“Toto, I’ve a feeling we‘re not in Kansas anymore.”
Australians often call the Land Down Under “Oz,” and though we’ve not yet seen any Munchkins, the house that landed on the Wicked Witch of the East was definitely not built in Australia!
Darwin, Australia has a couple of sad and sobering chapters in its history. It has been nearly leveled and then rebuilt, twice. The first time was in WWII when it was bombed by the Japanese. The second time was Christmas day, 1974 when Cyclone Tracy flattened it with winds up to 217 mph, displacing over 80% of the population. Because of that, the city has adopted strict building codes, and beautiful Darwin as it stands today is truly a tribute to the pluckiness of the Aussies.
In addition, living in the tropics-halfway between the Tropic of Capricorn and the equator-requires some adjustments as well. Here are 21 things that really caught our attention and I thought would be interesting to others, too!
- Blow, wind, blow! The exterior walls of newer homes and flats are commonly built out of concrete blocks, as are most interior walls. They are said to withstand winds of 120 mph, and also protect against flying debris. While they may sustain damage, it would be far less than stick framed houses. Roof trusses we have observed are metal, wood, or a combination of the two. I doubted they would hold up well in a serious storm, but it said online that newer roof systems could also withstand winds of up to 120 mph!
- An exception to every rule. That being said, a dear friend here who lives in a 1960’s elevated home built with timber construction, only lost her roof in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy. However, that blessing may have had more to do with the way this woman lives her life, than the way her home was built. 🙂
Let it rain! Some homes have bar tile roofs, but most seem to be made of corrugated steel. These are great at channeling water off the roofs; it really rains here. The last rainfall record I found occurred in 2011, when storm clouds dumped over 13 inches in 24 hours. This corrugated steel also comes in different colors with 25-year color warranties. Between mold concerns and cyclones, I would imagine shingles would be a disaster here. Only a few homes I’ve seen have full rain gutters and down spouts, and a few more had partial ones; the majority do not, but do often have nice, wide roof overhangs instead.
- Hot! Hot! Hot! There was definitely no problem with our hot water here, only a challenge in figuring out where the hot water heater was! I then noticed them mounted with solar panels on roofs all over Darwin. This appears to be the norm. There is apparently enough sun for them even in the wet season. And yes, that’s one on the roof picture above.
- Hang in there! Because of the concrete block construction of most newer homes, exterior walls have a slightly textured, cement-like finish that is colored or painted. Our interior walls are literally hard as rock. I read online that they are finished with a product similar to that used in the block joints. You don’t just tap a nail into the wall to hang something. We’re talking serious drill bits and concrete anchors, here. No worries about pictures ever falling down! Our landlord is hiring someone to install screws for us to hang pictures on. Apparently the stick-on hooks cause some damage and are not allowed in most rentals.
- Gotta get me some of this! I was pretty nervous about maintaining the lovely bright white wall paint in our flat when I first walked in, but found it washes beautifully. I’ve never seen a flat sheen paint like it! If I could, I’d use in in our rentals back home in a heart beat, because touch up would be a snap.
- Run for cover! There are no basements, which is no surprise with the amount of rain we get here. Like a number of other homes we’ve seen, we have decorative concrete at our house that extends 18″ or more beyond the exterior walls, almost like a little sidewalk. Beyond that is a strip of very coarse gravel interspersed with occasional plants which is very effective at keeping things clean with all the water running off the roof in the wet season. This compensates well when there are no rain gutters. Between generous overhangs and the covered patios nearly everyone has, shelter from sun and rain is usually easy to find outside your home. (More about both coming up in another blog.)
- Air-con? Yes – in multiples! Air conditioners (called air-con here) are mounted near the ceiling of the rooms they are in, and have to be switched on individually via remote controls, which are usually mounted on a nearby wall or near the unit. This is such a practical and economical way to cool areas. And the way homes are constructed, duct work would be difficult or awkward to install. Another cool (no pun intended) thing is that ours are very quiet and have multi-directional, moving louvers to direct the air just the way you want it. I’m told many keep them on only in the rooms they are using, switch them off when finished, and then shut the door to that room to save energy & help the environment. (Have I mentioned how clean the air is, here?) Our three-bedroom flat has 4 of them: one in each bedroom, with a bigger one in the “lounge” or main living area. In Darwin we definitely have no need of any heat source, but in parts of Australia that have chilly winters, units are configured to provide heat as well. There is a small compressor mounted at the bottom of an outside wall for each of the four units.
- Open sesame! Door knobs are typically mounted higher than we are used to – about half way down the door. I’m not sure why: maybe so small children cannot open them – or it’s just easier? Anyone know the real reason?
- Dishwashers are for washing dishes, you dummy! They are apparently not always expected to fully dry the dishes. On ours, which is new and very nice, other users online suggested opening the door slightly at the end of the cycle to finish the job. We agreed with reviews that keeping the rinse aid dispenser full was a must, but even then plastic glasses were spotted – stick with glass and you won’t have this problem. Both metal and glass dry just fine and look great. There is no heating element in the bottom – likely another smart energy saver.
The Land of
OzTile – There’s lots of it in Darwin. It’s not uncommon for all the floors, showers, baseboards, back splashes, and even some of the walls to be tiled. Why? This is a tropical climate; tile just makes sense. Average annual rainfall is 68.1 inches. Average humidity during the wet season (Nov – Apr) can push past 80%, but near 98% is not uncommon. Although I haven’t noticed it yet, mold is said to be a concern here during the wet season. We’ve had some good rain already, but the wet season officially starts in November.
- Can you hear me now? Because of all the tile and hard surfaces in our rooms, sound really carries, particularly in newer homes like ours. On the positive side, we can hear each other speak when we are rooms away from each other – and can hear our phones ring or vibrate wherever we leave them. Who needs intercoms?!
- Fence me in! Most yards seem to be fenced, many completely. More than one person said this was not only for privacy, but to keep out any wandering crocodiles, which can potentially travel great distances during the wet season. They are constructed out of different materials, though – often some form of shaped metal or metal mesh. (See the picture above near “Run for Cover.”) Manufacturers have gotten very creative with them, and they can be quite attractive. I love how clean, low maintenance and strong they are. We’ve also seen more open fences with privacy panels attached made from thin bamboo both here and in Adelaide, although blocks and stone were more common, there. Many apartments and some homes are gated and require a transmitter or key to enter, and some fences are locked – making it more difficult for uninvited visitors (or missionaries.)
Ceiling Fans: your BFF in the tropics! Our 3 bedroom flat has a total of eight white metal ceiling fans inside, with another in the garage and one more over the covered patio. They are far superior to any I’ve seen at home. We are lucky to also have one in each bathroom, where there isn’t any air conditioning. If they are left running all the time, the metal blades seem to need cleaning every other week or so. They come in different sizes and the biggest one we’ve seen so far was in Bunnings (like Home Depot). It looked to be about 16′ in diameter!
- Magnetic Doorstops. These aren’t everywhere, but our flat has these really cool door stops that are magnetic! When you open a door, it actually stays open.
- Roll up garage doors. At least in the newer area where we live, the narrow metal slats of garage doors all roll up like a roller shade on a large drum. The metal “slats” are not separate pieces, they just have deep channels between them that allow them to flex and bend around the drum. I thought the design was clever; no need for springs with one of these. We have button remotes on our key chains, but no outside keypad or garage button by the door to the house. Instead, there’s a cord hanging down just inside the garage door with a red button on the end. We’ve just needed to re-program ourselves when we open or close it to use the key chain remote.
- A slanted view? No double-pane glass is needed here. We have these cool louvered glass windows in our master bedroom that are a breeze to clean. And the sliding glass door system to our patio is far superior to anything I’ve ever seen in the States – I even prefer it over French doors. Our property manager said the trend here is toward the heavy duty window screens we have in our flat that I’d love to have at home. They are super substantial, well made, and will probably last forever.
- Bigger, but not always better. Americans are known here for their love of “big” things, including large appliances. Stoves, refrigerators and ovens are generally smaller here than we are used to. Our oven is big enough for a 9 x 13 pan or very small cookie sheet, at only 17″ wide. On the plus side, it has so many settings, I haven’t yet figured out how to use them all; it is designed to be able to cook on multiple racks at the same time. Because smaller is obviously more energy efficient, I won’t feel as guilty baking something small like just a pie in it. But, there’s no way I could bake six big loaves of bread at a time like at home.
All dried up. Our washer and dryer are both located in the garage, which is also common in some parts of America. Dryers here – maybe throughout this part of the world – are not typically vented outside from the many I’ve seen so far, so they can be put anywhere – even places like bedrooms and on patios. The one we have extracts water from the damp interior air into a large container fastened to the door. With its compact size, it sometimes takes 3 hours to dry a larger load (or is it the humid air?). That may be one reason why everyone here has clothes lines attached to their homes. A big load of our clothes usually dries considerably faster outside; it is also easier on them, and they smell terrific! Drying in the sun also brightens whites. However, when the wet season is at it’s peak, I may have to utilize the dryer and drying rack in the garage.
- Bathroom Floor Drains Although ours gurgles for a bit after we’ve run any water, it’s no big deal. Our tub doesn’t have an overflow, probably since the floor drain is there. I love how nice they look, and how the top just lifts off so you can remove any accumulation of hair or lint (the drain disk lifts out, too) – just like the ones in our showers. I’d opt for these at home if they were available. I also love the clean look.
- Better ramp up your cleaning skills if you are renting! It is common practice in Australia for landlords to hire real estate company property managers. They schedule 3-4 property inspections each year, and check to make sure you are taking care of everything, including bath fixtures, grout, AC unit filters, windows, walls, floors – the works! I think this is an incredibly smart practice – and plan to start doing it also when we get back home.
The bottom line is that there is yin and yang to everything! Just because something is different than we are used to doesn’t necessarily make it inferior or better – just different. One of the wonderful things to me about living in a foreign country is the opportunity to learn and appreciate new things. It helps us grow and gain new perspectives. 🙂
Please feel free to add any insights, additions or corrections you might have in the comments section below to help us all learn even more!