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Australia’s Double Wild Appeal: Big City to Outback

Perhaps it’s the jet lag that makes the birds sound so monstrous. All afternoon, as I try to nap, they have been infiltrating my sleep. Birds that hoot, birds that bark, birds that cough, birds that squeak, screech, groan, and sigh. Birds that howl like wolves or scream like babies. A bird that sounds like a dial-up modem connection. A bird that seems to be calling for someone named Marie. When I next wake, it’s the middle of the night, and the birds have fallen silent. I hear a noisy rustling—rat or possum, I imagine—and brace myself, then turn on the light. The biggest insect I’ve ever seen flashes blackly over the book at my bedside. I love my grandparents, but sometimes their home really freaks me out.

DARWIN11In the tropical climate of Australia’s Top End, everything teems. Bugs. Spiders. Ants of several different colors. Huge horseflies that perch on your head like miniature crows and administer a nasty nip 10 seconds later. Snakes in the trees, snakes in the bushes, snakes in the grass. My grandparents Elizabeth and Dennis—or Nan and Granpy, as my family calls them—have lived here, in the northernmost part of the Northern Territory, for 35 years. Nan, my father’s mother, was widowed long before I was born and met Granpy when she came from Britain to visit Australian relatives. When I was two years old, she married him and emigrated. Today they live in a two-story house that they built on five acres of bush land about an hour outside Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory and its only true city.

DARWIN05The most popular time to visit the Top End is the dry season, from May to September, when the temperature is a fairly constant 86 degrees Fahrenheit and the sky is unvaryingly cloudless. But I’m visiting in the middle of a late-arriving wet season, before the onset of the drenching monsoons. The atmosphere is clogged with unreleased rain. An earthy, vegetal humidity smothers you like an overused dishrag on your face. You can’t cool off in the sea, because it is also a time when the ocean is swarming with box jellyfish, whose poisonous sting can paralyze you faster than a shot of Botox to the heart, and the watering holes are hosting the seasonal invasion of killer crocodiles.

I’ve never really known what brought my grandparents to this animal kingdom, so tenuously tied to civilization. My Granpy grew up in rural Queensland. And my grandmother—a delicate-boned, smartly dressed English lady with immaculate waves of auburn and white hair, who likes good china and a certain decorum—has now stuck it out for 35 years in a place where dressing for dinner means wearing socks with your sandals.

DARWIN10They cope with the oppressive wet season by spending much of their time in their living room, where they’ve recently had a new air- conditioning unit installed. Persuading them to leave that room is not easy. Their life out here in the bush used to be active and sociable; they hosted lunch parties, played indoor lawn bowling at the local club, and traveled short distances to visit friends. “We don’t see those friends anymore,” Nan tells me, with a shrug. “Well, a lot of them have died.”

And then there’s my grandparents’ wariness of Darwin itself. In the past few years, the big city and its rapidly inflating suburbs have become a no-go zone, and even the couple’s once regular trips to the local shopping mall have been curtailed for fear of  “ruffians in the car park.” Their suspicion of the city has always baffled me, considering the myriad dangers that live, quite literally, on their own rural doorstep. Nan can point out the place where the local park ranger was standing one minute and swept to his death the next when a cliff collapsed. A friend of theirs down the road lost half his hand to a crocodile; another narrowly survived after being bitten by a deadly snake. But if I find the prospect of lethal reptiles off-putting, it’s nothing compared with what my grandparents imagine awaits them on the mean streets of Darwin, which they presume are infested by roving gangs of drunken bikers.

_MG_9537In the first week of my visit, when I suggest I make an afternoon trip to the cinema, Nan looks horrified. The movie theater is on Mitchell Street, the liveliest road in Darwin. “I’m not sure we want you going to a 4:30 screening,” says my grandmother. “It won’t be over until 6 p.m. That’s just too late to be coming home alone.” I plead that I can handle myself, and that the local population holds no menace for a longtime resident of a city as historically murderous as London, but this argument does not soothe her. Since thirtysomethings shouldn’t throw teenage tantrums, I head sulkily to the lunchtime film, then leave the cinema past a queue of little kids with curfews later than mine.

_MG_9756The drive out of town reveals just how far Darwin has advanced since I used to visit as a kid, when the airport itself was little more than a corrugated iron shed. There are freshly laid roads and glassy high-rise apartments. Entire suburbs have mushroomed into being: The population now tops 130,000. My grandparents are as suspicious of the new parts of town as they were of the old. One of the places they have been avoiding is the Darwin Waterfront, a recent redevelopment of the old mudflats, which cost the city $1 billion and represents Darwin’s boldest attempt yet at 21st-century living. I tell Nan and Granpy I’d like to take them there for lunch. Reluctantly, they agree.

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The Waterfront is a half dozen modestly modern blocks, shouldering an artificial beach where “stinger nets” keep the seawater free of jellyfish and allow you to swim in the bathwater-hot sea. A little farther along the promenade there’s a wave lagoon where kids are riding the gentle, mechanical surf on bodyboards. We walk past a chain-brand coffee shop, a tapas bar, an upmarket spa. Above them all gleams the Vibe Hotel. We sit in its partially open-air café and order the lunch deal, and Nan flicks through a copy of the city’s daily paper, the NT News. Its front-page headline reads giant roach found in man’s ear. In other news, an elderly woman’s bag was snatched by boys in the North Lakes shopping center. “It’s not worth going out if that’s what’s going to happen,” sighs Nan. Then the food comes, and the generous portion sizes stir a ripple of approval. I smile inwardly at my tiny first victory.

Granpy points out to sea. The old port, where he once worked as an electrician on cattle boats, is still visible. It is also, he explains, where the bombing of Darwin took place in 1942. “There was more tonnage destroyed here than in Honolulu,” he says. “The irony was, they sold it all back to the Japanese for scrap after the war.” He tells me that the oil storage tunnels, built during the war to protect fuel tanks from Japan’s air raids, are open to the public, and I can visit them if I like.

DARWIN04My first trip to the Northern Territory, as a two-year-old flower girl at my grandparents’ wedding, I don’t remember at all. But my parents brought me back as an eight year old, and then, when I was 12 and my sister was 10, we were sent as unaccompanied minors on the 24-hour flight from Britain. Those trips embedded memories of a small, flat town, its two-story businesses selling fishing tackle or pearls. The few activities for kids all involved crocodiles. These enormous, vicious creatures were the Top End’s prime tourism commodities. We would go to ogle them on a river cruise where guides lured them out of the water with dead chickens, or we’d visit the crocodile farm, where they were bred for handbags. We finished our outings eating crocodile and chips in the café.

Originally a port on trade routes from Asia, Darwin has been ethnically diverse far longer than the rest of Australia. The city has a large Southeast Asian population, and in the vast wildernesses beyond, indigenous communities live on protected Aboriginal lands. It still has the flavor of pioneer territory—a macho place with a mining history, where people drive utility vehicles and go pig hunting with knives and dogs.

_MG_9665My visits to date have been about spending time with my grandparents, at their home and in their beloved garden. They love feeding the birds on their veranda and watching the wildlife that has colored the landscape outside their window: a resident goanna (monitor lizard), a few itinerant wallabies, the odd frill-necked lizard. I’ve always found it hard to look past the hostile otherworldliness of their surroundings. Even the flowers look threatening, stretching eagerly upward on impossibly long stems, their trumpets neon yellow or unnaturally bright cerise. There are clumps of white lilies in my grandparents’ garden that look like the advance guard of an alien invasion.

The impression of an inhospitable environment is only reinforced by a day trip, later in the week, to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. I manage to persuade my grandparents to come along, because my Nan, who used to be a potter, gave classes at the Craft Council here two decades ago, before her withdrawal from public life.

_MG_7218They settle in at the café while I browse the Aboriginal paintings. The abstract dotted swirls and circles seem appropriately hallucinatory in the oppressive heat. Another room stocks native biological specimens in glass cabinets, the most poisonous species gathered thoughtfully on one wall. The exhibit works its way from the very toxic sponge to spiders the size of a child’s face, and a sea snake that could star in its own Godzilla versus Whatever movie.

_MG_9411-2Set back in a gallery by itself is a permanent exhibition on Cyclone Tracy. Cyclones come and go here during the wet season, but Tracy was unforgettable. She arrived on Christmas Eve 1974 and flattened the city, tearing corrugated iron roofs off buildings and then using them to batter what remained. There’s a booth where you can stand, in pitch darkness, and listen to a sound recording of the storm; the inhuman shriek of winds and flying metal is impossible to bear for more than a couple of minutes.

This happened five years before Nan arrived, but I know Granpy was caught in the middle of Tracy. When I rejoin them in the café, I ask what he thinks of the exhibition. He shakes his head and says he hasn’t spent any time in there: “I don’t need to go through it again.” And out comes the story—of a young electrician living in a caravan park. The storm caused the trailers to go tumbling across the grounds, and he and six of his neighbors were forced to hunker down in a car that was slowly filling with water. “The first wave of the storm wasn’t so bad,” he remembers. “Then there was a calm, the eye of the cyclone. But when the wind came back, it picked up all the metal and hurled it about. The next morning there were huge iron girders driven through trees. Only one or two houses were still standing.”

_MG_9255Granpy has always looked like the kind of man who can handle tough situations. He’s muscular, with a head of hair that merges into his beard in a koala-bearish manner. At home that evening, we open a bottle of wine and he tells me about the time he got knocked out on boozy coconut feni in Goa, a tale he clearly never thought I was old enough to hear before. He doesn’t drink much anymore, though. “After Tracy, I’d come home and I’d drink so much I couldn’t go out,” he says. “Then I met your grandmother. She was my saving grace.”

While I’m trying to persuade Nan and Granpy to explore their own city, they are adamant that I should go “out bush” and see some of the natural wonders that sit on their doorstep. I’ve never been a hiker, I’m no great nature lover, and I hate camping. But since they seem increasingly game—I have now booked us dinner at the best restaurant in Darwin, and they have agreed we should stay overnight at a nearby hotel—I decide it’s only right that I test myself, too.

Kakadu, which begins just under two hours by car east of Darwin, is one of the larger national parks in the world, bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Everglades combined. There’s no such thing as a day trip to Kakadu, and even my modest two-day guided tour requires a trip to a camping store—which nearly puts me off the whole idea when the woman selling me insect repellent warns me about “all the disgusting, bitey, infected creepies we’ve got here.”

_MG_7754The morning I meet up with the four-wheel-drive tour bus there is a cyclone warning, and we set off in gray, squally conditions. A dozen or so backpackers doze in their seats, so I sit up front next to our guide, Nathan, and watch the landscape thicken, its straggly eucalyptus joined by pygmy palms and tall speargrass—terrain for hunting and hiding and ambushing. Occasionally, Nathan yelps the name of a bird or animal and points at the branches or the side of the road, but all I can see is a zoetrope of trunks. I wonder if he’s just making it up.

DARWIN03Two and a half hours from Darwin is South Alligator River, where a gas-station-cum-tavern serves as the de facto community; beyond it lie Kakadu’s great floodplains. The sun has broken through, and a flock of waders (magpie geese, says Nathan, which are neither magpies nor geese) shoots suddenly out of the grasses, as if they’ve just been released from under the earth itself.

The wetlands are only one of the myriad ecosystems contained within Kakadu’s boundaries. We drive on through savannah woodlands—noisily alive with rainbow lorikeets and oriental cuckoos and cockatoos brandishing their yellow mohawks with punk attitude—and arrive in stone country, where the sandstone cliffs have sheltered indigenous communities for tens of thousands of years. A walk along the escarpment reveals the centuries-old rock art depicting cultural traditions, historical events, and the rich animal life that surrounded the Aboriginal communities.

_MG_8072The Aboriginals who inhabit the land call the wet season gudjewg. The climate may be enervating and inconvenient for humans, but out in the bush it’s the time to breed and feed. On an evening boat trip along the Yellow Waters, the activity is so intense it seems as if nature is staging a documentary just for us. Flying foxes swarm above mangrove trees, and tarpon splash about. A kingfisher dives for a shrimp, bashes it against a branch, and chugs it down. Even the tiniest puddle is swarming with tadpoles. My eyes slowly acclimate to the rich hidden world surrounding us, and I realize I’ve never seen so many different types of butterflies in one day.

We sleep on camp beds in fairly basic permanent tents. These keep out the snakes but not all of the ubiquitous mozzies. It is not an entirely comfortable night, and the next morning we wake to a kind of apocalyptic flooding. Water is tipping out of the sky as if God himself is operating the dump truck. At the first thunderclap I look up, terrified, expecting to see an airplane coming down.

_MG_8631The trail we’re taken to hike is swamped with puddles that turn out, on entering them, to be knee high, but the conditions only stoke Nathan’s enthusiasm. Every so often he squats suddenly, or lunges into a bush, and comes back with hands cupped around a frog or a grasshopper.

As the rain lessens, I surprise myself by starting to spot things independently: a quail-like rainbow pitta rooting around the forest floor, a single native hyacinth, a caterpillar pretending to be a new shoot on a branch. If you had told me 24 hours earlier that I would walk two hours in sheeting rain, soaked to the skin, and feel moved by a glimpse of an insect, I would not have believed you. But something about the landscape is getting to me, and when Nathan drops me off back at my grandparents’, he lets me in on a secret. “You know there’s an incredible lagoon right near here?” he tells me. “Girraween, it’s called. Hidden just behind these plots. I think you’d like it.”

A day later, Granpy packs the car for our overnight trip to the city. There is a palpable sense of nervous anticipation, not to mention rather a lot of luggage for one night. “We’ll have been out three times in one week!” exclaims Nan. “We shan’t know ourselves.” But it’s me who is most apprehensive. The restaurant I’ve booked is on the dreaded Mitchell Street. What if it proves itself to be everything they fear? In conversation on the Kakadu trek, I had laughed off my grandparents’ dread of the place, only for Nathan to tell me that Mitchell Street does, indeed, have a long-standing reputation for bar brawls (and the odd one that spills into the street). And now, driving into the city past taverns advertising XXXX beer, and companies that hire out heavy agri-machinery, I’m reminded just how masculine this place is.

_MG_7373The restaurant, called Hanuman, turns out to be full of smiling, smartly dressed clientele, but now I have new worries. Is the chic, low-level lighting too dark for Nan to read the menu? How spicy will the food be? I pray that we won’t hear a curse word all evening. The last time my grandparents went to the movies, they left before the film even started because a group of bikers had walked in swearing. The food arrives: a big bowl of curry, an aromatic duck salad, some lamb. Nan and Granpy regard the chicken satay warily, then find it delicious. “It all has so much flavor, doesn’t it?” says Nan approvingly. The waiter tells us the cuisine is called nyonya and is particular to the Chinese population of Malaysia and Singapore. We feel like the first Europeans to discover it.

Over drinks—mocktails, in Nan’s case—Granpy opens up about his own travels. In his 20s he worked his way around the globe over the course of two and a half years, from San Francisco to New York to Europe and overland to Asia, with nothing more than the electrician’s license in his pocket. On his way home to Queensland he’d landed in Darwin, “thin as my little finger, and crooked as a dog,” with just eight dollars to his name. Eventually, he’d worked up the money to get back to his family, but now he was a different person, full of experiences that the rural community he had left behind couldn’t begin to understand. “My mates thought I was a skite, a joke,” he says. “Even my parents weren’t interested in where I’d been.” That, he tells me, was why he moved back to Darwin, where he would come across people like the ones he’d met in Turkey or Indonesia or India. “It was the only place I didn’t feel like a freak.”

_MG_9320And then came Nan, a glamorous British traveler striking out solo after the death of her husband, visiting her relatives in Australia. With her green trouser suit and her long auburn hair and her smart accent, she was like a creature from another world. “I picked her up in an old Bongo van,” he remembers, grinning. “She must have thought she’d come to the end of the earth.” He asked her if she’d like to see some sights, and they spent six weeks traveling together to Adelaide, Ayers Rock, Alice Springs.

I watch them smiling nostalgically at each other, and a wave of sentiment blindsides me. Suddenly, my grandparents’ lives appear so much more adventurous than I’ve ever conceived: my Granpy, who left the family farm to see the world on a dime, and my Nan, who moved to the other side of the world for love. And it doesn’t surprise me as much as it should when, after we return to find our hotel lobby a party zone with dance music blaring from the bar, my grandparents insist on having a nightcap. Shall I get it sent up to our suite, I ask? “No thank you,” says Nan. “I like it down here.” She has never seemed so giddy. Perhaps it’s all the mocktails. I ask her what she’d like to drink next, and she gives me a mischievous smile. “What would happen if I asked the barman for an Ovaltine?”

_MG_9405I enjoy watching my grandparents charm the hotel staff and gossip with the partiers. Age may have brought a fondness for comfort and routine, but there’s no doubt that underneath, their spirit of adventure remains. Nan and I go for a pedicure the next morning, and the city seems scattered with pleasant surprises—a little arcade of boutiques, an Asian café that serves tea and cakes on bone china. Nan even runs into an old acquaintance she hasn’t seen in 10 years. “We don’t come into town anymore,” she tells her confidentially, “but my granddaughter’s staying and, well, you have to have visitors to show you what was here all along.”

Once we’re safely back home, I tell Granpy what Nathan has said about the Girraween lagoon—how wild it is, and how nearby. Granpy says he’s never been, and he’ll take me for a look, and we drive around until we uncover the unmarked road, pitted with puddles like small ponds. There are several forks in the track, and we guess which route to take, disappearing deeper into dense, anonymous bushland.

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It’s with some relief that we finally spot the edge of the water. Outside the car the waist-high grass is spotted with orange flowers so tiny they look like berries, being pollinated by enormous bees that drag their legs behind them. We stand in a clearing next to the shore, where two butterflies are courting. “I’ve been here 30 years,” Granpy admits, “and this is the first time I’ve come down here.”

There’s a clamor of frogs, and a rush of ants pours over the rocks. An ibis rises elegantly from the water, the light flashing off its beak. The place is, as Nathan promised, utterly untouched. It is also, I realize, beautiful.

_MG_7784Neither Granpy nor I want to risk the drive farther into the wilderness to seek out the path around the water. We find our way back to the main road surprisingly quickly. “Seemed a lot farther coming in than going out,” says Granpy. “Well, that’s going into the unknown.” We look back over our shoulders and agree that next time we’ll push a bit farther.

Check out more places to stay and eat in Darwin here. Or, plan your Australian outback trip to Kakadu National Park.

Photos by Ériver Hijano. See more here

This appeared in the June/July 2015 issue.