A love letter to the Nightcliff Foreshore

Every town has its promenade: a scene, the place to be seen. In Darwin, for my money at least, that’s the Nightcliff Foreshore.

70 odd years ago it was the boon docks, the site of military camps during the War. You can still see the metallic left overs—engines, axels, and the odd bullet—melted onto the rocks around the Nightcliff pool. And if you know where to look at low tide, there are remnants of a plane carcass, a B-25 bomber that crashed killing five servicemen. Wendy James, a long-long-long-time Darwin resident, once told me that she and her brother used to roam the abandoned army camps in the late ‘40s, skipping school to play with left over ammunition. Wendy’s favourite trick was putting cordite into her dad’s cigarettes. Those were the days….

Now, the Nightcliff Foreshore is home to swing dancing on a Sunday and family reunions with lamb on a spit. Kids fossick in the mangroves. Long grassers and new arrivals gather around the BBQs.

On the jetty, adolescent boys take it in turns to jump, somersault and hurdle the barrier into the salty water below.

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Tourists in sneakers and socks clatter out of hire cars to get the ultimate sunset shot.

Fishing fanatics drop a line at the jetty and off the rocks. They flick, hope and repeat.

This craggy coastline is where the young things park on a Sunday night. They show off their souped up cars and discreetly pair off under the moonlit sky.

There are random acts of urine and impromptu games of badminton.

There are passing dolphins and the occasional fight.

And from Sunset Park to the Beachfront Hotel, there are all kinds of drinkers: can crushers, sun downers, champagne sippers, cask wine wielders and punters who have been kicked out of the pub and drink on, regardless.

This is the Nightcliff Foreshore: a microcosm of Greater Darwin, all in three or four beautiful kilometres that stretch from the high rise units crammed into the coast line along Progress Drive, right up to where Trower Road crosses Rapid Creek.

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It’s definitely my favourite spot for people watching.

There’s a Timorese guy who rides his bike with a pet cockatoo on the handlebars and a boom box on the back. Sunday evening is his favourite night for tunes and cruising.

Most nights, there’s an older Sikh gentleman in a turban who holds hands with his granddaughter while she pulls her scooter along the path. I say hello and he occasionally gives me a reluctant, grave nod.

I like seeing the twins: identical ladies in their forties who dress alike, sometimes in polka dots and sometimes in cut off jean shorts. They are inseparable: always arms linked and whispering conspiratorially.

Then there are the countrymen who hold court in a rotunda and sleep on the crumbling dunes. Sometimes they sing in the stingrays or fish with handlines under Rapid Creek footbridge. Once I was picnicking with friends and an older lady presented us with a magpie goose, fresh, ready for butchering. She borrowed our bread knife and my friend Alice tried to help, but drew the line at squeezing out the entrails.

Further along the Foreshore are the exercisers. A leathery man who runs topless in the same pair of short white shorts every day. A Greek woman with her hair piled up high in the tightest bun I’ve ever seen. Her arms pump in perfect rhythm as she gossips with a friend. An older lady walks a dog that wears sunglasses. There are cyclists, skateboarders, paddle boarders; surfers in the cyclone season.

In true Darwin style, not everyone’s body is a temple. One bloke’s running singlet reads, “Hey Princess! Go and get me a beer”.

I’m better at people watching than I am at bird watching, but the birds are out here too. Whistling kites circle the palm trees and masked lapwings bustle about like the busy bodies they are, picking through the best fish and chip left overs near the jetty. Sometimes the curlews startle me with that distinctive scream. I like seeing the occasional kingfisher, surveying the scene from the fence line above the beach.

But my favourites are the red-tailed black-cockatoos that swarm in like drag queens, brighten up the joint for a bit, and then leave.

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A couple of times I’ve watched a huge swag of ocean birds circle around in a perfect frenzy. They become a moving patch of black that zips from one end of the beach to the jetty and back around. Is there a word for that? A collective noun for birds that flash mob at sunset and then leave? They are spectacular, especially in those minutes after sunset when the last of the sun bleeds into the ocean then the ground, and all three become the same misty shade of purple.

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I’ve got an especially soft spot for the Foreshore. It’s where I first landed in Darwin, the site of my first home: a bottom floor unit in a crumbling block of ‘80s flats with musty carpet and communal bins crawling with maggots. It was a five-minute sweaty cycle to Rapid Creek markets. It was 100 metres from the beach and even closer to the local pub, which in days gone by used to lock rowdy patrons in a cage. Because you can’t actually swim at the beach (stingers, crocs), I could just afford to live there on my own.

And now, eight years on, I live here again.

But just recently, the Foreshore has become groovy. You can’t walk down the bike path these days without falling over a coffee caravan or a pop up Italian restaurant, replete with red checked tablecloths, fairy lights and a humming wood fire pizza oven.

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It’s slightly shocking and also thrilling to me. Provincial Darwin embracing big city ways. Once someone’s out there with a stand selling green juice in jars with bamboo straws, we really will have arrived. I can’t imagine what the men in wife-beater singlets at Hidden Valley Tavern think, but I guess if they can have TOT (Tits Out Tuesday), it’s OK for me to dine occasionally on home made pasta alfresco.

When my sister Pip comes to town, I take her down to the Foreshore for pop up coffee by the sea.

Pip buys a latte and we run into my friend Jade and her kids. This part of the Foreshore has become a mecca for the CMC (Cool Mum Crowd). The kids run in circles and take it in turns to be a tiger, while Darwin’s fashionable young matriarchs fortify themselves with caffeine and confidences.

While we’re sitting on our milk crates, another groovy mum turns up, rocking full sleeve tattoos and four kids. She’s cooler than a cucumber.

The kids suddenly gather around one of the trees and a collective cry goes up.

“Owls, owls, look, it’s an owl!”

Groovy mum turns around and looks into the branches to spy a pair of birds camouflaging into the scrubby bark.

“Tawny Frogmouths, kids”, she yells out. “Tawny Frogmouths. They’re not owls.”

She turns to us. “It’s important to tell kids the correct names”.

Groovy, tattooed Mum turns back to her coffee and the baby fussing on her lap.

As an aspiring bird-nerd, I grab Pip and head over to check it out.

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

“They’re not owls”, Jade’s daughter Mem tells me.

I want to give these ornithological protégés a moment to shine.

Do you know what they are?

The other group spokesman, a four year old with long dark hair and a cotton summer dress, steps up.

“They’re…..ummm….they’re….birds. They’re birds.”

On that decisive note, our young twitchers scatter like the flash-mobbing flock on the horizon. They get back to the many tasks at hand: pretending to be a tiger, keeping a look out for crocs and humbugging for ice cream.

The Tawny Frogmouths don’t move. The mums stay perched on their milk crates.

There’s space on the Foreshore for us all.

Cows with Guns in our spare bedroom

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From late May until mid September, I don’t expect to see most of my Darwin friends. That is, I don’t expect to see them for a proper catch up, a dinner party or even a coffee. We’ll see each other from a distance, or maybe exchange brief hellos at Parap Markets, but we’re all otherwise occupied. Mainly playing tour guide to a party of Down South visitors wearing khaki zip on trousers and hats with drawstrings. They’re easy to spot in a crowd, usually gripping a drink bottle in one hand and a pump pack of RID in the other.

This is the Dry Season, also known as Season of the House Guest. The Southerners get tired of clutching at space heaters and remember they have a friend up in Darwin, or an acquaintance, or their daughter has a friend, or their cat’s former owner has a friend of a friend. Why not give them a call, have a holiday and enjoy some Northern Bed and Breakfast hospitality?

Some Darwinites roll their eyes and close up shop, or start counting the days until the Build Up. But I love it. I’ve been cold calling strangers and turning up on their various doorsteps around the globe for years, so it’s the least I can do. In my first year in Darwin, I even rented a two-bedroom flat just to cope with projected visitor numbers. I had over 40 people come through my door that year, probably because no one expected me to be here for more than 18 months, so carpe diem!

Eight years on and still here, I reflect that we probably could have staggered those visits a little more, but no matter.

This year, we’re going back to back with guests: my sister, Mr Tea’s father, my good friend Ange and her fella, my Broome besties Ryan, Beth and their 18 month old Jasper, then Mr Tea’s sister, her husband and their two little ones – both under the age of three. Then it will be mid September and I will have a long nap.

It’s the same every Dry. But last year, Season of the House Guest got a little more interesting when Mr Tea and I opened the flat to our first ever one hit wonder.

Dana Lyons: American musician, environmentalist and author of the heartily embraced song, Cows with Guns.

To call Dana a one hit wonder feels a little cheap, because he has written catalogues of funny and moving songs beyond his anthem for bovine freedom. But it’s a moniker he owns proudly, so I will too. Dana plays the song for fans every set, usually twice. And unlike other musos who roll their eyes when they are asked about the inspiration for their hit song in interviews, Dana still enthusiastically tells the story about his cat waking him up from a vivid dream about the cattle liberation army, and the ensuing fantasy he concocted with a friend in a hot tub about chickens with helicopters (and, possibly, AK-47s) who come to help. He is still grateful that this little ditty enabled him to buy a house in his home state of Washington, to continue travelling the world (usually Kazakhstan, Vladivostok and Cairns rather than Tokyo and London) and playing music almost two decades on.

When I told Mr Tea that Dana Lyons was coming to stay with us, he shrugged his shoulders and said sure. Mr Tea isn’t too big on popular culture. If you talk about Brad and Angelina and name every single one of their biological and adopted children, he literally, not figuratively, thinks you are speaking in another language. Once I was watching the Gruen Transfer and Wil Anderson made a crack about how people who didn’t know that Ricky Martin was gay must be living under a rock under a rock. Mr Tea walked through the living room at that moment holding a drill and some unidentifiable pieces of metal and plastic.

“Is Ricky Martin gay?” he asked.

But we got on YouTube and even Mr Tea knew the song Cows with Guns, and he got the most fluttery I’ve ever seen him.

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Dana and I became friendly acquaintances on a trip he made to Australia a few years back when he came in for a radio interview. We stayed in touch and when he made a return trip, I hooked him up with a bunch of environmentalists in the Kimberley (including the KTB – Kimberley Toad Busters) and radio stations through Northern Australia. We agreed to have a drink when he was in Darwin and I told him to ring me if he needed a place to crash.

In that great show that is Australian hospitality, my offer was very enthusiastic, especially since I didn’t expect him to take me up on it.

So there I was, surfing the internet, when I get a call from Dana.

“Hey Miranda, how’s it going?”

I’m good, I tell him.

“So I was just wondering about your offer of a place to stay, but I have something to ask you first.”

Sure, I say.

“Is your house quiet or noisy?”

This is a hard question to answer. Nowhere is quiet in Darwin. We have louvres instead of windows. Even if your neigbbours are peaceful (and mostly they aren’t: they like drinking beer, listening to commercial radio and having fights or practicing their extensive expletive vocabulary), the noise of their clattering dishes and the television news still carries right into your bedroom.

And even if you are out on a block in the rural area, there is still a chorus of cicadas, a gamelan of geckoes, an orchestra of tree frogs, a mafia of cane toads and a jumble of barking, flea bitten dogs to contend with. There is also a 90% chance that you will overhear some of those dogs making love and/or catch them in the act. The geckoes screech even louder when they’re in heat.

Now there’s a tourist slogan: Come to Darwin! See and hear our wildlife hump!

Do the NT, indeed.

And we’re not even in the sticks. We live on a roundabout that is also a well known habitat for various amateur motorcycle gangs and passing hoons who like to express the power of their break pads with shrieking donuts at 2am. But it’s no New York City or Bangkok, our stretch of Rapid Creek, so I tell him it’s pretty quiet. Mostly.

“Would you mind if I came to stay?” asks Dana. “I’m staying with a good friend, but he lives right on the overpass and if I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I won’t be able to do any of these gigs.”

No oblivion of drugs and alcohol before bed for Dana Lyons, then.

No problems, I tell him. Come right over, it’d be great to have you.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Dana came to stay. What does hosting an internationally renowned musician require?

What kind of hours would he keep? Would he rehearse in our spare bedroom? Would we sit around having breakfast? Would he bring home girls?

The answers to all of those questions were more boring than expected:

Pretty reasonable, actually.

No.

Yes, but he was avoiding gluten.

No, although he did have a “fan”, who seemed to turn up at all his gigs, at the pub and the local swimming pool. And also on our stairwell. At which point, Dana just laughed.

“This is so crazy! Guys, meet my friend Mary. I haven’t seen her since the coal mining protest on the East Coast, what, six months ago? And we just ran into each other again in Darwin, at the markets and then the swimming pool and now here! Unbelievable! The world is so small.”

Mr Tea and I left him to it, but I was pleased to see that at the very least Dana had a groupie, his own version of Mel from Flight of the Concords.

To say thanks for putting him up, Dana put us on the door for his gig out at Humpty Doo.

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Only Dana Lyons would have a touring itinerary that excludes Melbourne and Sydney and includes the Territory’s little hamlet that could: Humpty Doo.

And the Humpty Doo Hotel is something of a Territory icon, the kind of premises where folk sometimes just rock up to the bar on a horse and order a stubby because they feel like it. It’s nothing to look at really, just a concrete bunker that you can hose out at the end of the night (and they do). But it’s great for a dirty burger and people watching, especially if you like tattoos, singlets and a man called Blue who’s pet Brahmin Norm once held the pub’s beer drinking record.

On a previous visit, I’ve had a guy pinch me on the ass and say, “You look like you’ve had four children, girlie…”

He genuinely thought that was a pick up line.

The Humpty Doo Hotel clientele aren’t necessarily Dana’s target audience.

But they (mostly) adored Cows with Guns, and were appreciative of his newest song, Cane Toad Muster, the product of recent weeks spent with the Kimberley Toad Busters.

One woman, particularly Humpty Doo Positive, showed her appreciation by getting raucously drunk and calling Dana a “dumb cunt”.

“Learn to play your fucking instrument, fucking dumb shit”, she yelled, and then she fell off the half wall where she was sitting. Dana’s thoughtful heckler then picked herself up again and went to order another beer from the bar.

Still, it was a good night and Mary was back on deck with Dana, helping him sell merch at the end of the evening.

Having a house guest always gives you some outsider perspective on the North, a new way of seeing places and people you have come to take for granted, and our visit from Dana was no different.

As we sat around the next day, talking about Humpty Doo and the Kimberley and cane toad busting. Dana laughed.

“When I was in Kununurra, the local mayor suggested that we could give all the kids rounds of ammunition and guns to sort out the toad problem. Turn it into a competitive sport! I love this part of the world. You can have different opinions about burning off or saving trees or building mines. But the toads – well, that’s something the hippies and the rednecks can all agree on. I’m coming back, for sure. Maybe next time I’ll head out to Nhulunbuy and how do you say it, Yirrkala? I’ve got a buddy out there as well.”

The Spirit of Dana was irrepressible.

Cane Toad Muster doesn’t seem to have taken off where Cows with Guns stopped. Yet. But I’m looking forward to the next visit from our one hit wonder.

As he departs for the next obscure town on his touring itinerary, Mr Tea and I deem Dana Lyons to be a most excellent visitor. And like all good house guests, Dana leaves behind a few gifts.

A couple of books about the Kimberley that are too heavy for his touring bag; he thinks I might actually read them.

And a signed copy of his other novelty song, Ride The Lawn. Mr Tea plays it in the car ad nauseum until I hide it.