“Kakadu? More like Kaka-Don’t!”
My next-door neighbour Bev gives a hearty pack-a-day laugh.
It’s a muggy day in January and we’re having a beer together in the pool behind our apartment block. The water feels more like a warm bath, but it’s better than nothing.
Three weeks earlier, Bev and I didn’t get off to the best start. I’d just moved up to the Territory and the removalists who came to deliver my worldly goods (one double bed, two book shelves, a bike and a dozen boxes of books, CDs and mis-matched crockery) had taken up the whole drive way leading into our block of flats. Bev knocks on my door; she needs to get her car out and go to work.
I talk apologetically to the movers and they grudgingly reverse their pink truck out to give her 30 centimetres of clearance. Sure enough, Bev backs out and scrapes the entire right hand side of her white Commodore along the truck. She slams the palm of her hand into the steering wheel.
“Yer fucking kidding me. Fucking dickheads.”
Bev shakes her head at me and takes off down Casuarina Drive, wheels squealing.
The movers shrug. They didn’t give a shit before and they certainly don’t give one now.
The older, beefy guy has some serious five o’clock shadow and a salt and pepper pony tail. His offsider couldn’t be more than 19; he’s streetlight-skinny with scabs on his knees and elbows. They drop the last two boxes into my flat with a thud and I sign the delivery papers.
“D’you get to the footy last night?”
I go to answer politely in the negative, but Beefy’s not talking to me.
“Nah,” Skinny says. “Just had a few beers, chucked a fatty and went to bed.”
Beefy grunts. They ignore me and get back in the truck.
It’s at this point I sense living in the Territory might be a bit different to Canberra.
I’m worried about Bev’s car though. I spend the next couple of hours doing some hand wringing and anxiously wait for Bev to come back so I can apologise/circumvent a Commodore scratching lawsuit.
But by the time I get to say sorry, Bev has cooled down and has a ciggie in hand.
“Don’t you worry, love,” she says. “Those guys were just a couple of cunts. Excuse my language, but that’s all you can say about people like that.”
I relax. Bev isn’t going to sue me or put dead rats on my doorstep, I realise. This isn’t the litigation-happy big smoke. It’s the Territory. We’re cool, Bev and me. What a relief.
Cleaning the maggots out of the communal bins, sitting in the pool, chatting by our cars, I get to know my new neighbour. Bev’s spent most of her career teaching in remote schools, places I couldn’t even imagine or pronounce during those first few weeks in the Territory: Alyangula, Naiyu, Gapuwiyak. She loves the kids and the holidays and the generous living out bush allowances, and says she’ll never leave the Territory.
“They’ll have to take me out in a box,” she croaks. “You won’t get me on a plane back to Sydney. No fucking way.”
Anyway, Bev is keen to give me tips on where to go and what to do, but Kakadu, according to Bev, is a big no-no.
“Too bloody hot,” she says. “Seen one rock painting, you’ve seen them all. And there’s nowhere to swim! Just busloads of tourists, sun visors and sandals, wall-to-wall. Yep, you won’t catch me out there. Waste of bloody time, when you could be sitting in a water hole, having a drink. Litchfield, that’s where you want to go. Take a slab and settle in for the afternoon, that’s more like it.”
But for me, there’s a lot to get my head around just in Darwin. People watering their concrete driveways, for a start. Thongs as acceptable office-wear. I soon learn that the local currency is beer: it’s a Darwin Stubby for a Kris Kringle, a six pack for an office bet, a carton to move a fridge and two slabs to put my workmate’s cat on a flight to Brisbane. Different beers are described by colour rather than brands – green cans, red cans, yellow cans.
I drink more than usual too, and learn to cure my hangovers with Mary’s laksa, gado-gado and satay sticks at the Parap markets. I relish the ever-changing displays of rambutans and dragon fruit in Rapid Creek and decide that if I can only eat one food in the world for the rest of my life, it will be spicy papaya salad made by a no nonsense Thai woman with her supersized mortar and pestle.
There’s a new lexicon to learn too, words and expressions that are thrown around with abandon. This mob, that mob, biggest mob. Whitefella, blackfella, long-grasser. Territory Tough. The rest of the country is called Down South. Down South is inhabited by Southerners or Mexicans. At work, we talk about yarns, not stories. I learn about lures and culverts and tight lines from my fishing mad colleagues. Then there are tinnies – one’s a drink, the other you can fish from. The word true always has an ay and a question mark behind it, “True, ay?’ And there’s a tongue click “Nglaaaaaa” that gets thrown around, usually with words like gammon. It takes me a while to work out whether gammon is good or bad, an adjective, verb or noun.
Bit by bit, I get my bearings. I learn to navigate the sleaze of Mitchell Street and knock off drinks at the Deck Bar on a Friday night. I get to know the distinctive smell of the number 10 bus: a rare combination of armpits, barbecued onions and damp t-shirts fresh out of a mouldy cupboard. I get used to finding green tree frogs in my toilet and in the shower. I find the Beachfront Hotel and my local take-away, which makes a mean marinara pizza. I walk along the Foreshore and inhale frangipanis, and more than occasionally, the faint smell of piss.
On the lawns opposite the pub one afternoon, there’s an Aboriginal woman passed out on the ground, the contents of her handbag strewn around her skirt. People are just walking by. I’m not sure what to do.
I bend down. “Excuse me, are you alright?” I ask her.
She’s snoring a little, I can see her chest rising. There’s a purse next to her. I try and tuck it under her arm in the hope that no one will steal it and keep walking, just like everyone else.
After a few weeks, I make some friends. We start to venture out of town. I swim in hot springs and stop along the Stuart Highway to take photos of mango trees and a paddock full of road trains. And at Easter, my new best friend Ange and I decide to go to Kakadu for the first time, against Bev’s better judgment.
We hop in Ange’s Subaru and sing along loudly to our favourite CDs: Paul Kelly and Jimmy Eat World. We stop halfway at The Bark Hut and take in the sights: men in singlets, stuffed crocodiles, buffalo skulls, a pig’s head and piss-take signs.
At the Jabiru Bakery, we grab margarine-laden rolls with salami and limpid lettuce, and drive out to Ubirr, Kakadu’s rock art mecca. To get there, we have to cross Magela Creek. It’s the end of the Wet and running at 20 centimetres over the road and we’re nervous newbies in a 2WD. Our first water crossing and I hold my breath, keep a look out for crocodiles. A high five at the end – Ange and I have survived. We pull into the dusty car park at Ubirr and find ourselves wandering the rock art galleries. Way too early for sunset, we lie on the ground and look up at the handprints, the x-ray style barramundi, kangaroos and crocodiles in red ochre and white. No one else is there; it’s just us, swatting flies.
After a couple of hours, we remember the sunset and stumble up the escarpment to a 360-degree view: of flood plains, green and silver, dotted with billabongs, scruffy trees and red, red rocks. I feel suddenly emotional, almost teary, which surprises me.
The next day, we take the requisite cruise out on Yellow Water at dawn, marvel at the paperbarks, the pandanus, the glowing orb of sunrise. There are passing crocodiles and fishermen chugging along in tinnies. There’s a jabiru nest, a kingfisher spliced with green, gold and blue, then a sea eagle. Whistling kites float above us and we spy a tiny jacana, the Jesus bird, who pads around on lilies and walks on water. The sky is mauve then pink and smouldering orange. It’s beyond wild, more like nature’s had one too many glasses of wine, pashed an ex boyfriend, taken acid and gone on a week-long bender.
Being new in Darwin has felt like a handicap up to this point. I still remember waiting at Adelaide airport for my plane, hungover from New Year’s Eve, feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. I didn’t know anyone, or really anything, about my new home. But in Kakadu, my newness feels like a gift. I revel in the colours, sights and tropical smells still so exotic to a Mexican from Down South.
When we come back to Darwin, my legs are covered with mosquito bites. I can’t stop scratching. They soon get infected and I have to get antibiotics. But I’ve fallen hard for Kakadu: the flood plains, the jacanas, the growling crocodiles and the egrets that are brave enough to perch next to them on the banks of the billabong.
I’m not sure what to say to Bev. But I’m pretty sure she sees me for the lily-livered, green can spurning, Kakadu-lover that I am, anyway.