(Excerpted from Chapter 23: Down Under: The Grateful Unrich…)
Darwin Australia 6-19-06
We land in Darwin at 4:50 AM and catch the backpacker bus to town. The guy who answers the hostel door is rude. It’s a sign of things to come. This is a land of irrationally frightened British-bred business shysters and rightfully wary, but hardly bowed Aborigines.
Vic’s Bar serves up $1 meals each night to European upper middle-class youth who are too scared to go to Southeast Asia – or anywhere else not populated with white people – whose parents are footing the bill. They’re playing it safe in a good white country between university degree and investment banking career.
After subsidized dinner, an Australian Jerry Springer type takes the stage and proceeds to humiliate selected eaters – usually pretty girls and loud drunken preppie boys – into doing stupid human tricks which, if perfected, yield their table a pitcher of shitty Brazilian beer. It reminds me of the Cancun spring break crowd. The ulterior motive, of course, is that the trust fund youth will then loosen their purse strings and buy a bunch more beer. And it works. Just not on us. We eat and run.
There is a twisted sort of backpacker industry in Australia. Rude hostels charge $40/night per person for a bunk in a dorm full of strangers. They take a $25 deposit for sheets (you make your own bed), a set of plastic Dollar Store-quality dishes and a key. One spoon short and you’re out $25. You get toast, jam and Nescafe for breakfast. For this your eternal gratitude is commanded. Downstairs in the lobby of each of these little Ponzi schemes is a travel agency that is glad to sell you a backpacker tour of Kakadu National Park for a mere $168 more.
At least in Vietnam you can negotiate and clearly see the hustle coming. Here it’s more subtle and insidious. Next to the travel desk there is without fail an employment service, so that when Buffy runs out of the parent’s cash, he/she can be put to work picking apples or working on a sheep farm for next to nothing. The youth of Europe’s upper middle-class exploited by penal colony miscreants who’ve found their niche within global capitalism. How quaint! Think I’ll have a spot of tea.
Darwin occupies one of the strangest ecosystems I’ve ever seen. Giant long-legged ibises wander around the lawns in town, amidst an unlikely combination of pine and palm trees. Giant cactus grows alongside giant ferns. Everything is out of proportion and randomly placed.
We take a trail to the ocean-front. Jill does her usual beachcombing, until an Aboriginal man I am talking with suggests I tell her to stop. He says there is certain tiny purple octopus that washes up here regularly. If you touch it, you’re dead. We walk to a music festival on the beach. The didgeridoo-infested bands are great, the vendors have interesting stuff and the beach is beautiful. But no one is swimming. No one ever swims here. There are just too many creatures in the Arafura Sea that will kill you on contact. Today a 27-foot killer crocodile is finally shot near a river south of town. He has claimed nine victims.
We set out on our own today for Kakadu – one of only twenty places in the world that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on both natural and cultural criteria. We’d placed an ad on bulletin boards around town and got a response from two Aussies from Byron Bay with a Nissan 4-wheel drive. The girl is friendly. The guy is a know-it-all control freak. We agree to split gas. I neglect to ask if the rig was full when we left. He fills up inside the National Park at a remote station where they wouldn’t even post the price. The 286 km ride costs us $25 and takes nearly four hours, since Garth drives 45 mph the whole way. We get to the Bowali Visitor Center. They know we want to go just another 37 km to Yellow River to see crocodiles but don’t offer to take us. Instead, gas profits in pocket, they drop us off and set out in another direction. Good eh mate!
The visitor center is impressive. It is administered in partnership with the Arnhemland Aborigines – the most traditional in Australia. They are often quoted and given great respect. The on and off uranium mining inside park boundaries is properly lambasted. The Aborigines call it the “sickness zone”. The elders refer to being sickened by the “lawyer mob” and the “mining mob”, who continue to dog them in attempts to get at their resources. They say these types, “stand around doing nothing with their hands in their pockets”.
We hike a two kilometer path into the town of Jabiru – named after a large stork of brilliant blue, green and black colors. We go to the grocery store and get the standard meat pie for lunch. It’s the only food that’s cheap in Australia, where prices are generally higher than in the US. We run into the Byron Bay gas entrepreneurs again. This time I am very short with them. They walk away sheepishly. We ask another couple if they happen to be going to Yellow River. The man says, “Later on today”, but does not offer a ride. I frown. He says defensively, “One fella’ said they saw heaps of them (crocs) at Mary River”. That’s over 200 miles from here but whatever it takes to absolve your conscience buddy.
We walk to Lakeview Park Villas, which is none of the three. Instead it’s a bunch of trailer houses cut down the middle for maximum nightly charge. Fortunately they are full. It is 3:30 now, we are hot and sweaty and it dawns on me that it must be “Solidarity with the long-suffering aborigines day”. Dejected but dignified by the thought, we walk to the “tour company”, where a flaky woman makes a healthy living selling overpriced Greyhound tickets for McCafferty’s bus line.
I wait patiently while she berates a young Aussie for touching the mouse on her office computer, telling him he now owes her for internet use. The high-priced internet scam is but another tool in the Australian inbred bag of tricks. The young man protests. She finally agrees to charge him only half the rate, then sends him packing, all the while portraying herself as Santa Klaus for the shrewd act. At 3:55 – just five minutes before the bus is scheduled to depart for Darwin – she finally takes my $98, informing me gleefully that I’ve saved a $6 booking fee by purchasing two tickets. She then says, “I wasn’t being unreasonable was I?” My deadpan reply comes out, “Lady, I’m probably not the right person to ask. It’s been a very long day”.
The driver is decidedly British, but good for a laugh. His lily-white skinny legs protrude from postal-worker shorts. Yelling into his cheap microphone, he welcomes all aboard. He warns that folks should let him know if they need to get off before Darwin and requests that someone push the “Play” button on the VCR once we get rolling so we can all watch Day After Tomorrow. We settle in and lament our expensive, animal-less day in barren dry weird Kakadu.
Just then a 3-year old aborigine girl hands Jill her bus ticket through the crack between our seats from behind us. We both thank her. Soon she is in the seat across from us. She gives us big-eyed hungry looks as we eat our grocery store snacks. I ask the woman next to her if she can have some. She says it’s ok, so I give her the whole bag, which she can barely grab because both of her hands are already full of snacks. She eats the whole bag and I take her picture. Soon she is grabbing my arm, sitting on my feet and generally dishing out affection.
It is at this precise time that the animals begin to appear outside the bus windows. First we see three wallabies, then a Jabiru, then green and red parrots and cockatoos. Is it the Dreamtime or is it real? Did kindness open a portal? Were all the sins of white Judeo-Christian capitalist greed visited upon us today washed away with one transcendent act towards the long-suffering aborigines? The animals seem to think so. So do the people on the bus – well over half of whom are aborigines. Together we count coup.
After one night in the dismal Youth Shack, we spend our last day in Darwin lurking and napping at the library. We stock up on food for dinner and grab the last bus to anywhere near the airport at 6:05 PM. We have to walk another twenty minutes from the bus stop, but it’s worth it. We see a huge flying fox as we near the terminal. Our Jetstar flight is delayed. It’s the cheap Australian airline. Finally at 2:45 AM we are airborne. I do not sleep. We fly into a beautiful sunrise over otherwise overcast Brisbane. We descend through thick clouds over the Coral Sea.
It’s cold and rainy. The airport train is expensive, so we walk the 2km to the International Terminal. Brisbane doesn’t seems as paranoid and unfriendly as wild-West Darwin – but almost. Fascism is now a national effort, with Prime Minister John Howard directing the choir.
We approach the Virgin Blue counter. A stodgy plump Anglo woman disguised as customer service delivers a near knockout blow. She says we need an onward ticket to enter New Zealand. Sleepless and coffee-deprived and with only 1 ½ hours before our booked flight to Christchurch departs, the adrenaline kicks in. I jump on a ridiculous airport computer and go online. Luckily, I’ve been studying Auckland-LAX airfares already, so I know that United (via Air New Zealand) has the best price – $829 each O/W tax included.
I almost have it booked when the computer jams. Enraged, I stomp off to the Air New Zealand counter to see if they can help. I shouldn’t have bothered. It’s Australia. By the time I get back Jill had un-jammed the thing, so I plunk $2 more into the beast and make the reservation for June 28th. I have just enough time left to email the information to Virgin Blue’s ticket counter. We grab a quick smoke and head for immigration. I stop at the Forex money changer. Their exchange rate – like everywhere in Australia – is a joke, so I opt to change my Aussie dollars in New Zealand. Normally, you are better off changing currency in its country of origin, but these historical felons give such abysmal exchange rates. Sure enough, I do better at the airport in Christchurch.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com