Darwin's a strange place. Back on Christmas Day in 1974 the entire town was flattened by Cyclone Tracy, so everything's brand new, there are very few old buildings (and by 'old' I mean any dating from the town's inception in 1869), and it's a very cosmopolitan city, if you can call a place with only 70,000 inhabitants a city. I spent most of my four days in Darwin doing very little, enjoying the lack of mosquitoes after Kakadu, and doing things like picking up my post, finally tracking down the right part to fix my petrol lamp (hurrah!), and getting a haircut. The haircut was rather savage, and definitely the shortest hair I've ever had; I had it shaved all over to a no.4, which makes my ears stick out, but it's wonderfully cool in this tropical heat, dries straight away without a towel, doesn't need brushing, and doesn't attract flies as much as long, greasy hair... if I didn't look like such a squaddie, I'd probably stick to it all the time, but I don't think the hippy in me could handle it.
On my first night in Darwin I met my neighbours in the Shady Glen Caravan Park (and extremely shady it was too, full of dossers and crusties... I should have known something would go wrong, but then it was the cheapest in town). On one side were Kevin and Louise from Cork, and on the other Adrienne (also from Cork) and Darren (from St Albans). They'd all been travelling round together for a while, having done the east coast/through the middle trip, and they were waiting to fly to Thailand before heading back home. I butted in on their conversation – something you get rather good at when you're a lonely solo traveller – and we whiled away the night, swapping travel stories, with me sitting there entranced by their beautiful Irish accents. The company was just what I needed after quite a few weeks alone, and the wine they happened to be drinking helped cement our temporary connection.
The next day I visited the city's botanic gardens; Darwin city centre is tiny, and you can park right in the middle for free, something these small cities all seem to have in common. Darwin's gardens are naturally very tropical in nature, and are packed with palm trees, shady walks and waterfalls, and there's a beautiful grass amphitheatre where concerts are often held; the gardens would have been really attractive if I hadn't caught them halfway through a renovation, but when they're finished, they'll be lovely. Of the botanic gardens I've seen so far, Perth still comes out tops with the magnificent Kings Park, followed by Adelaide's huge and delightful parks; then I'd say it's a close thing between Darwin and Melbourne, though they're hard to compare, as Melbourne has a large expanse of picnic-friendly grass with the Yarra wending its way through, and Darwin is small and tropical; Sydney definitely comes last, as its gardens are just like a normal, city park with a vaguely botanical theme. I wonder what the ones in Brisbane are like: pretty, I would assume, but I'll have to go to find out for myself one day.
That night my neighbours and I decided to get drunk. Sometimes it just has to be done, and who needs an excuse? We got in two slabs of VB stubbies (48 bottles in total), a four-litre cask of wine (the Aussie name for a wine box), and two bags of ice, the whole lot coming to a paltry A$16 each... and we got hideously slaughtered, sitting round my newly resurrected petrol lamp, talking nonsense for hours. It was quite wonderful, but it did mean Saturday proved to be a bit of a struggle.
I had decided to have a lazy day anyway and to write some letters, but that morning someone decided to nick my sleeping bag and towel from the washing line, so I spent most of the day trying to get a crime report from the police. To be honest I wasn't too bothered about the theft, as it was too hot in Darwin to use a sleeping bag anyway, and the bag had been getting to the end of its useful life and kept leaking feathers everywhere; besides, I need a thicker one for more temperate New Zealand, so I was going to have to get a replacement anyway. Still, it's never nice to have stuff stolen, and it made me quite paranoid to leave anything around, not a pleasant state of affairs. We commiserated my loss by drinking the cask of wine that we'd been too drunk to tackle the night before.
Sunday turned out to be the perfect antidote to missing towels and sleeping bags, as it was host to the annual Beer Can Regatta. The general idea is that there's a carnival on Mindil Beach, just out of the centre of Darwin, where competitors bring their boats, entirely made out of empty beer cans, and race them in the sea (they have to row them; these aren't little models, but full-sized boats). The sea was incredibly warm, the boats were impressive, and there were all sorts of odd competitions, from tugs-of-war to Ladies' Thong1 Throwing (or 'tong trowing' as my Irish friends liltingly called it). Junk food, cans of Coke, and another slab that night – because it was my last night, a tenuous but totally valid excuse – rounded off a pretty pleasant day. I vaguely recall talking to a Frenchman called Pierre, who joined us for our slab, but I can't remember much except he was a juggler and wanted to travel Europe, juggling and unicycling to earn his keep. You meet all sorts, when you've had a few. I think...
1 'Thongs' being the Australian name for flip-flops, or sandals, in case you were getting all excited at the thought of ladies ripping off their thongs on the beach...