Sharon Stone, the Sri Lankan President and I

I’m not sure if it’s jetlag or the anti-malarials I’m taking, but since we’ve arrived in Sri Lanka, I wake up at 4am every day. Not only do I wake up at 4am, I’m at peak operational ability. It’s unprecedented. My mind is buzzing so fast I could broker peace in the Middle East, or at the very least solve a Sudoku puzzle.

Instead, I like to think about people I know, but mostly people I don’t. Sharon Stone for example. I’ve put in some serious energy worrying about Sharon. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her in a movie. Has she fallen prey to Hollywood’s renowned discrimination towards women of a certain age (notable exception Meryl Streep)? Is she in rehab? Just taking it easy with the (grand)kids? Did she have kids? Does she still think about Basic Instinct? Then I remember that Sharon Stone was in MENSA, which gives me some relief. At least she’s got that to fall back on.*

I wonder if Sharon thinks about me too? She probably means to. If she took anti-malarials, I'm sure she would.

I wonder if Sharon thinks about me too? She probably means to. If she took anti-malarials, I’m sure she would.

I’ve also spent some time thinking about Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. That makes more sense, since I’ve seen him on a billboard at least every ten kilometres since we got to Sri Lanka. He’s got a crack PR team, that man. Give the people what they want, they decided in a Colombo office after too many cups of Dilmah. Cancel the hospital funding, hold the poverty eradication program. We need to get some blanket bill boarding happening, stat.

El President has more poses than a Kmart Catalogue. He does Walking Purposefully, Holding Hands with Country Men and Waving to the People. Then there’s Proud and At Peace, Beaming Beatifically and my personal favourite, Look At This Great New Road, You Ingrates. I can’t speak for his politics but he’s got a terrific handlebar moustache.

This is Walking Purposefully.

This is Walking Purposefully.

I’m feeling even more in touch with The President since he’s been staying just around the corner from us in Tangalle on the south coast. He certainly travels in style: three navy frigates offshore to keep watch, and a legion of bodyguards every time his wife wants to go for a jog. He’s also got police check points every 200 metres; Preetha, our taxi driver, went through two just to pick us up yesterday.

I wondered about talking politics in Sri Lanka, but people have been quite forthcoming. Preetha had many political opinions. I think one of them was that having three navy patrol boats on hand while the President was on summer holiday was overkill. Still, a man with a moustache like that can’t be too careful.

As always, the most astute commentary comes from the tuktuk drivers.

“Politic is a mad dog it will bite you”…As always, the most astute commentary comes from the tuktuk drivers.

*Oh no! Wikipedia tells me Sharon finally admitted that she never was a member of MENSA. I might have to worry about her, after all.

Madam is very tall, like Glenn McGrath

“Coming to Sri Lanka, your first time?”

Slave Island

Lakjimi, our taxi driver looks like a Bollywood film star. His hair is slicked over to the side, and the English he has flows out in this beautiful sing-song rhythm, verbs first.

I’m a bit hazy off the plane, but Bandaranaike Airport in Colombo has thought carefully about what new arrivals want and they have nailed it.

Post immigration, we’re handed a local sim card and then greeted by a skinny Sri Lankan Santa Claus. The white beard clashes with his skin tone, but his gumboots are impeccable – shiny, black, patent. Then you have your choice of duty free white goods – fridges, driers, washing machines. Everything a traveller could want.

I change some money and Mr Tea activates our sim card at Sri Lankan Mobitel. The Champion Employee Board sits on the front counter. A guy called Dillum has it sewn up – he’s been employee of the month 11 times in the past year, with only one slip up, February. Maybe he was on holiday then. Dillum’s picture looms large – he has big brown eyes, a furrowed brow, coiffed hair.

But Dillum is not working today. I can tell immediately that the other guy behind the counter hates Dillum. When not-Dillum sees me looking at the Champion Employee Board, he moves it a little further away from the counter while he sings the praises of various phone and data plans.

The service might have been faster if Dillum worked weekends, but eventually we have a working phone, a bunch of rupee and our Bollywood star leads us to a limousine…more commonly recognised as a 1990s era Toyota.

The holiday is off to a great start: Sri Lanka FM is playing holiday tunes, including a jolly mash up of Jingle Bells and Pop Goes the Weasel. But it gets better when the DJ announces a “minor reggae flashback”.

We’re on the tollway into Colombo, an engineering masterpiece replete with many bridges and some outstanding uses of concrete, which pleases Mr Tea.  I’m pleased to see that our first hawker is selling colouring in books. He turns the different pages of animals and fairies, all in outline for the budding artist. His showcasing has the same finesse of Adriana Xenides in her Wheel of Fortune hey day. A tuktuk alongside runs out of fuel, so the driver gets out mid tollway and refills with a soda bottle of two stroke.

We tour the National Museum and walk along Galle Face Green, a patchy lawn filled with people flying kites, stands selling roti and prawn cakes and local couples snuggling on park benches. But my favourite part of Colombo is Slave Island. It has a darker colonial history, but today it’s a mish-mash of colourful and decrepit shop fronts, selling everything from “Poo Max” men’s briefs (I shit you not) and Sri Lankan cricket caps, to car tyres and shoe repairs.

Anyone for Poo Max briefs?  Slave Island shopfronts, Colombo.

Anyone for Poo Max briefs?
Slave Island shopfronts, Colombo.

I’m a novelty here, and fair enough. I’m twice the size of the average Sri Lankan, both vertically and horizontally. Mr Tea and I are inundated with well wishes and good mornings, occasionally punctuated with giggles and, I’m pretty sure, some commentary on my breasts.

Luckily for us, the Indonesian phone tapping scandal and our migration policies are not front of mind in Slave Island. Instead, we get thumbs up and “Very nice country!” for being from Australia.

One of our friendly well-wishers gets straight to the point.

“Australian cricket team! Very good, Sir.”

He pauses and smiles widely.

“Madam is very tall, like Glenn McGrath. And Sir, just like Michael Clarke!”

Mr Tea doesn’t even like cricket, but he knows a compliment when he hears one. His balding good looks have just been vindicated on the streets of Slave Island.

This kid thinks I look like Glenn McGrath too.

This kid thinks I look like Glenn McGrath too.

A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again*

OR: How to hike Jim Jim Falls, the hard way

The Escarpment looms large. Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park

The escarpment looms large. Kakadu National Park

I am thankful to Mr Tea for many things, and one of them is getting me back into the great outdoors. When I first moved up to the Territory, I went out to Kakadu and Litchfield and Katherine and any remote community having a festival within a 400 kilometre radius. I even bought a tent and a gas stove. But I don’t know that I would have taken much more initiative beyond that. I grew up in a house where we read books on weekends, and then discussed those books over the dinner table. We could barely change light bulbs, let alone read a compass.

But it’s second nature for Mr Tea. He is one of those Kathmandu clad cliches, devoted to his art. When he’s not sailing, he’s fishing, bushwalking, snorkelling, scuba diving or snowboarding, except when work gets in the way. It’s exciting but comfort zone crashing, especially for someone as challenged in the practical department as I am. And every trip, something always goes awry. What starts as a quiet weekend away on the boat usually ends up with me clutching the spinnaker mid-ocean, throwing my guts up in a massive storm. Or one of us (ok, me again) sliding down a cliff dangerously close to a crocodile infested river.

In the retelling, many of our outdoor adventure stories include the line “and then I cried”.

This is one of them.

It was fairly early on in our relationship, and Mr Tea wanted us to go for a three-day bushwalk with his good friends, Justin and Leida. They, too, sounded dauntingly like outdoor types – Leida was competing in the National Orienteering titles and Justin owned not one but two Camelbak drink bladders.

Mr Tea decided that we should do a walk around Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu National Park. Jim Jim Falls is one of the big attractions in Kakadu, 150 metres worth of falls down a (fairly sheer) cliff, and only accessible during the dry season (and then, only by 4WD).

Mr Tea had previously hiked between Jim Jim and its neighbour Twin Falls, a trip he described to me as a death march. So to my immense relief, he decided on something easier. We applied for permits and using Google Earth, Mr Tea mapped out a route that he described as a piece of piss: we’d hike up the gorge and over the escarpment to the top of the Falls, with an easy descent down to the car park. In retrospect, I should have picked up on the “over the escarpment” bit, but I was starry eyed and in love and had never been to that part of Kakadu.

We drove out one Friday night, and camped in the car park before setting off the following morning. Our packs were filled with camping gear, two silver bladders of wine and an assortment of food that you would never eat when there was a fridge close by. Long shirts, sunscreen, daggy camping hats. We were ready.

Mr Tea led us along the track away from the Jim Jim plunge pool. We stone hopped across the creek, and veered up the escarpment and then down towards the gorge.

Every so often, one of us would brush up against a green ant nest. These nests are a formidable feat of architecture. The ants glue leaves together into a cone; the internet tells me the glue is a silk derived from the larvae. It must take days, so I don’t blame them for getting pissed when some hairy backpacker knocks into it. But it did mean that every couple of steps, I would get another nip: I found green ants down my sleeve, in my hair, and inside my bra.

green ants

The sun was right above us and shade was minimal. It’s hard to describe the heat. The breath feels hot in your throat. Your eyeballs swell. And this is the dry season. It didn’t take long before I could wring the green ant laced sweat out of my shirt, but then Leida pulled out a chocolate muffin she’d bought at the service station the night before.

So far, so good.

Eventually we got to a clearing with a water hole that looked like a decent enough place to pitch a tent. But it was only 4pm, and Mr Tea wanted to push on. It started to get harder. Vines and pandanus leaves scratched at my face and hands. The ridges above the creek had been burnt to ash, and in crappy sneakers, my feet could barely hold on. My bravado and I slid up and down the slopes, gasping for breath, desperately trying to keep up with Mr Tea and Leida the national orienteering champion.

Eventually I had to stop, choking through tears and sweat and exhaustion. Leida took pity on me, and sent the boys ahead on a reconnaissance mission. She spoon-fed me Gatorade powder while I sat on a rock, quietly sobbing behind my sunglasses.

Mr Tea returned half an hour later and reluctantly admitted that we would have to camp back at our original clearing.  I swallowed my told-you-so, and we lit a fire, sucked down wine from the silver bladder and watched a tree snake wind its way from tent to tree to tent.

The next day, we continued up the gorge. But where Mr Tea and Google Earth had envisioned an easy rocky plateau, there was in fact a barely penetrable jungle. Mr Tea cut vines with his pocket-knife and we fought for each footstep forward. Two hours passed and the jungle ended, but then the boulders began. We pushed our packs up first and then hunted for footholds around the water streaming down the boulders. Google Earth and Mr Tea had also missed the additional waterfall at the end of the gorge. I think it was around then that the sole of Justin’s boot split in two. Luckily Mr Tea had some superglue handy and he patched it back together.

I was still reeling from scaling boulders and the fact that superglue was the only thing Mr Tea had in his first aid kit. And then came the cliffs, as far as we could see. The only way was back. Or up.

Who in their right mind would walk up that?

Who in their right mind would walk up that?

I was tempted by the back option, but then I remembered the jungle. Up it was. We made it two hundred metres or so, and then we came to a dead end. The first of many. We’d follow caves in the cliffs, hoping for an opening over the escarpment, and then we’d have to double back, try another cave, another cliff opening, another non-existent path.  It was like The Labyrinth, only without David Bowie or the Bog of Eternal Stench. Then again, we had been sweating a lot…

Eventually we made it over and the sheer rock turned into scrub. I’ve never been so glad to see head-high spear grass. By sunset, we staggered to a white sand beach near a waterhole and set up camp. Leida and Justin cooked two-minute noodles with cabbage and soy sauce and it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. We tallied up our water intake for the day: ten litres or more, each.

The walk across the plateau the next day was exposed but easy enough. Jim Jim Falls was spectacular, as promised. And there we encountered other tourists for the first time in two days. One of the guys didn’t have a shirt on, and two of the girls were in thongs. They barely had 600mls of water between them, and I hoped they weren’t continuing onto our Kokoda trail.

I’d anticipated the descent for 24 hours, but after a couple more hours of sliding down mud steps and clinging to tree roots for balance, my calves were aching and the pack had become a monkey on my back. A very heavy monkey.

Finally, we got to the bottom, and staggered back onto the main path with friendly orange triangles signalling the way back to the car park.

Mr Tea dusted his hands.

“Well, that was a bit harder than I thought.”

No one said anything. Even Leida was a bit teary by then. We debated walking up to the plunge pool for one last swim, but that idea was quickly kyboshed. Time to shed our shoes and go back to the car, back to the highway, back to Darwin.

Justin and Leida haven’t come bushwalking with us since.

*I doff my cap to David Foster Wallace.

Recipe for an outstanding lunch

With apologies for engaging in food pornography

With apologies for engaging in food pornography

Fly to Cairns. Drive an hour or so north to Mossman. Pull up at a restaurant on the Main Street called Mojos. It’s a crap name. Ignore it. Ignore that little voice in your head that says you are gluten and lactose intolerant. Pull up a seat. Order the home-made gnocchi with blue cheese and caramelised pear. Have a Harry Met Sally moment. Leave.

An ode to Territory Day

Behind this happy family, children are throwing lit fireworks at dogs and their parents are lighting crackers on prams and strollers.

Behind this happy family, someone is setting off $500 worth of fireworks from their pram.

I grew up in Canberra, where fireworks were as easy to find as politicians and pornography. They went nicely with locally grown, decriminalised marijuana and I saw a lot of letterboxes go to a better place. Those were some halcyon days in the nation’s capital.

But the NT obsession with fireworks is something else (again, see “Why I Stuck a Cracker up My Clacker”).

Every year on July 1, we have Territory Day. We like to celebrate self-government in the Northern Territory by lighting up a lot of explosives and scaring the bejesus out of pets, refugees and veterans with PTSD. You can light fireworks anywhere you like: on your balcony, on the beach or on top of your baby’s pram. Legislatively, it’s just one day of carnage but it always blows out into weeks, often months, as any Territorian who has been woken by a whistling cracker in the middle of January can attest.

I got my first taste of Territory Day in 2006. I was in Alice Springs, staying with some friends in Northside. We were playing poker on the verandah, and in the spirit of celebration the neigbours threw crackers at us from over the fence and siphoned all the petrol out of my mate’s car.

By the time Territory day next reared its head, I had moved to Darwin and my good friends Abbie, Paul and their four-year-old son Hank were up visiting from Canberra.

It would be a lesson in mayhem for all of us.

Territory Day always starts early. Firework stands pop up in every neglected or empty shopfront through the suburbs. It’s definitely a sellers market and lines of customers curl right around the door. Bogans, backpackers, cashed up public servants and families all come together for this happy occasion.

These punters spend many good minutes agonising over their firework purchases. Some will need multiple trolleys; they are stockpiling for the apocalypse. There are individual crackers, with names like Anger Management, Hot Cougar and Bad Bitch. Or you can buy in bulk – go “Mongrel” for $150 or keep it simple with a Croc pack for $25.

“Just a few buzzing bees, sparklers and one rocket to keep the kids happy”, says one Dad with a glint in his eyes, trying to convince his more reluctant wife.

Pop-up fireworks stand

Traditionally fireworks take place at night but not in the Territory. In fact, it’s generally considered best to start letting off your loot immediately if not sooner. Wherever you are standing is just fine. OH and S be damned, it’s every man, woman and child on a tricycle for him or herself.

By 5pm on July 1, 2007, the carnage was well and truly underway. Crack, bang, crack, bang, crack, crack, bang bang bang. All you could hear were rockets, bombies and the neighbourhood’s new favourite: Osama Boom-Laden.

Abbie rang her brother Sam from Baghdad, formerly known as Darwin. Sam had blown up a lot of shit in his time, and he immediately booked his flights to Darwin for the following year.

“Can you take a video?” he begged.  “And maybe bring a few Osamas home for me?”

We contemplated digging a bomb shelter, but my friends Leanne and Anna were having a Territory Day party at their flat in the city, which boasted a view all the way out to Mindil Beach.

So in the early evening, we began to make our way there. The drive in from Rapid Creek was a little hairy. My hatchback shuddered as we dodged Atom Bombs and War Angels, all fired at us from streetside battlements. When Paul wound down the window, the passing breeze reeked of gun powder.

By the time we got to the CBD, everyone needed a nerve-restoring beverage. The idea had been to watch the official fireworks from the balcony, maybe light a few sparklers of our own. But it didn’t take long before I realised that the NT Government’s display would be completely dwarfed by what was happening in the suburbs.

On our own turf, Leanne’s dentist friend Idham had invested $2000 in a Territory Day good time, and started letting off rockets downstairs. With a few to spare, he shared the wealth.

I rifled through the box of fireworks. Bad Bitch or Osama Boom-Laden? After weighing it up carefully, Hank thought I should go with Bad Bitch.

Leanne and I picked up a couple and headed downstairs. We lined the crackers up on the road. I struck the match; Leanne lit those bad girls and we paced backwards, waiting for the impending bang and skyward spray of colour.

But the fireworks we lit must have been faulty. Or, more likely, we set them up badly.

They exploded at ground level and came straight at us.

Pure panic. One of the crackers skimmed my bare shoulder and I screamed. Leanne grabbed my hand and we piss bolted to the other side of the road while the boys started laughing hysterically.

Meanwhile, back on the balcony everything was hazy and you could see spot fires dotted right across The Gardens. But after awhile the flames seemed closer than that, mostly because they were.

The neighbours had experienced a misplaced firework too, only theirs had set the empty block next door on fire.

It started with a lick of flames in the long grass and we called the firies. But the men and women in yellow were otherwise engaged. I could hear the fire truck sirens reverberating around the suburbs. No one answered the phone.

The flames got worse, and started to climb the African Mahogany in the middle of all that long grass. So my friend Jack led the charge and jumped the fence. Alice and Cassie followed, pulling the fire hose from the basement car park and the rest of us grabbed every bucket and container we could find. A relay line got underway, and Jack doused the tree until it was just smoking, sweaty and singed and so was he.

You’d think that would have put a dampener on things, but the next thing I knew, my otherwise placid mate James was on a ladder strapping fireworks to the third storey eaves.

It was time to go home.

The next morning, Hank woke up crying and asked if the grownups would let off any more bombs. But luckily for him, Territory Day was over for another year. Hank would soon be leaving Baghdad and heading home to the comparative nanny state of Canberra.

I took Abbie, Paul and Hank down to the beach for one last crocodile tempting dip. The road was paved with firework remnants. It was as if Territory Day had thrown up along the foreshore, leaving little pools of cardboard containers, discarded fuses and streamers in his wake.

The Council spent days cleaning it all up, sometimes with prison work crews in tow. I’m still not sure what was more punishing for those inmates in fatigues: wiping up the mess, or missing out in the first place.

Hank chooses Bad Bitch

Hank chooses Bad Bitch

Shit happens at work

ABC Kimberley

In the wet season, a lot of people used to sleep the night on our office verandah. Mostly, they weren’t from Broome. Some of them wanted a taste of the big smoke and bright lights. Or they didn’t fancy being flood-locked on their outstation. Some had been exiled. Some of them were drunk.  Some of them were lost souls, and some of them brought guitars.

The first time I experienced a verandah sleepover party was a bit of a shock, but I soon got used to stepping over the bodies to start my day on the radio. Sometimes I’d even get a bit of pre-dawn cheer.

“Good Mornin’ sista!”

But one early shift, I arrived at work and there were no bodies asleep on our verandah. No morning greetings or left over green cans or guitars from the night before. But someone HAD taken a shit on our doorstop.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Our office (better known as the Broome cupboard) wasn’t the most luxurious place in the world. It still had masking tape on the windows from Cyclone Rosita. The internet ran at the same speed it did in 1996. A lot of the microphones didn’t work and there was always a faint whiff of urinal lolly in the air.

But there usually wasn’t a human shit on the front doorstop.

I stepped over it, sat down at my desk and waited for the computer to speak to a satellite in China and for a hundred monkeys to start typing and upload my email.

I pretended that shit wasn’t there. Any of it.

My friend Ben came in half an hour later.

“Well, how about that,” he said. “Someone shat on our doorstep again.”

Bless his soul, he shrugged his shoulders, cleaned it up and never mentioned it again.

The Broome post wasn’t always easy to explain to the bosses in Perth.

Pimp my ride

Alice practices the all essential frisk or "pat down"

Alice practices the all essential frisk or “pat down”

The Northern Territory revels in its frontier image. There’s pride in the population make up, in the demographic break down of characters and chancers, bounders and bogans, misfits and miscreants. The newspaper is filled with stories of these people. They name their children Zyleem and Sequetia. They find brown snakes in the toilet and crocodiles in the backyard pool.  There are bikini clad girls dancing on crocodile traps and people having sex while they fill up at the service station. There are dildos thrown at engagement parties that cause hospitalisation. And if that wasn’t enough, there are still those special few who stick fireworks in unmentionable places (see my favourite NT News story of all time: “Why I stuck a Cracker up my Clacker”).

When I arrived in WA, I was disappointed to see that the Broome Advertiser had none of these hijinks. But just when I thought the Kimberley wasn’t nearly as renegade as the Territory, my friend Alice and I drove a paddy wagon all the way from Broome to Fitzroy Crossing.

We were at work when the cops first rang us up.

“Any of you girls going to the Rodeo?”

They were short staffed and needed a car taken over. Would we like to drive a police troopie to Fitzroy Crossing?

Why, yes. Yes, we would.

When Alice picked up our new ride, the on-desk constable reluctantly handed her the keys. And warned her against using the siren. Waterboarding may have been implied.

“DON’T you even THINK about it. We’ll know if you did, and there will be trouble.”

And so it begins. Alice and I get into the cop car, all denim mini skirts and cowboy boots, and start driving through Broome. From my new vantage point, I see a mate’s husband driving down Hammersley Street. He looks over and does a double take.

I wave.

We stop at Woollies first, and clamber out to get rodeo supplies – some wine, some meat for the BBQ. The car park goes silent.

As we head out of town along the Great Northern Highway, I pump the music up loud. We’re revelling in our new role as lady cops on a mission. I’m not sure what we’ll do if someone flags us down to solve an actual crime. We sing along to Creedence Clearwater, then The Travelling Wilburys. We get the finger from a couple of cars, a friendly wave from others. No one overtakes us.

Then Alice pulls off at the Willare Road House turn off and suddenly I hear woo-oooo woo-oo woo. I think it’s in the music; we’re listening to Daft Punk.

But I don’t remember that sound in the song. Tourists jolt up at picnic tables; everyone stops and stands to attention. What the fuck?

It takes me a second to realise. Alice has driven the car over some corrugations and it’s set off the siren.

What? Oh my God. We are gonna be in so much trouble.

There’s a button labelled CANCEL in the middle of the dashboard, and I punch it. The siren stops. Alice and I look at each other and laugh manically. And then tumble out of the car and grab a cheese and ham toastie from the roadhouse bain marie.

The tourists are confused.

Finally we get to Fitzroy Crossing three or four hours later. We meet our friends and drive to the campsite, start to put up some tents. The police are there quick as a flash. Four of them, it’s quite the welcome party.

“We’ll take it from here, girls.”

Alice offers to drive the car to the station but the lady copper says, “Oh no, no, no, that’s fine. We got it.”

One of the men takes his hat off, wipes his forehead, shakes his head.

“I can’t believe the boss let you do this.”

I can’t either.

Later that night we go to the Fitzroy Crossing Rodeo hoping to catch a cowboy, but all I get is some mid strength beer and a lot of Shania Twain.

Didn’t hear boo about the siren.

On duty

On duty