When Eric and I sailed across the Arafura Sea in August, we passed from the state of Queensland into the Northern Territory (NT), and though it isn’t as drastic as being swept up by a tornado and crash landing in a fantasy world of Munchkins, witches and a fake wizard, we are learning there’s more to it than a change of time zones. In fact, we arrived in the NT just in time to celebrate Territory Day, aka Cracker Night, on 29 August. This is the only day and the NT is the only place anywhere in Australia that it is legal for members of the public to buy and set off fireworks. Did they ever!
Territory Day is normally celebrated on 1 July to mark the anniversary of self-government in the NT, achieved on that date in 1978. The festivities were cancelled in 2020 due to Covid and postponed by two months this year for the same reason. Territorians, therefore, were more than ready to party. In the days leading up to the event, road signs for pop-up stores blared “Get Your Fireworks Here!” According to the media, some 270 tons of fireworks were available for sale. They could be set off only between the hours of 6:00-11:00 p.m. Police and firefighters were standing by.
As capital of the NT, Darwin was the epicenter of the pyrotechnics, and they were already in progress around the marina at 6:30 as Eric and I hiked to the beach for the official display later that evening. These were not the hand-held sparklers, noisy cherry bombs, and miniature flares of our childhood, oh no. These were BIG—whizzers and rockets and starburst explosions in a range of colors and configurations. At the beach, one end had been set aside for the amateur pryrotechnicians, and we had to skirt the fallout to reach the viewing area. There we sat on the sand eating ice cream cones (dragonfruit and mango, anyone?) amongst a crowd of perhaps 3,000 and watched an excellent show. The audience around us was extremely well-behaved, and the next day’s news made no mention of any fireworks-related injuries. However, there were a reported 313 grass fires.
Cracker Night aside, why is the NT a territory rather than a state and what is the difference? The answer is fairly straightforward. In the early days of European settlement in Australia, the vast, sparsely populated land that is now the NT was a colony of New South Wales until 1863, then a colony of South Australia until 1911. It then became the responsibility of the Commonwealth of Australia and was run by a federal administrator. Since being elevated to a self-governing territory in 1978, the NT elects its own parliament and enacts its own laws just like a state.
But that self-governance is limited, because unlike state laws, which are protected by the Australian Constitution, territory laws can be nullified by the federal government. An oft-cited example is that the NT passed the first Australian law to legalize medically assisted euthanasia in 1995 only to have it overturned by the federal government in 1997. In addition, according to the NT Parliament website, “Areas such as Aboriginal land, uranium mining, and industrial relations continue to be managed by the federal government. However, the Northern Territory operates as a state for financial dealings between the State and Federal governments.”
While some Territorians favor the NT becoming a full state, that does not appear imminent. That’s because the NT is not only huge (520,902 sq. miles) and sparsely populated (246,500) but includes some of the harshest terrain on the planet. Many areas and remote settlements are accessible only by air or 4-wheel drive vehicles, making it both difficult and costly to provide services. Thus, more than two-thirds of the NT budget comes from the federal government in the form of disbursements and grants. Without that support, the NT can’t begin to cover its financial obligations. Until it can, the federal government expects to have a say in NT affairs.
Then there’s Darwin, our home for the coming months. Darwin was bombed more than 50 times by the Japanese during World War II and devastated by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974. Today the Greater Darwin area is home to 147,000 people, roughly 60% of the total NT population, and the place brims with activity. The marina in which Corroboree is berthed is part of the Cullen Bay Resort, which one of our marina neighbors, sweeping his hand to indicate the waterfront condos, restaurants and shops, laughingly described as a “mini-Miami.” We think it’s great, and Eric is already a regular at the weekly open mic nights at the vegan restaurant at the head of our dock.
Darwin being rather spread out, we’ve bought a car to get around and are applying for volunteer gigs. We’ve also signed up with a housesitting website and landed two assignments so far. This will enable us to meet the marina’s policy that we not be full-time liveaboards and at the same time to survive the coming wet season in air-conditioned comfort. We are told to expect temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, 100% humidity, and monsoonal downpours. Did I mention that cyclone season begins in November?
You might say it’s crazy for anyone to live in a place like this, but you have to be crazy anyway to sail around the world. So we’ll take our cue from Dorothy and her resourceful friends as we follow the Yellow Brick Road that will eventually lead us home. As we enter our third year in Australia in this new part of Oz, we’re looking forward to not being in Kansas anymore.