I’ve just come back from a week in one of the more remote parts of the Territory. The Cobourg Peninsula is 570 kilometres North-East of Darwin by road. It’s a trip that takes you over the East Alligator River at Cahill’s Crossing and through the Aboriginal community of Gunbalanya. You go past billabongs and into the Murganella Plains, skirting half a dozen family outstations and over corrugated roads. Dust on the windscreen, coating the wheel rims and up the nose, all the way to Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. This is home to the Arrarrkbi people and approximately eleventy million crocodiles. Entry by permit only.
Was it an experience of a lifetime? Yes, yes it was. Was it a holiday? No, I would not say that. Unless your fantasy holiday involves eight adults (including your father-in-law), four kids under the age of four, mosquitoes the size of rats, searing sun, being in a perpetual state of rank body odour, little shade and gorgeous beaches where you can’t swim for the crocodiles.
The latter, my friends, is the true meaning of waterboarding.
No, this kind of holiday is called “fulfilling your partner’s dream”. Or, to use the dirtiest, most pursed up and martyred word in the relationship dictionary: compromise.
Ever since Mr Tea bought the boat, he has been salivating at the thought of sailing to Cobourg. Nothing could make his mast more upright, so to speak. Unfortunately for Mr Tea (and more unfortunately for me), I get seasick and have spent many of our sailing weekends curled up in the foetal position wishing for a bullet. I’m not proud of being a reluctant adventurer, but there you have it.
Which brings us to the classic relationship fight – I don’t like doing what you like doing…so how will we spend our holidays?
It’s a first world problem, certainly. I’ve got plenty of those: including the battery life of my IPhone, the quality of café-poached eggs in Darwin and the fact that we live up three flights of stairs. But nonetheless, the Cobourg dream has been a source of tension for sometime. The Sick doesn’t help matters. There may have been a few fights. There may have been some tears. I might have preferred to drink tea in Tokyo, or lie on the beach in Bali. Or to have stayed home on the couch and re-watched every available episode of True Detective.
But instead, eight days ago, I found myself in a car with my father in law, while Mr Tea sailed 150 nautical miles from Darwin to Black Point.
Still, we were in excellent company and a veritable flotilla of 4WDs.
Let me introduce you to the rest of our touring party:
Andy and Prue: good friends of ours.
Andy is an avid fisherman, whiz chef (I can vouch for his camp oven damper) and master of all things related to the esky. Long live block ice. Prue is an environmental campaigner and master twin wrangler. The carat for her future engagement ring may or may not have got bigger each time Andy headed off fishing and left her with the girls.
Tom and Anna: friends of Prue and Andy’s.
Tom: renowned erradicator of weeds, bush tucker maestro (fresh oysters off the rocks, anyone?) and patient father. Anna: primary school teacher, even more patient mother of two and detoxer with a will of iron (sorry about the double chocolate brownies, Anna). Purveyors of the finest home-made curry. Owners of a temperamental Toyota 100 Series Landcruiser.
Meg and Edie: Andy and Prue’s twin girls.
They just turned 3 and had two cakes to mark the occasion: a dinosaur and a butterfly (their choice). They like: weeing standing up, eating pesto pasta off their tummies, changing into clean clothes and then rubbing each other into the dirt.
Sophie: 3 and a half. Belongs to Tom and Anna.
Much bigger than Meg and Edie, who are only just 3. Likes: wearing a pink Dorothy the Dinosaur hoodie and looking for crabs in rock pools. Dislikes: getting car sick on windy, corrugated roads. Fair enough, too.
Milly: 18 months. Belongs to Tom and Anna.
Likes: singing twinkle twinkle little star (she mashes it up with Baa Baa Black sheep, a bit of campsite freestylin’, know what I mean? – “baa ba baa ba baa baa ba”)
Dislikes: sleeping through the night.
Mr Tea Snr: My father-in-law.
Superhero qualities include tetris-like packing of the Prado, driving long distances and putting up with my car music choices.
Likes: fixing engines, talking about tractors, and I couldn’t quite follow, but something about hydraulics. Also enjoys telling Mr Tea where he is going wrong.
James: Lindsay’s First Mate and a loveable over achiever who tracks down orang-utans in Indonesia, dives with sharks, climbs mountains and wrestles crocodiles with his bare hands (well, he would if it was necessary).
James likes: making tea in the morning (high five for James), finding turtle tracks and ticking things off his bucket list.
Dislikes: nothing. Much too positive for that.
Uneasy with: cooking and small children or “rug rats”.
Miranda Tea: Yep, that’s me.
Likes: going to bed early, bringing enough food for three small African countries, clean sheets, being gourmet and force feeding people brownies. Again, sorry Anna.
Dislikes: mosquitoes, falling over, extreme heat and having dirty feet. Which was unfortunate, given the circumstances…
Biggest trip planning error: changing heart and blood pressure medications two days before leaving. Now there’s a trap for young players.
And of course, last but not least, the irrepressible Mr Tea…who has been planning his Cobourg sailing trip forever, who spent his life savings on boat gear (yep, that’s the technical term) and who may have been found reading the tide charts and nautical maps in bed for the last six months.
Likes: being the Captain, his new sounder and putting up the spinnaker.
Dislikes: being told what to do by his father.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, in the end, surprisingly little. I did sprain my ankle on a bushwalk around the cultural centre deemed “easy”. The Landcruiser had a few hiccups. The Mr Teas had a few power struggles. Despite kilometres of sparsely populated and pristine coast line, none of us were much good at catching fish, but there were a couple of intellectually challenged barramundi that fell onto fishing rods by the time we left.
For all my reluctant adventurer guff, Cobourg does earn its place on the bucket list. It’s the remote Northern Territory at its best: stark and windswept beaches, mangroves, wetlands, miles of ocean, milky blue bays and all the wildlife that comes with that.
The crocodile crossing sign isn’t a tourist gimmick: you can see the slide marks and the claw prints in the sand. The stretch of dunes between the croc’s favourite stomping grounds of swamp and ocean are littered with flaky white bones, the remnants of Banteng cattle (at least, I hope it’s just the cattle).
There are turtles nesting up and down the beach and birds circling, ducking and diving over big schools of Giant Trevally and Spanish Mackerel. At night, when I made the trek to the composting toilets (luxury!), my head torch reflected off hundreds of tiny spiders on the ground. Under the light, they gleam like loose diamonds in the dust. We saw snakes writhing in unison, making love under the Milky Way. On a drive up windswept Smith Point, Mr Tea Snr saw two black spots bobbing in the water. With binoculars, we eventually deduced that it was a crocodile with a turtle in its mouth.
Survival of the fittest, indeed.
For hundreds of years, the Cobourg Peninsula has also been a curious intersection of people: Aboriginal clans, European colonisers, Macassan traders seeking trepang.
We took the yacht out to Victoria Settlement, built in the 1830s as the third European attempt to settle in Northern Australia.
It’s only accessible by sea. The day we go, the water is like glass and the outboard sputters through the ocean, past deep red cliffs and white sandy beaches. We pull up at a place called Record Point and a dozen sting rays swarm around the yacht in the shallows.
It’s another hour or so to the Settlement. On a three kilometre hike around the headland, you can still see the remnants of the hospital, garrison, cemetery and stone houses replete with Cornish style chimneys. Just what you need in this Territory climate. There are broken pieces of 19th Century glass bottles on the beach and ceramic fragments in the crumbling kitchens. It’s strange to imagine those soldiers in red uniform and women in wool dresses with leg of mutton sleeves, so very ill-equipped for the elements. Perhaps not surprisingly, a quarter of the population perished of malaria and the settlement was eventually abandoned in 1849 after 11 years, many (most?) happy to up sticks and leave a hell of their own making.
That’s the remote Northern Territory for you: dazzling, devastating, deadly.
On our last morning, we make tea, throw out spoiled veggies and pack up camp.
It’s a slightly lighter load for the Prado when James and I get in for the long road trip back to Darwin. We make jokes about removing all sharp objects from the yacht and leave Mr Tea and Mr Tea Snr at the beach on Black Point to make the sail back to Darwin, hopefully unscathed by the weather and each other.
Home again, home again, jiggety jig. My feet still have the dust imprint of my Birkenstocks and I have a few days to scratch at my mosquito bites while I wait for Mr Tea.
Who am I kidding? I’m off to Bali for a real holiday.