Separate Worlds in One Small City

Since the last post, we’ve moved up in the world. Literally.

View from the balcony of our new digs

I found a luxury furnished flat for one-third the normal price. We’re now living on the 22nd floor of the tallest building in Darwin. It feels a long way from the scrapyard and it is so lovely to have a toilet of our own, hot water, fans, an oven, a couch. We even got to see some of the Olympics on TV.

Darwin: a great place for graffiti

Although we’re no longer there, aspects of living in the scrapyard have stayed with me. There was an office worker who worked in front of our camp; he used the same toilet and so he walked passed us several times a day. I would always say, “Hello” and smile, but he never responded. He looked through me, as if I didn’t exist. This was unnerving. It made me feel like dirt. I tried to just get eye contact with the young office-worker, but he must’ve thought it disgraceful, the way we were living, camping out in a junk yard with our kids, cooking outside with the mozzies and the cane toads. I vowed to remember the feeling he gave me in future, when I see homeless people on the street, of which there are many here in Darwin. I only experienced this alienation from one person, but some people live a lifetime of invisibility—what that must do to the ego, I can only imagine.

Now we’re living at the other extreme: in a fancy two-bedroom flat with an expansive view of Darwin’s turquoise blue harbour.

On the way to school in the mornings, we bike past the scrapyard, past the same groups of Aboriginals living rough under the shade of a tree. I used to wake to the smell of burning rubbish as they lit fires in the mornings to keep warm.  This is Dinijanggama, or “heavy dew time” and it’s the coldest time of year. This morning got down to 22 C. When temperatures reached 13.8 C last month, the NT News ran it as a cover story.

We exchange morning greetings with the groups of Aboriginals as we cycle past, but not much more. Shattered glass from broken bottles lies scattered on the bike path along with bits of ash from the morning fires. There’s a Vinnie’s across the road where people can go for free coffee and toast.

This morning, after I drop K, I have rare moment to myself and pop into Sweet Brew and Co, a café on the Stuart Highway, just in front of the bike path. The breakfast offerings here (I resist) include: The Breakfast Box–House made muslie bar, Kale shooter, 100% rye toast, spiced avo, bircher pot and Celeriac puree, spiced cauliflower florets, house Za’atar, gooey fried eggs.

We’re just metres away from the bike path where a circle of men and women speak Kriol on the grass, and this air-conditioned café feels a world apart.

Racism is on the rise in the NT. A survey talked about on the ABC yesterday revealed 70% of indigenous respondents had experienced racism in the last six months in the Northern Territory. This is reminiscent of an earlier statistic I cited: 97% of kids in youth detention are Aboriginal.

With stats like this, one would expect to feel some resentment from the indigenous population of Darwin, and yet, in our five weeks here, we’ve experienced quite the opposite. There’s an Aboriginal man in a wheelchair outside of Woolies who likes to race four-year-old R on her bike, “I’ll beat you!” he says and she grins and pedals as fast as she can.

Still, one can’t help but see the segregation, which no doubt plays a role in the racism in Darwin and the rest of the NT.

The police cars here are specially designed utes fitted with a cage on the back, something a dog catcher might drive. This vehicle is not for dogs; it’s for Aboriginal people the police pick up drunk in the parks. And I thought the days of treating the first peoples of this country like animals were over.

Image result for police ute nt palmerston
Police vehicle used in Darwin and the NT

And yet Darwin—more than any other city we’ve visited—has a strong indigenous presence. On the local ABC radio station, they give news updates in Kriol (the local creole, a mixed language) Online there’s news in Warlpiri and Yolngu Matha, local Aboriginal languages.

Last month the nation celebrated NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week and at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, there were free workshops with Aboriginal artists all weekend.

We got to try our hand at all types of Aboriginal art, from water colours to dot painting to basket making.


We sat on the floor in the shade next to an aqua sea and learned how generations of women have been weaving baskets for thousands of years. One artist, a mum about my age, showed us how to strip the palm. And then she checked a text on her IPhone. She spoke English to us and her local language to her mother.  She seemed effortlessly to straddle both cultures–old and new.


I couldn’t, for the life of me, get how to strip the sand palms used for basket weaving and quickly gave up. But K hit it off with this Aboriginal artist straight away and they sat for ages stripping sand palms that were later twisted into twine and dyed, before being woven into baskets.

It was a lovely scene at the Museum (if not quite the norm)—people of one culture teaching another.

Dying the sand palm string, letting it dry in the sun, and the finished product.

Below, an amazing work of art on display at the entrance to the MAGNT, by Aboriginal artist, Michael, from Papunya, Central Australia:

This artwork was created as a representation of the journeys made by remote Aboriginal communities.  To travel across the desert, second had cars are regularly purchased and driven until they break down.  As it is often cheaper to by another second hand car than to fix the existing car, the broken down cars are usually left and become a part of the landscape. (MAGNT)

Living in a Scrapyard, Driving a Stolen Forklift

imageHow did we get here, you ask?

Well, dear reader, we’ll have start at the beginning, which was when we crossed the border in the Northern Territory, where the speed limit is 130 kms per hour and Territorians are lobbying to get rid of a limit all together. The population of the Northern Territory, 220,000, is considerably smaller than Cardiff. But the land mass is 1.4 million square kilometres.

            Photo courtesy of

But let’s briefly go back. After the Gibb, we spent five days of R&R in Kununarra, first at a lovely caravan park next to the “mini Bungles”.

Mirima National Park, Kununarra


Then, at a fancy hotel for three nights, courtesy of my brother in China, who has a friend who owns the Kununarra Country Club. The kids watched TV. We slept in proper beds. And had our very own toilet! Ahhhh.

We drove to Lake Argyle for the day and spent an afternoon in and around the infinity pool that overlooks the lake—bliss. We swam, read, and tried to remember a bit of yoga. The pool was freezing, which kept the crowds down. And in the evening, we took the kayak out on the lake.

K looking to see what’s beyond the infinity pool


Then we said goodbye to WA—after three and a half months in that vast state—and crossed the border into the unknown. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re weary of travel and so we booked it north along Highway One, overnighting in a caravan park in Katherine, where we partook of the hot springs in the morning, and drove to Darwin to meet up with friends.

Hot Springs in Katherine
Driving in the NT

Back in January, at the start of our journey, we met a family in Tasmania with a matching car and camper trailer and two kids, similar ages to our own. We stayed in touch. They’ve been living in a shed behind some empty shopfronts in the CBD of Darwin since May, working. They kindly offered that we could camp—not in the shed, that space is taken—but outside the shed, in the scrapyard filled with old broken down cars and busted up concrete, behind a locked gate. Lee likes to call it a “gated community”.

Because where we are isn’t zoned as residential, there’s no rubbish pick up and every evening, we have to open up the squeaky gate to the scrapyard and venture out on bicycles with a bag of rubbish, in search of a bin. There’s a cold shower, toilets and a washing machine and “rent” is $100 a week.

In Darwin, where the popular caravan park charges $459 a week for a family of four, this is a bargain.

That’s how we ended up on the side of Highway One, or the Stuart Highway, as it’s known here. We arrived to find, not only our friends, but the grandparents, Sandra and Russel. And for the first week and a half, we sat outside at a makeshift table next to graffiti walls in camping chairs and drank wine and ate dinner together, the ten of us, most evenings. Sadly, the grandparents departed on  Tuesday. We miss them!


The Scrapyard: Home Sweet Home

I can hear the cane toads hopping through the fallen leaves as I write this and there are a million mozzies feasting on me, despite the fact that I’m wearing jeans and smothered in Deet. It will be a small miracle if I don’t contract Ross River Virus. And there are sand flies biting, too (even though there’s no sand!).  Lee says, “That’s the tropics for you.”

Cane toads abound. They aren’t harmful to us, but it’s sad to see these fat ugly creatures, who devour native fauna, including the cute little green frogs you find in the toilets.

Other than the cane toads and the mozzies and the heat and the feral cat who sometimes sprays our trailer at night, the scrapyard’s great. The kids love having constant playmates. And since it’s 32 degrees C every day in Darwin, there’s always water play. When we get fed up with the scrap yard, we’re a short bike ride away from the Darwin waterfront and the city library. Or we could visit one of two free waterparks, complete with waterslides.

I put both kids in school when we arrived. (They don’t have a deaf school, so K’s the only deaf kid in a mainstream school—more on this later). K came home from her first day: “The bubblers (water fountains) have cold water! And every classroom has a fridge.”

Lee started looking for work immediately. The job agency promised something (as they did in Perth and Adelaide) but nothing came through.  Luckily, someone new began moving into the shopfront we live behind as soon as we arrived. Lee asked if they needed a chippie. He now as the shortest commute to work imaginable.

And that’s how he ended up driving the stolen forklift, without a forklift licence. “It’s not exactly stolen,” Lee says. The last office space Lee’s new boss rented refused to give the bond back (someone hadn’t paid rent—he said it wasn’t him) so the boss took the forklift in lieu of the bond.

Apparently, the cops were around today and the forklift is being returned soon.

Meanwhile, Lee’s got work. K’s in school. R’s in preschool, only three hours a day, every day, an interesting system that insures mothers don’t return to the workforce too quickly. And we’re settling into Darwin in the Dry.

Enjoying a mango smoothie, sunset at the Mindil Beach Markets

When people in Darwin talk about the rest of Australia, they say, “down south,” as if Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney are one and the same. Down south, you have access to everything, but up here, groceries travel a long way, as do doors, cars and everything else, so things are more expensive and harder to come by. This doesn’t seem to bother Darwinians; it just makes them more resourceful. Everything gets reused, as we learned when we went to the Tip Shop (the shop outside the tip) to buy cheap bikes for the kids.

Everyone knows Darwin is located in the far north of the Northern Territory and a few people have been to the northern capital on holiday, but it’s more common to fly over Darwin on the way to a cheaper holiday in Bali. Darwin and the NT rarely make the news, unless there’s a cyclone.

When I arrived here nearly two weeks ago, I realized how little I knew about this, one of the least populated parts of Australia, with the most Indigenous Australians per capita. It’s a different world up here. Strangers tell you how nice and cool it is when it’s 30 degrees and only 40 per cent humidity. People move slow. They have more time.

It may be hot, but think twice before you jump in the water.

No one wears a helmet on their bike.

In the park people drink beer in front of “No Alcohol” signs.

It gives you a freeing feeling, the way people just break the rules up here. Until a baby dies in a car crash, as happened last week, because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt.

Or a story airs on Four Corners, like the one on the 25th of July, three days after we arrived.

Last month there was news from the NT, something shocking: images of kids in custody with bags on their heads, strapped to a chair reminded me of photos from Abu Ghrahib. It wasn’t as surprising to Territorians, however, who knew about this abuse and knew of the cover-ups, too.

97% of children in custody in the NT are indigenous; 30% of Territorians are indigenous.

It seems that some people can get away with a lot more up here, for better and for worse.

Sunset at the Trailer Boat Club, Darwin