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.
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.