“Yeah, it’s always attracted outsiders,” says Allan Mitchell of the Northern Australian city of Darwin, where he is the city alderman, former policeman and burly local character.
We are drinking morning coffee at a café on Darwin’s low-rise main drag. It is August, and hot. “This weather’s nothing,” he says. “We have an unspoken rule. You have to be living up here for two wet seasons, then you can start calling yourself a local. Eighty percent humidity, 30-degree heat, four months. People have a bit of a thing about southerners, you see.” He winks. “If yer not happy, go home.”
At once laid-back, scrappy-spirited and innovative, Darwin is one of the fastest-growing cities in Australia, with its population of some 125,000 accommodating a lively jumble of different ethnic backgrounds. Considerably younger than the big cities of the eastern seaboard, it was established in the late 1860s primarily as a trading post, a “new Singapore” for colonial interests.
Then as now, of course, the settlement was in an isolated location, and it was only with the 1872 completion of the Overland Telegraph Line – an ambitious engineering project that for the first time provided 3,200 kilometers of pylon-hung wires between Australia’s south and its north – that it started to become a frontier outpost of real note.
The line also helped provide speedy communication to Asia and the rest of the world. It was an apt role for Darwin to play, given how international its population is today. “It’s always been like this,” Martin, a 20- something local of Estonian origin, tells me. “Gold was discovered when they were setting up pylons for the Overland Telegraph Line, so in the early days there were huge amounts of Chinese coming over. Brits too, of course. Then in later years a lot of Greeks and Italians. These days we’ve got everyone – Indians, Irish, Iranians, Filipinos, Indonesians. But at the same time it’s a very Australian city.”
For newcomers, one of the most atmospheric snapshots of Darwin’s multi-flavored identity is found at the twice-weekly Mindil Beach Sunset Market. Held on Sunday and Thursday evenings, it sees thousands of people spilling into the area on and around one of the city’s best beaches.
Smoking food stalls serve up everything from Vietnamese noodles and Dutch pancakes to emu burgers and Greek souvlaki. Palm-readers and performance artists tout for business while Mick Dundee types give stock-whip demonstrations. Close by, Aboriginal teens dance with rump-shaking abandon to live mash-ups of didgeridoo music and techno beats.
Darwin has no opera house. It has no cloud-piercing skyline, no harbor bridge and no 100,000-capacity cricket ground. But what Darwin does have, as you might expect from somewhere that takes its name from one of history’s most famous nonconformists, is a sense of individuality.
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