Church in Darwin. We attend church in the Darwin Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As I’ve probably mentioned, Darwin with it’s suburbs has a population of about 136,000. Sacrament meeting attendance has fluctuated between 100-160 since we’ve been here. In the dry season, when it gets cold enough in the southern parts of Australia to require a coat, Darwin becomes a tourist destination and numbers are much higher. There are a lot of fun things to do here, including visiting two nearby national parks. Darwin even has an international airport.
Why a trip to Katherine? Katherine, likewise, draws some tourists during the dry season with it’s close proximity to beautiful Katherine Gorge and Nitmiluk National Park. It surprised me recently when I saw a government site online refer to Katherine as a suburb of Darwin, even though it’s 186 miles (a little over 3 hours) away! Located in Katherine is the sister branch to the one in Darwin. Together with a large branch in Alice Springs, these three branches comprise the Northern Territory District of the church. The senior missionaries in Darwin take turns visiting the Katherine Branch every fortnight (2 weeks), and this time the other senior couple in Darwin, the Farrers, also went to teach us about the area and branch.
The drive there. Saturday, October 1st started out warm and sunny. The rich blue sky was interrupted only occasionally by puffy white clouds that reminded me of piles of disheveled cottonballs. The Farrers came by our flat at 8:45 to meet us, then we headed off to the south via Stuart Highway “or down the track” in tandem, communicating occasionally by text.
On the way there it was a mostly pretty drive with frequent gentle hills and frequent tropical forest. The Top End includes everything from Katherine northward. Tropical forests and vegetation were scattered along both sides of the road. We couldn’t help but notice the beginning of the forest floor’s transition from it’s previous dead brown color, which was now interrupted with new blades of vivid green grass and young new leaves, with bunches of young, erect fronds standing up like crew cuts on the short palms. The bush was greening up after the early rains, resulting in an explosion of luscious, fresh new growth.
At the Farrer’s suggestion, we diverted off our route for a few minutes to drive through the town of Adelaide River, 70 miles south of Darwin. The 303 Bar (you have to buy even your soft drinks there when you eat at the adjacent restaurant) looks like something out of a Crocodile Dundee movie – there is even a poster from the movie across the room. Pictures of huge crocodiles killed in the area dotted the walls, and mounted water buffalo heads loomed above us, the remaining wall space interspersed with horns and photos. A mounted newspaper photo told about one gigantic crocodile that was killed there in the 1950s when it decided to take a stroll into town (for dinner?) from the nearby river. Crocodiles are deeply ingrained in the culture of the Northern Territory; you see them pictured everywhere, and talked about everywhere. I’m just glad we don’t actually see them everywhere.
From the 303 Bar we drove around a corner and down a long lane to a war memorial and cemetery. What was fun about this pretty little drive – besides the beautiful part of the forest it went through – was that we saw dozens of wallabies watching us from both sides of the road, including one female with a joey in her pouch. These wallabies are definitely a different species than the rock wallabies we saw in Alice Springs in August. They have thicker tails and other than their pointed little faces, look more like miniature kangaroos. On our way out through town there were gorgeous blooming trees and bushes to enjoy. Spring in the NT serves up a lot of candy for the eyes.
Igneous rock outcroppings were exposed here and there where the road had been cut through small hills, but even more interesting to me were occasional areas of forest strewn with rocks and even piles of small boulders that sometimes looked a little like miniature Devils Marbles. We made good time except for one construction area and a slow road train carrying a heavy payload in four huge trailers that looked like those used in earth-moving projects. The two-lane highway snaked its way around the bends and up the sides of these small hills, and places to pass safely on the two-lane road were infrequent.
We stopped briefly in Pine Creek to see a motel there that was designed around a railway
theme. (If you’re curious why the toilet was included, click on the area and then mouse over the pictures to see the captions.) We had hoped to have lunch there, but the restaurant was closed so we walked down their little lane between two rows of what looked to be remodeled railway cars. Upon closer examination, they looked more like cleverly designed modular or mobile homes. Most of them had big covered front porches containing cushioned chairs and seating, surrounded by the lush tropical plants lining both sides of the lane they were on. Tucked away on one side near the main building was a lovely free-form swimming pool shaded by large palm trees and vegetation, making it look and feel like a private oasis.
Our arrival in Katherine. Once we reached Katherine, we checked into the Beagle Inn. There were beautiful flowers blooming all around the parking area. The motel was older but the rooms were clean and functional. Our room was furnished with one double and one twin bed. We were hungry, so went to McDonald’s for a quick lunch. “Maccas,” as it’s called here, is a little different than in the states, although many of the menu items are the same. You can order and pay from one of the multiple touch-screen electronic stations, and then just pick your order up from the counter when it is ready. The first time we used one of these required some thought, but now it’s quick. They are a real time saver, particularly for customers that would otherwise be standing behind an indecisive order-er.
Cane Toads – another deadly Australian creature. It rained in the early evening, and later that night we spotted a young cane toad (on the left) and a green tree frog on the walkway between our rooms. Native to South America, cane toads have venom secreting poison glands on their backs. They produce up to 30,000 eggs at a time, live 10-15 years in the wild, and have been proliferating over northern Australia since they were introduced in 1935 to combat a beetle that was wracking havoc on sugar can production. It wasn’t long before the toads were found to be toxic to the birds and small animals that ingested them and are particularly dangerous to dogs. The only way people can come to harm is if they ingest the toxin or get it their eye or in an open wound, but they still are careful and don’t touch them directly. Green tree frogs grow to over 4″ long. Their skin has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties and they can live to be 15 years old. I had no idea frogs and toads could live this long!
Katherine Springs. We enjoyed a visit to Katherine Springs (see the slides above) later that afternoon to see where baptisms are sometimes held, since they don’t have a chapel or font in Katherine. It was beautiful, and I couldn’t stop taking pictures. The stream coming out of the springs frequently opened up into pockets of deep pools and seemed to go on forever, affording swimmers and those trying to escape the heat in the well shaded water plenty of private places to hang out with friends or family. When Katherine Springs doesn’t work, baptisms are held in the swimming pool of a hotel there in town.
The Farrers had a birthday party to attend that afternoon, so we went off to Red Rooster to have chicken for dinner because it was the only place in town we could find that was still open on Saturday at 5 PM.
Sacrament Meeting in Katherine: lessons in faith, humility and gratitude. Sunday church was such a sweet experience. The Katherine congregation meets in a community center; there is no church chapel in Katherine, and I’m told that sometimes members come and then go as they are transferred in and out of the RAF base. A new Melchizedek priesthood holder recently transferred in for other employment, and is now serving as the president of this little branch– a real blessing. Another man serving in the military there is now his first and only counselor.
It was fast and testimony meeting that day, and the branch president told the following story, which he gave me permission to share:
President Walmsley grew up in Belfast, Ireland during the conflicts between the Irish Catholics and Protestants. In one particularly strong Protestant neighborhood in this area, there was a very large section of homes three streets wide that was slated to be re-developed, apparently by the Catholic opposition then in power. In protest to this, the Protestant owners of these homes decided to burn them rather than sell them to the Catholics.
There was one elderly LDS lady in her 80s who lived in one of the homes by the name of Sister Ditty, who refused to move out of her home in this neighborhood to safety. She insisted that because of what is stated in Doctrine and Covenants 64:23 which says, “Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming,” her house would not be burned, so there was no need to move out of it.
In spite of everyone pointing out to her that this scripture refers to the Savior’s second coming, and the likely consequence of her staying there, she held fast to her belief that because she was a full tithe payer, her house would not be burned. Everyone, in turn, pleaded with her to vacate, but her faith and determination were fixed.
First her home teachers tried to persuade her to move to safety.
Then, her elder’s quorum president.
Then, her branch president.
Then, the district president
Finally, the mission president succeeded in persuading her to vacate her home to a place of safety – right before the burn was expected to occur.
President Walmsley then continued, relating how he watched from his home on a nearby hill just outside of town that night as fire slowly snaked through and ignited one after another of the homes – literally hundreds of them along these three contiguous streets – and witnessed them bursting into flames.
The next morning some of the former residents returned to assess the damage and found that every single home in that area had burned – with the exception of just one: Sister Ditty’s home. Only the top of her wooden front gate had been touched by the fire and was slightly charred.
Isn’t it truly amazing how powerful faith can be, even in the most challenging of circumstances and when based on what appears to be a slightly skewed understanding? What a wonderful example of the tender mercies of the Lord!
I was also touched to see one Indigenous or Aboriginal man come in before the meeting, then be pulled aside by the branch president into a side room where he was helped in putting on the first tie he had ever worn. But I was touched even more when I saw him kneel behind the little sacrament table in his untucked white shirt, tie and shorts, with his worn flip-flops removed and inserted between his thin knees and the hard tile floor. Kneeling there alone, he recited both sacrament prayers perfectly, carefully pronouncing each prayer word-by-word, with his bare feet behind him.
Equally as sweet, I could tell after the meeting how much he wanted to keep the tie, and of course, it was graciously given to him. Many of these humble people are not comfortable serving in any capacity, praying in public or speaking in church, so his willingness to use his priesthood and prepare and bless the sacrament for the rest of the congregation was wonderful to see.
I had been asked to lead the music soon after we had arrived but hadn’t been told that a recorded accompaniment was available and ready, so surprised them all by leading the opening song acapella. When I later bore my testimony, I shared that they had sung alone beautifully – as well or better than the recording – which they had. Needless to say, I am looking forward to our next visit to that sweet branch.
Goodbye to George. After church we said goodbye to the two Katherine elders, Elder Nelson from the Chicago area and Elder Langi from Tonga (who were diligently serving there so far from everyone else) and then took time to visit George, a non-member Australian man the Farrers always try to see when in town. He is older and is now experiencing health issues. His thick outback Australian accent was hard for me to understand. He had spent much of his life breaking and training brumbies (wild, feral horses) but now, when able, simply worked in his garden. Someone had recently pinched (stolen) the huge, heavy blooms on his two sunflower plants. “If they’d asked, I would-a given ’em to ’em,” he stated simply.
Soon it was back to the cars and after a stop at the Katherine Visitor’s Center (which is worth the visit) came the return drive back to Darwin. Traveling on Fast Sunday (where we abstain for food and liquids for 2 meals, or about a 24-hour period and then donate what we would have spent on food to help the less fortunate) provided great incentive to hurry home to have our evening meal!