Sunday, 27 July 2008

The Aborigines of Snake Bay (Chapter 13 – Darwin)

Darwin has the reputation of being the fastest-growing city in Australia. Where, around a natural seaport in the sweltering tropics, barely a decade ago there was nothing but a few tin shacks and a motley, fluctuating population, there is now a thriving, modern city, together with an airport comparable to any in the whole continent. It is a brightly coloured, exotic community of cosmopolitan beings, pleasantly secure in the knowledge that their home is the Government administrative headquarters of the Northern Territory, virtually run by far-off Canberra.

The city is small enough to be intimate and cosy-only a city by outback standards, something like, say, Blandford in Dorset but large enough to boast some very attractive clusters of stilted bungalows of ultra-modern design, a couple of cinemas, a beautifully kept tropical garden, and a whole army of Government officials. There is already a firmly established 'Nobs' Hill', radiating an almost American atmosphere. Among the crowds of uniformed officials, looking neatly businesslike in their white shirts and navy blue shorts and immaculate white socks, the rest of the population stroll about at a pace in keeping with the climate. I believe on our first drive up the main street we saw, without undue effort, practically every nationality of the globe, from Chinese and Slavs to Sicilians and half -caste aborigines.

By a tremendous stroke of luck the first person to whom we spoke turned out to hold the key to our quest for aborigines. As always, on arriving at a new town, we were pottering slowly along, surveying our surroundings, sniffing up the atmosphere, and marvelling at the sight of the Timor Sea which shimmered, almost a cobalt blue, beyond the wide palm-lined avenue. It was good to see a coastline again.

There were some very plush residences along that marine drive, and busily painting the fence of one palatial bungalow was a man of medium build and age, dressed in ragged shorts, who was, I think, only too glad to pause in his labours and watch the approach of our strange-looking outfit. Thus, by the slenderest chance, we met Doug Lockwood, chief reporter in Darwin for the Melbourne Daily Herald, who had only just returned from London after being specially flown over to receive first prize for the London Evening News competition for 'The World's Strangest Story' (a fantastic but true tale of Bas Wie, an island native who had made an incredible illegal entry into Australia after the war -we were to hear all about Bas Wie later that evening). He smiled cheerfully as we approached, and we stopped to ask where the administrative headquarters were. And so an invaluable friendship was formed.

Doug Lockwood was one of the very few men in the capital of the Northern Territory who could guide us along the narrow and rocky path of officialdom to our objective-Melville Island. That the people of the island occupied such an isolated wilderness was due almost entirely to the Australian Government Department of Native Affairs, which exercised a justifiably rigid control over all European visitors, allowing only a few entries, and then not without a stiff medical test. For the Snake Bay aborigines are highly susceptible-usually with fatal results-to common ailments of the civilized white which inconvenience us for no more than a few days.

So, on that balmy, tropical evening, as we sat under a swishing fan and admired the primitive wall decorations in his cool, spacious bungalow, Doug outlined a plan for Nita and me to follow.

First, we would have to go to the Native Affairs Department and get permission to visit the island. This, Doug thought, should not be too difficult as we were writing and film-making. Then we would have to undergo the medical, equip ourselves with supplies, and lastly find some method of crossing the shark-infested stretch of Timor Sea which separated us from our goal.

Unfortunately the man we had to see was in Canberra and would not be back for a week. We would just have to wait.

Not wishing to encroach too much on Lockwood's hospitality, we declined his 'open house' offer and set up camp on a beautiful stretch of green sward that overlooked the bay. That this particular piece of springy turf was also the pitch of Darwin's cricket club was immaterial; they were not using it, so we could; which was typical of the big-heartedness of Northern Australia. No one objected to our using the changing rooms and showers, either. Indeed, the attendant encouraged us to do so and left all the doors unlocked. We waited six days for the return of the administrator, in complete comfort.

During those six days, the hours simply weren't long enough. We explored Darwin from end to end, became regular visitors to the Native Affairs Department, met and made friends with two Latvian crocodile hunters (robust, heavily built characters who had just returned after six months in the bush of Cape York Peninsula and who were enjoying civilization again on the £ 1,000 profit from the sale of skins), had the scooter and sidecar overhauled and a stronger spring fitted to the third wheel-ready for the marathon trip south some time in the hazy future-and lastly, we met Jack Kelley.

On the fourth day of our stay there was great excitement in the township. The Mobilgas 'Round Australia Rally' was coming through in the evening. We spent the afternoon getting in necessary supplies-optimistically perhaps-for the forthcoming expedition, and after the standard Australian main meal of steak and eggs, we fastened the tent flap and strolled across the cricket pitch; past the luxurious, brand-new Darwin Hotel (two-roomed suite: £20 per day) to a fenced enclosure already thronged with expectant watchers waiting to greet the first competitors in this, the world's most gruelling motor-sport event.

The first car, a Volkswagen, arrived dead on time smothered in bull-dust, the windscreen patterned with spattered insects, to disgorge two weary drivers, red-eyed and very, very tired. They checked in at the control, grinned at the crowd of cheering onlookers by dint of great effort, and left their vehicle impounded to snatch a few hours' sleep before the next lap.

During the following two hours the rest of the field arrived. Surprisingly, the majority of the cars were in good shape considering the terrain and the average speed set. Some of them were, of course, very sick mechanically, but the major cause of body damage appeared to be from collisions with kangaroos during the night drives. One such car, a Holden, sponsored by a southern departmental store, had the front offside door tied with string; a door only vaguely resembling its original shape. I was unable to understand why so many drivers could not avoid a glare-blinded animal, and it was not until we started on the return journey south that I discovered why.

A little later Nita and I found ourselves talking to one of the crew, a tall, sun-bronzed fellow of large physique and twinkling eyes, who, despite the world's toughest rally in which he now competed, seemed more interested in our own achievements on the scooter. And so we struck up a spontaneous friendship which was strengthened the next morning, when the rested driver had slept off the worst of his fatigue. He knew of our plans and aspirations, and his parting shot as he left again on the next stage to Mount Isa was a good illustration of his warm, generous nature.

‘When you get back to Melbourne, come straight along,' he yelled above the revving engines. 'I've got a caravan in the back yard. Built it myself. All mod. cons. It's yours for as long as you want to stay.' He handed me a slip of paper with his address hastily scrawled. 'Look forward to seein' you two in about four months' time. G'bye.'

And with a quick wave of the hand the timekeeper signalled, the rear wheels of the Holden span a moment in the dust, the car took off at full bore, went through the compound gates in a controlled slide and was in seconds just a speck at the far end of the palm-lined avenue. Well, whatever might befall us, we knew that if or when we got back to Melbourne we would be sure of a very warm welcome from Jack Kelley, master builder and sometime competitor in the toughest trial of all.