Add thongs* for formal wear

Casually kicked off at the beach, or add pearls for the red carpet

Casually kick off at the beach, or add pearls for the red carpet.

Darwin isn’t exactly the fashion capital of Australia. Put it this way. If you go to one of the sailing clubs, there are signs that request you to put on a shirt and some thongs.

There are people who need to be told this.

Of course, not all of us are this sloppy. Some of us even have “going out thongs”. In fact, I have two pairs.

In the Top End, thongs are definitely the footwear of choice: for weddings, red carpet and the workplace. Closed toe shoes are for the back cupboard; you pull them out and wipe off the mould only when you need them for a trip down south.

But when the ABC’s Q and A came to film an episode in Darwin a couple of years ago, the audience members were all sent an email asking them to wear shoes. It caused such a panic that there was a follow up email saying that the double plugger would, in fact, be fine after all. This led local author and audience member Barry Jonsberg to open the questions by asking whether he should “celebrate this concession to the Territory lifestyle or worry that the rest of Australia thinks of us as bogans?”

If the shoe fits, Barry. If the shoe fits.

One of my workmates, Gary, eschews even the double pluggers. He’s obstinately barefoot, with an emergency pair of thongs in the top drawer in case one of the head honchoes should suddenly drop by.

Gary is one of my favourite people at work and an absolute gun at what he does, which means that nobody says too much when he rocks up at work wearing a baseball cap and an Alawa Primary School T-shirt that he found in the op shop. Or a pair of shorts he picked up on the Nightcliff foreshore and then washed.

But that’s not to say that Gary can’t dress for the occasion, when required.

For example:

Gary: Louise, the Prime Minister has just arrived. I’ll go let him in. Back in a mo’.

Louise: OK. Thanks.

She looks up.

Louise: Hang on a second….Gary! Take your hat off! And for God’s sake, put some thongs on!

I just hope the Prime Minister appreciated it.

*Apologies to non-Australian readers who think I am writing about racy underwear.

Cyclone Season

January 3, 2008. Trees over the road in Nightcliff after Cyclone Helen

January 3, 2008. Trees over the road in Nightcliff after Cyclone Helen

I flew into Darwin during a cyclone last night.

Well, to be fair, it was ex Tropical Cyclone Alessia by the time we actually made it to the Top End, but I didn’t know that when I got on the plane. I was sitting at Sydney airport with my fellow Territorians, all of us checking the BOM tracking map online. There were mixed opinions at Gate 12: some certain we wouldn’t be getting on the plane (too dangerous by far), others thought a bit of turbulence would just help them sleep through the four and a half hour journey.

There have been a few cyclones in my time in the Top End. Tropical Cyclone Helen threw down a few African Mahogany trees in early 2008. Cyclone Grant tried to spoil Christmas one year and failed (I got to drink champagne in a backyard pool while people sent me texts to see “if I was alright”. I think they had bigger hailstones in Melbourne that December). And then Cyclone Carlos was all drain pipe trousers and big moustache swagger, but then he got drunk, fumbled around in the dark and fell asleep on the bed with all his clothes on.

For me cyclone season is usually about being on standby at work, some trees down, a few whistling winds and debating whether I should go with baked beans or tinned dolmades for the cyclone kit.

I’m being glib, but I’m not really. Especially when I think about what happened to Darwin 39 years ago.

The stories from Cyclone Tracy get me every time. My uncle remembers taking refuge in a car, drinking the last of the Christmas party booze and waiting to die. Everyone describes “that sound”: the roar of the wind, the scream of it, like a freight train pounding down the rails towards you.

I’ll never forget Terry Kenwrick’s version of Tracy. Terry was a teacher, actor and man about town; he spent Christmas Eve 1974 in a house in Tiwi with his wife and child. This is how he described the experience:

It was like a giant had grabbed your house and was literally shaking it really hard. He was going to kill you. There was no way out. And then the power went off and we lay on the floor next to the bathtub, with our feet keeping the door closed. Terror kicked in… I can’t remember much after that. We could barely scream to each other. I just thought there was no way out of this one. I tried praying, we all did. We tried everything.

By dawn, the wind was dropping. And as dawn came up, it was raining like hell and very, very windy but lessening. I squeezed out of this cubby hole and stood up.

The view was incredible. 360 degrees of total destruction. Not a building left habitable.

Then I saw a policeman in nothing but a hat and a pair of underpants, with a double barrelled shot gun slung over his shoulder. He was stumbling towards me.

I said, What do we do now mate?

And he said, I don’t know, and went on, looking for something to shoot.

But last night was no Tracy, not even close. When I got off the plane, the wind had died down and the roads had just a dressing of leftover rain.

Today in the grey light of morning, I can see the damage of (ex) Tropical Cyclone Alessia, the Category 1 that never was. The blinds in our bedroom are hanging on by a thread, and two of the large pot plants on the balcony have been knocked over. Never mind. As the internet meme says, We Will Rebuild.

I’m enjoying the scattering of clouds and the silence and the cooler temperature.

It’s actually a bit nippy.

I might even turn the fan off.

Might be time to buy some new blinds.

I’m leaving this job for Mr Tea.

Just check under the bed first

January 3, 2007. Getting a tour around my new rabbit warren of a Darwin workplace.

Boss Lady: …That’s the control room, down that corridor. And here’s the sick bay, if you ever need a lie down or a panadol.

Me: Great, thanks.

Boss Lady: If you do need to have a lie down though, maybe just check under the bed first. Sue from Tech Services sometimes keeps her injured birds here. Last week she had a kingfisher and two flying foxes.

I had a couple of panadol before having a cuddle with this little fellow.

I’m not so good with birds or bats up close. So I had a couple of panadol before getting too familiar with this little fellow.

A story that starts with too many boats and winds up in a “police sting”

There's nothing quite like the smell of two stroke in the morning.

There’s nothing quite like the smell of two stroke in the morning.


The Northern Territory has the highest rate of boat ownership in the country. Boat ownership here is a marker that you are Territory Tough; it’s a signifier of freedom and a ticket to the inner sanctum. Because in the Territory, boating means fishing. And fishing isn’t just a way of life, it’s THE way of life.

Mr Tea isn’t the blokiest of Territory men (thank God), and he’s not a bleeding gums, crazy eyes fisherman either. But he’s certainly pulling his weight when it comes to the boat ownership stakes.

Somehow, we seem to have become a five boat family. This is troubling given the fact that Mr Tea and I don’t have children. Between the garage and the Darwin Sailing Club, we have a couple of tinnies, a kayak, a 25ft yacht and an inflatable dinghy to service said yacht. When Mr Tea isn’t fiddling around with one of these, planning a trip or going on a trip, he’s busy haunting Gum Tree and Let it be said, he has a problem.

The yacht really was the gateway drug, taking us from tinny owners to empire builders. And when Mr Tea first flagged buying one, I was supportive. I (like you, no doubt) imagined that on the yacht, I would instantly become thinner. I would swan around in a plunging one-piece. I’d sport white linen and a tan, and we’d drink nothing but champagne and strawberries, just like a menthol cigarette ad from 1987.

Unfortunately, the reality was less menthol cigarette and more profound sea sickness, occasional moments of oceanic beauty (look! A dugong!) and shitting in a bucket.

But I digress.

Because, just as Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob, the yacht begat more boats. Because once you have a yacht, you need a tender to get from the yacht to the beach. And that’s how we wound up with 40 kilos of an inflatable Zodiac in the shed.

And then Mr Tea and I went to visit the yacht one evening. Ostensibly to retrieve some sails, but I actually think Mr Tea just wanted to pat it. At any rate, we got there, only to find that an enterprising criminal had climbed into the boat park and removed our motor with bolt cutters.

Mr Tea was gutted. So to console himself, he went on Gum Tree and bought another (smaller) tinny and a trailer.

“The perfect car topper,” he told me. “And I can use the motor on the yacht. This is a bargain. A real bargain.”

He promptly dropped the rest of the insurance money, and then some, on trailer registration and a service for our new replacement motor.

So then there were five.

Sure, I had a boat addict for a partner and I thought Bunnings should probably stop selling bolt cutters, but apart from that I was pretty zen about the whole thing. I’d embraced our new life as a five boat family. I accepted there was no room in the shed for any of my possessions. And I had let the stolen two stroke Yamaha go. God speed, long shaft motor.

And that was when Mr Tea found it on Gum Tree.

He immediately sent off an enquiry, and sure enough, someone called “Nathan” sent us a few photos of our stolen motor.

Mr Tea is a law-abiding sort of bloke, and was a bit flummoxed by this.

“Are they really that stupid? They’d just rip off a motor and sell it online? In a place the size of Darwin?”

I assured him that there were many, many people in the Territory who were exactly that stupid.

But then we also started to freak ourselves out a bit. Maybe this was bigger than stupid. Maybe this was a boat motor smuggling ring, some kind of offshore bikie side project. Luckily, I had been watching The Bill and Water Rats on and off for years and was alert to such dangers.

So we went down to the Darwin Police Station. After repeating our story to about three different officers, we finally were assigned a pair of crack crime hounds to get on the case. Let’s call them Steve and Darren.

Mr Tea repeated his story.

Darren scratched his nose. “Hmmm. So what are you going to do about it?”

At that stage, I almost giggled. We’re at the police station, I said. What are YOU going to do about it?

Steve had the courtesy to shrug his shoulders in a way that said touché.

Darren and Steve consulted with their boss for another hour, and then the plan was in place. We would go to Stuart Park and inspect the motor and double check that it was ours. Constables Steve and Darren would tail us and as soon as we gave them the nod, they would bust this two stroke motor stealing, drug smuggling, sex trafficking bikie ring wide open.

Mr Tea immediately banned me from the police sting operation.

“Babe”, he said. “There’s no need for both of us to get caught up in this. We don’t know what will happen in there. It could get dangerous. I want you to go home. I’ll call you as soon as it’s over.”

I protested and put up a fight on feminist grounds, but really, I’m a coward at heart and I was tired of hanging out in the police station. Plus I had some important lying down to do.

So I agreed to stay clear, though nervous about leaving my love to face the inevitable bikie shoot out alone. I went home and gripped my phone for about an hour until Mr Tea called me back.

Turns out it was a bit less dire than we had imagined. No bikies or guns. No, our motor was in the hands of a couple of drugged out, skinny 19 year olds who wanted to make a quick 500 bucks. They claimed to have “bought it off a guy at One Mile”.

Our fearless constables Steve and Darren went in, retrieved the motor, delivered some wrist slapping and went back to the office for doughnuts.

Well, that’s great, I said to Mr Tea.

A win for us. Take that, petty crime.

The next day, Mr Tea made some space in the shed again for the motor, and started to rig up a hanging space for the new tinny between the 4WD and the kayak.  And true to form, he went back on Gum Tree.

He turned to me from the IPad.

“How would you feel about a stand-up paddleboard?”

*With apologies to anyone who hasn’t watched The Castle. And with sympathy to all the other long suffering significant others who have to get the Torana out to get to the Commodore. Or the tinny to get to the kayak.

Broome small talk

Karen's house

Beth: So are you living at K’s place?

Me: Yeah, I am. I just moved in.

Ryan: We used to live there.

Me: Yeah?

Ryan: Yeah. Great place. You won’t have any problems. And you’re far enough away from The Bronx (Anne St).

Beth: But you might get a guy called Harold yelling for Cynthia outside your window late at night. All you need to do is call out that Cynthia doesn’t live here anymore. Cynthia is dead.

Me: Cynthia is dead. OK.

How to drive from Darwin to Broome

The Great Northern Highway, Kununurra to Broome

The Great Northern Highway, Kununurra to Broome

I broke up with my boyfriend, I needed to lose weight and I’d been in Darwin for at least 18 months so it seemed like a good time to move to Broome.

It was July, the year was 2008.

I was meant to start the job in six weeks and I was skint. On the facts, I decided that the best, most economic thing to do would be to drive 1800 kilometres in two or three days. I’d put my most precious possessions into the hatchback and start work the day after.

I told my Dad about this plan, driving from Darwin to Kununurra, and then through Halls Creek to Fitzroy Crossing and finally onto Broome. I’d never driven more than about three or four hours at a time before, but you’ve got to start somewhere, I thought.

Dad was less enthusiastic.

“On your own? That’s a stupid idea. What if you break down? Or hit a kangaroo? There’s a good chance you’ll get car jacked and raped in Halls Creek. And do you have enough insurance? You could get caught in a bushfire this time of year. Or an early cyclone. What if they run out of fuel at the roadhouse? And you’re going to CAMP along the way? No, no, no… I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”

I suppose it wasn’t an unexpected response. We come from a longstanding family of fearmongers, and I can catastrophise with the best of them. I slept badly that night, dreaming of Halls Creek car jackers and rapists.*

The next day Dad rang me back.

“You know, I think a road trip from Darwin to Broome sounds like a great idea. I’ll come with you!”

And that’s how, at the age of 28, I ended up going on a five day driving holiday with my Dad.

On the face of it, a Yorkshire-born Canberra lawyer in sandals and the Australian outback aren’t natural bedfellows. But Dad wore his geek credentials with pride, and made friends along the way with everyone: surly petrol station owners, helicopter pilots, rural reporters, publicans and even the guys on the NT-WA border who frisk you for illicit carrots and cane toads.

He got excited about road trains and ate barramundi for dinner every night.

Plus he brought a good camera, a bunch of tools and spare parts I still don’t know how to use (give me a call if you need a spare fan belt sometime) and a credit card with a much higher limit.

Let it be said, travelling with Dad had many advantages over my original Go West Young Woman solo road trip.

But what he didn’t bring was music. Or rather, good taste in music. Or rather, my taste in music.

Turns out there are only three songs we both like –In My Life by The Beatles, Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears.

Mostly we compromised, but every so often our creative differences made the kilometres longer. It made me think of a song by Modest Mouse, sort of in the vein of the crowd pleasing “10 green bottles hanging on the wall…”:

100 miles is a long drive inside a car.

200 miles is a long drive inside a car.

300 miles is a long drive inside a car.

400 miles is a long drive inside a car.

500 miles is REAL long drive in a car.

 600 miles is a long drive inside a car.

700 miles is a long drive inside a car.

800 miles is a long drive inside a car.

900 miles is a long long long long wait in a car.

And a thousand miles is a LONG drive inside a car.

1100 miles is too far, inside a car.**

I would have played it, but it’s pretty shouty and Dad wasn’t really into Modest Mouse. Or music that was shouty.

We drove the Great Northern Highway in build up heat. It’s an intense and beautiful landscape; all boab trees and jilted car bodies. Termite mounds and red ragged ranges and bitumen. It drizzled with rain and the road smelled like burnt brown sugar.

We drove 1800 kilometres, and we didn’t get car jacked or raped. We didn’t run out of fuel. We didn’t get caught in a bushfire or an early cyclone. We didn’t break down, or hit a kangaroo, or any of the Brahmin bulls that liked to chew the cud best by the side of the road.

Just before we pulled into Broome, Dad remembered the only other song we both liked.

We crossed the town limits to Neil Murray.

Just in time to sit on the beach; stare at the moon.

*Having lived in the Kimberley now, I have many good things to say about the fine people of Halls Creek. And I reckon there are no more carjackers or rapists there than anywhere else in the world. We’re cool, right Halls Creek?

**Modest Mouse also wrote a great song called Talking Shit about a Pretty Sunset. I’ll get onto that another time.

Car bodies and boabs. Warmun, East Kimberley

Car bodies and boabs. Warmun, East Kimberley

Cassowary crossing

Sign by Cairns Regional Council and local wit

Sign by Cairns Regional Council and local wit

Someone told me a cassowary can disembowel you with its beak. I haven’t been able to confirm this in my limited (non-existent) web research, but I believe it.

Other more factual facts that you might like to know include this: the female cassowary lays the eggs, but it’s the male who sits on the nest and raises them. We have a lot to learn from our fine-feathered friend. I like to imagine the female cassowary as some kind of rainforest dilettante, leaving the child minding to her partner while she gets drunk on quandongs with the musky rat kangaroos and carpet pythons.

Nerd that I am, I studied the “If confronted by a cassowary” sign carefully while I waited for the car ferry to cross the Daintree River into Cape Tribulation. It also had two plaster-cast demonstration birds, which were supposed to assist the novice birdwatcher.

Instructions ran as follows:

  1. Do not run.
  2. Without turning, retreat slowly.
  3. If the bird becomes aggressive, place a solid object such as tree between yourself and the bird. If nothing is available, hold an object such as an item of clothing or a backpack in front of you and continue to back away slowly.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure that my backpack was going to stop a disembowelling Queensland-bred prehistoric Big Bird.

So yes, trepidation. But also anticipation. If Far North Queensland has a hierarchy of animal spotting, the cassowary is up there with the crocodile and green turtle. The cassowary might not be a Gouldian Finch in the ornithological world (what did I tell you? Nerd!), but every tourist in Cape Trib wants a glimpse and (preferably) a photo to tell the tale.

For all the yellow cassowary crossing signs and demonstration models, spotting a cassowary seemed like a long shot. But not impossible. And it happened sooner than I thought.

I was driving along, ready to curse a bunch of tourists who had stopped dead in the middle road. Road raging was my right as a local, of course. I’d already spent a whole three days in the area. Bloody tourists.

But it turns out those bloody tourists had a bloody good eye. As I sped past them, I glanced in my rear vision mirror to see a cassowary leading two chicks across the road. I turned the car around, but they’d already melted into the rainforest.

Later that afternoon I went for a swim at the Blue Hole, a freshwater swimming spot that is a preview for heaven if ever I saw one. I wandered down to the creek, and that’s when I saw it.

Blue of neck, red of jowl, tan of comb. It had two chicks in tow and walked like an Egyptian. I gestured the former to a couple of other tourists walking back from the Blue Hole, and together we watched the cassowary. Who watched us. And then walked closer, puffing up his chest.

I’ll take you, he mouthed.

I remembered the sign and crept backwards. Where was my backpack?

It was probably three minutes but it felt like an hour, and then the cassowary and his chicks disappeared into the bush.

After that, I felt less worried that I would return to Darwin disembowelled. Sure, if it came down to a me-versus-cassowary situation, well then it would be a lay-down misere for the cassowary. But hopefully he’d just rough me up a bit. Take my lunch money and give me a wedgie.

Now that I think of it, I also have a friend called Cass, aka Cassowary. I never thought much of the nickname before, but with hindsight it seems about right. She too is an impressive creature, and you wouldn’t want to fuck with her either.

Terrible photo I took of said cassowary in the heat of the moment

Terrible photo I took of said cassowary in the heat of the moment

This is the build up

Yesterday I was doing the washing up in my bra and undies.

I hesitated on the undergarment terminology for a second there, but yes. I’d like to say knickers but that suggests lace, and the word panties makes me want to stick my finger down my throat. Or make random accusations of paedophilia. Nope, they’re definitely undies when you’re sweating it out over the sink.

I wasn’t trying to give the neighbours a show. Nor was I getting ready for a surprise visit from the electrician, wow wow wackka wackka wow wow. There just wasn’t any point in wearing clothes. It was 32 degrees, eleventy hundred percent humidity and I’d already had my second shower for the day around noon.

This time of year in Darwin is perverse. It’s even worse when you go from a sanctuary of air conditioning into the fray. When I was working, to go get lunch we’d have to cross two alleyways of pavement to awning concrete. My friend Anna used to call it 30 seconds on High. It was a gauntlet you’d brave only to grab a sandwich or laksa.

The build up makes you fantasise about rain. Dream about rain. You can be doing something really nice, like getting a massage or eating a piece of cake and you think, how much BETTER would this be if it was raining? You count clouds. You refresh the BOM website. You start tapping your veins. You’d break into someone’s car to get rain if it was sitting on the passenger seat.

And I moved to Darwin FOR the rain. I was tired of drought and water restrictions and the lit up sign on Barry Drive that reported how low the dam levels were in Canberra. I wanted lush green lawns and tropical gardens. I wanted to be in a town where the locals watered their driveways.

Most Territorians encourage people to visit in the Dry Season. I waxed lyrical about all the rain you could see from December to February.

You can just sit on the verandah and watch it, I enthused.

Well, Mother Nature must have felt sorry for this rain crack addict. Or she wanted me to put some clothes on. At around 3am this morning, it rained.

No, it didn’t just rain. It poured. Fat rain, horizontal rain, stinging rain. The lightning curled around the street lights, the thunder smashed like dinner plates. 98 millimetres at the airport, 85 at Nightcliff pool.

When I lived in Tonga, they had a word for rain that heavy: faka’uha. And yes, it’s pronounced as per the expletive.  Faka’uha was rain you could have a bath or shower in. Whenever there was a downpour, I remember my Tongan host mother grabbing the shampoo and running outside to lather up. The chickens and pigs would be scuttling for cover, but she’d be out in the yard, singing in the shower.

I should have gone out at 3am this morning to faka’uha.

When I woke up again, the rain had finished. The sky was grey and the air was cooler and I could think again.

By lunchtime the steam was rising.

And in two hours I’ll be washing up in my bra and undies again, tapping my veins, sweating into the sink and dreaming of rain again.

Poinciana picnic

Flame trees at East Point

Flame trees at East Point

I’m going to be away for my best friend’s birthday and she’s not happy. So one Sunday afternoon, I buy a bottle of Moet, some strawberries and olives and pick her up for a surprise picnic at East Point. We pick a luscious Poinciana tree glowing in the sunset light and get comfy: fold out chairs, esky, plates of food. I’ve even packed real glasses – champagne flutes and water tumblers.

We’re sitting there, talking about nothing and everything. The red orb of sun folds into the sea. It gets darker and darker and soon there’s just the light from the street and the tanker across the harbour, and a voice makes us jump.

“Ladies? Excuse me, ladies?”

It’s a man in his 40s, bald, well-built, shirtless, on a bike, eyes slightly rolled back in his head, words slurred.

“Ladies, could I beg some of your water for my dog?”

Of course, sure, no problem, we say too quickly.

The dog is nowhere to be seen.

He opens the bottle of water and glugs down half a litre or so, then throws it back to us.

“Thanks. My dog’s called Amos, he’s a harmless little thing.”

The man rides off, and moments later, a giant pig dog comes and sniffs around our picnic and the hermit crabs diligently combing the sand.

My friend hisses and the dog hesitates.

A slurred voice from the dark.


There’s a whistle, and the water borrowing man and his pig dog disappear into the night.

Familiar faces

“Hey, I know you from somewhere.”

This happens a lot in Darwin.

I usually feign recognition, at least while I’m scanning my brain for parties, introductions, friends of friends.

Oh yeah, I recognise you, I normally say.

We must have met… somewhere.

But today, after an hour and a half of yoga, my social skills are lost somewhere between trikonasana and downward facing dog.

I don’t pretend.

Really? What’s your name?

“Gavin”, he says.

How do we know eachother?

“We met a few years ago…” He hesitates. “On RSVP”.

Now I remember. Two dates, one at the museum, one playing lawn bowls.

I’d thought Gavin was cute and I would have happily gone out with him again. I don’t know if it was my lawn bowling skills or my conversation or my hips, but I never heard from him again.

I saw Gavin out a few months later with a pretty blond girl, and ran into him another three years after that. He’d just got back from China and wanted to return.

Now his face is familiar but also different.

What have you been up to?

“Well”, he says. “I got smashed up.”

Did you have an accident, a fight?

I’m picturing Mitchell Street, a beer glass, 3am.

“I was on my motorbike…along Daly Street. Car came up the side,” he says.

“My pelvis got smashed. I’m all metal rods. And my brain, it got a bit…splattered.”

I look at his face more carefully and can see his eyes darting around, some of his facial muscles paralysed, the words just slightly scrambled.


I’m so sorry, I say.

“I’m stuck in Darwin now”, he says. “Since the accident. I can’t leave.”

But there are worse places… We say it at the same time.

He smiles a little.

A life that could have, might have, never was flashes before me. A few years of relationship, then a car crash. Remnants of a motor bike. A partner with a smashed pelvis, splattered brain, putting his life and memories back together piece by piece, yoga class by yoga class.

That life’s not mine.

I shake his hand.

It’s nice to see you again, I say.

Take care of yourself. Maybe I’ll see you at this class. I come on Fridays.