Sunday, March 11, 2012

Welcome to the Top End

Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   

Before we flew across the Pacific to Chile, we had an important engagement in Darwin with Theadora -a school friend of mine from California, and her Hungarian husband Sandor, her mother Pippa, and her year old baby-  to be known hereafter as the Sproglet.*  Together we had planned a week's holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End. 
            The Top End is the northern part of Northern Australia - the half a million square kilometers, more or less, of land pressed up into a bulge at the top of the continent.  The Gulf of Carpentaria is its eastern border, and the Indian Ocean lies to the west.  To the south, it peters out into the arid stretches of the red center - but between the sea and the desert is Australia's monsoon country.  And the gateway to the Top End is Darwin.
            The climate is tropical bichromatic: there is a dry season - hot and parched and baking and eventually hot and thick and humid, and just when everything is flat and drooping and suicide rates have peaked under the pressure of the flat white sky - the monsoon hits and six months of water drops in a week. Then the sky settles down and there's a wet season.  It rains steadily for six months; the rivers fill, the wetlands south of the city flood, and everything is peaches and cream and bush tucker for everyone.
            We were there in the dry - one week too early for the Darwin Festival (with which  the top-enders stave off the suicidal peak of the dry blahs) but just in time for the Darwin Cup, and next to that, the dry season looked like a picnic.
            We flew into Darwin in the afternoon, booked into a hotel on backpacker row and wandered out into the street to watch the world go by - the parts of it that were under 25 and deeply, madly, falling-down toasted.  There's a double standard to Australian fashions that bewilders me.  Men get baggier and girls get tighter.  There were twenty thousand people out at the racetrack, and back in town, the pubs were full, stacked three deep at the bar with strapping young men smart in their tropical formal shorts and singlets.   Behind them, perched precariously on tall stools around cocktail tables,  drinking things with sticky umbrellas clinging damply to the glasses, were gaggles of  desperately drunk young women, wearing cocktail dresses that had been too short at both ends before the night even got going - by now they were shrieking sideways down the street with their fascinators tilted over their eyes and falling out of their clothes sideways.
            It was a wild town that night.  About how it used to be once upon a time, one reckons, if one wants to wax poetic, back when it was a real frontier town.  It still IS a real frontier town.  But 95% of the would-be-crocodile hunters staggering down the sidewalks had flown in from out of state for the occasion, staggering sideways and singing old school songs (the versions with the ruder words) imagining that their drunkenness meant; meant anything - romance and excitement and really wild things - a poke in the eye to someone - who remembers and who cares?  20 000 conformists non conforming to rule.  
            Theadora and her family flew in by a later plane, just before sunset.  Thea is long and blonde and teaches high school science.  Pippa is long and blonde and drove a Mustang and danced to the Beach Boys back when they were both the latest thing.  Sandor teaches history and smiles with white teeth through a neat brown beard.  The baby had committed no sins beyond having learned to walk and growing seven teeth. (Eight, as of that evening.  We dined exclusively on ice cubes.)  It was Sandor's first visit to Australia.  He was desperately disappointed not to find the streets of Darwin awash with saltwater crocodiles, but settled for a roasted haunch of same - served civilized fashion, medium-rare, with french fries.   And Chardonnay.
* Sprog = Australian for child.  In Australia, you're a bub until you're walking and talking, but after that you're a sprog. Until you're out of Primary School. (Grade 8.)  

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