On approach to Darwin I was surprised at myself for almost being excited at seeing high-rise buildings – they weren’t even that big – but this was the first time I think I’d seen such a spectacle and sure sign of a place of mentionable social prospects since I’d left Perth, 3 months ago. Geraldton, although quite large, was purely like that for industrial reasons and Broome was such a feeble hub of people that it took me at least 2 days to find the town centre, even though I was living almost across the road from it. The fact that that morning I’d woken up in my room in the caravan park in Mataranka: population 200 – only now do I realise that my mango-picking crew boosted the head-count by about 15% (and probably the month-end earnings of the pub by 300%) – probably only made me appreciate more the social oasis that I was about to enter and, although I normally prefer country to city, this was exactly where I wanted to be. That thought diminished as soon as stepped foot off the bus and into the tangibly humid air, and before I could even mutter, fuck me that’s hot, I was sticking to my clothes, or really, they were sticking to me.
And so I headed off down, or up, Mitchell Street to find the YHA that I’d booked into a few hours earlier on the bus – one reason I’m loving having bought a cheap-ish pre-pay Telstra mobile: $10 of internet lets me download the Gmail, Google Maps and Opera Mini apps with enough to spare to let me browse, email and navigate for the rest of the month, with almost no need to ever go near a $4-6/hour internet cafe; the other reason being that almost everywhere I’ve been along the west coast, I’ve met some poor soul who opted for Optus or Vodafone and had no signal whatsoever – but what time I saved by booking it when I had nothing better to do I more than lost by trying to find it, on a dead straight street may I add. See, the problem with Australian proprietors, is that most of them seem almost embarrassed to display the number of their property anywhere, making it ludicrously hard to find places because even when you do find a place crazy enough to display the one thing that absolutely identifies it on the street, that building happens to be roughly mid-way along so you still have no idea in what direction the numbers go. I walked past Shenanigans three times before I felt less of a noob than I did confident that the direction I was walking in was going to lead to the place where the bed I’d paid for awaited me.
Refreshed from a shower and a change of clothes, but having failed to spark up any banter in the hostel, I headed on a fairly aimless walk along the esplanade, mainly as, having seen it from the bus, it was the only place I knew the location of and partly because I hadn’t seen the sea for almost 7 weeks. Looking out over the flat waters of the bay towards what I could have been an island for all I knew, but was more likely Mandorah, I couldn’t help but think back to last summer when I was in Leverburgh, Harris watching the sun go down over a calm sea on a mildly warm and probably to some degree humid evening. Even though there were similarities between the two scenes, I was still surprised to find an evening spent in a tropical city where there is no such thing as frost – it would be funny to see though, if a freak frost were to occur amongst all that humidity, would the air just turn to block of ice and would people have to pick-axe their way out of their doors in the morning, but anyway – itched my memory just the right way to conjure up scenes from Scottish Highlands. Crossing over Mitchell Street I came across a Christmas show setup at the bottom end of the Smith? Street Mall and, although I was dismayed that such an event could take place before December had started, I hung around for a while because the atmosphere was really nice, especially because of the beautiful arrangement of lights and (presumably) Asian-style lanterns hanging from the trees who’s limbs arched right across the seating area, creating a ceiling of twinkling lights on a backdrop of sunset-coloured storm-clouds.
After a while I found myself in a small cafe, through a complete lack of desire to cook, which suited me perfectly, serving Indian food and being completely empty. As I ate the delicious beef madras, cautiously but unnecessarily offset with a helping of butter chicken, the place livened up a bit with an American student and a very chatty Melbourne guy who seemed to have the ability to spark up a conversation with rock if he felt so inclined and so we all ended up there till close before heading off to somewhere that specialised in strong beverages and not-so-strong cuisine and so a good evening was had, rather unexpectedly, leading to a more than expected not-so-memorable walk home. That said, I do vaguely remember meeting someone I’d only had the briefest of encounters with back in Coral Bay, although she clearly didn’t remember me, but after remembering her name through some fluke of memory I joined her group for a few more drinks. All I really remember after that is talking, presumably quite enthusiastically, to an American guy, who after a few minutes rather abruptly kill the conversation with something to the effect of, you’ve asked me like 3 questions in a row and I’ve asked you nothing. Either, possibly by that stage there was not a lot of compelling conversation to be had with me or, more likely, he was a complete cock and shouldn’t have been out if he didn’t feel like being even passively social.
An eventful first few hours in the city subsided, mainly through a complete lack of motivation to do anything brought on by the humidity, to a fairly quiet week filled mostly with car-hunting, dips in the pool and cooking 2-minute noodles. Darwin revived the pattern of bumping into lots of people who I’d met at some point on my travels up the coast: Joseph, the quirky Estonian who I’m almost certainly went mildly insane waiting for a job in Kununurra, turned out to be in the same room as me, and I met one of Swedish girls who’d been on that awful bus to Broome. It was great to meet up with Kevin, Antoine and Vincent – who had to leave Mataranka early because they got severe mango rash – and when we drove into Litchfield National Park for a day, I met awesome-Thai-green-curry-Yvonne from Broome.
Having skipped the apparently awesome Kakadu National Park on the advice of a number of people that it was loosing its appeal at this time of year, especially with some attractions closed for the wet season, the only area of notable natural beauty I explored was Litchfield National Park. Although featuring less prominently than Kakadu in all tourist guides, most people said they liked it better, and I found the plunge pools amazing, although the termite mounds and tablelands were pretty good too. One day, on the advice of David, my cool Israeli roommate, Vincent and I took the ferry to Mandorah, a little piece of highly accessible, and so more surprisingly peaceful, peninsula directly across the bay from Darwin. I’d meant to sort out bicycle hire before the day, but as usual was too lazy, so we found there wasn’t a great deal to do but while away a few hours at the pub at the other end of the beach from the pier, enjoying the tropical island feel but with the postcard view across the water to Darwin.
By that point I’d more or less exhausted my motivation to see much of Darwin so, as we sat under a tree on a typically warm and sunny afternoon, looking back across the sea to Darwin, I booked my flight to Sydney – once again I’d like to pay testament to Telstra, my phone and my geeky-ness for letting me do something that is generally only possible in overly-ambitious tv adverts – and a few days later I was away, happily bidding farewell to a place that I’d have liked to have gotten to know better, and felt a bit guilty for not making more of an effort with. Maybe another time.
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