It was known as Australia’s Pearl Harbor, a place bombed by the Japanese leaving the Aussies with an abiding fear of its South Asian neighbours – and now, of course, there’s a film. Australia – the movie set in the long neglected outback of the Northern Territory.
I lived there between 1969 and 1972, in fact I still own a medal that celebrates the first complete 100 years of the existence of Darwin – the bombing didn’t count as it did not destroy the city. Darwin was destroyed though, in 1974, by Cyclone Tracy – but that’s another story. At the moment the Australians, Baz Lurhmann, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and others, including David Gulpilil are turning Darwin and its flirtation with history into an epic to match Gone with the Wind right down to the semiotics of the publicity. I have not yet had the opportunity to see the film, but what I do know is that it adopts the romanticism of the outback and applies it to the whole of Australia. Which has always amused me, when in fact most of the population live in the suburbs of the South and are as wedded to their washing machines and televisions as is the rest of the materialistic world. Darwin pre-Tracy had a population, I think of approximately 30,000 people, it is 2,000 miles from Sydney and its nearest neighbour is Timor. As for that population, it was widely rumoured that Darwin was a place to run, somewhere you went to hide, to get away from the past, from a crime, or from your parents, in some cases it was to get away from arthritis. Its relationship with the weather was fraught, its relationship with the sea – worse, its relationship with its indigenous peoples – shameful, as would be true of most of institutional racism in Australia, but in Darwin it was, and to some extent still is – in your face. Whether the film will go any way to redeeming that, or romanticising it, I don’t yet know – watch this space. In reality Darwin was an interesting, if difficult place for a Pomey like me to live. It has changed since 1974, Tracy took it all, so most of the film seems to have been filmed in Bowen, a place I remember for a plague of toads, maybe cane toads. Untouched by cyclones, Bowen must be still much the same to provide the set for pre-cyclone Darwin. The post-cyclone Darwin runs trips to Kakadu,
tours and there is no swimming in the beautiful blue sea, at least when I lived there you could swim from May to September when the seawasps retreated, now the saltwater crocs inhabit, not just waterways but the harbour – the sea taunts the unwary swimmer. Inland, the waterfalls and lagoons are now also infested, when I swam in the Mary River, only freshwater crocs eyed our canoes and kayaks, now tourists ride the rivers eying the salties from a safe distance – usually. It seems the Australian tourist board want some of the secrets of the Northern Territory revealed, in an attempt to convince a wider audience that Australia fought its own battles, the film’s publicity hints at travelogue – waterfalls and horses, tough men but delightful men and innocent but determined women, destined to fall in love not just with each other but with the place – easily done. I have yet to find out whether the film is any good, but I will go and see it – after all I have been a Darwinite!