Only in the Territory

I’ve never forgotten the front page of the Sunday Territorian on my first weekend in Darwin. Unfortunately I can’t remember the headline, but the article comprehensively detailed an ice-cream heist from a local servo.

Stolen: three Cornettos, a Golden Gaytime and a packet of Bubble O’ Bills. Or something along those lines. The crook might have grabbed a pie as well.

You don’t have to be in Darwin for too long to realise that things are, well…. a bit different around here. The expression “Only in the Territory” has crease marks, it’s that well used, but I love it anyway. How else do you explain murder by saucepan, crocodiles in the public swimming pool and a guy playing scratched CDs being billed as “Live Music”?

Sometimes “Only in the Territory” is just too easy. Racing boats made out of beer cans? A pub decorated with bras? A regatta in a river that has no water? A main road called Dick Ward Drive that starts in Coconut Grove and ends in Fannie Bay? Tick, tick, tick and tick. That’s when we aren’t even trying.

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And credit where credit’s due: The NT News has put in a lot of “Only in the Territory” leg work. How else would we know about the infamous young man who “stuck a cracker up his clacker”? Or the Jock-odile Hunter (a fella who took to croc wrangling in his undies)? How can I forget the “Best Man left Bleeding After Being Hit in Head by Flying Dildo” headline? And don’t get me started on the peacock who terrorised the caravan park, the horny emu or the driver who filmed himself masturbating at 150 kilometres an hour.

Fair to say, our criminals aren’t the smartest. A few weeks ago the NT Police reported a woman making a complaint to them about her stolen cannabis. They said they were only too happy to hear from anyone else who found themselves in a similar situation.

That also reminded me of the time I watched someone get ejected from the NTFL Grand Final.

Him: You can’t kick me out for a crime I committed three years ago.

Cop: Crimes.

Him: Orright, crimes.

Cop: C’mon, off you go.

Him: Fuck you! I’m just here to watch the footy! Youse are just jealous that I made more money than you. I made thousands of dollars a day!

On that note, he spat on the ground, gave the double finger and stalked off.

So there’s stupid. But then there’s also Territory Tough. I recently enjoyed the tale of a traditional owner who sneers in the face of Box Jellyfish and their more prevalent friends, the Irukandji.

“When I was a kid, we used to chuck them on each other and have box jellyfish fights”, Rodney Brown told journo Megan Palin.

“I’ve been stung two or three thousand times throw netting on Rapid Creek. You just go to shallow water, kneel and wash it off…and within 20 minutes you can be eating at Hungry Jacks.”

You can’t argue with that.

My Only in the Territory (also known as You Never Saw this Shit Down South) List is a bit more tame than all of that (and you might have some seen some of these already), but here goes:

My first Darwin boyfriend refused to go to hospital when he cut his leg open, drunk, on the Nightcliff Jetty. Instead, he took some painkillers that were prescribed for his friend’s horse and sewed the gash up himself.

A buffalo skull holding on the spare tyre in downtown Darwin.

Opening a library book to find a pre-squashed mosquito.

On my first day at work, I was introduced to the team. New names to remember included Happy, Mango and Fridge. I then toured the building and shown the sick bay. “Jo from Tech Services sometimes keeps her Wildcare rescue animals here”, I was told. “Best check under the bed first.” Sure enough, there they were: two flying foxes and a Kingfisher.

Kids throwing rocks off the Rapid Creek footbridge, trying to sink box jellyfish as their tendrils are carried out by the tide.

A guy with this tattoo:

Thank you, Anna Daniels

Thank you, Anna Daniels

Driving to work behind a mini van filled to the brim with boxes of salty plums.

Driving down a deserted Territory road and the sign says “No Shooting”.

Coming home to find my housemate has turned the wheelie bin into a “plunge pool”.

A three year old kid in a Bintang singlet.

An afternoon in Litchfield National Park watching a water monitor eat a yabby three times the size of its head.

Half an hour. That's all it took.

Half an hour. That’s all it took.

Getting home to find two geckos mid-coitus above the doorway.

Walking along the Nightcliff Foreshore and spying one of the regulars: an Indonesian guy who rides a bike with his pet cockatoo on the front and a boom box on the back.

An evening with thirty fishermen discussing the best ways to prepare devon, going out thongs and the defiling of toothbrushes on boys’ trips to Bali.

559 lightning strikes in one night.

A friend buying a house in the rural area. It comes with a gun cabinet. The gun cabinet (with replica(?) guns) is in the kids room.

Having a mechanic called Bomber and buying your bed off a guy called Knocker.

Finding green ants down my bra.

A bumper sticker that says Eat the Peanuts out of my Shit.

Watching a family light fireworks off a pram. Baby is still inside of said pram.

Getting to work and finding that someone has shat on the doorstep (Actually that was the Kimberley)

Driving a cop car when you’re not a cop (No, that was the Kimberley too)

Grove Hill Hotel. Just…Grove Hill Hotel.

Bullets in the road sign to Batchelor.

Checking the classifieds and finding a Bitch Box for sale ($50) and a crocodile skull available (with permit).

And that’s just skimming the surface. “Only in the Territory” can be crazy, wild and stupid, but also beautiful and grotesque. Like watching Whistling Kites duck and dive for road kill on the highway in the Dry Season. Or finding a full collection of Margaret Fulton Cook Books (including Cake Icing and Cooking with Eggs) on the second hand shelf at the IGA next door to Litchfield Pub.

God I love this place.

Writing Workshop

Nerd that I am, the biennial NT Writers Festival is something I always look forward to. It’s a mixed bag of wordy delights, with both literary heavyweights from Down South (where they gots culture) and cross-eyed, local self publishers (yours truly). The heavies are always shocked by the tropical heat and the absence of high quality espresso, but they gamely press on before going home to write something indignant, hand wringing or misty eyed about their time on the frontier. I, on the other hand, choose to stay here and do the same thing (see: this entire blog).

Ah, blessed are the writers…

Anyway, this year I decided to sign up for a non-fiction writing workshop. Mr Tea declined to join me. Wordstorm what? Christos who? Why would he do that when there was perfectly good boat maintenance to do?

So on the Sunday, I turn up solo at Brown’s Mart for the class. It’s a genial group of scribblers, including a self-published traditional owner, a few journos, a technical writer and a poet called Fred. Between us, we hail from Darwin, Sydney, Tennant Creek, Germany and Alice Springs.

The teacher, Claire, is a softly spoken English woman who has written a travel memoir about Tibet.

She has hefty hand outs and talks us through the process of writing and publishing non-fiction.

Questions indeed...

Questions indeed…

“The most important thing is just to write it all down. Put yourself in the story,” Claire says. “You can’t worry about what other people think.”

Fred interjects at this point.

“You know, that’s it. That’s the truth. For years as a poet, I’ve sent my poems to my parents. And nothing. For them, it’s just words on a page. They never got it. Never understood who I was or what I was doing.

But when I read them aloud, suddenly they loved it. Even the time they came up to Darwin and I was onstage reading my poem about fucking a dog. So why have I been worrying all this time about what they think of my work?”

Claire gently cuts in at this point.

“Mmmm. Yes. Well. We might leave it there for now…Does anyone have anything else to add?”

She turns hopefully to one of the other students.

“Barbara, what do you think?”

Barbara pushes her glasses back up her nose and giggles. “Well, I’d quite like to hear Fred’s poem”.

Fred holds up his hand and wiggles it, as if he is one of Beyonce’s back up dancers.

“Now, now. I didn’t say I fucked a dog,” he says.

“I just wrote a poem about it.”

Being Sick

Recently I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker about a woman who started a gluten-free diet. She’s having lunch with a friend in a cafe and she says, “I’ve only been on it for a week and I’m definitely more annoying.”

That’s me. Well, sort of. 18 months of chronic pain and fatigue and something called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (ten points if you say it three times fast) has led me to try it all. Gluten free, lactose free.  Green smoothies, acupuncture, kale. Blood tests, specialists, more specialists. Naturopathy, massage therapy, meditation. I drew the line at getting an aura reading, but to be honest, I’m not ruling it out.

“When in pain, get on a plane,” goes the Territory saying. I’ve tried that too.

I thought I knew what words like fatigue and pain meant, but they keep changing. Some days it’s like being knifed, or having multiple fractures inflicted down my spine. Other times I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain or run a marathon, which is a pretty sick joke. My muscles pop and spasm. Some days I lie down after taking a shower and before I have breakfast. And then I lie down again.

On the days I can’t leave the house, I know what the ceiling fan sounds like on all three speeds. I hear the school bells across the road ring for each period; I curse the neighbourhood whipper snippers and the hoons that speed around the roundabout. I get up and the room spins again.

It’s easy to feel very alone sometimes and I do.

But every Friday, I go to a yoga class in Coconut Grove.

It’s a suburb that’s part hippie, part public housing and part industrial. It begins on Dick Ward Drive with The Parthenon, a Mediterranean style home replete with crumbling columns and discarded slabs of concrete. The owners have been building it (or not) for over a decade, maybe two. Amongst locals it’s also known as “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

There are battle-axe blocks that lead to the mangroves. There’s a drying out clinic. There are generations of Aboriginal families who live in run down units. Further along, there’s a locked fence with a sign saying “Burial Ground: Do Not Enter”.

In between, there are panel beaters, picture framers and furniture importers. Warehouses filled with mahogany furniture and day beds from Indonesia, brought in by the container load. We bought our bed from a guy there called Knocker, who drives a bright orange sports car with a personalised number plate.

Down Caryota Court there are massage therapists and Family Planning offices. There’s a burlesque dance studio. A German guy called Martin runs the town’s only vegetarian café.

And then there’s the yoga space.

It’s a strange and surreal precinct to go and get your Iyengar on. Sometimes the next door neighbour likes to weld during our class or play records, usually The Ramones or Hoodoo Gurus. He listens to that music the way it is played: loud.

But for the most part, this yoga class takes me out of Darwin, at least for an hour and a half, and away from the strut, the larrikin antics and the bar stool bravado of Territory life. It’s a warehouse sanctuary of wooden floorboards, with a little garden brimming with tropical plants. In between bromeliads and banana trees sits a small, smiling statue of Buddha, decorated with hibiscus flowers and rows of tiny beads.

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There are eight of us who go regularly and almost everyone in the class has some kind of significant illness or injury. One man has two toes missing. He comes every week with his girlfriend in a beat up station wagon. Another woman broke her back last year. There’s the guy I went out with a couple of times, who had his brain smashed around in a motorcycle accident on Daly Street. And there’s me.

We don’t talk or gather for coffee afterwards. I don’t know where they live or if they work. Except for the guy I used to date, I don’t know their names.

But each week, I know that somehow, deep in the neurons and blood cells of bodies that don’t work like they should, they understand. We’re in it together.

I can’t make a joke about downward facing dog: none of us can do that anymore. But we twist and turn and stretch. We bead with sweat in the irrepressible Darwin humidity. We reach through the pain and the sick and the heart break of what we used to be and who we are now.

The man with three toes always seems to know who is having an especially hard day and he helps to put away their mat, bolster and blankets at the end of class.

We don’t say goodbye when it’s over; but each week my heart is warmed by this motley crew and this chequered suburb, which somehow has enough room for our collective pain, all of it, and our hope for better things to come.