I would like to spread before you a world of rhythm and light; a world of beauty and fear; of rushing water and slow-burning dry-season fires: it is a realm where lightning strikes for nights on end, where clouds form ranks and phalanxes that stretch for hundreds of kilometres across flat plains, where rivers rush down bare savannah watercourses and enliven the dead earth. Here, in far northern Australia, that separate kingdom that reaches from the tip of the Western Australian coastline at Exmouth all the way across the Top End and the Gulf country to the narrowing mountain chains of Cape York, things go very differently from elsewhere. Not only is this region part of a rare climatic zone, often designated as the hot tropics: it is distinct, in culture and history, in look, feel and spirit, from the remainder of the continent lurking over the horizon. The north has been a place of penance, hope, dream and disillusion, and it is doubtless all those things still - but above all it is a place of different tendencies and meanings. It is not temperate, but intemperate: it is a place of excess, and scarcities, of silences and elusive, hidden keys. It has produced vast religious systems, but they are religions and cults of ritual and ceremony, rather than of doubt and faith, and the land and its look point towards a belief based solely on awe and reverence, on certainty instead of ambiguity.
Given such characteristics, it is no great wonder that Western incomers, over the past two centuries of concerted northern settlement, have been perplexed and ill at ease in their new imperium, which they have endeavoured constantly to describe and classify, to comprehend and capture, without a strong sense of confidence that the landscape will surrender to their will. What were they seeking? What are we seeking, and what have we found, in the north?
In strict, logical terms, we can apply several grids to the country around us: it falls into distinct regions, of climate, of human use, of Aboriginal society. Yet the political challenges shared by northern towns are identical: they have to do with the ignorance and indifference of Australia's central authorities, whether in Brisbane, in Canberra or Perth. The cultural challenge relates to transience. Most people who arrive to live in the north do not stay: they come to the Pilbara for money and resources, to Darwin in order to administer, and to Cairns for touristic money. Those who linger, and deviate from this pattern, are the rare eccentrics. From these linked phenomena we can read off the political plight of the residents of North Australia; we can also explain the incapacity of most northerners, on their brief sojourn, to register and appreciate where they find themselves. How many of those who live here today ever traverse the far corners of the country? How many know all its faces? The relentless, gloomy monotony of the sand plains round Normanton, the windings and mangrove meanders of the Mary River east of Darwin, the remote archipelagos off Arnhem Land, with their vast colonies of nesting seabirds - or, reaching further afield, westwards, the deep-red ramparts of the North Kimberley coastline, their points and islets named by the French and the British for bleak emotional states or distinguished savants - then on, to the ghost world between Broome and Pardoo, where flat, featureless dune beaches lie full of presence and cryptic potency - yet who remembers that these beaches were full of Aboriginal visitors, until the devastations and accommodations of a hundred years ago: and even now that country has a lonely, abandoned feeling to it, and little moves there beyond the breeding turtles, the passing four-wheel-drive adventurers and the posses of beach stone-curlews crying mournfully. Many southerners know, or can picture, at least, the great resources ports of the north-west coast, Hedland, Cape Lambert, Dampier, and then: what - more gaps in the map, until we plunge across to North West Cape, the reef line stretching out into the Indian Ocean, and the high, barren coastal range, where every surviving species has undergone some strange adaptation to ensure it has a faint chance at continued life.
Geometry and disorder; law and lawlessness; a king tide of human classifying fervour, an ebbing away of pattern in nature itself: such is the north, where words multiply inside the wordlessness of the world, and where all human endeavours seem dwarfed from the moment of their undertaking.
This intuition - this awareness of scale - is alive even in the words of the first Western travellers to see the north: and it is very telling to read the experiences of the most profound scientific intellectual ever to penetrate the country beyond Capricorn, Ludwig Leichhardt, whose own sense of the country's enfolding presence was amply fulfilled by his passage into its arms, when he disappeared from view, together with his entire expedition party, in 1848, on his bid to cross the continent, from the Condamine River to the Swan. Leichhardt, as is well known by Northern Territory recreational fishermen and frequenters of the area's much-placarded bush tracks, made his entry into the Top End in the Roper River region, where he and his men suffered continual setbacks as they pushed through hard country - and it is still hard terrain to get through, though lush, lush almost beyond imagining in the wet season months, when everything seems to be exploding with life and tense, poised energy: the jabirus patrolling the streams, the watchful hawks in the air, the lilies on the lagoon surfaces, the twisting vines that curl beneath the forest canopies.
Here he is, in late November, at the height of the build-up, on the day after spotting the rare, glamorous, implausibly blue and orange-coloured grasshopper that bears his name today: he pushes his way forward, together with his depleted party of men, across the western fringes of the stone country, until he finds himself standing on the edge of the great escarpment, staring down onto the plains of Kakadu - and it is, as it happens, this passage of his journal that gives the first clue to the presence in that country of mineralisation associated with uranium, the element which has proved so critical to the fate of the Alligator River, and the whole Territory, in the years since.
"After a most fatiguing scramble up and down rocky gullies," writes Leichhardt,
we found ourselves at the brink of that beautiful valley, which lay before us like a promised land. We now had a more extensive view of its eastern outline, and saw extending far to our right a perpendicular wall, cut by many narrow fissures, the outlet of as many gullies; the same wall continued to the left, but interrupted by a steep slope; to which we directed our steps, and after many windings succeeded in finding it. It was indeed very steep. Its higher part was composed of sandstone and conglomerate; but a coarse-grained granite, with much quartz and feldspar, but little mica and accidental hornblende, was below. The size of its elements had rendered it more liable to decomposition, and had probably been the cause of the formation of the slope. In the valley, the creek murmured over a pebbly bed, and enlarged from time to time, into fine sheets of water. We rested ourselves in the shade of its drooping tea-trees ...
The following morning, deep in the valley, what did Leichhardt fix on, and describe? He saw beauty, and elegance, but he had no words for it: he reached, as always, for science: he used Western knowledge systems, which were all he had, to frame his co-ordinates: he dwelled on plants, and trees: things that fell inside his net of terminology.
Careya arborea, the broad-leaved Terminalia, Coniogeton arborescens, an umbrageous white-gum tree, and Pandanus, together with the luxuriant young grass, gave to the country a most pleasing aspect. In the rocky gullies of the tableland, we had observed a great number of shrubs, amongst which a species of Pleurandra, a dwarf Calythrix, a prostrate woolly Grevillea, and a red Melaleuca, were the most interesting. Near the slope by which we entered the valley, a species of Achras was found, but with a much smaller fruit than that of Port Jackson.
The melodious whistle of a bird was frequently heard in the most rocky and wretched spots of the tableland. It raised it voice, a slow full whistle, by five or six successive half-notes; which was very pleasing, and frequently the only relief while passing through this most perplexing country.
Perplexing, because it was strange, and full of unfamiliar rhythms: perplexing above all, though, because it had no place names. Leichhardt was like a blind man passing through: he dispensed names wherever he went, as though to give himself vision, and an ability to map his path: he classified constantly, he created a body of abstract knowledge, and this is still our impulse today - an impulse that I have often felt renders us impervious to the strength and rhythm of the landscape, so much so that we can write the history of European engagement with the north as a desperate bid not to confront it, not to meet it and plunge into it.
Barely half a century after Leichhardt's passage, the Western penetration of far Capricornia was in full swing: Darwin was a small entrepot, with an administration of sorts, and a large mining and horticultural workforce, substantially Chinese. There were ports and jetties, there was a telegraph line, there were pastoral stations across the Top End, and there were stock routes between them, crisscrossing the land. In short, by 1900 the phase change was accomplished: the north was already transformed, and we live with the fruits of that transformation today, and any shifts and changes we now engineer are merely incremental. The country had been christened, and almost everything in it that could be easily seen now bore a name: it had places, and, above all, it already had a Western history: a foundation myth, which flourished for decades, though it is now in contention, it is fading, giving way, as mainstream society negotiates its new relationship with Aboriginal north Australians, and takes, and concedes, annexes and yields.
That foundation myth was the myth of the heroic stockman, the northern drover, and its most striking chronicler was Billy Linklater, a figure now almost wholly forgotten, the author of a magnificent book titled Gather No Moss - a work so disabused and cynical, so full of raffish charm and intensity, that I should like to drag it from the shadows for an instant, and quote a brief paragraph, in which Linklater, who was close to the quasi-outlaw gang the Ragged Thirteen, describes the opening of the route once trodden by Leichhardt from the Gulf of Carpentaria across the tablelands, towards the spine of Australia, where the modern Stuart Highway runs. Here he is, the classically inclined, free-thinking, romantic drover, whose life took a sharp decline after he left the Territory: it came to an end long after the demise of the contested frontier, where he was most at home - so that Linklater spent his last days in penury, with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who buried him in an unmarked grave at Botany Cemetery; and only in recent times has he been given a headstone, which reads, "William Miller Linklater: A Conquistador of the North".
In his buccaneering youth, after fleeing from his rough Victorian childhood, Linklater fetched up in the margin country of west Queensland, where there were characters aplenty for him to exalt, and he even appointed himself the poet laureate of the bushmen he knew, and of the roads they travelled: these became, in his work, fabled thoroughfares of danger and confrontation with the hidden truths of life. The Old Coast Track, in his telling, was the road to Valhalla, or to the Inferno, literally; in fact, it went there several times:
The track proper began at Lake Woods, five miles out from Burketown, and ran for some miles through beautifully grassed black-soil open country, up the north side of the Nicholson to Turn Off Lagoons where it struck towards the coast. Then it went out through Hell's Gates to Wollagorang, and on over the Calvert, the McArthur, the Limmen and the Wickham, then through Hell's Gates again and on to Roper Bar. It followed the south bank of the Roper to Crescent Lagoons, while an alternative track went to Abraham's Billabong. For hundreds of miles it lay through poor, sandy, scrubby country that taxed the ingenuity of the most experienced drovers. And its story, which is the story of Australia's most romantic highway, is lost forever. For among the diggers and drovers, saints, poets and poddy-dodgers, who rode and plodded in the wake of the first handful, there was no one to record this fantastic pilgrimage. It will never be known how many died of thirst, drink and disease; how many were murdered, or committed suicide. But it is certain that had the tale been chronicled, the total of adventure and steadfast endurance would have established the migration as one of the greatest mass exploits of all time.
A grand claim, mocked in distinctly Ozymandias-like fashion by the way things have turned out on the track, and in the north, and doubtless our dreams will be mocked by time as well - but Linklater was half-aware of that fate even as he wrote, and a certain anticipatory nostalgia seeps into his words: you can almost hear the self-lacerating sadness in him, and he lapses occasionally into high-flown snatches of verse - always a sign, among bushmen of that vintage, that an impossibly strong emotion which may demand some touch of irony lies close at hand.
Their shining Eldorado,
Beneath the southern skies,
Was day and night forever
Before their eager eyes.
The brooding bush, awakened,
Was stirred in wild unrest,
And all the year a human stream
Went pouring to the West.
And are we wiser, and do we know more, as we sweep our way across the vacant tenements of the north and the Cape, the Kimberley and the north-west - as our geo-survey aircraft and oil-search vessels scan the earth's layers and the seabed, and our anthropologists delve ever deeper into the human laboratories we have set up in remote communities, and development remakes the face of our cities? Those rivers named by Leichhardt, and crossed by Linklater, do we see them? Do we have any sense of what surrounds us here?
Let me give a brief portrait of some reaches of the north that I have come to know, and which I feel hold lessons for us, if lessons of the most veiled, allusive kind.
East of Darwin's fast-changing waterfront, perhaps 300 kilometres distant, a wide floodplain extends beneath the foot of a high plateau, which marks the outer bastion of Arnhem Land - a realm of great splendour and regularity, its stringy-bark canopy bisected by strange, ill-surveyed features. There are saltwater lagoons far inland, and dark, near-subterranean river systems; along the coast there are wild currents, horizontal waterfalls, tidal races that shape the shoreline silt flows, while on the edges of the stone country, in the folds between the ranges, there are roaming, ill-tempered buffaloes to be found, the size of Mack trucks, and Timor ponies running wild, and the traveller comes on faults and discontinuities in the earth's surface - none more startling than the sinkhole, a formation that has the look of a meteorite crater in a forest: it forms a circle, wide as a mine-site open pit, its floor filled by a deep lake: you look down on it, and see the tiny flecks of shadow cast by kites on the wing, circling far beneath your eyes. There are many tales associated with this declivity - and tales and song cycles thread throughout the country, for all the region is an Indigenous citadel, and has been so since the proclamation of the Arnhem Land Reserve, in 1931, during the aftermath of a brief, disquietingly blood-stained episode of pastoral settlement. Most outsiders who penetrate this kingdom see rather little of it, and what they do see appears to their eyes somewhat uninspiring: the eight- or nine-hour drive up the Central Arnhem Road is a trip through unchanging forest, and the first few times I took it, it seemed monotonous to me; until the look and grammar of the country, the play of the light and the endless subtle variation of the trees and plants around me, began to make their inroads on my mind: I became attuned to them, the pulse of their rhythms, the lie of the land itself began to sink in on me; and now, when I make the drive out to Yirrkala and Nhulunbuy, even during the middle of the dry season, when the rivers in their torrential rush have abated, and all is still, it is a dangerous passage for me, so often do my eyes stray to the passing textured lines of foliage shadow and the bushfires' remnant traces on the woolly-butt and stringy-bark trunks as they draw nearer and then recede from the verges of the dust-mantled road. How many mysteries lurk in that unseen country: mysteries that cluster round the white beaches and rock formations of the shore: strange, half-historical traditions, suggestive of distant visits by Chinese sea-pirates to the north-Australian coastline - traditions like the tale, wholly plausible to me, that once, long before Europeans began their scratching efforts to settle at Fort Dundas on the Tiwi Islands, long lines of tall, well-defended turrets rose on a rocky point in Warramirri country, close to Cape Wilberforce.
And west of Darwin, along the shore, picture the Daly, that winding, snaking river, the cleanest, most intact large estuary in the world: its skies filled, in the build-up season, with clouds like Portuguese men-o'-war trailing rain tendrils that evaporate before they reach the floodplains, where smoke plumes, as if to answer, rise, diffusing in the winds, and Airnorth Brasilias flying low over Port Keats and Peppimenarti cruise their way between these barriers that fill the air. The Daly: here lies Tipperary Station, an empire that, at least according to bush legend, holds the longest built structure in North Australia - a red-brick and ornamental-ironwork wall conceived by the entrepreneur Warren Anderson, in the days when he made this pastoral property the wonder of the Territory, and filled it with elaborate aviaries, grand fountains and a zoo-full of exotic animals; and even now the traces of this dream survive, in the scale of the station buildings, the polo arena, the vast waterworks and African mahogany trees, beneath which bemused giraffes once surely grazed; and around the empty aviaries, the zoo's brick perimeter curls away - towards the back paddocks, and beyond the fringes of the station, far distant, where wild pigs in huge battalions are routinely slaughtered, and carrion from the river systems all around gather to feast in silence on the dead.
Look west again, across the Bonaparte Gulf, that ambiguous reach of water, where the sun's gleam constantly creates false deltas and shifting islands - west, as far as the coastal Kimberley, where bauxite lies buried in rich deposits, and rivers run like arrows deep into the hinterland: it was here, on the diamond of crocodile-filled water known as King George Sound that the mountebank and visionary Joseph Bradshaw once dreamed of settling, and building a cattle herd: to that end he imported not only his stock, his new wife, her piano and most cherished personal effects, but also his cousin the writer Aeneas Gunn, who prepared a series of dark, melancholy dispatches from this station paradise - the gaunt bones of which can still be seen today, nestled between the boabs, in harsh scrub near the flanks of Mount Trafalgar, the grandest peak in all the north - and I would love to be able to claim that Gunn's great, fragmented narrative, first published in a suburban gazette in Melbourne, is still well known, and regarded as a masterpiece; but like most efforts at intellectual framing or imaginative response to the wild north, it has vanished from view, though his bravura passages remain unsurpassed in their evocation of a mind on edge in the coastal Kimberley, and his words give a clue to the fears lurking in the hearts of incomers across the tropics as the humidity and heat press upon them. This is Gunn in the midst of a mangrove swamp, engaged in a manhunt, and on the brink of breakdown:
The place seemed to be the very heart of the huge solitude in which we were situated. Overhead, there was a dark, closely knitted canopy of leaves. Only here and there a patch of ineffably blue sky, that appeared to be immeasurably distant, gleamed through rifts in the firmament of foliage. Through the apertures the sun shot vertical shafts of golden light that counterfeited gilded pillars, except where their masses were broken by contact with the trunks and limbs of the trees. But the lights that stole through only made the gloom more ghostly and unreal by the contrast. It was like a weird, uncanny underworld - a vast, shapeless vault whose roof was supported by gnarled and knotted trunks carved with fantastic devices by the processes of nature. The whole scheme of design of the jungle might have been that of an unimaginable medieval cathedral, conceived in a nightmare and executed in a delirium.
And Gunn at Marigui Station, in the beautiful, terrifying North Kimberley bush, betrays in his words one of the deepest impulses of outsiders in the north, as they seek their ground: the impulse to see structure, to escape formlessness, to find a logic in the landscape. How often have I surrendered to that wish, when driving in the depths of the Pilbara, the most potent and most disrupted region of northern Australia: the nation's quarry, the home of the modern resources bonanza, a zone now traversed and quartered by powerlines and main roads and railways bearing iron-ore trains that stretch for kilometres.
This is the last cameo I want to paint: the northern landscape that means the most to me, although it has been so devastated, so torn apart and eviscerated. It is country where all is stripped down, all is simplicity: the geological structures run on unimpeded for hundreds of kilometres: the topography is basalt rock-piles; the ground cover is pale yellow, sharp-edged spinifex. The temperatures for much of the year are inimical to settled life; and yet the Pilbara seems to me more and more, at each encounter, the quintessence of the continent: the place where desert and tropical ocean meet, where all the languages and stories of Australia begin. And it was here, a year ago, on a drive with a friend of mine into deep country behind the old frontier town of Roebourne, that I was reminded again how little I know or grasp of what surrounds me: how much goes unglimpsed. This experience came at the end of a long, exhilarating day: we had pushed into the margins of the desert, across the rim of old, long-abandoned station country, down tracks untouched for a decade or more, and quite overgrown: so much so that we adopted the expedient of driving the vehicle down watercourses, which were mostly still full, to our surprise, and flowing, so we were riding on a constant stabilising carpet of submerged stones; and all went, for many hours, well, and our confidence was very high; until dusk, when we had reached a lovely fold of country: deep purplish-red rocks, exiguous trees, weeping mulga and white gums along the creek line, which we had once more to cross to reach our night-time camp: the river had wound round: we plunged in, fully expecting to be able once more to drive along our sunken, watery road - the bank fell away beneath us, into deep water, the troop carrier sank. Around us were red crags: there was a range in the distance, running westwards: its peaks were triangular: they gleamed like metal in the sunset light. I walked up to the ridge line close above us; and even as I reached it, I saw its rocks and platforms were all covered by faint, spidery engravings: a man's face, masked; circles, interlocking; concentric arcs; thin figures, holding vines and hafted spears: there were panels with carved boomerangs, and zig-zag marks, and wide, staring, owl-like eyes: there was an austere and solemn quality about the whole ensemble; and you come upon such sites throughout the Pilbara, where almost every rock platform seems to have its decorations and its past; and that past, and its near-vanished aspect, changes the meaning of the country. That past is the reverse of the tapestry we see around us, all across the north: it is there, concealed, with all its knots and stitches: it is that unnoticed underpinning that makes the landscape what it is today.
Each of these distinct regions I have sought to depict is a poised wonder, a galaxy of its own: each is enough for many lifetimes of journeying and contemplation; they belong, though, together, and hardly anyone active in the north sees them all, or considers the parallels in their fate, or their shared interests. What are they teaching or conveying by their mute presence as the backdrop to our lives? I have imagined the landscape above Capricorn murmuring many messages, dark and light; but principally these: that all things must leave us in time; that we leave ourselves behind, imprinted on the landscape, just as all those whose words I have quoted have left their traces - whether Leichhardt, lost in unknown desert, or Linklater, in Botany, or Gunn, who died early and unrecognised, or even Bradshaw, who suffered a fatal gangrene from a leg injury, after many bizarre escapades and near-bankruptcies, and is buried at the old cemetery on Darwin's Goyder Road, in the shade of a giant water tower beside the highway and a large store selling marble lions and discount ornamental pots. You all pass by, the country says, and your attempts to catch the stuff of life, and hold it in your thoughts - they come to nothing, they are nothing, they are part of the story itself, no more or less; the feel and tone of experience are the precious elements that we should hold and grasp: consciousness, in the brief window allotted to us, which we should direct outwards, rather than inwards, towards those we know, and love, and to the other creatures round us, rather than down into the abyss of self, which seems too frail to be worth much consideration in this primal realm.
Even images cannot capture one crucial thing I find in the landscape: its interwoven, interconnected quality: a musical aspect - a repetition, and variation: the way the light filtering through the stringy-barks echoes, and speaks to the changes in the landforms; the way shape and pattern are multiplied at different levels, so that the branching arms of a river delta seem like the veins of a leaf, or the path of oxidisation on an abandoned car body in the deep bush, or a St Andrew's Cross spider web, glistening in the dew of dawn. These patterns are in nature - but also in art, because they are in ourselves; and no visitor to Port Keats or Yirrkala or Galiwinku can fail to see how much the vocabulary of the paintings and the sculptures of those places picks up the shapes one sees in the country: the cross-cutting crests of the tides, the diamond emblems on curved eucalyptus bark, the rise and fall of sand dunes or the enfolding lines of promontories and cliffs. Those patterns, which surely persuaded the developers of the art traditions of the north, long ago, that they should see a resonance, a warmth in nature, are active today: I have the sense, often, in this landscape, that we are in a world of correspondences, and it is the hidden things that most precisely explain the feel, and even the logic, of life. Only if we see the minute first channels of the river systems or the glowing, smoke-veiled fire fronts far beneath us as we take the flight out to Milingimbi Island do we understand what we overfly: country wholly made by forces far greater than those at our disposal. When we drive out to Fogg Dam, and contemplate the thin causeway and the failed postwar rice-growing project's remaining structures, we are blind to what lies before us if we simply watch the flights of water birds, and ignore the cryptic presence of the myriad pythons - the largest concentration of predator snakes on the planet, all chasing a vast concentration of their chosen prey, the terrified, tormented dusky rat. If we walk through the forests of the Top End or Kimberley, reflecting on the subtle splendour of the shadow systems, and the overwhelming silence of the midday, broken only by the occasional crack of falling branches, we neglect the dramas underway before our eyes, at almost microscopic scale: for more than half the large gum trees of northern Australia have been devoured from within by the numberless termites that fill the country: the soft heartwood is swiftly consumed, and the trees themselves have adapted, in some fashion, to this annihilation, and reabsorb the plundered traces of themselves with their own root systems: and so they give away and then reclaim their hearts in a constant circle of sacrifice and redemption.
Such is this realm, where destruction is the necessary precondition for renewal, where the scourge of heat, and flail of storm, bring about new birth: where the shapes of the clouds recall the smooth lines of migrating seabirds, where all is rhythm, and the shimmer and the gleam of life.
How should we tend this world, and husband it, and how exploit it? How listen to it, how begin to understand it? It would be wrong of me to close by putting on a critic's cloak. But I would like to sketch a recurring dream I have: a dream of a North Australia of a new kind, and a new kind of Darwin, one more in keeping with the spirit of that luminous, self-assessing scientist whose name we are left with.
Darwin Harbour received its Western designation on 9 September 1839, just after dawn, "before the veil of darkness was quite removed", when Captain John Lort Stokes of the Beagle came upon a wide, smooth bay, and rocks of fine-grained sandstone, which "afforded us an appropriate opportunity of convincing an old shipmate and a friend that he still lived in our memory". But Charles Darwin, though his decades of scientific speculation were set in train by what he saw in Sydney and the Blue Mountains on his brief visit to the colony of New South Wales, never laid eyes on this landscape. Who can imagine what ideas might have occurred to him, had he been exposed to this other world: had he returned from here to his family home at Down House, in West Kent, and his beloved gardens, with their tranquil sand-walk, where he paced with even steps, while staring at the obedient, constructive honeybees at work on their combs. Yes, he had his greenhouse with its handful of orchids and carnivorous plants, like some safe window on tropical immediacy - but who knows what thoughts would have been his, had he set foot in our world of rainforest and sclerophyll, of mangrove and lancewood and Kimberley boab; had he known this experimental, tentative, excessive paradise of growth and burning and death?
I have often liked to imagine a Darwinian Darwin - a city ruled by sceptical intelligence, where men and women live in full awareness of their environs, and the hard rules of the country; where the flamboyance and drama of the thought worlds that were in place here before the creation of Port Darwin lend their stamp and shimmer more fully to the mainstream; where the streets are filled with museums and research centres worthy of its name, and Darwin becomes a global capital of the tropics: a city so beautiful, so subtle and so much in harmony with its surrounds that it compels admiration, and develops as the jewel of the north: not a dependent place, not a place for chancers and drifters and fortune-seekers, or not for them alone, not a market for cut-price tourists; but a proud, confident place, where the forms of government reflect the wishes of the permanent population and the cultural traditions that have been present for uncounted years in the landscape. Is this a wild dream? Such futures are built step by slow step. I look forward to the day when such a city, and such a society in northern Australia, begins to take shape.
Nicolas Rothwell is an author and a journalist for the Australian. His books include The Red Highway and Journeys to the Interior, and his coverage of Indigenous affairs has earned him a Walkley Award.
I would like to spread before you a world of rhythm and light; a world of beauty and fear; of rushing water and slow-burning dry-season fires: it is a realm where lightning strikes for nights on end, where clouds form ranks and phalanxes that stretch for hundreds of kilometres across flat plains, where rivers rush down bare savannah watercourses and enliven the dead earth. Here, in far northern Australia, that separate kingdom that reaches from the tip of the Western Australian coastline at Exmouth all the way across the Top End and the Gulf country to the narrowing mountain chains of Cape York, things go very differently from elsewhere. Not only is this region part of a rare climatic zone, often designated as the hot tropics: it is distinct, in culture and history, in look, feel and spirit, from the remainder of the continent lurking over the horizon. The north has been a place of...