From my visit to Darwin in March 2014 ...
In other cities, you gather on the beach for fireworks. In Darwin, you do it for lightning. But where’s the proscenium or safety rail, to say nothing of the insurance? Who separates spectator from show when the show is not just out there on the Timor Sea but also right over our heads?
Still, like bears at the zoo, this storm seems trained not to kill the spectators. It poured warm rain earlier in the evening, and now, through a brilliant sunset and into the night, is just doing the lightning part. The bolts are horizontal above us, vertical only when blasting the sea. Well-behaved lightning, but will a white metal railing do for a fourth wall, lawn this side, beach beyond? Will a row of tables do, like these at which I sit, with fish and chips mined for protein but otherwise abandoned beside me? Everyone else lined up at the tables here, grouped about white wine bottles in tabletop coolers, an Australia of confidence and leisure, seems to think so.
Thunderstorms give Darwin its drama and shape. Without them, it’s flatly hot and humid, or later, flatly hot and dry. People who love to be outside are out at night, when it's the slightest bit cooler and at least the sunburn risk is gone. I’ve never seen so many people in a city’s parks at 5 AM, or midnight.
The screaming trees are an evening thing. Around sundown, many hundreds of rainbow lorikeets gather in one massive tree downtown, their chatter so deafening that nobody tries to talk nearby. Thickly white-spattered pavement beneath confirms that this is the tree, the one where it happens every night. It’s a tropical thing; the same species in temperate climes is also social but never in such astonishing numbers. What can be more important than whatever has brought this vast assembly together?
Other wildlife? Black flying foxes are here, squirrels with wings, gliding and squeaking their way through crepuscular commutes, but not in the great volcanic masses such as once harried Sydney’s botanic gardens. There’s a white social parrot called the Little Corella, one of several Australian birds with a permanently disapproving expression. Spotted one stunning azure kingfisher flitting among mangroves.
And of course, there are crocodiles. One could emerge from the water, ocean or estuary, at any moment, especially for something bite-sized. (Stinging box jellyfish are another reason to stay completely out of saltwater during the wet season.) Aussies like their crocs zooed, caged, poked, and prodded from a safe distance. Most of the country’s microzoos have one, and here there are several big parks with plenty of attention to this largest of reptiles. There, you can watch them being fed, gaze into their porcelain jaws, hold their cute babies, feel spooked by their open-mouthed taxidermic stillness, and be lectured in shrill feminine monotones about not standing in the water while fishing.
“Look there, that’s the female, with just her eyes sticking out of the water, looking just like a bit of wood. She doesn’t even need to stick out that far to see what's going on above the water. You see, you have to watch out because crocodiles are intelligent. They will size up whether they’re big enough to eat you. They’ll go for your leg, but if you offer them something more bite-sized, like a child, they’ll go for that.”
We titter on cue. Crocs do nibble around the edges of Darwin, as cougars do around Los Angeles. There are periodic tabloid-fueled debates about somehow getting rid of them, but it’s pointless of course. These hot, buzzing mangroved estuaries – red mud, gray air, and greenish-black water -- are co-evolved with them. Everything selects reptilian patience over mammalian anxiety.
Darwin is a surprisingly highrise city, soaring hotels and apartment towers crowding the downtown peninsula, shoving each other to catch the views. It’s less clear where so many residents work, except that this is a natural resource town – mining, natural gas, etc – and that means vast corporations that can buy 100 units in Darwin just to have for whenever they’re needed. It was impossible to believe that everyone was at home: not nearly enough traffic or pedestrian life for that.
The towers have that sudden-colonist look, that just-landed-from-space look, as though they may have crushed something interesting when they fell but the debris has been tidied up. One short street, advertised in an old guidebook as a site of an interesting bar and restaurant, is nothing but sterile towers now. One is even called the Envy, as though Deadly Sinners only need apply.
People are nice but a bit distant, as is common in outposts of exiles, prospectors and tourists. As I talked with local planners about public transit everyone asked me if it was reasonable to ask people to walk to the bus in Darwin. My answer is the same as when I’m speaking in Edmonton in mid-winter: “it’s amazing what human beings adapt to, though they always complain first.” Here, though, I’m paused by the seas of white faces that are almost almost all exiles from the cooler southern cities. They’ve gone up here for a few years’ adventure maybe, proud of a certain resistance to full adaptation. The aboriginals are adapted, of course, as are all the recent immigrants from the similar climates of south and southeast Asia. But none were in the room in any meeting I attended, and even white people who had grown up here talked about the climate as though it were something alien, confronting, “character-building” to use the common Aussie term.
But when I went for a rain-run in the mangroves and scrub of Charles Darwin National Park, I was quite comfortable. Perhaps Darwinites should just spend the wet season in swimwear. It’s just a warm shower, washing off sweat as you go.