by Bob Baker
I got more and more lonely as I drove North before dawn from my tiny motel to avoid the blazing desert heat. I was half way between Cairns in Northern Queensland and Darwin, capital of The Northern Territory. Both were very distant from the centers of most Aussie life. After hours of no other car on the road I drove through endless gray/green, low scrub. Then the road began to pass through rolling jungle and palms. That meant I was nearing the Timor Sea and Darwin.
It was a man’s town, where some men dodging the law, or going for adventure, fast money or just stranded, wound up at the far end of Australia. It was so far from Sydney, it felt like Moon Base One. As a U.S. Consular official based in Sydney, I was making my first visit to a huge part of my territory. Among other things, I was responsible for public relations for American ships visiting Australia, including their many calls at the port of Darwin. I had rented a car to get a feel for this part of my territory.
Just after dawn as I drove on that Sunday morning, the deserted, patchy, narrow road became a smooth blacktop, double lane road. It marked the far edge of Darwin. Suddenly, there was a wide grass divider planted with palm trees. I was glad to be nearing the heart of town. Then I noticed in the dim early light, lying on the grass divider strip, hundreds of motionless bodies, mostly black, but many white. They wore T- shirts and shorts, and mostly had bare feet.
I was astonished and wondered if some disaster had suddenly hit the place, but then I looked more closely. I saw glinting light around the bodies. Empty beer bottles glittered all around the bodies on the grass. This was largest and most profound “morning after” I have ever seen. Nobody was standing or even twitching. The drunks on the grass went on for about a mile, a tropical Drunkarama. Australia’s multi-cultural society sure was there in a vast communal hangover. In town on the sidewalks, the bodies thinned out a lot, just a few lying on the pavement here and there.
Like Shangri-La, Darwin was far away and gave temporary eternal life to its devotees through cases of Fosters beer. The passed out blacks I saw were Aborigines, whose numbers were severely reduced by smallpox long before whites arrived. That was introduced up north by visiting Indonesian fishers and traders. Today Aborigines are just one percent of Australia’s twenty million people and are ravaged by alcoholism and family dissolution. The government pays Aborigines the same dole given to whites. It has begun to control some of that dole money to purchase for the recipients food and other necessities. Their complex family and religious lives and many languages and arts have been to a great degree lost. The same kind of disaster hit Indians in North and South America, as the first Europeans unwittingly introduced smallpox and other diseases with terrible effects and went on to make war on Indians.
I found my hotel in Darwin, and began my round of official calls. The kindly old Governor of the Northern Territory greeted me in shirtsleeves at his office. I had sent telegrams and was expected. He had arranged lots of appointments for me. He invited me to lunch in a local bar/restaurant where he introduced me to a half dozen friendly locals. I met with great hospitality and kindness. I liked Darwin.
Beside the local media and port facilities, I wanted to visit Darwin’s military radar station. That played a part in the defense of American ships if they were docked in Darwin. During World War II in 1942, a surprise Japanese weekend air attack had flattened Darwin. Hundreds of Australians had been killed and much of the town destroyed as wave after wave of strafing and bombing Japanese Zeroes and Vals dove out of the sky.
A good book, Darwin 1942, described that horrific first Japanese air raid on Darwin. The author wrote that Darwin’s military radar station tragically had been closed on weekends to save money. That blinded Australian defense forces to the terrible danger. After a telephone call by the Governor confirmed the arrangements, I drove out to the radar station. A friendly Australian Army Captain showed me around and answered my questions about the capabilities of the station and its role in the defense of the country’s northern approaches.
As I prepared to leave, I mentioned the book’s comment that in 1942 the radar station was shut down weekends to save money. I jokingly said I was glad that could never happen again. The Captain colored. He said that actually the station was again shut down on weekends to save money. I began to think of that as a part of a Northern Territory syndrome. It was simply very far from the concern of politicians and military planners in the nation’s capital. I included that defense lapse in my report to our Embassy in Canberra, but doubt anything was done about it. So even today the northern reaches of Australia may be blind to enemy attack on weekends, just as Pearl Harbor was when it was devastated on a Sunday by the Japanese attack that began American entry into World War II.
The Northern Territory was under Canberra’s control, but beyond it in some substantial ways. It reminded me of the kind of places I had seen in Africa far from the capitals. The central government in those distant places was just not present physically. It had no representatives on the spot and in fact, did little but collect taxes. Darwin is about 2,400 miles from the Aussie capital, Canberra. It is reached via poor roads through mostly desolate landscape, very far from the thoughts and actions of the central government. However, it is administered by the national government and its own territorial political system.
Long after the 1942 Japanese raid, the city had again been devastated, this time by a powerful typhoon in 1974. Official preparedness for the typhoon had been very poor. After that disaster, a new emergency office in Darwin had been set up by Canberra. The Governor arranged a tour of it for me. The office was impressively modern, with arrays of telephones, computers, and a 24/7 staff. You got a 360 degree panorama around the whole town through the ceiling-to-floor all glass walls in the very new, tall, building. I wondered what a typhoon’s immense air pressures would do to the glass control center so close to the Timor Sea and so far from Canberra. In Sydney my apartment’s large windows bowed scarily in much smaller storms.
The central government was also completing a handsome new cultural center for Darwin, with a grand symphony hall, exhibition rooms, performance spaces for theater, ballet, etc. I wanted to see it as a possible venue for visiting American musical or theatre groups. The Sydney architect in charge gave me a hard hat and took me around the half-finished building. By lunchtime, we had completed our tour inside. The construction workmen had knocked off from laying concrete, etc. for their lunch break and were eating from lunch pails around the worksite. We walked over to the shade of a grove of large avocado trees to finish our discussion. As we talked, suddenly, there was a loud shout overhead and a huge avocado tree limb came crashing down about ten feet to our right. It had broken off from the trunk. It was about fifty feet long with bushy branches twenty feet high. As we stared at the giant branch in surprise, its branches began to move. Then a burly workman emerged from the great fallen branch. He still wore his hard-hat. He clutched in his right hand a big, shiny, ripe avocado. He grinned at us sheepishly, showed off the avocado to us, and then walked proudly over to a gang of his mates eating their lunch. They roared with laughter. My Sydney architect friend, watched the workman’s retreating back and spat out disgustedly, “Darwin… Darwin!”
In West Africa, ten years earlier, I had heard precisely the same tone of disgust from a Russian construction manager at the newly completed Soviet sports center in Bamako, Mali. The Russians built it as a gift to Mali for the African Olympics which Mali was to host. The Russian had shown me around with great pride. He was smiling until we came to the just built Olympic pool. Lunching Malian workmen lolled on the grass around the pool eating their lunch and smoking. They had tossed corncobs, avocado pits, cigarette packs, etc. around the pool and onto the path. The Russian viciously kicked the workmen’s debris off the path as we walked and muttered bitterly, “Malians… Malians!”
(Bamako’s pool negligence went Darwin one better. When completed, the pool was just a yard short of being Olympic length. The Malian contractor hired by the Russians, had saved a yard of pool length to increase his profit. The pool could therefore never be used for Olympic events).
The night before I left Darwin, the Governor invited lots of guys for a great buffet dinner at his house, followed by a beery sing-along. One of the guys played the piano and we sang until dawn. Most of the songs were from America in the 1940’s or l950’s. At the battle of the Coral Sea, the U.S. fleet had defeated the Japanese fleet and thus stopped the planned Japanese invasion of Australia. The Governor’s cold beer bottles sweated richly into the hot, humid evening. The songs reminded everyone of the heroic days of World War II. So did the frequent American naval ship visits to get fuel, provisions and to give the sailors shore leave. Americans were welcome as new faces and as old Allies in World War I, World II, and in the Korean and Vietnam wars where Aussies fought alongside the U.S.
Australia still welcomes its alliance with America for sentimental reasons and it is still needed to keep open Australia’s trade routes in the Pacific. Japan and China are the chief buyers of Australian iron ore and coal. The U.S. fleet protects Australia’s vital trade. Tokyo buys iron and coal and returns to Australia, new Toyotas and Hondas. China is a huge market for both minerals.
In the Aussie security neighborhood, Indonesia had earlier invaded and occupied East Timor, close to Darwin. That aroused Aussie suspicion and resentment. The Aussies had led part of Timor, West Timor, to independence and gave it lots of economic aid. Australia was also pleased that American ships patrolled near Indonesia.
Our navy supplemented Australia’s quite small armed forces. We needed Australia to replenish our ships in the vast Pacific. It was from Australia that America regrouped militarily in the Pacific in WW II after our initial defeats by Japan. Australia remains a natural and essential American ally. Pro-American sentiment in Darwin was especially strong in older men. One said, “If it had not been for you Yanks, we’d be eating bloody rice today, and lucky to get it.”
Australia’s million square mile interior has limited tourist attractions though many of the coasts are magnificent, if sometimes dangerous. Even in Sydney, many beaches had shark nets to stop intruders. While I was there a shark “took” in the local term, half of a boy right in the middle of Sydney harbor as he swam alongside a small craft. Darwin’s waters had sharks, plus, box jellyfish with up to ten foot tentacles, and salt water alligators, so swimming was mostly in pools.
I drove to the Northern Territory’s famous Catherine Gorge, but it was no more impressive than Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. Its little river wanders through a low ravine. Its layered rocks were withered by eons of tropical sun. The only wildlife was a single bird, but swimming off river rocks was great fun under the blazing sun. No alligators about.
On the way back to Sydney I saw the other great Aussie outback attraction, Ayers Rock, a largish rock that rises by itself on a plain near the small desert town of Alice Springs. Like Catherine Gorge, it is famous and also has great significance in Aboriginal religion but is not much of a geographic thrill. Lots of Australia’s charm was because it was so like the U.S. a generation earlier: friendly, safe, civilized, kindly. But interior natural attractions were limited. I once saw an upcountry roadside billboard in New South Wales urging travelers to come “See The Giant Chicken” but I did not bother.
Not advertised as tourist attractions, but immensely impressive, are the huge flocks of beautiful, white parrots a foot tall. They rise up in clouds as you drive though the farming countryside in Queensland. They are shot and otherwise treated like crows. They eat up valuable crops. Kangaroos are also often shot as farm pests. And both parrots and kangaroos are dangerous road hazards in some areas.
While I was driving fast outside Cairns in Queensland, a big white parrot hurtled out of a field and was smashed against my windscreen. I saw it just moments before it hit the window right in front of my face. I stopped to see if it could be helped, but it was dead. It left a bloody smear with a couple white feathers stuck on the glass. Horrible. The incident reminded me of the Australian colonial cookbook I found. It included a receipt for cooking parrots. It went like this: “Put your cleaned parrots into a pot and add one axe head. Boil until the axe head is soft.” The parrots were like Australia’s backcountry, often beautiful and very tough. I liked Australia.