Saturday, October 3, 2009


Conversation between myself and a friend in Sydney:

Me: “…well, I’m thinking of swinging through Coober Pedy after Alice Springs”
Friend: “You know how far that is right? It’s like half-way to Adelaide”
M: “Is that far?”
F: “It’s almost 700 km!!!”
M: “...So, is that far?”

You would think after driving around more of Norway than most hardened truck drivers I would have a better sense of direction and distances, but sadly the conversation above is fairly typical. Like a raccoon seeing a spoon my eye sometimes wanders too quickly to shiny objects and interesting sounding places. But it also brought to clarity a big snag I had encountered in Australia as well as many other locations. Projects that are remote tend to be, what’s the word, well… far, and Australia is fairly similar size-wise to the continental US, which means large. I was at a crossroads of options on how to get around the Northern Territory and was weighing the pros and cons of transportation. Renting a car, buying a car, hitching a ride, grabbing a bus, or maybe walking really fast were all possibilities on the table. I was almost to the point of wikipeding how to hot wire a car when in blatant desperation I pinned a flyer on the hostel bulletin board looking for a ride to various sought after locations. When I realized how confining to my self-interests that would be, as well as the potential of spending more than 30 minutes with the people that were staying at the hostel already, I took it down faster than it took me to write…

But in ruminating on my situation and perusing different for sale options, I began to become much more aware of the caravan culture in Australia and the Northern Territory in particular. Where a sleek, smooth RV or airstream is not a rarity in the States, car camping is taken to a new level in the Top End. The variety of rigs are as unique as the people that pilot them and most all rental companies advertise packages geared towards families hitting the dusty trail together behind the wheel of a big air conditioned monster with clanking pots and pans in the back. Apollo, Wicked Campers, Top End Rentals, Britz, are just a few of the many companies that offer rentals in large 4wd campers. Beyond the rentals are the pure-bloods, people that have been around the country more times they can count on one hand and have cut, trimmed, and organized their outfit into a lean mean camping machine. Doors fold out, awnings pop open, stove tops appear from thin air and before you know it a family is sitting down at a candlelit table like they were on their personal back porch back home. As additions become more complex, some go topside, having a fold out sleeping area on top of their roof rack which is reached by a ladder and provides better breezes high in the air than I was getting camping in the trenches down below. Other contraptions shoot out from the sides and leave me to gaze longingly at several suddenly materialized screened rooms while slapping flies from my neck.

I finally ended up breaking down and renting a car, a little Toyota Corolla that was probably laughed at the whole drive to Kakadu from the captain's chairs of passing off-roaders. In a strange coincedence of fate I seem to be renting the same car over and over again just in different countries. I don't know if the rental companies have a fetish for small, black hatchbacks but they apparently pawn them off like hotcakes {see photo evidence above}. My next stop on the road, Kakadu National Park, is a large aboriginal owned park right on the border of Arnhem Land about 300 km to the East of Darwin.

Before I hit the dusty trail though, I popped over to a place called Myilly point to see the last of the 1930's government pre-war housing designed by architect B.C.G. Burnett. Of the over 60 different versions that were built in the 30's, only 4 are left standing {due to termites, cyclones, fires etc...} and are all on Myilly point protected by the National Trust organization. They are important for a number of reasons, the biggest for me was that they were the initial inspiration for most all of Troppo Architect's work in the Top End, and one of the big reasons the two young architects of Troppo {Adrian Welke and Phil Harris} decided to move up to Darwin in the 1970's. The government designed houses were listed in different "types", such as B, E, K, and L with sometimes major differences in plan and section. For instance, the aptly named Burnett house is the only one open to the public and is a "Type K" plan, which in this case means an enclosed lower story, while all other types contain open air under stories, raising the building on stilts.

The types are a take on a housing type called the "Queenslander" developed obviously for Queenland, being in a similar climate zone. The houses were raised into the air to get away from reptiles and bugs, as well as take advantage of cross breezes working their way through the surrounding vegetation. To maximize air circulation, the walls are almost entirely covered with louvers and windows, all shrouded in mosquito netting {the surly denial of bugs being a huge deal to both comfort and sanity!}.

Inside the same philosophies of keeping air moving are carried forward. At the expense of acoustical privacy, there are vents next to doors that close and swinging doors that allow breezes to move above and below their partitions. Walls are left open above door height as well to further encourage air circulation. In this manner the whole house can achieve cross ventilation even though several rooms deep. There is no way to really seal the house off from all outside elements, which is probably why I was so drawn to it. Rain is kept out but you are constantly aware of the environment around you and the climate you're a part of. I was there on a hot, muggy Tuesday afternoon and can honestly say I was cool enough inside even without a G&T to "take the edge off". Sure enough though, in proper colonial fashion they had a old bottle of Bombay and two dusty glasses sitting out ready to aid in the dark and glorious days of pre-airconditioning.

Its a shame, but many of the new houses in Darwin have not taken Robert Frost's path, tacking on air conditioners to walls and windows like they will ward off evil spirits. In the years after the disastrous cyclone Tracy in '74, government officials were wary to not have a repeat down the road and overemphasized structural stability over anything as petty as access to light and air. So now lining the streets of the outer reaches of Darwin are concrete block bunkers with less windows and more air-con units. Joe of Troppo architects in Darwin confirmed my fears by outlining more of the housing code typical of the area. The "code" assumes an AC unit in every room right off of the bat, and by a hypocritical twist of fate, actually succeeds in lowering property value of a home if you opt to do with them. I was staying in a hostel that was a poster child of the government's recommended design philosophy in post-cyclone Tracy. A bleak, low slung CMU bar building with noisy dripping AC units freezing the inside of the rooms where outside was sweltering for lack of air movement. Moving back and forth from hot and humid to cold and dry many times a day made me feel light headed with a runny nose. A quote by the venerable Australian architect Glenn Murcutt summed the situation up best when he said:

"...the new regulations really required everybody to produce these concrete bunkers or buildings that were reinforced beyond belief. And the only way to exist, let me say exist, not live, exist in these damn things was to air condition them beyond extinction almost."

Next stop on the journey: Kakadu National Park. I spent about a week there "out bush" without access to internet so more info and pictures to come soon describing the trip. Adventure, Drama, Fast Cars, and Murcutt to come. Stay tuned.

Thoughts on Traveling #26 :

Aussie Golf. No Shirt. No Shoes. No problem. It's like Caddyshack without the formal dress code.

1 comment:

jiat-hwee chang said...

Nice post. Burnett was in Singapore for a while before heading to Australia. He was probably inspired by this type of black-and-white houses (they were also government housing) --