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Darwin, Australia

Written on: Tuesday August 5th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Although my mind was still firmly on missing the boat I had arrived in Darwin, Australia in the mood to let my hair down a little, meet some fellow travellers and share some stories over a few beers. I intended to enjoy the first few days in Darwin and then search out some work to top up the rapidly decreasing funds. The problem with Darwin is that although it's a great, scenic and very laid-back city, there's not actually all that much to do here, other than drink, and so for the next seven days that was all I seemed to do.

Set out like most modern-designed cities with tidy, easy to navigate, grid system streets, the tranquil esplanade grass-fringed haven on it's western side running the length of the coastline and then running parallel only metres away the city's main avenue, Mitchell Street teeming with boozed-up backpackers keeping afloat the multitude of drinking establishments that litter the road. The majority of Darwin's hostels are also on this road, its biggest ones lying right in the centre of the action, each complete with its Mediterraneanesque swimming pools, internet cafes and travel agencies. I stayed in two different hostels while I was here, Elke's to begin with and then the bigger, less personal Youth Shack, while making frequent visits to the YHA for their value-for-money meal deals and Melaleuca-on-Mitchell for its conveniently placed bar on the first floor level of the hostel overlooking the main street. As I called in on quite a few of the hostels, I met quite a lot of people very quickly. On my second day in Darwin while chatting with two English guys I'd played poker with the night before we were convinced to enter a 5-aside football tournament later on that afternoon. I was lucky they happened to be pretty good and we went on to win it, getting a free meal at the rowdiest bar in town, The Vic and a $100 dollar beer tab which we of course put to great use. The days thereafter I'd wake up intent on having a relaxing day, maybe seeking out something new to see in Darwin, only to run in to somebody over breakfast who gets in the first jug of the day, to which it's only right to return the favour of getting the next and then at 4am the next morning I realised that I'd done it all over again. There's nothing like a good party, but after a full week of losing track of just what sobriety is like I needed to get out of Darwin.

I chose to do an organised tour of the nearby Kakadu National Park, the site of Paul Hogan's 80's classic Crocodile Dundee. Kakadu is a vast National Park, exceedingly dry at the moment in the height of the dry season, but soon to be flooded with vast amounts of water in a few months from now with the arrival of the rains. It's the biggest National Park in Australia, steeped in Aboriginal history and inhabited by numerous fresh and the much more dangerous, salt-water crocodiles, who lie in wait for their next meal with just their beady, sly little eyes peeking above the water. It was the salt-water crocs I got to see first with Gender, my Aboriginal guide and my seven co-travellers. Taking a small motored powered boat out on the Adelaide River, Gender with those radar-like eyes that all National Park tour guides seem to be born with, honed in on the well-hidden salties. With a prime piece of raw, blood-dripping buffalo meat dangling from a makeshift wooden fishing rod, the crocs were lured closer to our camera-wielding boat. The crocs were obviously hungry and willing to put on a show for their grub. Incredibly powerful animals they are able to launch themselves up from the water to obtain the meat that Gender would first float on the water's surface and then flick up as the croc neared it. The biggest one we got a glimpse of was a good four metres in length and almost completely exited the water in an attempt to nab a protein packed breakfast. I can't say I blamed him either, it looked like a great meal, I contemplated jumping in and wrestling the croc for it. Besides he was just a small one, this biggest species of croc can grow up to seven metres in length and is the oldest living reptile on the planet.

I spent three days in the park, sleeping in a tent the two nights I was there and hoping that a stray saltie didn't come wandering from the near-by creek for a late-night snack. We visited some of the oldest Aboriginal rock-art areas in Australia at Nourlangie Rock, listened to stories of the world's creation or as the Aboriginals coin it Dreamtime of the world by the ancient spirit people; took in sunset over the South Alligator River and tried my hardest to work out the circular breathing necessary to play the didgeridoo. On our second day we drove out on the 4x4 trail to the bottom of one of Kakadu's many highlights, Jim-Jim Falls and spent most of the morning scaling it. Being in the midst of dry season, the Falls itself have no water so you can carefully wriggle up on your belly to the lip of the Falls once on top and take in the amazing views out across the Park to the Aboriginal owned Arnham Land. The pool where the water in the wet season would flow in to is still full and despite the threat of salt-water crocodiles prowling around many use it to cool off in as we did after getting down from our climb. At the end of the wet season rangers come in to the more populated tourist areas, catch the crocs that have swum in here during the floods and relocate them to the river areas where the chances of some adventure-craving backpacker being eaten is a lot less. Even so, crocodile traps are still a regular feature in and around the bottom of the Falls area so when you're out treading water in the middle of the rock-pool it's very easy to feel a sudden twinge of panic as you spot a few air-bubbles popping up on the surface of the water, no doubt released from the depths by a small fish but nevertheless causing you to swim faster than you ever have in the opposite direction.

Our last morning in the Park we spent swimming and relaxing around Maguk Falls in the south of the park, then driving back to Darwin, stopped off to feed the huge barramundi fish that inhabit the rivers here in the Northern Territory.

We'd got back to Darwin on the first day of the Darwin Festival, a two week long celebration of all things Northern Territory, with comedy, theatre, cinema and music concerts taking over the town. A free concert opened up the Festival on the esplanade which I enjoyed with the rest of the group that had been on the tour with me and several drunken Aborigines who from their inebriated state seemed to enjoy it more than most. The Aborigines here have had a particularly torrid time. In the years since the arrival of Europeans the Aborigines have been forced to leave their native lands and pushed to other areas of the country. Up until recent times they had almost been shunned by the government and certainly under-represented in terms of making a political contribution. Kevin Rudd the present prime minister publicly apologised to the Aboriginal population in his first address to the nation after his election and there has been a huge push to solve the problems of alcoholism, unemployment and crime that has come to be associated with Aboriginal people. Sadly they are the butt of the joke of many white Australians that I have met here. Other than Gender I didn't get to meet many Aborigines here in Darwin. The ones I did encounter were banging two sticks together sitting on the street asking passersby for money or shouting obscenities at one another in a drunken furore, a sad state to have driven one of the oldest civilisations left on the planet in to.

Although the Festival was on I was itching to get out of Darwin after enjoying the adventure of Kakadu and being out in the wild once more. Danny had already lived and worked here in Darwin for almost a year on his last visit from his home of Canada, and at that time he brought a camper wagon which he left here parked up before he took off for his Asian trip. Litchfield, another National Park just outside of Darwin was hosting the Isotopia Festival the weekend I arrived back from Kakadu so as Danny had a bunch of camping equipment, including a swag for each for of us (a sort of deluxe sleeping bag, complete with mattress that means you don't need to put up a tent) we headed out that way for a few days of raving it up in the bush. One of the live bands received particular acclaim from the mostly hippyish crowd, featuring one guy on drums and another playing four different didgeridoos to a backing of drum and bass. I'd earlier seen these guys at the Mendil Beach night markets in Darwin, but this was their true arena. After throwing myself around the sandy dance floor I turned in to sleep under the stars but thankfully woke up automatically and bang on time to see the lunar eclipse at 5:15 in the morning. The music from the dance tent was still banging away rapturously, and continued to do so long after we had left late in the afternoon on the Sunday.

I stayed my remaining days out in Darwin sleeping on the floor of the rock climbing club where Danny worked and slept as the night-watchman in the evening. It saved me the money of paying $30 a night for a shared dorm bed. Then on the Tuesday morning I finally left Darwin after what seemed like being there for donkey's years and caught a lift with a Belgian Billy Connelly lookalike called Coco and an English Diving Instructor named Lauren, off on a trip south down in to the centre of the country. The day before I left I ran in to an old travelling friend. Ben, who I'd travelled around parts of Indonesia with had just arrived from a two month trip working out near the Bay of Carpentaria, right out in the middle of the bush. It was nice to see a familiar face again and we discussed possibly meeting up again soon, buying a 4x4 and doing the rest of Australia at our own speed. Adventure once again beckons, woohoo!