Driving across East Timor

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I’ve hitch-hiked in China, been skydiving in New Zealand and eaten dog in Tonga, but it’s in Timor-Leste that I really decide to take my life in my hands.

We’re going to hire a car.

It seems like a fairly natural thing to do on a holiday, but the roads in Timor are notoriously bad, or nonexistent. Not surprisingly, decades of occupation and tragedy have done little for local infrastructure. The country has about thirty kilometres of good road to rub together. Even in Dili, the pot holes are craterous; some the size of a small car. The roads are so bad that although Baucau—the country’s second largest centre—is just over 120 kilometres away, it will take us five hours to drive there.

But we’ve heard of spectacular beaches and snorkelling to the east. I want to go there.

The microlets, or local buses, are lively but slowed by loads of rice, mattresses and chickens in hand fashioned cages, not to mention the passengers who hang out the door. I spy one heading out of the airport: “God Only Knows” is scrawled on the windscreen next to a lewd cartoon of a green woman in a bikini. All promises of an interesting journey, but no guarantees on the destination.

And for all my early bravado, I’m too scared to get on a motorbike.

So my friend Dimity and I get off the plane, and head straight to the country’s only hire car outlet. They know the roads are bad too and the chance of having an accident is high. No one will insure us, but it seems a deal can be cut to reduce your liability in the likely event that something goes wrong. We hand over a good portion of extra money and agree to go halves if we total the car.

They talk us into a three door Pajero. It has that new car smell, but the tyres look old. None of the other vehicles look more promising. Fingers crossed, we back out of the rental premises and drive onto one of Dili’s many one way streets, the wrong way.

After looping the back streets, we begin the climb up the mountain through folds of rainforest and road side stalls selling coconuts and bedraggled green vegetables.

Eventually, we start to hug the coastline. I’m bemused by pineapple shaped pandanus baskets on tables, one corner after another. We stop. A smiling mother and her four unsmiling children untie the pineapple package to reveal two kilos of sea salt. The road winds on, and the blue ocean to our left is almost blinding. Around one corner, we spy the husk of a troop carrier bearing the UN insignia, roof crushed and windows smashed. It’s only just hanging onto the cliff.

But our more immediate concern is whether we can avoid running over someone’s prized chook. With a radio of limited means, the soundtrack to our journey is the horn, beeping as we attempt to shepherd goats, pigs and chickens away from the wheels. I’ve been warned that road kill will require significant financial compensation, and can end in fists. I don’t have the will or vocabulary for a fight, so it’s slow and steady driving behind the wheel.

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We arrive in Baucau, and the back tyre is looking precariously low. A few false starts lead us to a mechanic whose workshop is decorated with Xanana Gusmao stencils and portraits of Che Guevara. There’s a language barrier. I mime pumping up a tyre to the sudden crowd that has amassed around our vehicle. The Che fan club dissolve into giggles.

Eventually the tyre is pumped, and a container of fuel is strained through a cast off pair of shorts and funnelled into our tank. This is the petrol station, apparently.

The road trip continues. It’s as if we’ve passed through Pakistan and into Thailand as a stone littered steppe turns into green rice paddies with water buffaloes grazing. Ten kilometres on, windswept grey beaches remind me of picnics on Scottish beaches.

But it’s not a world tour; we’re still driving through Timor. Each village has its share of Fretilin flags and graffiti. “What do we wanna do for peace?” cries one school wall.

We decide to make for Tutuala and Jaco Island, renowned for pristine white beaches and the aquamarine waters that sell postcards. It’s Timor’s Far East, and the road progressively becomes more bumpy, and soon, indiscernible. We pass through crumbling ruins of old Timorese houses, raised on stilts, and decorated with swathes of shells and horse skulls. I buy some eggs and salad vegetables from a rare road stall. Forget about restaurants with byo alcohol; we’ll need to bring our own food.

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As the light turns purple and the trees become more windswept, we pull up to Tutuala, and drive up a rubble strewn hill to the village’s only accommodation. It’s a pousada that remembers better times. A gang of children gather at our feet, and then turn fallen columns into slides. They frolic on the faded tables, under painted concrete umbrellas.

The caretaker arrives, and for five US dollars a night, this can be our home. It’s musty, and has the air of a forgotten Swiss ski lodge. There are old maps on the wall, and spider webs around the beds. No running water, just litre bottles which have been dutifully carried up by the caretaker for us to flush the toilet. Some of the windows are smashed; what role did this building play during Indonesian occupation?  We beg some hot water, eat two minute noodles and watch the light fade over the cliffs.

The next day, after stiff Timorese coffee and bread rolls, it’s a treacherous 4WD crawl down to the beach. Two locals are quick to jump in our spare seats, and as we descend down a road which runs almost vertical, I understand why they didn’t want to walk. I’ve mentally emptied my bank account, certain the car is not for this world much longer, when we reach the beach, a fleet of outrigger canoes and a jumble of beach shacks.

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For a small price, the fishermen persuade us that there are no crocodiles and drop us at Jaco Island, to rub noses with the angel fish and meditate amongst the coral. They land their canoe down the beach half an hour later, with a barracuda and Spanish mackerel tied to the helm. The fish will become our dinner. The fishermen disappear, and then rain clouds gather above. It’s the rumble of an unexpected dry season storm, and soon the ocean is fluorescent against the sky. Our fishermen soon appear in the distance, and ferry us back to land before the waves take over.

A few days later, when food supplies run only to bananas and rice, our car manages to cling to the scrabble of rocks on the track, back up to Tutuala. We stop once more in Baucau. There’s a swimming pool which is filled every three days with pure spring water from the mountain side, then drained again. It’s electric blue, and with cement banana lounges, it looks like a resort for the ancients. A get-away for Socrates, a few laps between classes and opining to the village square. I feel like I’m swimming in Evian.

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We overnight at the Pousada Baucau, a bright pink guest house with the best round steak in town. I spend an hour on the porch with the hotel’s receptionist, a sparky woman named Gabriella. She trained to be a nun, but decided to leave the church. She doesn’t elaborate. Her parents were both Fretilin fighters, and sheltered in the mountains out of town. At night they would creep down to siphon water from buffalo drinking holes, filled with the blood of the disappeared, shot dead. Later, an expat friend tells me that our pink Pousada too was an interrogation and torture chamber during the occupation.

It’s a slow drive back to Dili, passing once more through Scotland, Thailand and Pakistan. The dusty capital—home to one million people, many more livestock and a giant statue of Jesus—is a welcome sight.

And unbelievably, the car is unscathed.

The country has much bigger problems than nervous tourists in hire cars, but it’s still with a sigh of relief that I hand over the keys and relinquish the little 4WD that could. We flag down a taxi driver with a cracked windscreen and just one broken door, and climb in.

I let him worry about the potholes and suicidal chickens. I watch the road, the occasional cluster of graves and the acres of frustrated graffiti splashed across Dili, as we drive to the airport.

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My love affair with Cold Chisel

It’s always amusing to head south and see ’80s fashion on display – high waisted jeans, mesh singlets, Ken Done jumpers and pleather.

Because in the Territory, the ‘80s never really ended. Visit Casuarina Shopping Centre or the Humpty Doo Hotel; folk might be texting on an IPhone, but they’re still sporting the same haircut they had in 1983 and why the hell wouldn’t they?

Same goes for our music. While the young hipster things Down South might be listening to bands like Iguana Bloody Mary or The Macrame Wizards, we’re still enjoying a good meat and three veg diet of ‘80s pub rock with the occasional ‘90s breakthrough song. The Macrame Wizards are never going to get a sell out crowd at the Darwin Entertainment Centre. That’s a job for our ‘80s legends– Ross Wilson, Colin Hay, Paul Kelly or Barnesy. Or Farnsy for that matter, should he decide to do another farewell tour, and more power to him.

I never truly appreciated Aussie pub rock until I came to the NT. I was a lover of indie rock and ‘90s grunge; I smelled like teen spirit.

But I’ll tell you something for free. You’re never going to get the Adelaide River pub on the dance floor with The Pixies or Sleater-Kinney.

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Want to make 95% of the people at Daly Waters happy? Put on Khe Sanh. Two guys who were about to fight now have their arms around each other. Someone at the bar is reminiscing about the time Cold Chisel played the Diamond Beach Casino. The next is recalling what Ian Moss got up to at high school in Alice Springs. The guy next to him was actually in a band with Mossy back in the day. The dance floor is full. All because of Khe Sanh.

Being something of a sponge, I quickly got on board with the ‘70s and then the ‘80s of pub rock. The indie CDs moved to the back of the shelf, making way for Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, Icehouse, Men at Work, even 1927, which I’ve always secretly liked. I danced to The Boys Light Up at rodeos and started putting Flame Trees on road trip compilations. I began requesting Choir Girl at the Jabiru Social Club.

And then it was 2009. I finally went to see Jimmy Barnes live in concert at The Mangrove Hotel in Broome. My friend Woo came with me, even though it was a school night.

There were an array of black, red and green cans doing the rounds; the audience was liquored up and Barnesy was rocking the stage. Every so often the band’s PA system would trip the electricity for the whole hotel and the sound guys would scramble around hysterically. Barnesy, the true professional, would pick up on exactly the note he left off on, mid lyric if need be.

I left the concert giddy on pre-mix vodka and the power of ‘80s pub rock, and walked home to Old Broome with my ears still ringing.

By the time I moved back to the Territory, the unthinkable–or very thinkable–occurred. Cold Chisel announced a reunion tour, around Australia. They would play Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and they would play a show at the Gardens Amphitheatre in Darwin. Everyone knew their ‘80s haircuts had just been vindicated. The band was back together.

So one sticky build up October evening, I rode my bike to the Gardens and snuck into the Casino to get changed. The high rollers at the roulette table might have been oblivious to the Chisel factor, but Darwin was electric that night. If you’d seen the band in the ‘80s, you were there. If you were a johnny-come-lately like me, you were there. If you had two ears and a soul, you were at the concert, or at least up the hill behind the Buff Club peering over the black plastic.

I went on my own but found some friends in the middle of the crowd, and then a guy I vaguely recognised came over. He gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“Hey!” he said. “It’s good to see you!”

You too! I said.

“I’m so sorry”, he said. “I don’t remember your name”.

That’s OK, I said. I don’t remember your name either.

We’d met years ago playing Frisbee with friends; he’d been in Timor and I’d been in Broome and Alice Springs.

He was with a guy I knew from the Weather Bureau, and they hung out with my mates for the rest of the night.

We danced to Cheap Wine and Standing on the Outside. To songs I knew, and songs I didn’t. Cigarette lighters came out. It felt like everyone in the audience was hugging or crying or kissing. A few of them were probably throwing beer bottles. Or remembering other days, when they listened to this music and were younger and things were better and worse all at the same time.

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When it ended, two encores later, this man who didn’t remember my name got my number. I left the Gardens buzzing with attraction and music and anticipation and the stickiness of a build up evening in the Gardens.

That was the beginning of Mr Tea and me, a relationship built on the pub rock foundations of Cold Chisel.

Reporting from Arnhem Land

“Fuck Maningrida.”

That’s what the graffiti scrawled on the community store says. They’re harsh words, angry words, and they give me a jolt as I sit on the nice clean mini bus while someone fetches my lunch.

I’m with a dozen other journalists from around the Territory waiting to tour the community and report on a trachoma eradication program there.

It’s a good news story that’s a bad news story. Trachoma is a communicable disease that can cause blindness; it’s a bacterial infection in the eye linked to poor hygiene and poverty. It’s predominantly found in the third world, but is badly affecting Aboriginal people in first world Australia. And the levels of trachoma in Maningrida are particularly high: the community of 3000 people is one of the biggest in the Northern Territory and overcrowding is rife.

So with all that in mind, we board a charter flight one Wednesday morning at 7am. Like a packhorse strapped with recording equipment, I clamber into the fixed wing plane and we take off with small jumps through the turbulence. The landscape out my scratched window is spectacular as we pass over the snaking waterways and remote coastline all the way to Arnhem Land.

Reporting in remote communities is problematic for many reasons, as you might expect.  For a start, it costs around $600 for a return flight from Darwin to Maningrida, or Elcho Island, or Wadeye, so few media organisations are willing to cough up those kinds of funds, and if they do, it’s not very often. Mostly, remote reporting is done when the Territory or Federal Government (or an NGO) charters a plane and invites journos along. The terms of the story and the itinerary are understood and most reporters don’t deviate too much from that script. Besides, there isn’t time, there are language barriers, there are deadlines and media talent is always hard to find, beyond the faces provided by the organisation in charge.

So here I am, on a hot and sticky morning in Maningrida.

I’m tempted to take a photo of the community store graffiti, but while I’m wondering if that will be frowned upon (and rustling around for my camera), the mini bus moves on. I’m sitting next to one of the newly elected ministers in the Territory Government and we make small talk and watch the handful of mangy dogs that chase after our mini bus.

First stop is a house with a trampoline, half a dozen kids, and a mother who doubles as one of Maningrida’s outreach health workers. The TV cameras and microphones come out quickly as doctors dole out medicine alongside pieces of fruit for the kids.

Maningrida truck

One journalist gets his grab from an older man who stops by for his dose.

He says he’s had bad eye problems in the past, and the journo records that onto his IPhone, immediately edits it and presses send. After he does that, it comes out that in fact the eye problem this guy is talking about happened with an argument and a glass of beer.

As we go from house to house, interviewing locals, doctors and health workers, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that we’ve turned the joint into a zoo. The media crushes around families as they are dispensed medicine, and gets footage of kids being measured, weighed and examined. We’re another pack of camp dogs, only with flashing cameras, broad brimmed hats and packed lunches. The health workers grin and bear it; for that matter, so do the locals albeit with a degree of suspicion and fatigue.

The pollies gather for a press conference on the lawns of one of the better community houses, overlooking the Arafura Sea. The house belongs to one of the traditional owners, I gather, and I watch the pollies shake hands and slap backs. Most of the journos stand in a line and fire questions. I hold out my microphone and record but after a while I get bored and wander away to talk to some of the women holding kids. Some of them are earning money working on the program, and they’re happy. There’s a health worker dressed as a jolly green goanna, the program mascot, and the kids are happy with that.

It all feels quite surreal.

After the press conference, a couple of the TV crews still want some more footage, so we walk down the road. The houses here aren’t as tidy as the earlier part of the Maningrida tour; there are more dogs, more car bodies, more rubbish spilling out of cracked bins.

Community home in Maningrida.

We get to one home and the health team says that this family are happy to be videoed, just don’t step on that piece of corrugated iron by the verandah.

The TV girls start recording their pieces to camera, while some of the women and kids sit on the concrete floor outside their home. An older woman wears a T-shirt that says I’d like to help you out. Which way did you come in?

The walls are smeared with dirt and hand prints. The tiles around the door are dirty and there’s black plastic over one of the windows.  A handful of kids play with plastic toys, textas and eat chips from the local takeaway, some from the ground.

Then a cameraman from Channel 9 stands on the contraband piece of corrugated iron. He almost retches from the smell. The corrugated iron is covering a litter of dead puppies, just centimetres from the kids and the plastic toys and the chips on the ground.

It’s an awkward moment: the smell, the kids, the health workers, the householders and the cameras. The litter of dead puppies. The corrugated iron grave.

Afterwards, everyone gets on the bus and no one knows quite what to say. We drive back to the airport, get back on the plane, go back to Darwin. In my report on air, I tell the facts and figures of trachoma and the eradication program in Maningrida, but I know I haven’t done my job properly. That wasn’t the story and neither is the one I have just written for you now.