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Forgotten people in paradise

By Stephen Hagan - posted Monday, 10 July 2006

Drunkenness doesn’t create vices, but it brings them to the fore - so said Roman philosopher and poet, Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65).

My first journey back to Darwin, during the third week in May - to attend the Northern Territory Writers’ Festival -after an absence of almost 20 years was an experience crammed with breathtaking highs and disheartening lows.

The tourist brochures spoke of its cultural diversity - more than 50 nationalities making up its 100,000 population, including the area's traditional landowners, the Larrakia.


Perched on a peninsula with sea on three sides, the city is an excellent base to explore the natural attractions of World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park, Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks, the Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land.

Darwin is now a recognised holiday destination in its own right and visitors are often pleasantly surprised at the sophistication of the city and just what there is on offer. With international standard restaurants, shopping malls, marinas, a beach-side casino and a range of local attractions, visitors are sure to be kept entertained for days on end.

But buyer beware, there are glaring omissions to the glossy brochures that become apparent in an instant to new arrivals to the classical, tropical sea port. Some say there is a tropical mystery that belies the past image of safari suited men going hand in hand with crocodiles, summer madness and torrential downpours. Perhaps a wetter version of Townsville or sameness with Cairns, I reflected after a couple of days of being immersed in its ambience.

As I approached my hotel in the centre of town, after a midnight arrival, I was astounded to see, lining its perimeter, rolled (half metre diameter) razor wire.

When I asked the cabbie why there was a need to have razor wire on the hotel fencing, he explained it was to prevent local petty criminals from stealing the customers’ cars. “Likely story”, I said to myself, “probably to keep the blacks out”.

On later inspection I noticed most private and residential dwellings in the city had razor wire, spiked or high walled fencing.


After a couple of hours sleep, I showered and consumed a hearty breakfast at the hotel before leisurely walking a couple of blocks to the Smith Street Mall for the Writers’ Festival launch. While everyone was positioning themselves under limited shaded vantage points, Ted Egan, NT Administrator, played homage in a song to Vincent Lingiari - Gurindji leader of the 1966 Wave Hill strike.

I was enjoying the launch presentations, in particular the Kenbi Dancers; the vibrancy of the men, women and children dancing their dreamtime stories in unison, when off to the left I heard loud laughter from the direction of two jovial women. On closer inspection, I noticed the women were holding large glasses of beer, obviously purchased from the corner pub no further than 20 metres away, and who appeared to be familiar with the performers as they joined in with dramatic chanting.

What struck me most about the women were their ghastly facial scars - one in particular had a conspicuous straight cut from the forehead to the chin, her lips were swollen and the jubilant mood revealed a toothless grin. They were both probably no more than 25 but looked twice that age.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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