December 2005 - January 2006


Lilypad of the Arafura

By Tony Clifton
Lilypad of the Arafura
Australia's last frontier society is long gone. So what's next for the city of Darwin?

Almost 32 years ago to the day I was comparing countries with my editors at Newsweek magazine, in New York, and the conversation got round to the disappearance of the old American west, and how rootin’ tootin’ towns like Dodge City and Tombstone had become tacky tourist resorts. I said it wasn’t all like that in Australia. There was still a town where men were men and women and crocodiles were nervous. So go to this Darwin, they said, and write about it. So I did, and I wrote about legendary fighters and drinkers, and about hippies nesting in the casuarina trees along Lameroo Beach, and about how they had just raffled five hookers on a sex cruise around Darwin Harbour to raise money for charity. I wrote about famous drifters like the Keegans, who once closed the pub at Adelaide River after Mick Keegan had been tossed out by dumping a long-dead and very aromatic buffalo outside the front door. “The city itself,” I wrote, “is populated by a colourful collection of picaresque characters, some of whom seemed to have stepped out of the 19th-century American west.”

When I went back in September both the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Clare Martin, and local historian Mickey Dewar used the word “latte” in their descriptions of this comfortable, backpacker-jammed resort by the Arafura Sea. The Darwin of 2005 is hardly exciting exciting, but it did seem unfair of the recent guide book 101 Places Not to Visit to give Darwin its top four-star rating for boringness. The book’s author has clearly never been to Valparaiso, Indiana – or even Singapore. Darwin does have its attractions, including some very good restaurants. One evening at the excellent Moorish Cafe I ordered the “dukka-encrusted” sirloin steak, and as I ate, it occurred to me that in 1973 if you had asked some old-timer like one of the Keegans whether they wanted dukka (an Egyptian mixed spice) on their steak, they would probably have used an expletive rhyming with dukka before booting your pelvis through your shirtfront.

Darwin today is not the city I saw such a long time ago. Physically, it has changed utterly; a year after my first visit the town I saw was blown away by Cyclone Tracy, and like the three little pigs, the inhabitants had built a much more solid city in anticipation of the next big blow. It is also a duller place, a white-bread, nature-stripped, inward-looking, neat and clean haven for southern white migrants, who labour mainly in the coalmines of the NT administration and its sub-branches. The old hell-raisers have been supplanted by a strain of largely self-satisfied people kidding themselves that in their air-conditioned, wire-fenced and gated towers they are still somehow part of the Australian frontier, when in fact they now live what is an aberrant lifestyle in a vast, still-wild frontier stretching away to east, west and south.

“Darwin’s a moon base,” says Associate Professor Tess Lea, of Charles Darwin University’s school of social and policy research. “Entirely supplied and supported by space shuttles in the form of road trains, bringing all we need to sustain us from the home planet of the far south.” “What I don’t like about Darwin today is the Australianisation of the place,” says Suzanne Spunner, who lived there ten years, hated it, loved it and wrote a play about the experience called dragged screaming to paradise. “It seems the leadership wants to make it just another Australian city. In the late ’80s it had a touch of Jakarta, of Asia. But it’s losing its tropical distinctiveness, it’s become a closed-in city of glass and concrete and air-conditioning. It’s becoming a Canberra with palms.”

Darwin was not always so soft and green. Austin Asche, former chief justice of the Territory’s Supreme Court, remembers his childhood days in the 1920s and ’30s when the place was “dry and dusty during the dry season. My mother used to take us up to the Administrator’s residence so we could look at the only patch of green grass in Darwin, handwatered by the staff.” But as I walked down Woods Street in September, the roadside sprinklers were on by 9 a.m. and the nature strips gleamed like emeralds in the morning sun. Give or take about 77,000 crocodiles, the Darwin of today reminded me of another tropical outpost of another great continental country, Honolulu.

The man-eating saltwater crocs doing lifeguard duty along the beaches provide a major and probably unique source of entertainment. The magnificently trivial local newspaper, the Northern Territory news, could hardly get out a front page without them. On the day I arrived the huge front-page headline read: “4m croc kills man on beach.” The next day it screamed “POLICE HUNT KILLER CROC,” then on Friday: “Diver sees mate taken by 5m croc.” (Not to be confused with the 4m croc of Monday.) I really shouldn’t make fun of a Rupert enterprise, because he’ll soon own every paper in the world, so I’d better point out that the paper is not totally obsessive about crocodiles. No. On Wednesday the front-page headline was: “Kids smoking cane toads.”

“Darwin,” says Professor David Bowden, of the university’s school of environmental science, “is the test of Australia’s commitment to the continent. If you want to have a nation continent, you’ve got to make a credible investment in northern Australia. And Darwin represents that. What’s the alternative? Do you de-colonise it? That’s unthinkable, and it’s not going to happen. That would not be a way of having a secure nation and I am absolutely bored by the suggestion that Darwin is some sort of discretionary interest. It’s here, it’s essential. So if you’re not going to get out, if you’re not going to de-colonise northern Australia, you have to invest in Darwin to make it credible. It’s bloody obvious, Darwin is an important part of our nation.”

If it’s so bloody obvious, then what is it important for? To begin with, Darwin is important for what it is: the closest large Australian city to south-east Asia, and all that implies. At best, it could become a major trading and financial centre, a petrochemical powerhouse, a provider of higher education, a centre for research into tropical diseases and, with a more enlightened immigration policy, a place where that mass of people living above us could visit and get to know us better. I’m an old Asia hand and I’ve always thought, given the region’s instability and its racial and religious tensions, that nervous south-east Asians will one day want – or have – to leave their countries and take their skills and money with them to a stable, peaceful haven with the sort of tropical climate they like, not far from their old trading centres. What better bolt-hole than Darwin? I cite the example of Hong Kong, a war-devastated, broke and de-populated British colony that became the most successful commercial and financial centre in Asia after Japan. It got that way because it was flooded with rich and innovative Chinese entrepreneurs who were driven away by Chairman Mao in the early 1950s.

But while Darwin awaits its flood of Asian billionaires, what does the future hold? There seems little doubt that, one way or another, it’s on the verge of an expansion that could make it one of Australia’s most important cities, as opposed to the little town of about 70,000 people it is now. The city is nearing a fork in the road that could make it either a southern Aberdeen or, more probably, an ocker Honolulu. When I talk of a southern Aberdeen, I don’t mean haggis will become the daily special on the menu at the Vic Hotel. I’m talking about the way that remote, old, grey and conservative Scottish city was transformed into a boomtown, ringing with strange accents, after vast oil deposits were discovered in the North Sea and the British government decided to bring the bulk of its share into the nearest city, Aberdeen.

Darwin could be poised to go that way. When you look out at the scarlet sunset from practically any block high enough to have a harbour view, you see across the water a distant land spit with a big white cylinder at its tip. This is the ConocoPhillips liquefied natural gas storage tank, looming over a terminal which next year will start processing natural gas from the Bayu-Undan gas field. Bayu-Undan is one of several gas fields in the barely explored Timor Sea and was discovered almost by accident. “Originally all the exploration companies were looking for oil,” explains Andrew Andrejewskis, the NT’s director of petroleum developments. “But they also found gas – even though they weren’t looking for it. So who knows what they’ll find when they really concentrate on finding gas?”

The Timor Sea bubbles with gas. But gas is not like oil. “Oil’s pretty simple,” says Andrejewskis. “There are always customers. You just drill for it and, if you find it, you pump it up and take it away by ship and pipeline.” Gas is another thing altogether. It may be the fuel of the future – largely non-polluting, easy to distribute once processed – but it is unbelievably expensive to extract, purify, liquefy and transport by special tankers that cost about $200 million a pop. The Bayu-Undan operation will have cost $5.5 billion before it earns its first yen.

But in a world where oil production seems to have peaked, the demand for gas is only going to increase. Among its various uses, gas can be converted into a liquid fuel suitable for the family four-wheel-drive. “Oil and gas,” says Chief Minister Clare Martin, “is a key component in the future of Darwin” – not only as a revenue-earner and employer, but also as a means of powering Darwin’s generators and lowering the price of the city’s very expensive electricity. A vast expanse north of the city has been set aside for a future gas-based industrial park.

But, but. The real question, say experts, is not whether Darwin will become a gas town but when. “A lot of oil and gas companies have looked at Darwin and found it too expensive,” says Colin Hays, editor-in-chief of Oil and Gas Australia magazine. “The development costs are gigantic. Oil companies even have to build their own roads. In the Middle East, where there are huge gas reserves, the governments offer enormous help with infrastructure. So companies are looking there first.” When I suggest to Clare Martin that Darwin’s gas bonanza might be at least seven or eight years away, she replies: “I would never say it was seven or eight years away ... This is an industry that has to take advantage of what’s happening in the world market. At any time things can happen quite quickly, is what I’m saying.”

I’d liked to have asked Martin a lot of questions, but it was not to be. We touched on tourism (growing), oil (see above) and population: “I’m thinking to double the size of Darwin by 2015 would be good. To be a quarter of a million people by 2030, I think, is a good target. You want to grow but not too fast.” And she gave me an odd answer to a question about locking up “long grassers”, Aboriginal people who lie in the long grass in parks and open land. Martin has been accused of running a racist campaign to win over conservative voters in Darwin’s suburbs at this year’s election, which she won overwhelmingly. When I asked Dave Tollner, the right-wing Country Liberal Party federal MP, he replied: “If you run a campaign up here saying you’re going to lock up drunks, everyone knows you mean blackfellas. Now, is that racist?”

Martin’s odd answer was that habitual drunks would only be locked up if they refused treatment for their drinking “and committed an offence”. It was odd because anyone who whacks someone else, or steals an old lady’s purse, or shoplifts – drunk or sober – is committing an offence. But “no, no, no,” said Martin. Her government would not lock up people just for being drunks. “People talk about it being a racist issue. It’s only about bad behaviour, and it’s about committing crimes. And the fact of life is that it’s mostly an Aboriginal problem.”

And that was about it. The impatient, headmistressy woman I met was a different person from the glorious figure who prompted the most famous journalistic wet kiss ever placed on the cheek of an Australian politician. Nicolas Rothwell, writing in The Australian last year, described Martin as “this Radio National-listening, piano-playing, ruin-haunting, new-class woman ... a velvet rapier”. He focused on a pearl around her neck (still there when I met her) and gushed: “Few who encounter the lustrous leader of the Territory fail to wonder about this gleaming private token. Even as they are warmed, on first meeting, by the radiation of her charm, and raked simultaneously by the chill beams of her deep-set eyes, they glimpse the pearl and begin to ask themselves the inevitable question: how on Earth did a woman as sophisticated as this ever get to be in charge of such a roughand- tumble place?”

This velvet rapier will, I suspect, find herself in charge of what is becoming the southern Honolulu. By this I don’t mean everyone’s first thought of Honolulu – that palm-befronded, orchid-infested, lei-draped paradise for tourists and retirees and Hollywood stars and Maui-wowie smoking surfies. I mean the Honolulu that is right next door to Pearl Harbor, one of America’s biggest defence bases and the only US territory bombed during World War II – which is just one thing Honolulu has in common with Darwin. Go to museums in either city and you’ll see black-and-white footage of Japanese bombers, burning buildings, sinking ships and terrified civilians.

The real reason Darwin came into existence in the late- 19th century was because of a perceived military threat. British administrators were alarmed by the Dutch and French ships nosing about the region, and thought a defence outpost was needed. So the first attempts to establish a presence up north were aimed at deterring potential invaders, and Darwin now seems to be moving back to its original purpose. “This is the biggest defence electorate in Australia,” says Dave Tollner. “There are 6,500 defence personnel – 15 or 16,000 people, when you count families, connected to defence. We’ve got the army, navy and airforce here, and the build-up will continue. The new Abrams tanks will be based here, Tiger helicopters, 60% of our new patrol boats. And there will be joint-training facilities, so every couple of years we’ll have a couple of thousand American defence personnel in Darwin ... Most of the defence administration will stay in the south but the operational capacity will be in the north, because this is where the perceived threat will be.”

There is the threat of the Yellow Peril from China, of course. And away from that dreamland, there’s the threat from drug and people smugglers, from illegal fishermen who even now are scooping up everything that swims in the Arafura Sea bar the crocs, and possibly from terrorists tired of bombing Australians in Bali. Then there is the protection of Australia’s offshore oil and gas installations to consider – the drilling rigs and pipelines that might one day turn Darwin into the Emerald City. So you would need patrol boats, such as the new Armidale class, 14 of which will be split between Cairns and Darwin; and, at a stretch, you need the 22 new Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters, which are also due to take up duty in Darwin in 2007. And you might perhaps need long-range patrol and surveillance aircraft too. But why would you need the 59 American M1A1 Abrams battle-tanks that were recently purchased? At 65 tonnes, they are too heavy for any current Australian lift capacity and too heavy to be used in the jungles and soft land of any potentially threatening regional powers. What they would be good for is training Australian soldiers to use American tanks so they can work alongside the US army, or be integrated into it, next time America invades another Middle East oil country – such as Iran. What is developing is a US–Australian military collaboration that is likely to end up with an American base, or bases, around Darwin.

To the Americans, whose strategy for generations has been not to colonise foreign countries but to build permanent military bases in them, another big installation in northern Australia makes a lot of sense. In Asia, they see North Korea as mad and dangerous and China as the major military threat of the future. But they are under pressure to abandon the bases they strung throughout the region after World War II. They were kicked out of Vietnam, of course, and have been forced to leave their huge Vietnam-era air and naval bases in Thailand and the Philippines. The Japanese recently turfed 7,000 US marines out of Okinawa.

But why Australia? Well, said US vice-admiral Archie Clemins, in an interview earlier this year with The West Australian newspaper: “You have to have places to drop bombs, you have to have places to shoot live weapons, places to fly planes that make a noise, places where you can actually test and exercise your capabilities. I think Australia in the future is going to be one of those places. We’d like to exercise with the Australians.”

No talk of bases. But here’s John Howard speaking on ABC radio in Darwin last July. “We’re talking about jointtraining facilities ... Do I think this is a good idea? Yes I do. I think it’s a good idea from the point of view of the economy of the Territory, I think it’s a good idea from the point of view of our military capacity. We’re not talking here about a base, we’re talking about joint-training facilities.”

So when is a base not a base but a joint-training facility? Dr Alison Broinowski, a former diplomat and author of the recent Howard’s War, says the US has always preferred to project force through bases, dating back to the string of cavalry stockades set up against the Indians as the settlers moved west across America. “The tactic has been to establish what looks like temporary positions, but then they never leave.” Once you set up a big military installation, you have to pour in more men and weapons just to protect it. Darwin’s defence population could increase by many thousands. You need ammunition dumps, fuel depots, water and fuel tankers, ammunition and food trucks, tank recovery vehicles, jeeps, armoured personnel carriers, communications vehicles.

The Americans have a wonderful name for the bases they have created in a hundred or more countries around the world. They’re called “Lilypads”, after the way frogs hop from one lily leaf to another as they move across a pond. Darwin as Aberdeen? Darwin as Honolulu? Darwin as a lilypad? Darwin as a lilypad?

Whichever Darwin materialises first – gas boomtown or US lilypad – it seems pretty clear that the city is on the road to great change, a change greater even than the one brought about by Cyclone Tracy. As Darwin becomes a major gas hub, it could also develop a substantial petrochemical industry. From the little information our pathologically secretive government has shared with us, we can expect it to house quick-reaction forces, navy ships, warplanes, helicopters, tanks, supply dumps and most probably a US base, or bases. Darwin recently became a terminal for the transcontinental railway from Adelaide, which can be used for military re-supply and armoured vehicle transport (do you really think the government built that railroad just for tourists?) and also for transporting strategic minerals, including uranium. Where else but Darwin would you bomb first in a pre-emptive strike against Australia? Byron Bay?

How the people will adapt to all these soldiers and the military infestation of sea and land remains to be seen. A rougher, tougher Darwin – like the one I saw in 1973 – might welcome a load of thirsty, paid-up, randy warriors, and it would have loved the sort of red-light district that always seems to grow up around big military establishments. How the latte-addicted new Darwin might take to it is another matter. “My prediction,” says Tess Lea, a native Darwinite, “would be that the people of Darwin will ignore the portents of any change. It’s what Darwin is doing now with these new enclosed developments, where you can live, shop, swim and exercise without ever having any contact with the rougher outside world. We’re becoming very good at shutting out reality. We have a way of not seeing things we don’t want to see in Darwin.”

In the Darwin of 1973, buffalo shooters and crocodile hunters would come into town and get monumentally drunk, especially down at The Don in Cavenagh Street (now known as the Cav, and a backpacker hostel). They were the days, recalls 80-year-old Austin Asche, “when you’d go down to The Vic for a drink, and then you’d go on to The Don for a fight”. Old blokes would sit around talking of famous stoushes between buffalo shooters, like the one at Doctors Creek, where George Hopkins tried repeatedly to run over Jim McGorry, while McGorry in turn used an axe to chop his way into Hopkins’s jeep each time he charged. One famous newspaper ad read: “Driver wanted. Non-drinker, $50 a week. Heavy drinker, $100 a week.” Asked if he’d got the pay differential the wrong way round, the advertiser told the clerk: “No. A man who doesn’t drink in this town is a social misfit. And I don’t want that sort of bloke working for me.”

On Lameroo Beach the hippies smoked the local weed and played guitars in their tree-houses, perched in the overhanging branches of the casuarinas, which ran down a steep slope to the shoreline behind what is now the main tourist drag of Mitchell Street. These were the kids setting out on the hippy trail in the days when there were no frequent flights from the main capitals to Bali, so you hung out in Darwin before hopping off to Kuta Beach. The tree-houses had plank floors with the rest made up of bits of galvanised iron and plastic sheeting, which meant the abominable doings of the barely-clothed inhabitants could be observed by the local bourgeoisie. I had always asumed the hippies were swept away by Cyclone Tracy. In fact they were cleared out by the local council soon after I left, months before Tracy. The gentrification of Darwin probably began then, and accelerated post-Tracy, as the new generation of solid houses went up and neat streets were laid down. But they were still low-level houses in these new streets; the change to high-rise Honolulu living began later.

“People now seem to want to live in nice clean units – cool-boxes – they don’t want to feel the breeze,” says Dallas Gold, owner of the Raft Aboriginal art gallery in Parap. “And security fences have gone up as Darwin’s own reaction to the worldwide scare campaign about terrorism. The look and feel of Darwin has changed in the past 15 years. People want to live in a place you can lock yourself into, rather than one that’s open to the light and breeze.”

Once, if you could find a three or four-storey building, you wouldn’t have seen much of Darwin from the top floor because it was hidden underneath palms and flowering trees. Now if you stand on, say, the 14th floor of the Mitchell Centre in the CBD, you see multi-storey apartment blocks rearing up in every direction: bland, light-coloured rectangles of concrete with small balconies that could be hospitals, apartments, offices or prisons, surrounded by wire or stone fences and minimal gardens. Down on the waterfront a convention centre is soon to go up, flanked by more highrise apartments and, reputedly, a wave machine, to provide the crocodile-free, inner-city surf that every resort town must have.

It was not only the hippies who were missing when I returned. So, it seemed, were the Aborigines. The Northern Territory population is one-third Aboriginal but I saw very few black people in downtown Darwin: two or three older people in Smith Street mall, a couple outside Woolworths, but none behind counters or in bars, neither pulling beers or drinking them, and none in the shops either. You ask the locals about this and they say things like – “Well, if you go out to Casuarina shopping square you’ll see them” – as if they are telling you where to find a rare colony of northern hairy-nosed wombats. Or they say: “Oh they’re around, but you know, well, maybe you’re not used to it, and you see them but you don’t see them.” Which seemed to me that they were saying: “Well, they’re not all dark black, you know.” And I was reminded of the classic Bill Broonzy blues that goes:

If you’re white, you’re alright

And if you is brown, stick aroun’

But if you is black, oh brother,

Git back, git back, git back, git back.

Actually it’s not hard to find one group of Australia’s original inhabitants, and they live at a festering enclave within sweaty walking distance of some of Darwin’s most luxurious apartment blocks. It’s called One Mile Camp, and I suspect it will soon be either closed because it’s too embarrassing or just possibly renovated by a guiltstricken administration. “I suppose you might call it Darwin’s own little Soweto when you’re writing us up,” said the camp’s project officer Mick Lambe. “And if you see her, tell Clare Martin we’d love her to come down for a conducted tour and evening by the campfire.”

Mick Lambe is the sort of bloke to give a headmistressy type like Clare Martin waking and dreaming nightmares. He’s Irish–Australian and sober, and when I met him he was barefoot, his hair was in a lank rat’s tail, and he was wearing tattered jeans and an Osama Bin Laden T-shirt. We did a brief tour of One Mile Camp: a single, dark, shed-like structure where some people sleep, although others prefer to be under the trees; a crumbling toilet block; and what is literally a wire-netting walled cage, like a zoo cage, that is the women’s refuge from drunks the police dump at the camp during the night. There were only about 20 people there because Aborigines are effectively kept out of town during the dry season when their barefoot presence might upset the tourists. But there might be 200 or more once the tourists leave in the wet and Aboriginal money becomes good again.

“Clare Martin has been here when she was in opposition, so she knows how bad it is,” says Lambe. “She could drive here from parliament in five minutes. So does that mean she and her administration think this is the way black people should live? If so, why doesn’t she say so? And if they think this is how all disadvantaged people should live, why don’t they send some abused white women down to our magnificent women’s refuge? That would never happen, of course, because white people wouldn’t let the poorest, brokest, beaten-down white people come to a place like this. But they expect black people to accept this as if they’re being done a favour.”

A few kilometres away, another group are showing how Aboriginal people can take charge of their affairs and operate successfully in a white-dominated environment. These are the Larrakia people, whose traditional lands take in all of Darwin and land around it. The Larrakia have decided to go it alone in their business ventures, dealing directly with ConocoPhillips when the company wanted Larrakia land for its LNG terminal. The plan is to use the income for education, training and general improvement of conditions. In another ground-breaking enterprise the Larrakia have subdivided traditional land for a housing development in Darla, near the satellite town of Palmerston, and will sell 490 housing blocks at $85,000 each in a suburb which, for reasons of cost alone, will be white and middle-class.

To get a feel for ancient Darwin, or whatever the first people called it, you need to go back to Lameroo Beach. When I paid it a nostalgic visit the trees still swept down to the water’s edge, the sun still set blood red, the trees were clean of human habitation and a handful of Aboriginal people were sitting and talking on the sand underthe branches. The smoke of their fires drifted through the thick leaves as I walked back up to the neat park at the top.

Standing there, with all signs of civilisation blocked out by the dense foliage, and with the smoke drifting up, and amid the soft sound of languages you couldn’t understand, you knewthat’s how the shoreline would have looked and smelled before the white man came and brought air-conditioning and nature strips.

Today’s Darwinites are eager to tell you why they came and why they stay. “There’s no rat race here,” says Peter Adamson, the city’s prosaic mayor. “I see Brisbane choking in its own traffic, and I look in the eyes of people in Sydney and see how stressed they are. When I think of Darwin I think of Hawaii – part of a big country but culturally quite different.”

“It’s still a place where you can come and turn yourself into something entirely different,” says Dallas Gold. “I came here as a caterer and now I’m a gallery owner.”

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Mickey Dewar. “September is the best time of the year, as we change from dry to wet. You see the cloud patterns and the colours of the sea changing, then you get these wonderful warm rains that you can stand in and wade in, and they clean the air and let the frangipani scent spread. It’s romantic in a way that’s ended in every other part of Australia.”

Even Clare Martin, who was born in Sydney and headed north in 1983, softens a little and says: “I surprised myself [by staying]. I liked the opportunities of Darwin, and I met a feller ...”

In finishing my story 32 years ago, I said Darwin would never go as soft as Melbourne or Sydney because it was surrounded by tough country, wild bush and desolate desert, while those other two cities were surrounded by soft country. “The buffalo shooters and the prospectors will be walking down Cavenagh Street and drinking at The Don for years to come,” I predicted, “and they will keep Darwin in touch with an Australia the east coast cities abandoned long ago.”

Just at the moment, though, the waiter is anxious to attract my attention. “And would you like your dukkaencrusted sirloin rare or medium, sir?”

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