Saturday, November 29, 2014

Every-day-is-Friday five: a day off in Darwin.

Darwin is the capital city of the Northern Territory of Australia. It was originally called Palmerston (which is still a nearby town) but was renamed "Darwin" in honor of Charles Darwin's voyage here back in 1836.

see northern fingertip - we were here

It's rainforest bushland with two seasons - wet and dry. Primary agriculture includes pumpkins, melons, mangoes and other tropical fruits. Cattle stations are also common (although most of the herds are now shipped overseas). Wallabies are to Darwin as deer are to the rural US; dingos less so but they're also pests. Darwin has lots of poisonous snakes and as with most of the Australian wetlands, cane toads are a huge problem.

It's a melting pot, and not just because of its proximity to SE Asia and the ease of traveling to/from Thailand, Indonesia, and other Pacific Island countries. Years ago many Chinese immigrated to Darwin to help build the railroads and mine the gold fields. And now many African and Middle Eastern families are leaving their war-torn countries and seeking refuge in Australia. As you can probably imagine, there's a fair amount of controversy around these influxes - much like Mexican immigrants coming into the US or any other mass immigrations in recent history, for that matter.

Darwin was nearly destroyed by the Japanese during a surprise WWII attack which, for unknown reasons, teachers have only recently begun discussing in school history lessons. More famously it was nearly destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

And this amazing young singer hails from Darwin.

Now that you know as much as we do about the largest city in the Northern Territory, we'd like to offer five things to do if you should find yourself in Darwin, in no particular order:

1. Take a historic walking tour. Australia's history is obviously not as "ancient" as many of the countries we've visited, and the city of Darwin lost a lot of its historic sites during WWII and Cyclone Tracy, but there's still quite a bit to take in.

the tree of knowledge -
back in the day, Chinese youth met with,
and learned from, their elders under its shade

nearby, a cool sound park featuring copper bells
with pitches like the local parrots

kangaroos on the shield
at the Government House

former City Hall
(destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974)

Australian for "ancient history"

2. Visit the Chinese temple and museum. The museum is small but packed with history about the Chinese migration to Australia and their struggles to integrate with a mostly-white society pre- and post-WWI. There's also an amazing wall of family trees of current "ABCs" (Australian-Born Chinese).

tracing back

The volunteers manning the museum desk that day seemed a bit surprised to see us - it was the last day of their open season and they'd only had a few visitors all week. But they were wonderful hosts and after we toured the museum we enjoyed a great conversation about Darwin and traveling in general. With admission set at only $4 there is no reason not to visit... unless you're there November-March, when they are closed for the season.

3. Visit the Northern Territory Museum. We saw amazing exhibits of aboriginal art, underwater photography, actual boats from all around Australia and the Pacific Islands...

...animal/bird/mammal species of Australia,
like these butterflies...

... and of course, Sweetheart

Admission is free. Plan at least three hours!

4. Walk through the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens.

giant trees!

cool orchids!

really cool orchids!

Everyone we talked to in Darwin kept telling us we came at the absolute worst time of the year - it's the end of their dry season so everything is parched. In spite of this (and the 40F temperatures that day), the Botanic Gardens were still worth a look.

yes we were!

5. Hit the Mindil market and watch the sun set over Fannie Bay. The market happens Thursday and Saturday nights during the dry season and includes handicrafts, local produce, and food carts. It was a bit like taking an aisle of Portland's Saturday market and plopping it down onto Cannon Beach. The night we visited was the last night of the season and the locals were out in hoardes for the fireworks show...

we prefer nature's firework show

Food notes: as with Fremantle, we weren't really interested in paying $15/person for lunch so we hit the local supermarket. We did splurge a bit at the market for dinner, if $20 can really be called a "splurge", where we enjoyed some local treats as well as so-so Thai food from a few of the stalls. (Once you've had the real thing, the rest just isn't the same...!)

picnicking on the Esplanade

Patrick's first meat pie

Lodging notes: luckily, we were WWOOFing just outside of Darwin where we had a comfy private room all to ourselves.

hey, remember when dorm beds were $4/person/night?

Downtown Darwin is accessible and pleasant with lots of history (both happy and tragic). It was bloody hot and we were on foot so a day there was plenty for us. WWII buffs with an A/C car could probably hang out a bit longer...

... but they'd miss these cool little guys

... and spiders as big as your hand...

... and flying foxes in the trees...

... so yep, as usual, we're glad we walked.

That said, one week in and around Darwin wasn't enough. Someday we'll come back during the wet season to see more of the outback. But the visa clock is ticking, so it's back to Adelaide!

WWOOFing with bees near Darwin, Northern Territory.

We got a tiny bit of bee exposure at our second WWOOF gig on Gabriola Island.
buzzing around Just Another Weed Patch

After that I really wanted to learn more about the overall process and these fascinating little creatures.  While we were in Perth I reached out to Tas and Leanne who had a beekeeper WWOOF listing near Darwin (another city accessible by our magical train pass).

I crossed my fingers and waited.  After a few days I begrudgingly emailed a few other hosts in that area...  And then I kinda stalked Tas and Leanne (hey, it worked on Patrick three years ago).  Luckily for us they had space and agreed to host us for our short stay in Darwin. 

we figured we were in for a fun week
as soon as we saw Tas's regular truck

(and then we saw his bee truck
and *knew* we would have a fun week)

We had a great time and we learned so much!  Having about ten years' beekeeping experience and over 250 hives, Tas was a wealth of information and patiently answered every one of our thousand questions.  (But here is more info if you're interested.)  He brought us along on his bee outings and made sure we got to try a little of everything, from operating heavy machinery to taste-testing a lot of honey.

Here are five cool things we got to do, in no particular order:

1.  We helped Tas check the hives for honey.  If the "super" box was nearing full, we put an empty "super" box between the top box (where the worker bees make honey) and the bottom box (where the queen and brood live).  

before adding another super

smoke makes the bees go into the hive
so they don't sting you
(unless "you" are Patrick)

not quite ready

During this process we also added "clearer boards" (or "escape boards") between the top and middle "super" boxes.  This board allows bees to get into the lower boxes but prevents them from getting back into the soon-to-be-removed top box.  I forgot to take pictures of the hives after we added the second "super" box but if I had, you would see that about 3/4 of the boxes above would have three layers instead of two. 

After about 48 hours we went back to collect the top "super" box full of honey so that it could be extracted (see #3).

(and then we watched a really nice sunset)

(and stopped by the gas staion with the Big Boxing Crocodile,
one of the many famous "big" things in Australia)

2.  We got up at 4am Saturday morning to help Tas relocate the hives pictured above to a friend's cattle farm 200km away.  Why was this fun?  Well...

the sunrise, for one thing ...

... the happy bees, for another

The cattle farm was enormous and while we rode around checking on the other hives that were already there, Tas took us to some really pretty spots.

view of the valley from the farm house

termite hills - very "big" in Australia

four crocs and two wallabees - see them?

All that time in the car that day would've been really boring if not for Tas's company.  He shared his perspective on life in the bush and how things have changed in the Northern Territory over the past few decades. 

making sure we got his good side

And even a flat tire couldn't spoil the day.

(whereby Patrick asks Jen - for the 459th time since we arrived in Oz -
"have you SEEN Wolf Creek?")

Our WWOOF hosts always encourage us to explore tourist attractions and local hangouts during our stays.  They don't realize that "work outings" like this day on the cattle farm are just as interesting to us.

3.  We helped extract honey.  Because of the volume of hives, Tas has had to upgrade from a small extractor that handled 4 frames at a time...

exhibit A

... to a custom-built extractor that can handle 72 frames at once.

exhibit B

The machine is complex but the process is pretty simple.

the honeycombed frames are loaded into the "decapper" (my name for it)

the "decapper" slices the layer of wax over the combs

the frames are pushed through to the centrifuge and spun to remove honey

meanwhile the wax that was removed from the frames 
is melted by steam pipes to extract even more honey

all the honey goes into a trough

bits of leftover wax are cleared from the trough to prevent clogging the pipes

the extracted honey goes into a tank for storage
(the tape lines are "before" and "after" this batch of extraction)

A few extra hands, a few tastes of honey for quality assurance purposes, and a few drinks made the process go pretty quickly!

4.  We helped fill honey buckets and Patrick made a few sales.

best part about this WWOOF job?
all the honey that "accidentally" falls onto your fingers,
which you must then lick clean

5.  We cleaned a lot of bee equipment.  This work wasn't really photo-worthy, but the days were bloody hot and between jobs we enjoyed Tas and Leanne's lovely home and amenities.

WWOOFing is hard!

We also spent some time gardening around their large yard that gets plenty of visits from cool birds, lizards, an occasional wallabee, and yes... cane toads.

not a bad breakfast view

sometimes I call him Dairy Queen

As with all of our hosts, Tas and Leanne were really welcoming and we enjoyed lots of interesting and diverse conversations over delicious dinners.  We didn't always agree but that's what made the talk so interesting.  All in all, a great week.

With almost every WWOOF gig we've seen just a small piece of the process because things like growing vegetables and fermenting wine take longer than the time we've committed to helping our hosts.  But with beekeeping we were able to see a lot of the process, and because the parts we saw were pretty straightforward we were able to actively participate, too. 

safety first

We're now adding "bee hives" to the long list of things we want when we get home.  And we already have more questions so don't worry, Tas and Leanne - you haven't heard the last from us!

check ya's, Bee Man!