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Highway One – Victoria River






The first thing which seems obvious when entering the Northern Territory at the top end is the change of road quality.

The roads local to the border are pitted with potholes but only on the NT side.

There are regular, new kinds of quarantine signs, the speed limit changes from 110 to 130km/hr, there’s the appearance of cane toads on the roads at night not long after crossing the border too, there’s a lot more animal traffic on the roads and by the roadside as well, cows, bulls, horses seem pretty common. There is also less human traffic, fewer road trains, fewer cars, fewer roadhouses and those that do exist are on the fringes of smaller towns.

From a driver’s point of view the chief concern is travelling 20km/hr faster on roads which are less safe and a lot of the time is spent swerving to avoid deep potholes which stand to cause enormous damage to cars going at high speeds. A large part of the national highway was closed down with extended detours on even less well maintained roads was the only option for getting to Timber Creek, the first main stop after the border and about 220km from there nearest point in Western Australia.


The population demographic is also rather different to the Kimberley, the mixture of indigenous and white fellas changes in proportion from South to North but also from West to East. Whereas the Kimberley has growing indigenous populations from Broome to Derby to Wyndham, if there is one part of the country where it is so clear what kind of damage over 200 years of settlement has done to indigenous Australians it is in the territory, where economic hardship is rife and very much divided along lines of race.

If there is one place where a guy as white as myself can feel like a tourist barely equipped to survive the blistering heat of his own country, it is in the NT where, as a good friend puts it, perhaps moved by Dylan Moran’s remarks about Australia, that living here really means living on the surface of the Sun. Being an astronomy nerd and a physics geek, I happen to know that the surface of the Sun is about 6000 degrees Celsius. Here in the NT it’s about 40 Celsius as I type. It is almost as hot as that soon after sunrise and it just doesn’t ever seem to cool down except when it rains. Even that is the illusion of coolness since the rain is also warm. It is so hot that even sleeping at night is like being in a sauna, you wake up from the stinging of sweat in your eyes and unless you have aircon overnight you can expect to have a terrible time of snoozing.

Here more than anywhere else I have been, well… it seems so obvious that white Europeans settled here in a rash moment of empire building on the surface of the Sun and we white folk are still very much strangers to this hot and strangely roasted and grilled land. In terms of human occupation there was 40,000 years of human habitation and human adaptation to the baking heat and only in the last two centuries have the new, whiter than white arrivals started to transform the landscape to suit their creature comfort needs. A lot of that change is through the construction of frontier towns and the few roads connecting them.

IMG_2714A less obvious impact comes in the form of littering. It is simply impossible to find a single patch of land of 4 square metres without a VB tinnie. No matter how remote you go, if you are within a mile of a road, you will find detritus and other signs of human occupation. It is sobering how many beer cans find their way into the landscape.

While back in WA, I spoke to a guy named Blue in Derby. I asked him his opinion of the grog prohibition laws. He said it had improved Derby but pushed the problem on to Broome. It was his opinion the system had not really worked too well.

In the same town I spoke to a bloke named Charlie who said that he felt targeted as an aboriginal, he was knocking back a tinnie of Emu Export at 11:00am while explaining that he was not legally able to be served until 1:00pm. I asked him if he thought it was a stupid law. He said he definitely did, he also added that there was a serious diabetes problem for indigenous Australians. It was hard to miss.

IMG_2884Entering Derby you see a remote area dialysis clinic. Derby is not a modern place, it is under resourced in many different ways so a dialysis clinic seems out of place as a piece of infrastructure, out of place that is until you consider the reason it is there. Australia is a hard drinking country and the Top End is the hardest drinking part of it. In the extreme heat and without a lot of other forms of entertainment, drinking seems to be the main social and leisure activity. It is so pervasive that the entire section of Highway One between the Gascoyne and the Victoria River region is like a 4000km long rubbish tip only ever frequented by alcoholics.

Filming without any rubbish in plain view has nearly always required some cleaning and also some ingenuity. I got so tired of cleaning up the crap on the roadside to get a pristine looking shot of natural wonder and beauty that when I got to Kununurra and found a stunningly beautiful local monolith, visible from all over the town, with thousands of cans at its base, litter all over the landscape, instead of trying to clean thousands of cans and bottle shards, I made a point of filming the litter instead.

The destruction of the land and the rampant consumption of alcohol at the Top End seems to be the same whether it is in WA or in the NT. The worst I have seen was Kununurra. There you will find a stunning landscape covered in beer cans, it was a nauseating sight. It is a terrible legacy we leave. There are some genuinely funny examples of human impact, the occasional termite mound has been dressed to kill. We don’t have snowmen at the Top End, so some people simply make do with what’s already available.

IMG_2882While driving I have seen cans and bottles hurled from car windows. The notion that people see the country while simultaneously turning it into a large dumping ground for their discarded rubbish is hard to miss.  This is perhaps most obvious in the remote towns in the North where the now famous alcohol restrictions apply. Every town has signage.

In the territory right now there is a push for improvements in education. The NT papers and Top End television news are packed with stories of angry teachers, some of the shops here refuse to serve children who are truant, posting large signs in the windows. Today’s paper tells the story of Tala Turner, the first year 12 student to graduate from the Batchelor Area School just months after the passing of her mother. Clearly the hope is that she will inspire other students to follow. It is clear there is a cultural problem with schools at this end of the world, the problem is not a lack of motivation from teachers or even a lack of resources, though that is a concern. The problem is more serious than that, it is a culture of skipping school and placing little value on education. If there were more students wanting an education and more parents putting a value on that, then the lacking of schools and education resources really would be a more serious problem.

It is not hard to see why that disenchantment with scholastic achievement might happen too: the careers which are so vital to modern cities are simply not careers suited to the outback. For instance here in Katherine there are more backpacker motels than computer and electronics stores. There are more bottleshops here than service stations. There is a 24 hour McDonalds, a Red Rooster, a football oval and a heliport where you can book scenic flights of Katherine Gorge, but there are not too many high tech industries, there is not a lot of manufacturing. There is a small but thriving local arts scene. Handmade crafts such as digeridoos are easy to come by. It is said that the highest proportion of artists per head of capita in the country is in Darwin.  The NT also has the largest proportion of homelessness being more than five times the national average. There are people sleeping on the streets, even in the heat of the day. One dude seemed to have fallen asleep where he fell. Whole families share space in parks. It is an unhappy sight.

IMG_2854The front page of the weekend edition of the NT Times features a story on gangs who appear to have staked a claim in the biggest shopping centre in the Territory. Focus has been drawn to Casuarina Square Shopping Centre after an Adelaide man was bashed to death in the car park. Local business owners and shoppers are all aware of the problem and have been for some time. It was said that the murdered man was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place was, however, a shopping centre car park. The wrong time seems to be any time after school hours. The notion that it was the wrong place and the wrong time shows a kind of horrifying complacency for the problem.

Amidst some of the most beautiful country on Earth, we are somehow failing to find our humanity. Worse, we are so used to it that when a man has his head caved in by a gang of thugs, it’s written off as a wrong place/wrong time incident.

The many tourists from overseas who drive through this part of the world seem to come and go, they see the dramatic sights and keep to themselves. Whatever it is they make of the racial and ethnic tensions, the pandemic poverty and the homelessness is hard to say.

As an Australian though, it is impossible not to care. This is our country: one foot in the first world one foot in the third, still we try to stand together as a nation but it is a North and South place of two nations. These are our fellow Australians. Their problems are national problems, that makes them our problems. It is easy to ignore – or rather forget – just how serious these problems are. Visiting the top end makes it clear though, the problems are very serious and they are not actually being solved because important though an apology is and was, being sorry is, of course, not nearly enough to undo over two whole centuries of racial social, economic and political segregation. It is as though there are two Australias, so long as there is such segregation between the cities of the South and the economic hardship to be found at the Top End, that is not going to change. If Australia is ever to be the lucky country, if a fair go is a genuine national aspiration then the politics of division between the Top End and everything below it has to end.

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