PANDANUS trees are perched on pink cliffs at the edge of an aquamarine sea. An early poinciana flower splashes red against the blue sky. The afternoon breeze whispers from the north-west. Calm waters deliver wavelets softly to the shore.
It is mid-September and I am in Darwin, revisiting the place where I lived for 10 years.
I follow the path from the eastern end of Fannie Bay out to East Point. A sprawling banyan tree (a type of fig) reaches out with long, leaning branches, propped up by its aerial roots.
The monsoon forest, a tangle of tree trunks and vines, shades me from the sun. It is now transition time between the dry season and the wet. The temperature is 33 degrees and the humidity is starting to build. The forest floor is thick with gold and russet leaves, dropped from the trees to relieve the stress of the prolonged dry that happens here each year. The last time it rained was on May 30 and that was only 0.2 millimetres.
Orange-footed scrubfowl (locally known as a bush chooks) comb the leaf litter with their big-clawed feet. They pick up fallen fruits, seeds and insects to eat with their sturdy, curved beaks.
I pass into a clearing that reveals mangrove trees stranded on a sandy plain. Seven-metre tides fill and empty this bay every day. At high tide the mangroves are glossy, green islets. At low tide boats are left standing high and dry. At 7.56am on Friday this week the tide reached 7.6 metres. By 2.26pm it had dropped to half a metre.
Further along the path a dark, red colour catches my eye. A kurrajong (brachychyton) tree about three metres tall, with no leaves at all, has six, crimson, bell-shaped flowers delicately poised on its twiggy ends.
Beside the tree is a relic of Darwin’s military past, one of many reminders around here of when war came to the top of our country. On February 19, 1942, Darwin was bombed by over 200 Japanese planes. At least 242 people died that day. Although many civilians were evacuated, those that stayed, along with the Australian and American troops, endured another 62 air raids until the bombings finally stopped in November 1943.
As I look across the harbour, beyond the concrete relic, a navy ship is heading out into the Timor Sea. It’s that time of year when Australia hosts multinational air-sea training exercises from Darwin. Last night, two warships were the backdrop for tourists dining down at the wharf.
Every afternoon this week, the quiet of this small city has been shattered by the thundering rush of Super Hornet fighter jets passing overhead. They are so loud you cannot hear the person next to you speak, but they travel so fast the sound quickly rolls away to a distant rumble.
On Saturday mornings a market fills Parap Village square. The aromas of Asian foods drift through the air; laksa and paw-paw salad, spicy calamari, Cambodian pancakes and Vietnamese rice-paper rolls. Thai sweets are lined up in multi-coloured bundles. Papayas are piled in a tumble of orange and green. Heliconia flowers blaze brightly nearby. There are fresh tropical juices, lassies and smoothies, bags of limes, pineapples and bunches of Asian greens. Parap Market is a microcosm of this tropical city that sits next door to Asia.
This visit to Darwin was for a holiday and to catch up with friends. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that seeing my former home with fresh eyes has seduced me all over again. Have I been charmed by memories flooding back? Or is there something inherently alluring about this faraway place up north? Or does the strong attraction lie in the extraordinary contrasts with the familiarity of ‘down south’?
The flight takes almost five hours to get me back to the edge of Bass Strait at the opposite end of the continent. For most of that time, the country below is a red-brown canvas sprinkled with small green dots. Ancient mountain ranges look crumpled, crinkled and worn. Salt lakes spread out in frothy, white swirls. Ephemeral creeks, laced with vegetation, appear like varicose veins.
When the soft, earthy patterns yield to a landscape of rectangular shapes, the straight lines that confine cattle and crops, I know I’m almost home.