The Top End

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For my birthday this year I did something a little different. I flew to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to teach school kids how to build Lego robots. A small group from my office was heading up and they were a person short. I’d had some related experience at an earlier job, and Darwin was on my shortlist of places to see, so I jumped at the opportunity (and then asked my wife, who kindly said yes).

The entire flight up I had my nose glued to the window. We didn’t quite go over the red centre, but we went awfully close. I finally got to see some red dirt! (#1 on my Aussie bucket list) The dessert is beautiful. Way more colourful than I’d thought it would be. Most of the colour seems to follow what must be seasonal waterways. There were also some stunning views where you could see a roadway down the middle of the landscape with dessert on one side, and grasslands on the other. I guess just having a concrete barrier was enough to break up the encroaching sand and let the new growth get started.

After landing in the city I had a chance to take a short trip around downtown. Its a sizable community by my standards, but feels very small. Most buildings are one or two stories tall, and the CBD is made up of small shop windows along quiet streets. It reminded me a lot of PG in terms of the feel of the city.

One other thing that stood out was the large indigenous population in the area. In particular in the city parks. I don’t know the community well enough to fairly describe them, but I can safely say that there were a lot of people hanging out in small circles or sleeping in the shade. While I definitely got the feeling that poverty and substance abuse was in play, I can’t say for sure if that was the case, or just my own bias from back home where that’s very definitely the case. On a few occasions I tried comparing what I was seeing with what I’ve seen before and was rebuked. This was something different.

One thing that I did think was weird was that I couldn’t make my way down to the water. I tried finding the beach but didn’t have any luck. When I got back to the hotel someone told me that there’s a very good reason for that: the beach is home to giant salt water crocodiles. They live in the ocean along the top of Australia, and Darwin was built in the middle of one of their natural habitats. One of the ladies I met told me that it felt like a cruel joke to be so close to beautiful beach, in a city that is 32-34° 360 days a year, and not be able to swim. To help out a bit,the city maintains several inland outdoor swimming pools that are freely available to locals looking to beat the heat.

That night we visited the Middle Markets, a good and stuff market that takes place along a safer stretch of beach. You still didn’t see anyone in the water but people did get a lot closer to the edge. The markets are the place to be on Thursday nights and thousands of people showed up in style (big caravans and deck chairs) to grab a bite and watch the sun set.

On our second day in the city we went to a nearby school to help Grade 5&6s learn about robots and programming. I won’t go into much detail other than to say that it was a very fun, and very rewarding day.

That evening my colleagues surprised me with a mini birthday celebration. I had this lovely pin, silly hats, dinner, wine and churros for dessert.

The third day was a bit of a strange one. I couldn’t do too much, as most of the tours ran at odds with my flight home. But there was one thing I could do that seemed really unique I ended up tagging along with my colleagues again as they drove an hour towards nowhere to visit a school in Bachelor, NT. This is a city of about 480 people, half of which come from the local indigenous community. They had a small group up there building much larger robots for a competition later in June. I. The short time that I was there I met with about a dozen different folk from northern Queensland and the northern territory. I also go to take explore the school grounds for a bit which were lovely. Tropical climates are totally foreign to me and just about square metre contains something cool to look at. Pics below. I joked with one of the guys at the school that even the toilets were amazing – after stopping in for a pit stop I spent the next five minutes admiring large butterflies, teeny lizards, exotic spiders and a bunch of other interesting critters.

We ended up very very close to Lichfield National Park, which is the home of those giant magnetic termite mounds. I didn’t see any of the giant mounds, but there were plenty smaller mounds on the local school grounds. It looks like they crop up at the base of a tree or thick shrub and then grow as the little guys feast. There were a few places on campus where the mound had got a few feet high and the associated tree had been cut short.

I think that by any Australians standards it was a pretty dismal trip. But I still get a big thrill every time I see something that’s not North American. Termite mounds, stubby palm trees, crocodile infested waters – it’s all amazing. Meeting some of the folk from the local indigenous community and sharing some stories was equally incredible. On top of that, working with the kids is always me sly rewarding. Nearly three classrooms joined us, and nearly every kid there (and a few of their teachers) had a blast.

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