I walked out of the Howard Springs quarantine facility, ready to start my new life in Australia.
Walking out of a 2-week solitary quarantine was quite the feeling of freedom and accomplishment. Although the end of the first week was difficult, it soon became easier and I knew it wouldn’t last much longer. I also had air-conditioning, a comfy bed, Wi-Fi and my computer to watch TV and listen to music, as well as my phone for staying in touch with family and friends. I was very thankful that it was now, and not 1918, when the Spanish Flu first came to Australia via the SS Mataram, when it arrived from Singapore and berthed in Darwin. That pandemic saw many things that we now face – social distancing, quarantine, masks and lockdowns – but we now have far more advanced medicine and vaccines. What was really affecting me wasn’t the isolation, nor was it the fact that I had to stay in such a small space for so long; it was the massive upheaval of my life that was weighing on my mind. I’d had just moved from Spain, my home for 14 years, and my partner, back to Australia to study with an unknown career and future. I can only imagine what a refugee or immigrant must feel like, packing up and moving to the other side of the world, by choice or otherwise, and maybe never seeing their birth country again. For me, it was the other way round as I’d spent more of my adult life living abroad than on home soil, so it was a strange moment in my life. Having said that, my life was incomparably easier than many refugees and in no way am I understating what millions have undergone, especially in recent years. To keep me motivated, I told myself that this was the best thing that I could be doing now, coming home to family, my language and my country, to start something new. I remembered reading about Julius Caesar, who was captured by pirates and held for 38 days below the decks of a trireme in the Mediterranean. It was him and a handful of his crewmates, kept in the dark, barely fed, but he remained focused, training and simmering his hatred, while plotting revenge. He was eventually ransomed off, left somewhere in northern Africa, but he came back stronger and nastier than ever, and ended up finding and destroying the pirates. I didn’t have master plans such as these, but I knew I would make it through the 14 days unscarred and with one more experience under my belt. I walked out of the Howard Springs quarantine facility, a (Covid) free man, on the morning of the 27th of December 2020, ready to start my new life in Australia.
I’d mostly packed the night before, but I got the remaining things ready and headed out into the heat of the Top End. We were marshalled onto buses, some directly headed for the airport, others to bus terminals and hotels. I’d booked a hotel for the next 3 nights, planning a little time exploring Darwin as I’d never been up here and was eager to see it. Accommodation in Australia has never been cheap, but I’d managed to find a deal through Qantas to stay at a real hotel within walking distance of the city centre. Although I’d been alone for 14 days, there was no way I was going to stay at a backpackers! The room was nice, big TV to watch the cricket on, and a view out over the ocean, so I could watch the storms coming in. My flight to Sydney in a few days, however, was expensive. The airlines knew when people would be let out of the quarantine facility and then jacked up the prices to match; a flight from Sydney to Darwin would cost me about $80-90, but the other way round was more like $500! Thanks for getting me home Qantas, but you shouldn’t be extorting people who have just fled Covid. I looked into renting a car, and making one almighty road trip to Sydney (4,000kms give or take!), either going straight down to Adelaide then turn left and straight over to Sydney, or via Longreach and the deepest parts of Queensland, but that was just a crazy dream. Flying was the only way to go, so I just had to front up the money. I dropped my things off in my room and headed straight down to the hotel bar to celebrate and have a nice cold beer! Although I hadn’t really missed alcohol at all, Howard Springs being an alcohol-free zone (possibly to discourage mingling drunk people spreading the virus), it was lovely having a beer in a pub in summer. It’s funny, but I guess if the temptation isn’t there, as I had no choice to drink even if I’d wanted to, then I didn’t find it hard going without. After my beer, I went to my room, got showered and dressed, then headed out to explore the city.
It really wouldn’t have mattered if I’d showered, or even changed clothes, as within seconds of leaving the hotel the heat and humidity hit me. Sweat began to bead before reaching the end of the block, and I knew that this would be Darwin – always 36c, 98% humidity, and a chance of afternoon storms! Welcome to the Top End! The sky was as blue as it could get, and although there were plenty of clouds, they were big fluffy marshmallows, building up for the show later on. So, the weather was fine, I just couldn’t stay in the direct sun too long, and walked wherever there were trees. Luckily, Darwin had already thought of this problem of the sun trying to kill everyone, and so there were plenty of parks and trees everywhere, which brought down the daytime temperatures to a near bearable level. I walked through Bicentennial Park, which runs along the western part of the city and on the coast, making my way down to the centre of the city and the Waterfront Precinct. All along the way there was information about the Darwin bombing in 1942, memorials and plaques, and there was even a gun from the USS Pearly that was sunk during the attack. On the 19th of February 1942, Darwin was attacked by 242 aircraft, killing 235 people and wounding hundreds more, ships were sunk and Australia entered the war in the Pacific. It was nowhere near the attack on Pearl Harbour, but as far as attacks on Australia, it was the first and last invasion attempt in modern history. I walked through the waterfront precinct, which was quiet compared to big city standards, but as Darwin was a city of only 130,000, it was quite a crowd. Pubs and restaurants were open, most with big windows open to the breeze, and if they were outside, big sun umbrellas and misters to keep people cool. I continued my walk to the harbour and Stokes Hill Wharf, which was the last part of the city before the Timor Sea. There wasn’t much happening here, but the people that were here were enjoying some fish and chips, looking out towards the sea, while fighting the seagulls off – very much the scene of an Aussie picnic. One family were even using the tray of their ute to have their fishnic (my new word for a fish and chips picnic), which made it even more Aussie.
The CBD of Darwin is small, with only a few tall buildings, which aren’t tall compared to Sydney or Melbourne. It does have everything you need though – shopping centres, pedestrian malls, junk food outlets and plenty of drinking establishments. Darwin loves its big nights out, and if you want to have a drink and some adventures, then Mitchell Street is the place to be. It was pretty crazy when I was there, my first night on a Sunday, but even Monday and Tuesday were quite manic, with drunk people everywhere. There are quite a few good pubs, with plenty of selection of what to drink, and the prices were actually quite decent compared to Sydney pubs. The antics on Mitchell street are well documented on a show called Territory Cops, and although it didn’t get this crazy when I was there, the police were a constant presence, and so were drunk people, often riding electric scooters to the next pub. I tried to find more cultural places in the city to explore, and on my walks found the Northern Territory Parliament House. The building was built in 1994 and is very modern looking, with a big sweeping roof which covers the verandas that also run right around the structure. Its white and basically open on all sides, which is probably because of the heat up here, so it allows a breeze from all 4 directions. Everywhere you go in this city, there are tropical plants and well-tended gardens. That said, it’s not hard to grow plants up here, with the amount of rainfall and sunshine, combined with the tropical heat, all the work is probably stopping things from growing out of control. Darwin, the smallest, wettest, and most northerly capital in Australia, was first seen by British people in 1839, by the crew of the HMS Beagle. Although its most famous passenger wasn’t aboard, the port was named after Charles Darwin (although he also never visited the city). This said, I knew there must be a statue somewhere of the man himself, and so set out to find it. Just up from the waterfront precinct is the old part of the city, with a few small sandstone buildings dating back to the early times of the city, and this is where I found it. The statue was a small affair, nothing exciting, commissioned in 2009 to commemorate 200 years since Darwin’s birth, and stood outside the city library. Just a few steps up, I also found a monument to the HMAS Darwin, a missile frigate of the Australian Navy.
After a day and a bit, I’d walked around the city quite a few times, and wanted something more of Darwin. I looked at Google Maps to try and find something to do, and found some beaches within walking distance of my hotel, so I timed it for sunset and headed off. Being from Sydney, its not very often you get to see the sun set on the ocean, so this would be very nice. My walk there took me past some of Darwin’s older houses, all timber and verandas, perched up on stilts. These houses were signature buildings up in the tropics before Cyclone Tracy tore through the city in 1974 and destroyed nearly everything in her wake. I found Mindil beach and immediately fell in love with Darwin – a beautiful, sandy beach, wedged between the calm sea and a walking path with palm trees and gardens. This would be the perfect place to watch the sunset, and that is exactly what I did! Again, being Darwin, there weren’t many people doing the same, but maybe just because a sunset on the water was everyday life to the residents. It was just me basically, along with a few dogs with their owners, and the hermit crabs that outnumbered everyone. These tiny little crabs had crawled all over the pristine, white sand, leaving little footprint trails either side of their dragged shell. Their shells, I have to mention, were all sorts of shapes and sizes, from smaller round shells to long, triangular ones. These little creatures were amazing and I’d never seen so many of them anywhere. The second sunset that I planned to see (as I only had 3 nights here and the first had been out on the town ) was at Cullen Bay, a little further down the way from Mindil beach. Tonight, my last night in Darwin, there was a crowds of people, setting up their blankets, foldable chairs and picnics, ready for the sunset. Thank you, Darwin, for seeing me off in style! I walked around to take some photos, as I had some time to spare before the main event, and loved this part of the city. It was definitely a wealthy part of town, and reminded me of the Sydney suburb of Sylvania Waters, with big houses and private jetties. I found a nice fish and chips place to sit, and even had a beer while I watched the sunset. The beer, it has to be noted, came in a re-useable stubby holder, to keep it cool in the humid weather. Very Australian!
I walked back home to my hotel, happy with my 3 days in Darwin. I’d walked a lot, seen a lot and found it a very relaxing, if not a sweaty, experience. I decided to get a take away beer from the local drive-through bottle shop (yes, we have those in Australia!) then grab a pizza and have a chilled night in my room. At the bottle shop, I was asked for ID. It was only last month that I’d turned 40, and although sometimes I look ok, I am definitely not 17, so I asked the guy why. He told me that here in the NT, they check your ID against a drinking register to decide if they can sell you alcohol or not. I can understand it, even if I don’t entirely agree with it, as there did seem a bit of a drinking problem up here. Not much else to do it seemed, but drink and get tattoos (yes, it was easier to count people who didn’t have any). Darwin is an interesting city, full of big men with beards and hats, people driving V8 Landcruisers around, and also place full of wildlife and greenery. I had really enjoyed my time here, although there was not much to come back for, apart from maybe the start of a bigger journey to Alice Springs or Katherine. I got an Uber to the airport and made my through security and onto my plane, the last leg of my immigration back to Sydney, back home. I had a couple of beers on my Qantas flight, as it was included in the ludicrously prices ticket, and sat back as the 4-hour flight slipped away. Before I knew it, I was flying over the city and landing at Kingsford Smith airport. One advantage of having the airport so close to the CBD is the great view as you fly over the city, picking out landmarks and houses where you've lived. We landed at about 6pm and my Dad was waiting to pick me, which was an extra special treat. It was great to be home, even though it was all feeling a little weird (but good at the same time). Let the adventure begin!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. December 2020.