to peruse the McDonalds halal menu. Then there is Fadi’s, a beauty salon with a curiously confused message. Splashed across the front of the glass windows and doors is an image of sublime Nordic beauty, a perfection of blonde-ness with no hint of the cultural norm that exists here.

I cannot understand why this paragon of waxen beauty would be something the community might covet. Certainly it is a striking image, a visceral beauty-slap, but it is far removed from the cloaked, cloistered faces I see here.

On the door the sign reads:

Private Room for Scarved Women Available

Beneath the scarves and pins and rules, behind closed doors and in private rooms there is a different life, an untrammeled existence in which blonde beauty might be the norm. It is a life I am sad I am not privy to.

We are warned not to drive down Telopea Street. From a distance this run-of-the-mill street has all the trimmings of suburbia, from Hills hoists flying stained singlets and scabby verges, to the car wreck plastered with neon removal notices, devoid of dignity and wheels. Mature trees provide some shade but the whole place has a sunburnt look, gardens abandoned for the cool of the air-con inside. We slink a little closer. Still suburban. Not quite ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt’, but unremarkable none the same.

But then the secretary goes quiet. Strangely quiet. She whispers words to me, plucked from chilling media reports; random killing; stabbed to death because he went to the wrong house on his way to a birthday party; synonymous with gangs, shootings and dawn raids; Moustapha Dib; “what the fuck you looking at?” “I just clicked. Fucking Asian deserved it”; Edward Lee; RIP.

We drive away without a backward glance, eyes on the similarly unremarkable road ahead of us.