Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunday Afternoon in Darwin

My last two days in Darwin I spent getting myself organized for the long trip back, catching up on my last few blog entries, and just exploring Darwin a bit more.
I wandered around checking out some of the galleries downtown Darwin, enjoying some of the beautiful artwork I saw - both the desert style dot paintings, as well as the Arnhemland and Tiwi Island style with the cross hatching.

I did a bit of painting myself Saturday and Sunday, just dappling a bit really - I have so much inspiration from this trip, that I have a hard time distilling it out so I can put it on paper - but I can feel I am processing, and hopefully I will soon be ready to really get going.

I had still not visited the Darwin Art Museum, so that, as well as a visit to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, was on my agenda for Sunday afternoon.
I caught a city-bus out to the Museum, and spent a couple of hours engrossed in the lovely exhibits of Aboriginal Art, and then I moved on to the other exhibits of the geology, flora and fauna of the Top End, as well as the exhibit about Cyclone Tracy, which pretty much wiped Darwin out on Christmas Eve, 1974. I tried to think back, but I really have no recollection of hearing of those events at the time.
After enjoying an iced coffee and the views from the Cornucopia Café at the museum, I wandered along the path over to the Mindil Market. The area was familiar, because it was the very same path I had biked on earlier in the week, but instead of the empty parking lot under the shade trees at Mindil Beach, it was full of booths and food stalls, and the Darwinians were out in full force enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon strolling along the booths, shopping, eating and just relaxing.
Earlier as I had walked down to the bus terminal, I had noticed how peaceful and deserted downtown Darwin seemed - most stores were closed - a real old-fashioned "Sunday" feel, which you don't experience in the States anymore, as most stores are open 7-days a week.
There were all the usual things you find at markets everywhere nowadays at the Mindil market, but I was drawn to a couple of art booths with aboriginal paintings - and watched for a while as the artists were painting. I was especially fascinated by an artist, Rhonda Wygunja, who was painting in the traditional Arnhemland style along with her 2 young sons and her husband. I chatted a bit with them, and learned they were regulars at the market. Of course, I ended up buying the small painting Rhonda was working on - Crocodile Dreaming - it will be a nice memory of the wonderful time I have had up here in the "Top End".

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Impressions from Tiwi Islands

As my time here in Darwin is drawing to a close, I realize there are still so many things to see and explore, so I have to make choices. Since being here I have heard of the unique arts and crafts coming from the isolated Tiwi people on the Tiwi Islands (which consists of Bathurst and Melville Islands) about 2 hours by boat from Darwin. I decided I must go there to see this art community, so I booked a day tour.
I arrived at the Cullen Bay Ferry Terminal at 7 AM, to board the "Arafura Pearl" fast ferry which would depart at 7:30 AM, so giving me ample time to wander around and admire the beautiful sunrise and the cool morning air coming off the ocean. We were about 10 passengers going on the "Tiwi Island Adventure Tour", so we were shown up to the upper deck, while the regular passengers stayed at the deck below. As the boat left the dock we were served coffee and the, and shown a brief safety film, then a movie was put on the big screen in the salon.
I wasn't interested in watching a movie, so I leafed through the pile of old magazines and booklets lying up front, and found a few about the history of the Tiwi Islands.
When we reached Bathurst Island we boarded the shuttle boat which took us the last 100 yards or so onto the Nguiu Beach, where we were met by our local tour guide John from the Tiwi Islands. We boarded a small bus, and John told us a bit about the Tiwi People's interesting history, as we slowly drove through the small village and disembarked at the little museum. We all got out, and the bus driver went over to open up the museum and turn on the lights, while John explained what we were going to see in the museum, before we went in.
The first room was displays about the creation story, and John did an excellent job of telling us these stories of how the world was created, and about the story of how death came to the Tiwi Islands.
The next room had displays of some of their famous burial poles, spears and throw sticks. We were allowed to photograph, except for the burial poles, which are considered very sacred in the Tiwi Culture. The third room was mainly old photos from the mission days of the Tiwi Islands. The Catholic Mission was established on the Tiwi Islands in 1911, so relatively late. There had been other attempts earlier by the Dutch and later the British to establish settlements on the islands, but the Tiwi People drove them away.
Nest stop was the old Mission church, which is now only used for special occasions such as weddings. I liked the way the church was decorated with indigenous artwork along with the small Madonna and Jesus statues. Outside was a plaque commemorating the bravery of some of the islanders during the 2nd World War.
Next we drove over to see the Ngaruwanajirri Art Community – aboriginal artist coop – were a few artists were working while we were there. I also wandered over to the building where the wood sculptures were made, but there was no one working, however I saw some wood carvings in various stages of completion.
Next stop was the Pwanga Women's Enterprise – where they did screen printing, sowing, etc. A few women were working, and there was a little shop, with no one attending it – there were some beautiful printed fabrics lying on some of the long tables, and there was a big oven, where they apparently baked the fabrics so the prints would hold up when washing the fabrics. It would have been so great if we had had someone to explain exactly what they were doing there, and I am sure the sales would be boosted that way also, especially if somebody would attend the shop, and maybe work a bit on the displays, which were uninspiring to say the least.

The last stop was the Tiwi Design Art Center, which was set up a bit more commercially appealing than the previous centers we had visited. There were a couple of artists working, among them an artist who was working on a beautiful traditional painting of a turtle. I went over to talk to him, and he told me how he made his colors from ochre that he found on the beach, how he would grind them up and mix them with water, etc. He used the traditional colors of yellow, reddish brown, black, white, grays and creams, all colors that he made himself, except for black, which he told me was so messy that nowadays he used black acrylic. They need more people like him to interact with the visitors, and who can make the art and the process come alive. Afterwards I walked over to the pottery barn where a lone ceramist was working.
As our little group got back in the bus again, we were taken down to the beach to board our vessel for lunch, and then we would go back to Darwin after the regular passengers were boarded at 2 PM.
Lunch was a nice buffet, and I enjoyed chatting with a couple of the other passengers during lunch. We came away with a certain sadness at what we had seen – it was not the vibrant art community I think we had all expected from the description in the brochures. It seemed like everything was in disrepair, and I couldn't help the feeling that I had just visited an old movie set, dusty, cobwebbed and with time standing still. It seems to me that this might have been a vibrant community when the art centers first started more than 20 years ago, but now there is no new blood, no young people to take over, and most of the few artists still there have lost the momentum, and are getting older, or something!
I so wish I could have given you a glowing report on how inspiring a trip it was, but sadly it wasn't. I have to go with the saying: "A tourist sees what she has come to see, a traveler sees what she sees". And I saw what I can only describe as "decline".
The one very positive thing I did learn is that there are several really good Australian Rule Football players from the Tiwi Islands, and the sport is extremely popular on the islands, so maybe the young generation is into sports instead of arts? I think it is possible to do both.
When I looked back upon the islands as we rode towards Darwin I though about how idyllic they look so beautiful and green, red sand beaches, swaying palm trees and mangroves, turquoise waters - but yet such a harsh environment. Most of the year the heat and humidity is unbearable, lots of mosquitos and flies. You cannot enter the waters due to crocodiles and box jellies, and in the rainy season I cannot imagine the mud and flooding!

Darwin By Bicycle

With only a few days remaining before I head back to the beautiful California I thought it was time to do some real sightseeing in Darwin. So far I had spent most of my time recuperating between exploits into the Northern Territory and beyond, and not done much other than a few walks in central Darwin.
Luke had suggested renting a bike, when I had asked him about places to go in Darwin, so with that in mind I booked an afternoon Bicycle Tour of Darwin. However, when I showed up at the Holiday Shop they told me that, unfortunately, nobody else had booked the tour, and they had tried to reach me earlier, unsuccessfully. However, I could do the tour myself, and equipped with a map, bike and helmet I set out on my own. I biked along the shaded trails in the Centennial Park, enjoying the view out over Fanny Bay.
After being lost for a bit, trying to find the continuation of the bike trail, I found myself on the right track, and biked out to Mindil Beach, were I got off to stretch a bit, and take a few photos of the deserted beach. As you can see from the sign, it does not exactly entice you to take a swim - even though the water looks inviting in it its blue and turquoise splendor! But the chance of a close encounter with one of the notorious box jellies definitely keeps me out of the water! Besides, Luke had told us that they had removed about 200 salties from the harbor after the wet season - another deterrent!
Instead I took a drink out of the drinking fountain, snapped a few photos, and biked on. I passed the casino, the high school, part of the botanical garden, as I kept the ocean on my left, and stayed on the trails until I reached the East Point Reserve.
It was pretty hot, but I saw no ice-cream parlors or other outlets for refreshments, other than a fancy looking restaurant along the way, so I found another drinking fountain, took a few more photos, and then proceeded to the end of the trail. By now it was well past 4 PM, so I headed back, getting myself lost a few more times, as the trail ended, and there was no mention of where to pick it up again! (They need to work a bit on their signage for us poor tourist bicyclists, I reckon!)

Eventually I found the right way, and pulled up at the Holiday Shop a few minutes past 5:30 PM. I apologized for being late, and wanted to pay, but to my amazement they would accept no payment, it was complimentary, because they had not been able to reach me to let me know the original tour was cancelled! How kind and generous was that!

As I walked home I was a bit sore in my legs not to mention butt! After all I had bicycled a respectable 16 KM which equals exactly 10 miles that afternoon, and it's been a while since I was last on a bike! It was a great way to see the city and surrounding areas, and definitely something I would do again!
I was tempted to join the evening crowds at one of the outside cafes for a glass of wine, but decided I better get myself home and take a shower, I was hot and dirty from the dust of the trails. Besides, once I sat down I knew it was going to get though to get going again!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Litchfield National Park

After a couple of days just taking it easy and enjoying being on no schedule, I was ready for a trip to see Litchfield National Park, so I booked a 1-day tour, so I could see the waterfalls and termite mounts it is famous for.
The tour-bus left at 7:30 am, and we headed for the Adelaide River where there was the option of going on the Jumping Crocodile Cruise, or go to Fog Dam to see the Window on the Wetland exhibit.
I guess I am a bit of a purist, and chumming to get the crocs to jump out of the water sounded just a bit to circus like for me, I chose the window on the Wetland option. Besides, I felt I had seen plenty of crocodiles in their natural state, so the possibility of spotting a few more birds sounded much more appealing to me.
As we pulled up, there was a couple of red-legged Bush Hens on the trail, and I got my camera out and managed to get a couple of good photos! Earlier, while we were waiting at Adelaide River I had seen a Fig Bird, and here there was a number of them flying about in the big trees, so I got a couple of decent photos of them as well – and they were a new bird for me, which I could add to my list of sightings! Needless to say, I was happy with my choice!
When all were aboard again, we drove a short distance to our lunch stop, before continuing on to Litchfield NP, where we first stopped to admire the huge Cathedral Termite mounts and the Magnetic Termite mounts that spread out over the bush and reminded me of gravestones. This is the only place in the world where these particular magnetic termites live, and they built their mounts from north to south as a way of controlling the temperature of the mounts – very clever!
Then we drove on to reach the first waterfall of the day - the Tolmer Falls. A short hike took us to the viewing platform from where we could look down on the impressive falls. The cliffs are so steep here that there is no way of getting down to the base of them and the pool below.
The next set of falls we drove to were the Wangi Falls, and they were even more impressive that the Tolmer Falls. Swimming had just been opened, but our driver would not let us swim here – they are treacherous, and one year a driver came home with 6 less passengers than he set out with! Very tragic, but due to strong undercurrents people drown here on a regular basis – especially in the beginning of the season where the water still runs very fast.
The 3rd set of falls we went to were the Florence Falls, where we would make our long stop, so we could walk the 150 steps down to the swimming hole at the base of the falls. It was a beautiful view, and I enjoyed the refreshing dip in the natural pool as I reached the bottom of the falls. Then I walked the beautiful path back along Shady Creek, and enjoyed the scenery as I slowly walked along, taking in the beauty of the area. I saw several birds along the way, and as I came up close to the car park I met a couple of the other passengers cooling off in the little creek. I joined them, and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the afternoon. The pool below the waterfalls were much more crowded, and full of young guys yelling and screaming and showing off. Here it was much more peaceful. As I was getting dressed a big Australian Goanna walked along, and he didn't seem to be afraid at all, but just walked by doing his goanna business.
As we drove back to Darwin I sat and enjoyed the passing landscape in the light of the setting sun – a landscape that was now familiar to me.
I walked the short walk from the drop-off downtown to the apartment in the sunset hour, enjoying the soft evening light and the warm breeze as I walked the now familiar streets. It had been another great day!