Every town has its promenade: a scene, the place to be seen. In Darwin, for my money at least, that’s the Nightcliff Foreshore.
70 odd years ago it was the boon docks, the site of military camps during the War. You can still see the metallic left overs—engines, axels, and the odd bullet—melted onto the rocks around the Nightcliff pool. And if you know where to look at low tide, there are remnants of a plane carcass, a B-25 bomber that crashed killing five servicemen. Wendy James, a long-long-long-time Darwin resident, once told me that she and her brother used to roam the abandoned army camps in the late ‘40s, skipping school to play with left over ammunition. Wendy’s favourite trick was putting cordite into her dad’s cigarettes. Those were the days….
Now, the Nightcliff Foreshore is home to swing dancing on a Sunday and family reunions with lamb on a spit. Kids fossick in the mangroves. Long grassers and new arrivals gather around the BBQs.
On the jetty, adolescent boys take it in turns to jump, somersault and hurdle the barrier into the salty water below.
Tourists in sneakers and socks clatter out of hire cars to get the ultimate sunset shot.
Fishing fanatics drop a line at the jetty and off the rocks. They flick, hope and repeat.
This craggy coastline is where the young things park on a Sunday night. They show off their souped up cars and discreetly pair off under the moonlit sky.
There are random acts of urine and impromptu games of badminton.
There are passing dolphins and the occasional fight.
And from Sunset Park to the Beachfront Hotel, there are all kinds of drinkers: can crushers, sun downers, champagne sippers, cask wine wielders and punters who have been kicked out of the pub and drink on, regardless.
This is the Nightcliff Foreshore: a microcosm of Greater Darwin, all in three or four beautiful kilometres that stretch from the high rise units crammed into the coast line along Progress Drive, right up to where Trower Road crosses Rapid Creek.
It’s definitely my favourite spot for people watching.
There’s a Timorese guy who rides his bike with a pet cockatoo on the handlebars and a boom box on the back. Sunday evening is his favourite night for tunes and cruising.
Most nights, there’s an older Sikh gentleman in a turban who holds hands with his granddaughter while she pulls her scooter along the path. I say hello and he occasionally gives me a reluctant, grave nod.
I like seeing the twins: identical ladies in their forties who dress alike, sometimes in polka dots and sometimes in cut off jean shorts. They are inseparable: always arms linked and whispering conspiratorially.
Then there are the countrymen who hold court in a rotunda and sleep on the crumbling dunes. Sometimes they sing in the stingrays or fish with handlines under Rapid Creek footbridge. Once I was picnicking with friends and an older lady presented us with a magpie goose, fresh, ready for butchering. She borrowed our bread knife and my friend Alice tried to help, but drew the line at squeezing out the entrails.
Further along the Foreshore are the exercisers. A leathery man who runs topless in the same pair of short white shorts every day. A Greek woman with her hair piled up high in the tightest bun I’ve ever seen. Her arms pump in perfect rhythm as she gossips with a friend. An older lady walks a dog that wears sunglasses. There are cyclists, skateboarders, paddle boarders; surfers in the cyclone season.
In true Darwin style, not everyone’s body is a temple. One bloke’s running singlet reads, “Hey Princess! Go and get me a beer”.
I’m better at people watching than I am at bird watching, but the birds are out here too. Whistling kites circle the palm trees and masked lapwings bustle about like the busy bodies they are, picking through the best fish and chip left overs near the jetty. Sometimes the curlews startle me with that distinctive scream. I like seeing the occasional kingfisher, surveying the scene from the fence line above the beach.
But my favourites are the red-tailed black-cockatoos that swarm in like drag queens, brighten up the joint for a bit, and then leave.
A couple of times I’ve watched a huge swag of ocean birds circle around in a perfect frenzy. They become a moving patch of black that zips from one end of the beach to the jetty and back around. Is there a word for that? A collective noun for birds that flash mob at sunset and then leave? They are spectacular, especially in those minutes after sunset when the last of the sun bleeds into the ocean then the ground, and all three become the same misty shade of purple.
I’ve got an especially soft spot for the Foreshore. It’s where I first landed in Darwin, the site of my first home: a bottom floor unit in a crumbling block of ‘80s flats with musty carpet and communal bins crawling with maggots. It was a five-minute sweaty cycle to Rapid Creek markets. It was 100 metres from the beach and even closer to the local pub, which in days gone by used to lock rowdy patrons in a cage. Because you can’t actually swim at the beach (stingers, crocs), I could just afford to live there on my own.
And now, eight years on, I live here again.
But just recently, the Foreshore has become groovy. You can’t walk down the bike path these days without falling over a coffee caravan or a pop up Italian restaurant, replete with red checked tablecloths, fairy lights and a humming wood fire pizza oven.
It’s slightly shocking and also thrilling to me. Provincial Darwin embracing big city ways. Once someone’s out there with a stand selling green juice in jars with bamboo straws, we really will have arrived. I can’t imagine what the men in wife-beater singlets at Hidden Valley Tavern think, but I guess if they can have TOT (Tits Out Tuesday), it’s OK for me to dine occasionally on home made pasta alfresco.
When my sister Pip comes to town, I take her down to the Foreshore for pop up coffee by the sea.
Pip buys a latte and we run into my friend Jade and her kids. This part of the Foreshore has become a mecca for the CMC (Cool Mum Crowd). The kids run in circles and take it in turns to be a tiger, while Darwin’s fashionable young matriarchs fortify themselves with caffeine and confidences.
While we’re sitting on our milk crates, another groovy mum turns up, rocking full sleeve tattoos and four kids. She’s cooler than a cucumber.
The kids suddenly gather around one of the trees and a collective cry goes up.
“Owls, owls, look, it’s an owl!”
Groovy mum turns around and looks into the branches to spy a pair of birds camouflaging into the scrubby bark.
“Tawny Frogmouths, kids”, she yells out. “Tawny Frogmouths. They’re not owls.”
She turns to us. “It’s important to tell kids the correct names”.
Groovy, tattooed Mum turns back to her coffee and the baby fussing on her lap.
As an aspiring bird-nerd, I grab Pip and head over to check it out.
“They’re not owls”, Jade’s daughter Mem tells me.
I want to give these ornithological protégés a moment to shine.
Do you know what they are?
The other group spokesman, a four year old with long dark hair and a cotton summer dress, steps up.
“They’re…..ummm….they’re….birds. They’re birds.”
On that decisive note, our young twitchers scatter like the flash-mobbing flock on the horizon. They get back to the many tasks at hand: pretending to be a tiger, keeping a look out for crocs and humbugging for ice cream.
The Tawny Frogmouths don’t move. The mums stay perched on their milk crates.
There’s space on the Foreshore for us all.