Beyond the ‘gold standard’ cliches, inside the Howard Springs quarantine facility I find shelter | Chips Mackinolty

Join Hafta-Ichi to Research the article “Beyond the ‘gold standard’ cliches, inside the Howard Springs quarantine facility I find shelter | Chips Mackinolty”

When Japanese oil and gas giant Inpex built workers’ accommodation back in 2012 at Howard Springs, just south of Darwin, it housed up to 3,500 mostly fly-in, fly-out workers during the major construction stage of the Inpex plant, and cost around $600m to build. After that, it was handed off to the Northern Territory government in 2019.

The Larrakia traditional owners of Darwin named the workers’ village Manigurr-ma – the word for stringybark, or eucalyptus tetrodonta. An appropriate word for its purpose. Harvested during and shortly after the wet seasons, Manigurr-ma is cut and split down as a single piece, the bark is stripped, and the sheet flattened over a low fire. These days those sheets can be used for bark paintings for sale. In times past, large sheets would be used to build protective shades: refuges from sun, wind and rain.


At time of writing, Manigurr-ma is temporary home to around 400 people who have flown in from Victoria. Another, segregated, section of the village currently houses around 630 people from overseas – many from India. Made up of 875 accommodation blocks across 67 hectares, each with four separate rooms with a basic toilet, shower, sleeping and desk, it makes up what has loosely become known as the “gold standard” for quarantine facilities in Australia.

Arriving at Darwin airport in the middle of the night, a bunch of us were sent on an interminable walk to queue at the international terminal, then loaded on to buses for the 30km south-eastern slog to the village. More queues before being escorted by blue plastic-clad, full PPE staffers to the dongas that will be home for 14 days.

Although the dry season is with us, it is unseasonably warm and humid – a long way from Darwin’s sea breezes – but each separately air-conditioned and with individual verandahs. Fresh air, not shared air. Neat, sterile, but that’s as it should be in what is, after all, an ill health prevention setting. A long way from the hotel accommodation down south which has repeatedly failed. Not to mention cruise ships and public housing blocks.

Manigurr-ma donga. Chip Mackinolty’s room in the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
Manigurr-ma donga. The author’s room in the Howard Springs quarantine facility. Photograph: Chips Mackinolty

Appropriately masked, people can walk or jog around the footpaths between the rooms. Or wander up to the laundry.

The food? Back in the day there was a dining hall capable of feeding 1,750 people at a time – not to mention a tavern, running tracks and basketball courts.

Now on arrival you sign up for the kinds of foods you want – vegan, gluten free, halal, kosher, what have you. And while it is a long, long way ahead of prison grub, it’s not something to write home about. It’s friendly “home” delivery by PPE-clad staff on buggies – breakfast arrives at 8am, lunch at 11.30am and dinner at 5.30pm. Plenty of fruit and salads; indifferently cooked mains and the occasional sweet dessert. A hideous amount of plastic involved, but hard to imagine any other way of doing it.

You can also order more personal extras to be shipped in from local supermarkets – but no grog. Like so many other communities in the NT, this is a dry village. No exceptions. No “special care” packages can be left at the gate. So, perhaps, as much as it might be described as the National Centre for Resilience, it might also be dubbed a National Centre for Rehabilitation.

Though, to be fair, they do ask you on arrival if you have a drinking problem so you can be monitored and, no doubt, be prescribed some appropriate alternative. Likewise, there is a wellbeing/health service at the village staffed by people who, when they are not cheerfully doing Covid swabs and taking temperatures, are available to fill prescriptions and the like. The Covid swabs are undertaken on day 2, and again on day 11 – one of the few ways to mark one’s progress towards release.

And interestingly, given the studied indifference, if not hostility, to welcoming Australians of Indian descent back home – compared to the US and UK – many of the staff here are from the sub-continent and Africa. Truth to be told, it is likely that much of the Australian health system would face collapse without such skilled migrants, not least in the Northern Territory.


That depends on your perspective. For the Inpex workers it was a roof over their FIFO heads, nothing more. But for Territorians it is shelter from the pandemic. This is particularly true for Aboriginal communities in town and bush. These communities, strongly led by Aboriginal-controlled organisations, have been at the forefront of initial shutdowns and communications about safety, and now face the mammoth task of mass vaccinations to protect their elders, workers, families, children and grandchildren.

So, Manigurr-ma. Not the slick marketing cliches of “gold standard” or “national resilience” but stringybark. A simple linguistic gift from the Larrakia.


Chips Mackinolty is a Darwin-based writer and artist, based in the Northern Territory for 40 years

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Beyond the ‘gold standard’ cliches, inside the Howard Springs quarantine facility I find shelter | Chips Mackinolty

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *