Australia’s “Top End”
“Farewell Australia! You are a rising child, and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South; but you are too great an ambition for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”
Our dear friend Charles Darwin wrote these stinging remarks in his Journal during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1832 to 1836. He was sailing the local waters known as the Timor Sea. Perhaps our celebrated evolutionist was having an off day—not discovering any new species he could go on and on about. Even so, the affable Aussies would have said, “No worries mate! We’ll just name a whole bloomin’ town after you.” And so they did. And now you know. And now you’re here. So there you are.
For the record, the naming of the town Darwin is in fact attributed to two different Captains of the Beagle, a John Lort Stokes and a J. C. Wickham. Whatever. The year was 1839 and each fellow had sailed previously aboard the Beagle with Darwin.
Now this is the perfect place to test the philosophical question, “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around, would there be a sound?” There is almost no one around. In the NT, as it is called, approximately 1% (200,000) of Australia’s entire population lives on 20% (1.35 million square kilometers) of the nation’s land. And, technically speaking, this land is not a state like Queensland or Victoria. In days gone by, this region was administered by New South Wales, then South Wales, and finally the federal government beginning in 1911. Though Canberra still administers to some business, for the last quarter century the territory has been declared self-governing.
The NT has two distinct areas—the tropical (think Crocodile Dundee) northern Top End and the parched (think Road Warrior) deserts of the Red Center. Between them is something that has been described as Mother Nature’s attempt at a barbed-wire fence where you’ll find Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Alice Springs. Connecting them is a ribbon of highway that beckons backpackers, cattle trucks, kangaroos, and wayward adventurers out for a bumpy ride.
With sea days ahead, you should pick up a book detailing the history of the region’s early exploration by white settlers. You’ll discover the first European to lay eyes on this coastline was Jan Carstenzoon, a Dutch fellow sailing on the Arnheim in 1623. The whole area remained uncharted and unexplored by Europeans for generations. Anthropologists believe, however, that the Larrakis Aboriginal people have lived in this region for many thousands of years. In fact, some scientists propose the tribes in the Top End are among the world’s most ancient races. Today, these people represent one-fourth of the Territory’s 200,000 inhabitants.
The Aborigines’ story in the NT is much like it was elsewhere across the land. One hundred years ago, the majority of the Aboriginal people were housed in Christian missions or restricted to reserves set up by the government. Those who did find work lived on cattle stations or in town. Today, the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act is in effect. In 1976, this measure was passed returning the land to the original owners and they now own approximately 50% of the NT.
Back to the explorers. There was a good German fellow named Ludwig Leichhardt who reached Port Essington (just north of Darwin) by traveling overland from Brisbane in 1845—think no room service! There were other adventurers with names like Eyre, Sturt, Gregory, Mitchell and Howitt poking about the continent around this same time. It is Burke and Wills who remain Australia’s most famous explorers for it was they who traveled from Melbourne to something called Camp 119, south to north across the vast island continent, to within a stone’s throw of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their exhausting tale is well worth reading in the days ahead.
We also can’t forget John McDouall Stuart who blazed the trail south to north in 1862 linking Port August to Darwin, which was then linked by underwater cable to Java and all the nations beyond ten years later. That was a great day for Australia and set the stage for the city’s modern day history.
In the cool evening air, why not stroll along the Esplanade or sit under the Tree of Knowledge, a sweeping banyan revered by Buddhists worldwide, so old it could tell many tales. If it fell and no one was around to hear, it may well still report a powerful sound.