Australia

Mindil Beach

 


 

 

David Whitley trudges along to Darwin’s sunset market like a moody teenager, and ends up a convert.

 

To me, the most distressing part of any holiday is the day that starts with: “Ooh, the market sounds quite nice.” I grew up in a market town. I know what markets are like – someone bellows “fresh bananas” all day, an old woman sells rubbish old books and the other stalls flog cheap boxer shorts that wouldn’t even get past Primark quality control. Abroad, things tend to be little different. You might get different types of fruit being shouted about, whilst if you’re in an area vaguely frequented by tourists, the pants will be accompanied by colourful bits of cloth that you’ll never wear and ‘trinkets’.

 

For those unaware, trinkets are little pieces of handmade crap that get buried behind a bookshelf when you get home and realise that they’re rubbish. Unfortunately, my beloved fiancée adores wandering around such markets, squirreling up things with no discernable purpose. And as a trade-off for regularly making her hike miles through the desert without breakfast or coffee, I had resigned myself to a night at Darwin’s Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Unsurprisingly, the market (I’m not going along with the unnecessary plural out of principle) has got plenty of tat for sale. There are glass butterflies, miracle cures for itchy mosquito bites, cheap T-shirts and brightly coloured sarongs. It’s mostly standard market fare, but at least most of it is unique and handmade by the stall holder.

 

More importantly, however, the market is a deeply appealing place to spend a Thursday or Sunday night. And I didn’t think I’d find myself saying that. This is partly because of the setting. Mindil Beach plays host to some of the world’s best sunsets, and as the sun goes down, people flock from the stalls to the sand to watch the great ball of fire colour in the sky. It becomes a shared moment amongst locals, visitors from elsewhere in Australia and overseas tourists. No-one needs to say anything, ostentatiously link arms or anything mawkish like that – it’s just an unspoken bond.

 

Then, of course, there’s the food. Part of what makes Darwin so likeable is that it has a huge Asian influence. It is, of course, nearer to Singapore than it is to Sydney. And the food stalls provide a brilliant tapas trail from the Philippines to Timor L’Este via Japan, China and Sri Lanka. The Aussie influence remains, however – there’s none of the hassle that can plague such hotspots in Asia proper and the Roadkill Café proudly grills up Aussie meats such as emu, kangaroo and camel that careless drivers knock down on the highways. But the key thing about the Mindil Beach market is that it managed to keep me entertained. At one end, a hardcore didgeridoo drum ‘n’ bass collective kept the energy up, while a local band played tracks from their new album at the other.

 

There was also the chance to watch artists at work – one chap was making extraordinary pictures of Uluru using spray paint and a knife. But most entertaining of all was watching the succession of mugs line up to take on a little bike. Its steering was the wrong way round – turn the handlebars left and you go right, and vice versa – and all you had to do was ride it a short distance without falling to win $50. Everyone had their theories, everyone thought it looked easy, but no-one managed it. And watching them fail was compulsive viewing. 

 

But the final nail in my coffin, showing how far I’d succumbed, was when I actually found myself buying something. Two simple ceramic Anthony Gormley-esque figurines locked in an embrace, doubling as salt and pepper shakers were my downfall. Yes, they sound kitsch, and they probably are – I must have just been taken by the Mindil Beach vibe.

 

More photos here

 

 

Crocs

 


 

 

David Whitley discovers how northern Australia has turned from shooting crocodiles to showing them off to visitors.

 

Swimming in front of us is one of the finest killing machines ever devised by nature. Even its swimming strokes are menacing; the slow, deliberate movements of the tail cut through the water in eerie silence. And nothing else on the Adelaide River is stupid enough to come near it. The estuarine (or saltwater) crocodile is an amazing creature. It is our closest living reptilian link to the era of the dinosaurs, and the essential design of the saltie hasn’t changed in millions of years. 

 

It hasn’t changed, because it hasn’t needed to. The saltwater crocodile is the undisputed king of all the terrain he chooses to inhabit; no other creature can bite with such force and its cool, calculating manner commands total respect. Crocodiles can wait for weeks, monitoring the behaviour and routines of their prey and remaining undetected. Then, when they’re ready to pounce, the victims will be goners before they even know the croc is there. But being such effective killers almost lead to the saltwater crocodile’s downfall. Until the 1970s, crocs were seen purely as a menace in northern Australia. They were shot almost indiscriminately by well-meaning folks wanting to make the waterways safer, and hunters taking them on for sport.

 

Since that time they have been protected and although many still see them as a deadly nuisance, others have worked out how to make good money from them. To put it simply, tourists like seeing crocodiles in action. And given that the Adelaide River near Darwin is absolutely teeming with crocs, there are few better places to get up close. Going for a swim or a walk along the banks would, of course, be the act of a suicidal maniac. But going out on a boat and watching them come to you is a different matter altogether. A number of different cruise operators plough up and down the river, but the schtick is essentially the same. Boat goes down river; crew dangle meat from a pole at the top of the boat; crocs come and get it.

 

Watching them do so is fascinating. Some just aren’t interested. They stay where they are on the banks or neck deep in the shallow water. Others spot a free feed and slide away from their spot, creeping through the water. When they reach the side of the boat, you can see them weighing up their options. They stare at lunch, plotting the best way of getting it like a pool player working out how to extract himself from a tricky snooker. And then they go for it, jumping out of the water, often level with the top deck of the boat. It’s an astonishing sight – eyes never off the prize, tail powering them out of the murky river and mouth opening in preparation to snap shut around the meat.

 

This isn’t a case of forcing the crocs to do tricks – the jumping is a natural behaviour, used to snatch unsuspecting birds from low branches – but it’s a perfect display of why this ancient predator is not to be messed with. And it’s far better to shoot them with cameras than rifles. 

 

More photos here

 

Nuclear Oz

 

David Whitley steels himself for a dose of radiation at Australia’s most controversial uranium mine.

If there’s one stretch of water that I really don’t want to go swimming in, it’s the tempting-looking billabong in front of me. Except it’s not a billabong. It’s a ‘retention pond’, and it belongs to what is arguably the most controversial mine in the world

Approximately 10% of the uranium that powers the world’s nuclear power stations comes from the Ranger mine in the Northern Territory. But fears about contamination mean that all water that falls on the 700 hectare site has to stay within its boundaries.

 

But the wildlife doesn’t seem to share the same concerns. Ranger’s retention ponds appear to have become something of a wetland haven – and the birds have been joined by a couple of rather sizable saltwater crocs. So far they have managed to evade the traps sat at the water’s edge. It’s fair to say that a trip to a mine isn’t what most people pencil in as a must-do when they come to Kakadu National Park. With so many beauty spots, rock art sites and rugged escarpments, it seems absurd to spend a morning looking at man’s desecration of the landscape.

 

But Ranger and Kakadu are inextricably linked. Ranger isn’t inside the National Park and never has been – but the two exist like warring brothers. Both were created at roughly the same time; the National Park was declared almost as a sop to the environmentalists who wanted to stop the mine opening.

 

Kakadu’s main settlement, Jabiru, was largely set up as a place to house mine workers as well – even though it has taken on more of a tourism focus since. And it is from Jabiru’s tiny airport that the Ranger mine tours leave. We’re all given fluorescent jackets, hard hats and protective visors by Yuri, who has the delightful job of trying to make uranium extraction fun.


By and large, it isn’t. Much of the process of getting ready-to-export uranium oxide from the rock blasted out of the ground can be summarised as follows: Mix with nasty chemical in big piece of machinery, then repeat continually with other bits of big machinery and slightly different nasty chemicals. Leaflets are handed out which attempt to explain the tediously convoluted process, but it really is for the boffins only.

 

For the less egg-headed visitors, the joys come in big diggers and even bigger holes. The view from over the fence of the main pit is quite extraordinary. The hole is chipped out in ridges - almost like a paddy field - and tunnels down for 195m before it hits the water at the bottom. On our visit, there’s another 35m until the very bottom, but this varies massively with the seasons. The rainwater is pumped out into the retention ponds, and during the dry season there can be none at the bottom. At the height of the wet, almost the entire pit can be full.

 

Dirt roads spiral down into the hole, and industrial vehicles seem in constant motion around them. Yuri points out an excavator. “I could easily drive our minibus into its scoop, you know,�? he says. It’s clearly not a toy. He also points out where a blasting will take place in a few hours’ time. The stats are rather impressive. The average blast involves 14 tonnes of explosive, and shifts 70,000 tonnes of rock. Only 0.4% of this will be uranium, and a tiny fraction of that is eventually used to generate nuclear power.

 

We’re allowed out of the bus to peer into the big hole, but once it starts to get a bit Bond villain lair-ish, we’re firmly ensconced inside. Around the crushers, leach tanks and centrifuges, we learn about the mine’s constant battle to stay on the good side of the environmental monitors. “This is probably the most scrutinised mine in the world" says Yuri. And that means that all vehicles have to be thoroughly washed and cleaned before they leave the site.

 

Others have strips of red tape affixed to them. They’ll never leave the site, and when the mine closes, they’ll be thrown into the pit to be covered by the rubble in the towering mounds that surround the giant hole. Many of the precautions seem heavy-handed, but they have to be. Fascinating though the whole operation may be, it is not a playground. 

 

So is it safe for tourists to visit a uranium mine? Yuri thinks uranium is portrayed as something of bogeyman by people who don’t understand what radiation is and does. “There’s natural background radiation everywhere, "he says."

 

“And due to the rock they’re made from, you’re probably exposed to more radiation standing on the steps on the Sydney Opera House than you are standing by this mine." Well, at least the crocs seem happy enough...

 
 

Disclosure: David stayed at the uniquely croc-shaped Holiday Inn Jabiru Gagudju Crocodile (HolidayInn.com), which offers rooms for from $129 per night.

 

First Fleet

 

 

 

David Whitley raises a glass to the unwilling pioneers who first settled in Australia back in 1788

 

Captain Cook wasn’t, as many people believe, the first person to discover Australia. The Aboriginal people who’d been on the continent for 50,000 years might have something to say about that, but Dutch and Portuguese explorers had been here way before Cook arrived in 1770.

 

It was Cook’s timing that counted, however. The industrial revolution was just about to properly kick in, and there was both massive population growth and urbanization. People were moving to the cities to find work, then discovering that no work was available. Many had to steal food to survive. 

 

By 1788, the American Revolution had ensured that the convenient option of sending criminals to the States was no longer an option. With prisons chock-a-block, the powers that be decided that it may be worth investigating the mysterious landmass on the other side of the world that Cook had claimed for Britain.

 

And so the First Fleet was sent, in what must have been an incomparable journey. No European had visited what was then known as Botany Bay since Cook 18 years earlier; these people were being sent completely into the unknown. It’s like being sent to the moon in order to set up a colony, but with even less knowledge of what to expect than we have about Neil Armstrong’s conquest.

 

Also, if we were colonizing the moon, we would probably send those with the skills to do so. In 1788, this was about getting rid of undesirables rather than providing the talents needed to complete such a task. Aside from a few military types whose job it was to keep order and the odd trained craftsman who had ended up on the wrong side of the tracks, most of Australia’s first settlers were unskilled labourers.

 

These people were being sent, almost certainly permanently, to somewhere that had nothing. All they had to go on were tales of strange creatures; it wasn’t known whether the land would be suitable for farming, there was zero infrastructure and it could have been a disease-ridden hellhole for all they knew. 

 

Think about it; these people spent months at sea in horribly cramped conditions – many would die at sea in later voyages until the Government started paying by the convict safely landed rather than the convict taken away. And they didn’t know what to expect when they finally disembarked. No-one knew what to expect, even those nominally in charge. It was one of the greatest leaps of faith in history, and most of those taking it were not doing so by choice.

 


 

As it happens, there was good land (although not at Botany Bay as first expected – the First Fleet hit lucky by going slightly further up the coast to Port Jackson – now better known as Sydney Harbour). The diseases were also largely brought in by the Europeans – far more Aboriginal Australians died as a result of imported disease than skirmishes with the settlers. It is still less than 250 years since these unwilling pioneers arrived – tens of thousands were to follow as the transportation system kicked in – and how Australia has changed since is remarkable.

 

Many indigenous Australians now regard January 26th 1788 as Invasion Day. To other Australians, January 25th is Australia Day in commemoration of when the First Fleet landed. Leaving aside the race politics and moral issues, it’s a day to raise a glass. Not to the system, not to the repercussions and not necessarily to the country itself – but to those undoubtedly terrified petty criminals who were unwillingly sent completely into the unknown. There will probably never be another journey like it.

 

The Immigration Museum in Melbourne gives a decent overview of the transportation system, as does Port Arthur in Tasmania. But if you want to properly read up on it, then The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is magnificent.

 


Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at AustraliaTravelQuestions.com

 

Canberra

 

 

David Whitley defies local advice and heads to Australia’s national capital to find out why everyone hates it so much

 

If Australia has one over-arching national sport, it is slagging off Canberra. Tell just about any Australian that you’re going to the national capital and they’ll probably come out with a considerably more sweary version of “what on earth would you want to go there for?” Canberra, it is fair to say, doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. It is seen as a plastic, artificial city which has only one redeeming feature: acting as a holding pen for politicians.

 

I may be one of the few people in the world who actually rather likes Canberra. But then again, I’m a bit of a geek. I like going round good museums, of which Canberra has more than its fair share. The Australian War Memorial is, on its own, absolutely worth visiting the city for. The displays on World War II and, in particular, the First World War bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. It’s the best, most moving museum in Australia by a country mile, and I could happily spend a day there.

 

There’s much more on offer too. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla goes into Canberra’s unexpectedly key role in NASA operations, while the National Gallery of Australia has a great collection of work by the very best Australian artists (most of whom are sadly unknown in the UK) as well as a good range by international stalwarts such as Picasso, Gris and Braques.

 

Then there’s Questacon – an absolute joy for anyone who loves button-pushing, interactive exhibits, giant gravity-defying slides and learning about science by chucking balls at clowns. It’s wasted on children, it truly is...

 

But despite this, you can understand where the Australian antipathy towards Canberra comes from. It’s a weird, weird place with a Truman Show vibe. It was chosen as the site for the national capital purely because Sydney and Melbourne were bickering so much about which city would get that status, and the only way to solve the argument was to build one from scratch in the middle of the two.

 

It was built to a plan drawn up by American architect Walter Burley-Griffin, who envisioned a big lake in the middle, created by damming the river. He also came up with grand buildings built around sightlines of each other (in a blatant rip-off of what Washington DC does), plenty of open space and far, far too many roundabouts.

 

It is a city designed for motorists. Motorists who know exactly where they’re going and have no intention of pulling over to check a map or, god forbid, park. Yet seeing a traffic jam in Canberra is something of a rare privilege. This is partly because the design is successful – traffic flow is king here – and partly because of Canberra’s main problem. And that problem is that there’s just too much space.

 

The city has more suburb names than houses (or so it seems). There’s nothing high rise, and it all just sprawls merrily into seemingly infinite space. Living must be incredibly pleasant – no congestion, no overcrowding, parks and nature reserves at every corner – but it doesn’t half make the city a chore for the visitor.

 

Canberra’s roads are eerily quiet. The huge pavements never have anyone walking on them. Only the car parks are full. It’s like someone has designed the perfect big city and forgotten to fill it with people. As such, it feels as ridiculous, as lost, as forlorn and hollow as a tiny child clad in clothes that it’ll “grow into”. It’s like someone hiring a huge marquee for a big birthday party and only six people turning up, leaving a vast empty chasm that any atmosphere is sucked out of. It’s a flabby, self-indulgent, twelve minute prog-rock opus that needed a producer on the shoulder, saying: “You need to cut this to four minutes if you want to get on the radio.” 

 

To create a fire, you need to rub sticks together. If those sticks are miles apart, it doesn’t work. A city needs a certain element of claustrophobia, it needs frictions, it needs people having to fight to create their own space. Maybe, when they finally fill it, Canberra will have that.