By Tess LeaNon-fictionNewSouth


Darwin is the final instalment in New South’s ambitious, acclaimed Cities series.

Social anthropologist Tess Lea, who lives in Sydney but grew up in Darwin, has constructed a fractured narrative that reflects the nature of this frontier town: a place where disparate populations largely exist alongside each other, rather than as a coherent populace.

‘As an anthropologist who cannot understand worlds other than through participation, I took part in much of what I describe,’ she writes. The result is an intimate engagement with place that draws the reader in deep; Lea evokes the sensory details of her home town alongside its history and politics. There is the howl of Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974, the smell of steam rising from a hot road after a shower, the taste of lukewarm water from taps marked cold.

Lea proposes that Darwin is sculpted by four major forces: geological (with scarce suitable land), ecological (including the dominance of the mosquito), its status as a garrison town, and its founding on Aboriginal land, ‘a fact that cannot be conveniently footnoted into past history, but explains the mix, socially, politically and economically, that makes up Darwin’.

This beautifully crafted book explores the impact of these forces on the town and the people who live there, her meticulous research unearthing both official history and personal stories, alongside her own reflections.

The Age praised Lea’s ‘great insight and vivid descriptions’, while in the Australian, Nicolas Rothwell paid tribute to the book’s ‘lush prose and brisk analysis’.

Portrait of Tess Lea

Tess Lea

Tess Lea was a Darwin schoolgirl, swimmer, artist, public servant, ministerial advisor, academic and inaugural director of the School for Social and Policy Research at Charles Darwin University. She remains a dog lover, anthropologist, mother and member of an extended Darwin family. Though she now works at the University of Sydney, as a born-and-bred Darwinite, she still calls Darwin home.

Judges’ report

The ninth and final in New South Books’ diverse and diverting series on Australia’s urban landscapes is arguably the best, a lush and tasty feast of history, reportage, travelogue, memoir, geography and geology concerning the past, present and future of Tess Lea’s home town, a city four times destroyed and constantly remaking itself, ‘a place that needs to be felt to be known’. Lea’s prose crackles and her views are punchy and uncompromising.


Why Darwin?

Darwin’s climate and geological intractability have ensured it remains Australia’s smallest capital city. Its serial destructions have seen the question ‘Why Darwin? ’ officially revisited multiple times in its short history. Men – they were always men – have sat around boardroom tables and pondered the challenge; politicians have debated in parliaments; commissions of inquiry have reported their considered verdicts. Each time the answer calls upon a form of geographical determinism. Because of where it is located, trade with Asia is assured. One way or another, money can be extracted from the land and sea. There are development opportunities in mining, pastoralism and agriculture, the men kept saying, seldom matching the spin with serious capital investment or sustained expertise. And of course, they would add, as if in afterthought, the country needs to guard its north.

I see it differently. Darwin is sculpted by four major forces. The first is geological. The town is based on a skinny peninsula barely rising above drowned river valleys that are slowly filling with silt. Suitable land is scarce and it is an ongoing, energy-intensive struggle to make the place habit- able. The second is ecological. The humble mosquito killed off the first three attempts at northern settlement and drives conditions for the built environment to this day. Climate and isolation foster the population turnover and underpin the high costs of living. Third, it is a garrison town, a fact that is hidden in plain sight. Meeting Defence needs has periodically been the pump used to aspirate Darwin’s inflatable bop-bag resurrections. And finally, it is founded on Aboriginal land, a fact that cannot be conveniently footnoted into past history, but explains the mix, socially, politically and economically, that makes up Darwin.

In everyday life, these forces morph and merge in confounding, intoxicating ways. For all the upheaval, post-war immigration energised Darwin as it did elsewhere, with new generations of settlers, waves of Greeks and Italians, followed in later decades by Vietnamese, Timorese and Filipinos, who renovated the town again. Darwin’s architecture and urban design reflect the marks different sojourners stamp with every metamorphosis. Like the wounds from its devastations, each makeover is ephemeral; or, more accurately, heritage needs to be glimpsed in scattered and elusive material remains. The place has an Ozymandian quality: buildings, furniture, appliances do not survive long. Even the dumping grounds of Nightcliff, where unwanted machinery and detritus from World War II were tipped over a cliff, have merged into the rocks below, no longer distinguishable, just deformed lumps of rust and chalk.

The environmental battles have yielded today’s whole-of-yard house designs that use concrete besser blocks, sliding glass windows and cement rendering to create hermetically sealed McMansions. Contemporary Darwin is as much an ode to the powers of air conditioning and engineering as it is an ongoing lesson in the folly of trying to bend the biosphere to settlement will. The pressures of catering for an expanding population in the face of land shortages also gives rise to houses that kill. The toxic melioidosis bacterium lives dormant in the soil until brought to the surface by earthworks and rain, causing pneumonia and septicaemia. Its incidence is rising with each new subdivision as the population expands. The turquoise waters of the Timor Sea are hazardous with prehistoric crocodiles and, as reliable as the build-up, become a beckoning sea that repels human entry by order of the most venomous creature on earth: the box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, increasing in numbers as the water warms and acidifies.

There are battles with introduced cane toads. Hire cars and government fleet vehicles have stickers warning drivers to immediately remove bat splats, lest the paintwork corrode down to the metal. Even the famed tropical sunsets are made more intense by smoke particles from burning gamba grass, a species introduced for feeding cattle that even four-wheel drive vehicles can’t knock down. Servicing Aboriginal people has not only created unique postcolonial industries, it explains why Northern Territory citizens receive generous financial loadings from the Common- wealth – loadings which make up 80 per cent of the Territory budget. The military gave Darwin the Stuart Highway, bridging in one season the 630-mile gap that work undertaken sporadically since 1886 on the north- south transcontinental railway had left undone.

Defence built one of Australia’s largest runways; it gave the town a vital post-cyclone population boost, housing finances, money for road repairs and swamp drainage, a larger than usual sex industry and more besides, including fighter jets with high-thrust engines exploding into the air. And the historic Leanyer air Weapons Range created a 90-hectare area of bomb craters – marvellously productive breeding sites for disease-bearing varieties of salt marsh mosquitoes.

It is a tough, fragile, magical, hilarious, foolhardy and unique town, its policy foibles offset by its rich cultural history and humbling wild beauty. Once known as Australia’s Little Moscow in light of its working class activism, it is also deeply politically conservative. Famed for its hunting, shooting, fishing and drinking ‘Territory lifestyle’, its many sojourners also live in fearful tension with the place they are in. Helpers who come to change Aboriginal people end up changed themselves. There is a unique humour and matching vocabulary, part creolised, that makes Darwinites instantly recognisable to each other – that’s no gammon. Insiders give outsiders a citizen test: a pass/fail based on the unique salty plum. To the aficionado these red, brown or grey dried prunes, preserved Chinese-style in salt, liquorice and sweeteners, are a delicious snack and cure-all. They can be eaten any time and are just the thing for a sore throat. Sadly, too many test subjects spit out these delightful lumps of chewy brine, scraping their tongues forcefully against their upper teeth to scour the taste away.

Such a waste of a good salty plum.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist