Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2017

Darwin (2014, New South City Series #9), by Tess Lea

Darwin is the only Australian capital city I’ve never visited, but whereas Peter Timms’ book In Search of Hobart in the same New South City Series made me want to pack up and move to Tassie overnight,  Tess Lea’s impressionistic survey of Darwin makes me want to avoid it.  I just couldn’t put up with the weather:

… Darwin is a place where the imported seasonal markers of summer, autumn, winter and spring have no meaning.  Locally, people note two main seasons: ‘the Wet’, a brief but intense monsoonal deluge from January through to March; and ‘the Dry’, a long drought extending from April through to September.  By December people are willing storms to break the searing heat and rising humidity that precedes the Wet.  Locals call this bridge period ‘the build-up’, a reference both to the climbing humidity and temperatures, and the mounting stress of the sticky, sapping heat.  Alternative names are mango madness, the silly season, even the suicide season.

It is as if the body registers as a psychic assault the lowering air pressure from thunderstorms brewing over warm water. […]

You are in a stifling sauna, not a romance novel of languid afternoons under the palms.  Your brain seems to be melting and tempers flare; irritability spreads from itching skin to the whole world.  Only the fish, mozzies, fleas and cattle ticks are happy, breeding faster in the steaming heat. (p. 13)

Well, of course, tourists don’t have to visit during the build-up or the monsoon.  But Lea gives the impression that there are social disadvantages to Darwin too:

… for young people Darwin continues to have the attractions and the downsides of a large country town.  ‘You endure the heat, you get drunk.  If you stay, you can have a baby and maybe get a home loan.  It’s better to get out,’ one young man told me, briefly back home for his studies ‘down south’. It can feel suffocating. (p.183)

And this:

‘It becomes very repetitive in Darwin after a while,’ she told me.  ‘There’s a strong culture of drinking and drug-taking.  Everyone in Darwin’s smoked weed or drunk crazy amounts of alcohol by age fifteen.  It’s more expected there, more accepted.’ (p. 183)

And then there’s the cane toads and mosquitoes, urban crocodiles, and swimming pools that are unusually shallow, which means it warms up more readily in the build-up heat to a pea soup temperature, just when people are mad keen to escape the seething heat.  Nothing lasts long: even the buildings corrode from within in the moist salty air, which is why it’s too expensive to protect what remains of the city’s heritage buildings.

And more importantly, from a tourist’s point-of-view, it seems that outsiders have little chance of discovering the city’s appeal.  (Lea does say, in the Preface, that her book is not a tourist guide configured as a map of visitable sites).  After visiting a training session for the Chinese ‘Lions’ that perform at blessing ceremonies all over Darwin, she finds the streets are empty:

… Darwin is not a town for idle pedestrians, at least not before dusk on a hot weekend afternoon.  I remember squinting up at yellow and navy long-sleeved cotton shirts, the tradie’s signature uniform, as they flapped against verandah railings on high-rise apartment buildings, where tiny metal porticos provided scant shade against the blasting tropical sun. Does this town disappoint those tourists who make the mistake of walking in the city, in forlorn search of the Darwin they’ve heard is the most Asian of all Australian capital cities? Amid the great secular ugliness of the CBD they would find a car park instead of a Chinatown, for Darwin’s multiculturalism is not well packaged. Yet the lack of ethnic enclaves somehow seems fitting, Darwin’s poly-ethnic make-up is such a naturalised part of everyday life, it has no need to fabricate special districts or ornamental displays.  (p.121)

‘Fabricate’ is a loaded word in that sentence.  Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t ‘fabricated’, it’s a sexed-up version of what was always there, and it plays an important part in acknowledging an ethnic group’s contribution to our heritage.  (I’ve taken school groups to the museum there).  But since most of Darwin was flattened by Cyclone Tracy – and before that in WW2 was the only city in Australia ever to suffer a bombing campaign –  the city has had to rebuild itself, and has had to make choices about what would be rebuilt and where.  Were the Chinese in Darwin so ‘naturalised’ that they didn’t build temples or industries alongside the market gardens they are famous for?

Lea’s approach to writing this book was ‘anthropological’, participating in what she describes and talking to ordinary people, not celebrities or political notables.  She says in the Preface that her approach shows the Darwin people know, one that might be unfamiliar, and aspects some don’t want to know about.  Her themes are disasters and reinvention, real and imagined dangers, how the place is lived, and where it might be going.  But in naming her ‘omissions’ in some detail in this Preface, right at the very beginning of the book, she gives prominence to events that have made Darwin infamous – the  murder of Peter Falconio and the abduction of his girlfriend Joanne Lees on its back roads in 2001, and the disgraceful treatment of Lindy Chamberlain in the Darwin judicial system.  So the book begins with a harsh reminder of negative events, not really offset by a scanty allusion to Darwin’s extraordinary creative scene…

Although the book starts with the destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1975 (as I suppose it must, since that transformed the city like no other event), it was the chapter called ‘Dangerous Proximities’ that tells the history of Darwin from a perspective that most people might not know:

It is more conventional to begin with the voyages of Captain Cook, take in settlement along the country’s south-east, track west and inland, before eventually reaching the frontier north as the most recent event.  Yet, recast from a northern perspective, Australia gains a more elaborate, sophisticated and older recorded history.  For hundreds of years, there was valuable trade with trepang collectors and, with this, links with the European trading empire that centred on the so-called Spice Islands of the Indonesian and Malay archipelago. The port of Makassar was the centre of the trade, with the uniquely repulsive Australian trepang attracting the highest coin.  (p.102)

Among non-Indigenous and non-Chinese Darwinites, Lea says, very few can trace their Darwin roots back to the 19th century, and the population is highly transient.  But a potentially successful model of multiculturalism was dismantled and became instead a catalyst for the White Australia policy because of fears that the Chinese would overrun the north, spill across the borders and overwhelm the Australian colonies. 

But what to make of the comment about compulsive judgements tacked onto the end of a paragraph about the discrimination against Aborigines in the early 20th century?

For Aborigines, it is a time of curfews and righteous religious instruction, the berated audience forced to swallow the contradictions of good Christian settlement.  The authorities gave reasons for European men to fear marrying Aboriginal women and backed them with legislation.  Social judgements did the work of policing too.  Swift ostracism of the explicit sinner, the ‘combo’ was harsh and instinctive.  The good ladies and gentlemen of Darwin deplored with a moral rectitude that stiffened their spines and tightened their lips.  Their aversion was as readymade as my own prissiness when I spot a red-hued Aussie male draping his blancmange arms over a young Asian girl.  It is a compulsive judgement that needs no intimate knowledge of circumstances.  (p.109)

While Lea is at pains to celebrate the ethnic diversity of Darwin, and has included Aboriginal voices (e.g. about their experience of the bombing of Darwin), it’s tempting to guess where her sympathies lie in the vexed matter of access for recreational fishing.  In the chapter about fishing rights, Lea reports the ruckus when Aboriginal title was extended to coastal waterways.  She reports the outrage from the local fishing lobby, and quotes a racist remark from one of them. She also cites a woman called Chrissie who coordinates the annual Secret Women’s Business Barra fishing challenge.  Is the name of this challenge okay with the local Indigenous women?  Is it an offensive mockery of Indigenous culture, or just harmless Darwinian humour?  That might depend on who’s laughing, or so it seems to me, but if there was any mention of the Indigenous perspective, or a quotation celebrating their restored title to their waterways, then I missed it.  Elsewhere in this book there is respectful commentary about Aboriginal issues, but not in this one.

An academic born and raised in Darwin, Tess Lea is (according to the cover flap blurb) someone who ‘got out’ but still calls Darwin home.  Perhaps that explains the unsentimental way she describes the unappealing aspects of Darwin while also conveying some pride in and affection for the place.  The book is heavily researched: of 290 pages, 40 are acknowledgements and a bibliography.  I’d love to read a review of it by permanent resident of Darwin!

Author: Tess Lea
Title: Darwin
Publisher: New South City Series #9, New South Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781742233864
Source: Kingston Library

The City Series is available from Fishpond:


  1. What’s the price of real state like there compared to your neck of the woods?


    • Gosh, I’ve got no idea really, except that it wouldn’t be anything like prices in Melbourne and Sydney where housing affordability is a major political issue.
      I just Googled it: the median price in Melbourne is close to a million dollars, and in Darwin it’s half that.
      And relative populations? Melbourne is about 4 million and Darwin is just over 100,000. Whether that includes the floating populations of the US military base there, I don’t know.


      • Sounds like the sort of place you either love or hate.


  2. I love Darwin in the dry season, i.e. around June, July, August, and would happily spend time there again. I’ve been there twice, and had planned a third until our son’s accident a couple of years ago resulted in our having to cut our trip short. I have a friend who lived there for a couple of years in the early 1990s and was very sad to leave. Her daughter has returned and now lives there. My cousin went there in the late 1970s and lived there until a few years ago. I couldn’t stand the humidity, though, (“the stifling sauna”!) and I don’t really know what it would be like to live there as a resident but I think like any place, Darwin is a place where you can find your milieu.

    But, this book sounds as though it’s trying too hard to be sociological rather than to give a real sense of the place as a living city. I know you’ve read a couple in the series. Is that what the aim is? I have the Canberra one but haven’t read it.

    BTW Peter Falconio did not die in Darwin’s backroads but hundreds of kilometres south. It happened south of Tennant Creek, which is nearly 1000km south of Darwin. He died closer to Alice Springs than to Darwin. As did of course Azaria Chamberlain, but the court cases for both were run in Darwin as you say.


  3. You know, I thought that about the Falconio case, but that’s what it says is in the book. This is the exact quotation: “There are events that brought Darwin to international attention that I neglect. The place is infamous for the murders along its back roads, such as at Barrow Creek in 2001, where Peter Falconio was killed and his girlfriend Joanne Lees abducted” (p.1x). I should have looked it up to confirm my doubts
    Maybe it’s a case of what seems like hundreds of miles to us, is just the back yard in a place where towns are so rare and distances so huge? Maybe they regard the whole Territory as their back roads? (As when I lived in Seymour and used to describe Pucka (a good 20k away from where we were, as ’round the corner’.)
    I’ve only read Hobart, though I have Adelaide and Melbourne on the TBR, but all of them are, I gather from blurbs and Goodreads reviews, more personal and idiosyncratic than a comprehensive representation. But I did feel that this one somehow crosses a line between being honest and being unnecessarily negative.


  4. This is such a great review Lisa and the book sounds fascinating. Even after I read this I thought that I’d probably still like to visit Darwin… but I don’t think i’d ever want to live there!


    • Thanks, Lauren. I think I’d quite like a cruise stopover, maybe, on a ship with good air-conditioning and a big powerful engine to exit hastily if a cyclone is in the offing!


      • That is actually a really great idea!!


  5. I like Darwin and I’ve visited it in the Wet and in the Dry. The Wet can be fun – hot and sticky one moment, very wet the next. I’ve a daughter living there who wouldn’t live anywhere else, she certainly finds plenty of places to party, and my impression last year was that the street life in the City was quite vibrant. And then there is the surrounding country! – I’ve been to Litchfield National Park, but I understand there is ‘Indigenous’ tourism in Kakadu and on Bathurst Is. And don’t miss the Cyclone Tracey museum which includes standing in the dark while the cyclone howls around you.


    • Well, this is what I was hoping for! Comments that stick up for Darwin:)
      Lea does mention that museum and it sounds interesting – but tropical weather is beyond me now. I nearly passed out more than once when we were in Cambodia and in Townsville, the Gold Coast knocked me for six in that last very hot summer I was there, and I was lucky not to be seriously ill in Bali (though that one was my fault for not hydrating enough).


    • Yes, I agree, Bill, re vibrant street like (in the dry anyhow). I love it – the jetty at sunset, while eating some takeaway food from the stands there and having a glass of wine is great. I’ve been to Litchfield, and Kakadu (twice), and Nitmiluk (though that’s getting further south), and did a day tour of the Tiwi Islands. I love the Top End in winter. The museum and gallery (with its cyclone exhibit, and the big boat display room) is excellent.

      But Lisa – I won’t go to humid areas if I can possible help it – won’t go to Japan in the summer, nor northern Australia. Singapore is barely manageable. Get out in the morning, stay in in the afternoon, and then go out in the evening, is the only way to manage it. You can go to that Darwin museum easily in winter. Darwin’s humidity in July is around 36%. Melbourne’s humidity in January is 46%. Darwin has almost no rain in July – an average of .4 rainy days for the month! It’s glorious.


  6. Thanks for the great review – I mean to read more of the series. Perhaps not Darwin next.


    • I must get a copy of Perth! As a tourist, I love Perth:)


      • I highly recommend the Perth volume! My favourite book of 2013.


        • ‘Nuff said, will add it to my wishlist:)


  7. We have family who moved to Darwin after Cyclone Tracy to help with the rebuild…and they never left. Family Christmas’ back in northern NSW were always fun as we complained about the heat and the humidity and the Darwin cousins piled on trackies and socks!

    I enjoyed Sydney and Adelaide in this series & it sounds like this would be quite insightful too.


  8. […] Darwin (New South City Series #9), by Tess Lea […]


  9. […] Darwin, see my review  […]


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