Bertie at the Doctor’s
Darwin, 23rd - 24th October
Darwin - a name that each of us knows and uses often. A name made famous far and wide, scientifically as well as geographically and socially. There is no need to explain who Charles Darwin is and what he is famous for worldwide. But when we mention Darwin in connection to Australia the information begins to somewhat break up.
Darwin is the capital of the third-largest Australian state - Northern Territory - and is home to half of the state's population. The name was given to the city by John Whickham after his former shipmate Charles Darwin, though the biologist has never visited the region himself.
I often wonder why we know so little about Darwin when its geographic location is the most accessible one from the nearest continent. Why did the British settlers travel all the way to Melbourne and Sydney instead of staying in Darwin; why didn’t they create the biggest colony on the continent here? But the answer isn’t all that hard to find - not only is Darwin situated in one of the naturally-harshest lands of Australia and is water-poor, but its place on this Northern point also makes it susceptible to cyclones and other natural disasters. Since its creation at the end of the 19th century, Darwin has been rebuilt at least four times - after three cyclones and a World War 2 bombing.
Darwin is one of the least visited destinations on the continent and can be compared in no way to the other state capitals. There is no metropolis, no central business district or any type of central district, no unique bridges or unforgettable building, no easy access and definitely no charisma. All that it has to offer are ports for import and export to Asia, and for the tourists - access to the state’s national parks. If someone really wants to they could probably find an organised holiday that includes Darwin but it is usually not a priority for far visitors who have the opportunity to see Sidney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth instead. Everyone goes there in their usually short stays. Perhaps they would fly to Alice Springs to get closer to Uluru but are unlikely to step foot in Darwin.
Well, we are in Darwin. Because our route comes through here and because this entire trip is exactly so that we can visit places like Darwin that others usually skip. However, our stay here has one specific task - since Sydney Bertie has added ten thousand kilometres to the dashboard and he now requires a full service. What is the last time your car needed a full service in the sixth week?
We get up early and Nic heads off to the garage. I stay in the air-conditioning to deal with yet another mess we created yesterday. We took a great amount of stuff out of the car and squeezed it into our room. I don’t know exactly what sort of talent this is bringing chaos into every new space we enter and how come I am the one to sort it out every time.
Once Bertie is dropped off Nic takes advantage to be driven back to the AirBnB by the garage. It looks like today will be another one of the admin days we’ve been needing more and more. Life in the car can be easily turned upside down so we use every opportunity that arises to balance it out again. Today will be primarily a digital tidy up day - freeing space for photos, backing them up online, downloading required apps and more; All while we wait for the washing machine to be freed, the pile is big once again.
Not that we don’t want to see Darwin, but you can hardly breathe outside, especially when compared to the temperature sustained in our room by the air-con. But the washing is hung, the pictures downloaded and there are no more reasons to stay inside.
We first head to Darwin’s Botanical gardens which are only a few minutes from the AirBnB. Huge trees are lined up in the middle of the road and it takes me a while to realise they are all Albizias. We have one of them in Balchik but its size is nowhere near these giants. In the gardens, the walk is nice but not especially interesting. Well, it's not their fault. After all, we're at the end of the dry season and the plants are suffering under the bright sun and lack of rain.
Though I usually picture the gardens in the Palace in Balchik, here they are typical for the Australian / Western style. Large green areas with free public access that are perfectly arranged. Only in some places, you can see some exotic species. We take pictures of new and different plants, wander around and soak in whatever we can.
After the gardens, we head towards the centre, once again by foot and feeling the lack of Bertie. We see again the reality of Australian life outside its main cities. Although Darwin is technically one of them - it is not. The streets are empty, there’s a lack of green areas, not many people can be seen. Perhaps the comparison is wrong, but it reminds me of the “outer” districts of Sofia and Varna. And there are no “inner” ones.
We reach the centre and realise that the activities are severely limited. There is a park similar to the one in Varna with shady green plots and a view to the ocean though there is no direct access. I am not quite sure where the beaches are. The high street is empty and poor - no shiny shops or euphoria. But it's calm - no crowds, nothing unnecessary. Just the city and its people.
There are a lot of mangoes! Northern Territory is the kingdom of mangoes in Australia and farms over half of the fruit on the continent. We even listen to an announcement on the radio that on this day the first official mango shipment has reached California. I am surprised that California would require imported mangoes, but it’s not me who understands these things. Why are mangoes so important to us? Because they are incredibly tasty! If you have never tried a fresh ripe mango- you haven’t tried it at all. Meaning - if you’ve only had mangoes from European supermarkets - you haven’t. If you ask Nic this is the most wonderful fruit ever, which in Europe is usually too expensive. Here, in the centre of a crossroad, a man is standing under a tent branded Mr Mango and is selling a bag of it for $5. It’s about 15 mangoes in the bag! Yes, please! How we will keep it fresh, we will figure out later.
There are also many galleries for Aboriginal art which we visit looking for a piece to take with us. Unfortunately, nothing is attractive enough and if we’re going to go to the struggle of keeping it safe and transporting it, it should at least be worth the investment.
The only tourist attraction here is the crocodile aquarium where you can swim with them in cages or to just look at them through the glass. Firstly, we are not the type of people that would visit a place exploiting the animals and second, the prices are sky-high. So we just go into the gift shop looking at crocodile toys of all shapes, colours, sizes and materials. We notice that from the shop we can see one of the enclosures inside and right in front of us is a huge crocodile. Huge! But the enclosure he is in looks no bigger than himself so I am glad we didn’t give our money supporting such a practice.
We continue to wander. We have a cold beer in the local pub. We lie in the shade of the park and talk … about life, our future plans - short and long term. For potential financial mistakes in the last month ...
We get a call that Bertie is ready and we take a taxi right away to go pick him up. We arrive and it turns out he’s not ready at all and that the entire day has been wasted. They didn’t know that we are talking about a full-service check-up and only checked the issues Nic mentioned - such as the cooling liquid tank. Not that they didn’t find other issues (the radiator is to be replaced), but no actual labour has been done and we’re at the end of the workday. We leave discouraged but agree that tomorrow we will bring Bertie again and that they will do everything possible to have him ready by midday. We don’t have a room booked for tomorrow night so we can’t stay longer. And what are we to do another whole day in this wilderness.
Back in the AirBnB, we take advantage of the oven for a more filling dinner and also of the fridge for all the mangoes. Nic cuts it up into a few boxes ready for breakfast and to be used when needed. We watch films, tidy up and cuddle in the lovely air-conditioned room.
If only this day could end quicker! I just want to leave Darwin with a healthy Bertie. All of this could have been done yesterday; to save us a day of worry and inaction; a lost day because of bad communication. And whatever there is to be seen here, we saw yesterday.
In the morning we got driven by someone from the garage to Mindil Beach, one of the more famous attractions of Darwin as there is a market there today. We arrive and there is no market. As it turns out, it's a sunset market and only starts around 4-5 pm but who would have thought to check. Right now there are only a few reps walking around slowly building their stalls. We are on the other side of town without a car and the air is heating up.
Somehow we manage to get to the closest marina and sit down in the first café we see hoping to stay here for as long as possible. But the place is full and the only available tables are by the kitchen. At first, it is nice but the tension begins to build up noticeably. The waiters are clearly panicking over the ratio of incoming customers and present staff. The smoothie blender breaks and a cockroach is walking on it to top it all. We get a call from the garage. Nic goes out where it’s calmer and returns with an “it’s not good” look on his face. Just as he’s about to start explaining the waitress starts crushing ice in a new blender right next to us. Okay, enough! We’re leaving.
They have found in the service that, other than the radiator, both rear brakes need to be changed. How much? $1,500! We were prepared for $500. We are worried, angry, hot and in the wrong part of town still. And the worst part - we have no choice in the situation. We call back to confirm they can start working on it but also take the opportunity to plea for a lower bill. They promise to keep expenses down. We’ve also decided to leave the cooling liquid tank for now as it is not an urgent job.
Consequently, we have realised that due to its remoteness Darwin was probably the wrong place for car work money-wise. However, the next big city is Perth and there are still a few thousand kilometres to it. Can you imagine if we hadn’t fixed the brakes and something had happened?! It is easy to look back at the situation positively now.
We decide to go to the state library and wait there for a call that Bertie is ready. In air-conditioning, without unnecessary expenses, with the opportunity to get some work done. On the way, there aren’t enough distractions to take our minds off the high bill and our worries get bigger. Not that we have no money left but it would be a huge mistake to spend it uncontrollably. Firstly, we still have a long way to travel and secondly, we shouldn’t be returning to Europe without a penny. We reach the library with a great need for air-con and for something to distract us. We want to transfer our thoughts onto something new and useful.
We spend a few hours here in productive work. And just as we calm down we get hungry. All the food is in the car and according to the new budget we shouldn’t be going to restaurants and cafés. We’ve been promised that Bertie will be ready by 1 pm so we will just distract our hunger with more productivity. At 2 pm we still have no call and the hunger can no longer be subdued. Can this day be over, please?!
We find cheap sandwiches and sit in the park to decide on a strict budget to follow from now on. We also worry that the longer they work on the car the higher the labour costs will be and we don’t want to go over the already large sum.
At 4:30 we’re back in the garage and the bill … isn’t scarier than the one we knew of already. Nic takes a look at the old parts and they do look like they needed to go. We pay and we’re ready to leave. It is a good thing we stop to fill up because we can see the drip of the yellow coolant under the car. They should have just fixed that! We call the garage and tell them to wait for us to come back as we can’t be back on the road in such condition. They look, poke and change the caps of the tank - I am not quite sure what the problem was in the end but we get $12 back and are sent on our way.
Tonight we are at a free campsite and we meet one of our neighbours. He travels on his own in a bus, a home on wheels, fully equipped. After 4 heart attacks, he has decided that he’s had enough of “normal” life and now just travels through Australia. Considering the last two days we can’t say no to the cold beer he offers us - even if it’s from a stranger in the middle of nowhere.
He informs us that down there in the forest live two crocodiles. We bravely decide to try and see them with his help and creep in quietly. I didn’t see any but Nic claims he caught a glimpse of one just before he got scared and went into the water - the crocodile, not Nic. Well, guess how calmly I will be cooking in the dark tonight, knowing there are crocodiles near me. But we’ve left Darwin behind us - everything will get back to normal.
I feel guilty that this story of our time in Darwin wasn’t more touristy and nice. People come here to get to the national parks of Northern Territory. But we’ve already been there and have collected our wonderful memories. We were here just because we could be. The city itself doesn’t offer interesting and unique experiences and as it was a stop to get Bertie serviced it brought on many headaches, financial worries and led to added deprivations in the already empty city. I really wanted to show Darwin in a good way but it just didn’t happen. And also why should I lie that every day of such a dream trip is nice and easy? It’s not every day. But we’ve had plenty before and will have more onwards.
Vassya (and Nic)