Trippin'

Trippin' is a collection of travel stories written by a young Australian writer. They talk of the humor of living a life on the fringe, the frustration of being down and out, and the stories of all the people he met along the way. The journey speaks to anybody who has experienced life on the road, or shares a thirst for the freedom that comes with spontaniety and transient living.

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6. Dire Darwin

 

Occurred - February/March/April 2011, Darwin (Northern Territory, Australia).

 

There are a lot of places one should visit during their lifetime - the Swiss Alps, Nepal and the Himalayas, New York, The Great Wall of China, Tasmania - but if anybody forgot Darwin I don't think they should be too pissed. Put frankly, it's the type of place a tumble-weed would probably roll past to look for more excitement.

 

But that didn't seem to deter us. The romanticism of a place 'up north' resulted in Jake, Yannick and I trampin' the 4000 kilometres from Tasmania to Darwin to make some serious bank for Europe. The cities’ two roads, five hostels, 100% humidity and constant 'croc eats child' stories eventually became our reality as we slaved to earn a living for two months. In retrospect, it probably wasn't the most ideal place for a couple of 20-something-year-olds to have a 'good time', but the people we met and the degree to which we became entirely integrated into a city with 125,000 people after merely seven days of binge drinking is definitely worthy of a story.

 

We arrived at a little after midnight, gunning out the last 1000 kilometres from Katherine in a zombie-like state. Katherine is the second most populated town in the Northern Territory, but with its one Gloria Jean’s coffee shop and singular Mitre 10 hardware store I think it’s only worthy of a day visit.

 

We were absolutely wrecked, but rolling into a dead-end part of town and seeing drunken Darwinian slags and douche-bag guys with their Travesty shirts tight and ripped somehow gave us a small moment of clarity. The road before us had consisted solely of burnt out cars, dead end roadhouses and slaughtered road-kill - stimuli that eventually became normal to see. But eventually the road has to end, and to see the barren and remote city that was built at the end of the line was quite surreal.

 

In an attempt to separate ourselves from the rest we shirted up and searched for a hostel that had been recommended to me by a friend who had lived in Darwin for over two years. This place was called Frogshollow - a tropical quarter full of Contiki tourists, international workers and drunken and divorced Aussie blokes fresh out of the cells.

 

But the place itself was actually quite hospitable. They offered a free breakfast (consisting of Coles Smartbuy Weet Bix and powdered milk). They had three pools for recreational use (even if only two of them were functioning due to a dead frog floating in the third); and all the rooms were named after famous Australian animals. As one does in Darwin, we ended up meeting two girls from Bristol and drank ourselves under the table with cheap Rosé. Our heads hit the pillow hard at 7am, with only a portion of our minds dedicated to how we could gain employment in this new city. We knew nothing about it and held no preconceptions in our minds, other than the fact that a lot of money could be made doing remedial jobs. 

 

Darwin is perceived by some people as an extremely modern city. It has been rebuilt twice - once after the Japanese rampages in World War Two and once again after Cyclone Tracy hit in 1974. As a result, wages and the price of goods were raised to try and boost tourism in order to get the city on the map as a great holiday destination that isn't on the east coast. The city is also only miles from Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park which makes it a popular destination for those wanting to witness a touch of the real Australian landscape. It is a popular destination for tourists and workers alike, acting as a sort of half-way house for people wanting to travel the rest of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand or even South East Asia. But what Darwin doesn't seem to realise is that tourists are only there to get shit-faced, and workers are only there to make serious coin and then leave without warning.

 

We awoke on our first day at 3pm (a universal awakening time when it reaches 35 degrees at 5.30 in the morning) and strolled the streets feeling quite ambitious. Our minds were full with thoughts about how much bank one could make if they didn't mind slaving - and even though we were lazy under it all the idea of reeling in pearls on a boat got us pretty amped for the months ahead. There was nothing really unusual about raking in $4000 tax free during three weeks out at sea - at least not in Darwin. Whatever job you were doing - even if it was scraping faeces from the side of the street - you could be sure that somebody else out there was undertaking much more fucked up work for far more money.

 

We walked the streets barefoot, getting rejected by a variety of establishments. We had no resumes, telling prospective employers that our computer had broken down on the drive up on account of the heat. I blamed Jake and he blamed me - it was just another circle of lies. We also had no money, and failing to take anything seriously eventually caught up with us.

 

Luckily that day I had received a job at a café on the main street, so immediately after we walked down to the employment centre to see what we could find for Jake. He was forced to write a provisional resume, outlining all of his previous job experience. But Darwin wasn't that strict - they basically just wanted to know that he hadn't done time.

 

The cafe that employed me was a 'well-oiled machine' in the eyes of Tony, its Greek manager. He was a champion, having moved to Darwin with his girlfriend only a few months earlier. The shop itself was staffed by five or six older members that had been there for years. The other employees included myself, a German backpacker who would later share the night shifts with me, and an extremely smoking 16 year old Darwinian chick.

 

The place actually ended up being one the best places I have worked in. It fitted my laid back attitude and happy-go-lucky demeanour, but also provided me with an abnormally high wage that I could use to fund my first weeks in Europe before getting another job. The cafe was the 'go to' place in Darwin for people that didn't feel like having a pint or an aqua-bomb at all hours of the working week. It was insanely busy, far busier than anywhere in Melbourne. I took the position of the last backpacker and spent the next two months from 3pm until midnight dicking about with my 'Melbourne coffee skills'.

 

Jake experienced even more hassle after the employment office. Apparently, his ‘no shoe approach’ wasn't doing it for most places - especially considering that shoes with no shirt was an acceptable match, but no shoes and a nice shirt was a no go. In fear that he was going to risk it all (our $0 collective worth) and drive across to Kununurra in W.A. for the pumpkin picking season, I had a look around the corner at a bar that was connected to the coffee shop. This place was called Ducks Nuts - the all famous drinking hall of Mitchell Street. I heard that they were desperate for a cocktail bartender and knew that Jake had climbed the ranks of several cocktail bars in Melbourne. Thankfully the city actually prevailed when we again realised how employable Melbournian people are outside of their home. Jake split back to Frogshollow, grabbed a pair of Havaianas and landed the job on the spot.

 

So there we were, starting our sixth job together in only two months of trippin' Australia. It was truly a milestone that made us think about everything a little more than we had previously done. The novelty of running away from every place with only a few hundred dollars in our pocket was starting to wear thin. Though in saying that, this was Australia, and this was what we wanted to experience. It really had nothing to do with taking advantage of fast changing industries, but more with seeing what our relaxed and diverse country was all about. It all just felt like a romanticised idea, being at the end of the line in a place so rural and backward.

 

The first week of work cruised by, with both of us getting acquainted with the plethora of people that worked there - and, naturally, the arsehole managers and bosses that followed. But we were still broke and without solid accommodation. We were without money for the entire first week, and had promised the hostel manager that we would be getting paid on the following Tuesday. Stupidly, she still insisted on kicking us out on the Monday. It's complex to even begin thinking about the so called 'intricancies' of a resident of Darwin, so naturally I will never understand the reasoning behind all of it. But the grim reality of being without a home definitely hit us hard. We had struggled for so long to even reach the north, and without knowing a single soul in the city at that moment we felt that perhaps everybody would turn a blind eye if they even noticed us.

 

Fortunately, a lot of the workers at Duck's Nut's were foreign and lived in nearby hostels. We chose the most tranquil one and settled in, explaining to the new manager that we would be paying the following day.

 

We lived in another three hostels during our first three weeks in Darwin. Each and every hostel had its own flavour and looked surprisingly inviting on the outside. But once stepping indoors it didn’t take long to witness or experience something that was completely out of the ordinary.

 

Frogshollow still remained the most appealing, aside from the piercing eyes of a few derelict travellers. It was as real as it came and had a buzzing atmosphere that still gave us the illusion that we were travelling for the power of experience. But that dream had ended whilst we were still struggling to make it across the country three months into our journey. We knew now that it was more of an obligation to prove to ourselves that we could make it.

 

Once we had saved a bit of coin we checked back into Frogshollow. It took us only three days to spark a confrontation with an ex-inmate who had been stirring trouble when we initially arrived. Jake and I had bought a couple of slabs of cheap beer for Yannick before he flew out to Brisbane. He had a roaming German friend arriving in the city with nobody to see or travel with, so in true vagabond fashion he took the next flight out. But during the early evening we opened the ‘communal’ fridges to find that most of our beer had been taken. Jake was already suspect of one older man in particular, and once we saw him walking off with two cans in his pockets we approached him.

 

‘I didn’t take nothin’,’ he said, slurring his words with a can in one hand and cigarette in the other.

‘Man,’ Jake replied. ‘Those beers are for our German mate. He’s a traveller here – nice way to welcome him to our country. Buy your own fucking beers.’

‘I didn’t take nothin’,’ he screamed, each time repeating it with more intensity and spit. He was completely trashed and was beginning to fume over our supposed false accusations.

 

The confrontation ended with Jake having to apologise simply because he didn’t want to die. The manager told us that she would evict him in the morning.

 

By the three week mark our tether for living uncomfortably in half-way houses was reaching its limit. We both craved to live in a house that we could live and play music in. At that time our Russian/Israeli duty manager was looking for somebody to rent the second room in her two bedroom flat. Everybody that was employed by Ducks Nuts represented just another stray traveller from another remote corner of the world. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on a woman from Lithuania or been told how to make a short macchiato by a Russian manager. Darwin was the hot and muggy boiling pot at the end of the line that mixed every culture into one. 

 

But in any case she saved our arses from having to endure another minute living in another derelict hostel. The house was also far cheaper than anywhere that inhabited creeps, and for the sheer novelty of an interesting story we knew we had to try it out. The flat was on Mitchell Street, but buried down the end of the road where bars and clubs slowly turned into midnight ‘parlours’ and ‘dance’ shows.

 

Unfortunately, the novelty of an interesting story was all that this particular experience could offer. We ended up having to share a room with a broken air conditioner and spent most of our days with the blinds closed. Vera, our manager, spent most of her days either working or spending time with a small kitten that she had bought with an Australian ex-boyfriend. She had moved to Darwin two years prior with the intention of getting residency through a defacto visa, but her man had left her two weeks before the papers could be approved. She lived vicariously through her cat and was still occupied with the fantasy that she could gain residency through sponsorship.

 

With our Australian passports lying somewhere in the backseat of our battered car it was bizarre to see the contrast. A few months prior, our passports had meant nothing to us. We were both simply two more Australians living what was perceived as a golden life by every other non-citizen. We worked for a minimum wage that could pay for a property in Europe in just a few months, all the while complaining and becoming tiresome of a routine that was, in world terms, the most extravagant life one could have at age twenty. Australia is the rich child on the world stage that has picked up on the success and failure of other every nation and used them to their advantage.

 

Witnessing people like Vera made the contrast even starker. Our citizenship was beginning to be weighed against those less fortunate, pushing the credibility our nation higher. But it was a dark sight to hear the stories of every stray traveller who had an undying dream to migrate to our country – just as it was to know that our dream was to leave. The spark that fuels our desire to travel is almost built around the idea of simply being somewhere else, somewhere you can hide – and the thought may have not been so damaging had we not realised that immigrants moving to Australia were leaving a lot more behind they we were. In the grand scheme of things, we were a small speck of importance.

 

After three weeks we couldn’t handle living in Vera’s cave any longer. With the curtains being closed day in, day out, and the air-conditioning pumping out waves to compensate for the lack of fresh air, we eventually fell ill. We both suffered from the infamous Darwin fever that eventually grabs you when you fall into the routine of working, drinking and sleeping in a hot-box city. We both felt like slimy sardines, pushing our bodies further than they could physically go. Our faces were gaunt and our minds were fried.

 

But living uncomfortably at Vera’s was just the first problem in a string of issues that we faced in Darwin. We had hit the three month mark in our journey of trippin’ Australia by that point, and our car had already clocked up over 7000 kilometres after it was deemed as being not fit to drive around the country. The desert opal fuel that we had been using throughout our entire trip up north had quickly eroded our engine, and not too long after we arrived the car gave in.

 

We sent it off to an array of grimy mechanics that gave us estimates on the damage. According to them the engine had also been eaten alive by ants that had gotten into the cables and chewed holes through them. The estimates were always above $1000 and we knew that we had little chance of getting the car running, let alone driving it back down the east coast to Melbourne.

 

We met a young mechanic through a 16-year-old chef at work and decided that he was probably our best bet. He was too young to learn the ropes of how to rip customers off, but far more experienced than we were. Prior to settling with this guy we had already ‘interviewed’ a variety of men for the job. Most of the people we met had no skill but claimed to be able to fix every problem free of charge. For some reason men will always push their brute level of masculinity in situations that involve tools or machinery. Both Jake and I are included in this, but after several attempts at looking for an on/off switch that would solve all of our problems we soon gave up.

 

On the day that our car was due to be repaired we called a truck to tow it to the mechanic. It had been parked on the side of the road outside of Frogshollow for over six weeks with a sign that read ‘broken down – pick up tomorrow’ on the dashboard. Thankfully not one ticket inspector in Darwin thought to give us a fine.

 

Two weeks and $450 later we finally had a working vehicle. We were stoked, knowing that our desire to leave the city in under a month was finally plausible. We had been planning our getaway for some time, and with our car and our possessions being locked in a mechanic’s shed we felt hopeless.

 

As we finally drove off we felt a wave of liberation rush over us. Our two door sports car was as much a part of our trip as both of us were. We needed her as much as she needed us, and when you are without a wealth of possessions you begin to form an attachment to even the smallest items. For us, our car was the driving force of our traveling mentality.

 

Our final few weeks in Darwin felt like a whirlwind, just as every moment does when you know that it’s almost at an end. Every negative thought is turned over in your mind and converted into a positive. By this point we had established quite a strict routine for ourselves. My shifts at the coffee shop would usually end around 10 or 11 at night, so I would spend the next few hours hanging around like a bar fly for Jake to finish. By this point he was running the ‘club’ that was connected to the bar itself, but spent most of his nights drinking the profits because they rarely had business.

 

Nine times out of ten we would have a lock in. Most of the people that worked at Duck’s Nuts, besides a couple of hot heads at the top, just wanted an immediate thrill. We would drink, smoke, talk to older staff about the years of stories that occurred within the bars walls, and stumble home or continue on to another derelict bar. The thrill never really wore off for us because we were never a part of something long enough to let it bring us down. 

 

On our last week Jake was in charge of cleaning the beer lines. This was a large task for somebody who was trained in the job, but in Melbourne we usually have people to do it for us. Jake simply looked like he was capable of anything and everything, using strings of words like ‘come on, it would just be dumb not to trust me madam,’ with a slight head tilt and pat on the shoulder to wiggle his way into authority. He could lure the attention of any female without even implying a single sexual thought.

 

Vera put her last ounce of trust in the situation and the event began. Four, maybe five, jugs of beer poured out, and slowly the cellar flooded. The night escalated once we realised that the beer we were drinking was just free beer – the lines had still been connected for hours. Before we strutted out, leaving a team of professionals to tackle the task the next morning, Jake and I manned the bar, all the while drinking from the taps and just being proper loose. I had never stepped foot behind a bar and it was a cloudy inauguration at best.

 

Nothing really seems to be of consequence in Darwin. The law is so lax that everybody just seems to coexist in a city that has no boundaries, no beginning and no end. Nobody really knows how they came to live there, and frankly nobody seems to care how their days unfold, just as long as they can grab a beer at the end of it.

 

The cities relaxed policies seem to stretch over several facets of everyday life. Aborigine’s lye drunk on the street in pools of blood whilst Caucasian Australians simply step over them. The contrast is so bold but bleak in an unforgiving way. Everybody turns a blind eye not only to travellers that exploit their employment system but also to every Aboriginal that steps in your face with a sour and drunken stance. They have no problem with drinking a five litre cask of white wine while a Swedish family on holiday walk by and invent stories to their children about why they look the way they do.

 

But the international flavour is something entirely unique and untouched in comparison to cities on the east coast. Darwin is the spider that has a growing habit of catching stray travellers in its web. Everybody was slightly confused as to how they ended up there, but some stayed for countless decades on account of the people they had met along the way.    

 

They were all aware of the pressing issues that faced the city – the heat, the violence, the racial sentiment, the monotony – and understood that it was a city of contradiction. In the moment of actually living there you feel suffocated by a feeling of depression that your life had actually amounted to you spending any time there at all, but then something takes hold. Perhaps it lies in the power of hindsight and memory, but perhaps there is more substance than that. Perhaps it is just one of the true slices of Australia that still exists, and if you look closely the aura is still there – it’s just hidden in a month-long bender that ends with you in a club where ‘Tits Out Tuesday’ is actually a reality.       

 

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