The Top End (part 2)

Day 2 – Morning walk around Darwin city

At breakfast in the hotel, we heard a strange screeching noise. It turned out to be from an orange-footed scrub fowl (Megapodius reinwardt) scratching around the gardens for seeds, fruits and invertebrates. It’s a mound-builder and only from the very north of Australia. Here I’ll show my bird-nerdiness by saying this was a TICK (a new bird for the list of birds I have seen or heard in the wild – if you count hotel gardens as wild; at least it wasn’t in a cage). At home I have local bush turkeys that build large mounds to incubate eggs, but this is a different species.

Orange-footed scrub fowl; photo by Toby Hudson, Wikimedia Commons

John of “Walk Darwin” again met us in the foyer and led us on the “Darwin Heritage Walk”, starting along the esplanade and pointing out various heritage buildings like the Parliament (within which sits the library, which I visited later). The walk encompassed:

Darwin’s history through the World War II bombings and Cyclone Tracy, to the current day. Discover many of the remaining buildings such as the old Court House and Police Station, Brown’s Mart and the Old Palmerston Town Hall ruins, all of which have been painstakingly reconstructed. View Government House, Parliament House and the Northern Territory Supreme Court on our journey through the streets of this modern tropical city.

Parliament House, Darwin

The many manicured public gardens are filled with tropical trees and shrubs, many flowering beautifully. As ever on the lookout for critters, I spotted quite a few nests of the green ant (Rhytidoponera metallica). First Nations people eat the abdomen – the taste is supposed to be like “citrus crossed with coriander”. You can read about that here.

Green ants on folded leaf nest

And there was a random dragonfly …

Craig took a taste of an ant and said it was a bit more astringent that the ones in Townsville – I’ll take his word for it.

There is a terrific art display of these green ants – you can read about the light sculptures and the artists here. Unfortunately I didn’t see them.

I had a sudden thought of a pair of shiny earrings with a design of the bright green folded leaves with a green ant or two on top – I imagine a glass artist would find that hard to do, and they’d break easily. Maybe in resin? I’d buy them.

There are several old buildings like the one at Brown’s Mart below, built of porcellanite (so called because it looks like unglazed porcelain). It is a common local stone so was utilised in the original buildings, many of which were destroyed by Cyclone Tracey in 1974 and rebuilt. We had seen cliffs of porcellanite (pointed out by guide John) on the previous night’s cruise of Darwin Harbour. Although it looks to the untrained eye (that is, mine) like sandstone, it’s apparently not as strong but is strengthened when mortar joins the bricks.

Brown’s Mart is one of many old buildings built of porcellanite; photo by Craig Olive

In a park near the Civic Centre, there’s a display honouring the naturalist Charles Darwin, consisting of an arc of 10 bells, each one topped by a species of Australian birds. The 11th bell is a replica of the bell of Darwin’s ship, the Beagle, and there’s a central sculpture of Darwin himself.

Beagle bell replica

Darwin sculpture; photo by Bruce Moore

The bells can be hit manually to produce a tune, if you have enough people; this happens automatically three times a day.

The Chinese Temple, still a working temple today, was very familiar to me from my time living in Hong Kong.

Chinese temple Darwin; photo by Bruce Moore

It was lovely to see, alongside the Taoist temple, my favourite Buddhist deity, Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy). Thuan said the tree next to it was grown from a cutting from the Indian Tree of Enlightenment the Buddha sat under when he finally figured out Life, the Universe and Everything (those last are Douglas Adam’s words, not Thuan’s). I gave her a bow, as is my wont.

Kuan Yin statue, Darwin

John then led us through the back streets to see some very impressive street art. Since 2017, there has been a yearly competition and the winning artists are commissioned to paint their designs on the large blank sides of buildings in the CBD and suburbs. A 10-day festival is held in conjunction. I think John said 10 paintings were selected very year. 

The first one is of the late Dr G. Yunupingu , as he is respectfully know after his death.  A Yolŋu man, he was one of the Top End’s most famous sons and the highest-selling Aboriginal musician. His music still gives me goosebumps – what a wonderful voice! The nifty thing with many of these artworks is that you can hook up with an app that shows augmented reality – in this case, it plays one of his famous songs.

Dr G. Yunupingu, famous Australian musician;  photo by Bruce Moore

The next one is of his totem.

There were many, many more artworks than the photos I’ve shown.

This one was, appropriately, on the back of the bookshop.

Not a dog!

While we were perusing the art, three policemen on Segways arrived. The head cop was very jolly, obviously knowing the tour operators and out to give us a bit of entertainment.

Police do their rounds on Segways; photo by Bruce Moore

Orange electric scooters are very popular in Darwin, used by commuters and tourists alike. They just get left in the street when you’ve finished with them, ready for the next person who has booked one via the appropriate app.
Darwin comes across as a small, busy, modern city, quite unlike the basic one when I visited during that fateful Christmas in 1974. The city was rebuilt well and apparently has not lost a building to cyclones since then. It’s very easy to walk around and if you’re interested in Indigenous art, there are a lot of galleries selling it. The city does rely a lot economically on tourists, who were very evident at the time we were doing our own tourist bit in the most popular tourist time, the dry season.
Last thing, John dropped us off for a VIP tour of Crocosaurus (in my opinion, Crocsploitation, but I hope for the good of the species). I’ll write about that next.

The Top End (part 1)

In June, I went on a 10-day group tour (organised by The Adventure Traveller and led by Jerry Coleby-Williams of TV’s Gardening Australia and much other horticultural and sustainable living fame) to Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory. Darwin and surrounds are known as the Top End. I’m usually an independent traveller, but my previous tour with this lot to Norway and the Norwegian Arctic had gone so well I decided to give it another go. Besides, two friends I had made on that trip and another I hadn’t seen for many years were also going.

I’ll preface this by saying that my health was really bad – I’d done something to my back the previous week and was hoping it’d settle down as the trip would involve lots of walking. It didn’t. My sleep was also very disrupted by breathing difficulties – probably not  helped by the smoke in the air in many places – so I was always very tired. I’d also lost my sense of smell and taste. Sometimes the combination of tiredness and sore back meant I chose to not go on some outings. Luckily an ex-GP, a medical translator and a clinical psychologist were also part of the trip and helped me get through it – thanks so much, folks, and to others who also helped along the way. You know who  you are. I’d have had to abandon ship without you. Despite all the difficulties, I’m glad I went.

Day 1 – To Darwin

I stayed overnight overnight with Linda and Bruce, who live west of Brisbane. This saved a 3-hour drive from my place to Brisbane airport and, more importantly, let me catch up with them pre-trip. I’d made friends with Linda and Bruce on the trip around Norway. We got up at stupid o’clock to drive to the airport early – there is much confusion and delay at Australian airports at the moment, mainly due to COVID-induced staff shortages so the earlier we could get to the security queue the better. It was relatively short, but we heard that later it got very long and stress-inducing.

I love looking out the window in planes to see the geography. It’s a 4.5 hour flight to Darwin so there’s a lot of varying geography to see, starting with the wet east coast and gradually moving to the much drier Outback. But I’d had bad sleep the night before, so nodded off fairly soon and woke up over the Gulf of Carpentaria.

View from the plane to the east of Darwin (photo by Bruce Moore)

Top End coastline (photo by Bruce Moore)

Eventually flying over Darwin city, I could see it was bright, shiny and new, very unlike my last view of it after Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Darwin is a modern city with about 150,000 people, multicultural with White, First Nations, Chinese, Indonesian and other Asian cultures having an influence.

On the ground, the first thing that hit my senses was the 32 degree C heat and humidity. Coming from maximums of 17 at home, it was a bit of a shock. The second thing was the smell of smoke – from the air I’d seen plumes rising from forests around Darwin and later learnt that the dry season is also burning season.

Burning off country in the dry season (photo by Bruce Moore)

Because this was a tour and pretty much everything had been organised for us, we were bussed from the airport to Palm City Resort on the esplanade. There we settled into our rooms and I caught up with Kath, who I hadn’t seen for many years. We first met up at WIRES, a wildlife rescue organisation, in Sydney.

Next, John from “Walk Darwin” guided us along the esplanade, pointing out various features like Parliament House, to Stokes Hill Wharf where we embarked on a sunset cruise on the harbour. Tapas and champagne were served, and we saw one of the spectacular sunsets Darwin is known for. It was very relaxing out on the water, and Kath and I had a lot of chatting to do.

Darwin sunset (photo by Bruce Moore)

I asked John about the smoke. He replied that government, land owners and First Nations people take advantage of the early dry season to safely burn. Penny van Oosterzee et al. (in “A Natural History and Field Guide to Australia’s Top End”) says:

Today, fires are lit by pastoralists, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal land managers and park managers. In some areas Aboriginal people use fire to manage their traditional estates, for a range of hunting, gathering and cultural responsibility purposes. Aboriginal people and park rangers light fires in the early dry season to protect important plant and animal communities such as the monsoon forests and creek lines, and some of the special waterholes and swamps from the hot destructive fires of the late dry season. Graziers light them to open up the country for cattle and game to feed on the new shoots. Some fires are lit to provide fire-breaks to protect forest, woodland and pasture from the ravages of hot season wildfires.

It turns out that this burning, or rather the frequency of it, is not universally applauded. There are arguments for and against the view that biodiversity is increased, but I won’t go into them here, just to record what Lindley McKay (in “A Guide to Wildlife and Protected Areas of the Top End”) says:

Every year about fifty percent of the Top End is burnt, sending about 60 million tonnes of organic matter into the sky. Any given area is burnt on average every second year. Australia’s north is the site of about seventy percent of the nation’s fires and a major emitter of [polluting gases]. … Many land managers aim to reduce fuel loads in order to prevent hotter late season fires from damaging property.      Unfortunately fuel reduction is based on two misconceptions, firstly that a late season fire is inevitable, and secondly that the reduction is needed. In fact, termites reduce the same amount of fuel as an early-season burn, consuming the primary fuel of a fire … grass and leaves. … immediately after a fire, leaf beds, grass and other plants close to the ground are removed, resulting in an open understorey. Small ground dwelling animals must either move to a place with greater cover or be exposed to higher risk of predation. Many larger creatures also rely on thick grass for cover, and insufficient areas of unburnt grass during the dry season are a primary cause of the decline of the Northern Brown Bandicoot.

      In the long term, frequent burning of woodland suppresses growth of both saplings and mature trees. In frequently burnt forests, trees that die are not being replaced by new ones. Fires can also result in forests with fewer tree species. One well-known tree negatively affected by fire is the Northern Cypress Pine Callitris intratropica, northern Australia’s only native cypress. Adult trees can withstand low intensity fires but are killed by hotter fires, and seedlings do not withstand any fire. Consequently Northern Cypress is a declining feature of the Top End landscape.

      Frequent burning kills and suppresses the regrowth of mid-storey plants: the demise of an entire strata of life within the forest, and all the possible shelter, food and other resources it contains. Black-footed Tree-rats, dependent on the presence of mid-storey, are in decline throughout NT.

Food for thought, indeed.

I’ll continue the trip in the next post.