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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June, 2004, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
Australia's 'Gateway to Asia'

By Phil Mercer
BBC, Darwin

Ted Egan has a grand vision for Darwin, one of Australia's most isolated cities.

The Administrator of the Northern Territory sees it as a booming metropolis of "a couple of million people" by the end of the century, as tropical Australia undergoes a radical transformation.

Port of Darwin
The Port of Darwin is actually nearer Jakarta than Sydney
"I would hope that in the next 100 years there's a real move to industrialise the north," the former singer told BBC News Online. "It could be very, very exciting."

Significant change is already on its way to this quiet cosmopolitan outpost, which has a current population of around 100,000.

Darwin once had a reputation as a heavy-drinking haven for dreamers and misfits, but it is now re-branding itself as Australia's commercial "Gateway to Asia".

The capital of Australia's unforgiving Northern Territory is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney.

There has long been a familiarity and friendliness with its Asian neighbours to the north that is generally not evident in other parts of the country.

"The beauty of living in a place like this is it's multicultural diversity," says Northern Territory government minister Marion Scrymgour.

"There are so many different cultures up here that make Darwin best able to have that relationship with Asia," she said.

In recent years, the harbour city has been abuzz with the construction of new suburbs and exclusive waterside retreats.

The notorious "strip and prawn" bars, where drinkers paid Aus$10 (US$7) for a beer, a serving of prawns and a striptease show, have been replaced by a rich diversity of restaurants and outdoor cafes.

Such progress, however, has not dimmed the Northern Territory's adventurous spirit.

"Darwinites have always seen themselves as different from the rest of Australia," explained Carole Frost from the Northern Territory Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"We look north not south," she said. "We're a big defence centre, part of the oil and gas industry, and we have a very good transport system with the railway and the port."

"We're very much on the world stage," the English-born chief executive added.

The region boasts a new giant liquid nitrogen plant as well as an ambitious trans-territory gas pipeline from Wadeye to Nhulunbuy.

Then there is the recently opened 3,000km north-south rail link between Darwin and Adelaide.

"I think the railway's made a huge difference," said Carole Frost. "Politicians have come up and have been blown away by what Darwin really is."

The city has been built on years of struggle. The discovery of gold at Pine Creek to the south, in 1871, and the arrival of Chinese prospectors and labourers accelerated Darwin's expansion.

Ted Egan believes those early hard-working pioneering days have left a valuable legacy.

"We're blessed to have this long-standing Chinese population who have set the rules for other waves of migrants," he said.

Ted Egan, Administrator of the Northern Territory
Ted Egan is optimistic for Darwin's future prosperity
But when the gold rush subsided, growth was slow and, at times, painful.

Darwin was attacked more than 60 times by the Japanese during World War II.

In 1974, Cyclone Tracey sent a wrecking ball of wind and rain through the Top End, leaving the city in ruins and dozens of its inhabitants dead.

The climate in Darwin is unpredictable. On average 1570mm of rain is dumped on the city every year.

The high humidity and searing heat experienced in the weeks before the wet season can lead locals to erupt with anger, or as they say in Darwin, "mango madness."

"The weather is not just hot, it's bloody hot," said Ted Egan.

But he said that the hardships endured by the people of Darwin would be the foundations for a bright future.

"If you're not tough, you don't survive," he said.




SEE ALSO:
Australia's unease with outsiders
18 May 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Australia finishes historic rail link
18 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Australia to boost Asian trade
07 May 02  |  Business
Country profile: Australia
03 Jan 04  |  Country profiles


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