Requiem for a family holiday in Bali

Oh Bali.

You are gamelan wafting on the late afternoon breeze. You are a hawker selling honey from a bucket still buzzing with bees. You are the offerings that contain incense sticks, a shot of coffee, three wrapped sweets, a small bag of blood, some biscuits, and a cigarette, because Made says, “My God likes a smoke in the morning”. You are condoms in the Circle K mini mart called Oh Sutra! You are all the meals I bought for my toddler, which he refused to eat. You are cheeky kids throwing a line in for fish pond koi. You are a chicken perched on the front step of a Ralph Lauren outlet store.

You are dirty beaches. You are a gigantic statue of a man riding an elephant-fish (or is it a fish-elephant?) You are my son, issuing a volcanic vomit over an entire restaurant table after a “mixed juice”. You are my daughter getting the paparazzi treatment from Chinese tourists on an Ubud street. You are frangipanis under a burning sun. You are coconut husks drying on a string. You are $12 massages and delicious chicken on lemongrass skewers. You are my sister-in-law inventing games in the swimming pool. You are a hive of Balinese men and women doing secret temple business, sorting rice, butchering pigs, and folding banana leaves. You are my two-year-old learning to speak Bahasa better than the rest of us, all bagus and baik baik and tema-cussy.

You are banana pancakes for breakfast. You are luxury villas with struggling septic systems. You are street side vendors selling Bintang singlets. You are the people who buy them. You are fried chicken restaurants called “JFC” and “Ayam Pop”. You are greasy mie goreng. You are the neighbourhood-owned skateboard, carved entirely out of wood. You are Little Tea moving only at two speeds: running or being carried. You are my brother staring at his daughter with a look of the purest delight (and just a touch of Bali belly). You are a basket overflowing with pineapples. You are a family of five on a scooter with no helmets. You are fish steamed in banana leaves. You are painstakingly intricate textiles from all corners of Indonesia, Sulawesi and Aceh and Yogyakarta, and you are cheap, polyester sarongs imported from Taiwan. You are gelato in the flavours of salak and durian and soursop. You are my little boy asking for the fiftieth time, “Where’s Ketut?” You are my daughter eye-gouging her cousin and stealing all her toys. You are a shop window displaying bikinis available in either Xena Warrior princess chain mail or raw hide brown pleather.  You are teak joglos with woven palm frond doors. You are the dubious tap water that my kids insist on drinking in great mouthfuls. You are toddler tantrums in the middle of the street.

Etched in the cement, “When I follow my heart, I wake up in Bali”…

You are precarious electrical wires and open sewers and a wheelbarrow fixed with reflective foil and a piece of string. You are noodle carts and sate vendors set up on the edge of the sand dunes. You are stone statues under tassled silk umbrellas. You are a delicious cafe breakfast with a side of exhaust fumes. You are a Royal Wedding Eleganza Extravaganza, with teenage boys in formal wedding make up and old ladies gussied up in their best polyester lace. You are rutting roosters. You are the backpacker set dressed like the cast of Friends, all jean shorts (jorts?) and bandanas and straight legged pants. You are the duck with the mullet, who bursts into a restaurant expecting to be fed (and he is).

You are the shit from the duck, which covers Little Tea’s feet and coats my dress when I pick him up. You are the same shit that then rubs from my lap onto Baby Tea before I’ve noticed what happened, thus sending me back to our accommodation to change my dress and the babe, all the better for her to throw up on me again.

You are the rice paddies gleaming in half-cut morning light. You are the construction site my son has mistaken for a sandpit. You are the stalls selling penis bottle openers in all sizes and states of erection. You are a beach walk punctuated with copulating monkeys. You are the Malaysian tourists at the airport who generously share their sweets with Little Tea even though he spits those lurid pink biscuits straight into my hand. You are the book Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers, which we read about fifty gajillion times. You are the petrol sold street-side in glass bottles.

You are ornate doors. You are temples on every corner. You are the chicken that crossed the road. You are the chicken that…didn’t. You are my toddler watching so much Thomas the Tank Engine on our IPad that Mr Tea says “That IPad is like cocaine”, and Little Tea says without even looking up, “No, I don’t like cocaine, I just like the IPad.”

You are warungs made colourful with plastic packets of food in all shades of the rainbow. You are the drivers who step out of cars on one lane streets to move motorbikes so they can continue driving. You are wizened backpackers covered in coconut oil on rented banana lounges, pretending that the sand isn’t burning and the sea isn’t filled with plastic. You are the airport security officers who wave us straight through the shortest queue. You are the highest flying kite, the one made from two garbage bags and string wrapped around an old can of Lift.

You are all of these things and, of course, you are none of these things, none of them at all.

Hell of a cyclone, baby

Last time I left you, I was sitting on the back of the boat (metaphorically, at least), waiting to give birth. My first time around—severe pre-eclampsia, an emergency forceps delivery, nearly two litres of blood loss, a platelet transfusion and the cord around Little Tea’s neck requiring him to have a turn on the recuscitation table— did not give me high expectations. At the very least, I anticipated torn and fissured body parts. Faux-cheerful midwives giving pep talks. Offers of one-use medical equipment for our tackle box. My obstetrician to arrive at our delivery room wearing crocs. Sobbing like I was being tortured on a particularly sadistic episode of Game of Thrones. A fractious baby to look after at the end of it all.

I did not, however, think to imagine a literal cyclone in my midst.

But that was the word around the hospital bed while my membranes were ruptured. “Didja see the paper,” the midwife said. “How about that,” said my doctor. “A cyclone. 20-50% chance. Friday. Or the weekend.”

This is what Darwin small talk looks like.

I grimaced and stared out the window. Clear skies and clouds of dragonflies. That’s all I could see for hours, as I paced around the maternity ward pushing an oxytocin drip with a wheel like a dodgy shopping trolley. The dragonflies–with their beady eyes, spindly legs, translucent wings–fluttered just beyond the glass, shoving their freedom right up in my face. Everything they promised was far more tantalising than the prospect of childbirth, or the departmental noticeboard, filled mostly with the promise of breastfeeding classes and photographers who would like to put your child in a beanie and then a bucket.

Cyclone, pffftttt, I thought. Go home already, wet season. You’re drunk.

Later, when I was mainlining museli bars, Allen’s Party Mix, and riding contractions, the rain rolled in. The dragonflies kept buzzing, confused but undeterred. But I forgot about the promised cyclone. I had other distractions. By 5.30pm, I was holding my daughter and crying, eating Irish stew one-handed while I waited for the epidural to wear off.

On limited sleep and clutching a newborn, I was far from well informed and two days later, I was reassuring my mother-in-law about said impending cyclone on the phone.

It’ll fizzle out along the coast well before it hits Darwin, I promised.

She was charged with the care of Little Tea while we were in the hospital. “Should I go to the shops?” she asked.

Nah, I said. Hang tight. Plenty of food in the cupboard. Feel free to break the glass on the emergency packet of Kingstons. *

The next morning we woke to news of a direct hit projected for Darwin. Category 2. By 11am. We were still in hospital, Little Tea and my mother-in-law were at home in the Northern Suburbs. By the time we decided Mr Tea should leave and ride it out with them, it was too late.

Grey sheets of weather combed the hospital grounds; gusts of wind bent palm trees to snapping point, then released them just in time.

We lay on the bed, with the newest Baby Tea in between us, staring out the window, scrolling on our phones. It was a bit like watching Q&A while reading the tweets.

Power out in Ludmilla, Stuart Park. Howard Springs. A gas explosion at Coolalinga.

The radar images showed a whirlpool: all the shades of white and grey and blue, with a reach across the Arafura and Timor Seas but the darkest pigments converging right above us. In the heavy-set hospital building, we were as safe as we could be, but what of Little Tea, my mother-in-law, our house? I was edgy, fidgeting.

I’m just going to go out on the verandah and have a look, I said.

“You will not! Don’t be stupid,” said Mr Tea. “It’s way too dangerous.”

I waited for a few more tortured minutes. And then pretended I was getting some more nappies from the nurses’ station and snuck out onto the balcony.

The pot plants had tipped over; the tiles pooled with water. I pushed on the glass door, it resisted. I expected the wind to howl me down.

It didn’t.

Outside, it felt like any other severe thunderstorm I’ve watched slash through Darwin. But there was an eerie edge. The sound of it. Or the lack of sound. I could just hear a faint but angry whistle. Like a heavy mouth breather rattling away on a pillow slip. A kind of pitch and frequency that normally only a dog can hear. I watched two more layers of rain fold onto the verandah and retreated inside, to our room, to Mr Tea, and our newborn wrapped in flannel.

But as it turns out, this is Darwin’s biggest cyclone for more than 30 years. Stories filter through over the next 24 hours before we leave the hospital. Trees down, roads impassable. Smacked up houses, collapsed fences, live wires dangling over pools. Bunnings has sold out of chainsaws and generators.

One of the midwives tells me about her twisted security gate and how a giant pot was upturned on her veranda, a house plant that originally took several people to move. But a lone business card is still firmly planted on the ground where it was dropped days ago. My friend Ange has trees down on her shed and brushing the roof of her house, but her two chickens, Screamin’ Jay and Marty, are not only survivors, they’ve even managed to lay four eggs.

For at least one third of Darwin, the electricity is severed for days, and for some, even longer. My friend Jenelle later describes one of the nights of hot, unbroken air at her house in Alawa. The stillness punctuated by the intermittent whine of a neighbour’s generator. Then at 4am, there is suddenly silence. And then, the sound of metal hitting concrete.

“Work, you bastard!”, her neighbor roars, kicking the broken-down genny across his carport.

Cyclone Marcus: it is the best of Darwin; it is the worst of Darwin.

People open their houses to strangers; they offer showers, washing machines, power points to charge mobile phones. They lend generators. They share fridge and freezer space. Even the ice machine at the petrol station is hosting tubs of ice-cream and boxed up left-overs. The local Sikh community hands out meals at the Jingili Water Gardens; the Salvation Army hosts movie nights.

Other folk steal boat motors, raid closed businesses, prey on empty homes. They threaten legal action on the owners of fallen trees. Before we leave the hospital, Mr Tea reads me a story from the paper about an old mate at a caravan park who refused to be evacuated. “I was here for Tracy,” he said. “Marcus is just a baby.” His caravan was still standing, but the bloke next door was not so fortunate. Old mate crowed in victory.  “Never liked him anyway.”

As we drive home from the hospital, the damage becomes clear. Flapping corrugated iron, twists of metal, upturned trailers and traffic signs. It’s indiscriminate. A house with the roof caved in nestles between homes that are untouched. The nature strips along Rocklands Drive look like a giant, rampaging toddler has run through, plucking out some of the biggest trees and leaving smaller ones. Not this one! That one. THAT ONE!

The only physical destruction I expected this week was my own. But this time around, I’ve escaped childbirth without even a stitch. Darwin has taken the king hit for me.

On one street, I spy a cluster of neighbours clearing a driveway together with chainsaws. On another, a man carefully aims a leaf blower at an already immaculate and manicured lawn. It’s that best and worst of Darwin in real time, playing out within a hundred metres. A lesson for life, I think to myself. You can choose to be a chainsaw or a leaf blower. Be a chainsaw. Always, always – choose to be a chainsaw.*

Across the suburbs, along Dripstone Cliffs, the Nightcliff Foreshore, and all down Bagot Road, some of my favourite trees are down. Old banyans, spiny casuarinas, the ghost-like eucalypts, some of the great canopies of Darwin shade. They have been toppled, snapped, stumped, wrenched from the soil. Clods of dirt dangle from giant tree roots. I miss them already. People are inspecting the carnage, taking photographs. Cyclone selfies – by the end of the weekend, it’s a thing.

By no means the worst examples of tree carnage, but bad enough. This is the park next door to where we live.

The ocean churns along the beach, around the jetty. The surfers are out in force.

I’m still not sure what I’ll find at home. Electricity? A traumatised toddler and mother-in-law? What about the house, the backyard? The towering African Mahogany in the park next door – how could that possibly still be standing?

But it is. When we pull into the driveway, I realise we’re among the lucky ones. Little Tea is sanguine and my mother-in-law is unfazed. The garden is littered with palm fronds, the pool filled with branches, perhaps there are a few more cracked tiles on the roof, but that’s the extent of our damage. We need to boil drinking water, but there’s power to do it. I settle our newest born into her bassinet and furtively turn on the air conditioner.

I feel guilty about having electricity, about the people across my suburb winching, chopping, cleaning, lifting branches off houses. I think back to the man with the leaf blower, the neighbours with the chainsaws. This is my first cyclone where I’m not broadcasting; I have no involvement with essential services. I want to be out helping. Then I look down at my post-partum body, my leaking breasts. I get a whiff of baby spew, of unwashed armpit. Second time around, birth might have been easier but I’m still exhausted.

Maybe I get a free pass on Marcus.

For the record, the bottom shelf of your pantry does not a cyclone kit make.

*Except on those occasions when you can’t be a chainsaw. Because you just had a baby or something. In which case, you exhausted wretch, I give you (and by you, I mean me) permission to just eat a packet of biscuits and lie the fuck down.

Diving in

We’re on a yacht cruising round the scattered islands of Vava’u, glasses of champagne in hand. I’m completely out of my depth, riding on the coattails of a mate who is much better at small talk than me. She can socialise with anyone, befriend everyone, and has generously wangled us the invitation to cruise. I’m no good in these fancy expat social settings – it’s a world away from the youth centres I usually work in. The bubbly is a very different drop to Pineapple Fanta, I have nothing to add to the conversation about luxury boats, and the best I can do is cringe when our hosts talk about how hard it is to get good help around here.

I know, cue the violins.

But the setting is superb – the boat, the turquoise water, the vacuum-sealed Pringles that aren’t even in the neighbourhood of stale. Plus, the Captain and his family are taking us to Mariner’s Cave – one of Tonga’s legendary snorkelling experiences. A free dive two metres down and about four metres across takes you into a cave teeming with ocean life and other magic.

Despite the opulent setting, I am poorly equipped. My snorkel is ill-fitting and scratched. I neglected to bring a waterproof torch and forgot flippers so my friend D is going to share hers with me. One each, a single flipper, for the most substantial dive I’ve ever undertaken. Needless to say, I’m terrified.

I wouldn’t even be trying this if it wasn’t for D.

The first time I met her was at a resort on the edge of Canberra, where we were bundled in for a week of cross-cultural training prior to taking up volunteer positions around the Asia-Pacific. D was fresh from climbing the Andes, a trip she took after first cycling the junta-ridden backroads of Myanmar. She’d grown up on a sheep stud, and had biked and hiked and travelled to the most remote corners of the world. Later, it came out that she was once in a plane crash off the remote Tasmanian coast and had to swim to shore with a broken back. In our break, undeterred by her lack of swimsuit, she jumped in the pool in her underwear and smashed out some laps while I was still chewing down on the Scotch Finger biscuits rolled out for morning tea. I was completely in awe of her. Too awed to strike up a friendship. In fact, by the end of the week, I decided that I had no business hanging around with D, or any of these other intimidating, worldly, foreign aid over-achievers. I was ready to drop out of the program all together.

But somehow I didn’t, and a few weeks later, D and I found ourselves at Sydney Airport, ready to board a plane to Nuku’alofa. Unfortunately, there was a pesky cyclone railing through the Pacific that day, so we got sent home. I caught the bus to my aunt’s house doubled over with all my gear; D got a romantic interest to collect her in a pick up truck and camped overnight in a beach cave somewhere in the Royal National Park.

Our second attempt at international departure was more successful, and we made it to the Kingdom of Tonga. I couldn’t stop looking out the taxi window: the wandering pigs, the acres of palm trees, the security guard wearing a slam dunking basketball t-shirt that said “Air Jesus – the Ultimate High.” Culture shock hit me like a rocket. I lay on the hotel bed under a lazy fan, breathing in the sickly sweet smell of frangipani and pandanus flowers. D headed out exploring.

Within a couple of days, the other volunteers organised an outing to one of the nearby islands. We were told that Pangaimotu was a popular Sunday outing, a ten minute boat trip from the capital with a beach, good snorkelling, and fish burgers that apparently tasted just like chicken.

D studied the map. “Just one or two kilometres from the shore, is it?” she asked one of the other girls. “I might swim over,” she told me. “Want to come?”

I declined. I took the boat with the others, and watched D arrive on shore an hour or two later, shaking off her snorkel, triumphant.*

Game of Thrones wasn’t in our popular subconscious back then, but D could have played her choice of characters: Daenerys Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, Arya Stark. At best, I might have played Sansa, and frankly, that’s a stretch.

But somehow we became friends anyway. D is a generous facilitator of adventure, a surefooted leader. And I suppose I’m a determined and curious, if inept, follower. She took me to places I never would have dared alone: we kayaked the outer islands in a leaky boat, hitchhiked and skinny dipped on remote beaches, slept under coconut trees, cycled around the main island, scaled cliffs for obscure snorkelling spots. Together we lived with a local family for two or three months, honing our Tongan language skills, and yes, there was that free dive into Mariner’s Cave off the back of a luxury yacht that we had no business being on.

I’ve been thinking about that cave, that dive, that one flipper, especially these past few days. I feel like I’m sitting on a similar precipice, waiting to give birth to my daughter. A chasm of death that lies between life and life; I can see it from the boat. Two metres down, four across. Like a crossword. But I’m much better at Women’s Weekly cryptics than lung-crushing tunnels. They require more guts than I have. And once again, I’m ill-equipped, unprepared. I’m not ready. The waves are crashing around me, and this time there’s not even the option to stay on board with my glass of misgotten champagne. And I’m sorely resentful–bitter even–of what’s being demanded of me, of my body, despite what’s also promised in return.

“But aren’t you excited?”

This is what you get asked at 38 weeks pregnant.

“It must be so hard to wait!”

Oh, I can wait. The waiting is the easy bit. It’s diving in that’s the trick. Acceptance and surrender. Staring down the terror. The suspension of time. The excruciating pain. Some people do it so well, but I’m not one of them.

And in this case, there is everything that comes afterwards: those first weeks–months–of fractured body parts, sleep deprivation, and the need to soothe, feed and sleep a baby that doesn’t know how to soothe, feed or sleep.

If only I could take D into the birthing suite with me. In motherhood, as in life.

D stayed three more years in Tonga, then worked in Somaliland and Sri Lanka before coming to live in Darwin for awhile. We organised a trip to Timor Leste together, and she dropped by my house three weeks before to tell me she was (accidentally) pregnant (to an old friend, a one night stand). We still went to Timor and hired a 4WD with bald tyres. She drove. All the way, along the pot holed roads that circle the coast from Dili to Tutuala. We slept in huts, took a boat out to Jaco Island and went snorkelling, despite assurances about sharks and crocodiles that were ambivalent at best. The morning sickness meant I could just about keep up with her this time. A few months later she packed up a Landcruiser and drove south with her old friend, now partner, to have the baby.

Back in the day I could have imagined D ending up anywhere, everywhere. A houseboat with a famous musician lover on the Ganges. A Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. Working in a refugee camp in Syria. But at the moment, she lives on a farm in NSW with her fella and their three children. I took Mr and Little Tea out there before Christmas. We took the kids on swings in the outer paddocks and for rides on the pony; we rumbled around on the back of the truck. We ate cake loaded with sugar and butter on her sunny, windswept back verandah, which has a slippery dip into a sand pit. The setting was just right – equal parts what I could and could not have imagined for her. Because when you’re sitting on the boat, you never know how life will turn out. Like my life in Darwin, with Mr Tea. The daughter in my belly and my son playing with his tractor. They are a daily surprise to me, too.

It’s hard to believe that 14 years have passed since we did that free dive into Mariner’s Cave, and I’m still grateful for D’s friendship then and today. For the adventures. For her belief in me, even when I haven’t believed in myself. For the flipper.

And not just hers. Despite (or, because of) my reluctance–my resentment–about giving birth again, flippers are coming in from so many friends. Here in Darwin, but also from other corners of the country. They come as freezer meals, take away curries, cooked dinners. Grocery shops and offers of babysitting. They are clothes: hand-me-down and new. Breast pumps and slings, toddler distractions. Books, massage oils and herbal teas, chocolate, phone calls, and messages of support.

They come from people who are parents and people who are not. Because haven’t we all sat on the back of the boat at some point and thought I can’t I can’t I bloody well can’t and then done it anyway? Sucked in our breath and descended, crossed the divide. Two down, four across. Some of you did it with no snorkel at all. You pushed down on lungs that were already empty. You got scratched on the limestone, stung and bloodied on the coral. The terror was justified. Or it wasn’t. Perhaps the dive took you somewhere you never expected, never imagined. Somewhere both harder and easier, better and worse. It was traumatic; it was exhilarating. It was ordinary; it was a miracle. It was sweet relief; it was an anti-climax.  Maybe you, too, thought about dying and living and living and dying. And then some of you even did it all again. And again.

Now it’s my turn. The back of the boat. Turquoise water chopped up with white. A school of silver fish, ducking under the wave. One flipper. Deep breath.

It’ll take a bit longer than Mariner’s Cave, but I’ll see you on the other side, I guess. With my daughter.

Bring the bubbly. Or the Pineapple Fanta, that’s probably more my thing.

*Just to keep it real, I want to include this disclaimer from D.  She says “You do know I was terrified on that swim to Pangaimotu.  I pretty much had to dog paddle the whole way because whenever I put my head in the water I could see imaginary sharks coming at me from every direction.”

Sued and screwed and tattooed

“We don’t have tattoos,” says Mr Tea.

We’re standing in the middle of the children’s playground at Leanyer Water Park. There are many things to take in: an enormous bucket of water that empties out with such force that it knocks small children to the ground, a man walking around with a parole bracelet strapped to his ankle, sporadic water cannon fire from sadistic six year olds, and the fact that our son isn’t really enjoying his second birthday party. But no, our lack of tattoos, this is the realisation that hits us both hardest and simultaneously.

My best friend’s Darwin-inked tattoo – this is Phoenix (Jean Grey) from X-Men. An ass kicking lady, that’s for sure. Both of them.

“Just have a look around us,” Mr Tea says. “Can you actually see another person here who doesn’t have a tatt?”

I can’t.

It’s a hot Sunday morning at Darwin’s premier waterslide destination, and all available flesh is on display. Biceps, pecs, and backs; ankles, thighs, and calves; even the odd breast peeking out of a bikini cup. And all of them are inked (well, most of them).

These tattoos are the product of both great thought and pure whim. Some are art; some are…not. There are full sleeves and delicate little flowers, motifs that run the gauntlet from Maori to Celtic. Cartoon characters, scrolls, and lettering in alphabets that range from Arabic to Sanskrit; philosophies both profound and insipid. There are the standard rose, snake, and dagger types. Constellations, maps, machines, rock bands. Children’s names and dates. Their faces. The occasional back of neck bar code.

Sometimes the tatts take responsibility; sometimes they shed it. They chronicle lost loves and found ones. Drunken nights and misdemeanours. Mistakes, adventures, successes, regrets. Tours of duty, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sometimes, the Berrimah Hilton.

There’s something honest about it; about these reclaimed bodies and their markings, something very Northern Territory.

…Well, I’ve been sued and screwed and tattooed

But I’m standing right here in front of you…*

This is another good friend, one of Mr Tea’s favourite sea-faring companions. I think this is an incredible piece of body art.

And here we are, too. Mr Tea and I, the only cleanskins in this tattoo parlour. Admittedly the water park is more of an exhibition hall than a studio, and, while there’s face painting on offer at some of the eleventy children’s birthday parties concurrently taking place, I don’t see anyone bearing a needle.

But there’s no accounting for geography when it comes to personal epiphanies. And in this moment, it becomes clear. We are missing a crucial part of Darwin’s no-bullshit uniform from our bodies. Does this make our Territory Visas—granted (by nobody) for over a decade of permanent residency—void?

Another tattoo I’ve always liked, this time on the back of one of my first Darwin friends, J. The tree of life.

I did come close to getting a tattoo once, more than a decade ago now. I was living in Tonga. At the time, my mind was expanding at an exponential rate, soaking up a new culture and language. My life had changed, and it would never go back to the way it was. I was ready, then, to print that on my body.

Tattoos were standard fare in Tonga, though not traditional in the way they are in Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and other parts of the Pacific. I was working at a youth centre, and the boys scrawled on their bodies the way I might have on my pencil case at school. They used Stanley knives and permanent markers, ball point pens hooked up to car radios. They drew spiders and pythons, embroidered full back gangsta tags, illustrated homages to Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. They recorded their detentions and deportations, wrote love and hate on their knuckles, and inscribed the names of their unrequited teenage loves in the delicate cursive taught at all the church schools.

I wasn’t so sure about the local equipment, but I was definitely interested in the concept. Like the geek that I am, I started by collecting books on traditional tattooing around the Pacific. Then I began poring over compendiums of other tatts – mostly rockabilly influenced – pin-up girls and the kind of bicep inscriptions you might have found on people who appeared as extras in the musical South Pacific. I browsed my friends’ efforts. I asked the kinds of questions that cool people do not ask. Where, why? How big is the needle? Does it hurt?

Before too long, I had a definite tattoo in mind for myself. Two diamonds on my lower back, drawn and decorated like the Tongan tapa, a traditional paper bark cloth made from mulberry trees and used for anything from wrapping bodies at funerals to decorating feast tables and school halls. I planned to get my proposed design inked as soon as I returned home.

I spent just over a year living in Nuku’alofa. I was 23. In Tonga, I fell in love, ate mutton flaps, and kissed corpses. I served kava, danced tau’olunga style, had my heart broken. I watched political protests, dabbled in church services ranging from Methodist to Mormon, kayaked between islands, attended weddings, and hitched rides to beaches in the middle of nowhere. I marched in parades, watched beauty contests, entered rap competitions, and wound up on national television. My sheltered mind was blown wide open.

And then I came back to Australia, very reluctantly. Reverse culture shock was a bitch. I was paralysed by choice in the supermarket: seventy different kinds of biscuits, all within expiry date. Traffic lights. Globalised fast food. The rat race. Postmodernism seemed a lot more abstract than it had when I left university the first time around. I missed my Tongan boyfriend (unfortunately, he missed me a lot less). I planned to return as soon as study and work and finances allowed.

But gradually I got used to life back on the island continent, and as the years went by, my tattoo (and Pacific) dreams faded. I discovered new skies, new roads to travel, new people to love. And now I was wary of putting those labels on my body, more aware that they faded, changed, evolved.

But I still have those books of tattoos. I still love looking at tatts on other people. I like to know the circumstances behind them, the relationship between the process and the symbol itself. An old friend lost her best mate and had his name printed up her arm in the biggest, blackest letters she could find. A few days later, she lifted that limb to show me the tattoo with a grim kind of satisfaction. It was her heart on her sleeve, literally. That raw, blistered skin.

I get it. Of course, I also don’t get it, and for that I am lucky. But there are people in my life whose loss I could barely stand, if I could stand it at all. Like Auden, for them I would put out the stars, pack up the moon, dismantle the sun. And I can imagine carving those names along my inside wrist, my spine, across my ribs. The letters embossed on the most tender pieces of my flesh. Wherever it would hurt the most.

I still have some things printed on my body. More and more, as the years pass. In my teens, it was a nasty bike accident that cost me my front tooth. A broken nose from a highly foreseeable basketball to the face. Later, some burns from careless hot oven management, a failed nose piercing in my early twenties. Weight loss and weight gain. Scratches from various outdoor adventures that have never fully faded. The scars of the mosquito bites that gave me a nasty case of dengue fever. More recently, pregnancy. Child birth.

Other things are more invisible. Years of chronic illness. A legacy of sexual harassment that dates back to childhood. The ashes I’ve scattered, sometimes swallowed. The ones I haven’t. The people I still miss. My flirtations with suicide. A miscarriage. The worry lines of depression and anxiety that still crowd my brain, when they want to.

Perhaps they would all be better out in the sunlight, inked onto my naked flesh, and flushed clean down the waterslides at Leanyer Water Park.

*with thanks to Jerry Jeff Walker

Building Up

The day had apocalyptic overtones from the get go. I crunched two dead cockroaches going from the bedroom to the bathroom. The milk was already off, three days before the expiry date. The front door opened into an early morning oven, littered with rutting geckos and Ritalin-deprived skinks. I recoiled from the distinctive broil of rubbish in the wheelie bin. It smelled like yesterday’s onions and armpits. My fingers burned on a Domino’s pizza voucher roasting quietly in the letter box.

No mail for us.

I wrestled Little Tea into the car along with Rabby and George, his soft toy sidekicks, and an orange plastic tractor. You never know when you’ll need one.

“Air con?” he said. The kid’s not stupid.

It’s bloody hot, there’s no way round it at the moment. It’s Suicide Season, Mango Madness. In the Top End, we’re all going troppo. We fuck and fight, cry and cuss, drink and drip and dance. The build up starts sniffing around us like a dog on heat in September, sometimes even at the Darwin Festival if you’re really unlucky. This year, we are definitely unlucky.

But you really know that the build up has hit when you get breath tested at 9:30 in the morning, taking your kid to Fun Bus at the Anula Playground.

I’ll tell you, that’s where all the booze hounds are hiding out. Clearly the local constabulary had seen last week’s artistic efforts.

“What do you make of these, Officer?”

“Hmmm. Looks like they’ve used fingers, a dish scourer, and a toy car to spread those paints around. And I smell trace elements of food colouring.”

“Definitely under the influence.”

I wasn’t too worried though. After all, Little Tea wasn’t even driving. But the HiLux in front obviously knew what was coming. He pulled off onto a side street, ignoring the officers waving him over. The wheels squealed and he took off into the badlands of Wagaman. No one gave chase.

Too. Fucking. Hot.

I cleared the breathalyser and turned off Lee Point Road. As I drove past, just one hundred metres away from the alcohol and drug testing station, I could see one of the many old mates of Darwin’s Northern Suburbs leaning back in his plastic chair, pulling on a bong.

Happy Thursday to you, Old Mate.

I drove a bit further and soon enough I was standing at the playground, reenacting The Hunger Games with a bunch of other parents as we unleashed a dozen toddlers on three toy cars. Ah, peace at last. We raised our luke warm water bottles in silent toast. The children are distracted. We are free. At least for ten minutes, or until someone gets seriously maimed by a stick.

But it doesn’t take long for our own frustrations to bubble to the fore.

One of my fellow Mum mates was a bit over it. She’d been overlooked for a promotion at work; someone considerably less qualified and committed had snaffled the position.

I shook my head. Typical.

We stood there for almost a half an hour, beading perspiration in the sun, swapping our stories of fury, disgust, and woe. People who had unfriended us on FaceBook. Unreturned emails. Banking bust ups, bureaucratic battles. The driver who beeped at me because he had to wait while I turned right into the Casuarina Pool car park. A good friend who is waging simultaneous war on Darwin City Council, Kmart, Woolworths, and Big W over abandoned shopping trolleys on her street. The Weetbix encrusted on our kitchen floors like cement. One hour waits at the doctor’s surgery. Things you can’t unsee, like band aids floating in public pools and people using the Foreshore BBQs as a place to relieve themselves. The stale ham and cheese rolls I bought at Coles. Anyone using a leaf blower.

“Why are we even talking about this?” my friend asked. “Who even cares? For starters, that job would be a whole lot more work for no extra money.”

I shrugged. All personal slights are worse in the build up, I said.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, they say. But what if all you’re doing is sweating?

On the way home, I got cut off mid-lane while going through the traffic lights.

Jesus! I slammed on the brakes. What even was that?

“Jesus!” parroted Little Tea from the back.

I decided it was time to abandon the road rage and the griping and the personal slights and find some joy in all this humidity. I started stalking the suburbs, the shops, the twists of beach and creek and bike path near my house. It might not fill a stadium or even a cinema, but there were definitely pockets of the stuff.

Humidity joy.

The tata lizards that frenzy along the fence line and across Trower Road.

Mildly rubbish image because they move so fast, definitely not because I’m a shit photographer…

Scales of light shimmering in the swimming pool.

Frill-necked lizards that prance down the middle of the street, like yoga divas in active wear.

Mangos the colour of sunset, spilling out of crates and car boots, for sale all along the Stuart Highway.

Licks of thunder and unexpected early rain wrung from passing storm clouds.

Flocks of magpie geese gathering on school ovals, like teenagers swapping swigs and ciggies.

Then the bursts of colour on suburban verges, flowery ice cream cones amid the foliage.

The bright ‘80s pink of stretching bougainvillea strands. Frangipanis rimmed with gold. The flame trees that blind the weary driver.

If you’re really glass half-full about the whole thing, there’s even novelty in the temperature drop when you move from the side of the footpath in full sun, to the side shaded by building awnings. Hot. Slightly less hot. Hot.

And when I think about it some more, I realise how many significant life moments have happened for me in the build up.

There have been road trips and relocations, from Darwin to Broome, and Alice Springs back to Darwin. Some regrettable and highly avoidable boggings. A particularly outrageous house party that featured gold lame bikini cartwheels, a recreation of the crucifixion, and illegal skinny dipping. Another which featured rainbow leggings, leotards, and a memorable dance-off between the People’s Republic of Jingili and the United States of Millner. The Cold Chisel concert six years ago that marked the beginning of Mr Tea and me.

Over a decade of build ups, I’ve found people and I’ve lost them, too.

Maybe I can see the build up’s virtue as a time of transition. Of growth, change. Anticipation and evolution and creation instead of damp, unruly catastrophe. The season becomes an active verb. We are building up.

I don’t have to search too far for more examples; one of them is sitting in my living room. A robust nearly two-year-old: the epitome of frustration, sweat, and tears. A boy who tantrums when he is separated from that beloved orange tractor to sit in the high chair. Because he needs the green shorts, not the blue ones. And he wants popcorn instead of vegetables for dinner.

But around these gusts of rage, there are also joys, plenty of them. There are micro steps and great leaps forward. Two months ago, Little Tea didn’t know his own name. Now the sentences have two, three words, sometimes four. He can drink from a cup (sort of), make fart jokes, pack up his toys (if he feels like it) and pull a coffee table book filled with Northern Territory wildlife from the shelf and identify all the birds. Brolga, jacana, ‘poonbill, darter, he recites, flipping the pages from my lap.

Strange to think that almost two years ago, I was sitting right here, gestating in the build up. I was cooking and cleaning and packing a chest freezer with meals, mostly stews and soups, comfort food ill-suited to our life in the tropics. Then I’d put up my legs when my ankles tripled in size. Those were hot days, too, a hot daze, in the hottest part of Australia, during a heat wave. The air was as warm as my blood and the poinciana trees were bright red, as they would be every year on Little Tea’s birthday.

And this year, I’m building something again. Eyelid by eyelid, toenail by toenail, organ by organ. My body is swollen with the construction of it all, with the weather, and also the $1 packets of mixed lollies I’m compelled to buy at the Nightcliff IGA. It’s familiar territory, and also different. There are new symptoms, flutters I might not have recognised previously, but I’m still waiting, wondering. Watching, worrying, and waiting some more. Our daughter is due in March, along with the last of the rains.

The more I think about it, the trudge towards the proper monsoon season is just like pregnancy. Overwhelming, all-consuming. Like build up air, you breathe it all in, every clammy mouthful, until the taste ricochets from tongue to toe. Until you’re spent, exhausted, wasted. The small joys are profound, but so are the indignities, the frustrations. The melancholy can be crippling. The craziness is gripping.

But eventually the waters break. Sometimes early, sometimes late. You scream or you don’t, while the whole gushing thing plays itself out, like the best and worst music of your life. Epic, grinding, bloody, and finally, euphoric.

Then, the build up is over. There’s relief. New life. And the caravan goes on.


This year marks a decade for me Up North. It feels like an anniversary worth marking. But am I a Territorian yet? Yes. No. I’m not sure. Probably not.

A quick lesson in Australian demography, if you don’t mind. Ahem. Let me get my whiteboard. There are Territorians and then there are Southerners. Arguably, there are also Mexicans, Banana Benders, Sandgropers and Crow Eaters, but really Australia is just made up of Territorians and Southerners.

The NT News created this handy infographic to deal with any confusion

In the media, we’re pretty quick to handover Honorary Territorian status. Olympic swimmer Geoff Huegill spent his first few months in Gove? That’s a Territorian tick! The Beatles transited through the airport in 1964 – give them a key to the city! Cadel Evans was born in Katherine Hospital but now says Victoria is home? Put up a sign at the city limits!

But if you’re not a celebrity, Territorian is a status awarded via the more traditional measure of number-crunching, namely your years of residency, though occasionally a sufficient number of buffalo hunted, crocodiles wrestled, cane toads busted or drink-driving arrests will suffice. The generous hearted might make you a local at twenty years, others will say thirty. Forty. The highest echelons of local are of course reserved for the born, the bred. The born and bred. The families with thousands of years under their feet, or at least, several generations. The rest of us are missionaries, misfits and mercenaries; blow ins, FIFOs and fly-by-nighters.

…You may find yourself 
living in a shotgun shack
and you may find yourself
in another part of the world
and you may find yourself
behind the wheel of a large automobile
and you may find yourself in a beautiful house
with a beautiful wife
and you may ask yourself, well,
how did I get here?

Like Talking Heads, I’ve been asking myself that question.

The idea of Darwin first seeped into my consciousness at the age of eight. The ABC was screening a children’s series called Touch the Sun. The trailers are fairly excruciating to revisit now, but at the time I was mesmerised by the stories. There was a boy named Peter who lived in a caravan park and found the ruin of a Roman ship in a cave. In another episode, a group of kids with bad haircuts disappeared into the Tasmanian wilderness to bring home some missing cattle. There were a couple of pre-teens from Melbourne who won land in South-West WA on a game show, and travelled over there to see it with an eccentric Grandfather. But the story that appealed to me most was set in the Top End. It was the story of a rambunctious 11-year-old named Alice (who had the best blond mullet and ‘80s specs you can imagine). It was all styled to scream frontier. Alice lived in an elevated house, all louvres and mosquito nets, with her single mother who had a night job at the casino. She could drive (the family mini moke and a stolen boat); she knew how to hitch-hike (to Kakadu with her friend Mick, who had a family outstation that way). When they ran out of money, Alice and Mick busked at a truck stop and earned enough money to buy burgers and chips with a fistful of pink notes left over, the paper kind. I spent hours fantasising about running away from home, adventuring, consorting with characters, and also being able to buy my own McHappy meal. Alice was living my dream.

So maybe my Darwin story starts there. But it also begins in the Kingdom of Tonga. At the (highly unqualified) age of 22, I applied for a job running a youth magazine and radio show in the capital, Nuku’alofa. And got it. I didn’t know much about the country at all and the information online was scant (all a quick Google turned up in 2002 was that the place had a King and that he had some weight-loss issues, but didn’t we all, I thought?)

As a bright eyed and bushy tailed Australian Volunteer, I got off the plane, was handed a pungent lei made out of frangipanis, pandanus fruit and lollies in colourful wrappers, and was bundled into one of Nuku’alofa’s best taxis, the windows stitched together with sticky tape. My culture shock barometer sky rocketed. My sunglasses fogged up. We drove into town, past tiny corner stores filled with packets of two minute noodles and cordial frozen in plastic bags (local ice blocks).

And then we passed the prison. The fence was waist-high, if that.

“Sometimes, the prisoners borrow the guard’s car and go into town to pick up supplies. Nobody minds. They come back,” my in-country manager told me.

I think I fell in love with the Pacific at that moment.

I kept travelling. Samoa, Vanuatu. I nearly took a job in PNG but knocked it back when my boss-to-be told me she was cooped up in the compound, waiting for payback from some Highlanders.

I was looking for something humid with palm trees but with limited to no chance of a car jacking. Maybe a little less church on Sundays and more tolerance for singlets and shorts. Darwin soon came to the top of my things to do list.

And so I came to the Territory for the first time in 2006, a rookie arts reporter for Triple J. It was a gig I couldn’t put my hand up for fast enough. I interviewed buskers, graphic artists, dancers, musos, and photographers in Darwin, and anyone handy with a crochet needle at the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. There was so much to take in. The hues of the desert, the turquoise of the Arafura Sea, the country men who heckled me when I got amorous with a fellow backpacker in the sand dunes behind Mindil Beach. I promised myself that I would come back to live.

Just six months later, I was installed in a room at the Mirambeena Resort with two suitcases and a 12 month employment contract in my clammy hand. It was the second day of January, 2007. What a golden age to arrive in the Top End. Sure, they’d just removed open speed limits but you could still smoke in your hotel room (I didn’t), the front page of the Sunday Territorian comprehensively detailed an ice-cream heist from the service station on Daly Street (Cornettos, Paddle Pops and Golden Gaytimes, all stolen in broad daylight) and I found two green tree frogs mating in my bathroom. On the radio, we spoke to someone who had just pulled a nine feet carpet python out of a toilet.

I fell for the place immediately, and hard.

Admittedly, it didn’t have everything. Channel Ten was missing from the TV schedule then, a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald cost around $7.50 even though it arrived mid-afternoon. A backpacker lounging by the pool in a bikini who thought Darwin seemed “pretty friendly” was considered (page 3) news. Good poached eggs were hard to find. Someone insisted on playing a cover of “Fields of Gold” by Sting on the bongos at Nightcliff Markets. A bloke at the pub tried to pick me up by telling me about the time he attempted to get a lizard stoned by blowing smoke in its face. I met another fella who wanted to wash his car, so he (drunkenly) rammed a fire hydrant. When it came to dating, the odds were good but the goods were definitely odd.

But so much of Darwin was just so great. People ate laksa for breakfast, for God’s sake. My work mates had names like Mango and Fridge and Happy. Another was Australia’s reigning air guitar champion. He’d hung up the axe and come to the Territory for a quieter life. The newspaper published a list of where all the speed cameras would be that week. One of the hotels was offering a beer for every (dead) cane toad brought in (maximum of six). The classifieds section had salt water crocodile skulls for sale. It was widely acceptable to call in sick at work so you could go fishing. There were more boats per capita than anywhere else in Australia. There was roadkill in my friend’s freezer that he planned to taxidermy later. My bourgeoning social life was centred around the costume section at Spotlight, one weekend a pirate party, the next, ‘70s funk. I heard the words come out of my mouth at the Sparty’s till. “That’ll be an eye patch, two swords and a blow-up parrot for me, thanks very much.”

There were bars filled with army jocks and drag queens and bikers and miners and dreadlocked hippies, all playing pool and dancing to the same scratched CDs (live music back then, something that wasn’t a bloke with said compact disc collection, anything at all, caused a flurry of inter-office emailing). There was rain, buckets of it, even rivers of the stuff. I felt like Forrest Gump, marvelling at it from my balcony: fat rain, thin rain, stinging rain, flooding rain…

With the same slack-jawed awe that I gazed out of the broken taxi window in Tonga, in that first year, I soaked up everything the Territory had to offer. Footy on the Tiwi Islands and ferry rides to the pub with no chips in Mandorah. Car boots overflowing with mangos, then pineapples, rambutans, dragon fruit and watermelons, depending on the season.

There were bush bands to see at Barunga, tinnys to jump in, mud crabs to catch, rock art galleries to see, gorges to swim, magnetic termite mounds to ponder, festivals to dance at, fish to reel in with a borrowed rod, sunsets to soak up, fake hens nights to host. Swimmers and towel were a permanent fixture in my car. It was a far cry from my childhood in the national capital.

It’s hard to believe that it’s now 2017 and I take all of those things for granted.

And many aspects of Territory life are still the same. Like the menu at Hanuman. The (yet to be completed) Parthenon on Dick Ward Drive. The snakes and frogs in the toilet. The line for Mary’s Laksa. Tits out Tuesday lives on. We’re still Developing the North, Creating the Nation’s Northern Food Bowl, arguing about letting off fireworks on Territory Day.

But the NT has also changed in ten years. The Government, at least—if not the issues, which require far more space than this short, glib, and mostly naval gazing blog post—from Labor to Country Liberal and back again, with five chief ministers in a decade and plenty more aspirants. There are new suburbs, houses, apartment blocks. A harbour filled with INPEX. The CBD is taller. We have a wave pool. Trevor the Rubbish Warrior has now turned his hand to public art and town council politics. We have a hipster café scene with all the baked eggs and pulled pork you could ever dream of. The real estate market has boomed and busted.

As for me? Well, I’ve boomed and busted, too. I arrived as a single, (sorta) gung ho, young(ish) journalist – determined to make life and heart changing radio. I’ve succeeded and I’ve failed. I’ve left Darwin and come back, left and come back. I had to shelve my ambition for a serious illness, then for a baby. Right now, I’m a stay at home Mum, at least for another year.

It’s funny to look back on those first few weeks with decade-coloured glasses. Significance comes later; it always does. I met one of my best Darwin girlfriends soon after I arrived – at a farewell dinner where every other person at the table was planning to leave town. I got her number, pronto. We drove to Kakadu for the first time together, shared a house for years. She’s called Nhulunbuy and Alice Springs home, too, over the last decade, but now we’re both in Darwin again, living a suburb apart. I also met Mr Tea for the first time in those early months, playing on a rag-tag Ultimate Frisbee team. I didn’t get his name but we would cross paths at house parties for years, between stints in Broome and Alice for me, Timor and the Solomon Islands for him.

Now we have a child. We’re getting married in July. A few weeks ago, I tried on big, white dresses in a bridal shop with a painted buffalo skull in the dressing room. In case you’re wondering, some of Darwin’s fanciest bridal couture can be found in the Wulagi Shops, on a strip hosting an old school fish and chippery, a mobile vet and an IGA with a lolly counter that my 1988 childhood wants back (milkos and sherbies and redskins, oh my!)

Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

But Darwin? I’ll gladly be a Territorian, if you’ll have me. Down South feels like a long time ago now.

More scenes from Alice Springs

It’s been six years since I was last in Alice Springs.

Back then, I was single and ambitious and hungry for something that I couldn’t name. When a short-term radio gig came up in the Centre, I didn’t just raise my hand my hand to go, I reached with both arms and pulled the opportunity hard into my chest. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be there but I prepared for a new life. I sorted things out with a boy, went back to Canberra to see my family, bought some imitation Ugg boots. I packed up my car and drove 1500 kilometres down the highway.

That new life would last three months, maybe four. “Lost my shit” would be the official wording for what happened in that time. And I haven’t been back since.

Until now.

As I get off the plane with Mr and Baby Tea, I realise I’ve forgotten my sunglasses and I squint into the sunlight. It’s a bright, cold August day in the Alice and the wind whips my wrap around dress open on the tarmac. I’m trying to keep my dignity while holding a baby and an overflowing handbag. And I’m nervous. We’re not here to exorcise my Alice Springs demons per se; Mr Tea has work and we both have friends to catch up with. But as we drive out of the airport in our hire car, being a bit of a basket case in Alice Springs is all I can think about.

The dramatic scenery helps with the naval gazing. Craggy ochre rocks, ghost gums, red dirt. Just before we drive into town, there’s The Gap. It’s like the East and West MacDonnell ranges set out to swallow Alice Springs but ran out of belly room just at the last moment. Appetite sated, the ranges left a space just large enough for the Stuart Highway to snake north through the town. Driving into The Gap, we’re dwarfed by the orange cliffs rising up on either side of the road. I find myself shivering, partly in awe and partly because no matter how bright the sun is, it’s always cooler on that piece of road right in the shadow of the ranges.

The Gap. It’s also where I used to live, in a unit on South Terrace opposite the dry river beds of the Todd.

I tell Mr Tea as he drives our hire car, packed to the brim with a week’s worth of baby paraphernalia.

“You lived in The Gap? Must have got a bit rough around there sometimes.”

It did. Sometimes.

We’ll come back to The Gap, but first a spot of Sunday driving on a Saturday. I want to take Baby Tea through the West Macs, down to Glen Helen and Ormiston Gorge.


Our road trip begins with a brief stop at the Larapinta shops to grab some drinks for the road. Just your standard Territory corner store: racks of fluorescent plastic toys, columns of soft drink and tinned steak and kidney pies on a dusty shelf. The opposing wall is coloured with the bright foil of every imaginable flavour of potato chip. The girls behind the counter are gossiping. One of them has a new man and the thrill of it overflows all the way to the drinks fridge.

Girl 1: He was telling me some of the stories from his truck last night, it was so cool. And whenever I said something, he’d say, “Roger that!”
Girl 2: That’s cute. And also, weird.
Girl 1: Yeah, I know. Because his name IS Roger.


Driving out of Alice Springs is exhilarating. The road moves you from suburbia to the desert in just a few clicks; the houses make way for yellow and black signs warning of wild horses. I like that some of them have been gently doctored. In one, the horse wears a top hat; in another, she rides a skateboard. Same with the children crossing signs. My favourite has the silhouetted boy and girl holding a bag full of gold fish, as if they’ve just returned from a county fair.

You never expect the desert to be full of colour but it is. Especially this winter, the rains have brought out the wildflowers in force and on the drive out to the West Macs the greens, pinks and purples bounce off the rocks onto an electric blue sky. There are mulla mullas, desert roses and my favourite poached egg daisies. Even the weeds are pretty, with patches of ruby dock dotted along the road.

I remember the flowers from when I was last here. Wildflowers laid out like carpet from Telegraph Station to King’s Canyon.  I spent hours taking macro photographs, trying to capture persistent ants clinging to the inner petals. Other memories surface, too. I remember spinifex pigeons conducting elaborate mating dances and a chatter of budgerigars swarming us near Ormiston Gorge, resplendent in green and gold. I went bushwalking most weekends back then, found relief in the hard rocks pushing into my feet despite my sneakers. I remember learning the word selfie for the first time on my last West Macs road trip with girlfriends. Back then, we had make-shift esky (read: a polystyrene broccoli box from Woolies) keeping the beers cold. Now I’m breastfeeding in the car park, sporting a fiancé and rocking a pram that’s not quite a 4WD, it doesn’t really cut it on the scrabbly paths down to Glen Helen gorge.

At the homestead, there are strongly worded notices dotted everywhere. Beware of the dingoes. Books on this stand are FOR SALE! Rock specimens for your eyes only. DO NOT TOUCH. The last bit is underlined as well as in capitals, so geologically minded thieves must abound in these parts. Even the bathroom dispenses instructions. “Please be economical. One sheet is usually enough,” says the paper towel dispenser in ticker tape.

Tourists wander around with fly nets and deliberate over burger options. I overhear one of the bus drivers imparting toilet door wisdom to whoever will listen:

“Any day you wake up’s a good day. If you don’t wake up, don’t worry about it. That’s what I always say.”

And you know he always does.



Back in Alice, we’re staying in The Gap but away from my old stomping ground, in a slick set of units designed for tourists and FIFOs. We pull in after dark and even Baby Tea falls asleep quickly, so full marks for our working holiday so far.

When we wake up, three of the cars in the downstairs car park have been broken into but not ours. Some would say it’s luck. Others would say it’s because there were no coins visible in the console, glinting under the streetlights. No IPhone sitting on the front seat. No promising looking esky strapped onto the back seat. But I know it’s not luck, not the paucity of parking change or the central locking. It’s Alice Springs, opening up her arms to me again, saying welcome back. Welcome. Back.


Mr Tea goes to work and I take Baby Tea on little outings. We visit my old office and beloved former work mates. Walk up and down the Todd Mall. Find a pop up bakery at the old Residency on Hartley Street. Picnic at the Old Telegraph Station and watch the galahs. Well, I do. Baby Tea grabs fistfuls of grass and leaves and gets as many into his mouth as he can before I protest. We marvel at the sand pit at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, another first for Baby Tea. We catch up with old buddies; some of them have kids now, too. My friend Nic has two boys who give me a preview of my life to come. We walk around their bush block and the kids proudly show off the rusted Kingswood out the back. They put plastic snakes and spiders in our path, make elaborate battle lines with their plastic soldiers, slam the Totem Tennis around for a bit and then put a series of balls (cricket, soccer, AFL, golf etc) in a meticulous line, ordered from biggest to smallest.

I wonder what might have happened if I had stayed on six years ago, if I hadn’t collapsed in a heap. Would I be bringing up little boys in the wintry Alice sunshine?


Later in the week, we decide to order some take away for dinner. I browse restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor. A traveler from Tulsa, Oklahoma recommends the barramundi at one hotel restaurant. Fresh from the Todd River, a local specialty, she says. Delicious. We pass and order pizza, vegetarian, from down the road. It comes with tinned mushrooms. In one bite, I’m back on the south coast of NSW, aged seven or eight, and learning to cook from an old Women’s Weekly Cookbook with my Nana. She was a fierce advocate for microwave cooking and a long-time connoisseur of veggies in a can. We served up our attempts at ‘Modern Italian!’ on her favourite china plates. The pizza tastes like those ‘80s memories.



Saturday rolls around. It’s Territory election day and we go to cast our ballots around lunchtime. The party faithful thrust how to votes into our palms from the edges of the council car park.

“Keep them, we’re from Darwin,” says Mr Tea.

“I wouldn’t tell anyone else that,” quips the ALP volunteer.

In the late afternoon, there’s a stillness. The ballot papers are still being shuffled and counted and troopies start to wind their way out of town, swags strapped to roof racks. I wander through The Gap while I wait for results. Past youth centres and churches, past the Finke River Mission. Best dressed of the day goes to an elderly Aboriginal man in stockman get-out, all gleaming silver belt buckle and pressed jeans, a bright turquoise shirt with tassels and a spotless Akubra. One street is punctuated with purple bougainvillea and cycad palms, a suburban oasis. There are oranges overhanging one fence, so close I can almost pluck one off the tree. And there’s a clutch of kids eating chips in the gutter next to discarded bottles of booze and playing cards.


I stop in at my old unit complex on South Terrace. The letter boxes are still overstuffed with junk mail, the fence covered in For Lease signs. I poke my nose through the fence and expect it to smell like I remember: fresh paint, wet woollen jumpers, burnt dinners, sandy bricks. Like melancholy. It does and it doesn’t. I cross the road and there’s an old stroller marooned in the middle of the Todd River, wheels caked with sand.

It’s getting colder now. I blow on my hands and spin on my heels, head back down Gap Road. My last stop is Piggly’s, perhaps Alice’s most iconic mini mart. The only other person in there is Robyn Lambley, one of the sitting Territory politicians. We’ve met before. I smile at her and she smiles back, a polite, wide grin of I-don’t-remember-who-you-are-but-yes-this-is-a-very-small-town. She’s buying ice cream. Sara Lee Ultra Chocolate and Blue Ribbon Vanilla.

It’s either victory or commiseration dessert; we’ll know for sure in a few hours.



By Sunday, there’s a new government and our little family is a wreck of illness. Mr Tea has gastro, Baby Tea is fighting off a fever and I’m a mess of snotty cold. My head feels like the next door neighbours are taking it in turns to jack hammer the concrete drive way and then play Matchbox 20 full-bore.

But we take Baby Tea to the Alice Springs Desert Park. The sparse beauty is staggering: the ranges rise above us and there are sprinklings of Sturt Desert Pea at my feet. We walk past the dingoes, through the nocturnal house of malas, bandicoots and thorny devils and go to watch the birds in an outdoor amphitheatre. There’s a curlew and a barn owl and a wedge-tailed eagle. They whistle and swoop and flap through the crowd in a way that is terrifying and fantastic at the same time but my cold is so filthy that I. Can’t. Even. Cope. With. Life. Anymore. Why, Alice Springs? Why? Haven’t I suffered enough? My self pity is palpable.

After the show, we pick up the pace because there’s a hire car to return and a baby to wrangle and a plane to catch, but we pass by the emu enclosure and stop for a second. The emus are not shy. One of them strides confidently to the fence, head jutting towards us, all you want a piece of me? Her feathers shimmer in the wind and with an occasional shake. She suddenly jerks her neck over the fence and I jump back with a squeal.

But Baby Tea is mesmerised. He stares at the emu for a couple of minutes and then lets out a peal of giggles. The emu studies Baby Tea and keeps opening and closing her beak. Baby Tea studies the emu right back and giggles again. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen. He waves his hands as if to say, “Just look at this giant, prehistoric bird, would you! Tremendous! Do other people know about this?” We start to giggle, too, just a little at first, and then we laugh properly.

My sinuses are still thumping when we hurry back to the car but my heart is cracked open again. My Alice Springs demons have been properly banished, once and for all. Really, they never had anything to do with Alice Springs, anyway. As the lady with a Namaste number plate told me at the shops that time, wherever you go, there you are. Those old friends, I can count them off on one hand: Anxiety, Loneliness, Depression, Self-Loathing and Insomnia. They still drop by, no matter where I live and work. In many ways, I realise, Alice Springs made me. It was a crossroads of sorts, a time in my life when I had to decide what was important and who I wanted to be. And almost one year to the day after I left, I met Mr Tea.

Alice Springs. Central Australia. Those ochre-coloured MacDonnell ranges. The beauty of this piece of country shoots through me as we drive back out to the airport. Back through The Gap. There might be passive aggressive notes and break ins and sad, forgotten strollers in sandy river beds but there are so many more poached egg daisies and old friends and strangers who could be friends, if you let them. There are elderly cowboys with silver buckles. There’s a truck driver who says “Roger that!” even when his name IS Roger and there are fluorescent skies that go on forever. You can find small town familiarity, ice cream gossip and menus with barramundi that may (not) be from the Todd River. And there are emus.


Have child, will travel

I’m a mum now. It’s never so obvious as when I pack my hand luggage for our trip to Bali. Oh, and when the obstetrician put a purple splay of limbs on my chest after 14 hours of labour and said, here’s something that will prevent you from sleeping, ever, ever again. Deal with that as best you can. But yeah, apart from that, definitely the hand luggage. In goes: ten nappies, three spew cloths, a baby sleeping bag, one packet of wipes, a handful of plastic bags, two rattles, an industrial sized bottle of hand sanitiser, a breastfeeding pillow and an artisanal rubber giraffe called “Sophie”. The backpack is stuffed to zipper-popping proportions and none of the stuffing is for me. In the end, I manage to squeeze in a kindle and a set of head phones for myself. And my passport. I remember a meme I saw wandering around the internet before I gave birth:

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

I remind myself of that annoying piece of interweb trite as I caress my laptop lovingly before moving it from the “to be packed” pile and placing it under a mess of t-shirts in my cupboard so no robbers will ever find it. Stupid, sacrificing, self-flagellating motherhood. Give me my goddamned pie. And Microsoft Word. And the second season of The Americans. But it’s not all bad, I guess. We’re going to Bali for a family holiday – Me, Mr Tea and Baby Tea, who is now six and a half months and teething like a rabid dog. And who’s got time for laptopping anyway?

A word on Bali, especially for the postgraduate, single origin coffee drinkers amongst you. When I lived Down South, no one went to Bali for holidays. Well, sure, some people did, but as far as I was concerned they were mostly sports teams who wanted to drink their body weight in booze and, occasionally, each other’s urine. In a close-minded sweep, of the kind that we love to do in Australia where we assume that other countries exist purely as our playground and have no intrinsic value as a nation or to their locals, I reserved the entire island of Bali for footy bogans and their relatives on extended family holidays, especially if they liked getting their hair braided and having a squawking Kids Club nearby. And why would you lie about by an artificial pool, drinking lurid cocktails and watch other people’s kids savage each other with pool noodles anyway? No, I was going off to eat hot pot in Chengdu, to get diarrhea while trekking the Thai-Burmese border, to go to South Pacific islands without paved roads or green vegetables. It was the traveler’s life for me, by gum.

But when I moved to Darwin, I was forced to rethink my holiday prejudices. Of course, Territorians can still play bogan in Bali as well (if not better) than the rest of Australia. We like a wind chime and a knock off watch as much as the next punter. Many of us dress our toddlers in Bintang singlets and when the question is posed on local social media pages as to whether “midget boxing is a laugh worth seeing?” – there are plenty of compatriots who can (and will) answer, mostly in the affirmative. But the flight to Bali is only two and a half hours away – significantly shorter (and ridiculously cheaper) than grabbing a plane to Melbourne or Sydney. Also I worked full time now. That whole lying by the pool thing had more charm. And the Darwin old hands showed me another side to the Bali holiday equation. They had beautiful Balinese furniture in their homes; they spoke of yoga retreats and cooking courses and charming men called Ketut and Nyoman who could usher one across the island to mystical temples and boutique homestays. It wasn’t all Kuta, beer and skittles, they said. Ubud. Sideman. Amed. Lovina. Nusa Lembongan. Lombok.


Anyway, I began making a regular pilgrimage to Bali, ostensibly to do yoga but really to read books on a day bed. I’d stay in Ubud, wandering rice paddies and photographing doors and attempting to eat, pray and love, but mostly just eating. On one of my wanderings, I met a woman who’d just come back from the Gili Islands. Gili Air, she said, was magic. Palm trees, white beaches, no cars. Overlooked the island of Lombok. And she’d stayed in a place owned by Nigel from UB40. What a character, she chortled!

I came of age to UB40. When I started watching Rage in the late ‘80s, it was all “Kingston Town”, ad nauseum. The lyrics are as good as I remember:

And when I am king,
surely I would need a queen
And a palace and everything, yeah

UB40 was also the soundtrack to my year in Tonga. You could walk along the main road in Nuku’alofa and listen to “Red, Red Wine” just through the speakers of passing cars, all tuned to the same radio station. You couldn’t buy much in the way of red wine down town, but you could slow jam to it all you wanted, along with Eminem, Kelis and a particularly ubiquitous Pacifica remix of “Who Let the Dogs Out.

And now Bali had discovered my soft spot. Forget white sand and beach front cocktails. There was a chance to meet Nigel from UB40? I made my calls and got on a fast boat. After a slightly sickening trip across, I got off at Gili Trawangan to a sea of bronzed backpackers frolicking in the water. I could wait for an interisland boat to Gili Air, they said, or Nigel himself was just around the corner grabbing supplies and could give me a lift if I stuck around for another hour. So I did. And Nigel picked me up, tattooed and mouthy, with an accent that came straight out of an Essex pub.


I was beside myself with excitement. And when he offered to buy me a gin and tonic after we rolled out of the outrigger canoe on the nicest stretch of white sand on the island, I rolled up my sleeves with anticipation. Ready for him to confide all the stories from the road, the time he played pool with Mick Jagger, the process they went through to give “Can’t help falling in love with you” a reggae make over, whether Ali Campbell and Maxi Priest ever got into fisticuffs. But Nigel just wanted to talk shop: the resort, the website, how hard it was to get good help around here, etc. I was disappointed but I didn’t want to be uncool. I didn’t push it. If Nigel wanted to forget his days at the helm of UB40, well, that was up to him.

There wasn’t any Wi-Fi to be had on the island in those days, but I checked Wikipedia when I got home. No mention of a Nigel in UB40.

Anyway, such were my previous Bali hijinks. And these are the things you can do, travelling without a baby! Restaurant hop, snorkel, chase down never-were celebrities, travel between islands without a crate of your favourite disposable nappies. I wasn’t convinced that Bali with a baby would be as much fun.

I remember my grandmother rolling her eyes once when recalling a particular family holiday at the beach. “Everyone else had a very nice time,” she sniffed. “But I just had to do a lot of cooking in a kitchen that wasn’t nearly as good.” Is that what a holiday with a baby means, I wondered? Not sleeping, but in an exotic location? Breastfeeding, changing nappies and reading Where is the Green Sheep? for the eleventy millionth time (spoiler: that sheep is always asleep, smug little fuck) without all the infrastructure at home that makes it easier?

And the whole process of Becoming Mummy has taken some work for me, much more than I expected. I’d always wanted to have kids, and yet I often found myself mourning my child free life, feeling around for it like a phantom limb, even the bits of it that weren’t that good, like being seriously ill for two years or meeting Nigel from UB40 only to have him bitch about his work-life balance on a beautiful tropical island. And also not actually be from UB40.

I dropped into work with Baby Tea a few months ago, and one of my colleagues looked up at me curiously. “So what’s it like, being a mum?” she said.

Gosh, I stammered. Exhausting! Hard. But good. Yeah, hard but good.

As if motherhood was a yin-yang, swirls of black and white with a tiny circle of hard in the good, and a tiny circle of good in the hard. Later, I berated myself. Motherhood: exhausting! Hard but good! Surely I can do better than that! My younger colleague probably didn’t care anyway, but I felt like I’d done my new life a reductive disservice. Still, I wasn’t really sure how to describe it.

Motherhood. Was it those first six weeks when it felt like I was hit by a truck, every single day? The parts of my body that were cracked, torn, fissured? The hunger that had me eyeing off Mr Tea’s dinner plate every single meal, all “are you gonna eat that?” Was it regret: that I used to talk about important things like politics and journalism and The Bachelor and now I said things like “How did you get food in your ear?”, “Gentle with mummy” and “Come on, all the other babies are wearing their hats”. Or the jealousy that shot through my body when I heard that someone else was going to live in New York, had published their first book, was putting on a festival show? The feeling that I was a fraud of a mother, singularly ill-equipped to deal with a tiny person, who shat and screamed and cried without explanation?

Or was it the way I would choke up singing songs or reading stories to him because he was so goddamned beautiful? Hard but good didn’t touch the smell of his breath: gummy, warm and milky. Or the time he was nuzzling into my shoulder and I thought we were having a moment but actually he was busy pulling on a blanket behind my head. And hard but good seemed wholly inadequate to describe my 5am fit of exhausted hysterics when Baby Tea did a projectile wee into his own mouth, a perfect looping arc of piss.

Of course, being a Mum is all those things. Feeling—and being—fraudulent, exhausted and elated all at the same time. The hunger, the crying, the stories and the songs, the piss in the mouth. It’s all of the light and all of the dark, all things ordinary and extraordinary.

And in travel, as in life.

Our trip to Bali with a baby in tow was great. Not because I “found myself”; I didn’t. Not because I realised my new life as a mother is better or worse than being child-free; it isn’t. Not because the holiday was perfect; it wasn’t. We breastfed endlessly in uncomfortable chairs, read the Mem Fox canon for hours, administered baby Panadol in desperation at 3am, dealt with overflowing bodily fluids in the back of taxis. At one point, Baby Tea was crying inconsolably at the airport. I’d fed him, we’d changed nappies, jiggled him, sung songs, shown him the planes from the window. Eventually I handed him over to Mr Tea and muttered something about needing to go to the toilet. I didn’t. I wandered through the bookshop, washed my face, bought ice cream, briefly fantasised about catching the plane home solo (or to, say, Berlin) and then slowly, reluctantly returned to my boys.

“See?” Mr Tea said to our babe. “I told you she’d come back!”

“You have my passport,” I replied.

But overall, travelling with a baby rocked, in a way that I never expected. Cranky old men melted. Balinese women gushed. They told me birth stories and added to the obscure parenting advice column: “Shave his head three times!” “Don’t let him eat pineapple before he turns one!” Immigration officials were kind. They let themselves stop looking for drugs or terrorists for a few moments and tickled Baby Tea’s chin or exclaimed over his newly minted chompers – “Rabbit teeth!” Airport queues were easier, friendlier places. Groovy Malaysian teens took selfies with him. Japanese tour groups pointed at him like he was Lady Gaga doing a fashion shoot on location. Language was less of a barrier. Strangers gave us things and talked to us and picked him up for cuddles. I took him down to see the seaweed farms on the southern tip of Nusa Lembongan, but mostly just to bask in his radiated glory as we walked around. When we climbed out of the pick-up truck on return, a girl I didn’t recognise from our resort yelled out, “Hello Baby Tea!” I must have looked confused so she said, “Don’t worry! We all of us loving Baby Tea so much!”

I got time to wallow in those jolts of joy and the growling, protective love that comes from the bottom of my belly, even despite bouts of hammering sleep deprivation and the occasional, shameful, running away fantasy. I found some space this holiday for the old me and the new, the life I’m not leading and the life I am.

And you know something? I reckon that Kids Club/lurid cocktails/toddlers in Bintang singlets concept has more merit than I previously thought. Maybe next holiday.


Take me out

They say if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there. The same could be said of Mitchell Street, the dodgy epicentre of Darwin’s nightlife. And what would it matter anyway, you might ask, if no one remembered the Hot Potato at lock-out time, the very particular texture of a Tommo’s pie at 2am or that Tits Out happened on a Tuesday?

Still, this is our history, unfolding one dirty bar napkin at a time. Maybe future generations will sit around the campfire and sing songs about the middle-aged men with folders of scratched CDs who were billed as “live music” and the cover bands who could play any set you liked as long as it included “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. About the skinny girls with six-inch gel nails and the bearded boys who wore their best going-out thongs to impress them. About the time a legless Defence Force lad offered to buy “five Bacardi Breezers for five lovely ladies”, and then, when we politely declined, threw a chair at us and said “Fuck offffff, you fat bitches!”

Ah, the memories.

And having punched fewer Army jocks and consumed less Vodka Cruisers than many of my Territory brethren, I’m prepared to stand witness. So, let me take you back to 2007 – my Darwin going-out heyday. It was a time when Facebook was still nascent, phones came without high-definition cameras, selfies hadn’t been invented yet, and cab drivers still had to pull out paper maps when you couldn’t find your own house at 3am. Call me Samuel Pepys if you like, but we WILL remember.

Act 1, or, “In Darwin, God is a taxi driver”

“Just don’t let me near any rumbos,” my new friend Nick said. He looked sheepish. “I get a bit punchy on rum.”


“Yep. Only time I ever got into a fight. Policeman told me: Son. Rum and Coke. It’s not your drink.”

It was just your standard post dinner party small talk, on a regular Saturday night in Darwin. We were hanging out in an elevated house somewhere in Nightcliff. Fooling around with a ride on Esky that two of my mates had bought for a comedy sketch and picking at a bowl of chips that had gone soggy within 10 minutes of being out of the packet. Things had started to get a little dull.

“Let’s go out! Let’s go out! Let’s go out!” The rallying cry spread like herpes. From the living room where SingStar reigned to the plunge pool in the backyard, the collective wisdom was that it was time to find a trashy dance floor, more alcohol or a backpacker to pash, depending on personal preferences.

So town it was, as long as Nick didn’t have any rumbos. The only issue was getting there.

“No problem,” said our mate Tom. “I’ll just call God and get a taxi.”

We chortled. “Call God! Good one!”

“No seriously,” said Tom. “In Darwin, God is a taxi driver.”

We waited around 15 minutes and sure enough, God pulled up in a mini van. God’s business card sat up on the dashboard, a proud testament to the power of home printing and Comic Sans. He greeted us cheerfully.

God? Since when did you become a taxi driver?

“Weeellllll”, he said. “You could say it was a calling. A divine calling. Or you might just say my name was Godfrey.”

He chuckled to himself.

God’s taxi lurched into the night. Down Bagot Road, past the 24-hour Maccas and along the Stuart Highway. The bright lights of Sexy Land turned into endless car yards and then we were onto Mitchell Street.

God pulled up at Duck’s Nuts, a bar renowned for its array of artificial vodka flavours and a dance floor that felt like Velcro, sticky with spilled beer and mixed drinks.

He handed out his business card as we clambered out. “Have a good night,” said God. “Just call me when you’re done.” I stashed the card in my purse.

Duck’s Nuts turned into a Mitchell Street bar crawl: Lizard’s, Wisdom, The Tap. A few hours later, mascara bleeding down my face, I stumbled out of The Lost Arc to a lengthy taxi rank. The line up smelled like popcorn and mildew, nail polish and armpits. A young couple dry humped mid queue, smashing crotches and lips together in oblivious ecstasy. On the other side of the street, a victorious footy team smashed half empty beer bottles on the ground as they made their way into Shenanigans. One of the boys left a small pool of vomit sweltering on the asphalt, a passing gift to fellow party goers. Close by, a handful of country men from the local flats busked with clap sticks, a t-shirt scrunched hopefully on the ground in front of them for tips. A souped up HiLux shrieked past with Ricky Martin singing “La Vida Loca” on the car stereo.

I fumbled around in my bag, hoping to skip this whole scene and call on God but wouldn’t you know it, I had lost his number.

Act 2 – Throb, or, How to make friends and influence people

I met Ryder in my first month through a friend of a friend of an acquaintance. He was tall, quite handsome and had ridden up to Darwin from Sydney on a postie bike. Ryder liked working in the garden, capoeira and long walks on the beach. There was a 95% chance that he used to have dreads. He’d grown up in a commune in California, one of those happy families where everyone dressed in orange and learned sitar from the age of four.

Anyway, one Saturday night Ryder and I decided to go to Throb, Darwin’s premier (only) gay nightclub. In those days, Throb was super friendly and you could still smoke inside, meaning things looked hazy even before you had a stiff vodka and soda. The playlist varied, but someone on the decks definitely had a penchant for terrible drum and bass music. They probably still do but now I’m old and have a baby and what would I know.

But the main reason to go was for the floorshow. Throb held (probably still does, but see prior disclaimer about the baby) a stupendous floorshow every Friday and Saturday night. Foxxy Empire, Marzipan, Katherine Gorge and the other Queens teamed up with the Pussy Cats (straight girls for the Defence Force end of the market) and sometimes a midget. The floorshow was all leather, lycra and feathers, with a thin plot based around Barbie, Batman or whatever was playing at the movies that weekend. The humour was bitchy and up the ass, but winsome at the same time. Everyone loved it. Or I should say, nearly everyone loved it.

From memory, this particular Throb show incorporated mini me and BatmanIMG_1852IMG_1864

With all this ahead of us, Ryder and I jumped on the postie and headed into the city. We stood out the front drinking long necks on Smith Street while the sweat dried off. We hadn’t been there long when we were approached by a couple of older men.

One had a ‘70s panel beater haircut, the other was missing a snaggle tooth.

“You guys from around here?”

Yeah, yeah we are, I said.

I probably would have ignored them, but Ryder was a share-the-longneck-with-all kind of guy.

“What are you up to this fine evening, gentlemen?” Ryder asked.

“Just moved here,” said one. “Gonna get one of those jobs in the mines tomorrow, make a shitload of money. Just looking for a place to drink tonight.”

“We were at the Vic,” said his mate. “But now we’re looking for somewhere else. Whadda you guys doing?”

“We’re just about to go to Throb,” said Ryder. “It’s a fantastic club, very friendly. I think you’ll like it. Why don’t you head on up and we’ll see you in there.”

We kept drinking our longnecks and watched the would-be miners walk up a set of stairs studded with drag queens, Tongan bouncers, a good cross-section of Darwin’s gay community, and a few confused but happy army jocks.

They came back down about two minutes later.

“What’s the matter?” Ryder was genuinely perplexed.

The miners looked at us with disgust. One of them raised his fist, but the other pulled him away and they strode back into the night, muttering faggot cunt, faggot cunt.

I suppose they went back to the Vic Hotel, but I never saw them again.

I hope they made shitloads of money in the mines.

Act 3 – The Fake Hens Night

I was sitting on a balcony with some friends. They lived in a block of flats that just hugged the edges of the CBD, a great place to watch the rolling storm clouds, the Mindil Beach fireworks and the drunks stagger in and out of The Frontier Hotel. Someone had just come back from Mitchell Street and reported a heavier than usual load of Hens and Bucks traffic. Apparently, the road was awash with ladies in candy pink veils and tiaras and men in Team Buck t-shirts, clutching yard glasses.

I had recently learned that the Hens or Bucks Night was an essential Darwin rite of passage, as important to any wedding ceremony as the rings and cake. And Mitchell Street always played host to these big groups of women dancing to Madonna in pink sashes and novelty sunglasses, to the gangs of men singing “Here’s to Jezza, he’s true blue”, as they stumbled down the road always—always!—with a mate called Damo who for some reason decides to wear a dress and then wets himself after 15 Jagerbombs. The bridesmaids favoured the various dance floors; the best men and grooms-to-be could usually be seen heading in and out of the Honey Pot, a strip club that tried to class up the joint by demanding clientele wore collared shirts. What happened on tour stayed on tour. But if the Hens found the Bucks or vice versa, all bets were off, and maybe the Kuta honeymoon as well.

Judging by the prolific nature of bachelor(ette) parties, everyone in Darwin seemed to be tying the knot.

Or were they?

Just how many people were really getting hitched in this town that seemed to mostly live in sin? Maybe Hens and Bucks outings were just another excuse—in a town that needed no excuse—to get rowdy, down litres of grog, flirt, buy penis straws and cadge booze from strangers?

“We could do that,” I posited to the girls. “Not the wetting yourself in a dress bit…but we could have a Hens night and get loads of free drinks. All we need is a bridal veil and a sign written in lipstick. No one even needs to get married.”

Left to me, the Fake Hens Night would have remained just a drunken dream. But luckily I have a friend called Martina. Some people say, others do. Martina is in the latter camp, a woman of action, and within a week, we were at The Cav with a flashing dildo on a string and an itinerary on laminated card. In exchange for our presence, Martina had convinced a number of establishments to give us rounds of drinks, several bottles of Yellow Glen and even some platters of bruschetta. She also brought along a bag full of vinyl bikers hats, plastic swords and a box of lurid make up, and had devised multiple dares and games, the outcomes of which usually led to one being forced to wear one of the costumes or said dildo on a string. My friend Sarah offered to be the Hen De Jour, and as we downed glasses of cheap champagne, we toasted her imaginary husband to be and his equally imaginary entourage of hot groomsmen.

Just as we’d hoped, our party attracted a feast of attention. And men – both with and without their children’s names tattooed on their biceps. More and more drinks flowed from behind the bar and into shot glasses, schooners and plastic champagne flutes. There were bar stool massages for all; a misguided game of limbo. Hens stumbled on and off the dance floor. We ran into my boss, and within half an hour he donned one of the biker’s caps with faux metal chain and was duly decorated in blue eye shadow.

Around 2am, I stumbled out of the pub and straight into a taxi. Unfortunately this one was not driven by God. Scrunched up like an old tissue, I passed out on the back seat. We got to my block of flats on Chapman Road and the taxi driver woke me up.

“That’ll be $23.50,” he said. And then he leered over the top of me.

“By the way, I like your breasts…”

I jumped out of the cab as quickly as I could and raced into my unit. I locked the door behind me, and I swore off booze and Mitchell Street and Hens Nights forever. Or a few weeks, at least.

Only in the Territory – The Baby Edition

You know you’ve given birth in the NT when…

Your obstetrician comes in to break your waters in what looks like his pyjamas and a pair of crocs.

Another local mum-to-be solicits on Facebook: “Wanted: stripper for baby shower…who is willing to dress in a nappy…only needed for 10 minutes. Will pay in beer.”

You find yourself on a plane heading Down South five weeks after birth and your child starts screaming when you put a jumpsuit on him. You realise this is the first time he has worn clothes.


You emerge from childbirth to the news that another NT politician has resigned.

One of the midwives tells you about how she took her two-week-old on a prawn trawler from Cairns to the Torres Strait (ie: you should toughen up and stop crying about breastfeeding already).

A fellow in-patient offers to do a Maccas run for everyone on the ward.

There are lengthy conversations with your significant other about how close you can get to the due date before all fishing/sailing/boating/camping/4WD expeditions must cease.

At some point in your third trimester, you find yourself bogged, on a dubiously small charter plane, in the middle of flood waters or in a boat without a back up fuel tank.

The hospital car park features multiple examples of bush mechanic mastery.

Croc spotted at Royal Darwin Hospital.

Croc spotted at Royal Darwin Hospital.

On the tour of the hospital prior to giving birth, partners are offered the chance to try out the nitrous oxide. One of the younger dads volunteers eagerly. “You feeling that yet?” asks the midwife in charge. He shakes his head, shakes his head, shakes his head and then lets out a big sigh. “Woah,” he says. “Yeah. That’s good. Kinda like being stoned.” He looks up with a start. “I mean, if you’ve ever done that.”

The anaesthetist gives you an epidural and turns around to your partner and says, “You much of a fisherman?” When Mr Tea looks bemused and says yes, he is gifted the one-use only medical pliers “for his tackle box”.

The hospital birth classes include the gentle suggestion that Dads might want to “wet the baby’s head” with fifty of their closest friends OUTSIDE of the maternity ward.

You spend a good part of your last childless day watching the epic kitchen bench battle between a cockroach and a plucky bunch of green ants.

It was looking good for the green ants for awhile but in the end Goliath the cockroach won, despite missing a few legs. Which is why they will survive the apocalypse.

It was looking good for the green ants for awhile but in the end Goliath the cockroach won, despite missing a few legs. This is pictorial evidence of why they will survive the apocalypse.

The first 24 hours is a blur of morphine and birth hormones and it takes until 9pm on day 2 before you realise you don’t know how to change a nappy. One of the midwives kindly offers to give you a little clinic. The nappy pins dispensed by the hospital are a little blunt, so she runs one through her hair to grease it up.

You can hear a string of expletives from the next birthing suite, followed by a shriek: “Get THIS BABY out of ME!” You start to get anxious and the midwife tries to comfort you, “Don’t worry. Her baby’s twice the size of yours and she’s had no pain relief.”

The arguments begin about when you might start attaching a baby capsule to a tinny. (For the record – Me: Never. Mr Tea: Yesterday.)

Your newborn family pictures are interspersed with screen shots of the BOM radar (because yours aren’t the only waters that have broken).


There’s a bag of mangoes in the patient kitchen.

While you get a blood transfusion, one of the nurses makes small talk about how dogs are less likely to attack after it rains.

The baby pages of the NT News are slightly less funny now that you realise that Quinoa, Kale, Sailor and Shazeeequala will be at your kid’s birthday parties for the next 18 years.

“The backyard pool: How soon is too soon?” is a popular topic of conversation with other new mums.

One of the best presents you receive is a battery-operated fan for the pram.

At a BBQ, comparing birth stories with some other recent mums, one of the partners pipes up. “Childbirth….pfffft…I don’t even know why I had to be there. What did I do, except pat you on the back and say there, there? You’re just a spare prick at a wedding. I’ll tell you the real pain. Getting your kid’s name tattooed on your ribs the next day. Worst 15 minutes of my life.”

(Not so) Great Boggings of the Northern Territory

I’m coming up to a decade in talkback radio and there are some things I know will light up the switchboard. Leadership spills. Parking regulations. Your favourite collective nouns. Forgotten cocktail recipes from the 1970s. Anyone for a crème de menthe?

Up North, some of those talkback topics take on a more local flavour: how to deal with bush chooks, 101 ways with mangoes, the strangest place you’ve found a snake and Great Boggings of the Territory.

All of those concepts were new to me when I arrived in Darwin. As I might have mentioned, I did not grow up in a family known for our bush skills or for our technical and practical prowess. No one was out the back rebuilding car engines or mastering crystal sets. Our garden was a suburban wasteland where only dried up lemons and patchy grass grew. I was scared of chickens and would hide behind a curtain with a book when my Grandfather rallied up the kids to collect eggs on his farm. Mum outright refused to go camping although she did let us put up an old canvas tent in the backyard that no one ever slept in, what with beds inside and all. In lieu of extensive time in the Great Outdoors, my siblings and I played school sport, mostly badly. Very occasionally, we went for bushwalks on marked paths. If there were snakes, I didn’t see them. And mangoes? Annabel Crabb recently described the experience of a friend bringing a mango to school in South Australia when she was 7 as akin to being seen with a talking monkey. We were slightly more cosmopolitan in the nation’s capital, but mangoes were for Christmas and my brothers, sister and I fought over who got to suck the pip. I don’t recall even having seen a 4WD – I certainly didn’t know anyone who had one. And if we had bogged our family car, I can only imagine that we would have collectively shrugged our shoulders and abandoned the vehicle to its muddy grave. Vale Ford Falcon. No more car for us.

I had so much to learn.

And still do. I got on top of mangoes pretty quickly and I’ve now seen my share of snakes, although I wouldn’t rush to wrangle one. But the bush chooks have defeated better gardeners than I’ll ever be, and I’m light years away when it comes to mad bush mechanic skills. You probably have to learn to change a tyre in the first place, before you can stuff it with spinifex and snake skins and get back on the road, Warlpiri style.

But Mr Tea tries to put me through my paces on some of the North’s lesser known tracks. We’ve spent quality time bogged on the sandy banks of the Pentecost River. There was a memorable birthday on which I spent a couple of hours in a muddy ditch on a back road near Wagait Beach. Two hours (and a clutch) later, Mr Tea snatch trapped us to freedom (which it turned out, was but 50 metres away on the main road). The car resembled one of Jackson Pollock’s lesser known masterpieces by the end of it and Mr Tea wasn’t too far behind. I, contributing far less (read: nothing much) to proceedings, was pretty well unscathed but I guess it was my birthday.


And then most recently, there was an incident at the boat ramp at Hardies Lagoon.

I blame the baby.

Just a week before, we had been at our first day of birth classes and the midwife was holding up a doll and a plastic replica of the pelvis. She also had a cotton wool stuffed placenta replete with cord, it was quite the bag of props.

“It’s amazing how flexible the birth canal is,” she enthused, pushing the coccyx back and forth.

“Look,” she said. “No problems at all! It really can just bend with your baby…”

At that point, the plastic pelvis rebelled. The coccyx broke off in her hand and flicked across the room.

“Oh!” she said. “Oh dear. That’s never happened before.”

One of the other partners scrambled to pick up the broken and brittle faux coccyx, and she put it back on the shelf.

“Now where was I?”

My third trimester of pregnancy wasn’t looking promising at this point, and I decided that we needed to go away for the weekend. Immediately if not sooner. So we pencilled in a trip down to Mary River just on the fringes of Kakadu: a cabin with air conditioning and a pool, a wood-fired pizza or two and some time on the tinny.


We launched at Hardies Lagoon late Saturday afternoon, where the water was low and crocodile infested. We puttered around, past jabirus holding court and egrets relaxing on the bank, surrounded by slack jawed salties. They seemed particularly foolhardy, those egrets, like chickens having a casual hang out with the Colonel. Mr Tea threw a line out and trawled back and forth for barra; I tested out our new camera and attempted to master the zoom and macro settings. Not far down the billabong, en route to our favourite fishing spot, the boat bottomed out. Another four-metre crocodile sunk into the water just metres from us. We turned the tinny around in a hurry. I waved to the only other boat on the lagoon, a young family fishing away, and we headed back to the muddy boat ramp. I held onto the boat and watched the water for wayward crocs, while Mr Tea reversed the car into position.

Then, with the tinny hitched on, he hit the accelerator to pull the boat out of the water. The front wheel spun out. He did it again. Gravel and mud flew everywhere; there was no traction. Mr Tea got me behind the wheel and pushed. No luck. We tried backing the trailer further into the lagoon and then out again, in an attempt to grab onto a firmer piece of embankment. The mud just churned and the trailer dug in deeper.

This went on for about half an hour. We had no retrieval gear. I was 30 weeks pregnant; there had been no plans for 4WD adventures or a good old fashioned Territory bogging.

At this point, the only other boat on the billabong offered to help, and we reluctantly accepted. Our saviour arrived in a Hilux with his three young daughters crammed into the back seat. He got out to assist Mr Tea, and I made small talk with his wife.

Thanks so much for helping, I said. I’m not much good in these situations. And…I pointed to my belly. I can’t really push the car out at the moment.

“Oh!” She said. “I thought you were looking a bit useless. Well, fair enough then.”

It’s nice to know that while some people have resting bitch face, I have resting useless face.

Anyway, in five minutes flat, we were snatched out, grateful and shame faced, just as the sun was going down. The air was smoky with nearby bushfires and the mosquitoes were getting more frenzied. We got out of Hardies Lagoon as fast as we could.

So there it was. Another entry into the canon that is (Not so) Great Boggings of the Northern Territory. I told the story on the radio the Monday after, and sure enough, the switchboard lit up. More tales of shortcuts gone wrong, car drownings and sudden thunderstorms on the back blocks of Lee Point that defeated better cars than ours.

And then there was some discussion of the price of assistance. A gentleman named Frog rang in – greatly concerned that today’s Territorians weren’t paying the proper price for bogging retrieval.

“It’s definitely a carton,” he told us on air. “But people forget! I’m owed so many cartons! The tourist bus I pulled out near the Arnhem Highway. The truckie I helped just outside of Palmerston. And the copper I got out of the Daly River…actually, nah, he doesn’t owe me a carton.”

When I spoke to Frog again off air, I confessed my own failure on that front. We’d forgotten to reimburse our Hardies Lagoon samaritans.

“Yeah, well just you remember for next time,” he told me. “If you get pulled out of a bogging, it’s definitely a carton. But Miranda? I know you’re from Canberra. And I reckon you’re fitting in up here real well.”

It was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

Keep on driving


Stevie Nicks saved my life.

That’s probably not something most people would say about the famous front woman who once mistook an arena stage for an airport. Nor of Fleetwood Mac, a band best known for film clips involving centurions and baton twirlers and tubas, for rumours and love triangles and cocaine. But it’s certainly true of her namesake: a cheeky white hatchback Toyota Corolla, a 2004 model with ABS and incredible fuel efficiency.

That Stevie Nicks was my first true automotive love.

I trucked her up to Darwin from the government car auctions in Canberra, and together we explored the Top End: from barely graded Gunlom roads to the Roper River in Mataranka. We went camping at Litchfield and Edith Falls, Kakadu and Umbrawarra Gorge, drove to bush doofs at East Point and mango farms near Batchelor. Stevie Nicks navigated wet season flash flooding on Ross Smith Avenue and Rapid Creek Road. She took me to parties where I kissed boys and parties where I didn’t.

Later, restless and ambitious, Stevie Nicks and I would travel further: to Larrimah where Fran sells her camel pies, and Daly Waters, where Frank Turton used to perform in the dry season for crowds of adoring grey nomads, capping his performance off each night with a live chicken perched upon his head. We drove to Tennant Creek, the Devil’s Marbles, Wycliffe Wells and Alice Springs. In Stevie, I learned to master the meditative art of long distance driving, to sit on 130 and run my eyes back and forth across the scrubby bushland and black tarmac. I’d play Stuart Highway Cricket to pass the time; as far as car games go, it’s far superior to “I spy” and you can play solo. A white oncoming car is one run, a road train gets you three, a boat south of Tennant Creek is a six. Pass a red car travelling in the opposite direction and you’re bowled out. A solid test series really will take you from one end of the Stuart Highway to the other.


When I got a job in Broome, I drove Stevie Nicks out of Darwin and across the Great Northern Highway. When I arrived four days later, Stevie was a little out of place in the Broome Boulevard car park; the Kimberley favoured vehicles that drank diesel. The interesting paths were off road and required a 4WD, but still I gripped onto Stevie Nicks like a childhood teddy bear.

Broome was a small grid of streets that could be circumnavigated in the space of a 3 minute 30 second pop song. China Town is flanked by the airport. Old Broome nestles up to Roebuck Bay by way of Town Beach and then the housing estates swing out to Cable Beach and back towards the highway. Unhinged with humidity and loneliness, I did laps of the town so I could keep driving and listening to music.

I inhaled songs from the temperamental car stereo like lines of goey. The same songs, over and over, just trying to get enough of a hit to take me through another day at work, another panic attack, another dodgy date, another evening of being alone in my house. I went in for uppers and downers: Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun, Reckless by Australian Crawl. I tried hard to keep my manic moods confined to the driver’s seat, contained in this strange form of musical OCD.

One tear-drenched afternoon, I found myself driving out of town, along the Great Northern Highway. I could just keep going, I thought to myself. Over the bridge, past Willare Road House with its greasy bain marie. I could keep going until I hit Fitzroy Crossing and after that I could keep going some more. Instead, I hit the rural outskirts of town, better known as 12 Mile, and ground to a halt. I was double pumping the tears when a peacock walked across the black tarmac. The bird turned up its blue and green plumage like a middle finger and strutted back into the bush. The sky began to spit; splats of rain fell on my windscreen. Reluctantly, I did a three-point turn and headed back to Broome.

Things got darker for Stevie Nicks and me. Late one night, after a walk on Cable Beach and laps around the new housing developments that sat behind it, I found myself driving up the red dirt road to Gantheaume Point. The one solitary house beyond the cliffs was closed up and dark. I could only see as far as my headlights; the colours from the sunset had well and truly drained from the rocks. I was crying again and I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t see much reason to go on.

I could end it here, I thought. There was a tin of tennis balls in the back of the car, a few old towels. A combination of the two would stuff the exhaust pipe. I could listen to the Evening show on Local Radio and relax into a long, oblivious sleep.

Then I started to think about who would find me. The mysterious occupants of the house beyond Gantheaume Point. Maybe a solitary runner, a couple out for a cliff side pash. The cops. The senior sergeant, maybe. He wasn’t my biggest fan. The sergeant had a weekly slot on my radio show, all the news from the beat. I could have witnessed three domestic violence incidents, seen someone being bludgeoned with a broken wine bottle in the Woollies car park and overheard a riot on Anne St the night before, but he would still come on the airwaves and tell me that there wasn’t much to report. Just if people could make sure they locked their houses before they went out, that might be a good idea. It was important to discourage opportunistic thieves during the school holidays.

I didn’t really want the sergeant to find my body, though it was reassuring to think he wouldn’t mention it on the radio.

That last thought was enough to give me a jolt. I turned the car around, drove back down the pindan and away from Gantheaume Point. I went home and watched the news and cooked some dinner. I went to bed. I got up again the next morning, choked down a bowl of muesli and drove Stevie Nicks to work.


It gets better.

That’s what they tell teenagers who are coming out for the first time. It’s what we tell anyone who’s hurting, who’s grieving, who’s scratching loneliness from their eyeballs and lying awake in the dead of night.

This too shall pass.

It’s hard to think back to that night on Gantheaume Point, to other nights in other cars where ending seemed easier than beginning. But I’m still grateful to Stevie Nicks for pulling me through those darker days. For giving me respite on pindan roads and tarmac highways. For providing me with a passport to the North, free-wheeling me from the Kimberley to the desert and Darwin again. For taking me out of the dank corners of my mind, and back into the dirt-speckled light.

My life is certainly different now. These days, Stevie Nicks belongs to a bloke called Qasim who lives in Palmerston. I have Mr Tea, a spare bedroom for guests and a baby boy growing gram by gram in my belly. Broome is 1870 kilometres away. The sun keeps rising and setting, because that is what it does. Because I am just a cog, not the great, spinning machine. It does get better and then it doesn’t and then it does; everything gets better again.


Catching crabs

In a concrete car park, amid signs banning hawkers and humbug, I was asked out on my first Territory date. I was sweaty, wearing an inappropriately synthetic dress, and standing in front of Video Ezy at the Nightcliff Shopping Centre.

Back in the day, there used to be a Drive-In there on Dick Ward Drive, but by the time I arrived, that had long gone. It was a rental DVD or nada. I guess I’ll tell my grandkids about it one day, but Video Ezy Nightcliff was the place to be back in the olden, golden days of the naughties, especially on a Friday night or after school sport on a Saturday. In those days, hiring out DVDs in Darwin must have been almost as lucrative as the bottle shop trade. Action films ruled and the overnight new release market was booming; the Maltesers were overpriced and overflowing. You could get 7 weeklies for $7, and probably still rent on VHS if you asked nicely enough.

Sadly for Video Ezy, those glory days were short lived. These days, the shop barely exists, relegated to some lower rent real estate in the Centre where the quilting and patchwork shop used to be.

But back then, Video Ezy had pole position and I was its newest devotee. I hunched over their table of TV boxed sets, trying to do the kind of budgetary analysis that Joe Hockey dreams of: if I owe nearly $50 in overdue fines, is it better for me to buy Season 4 of Sex and the City outright or should I still just rent it from the weekly shelf?

A tall bloke with a shaved head and a slightly crooked nose broke my reverie with a one liner. We shook hands and made some awkward small talk. I made a joke about having a substance abuse issue (namely my Sex and the City addiction) and he mentioned something about having one, too, although unfortunately I would later find out that his wasn’t to 25-minute episodes about fashionable, libido-driven New Yorkers.

After a little more chat and a car park proposition, Daz became my first Territory boyfriend. Permanently clad in a fishing shirt, a pair of boardies and a broad brimmed hat, he’d driven up the Tanami after a couple of years milking cows in a Margaret River dairy and was couch surfing with mates. Daz loved making sushi, had ridden his bike through France and worked his way across Canada. He didn’t stay in jobs too long. While I knew him, he sold power tools, worked at a croc farm and drove trucks. At one stage, he bought a tinny and used his bicycle to tow it to Nightcliff Jetty. He didn’t believe in sunscreen, was partial to a cold beer or ten and stitched up his own drunken injuries with dental tape and without painkillers. Daz was Territory Tough, despite hailing originally from Western Sydney.

Our first date was at a now defunct Indian restaurant. For our second date, Daz invited me to come mud crabbing at Buffalo Creek. I thought that sounded romantic in a frontier kind of way, which shows how little I knew at the time about either romance or mud crabbing.

Daz picked me up mid afternoon that Saturday in his ageing Camry. We drove up Lee Point Road, past the caravan park, towards Buff Creek. Despite reports of pollution, proximity to the sewerage treatment plant and a couple of resident crocodiles, the boat ramp provides access to fishing in Shoal Bay and the creek is a favourite amongst hardened Darwin land-based fishos.

Daz locked the Camry and grabbed a small bag of gear, a couple of fishing rods and half a dozen crab pots. I followed him into the mangroves, a muddy grave yard of sharp black roots and greying trees, their once green leaves covered with a film of dust and mangrove muck.

Wearing my best thongs was a mistake. The patent black Birkenstocks I’d bought in Melbourne were swallowed in gulps of mud almost immediately. I abandoned them and the mangrove roots pierced the bottoms of my feet and in between my toes. Sand flies went to work on my legs, running down my calves like a Disney character eating a cob of corn. I madly swatted away the larger mosquitoes, wiped away the sweat and tried not to grimace.

Finally, we got to Daz’s favourite crabbing spot. He opened up the first pot and dug around in his bag for a blunt filleting knife. Then he unwrapped a smelly piece of kangaroo tail from a freezer bag.

“You want to bait it?”

I picked up the tail tentatively and tried to slice through the sinews. After five minutes of effort, all I came away with was a ragged, bloody string of meat.

Daz shook his head at my filleting efforts and grabbed the knife. He sliced off a large chunk, replete with fur, and then hurled the trap into the murky water. It bubbled and sank. Daz wiped his fingers on his shorts and repeated the exercise five more times down the creek bed, tying the traps off on scrawny branches. Every so often we interrupted a furtive fisho, dropping lines for barramundi. They glared, annoyed to have their secret spots interrupted by dirty crabbers. As we walked along the water’s edge, I noticed disconcerting piles of white foam. They smelled like regurgitated fish guts if you got too close.

“Now we wait,” said Daz. We sat down on a rotting piece of tree root. I picked at the streaks of mud on my calves and tried not to scratch my sand fly bites. Minutes dragged into hours, as we checked the pots and Daz threw in a line. I stared into the water, pondered the foam and kept an anxious eye out for crocs. I wished for a book, a fold out chair, some bug spray, or better yet, my couch at home. It was the worst date I’d ever been on, and I had once been out for dinner with a man who kept his bike helmet on the whole time.

Still, we did eventually come home, and with a bucket of crabs. Daz dropped some of the extras into his neighbours, an older taxi driver and his young Thai wife. He put the rest of the kangaroo tail back in the freezer and poured our writhing bucket of crabs into the laundry sink, which he filled with tepid water.

After a shower and half a bottle of stop-itch, we stretched out on the mattress Daz called a couch to watch DVDs for the rest of the afternoon. I can’t remember what we watched, but it definitely wasn’t Sex and the City. And it also wasn’t long before I heard tapping and scratching and claw clapping across the linoleum.

The crabs had self-liberated.

Daz jumped up from the couch mattress.

“You little fuckers,” he admonished the runaways. “Get back in here.”

He scooped them up with a dirty cereal bowl, tied their claws with rubber bands and returned them to the sink.

Later, Daz and his best mate pulled out the camp stove and started boiling water. Chilli mud crab for dinner, that was the promise. A dish that would out-price everything else on a restaurant menu, if it was even available. After the torture of crabbing, I was hoping at least for a Territory taste sensation.

But the chilli, ginger, coriander and lime I was expecting were conspicuously absent. Instead there was a bottle of sweet chilli sauce to go with the freshly broiled crab. This was chilli mud crab, share house style. The boys salivated over cylindrical tubes of crab leg, breaking them open with gusto and sucking out the contents. I was more tentative, picking up a crab claw awkwardly. Daz leaned over and stripped the meat from the shell and I popped it in my mouth. Underneath the veneer of sweet chilli, it tasted like manky estuary and rancid kangaroo tail. I took a couple more half-hearted bites and pushed my plate away. The taxi driving neighbour came over to join the party. He’d already eaten his fill of chilli mud crab at home, a more genuine article, no doubt. The beers were flowing. Taxi leaned back in his flimsy plastic chair, getting drunker and drunker as the plates piled with joints, claws and legs licked clean. The conversation moved from fishing to footy to the best ways to clean vomit out of car seat covers. They all had theories on that one.

After an hour or so of talking shit, Taxi leaned over suddenly and grabbed Daz by the collar.

“You trying to get in good with my wife? That why you bring around crabs?”

He shook Daz again.

“You stay away, mate, you just bloody stay away. I paid good money on the Internet; she’s married to me.”

Daz put up his arms in protest, and flecks of crab fell out of the corners of his mouth.

“Hey man! Hold up! I think you’ve got the wrong idea. She just said she wanted to make chilli crab.”

Taxi stood up then and his plastic chair clattered back behind him. He threw his empty beer bottle against the fence. The smash echoed around the apartment complex and we watched the pieces shatter into the palm trees. Everyone went silent. Taxi grunted and grabbed another beer to go, then staggered up the path, back to his unit, back to his wife. The last of our crabs boiled away on the gas burner.

Daz and his best mate shrugged it off. They kept drinking.

Taxi came over to apologise the next day, but I didn’t see his wife again.

I never got a taste for chilli mud crab either.

Despite this experience, I did go mud crabbing one more time, on the Dampier Peninsular with a guide who wore acid wash jeans. I pulled one out of a tree hollow with a metal hook and then proceeded to get lost in the mangroves for an hour with my best mate Nicki before acid wash jeans came and found us. We cooked the crab bounty over a fire, but it didn't taste much better than the broiled crab made by Daz and his mate. I've never gone back for more.

Despite this experience, I did go mud crabbing one more time, on the Dampier Peninsular with a guide who wore acid wash jeans. I pulled a crab out of a tree hollow with a metal hook and then proceeded to get lost in the mangroves for an hour with my best mate Nicki before acid wash jeans came and found us. We cooked the crab bounty over a fire, but it didn’t taste much better than the broiled crab made by Daz and his mate. I’ve never gone back for more. Live it, learn it. 

Diary of a newly pregnant lady*

Actual texts sent:

“I’ll give him a rat to lick and when he’s finished we can talk some more about how I’m feeling”.

“How bad is it that I just ate an entire packet of Twisties?”

“Yeah, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Kind of like Dodgeball, but not as funny.”

“Everything is disgusting. So disgusting. Dis. Gust. Ing.”

“When D-Day comes, I’ll be able to say with confidence that I could not have watched more television before the baby.”

Ways that other people have described childbirth for me:

“It’s like watching your favourite hotel burn down” – our friend, Justin.

“It’s almost orgasmic.” – random hippie on the Internet.

“Just like doing the splits over a box of dynamite” – Lorelei on the Gilmore Girls.

Names our baby will not be called:

Shine Manhattan








Gary (Even despite this. Sorry, Gary.)

Events that have reduced me to tears:

When RuPaul on RuPaul’s Drag Race says, “If yo’ can’t love yourself, how in the hell you ever going to love anybody else? Can I get an Amen? Amen!”

Jill and Kevin’s wedding dance on YouTube.

When George Tucker broke it off with Lemon Breeland on Hart of Dixie (even though, technically, she had been having an affair for months with the Bluebell mayor Lavon Hayes).

The nightly ABC news.

Hold on by Wilson Phillips, especially in the sequence at the end of Bridesmaids.

Watching the Sunday water aerobics class work out to a techno version of Fantine’s I dreamed a dream from Les Mis.

Driving along Bagot Road with Tom Petty on the radio.

Anything bad that every happened to anyone, anywhere, ever.

Further examples of me not being on my A Game:

Running late for a doctor’s appointment and backing straight into a stranger’s car.

Being patient zero in a series of unfortunate events that led to Mum being locked out of the house.

Ordering a cheese and charcuterie plate as an entrée for the table.

Buying tickets to a concert which started at 9pm (!) and which required you to stand (!)

Not going to said concert and hearing afterward that it’s the best gig that anyone has ever been to, ever, in the history of the world. Or at least in Darwin.

Things I like:

Dry biscuits.

Ginger beer.

Eating every two hours.

Barley sugar.

Against the odds, jalapenos.


Roast potatoes.

Going to bed at 8pm.

Having a toilet no further than 20 metres away from me at all times.

Did I mention dry biscuits?

Things I don’t like:

Pictures of raw meat on Facebook.

Steak that’s a little bloody.

Basically, meat.



Garlic and onion.

Scrambled eggs.

Watching Douglas Stamper do anything on House of Cards.

Smells (including, but not limited to: salami, the toothpaste that has dried around my toothbrush, the smell of Mr Tea’s glass of clean-skin chardonnay sitting opposite me, my sweaty t-shirt and the limp, rejected spring onions sitting in our bin).

Fruit, nuts and legumes that the baby (or my uterus) have been likened to:

Brazil nut



Sesame seed

Kidney bean



First ultrasound pic which means nothing to anyone bar me, Mr Tea and maybe my Mum who is now signing all emails "luv Granny T", because that's how she rolls.

First ultrasound pic which means absolutely nothing to anyone bar me, Mr Tea and maybe my Mum who is now signing all emails “luv Granny T”, because that’s how she rolls.

People I have genuinely wanted to punch in the face:

The folk responsible for making jalapeno jars too hard to open. (There’s nothing quite like composing a sternly worded complaint letter in your head: “Dear Old El Paso. I know we both have bigger problems than this. And yet…”)

The woman who drove through a give way sign to take my car spot at Parap Markets.

“Monica” from Port Au Prince who suggests Coca-Cola (warm or cold) as a cure for morning sickness.

The man who named it “Morning Sickness” when it’s actually all freaking day.

The medico who tut tutted “about time” and something about “clocks ticking” when I handed over my wee on a stick.

Me, for just writing “wee on a stick” on this blog. I’m really sorry.

Anyone who says, “Have you tried ginger? I hear it really helps.”

Anyone who says, “Really? I didn’t actually get morning sickness, myself.”

Anyone who says, “I loved being pregnant. Make sure you enjoy every precious minute of it.”

Stuff I have really said in the last six weeks:

“I just need a dry biscuit” – after Mr Tea made me close my eyes and put a box with a ring in my hands.

 On first finding out we were pregnant: “It’s going to be so great! We’ll love it and cuddle it and take it for walks and everything!”

While trying to have a conversation with a friend in Darwin without giving away the fact that I’m pregnant:

Me: Canberra’s great. Ummm…It’s Autumn, and they have roads and everything.

Her: Is everything OK?

In my head, after a text from Mr Tea telling me to keep my chin up: “I’ll give you a fucking chin up.”

The following conversation with my sister:

Me: And you know what? If men had to get pregnant, we wouldn’t be arguing about maternity leave! There would be pre-maternity leave! And another thing…

Her: You’re not going to put this on Facebook, are you?

To my parents who had cooked me dinner: “I just don’t want to eat parmesan cheese that’s five months past its use by date. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.”

 To Mr Tea: “Yes! Yes! Of course!” (after I had that dry biscuit oh so firmly in hand).


*Don’t worry lovely ones, I promise this won’t turn into a mummyblog. Just a little diversion to explain my hiatus. More postcards from the North for you very soon. x

Much to learn, Grasshopper*

*Namely cane toad busting, boat trailer parking and how to conduct insect-finding expeditions in 40-degree heat.

November 17, 1845.

 ‘Whilst on this expedition, we observed a great number of grasshoppers of a bright brick colour dotted with blue: the posterior part of the corselet and the wings were blue; it was two inches long, and its antennae three quarters of an inch.’ — Ludwig Leichhardt

January 24, 2013.

Mr Tea and I are on a slightly different expedition to that of Ludwig Leichhardt. Leichhardt took 14 months to travel from Moreton Bay to Port Essington. He had all the time in the world to carve his initial onto trees and spy unusual insects. We’ve got a long weekend. Still, there is a half-baked plan, cooked up with our friends Kristi and Bec, that we’ll look for Leichhardt’s famous and elusive grasshopper. We’re taking the tinny as well, for a spot of fishing and some sunset bird-watching, but to be honest, I’ll happily settle for my book and a banana lounge pool-side. Mr Tea wants to do all of the above, but most of all he wants to go to the Jabiru Bakery.

It’s the first stop on our adventuring itinerary.

“I just think they do a really good vanilla slice,” he says. “It’s the best bakery in all of Kakadu.”

It’s the only bakery in Kakadu, but Mr Tea has always been a glass half-full kind of guy.

With our great personal organisation skills, we walk in three minutes before closing. With palpable relish, Mr Tea surveys the spread of caramel slice, finger buns and pizza bread.

“Looks great,” he says. “Any recommendations?”

But she’s monosyllabic and no nonsense, the lady behind the counter. The other minion shrugs her shoulders, too; she’s busy salting one last order of chips before the shutters go down.

Mr Tea and I settle on a lamington and the much-anticipated piece of vanilla slice, which we pick at on the plastic outdoor furniture provided. The steady drip of sweat glues my bare legs to the chair and I have to peel each one off when I stand.

Now sated and covered in desiccated coconut, our expedition continues on to Cooinda. We check in and go to launch the tinny in Home Billabong. It’s all going well until I have to park the boat trailer. I accelerate a little too hard out of the water and lurch over a muddy pot hole into the car park. In the process, I manage to collide with a fellow fisho’s trailer, leaving a pretty severe indentation and taking out a tail light.

The fisherman is nowhere to be seen but his girlfriend is on the boat ramp and is angry enough for two people. She demands my licence, which of course is back in the hotel room, so she hustles Mr Tea’s instead and makes a point of taking a photo of it on her iPhone. Together, we lift the corner of our trailer off theirs. Stressed, I resort to my default emotional response of tears. I’m mortified, especially because I don’t know Bec and Kristi that well and I want them to like me.

I wish I‘d brought my sunglasses, so I could cry in camouflage.

Mr Tea is unperturbed and we get the boat onto the billabong, and follow the channel down to Yellow Water. The water level is only just high enough to lift the boat over the floodplains. Every so often, Mr Tea turns the engine off and grabs the filleting knife in order to free the prop from a stranglehold of weeds and water lillies.

I’m nervous every time, watching for crocs.


We finally make it out onto Yellow Water. My tears ease somewhat as we whip around the billabong. The light changes from mauve to spectacular orange, yellow and pink. The rain that hovers oh too far away whips the clouds into tornado spirals, and purple lightning flashes between them. I watch two crocodile heads submerge on approach. The magpie geese honk in formation above our heads while the whistling ducks form a shuffling mosh pit on the bank.

Nature is a show-off sometimes.


When we get back, it’s dark and the air is thick with the sound of burping cane toads. A few get squashed under the Prado wheels, but Kristi decides to take the fight further with a quick cane toad busting session before tea. She collects about a dozen cane toads in a plastic bag, which she takes back to her hotel room freezer. We meet up afterwards for a drink on her small porch. When I go to the fridge to get a second glass of wine, I can hear the toads moving around in the freezer. I slam the door shut.

The next morning, we have to sort out the unfortunate boat trailer situation before we can hunt for grasshoppers. But I am banned from the negotiation process.

“You’ll hand over your entire bank account and offer our first born,” Mr Tea says, rolling his eyes. “It’s only a dent and a tail light.”

He cuts a deal with our angry fisherwoman and her nonplussed boyfriend. We settle on $150 compensation and some repairs, which Mr Tea performs with a shifting wrench he happened to have handy. When the transaction is done, I’m glad to see the couple begin their drive back to Katherine.

Bec and Kristi also have to check out, so Kristi asks if she can leave her bag of toads in the freezer of our room.

“I don’t think they’re quite dead yet,” she says.

Mr Tea tells her to take them in Bec’s Esky. I direct her to the freezer.

Finally, our Leichhardt’s Grasshopper expedition gets underway. The four of us head out to Nourlangie rock. It’s lunchtime by the time we get to the car park. A couple of dishevelled backpackers are munching sandwiches in their 4WD, burning diesel for the aircon.

We walk 100 metres up an access track. The bush is burnt out. Regrowth sprouts from the trees, while the charred remains of shrubs abound. This is escarpment country, sparse but beautiful.


I’ve got my eyes akimbo; our grasshopper is notoriously hard to find. His namesake, Leichhardt, was the first European to record a sighting back in the 1800s. But after a few more glimpses, the colourful grasshopper disappeared for around 120 years. Scientific records show that sightings began again around 1973. Now Leichhardt’s Grasshopper is only found in the Northern Territory at Keep River, Nitmiluk and in Kakadu National Park.

I’ve never spotted any kind of wildlife first in my life, but suddenly a vision of orange and blue flies past my face.

It’s our grasshopper. Long antennae, blue beads for eyes. Resplendent in a costume of bright orange, blue and black splotches. It’s never even heard the word ‘camouflage’. Leichhardt’s Grasshopper is an insect world centrefold. It nestles on a bush of green that has sprung from the burnt out land, pityrodia jamessii. It smells like mint and tea tree oil. Then there’s another grasshopper. And another. One flies off when we get too close, but four more hang tight on the same shrub, munching through those aromatic leaves, leaving the stems in their wake. It’s obviously quite the cordon bleu meal.


People spend months looking for this grasshopper. Our gang of four has walked 100 metres. I’ve spent more time looking for my keys. Our sighting seems as accidental as my collision with the boat trailer.

Later that night, thunder starts to crackle as we sit down to eat interpretations of pizza and vegetable korma. And then the sky erupts, blue and purple lightning and rain that pours through. It pools under the fluorescent lights and picnic tables.

I remember reading that the Jawoyn and Gundjeibmi people of West Arnhem Land call Leichhardt’s grasshopper Alyurr. Alyurr are children of the lightning man, Namarrgon, a powerful ancestral being. I’ve seen Namarrgon painted in white ochre, in Aboriginal rock art. The lightning slices the sky again; perhaps he’s looking for his children.

In the morning, I put Kristi’s bag of now-frozen cane toads in the bin. On the way home, I put my feet up on the dashboard and turn up The Black Keys. I think about our weekend expedition in flash cards. Orange and blue insect centrefolds, sunset on the billabong, cane toads in the freezer. Purple lightning and my boat ramp altercation.

I’m still a bit ashamed of my tears. I’m not sure Leichhardt would have wanted me in his touring party, but I’m glad to have seen his grasshopper.


New Girl

“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.

Proof that beer is hard currency. In the NT, we assign police to guard it.

Proof that beer is hard currency. In the NT, we assign police to guard it.

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.

Nadya in Darwin 061Green papaya salad at ParapRambutan seller at Parap

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.

No reply.

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.

Interior Design 101 with the Bark Hut.

Interior Design 101 with the Bark Hut.

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.

Nadya in Darwin 195Nadya in Darwin 080

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.

Kakadu with Ange and melbs and mindil and picnic at dripstone 189

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.

Kakadu with Ange and melbs and mindil and picnic at dripstone 153

New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Stop watching Sex and the City.
  2. Run my hands through a bucket of pearls.
  3. A plate of chips is not dinner.
  4. Be better at doing more good things well, and stuff.
  5. Go to Japan?
  6. Have a pet fish for longer than three months.

New Year’s resolutions have never been easy in the keeping or the follow through. I should know, I’ve made a few. I don’t want to give away all my secrets, but if I rifle for long enough in my top drawer, I’ll find a few notebooks stashed away with lists of self-improvement and Oprah-style mission statements.

But self-flagellation aside, NY is my favourite of the public holidays (although Territory Day runs a close second, despite not being a day off). I love New Year’s Eve. I (used to) love going out just before or after midnight, watching everyone in those precious few minutes wearing their heart on their sleeve, sharing too much information about the year that’s been or the year that’s ahead. It always feels like the time when people are wearing their most authentic face in the world. When a complete stranger confides that they’re never going to sleep with their third cousin ever, EVER, again, you know it’s been a special evening.

Good, horrifying or indifferent – New Year’s has always been an important marker for me. These days I’m less likely to be awake at midnight (a couple of years ago, Mr Tea and I set a new “party record” by having a lemonade and watching the Edinburgh Tattoo on video at his Gran’s place in Hobart, before we went home to bed at 9pm) but I still like the anticipation, the ritual, the jokes in the supermarket check out lines as everyone buys their last minute booze (“you go right ahead love, I’ve got all year…” etc, etc, boom chit.)

This year, as you might have noticed, I’m struggling a bit for New Years resolutions. I don’t know why, since it’s not as if I lost that ten kilos, eradicated Times New Roman or set up my breakfast café business that also sells pallet furniture and jam jars to hipsters on the side.

But if I can’t make resolutions for myself, I can at least make some for the Northern Territory at large. Here are a few that I feel quite passionate about.

#1. More made up names for babies.

I’m an avid reader of the Hello Baby! page in The Sunday Territorian and have well and truly welcomed Charleyanna, Xayden and Blayze to the world, probably more than most. Sometimes I get a tear in my eye, just imagining Sharneeshiya’s first step or wondering whether Ziyomee has learned to roll yet.

So I say unto you, new parents: go forth and invent more names. I particularly suggest using combinations involving the letters J, K, Q, Z and Y. Not too many vowels and maybe even some punctuation. Jak-Zhyq! That’s a good one. Or let geography be your guide, with a strong emphasis on capitals and countries. May postcards be sent throughout the land, sharing your joy over little Cairo, announcing your bundle of joy Malawi or baby Burkina Faso. Blessed are our children.

#2. Don’t become an NT News headline.

I’m almost reluctant to write that. Because I love a visionary as much as the next Territorian, and there are plenty of free thinkers to applaud in our fine (not-quite-a-grown-up) State. Springing immediately to mind are the Darwin Ice Hockey club, the chap who decided to 4WD (underwater) to Mandorah, the good folk who experimented in the early ‘70s by strapping an outboard motor to a raft made of tinnies and former politician Roger Steele who thought we should make a beer can mountain. I also hate a nanny state just as much as Dave Tollner does, and it’s sad to see the Territory head in this direction: signs emblazoned with defeatist language like “No standing on the edge of the cliff”, pool fences and whatnot.

But I do think that “Should I, really?” is a good question to ask yourself, or a mate, when you’re thinking of:

  1. Swimming across a crocodile-infested body of water
  2. Dancing on a crocodile trap in your bikini
  3. Speeding down the Stuart Highway while furiously masturbating or
  4. Sticking a firework up your ass.

If you’re one of those “at risk”, maybe it’s even worth tattooing on your hand/leg/neck (see Resolution #5).

On the other hand, it is always tempting to just let stupid take care of itself.


#3. Adopt an unusual pet.

Remember Charlie the buffalo, who starred in Crocodile Dundee? The zoo out at Tipperary Station with its collection of pygmy hippos or Norman the legendary beer drinking Brahmin?

Norm was a fixture at the Humpty Doo Hotel for a long time and he could down a Darwin stubby faster than anyone (they timed him: 47 seconds). He belonged to a bloke called Bluey (or maybe it was Bluey’s brother, let’s not quibble about the details) and Norman could sniff out a tinnie faster than most. One bloke in the neighbourhood was reckless enough to leave his door open one night while he was enjoying a bevvy and watching Friday Night Footy. Who should start breathing heavily over his shoulder, nosing the beer can out of his hand, but Norm?

Unfortunately, Charlie is stuffed—literally—on the counter of the Adelaide River Inn, the “zoo” has closed down and Norm is no more. It’s time for the next generation of NT pets to shine. Do your part, people.

Charlie the Buffalo - gone but not forgotten.

Charlie the Buffalo – gone but not forgotten.

#4. Greg! The stop sign!

You can’t swing a purse in this town without hitting someone who might yell “Show us your tits!” at a cyclist from their souped up Hilux, even sans alcoholic beverage. That’s the worst side of our communal consciousness when it comes to road rules.

It gets better than that, but not much.

Our approach to the road sounds kinda folksy and charming on paper: indicators optional, stop signs just a gentle suggestion, red lights, something to think about. But it’s time for all Territorians to own up to some terrible driving, myself included. Repeat after me: flooded roads aren’t for Corollas. Let the bus go first. School zones aren’t for accelerating. Yes we can!

Possibly the ultimate Territory tatt. Thank you, Internet.

Possibly the ultimate must-have Territory tatt. Thank you, Internet.

#5. Tattoo or not tattoo? I say, Tattoo.

This one is more contentious Down South, where the non-inked rule as a repressive, establishment-kowtowing majority, but not so in our beloved North. You’re nobody without your Southern Cross, nobody. And while not all of us can pull off a sleeve tat including their son’s name, some Ozzy Osbourne lyrics, a few Chinese characters, a thorned rose and a crucifix, at least we’ve got plenty of people trying.

That’s democracy.

Sure, not everyone is on board. As one wit quipped on Facebook recently, “Your neck tattoo says Don’t Judge Me, but here I am”. But I say haters gonna hate. Or maybe that’s what Taylor Swift says. Either way, go forth, my proud Territorians. Let your body be a canvas, and let your neck be inked with a bar code. May 2015 be the year you got something mis-spelled on your skin. Permanently.

Who could forget this tattooed gem?

Who could forget this tattooed gem?

And, it is in this vein (boom-chit reprise) that I wish for you a 2015  lived in true Territory style: frangipani scented hangovers, ear-cracking storms, iced coffees, turtle sightings, camping trips with too much food, a couple of near-death escapades (but see #2), ocean-drenched sunsets, deep fried eggs from the Parap markets and not too many visitors this Dry Season. Happy (15 days late) New Year!

A dalliance with Alice Springs

A few years ago, I took a contract in Central Australia. Just for three months. I was single (again) and had a hankering to hit the road, start anew. I packed the Corolla full of everything I needed and everything I didn’t and took off down the Stuart Highway.

It wasn’t my first time in the Centre. I’d enjoyed a couple of Beanie Festivals in Alice Springs over the years, recorded a few stories for Triple J, walked some of the Larapinta Trail. But Alice Springs had always left me gulping for breath. I found it difficult to wrap my head around the reality that I was thousands of miles from the sea in any direction. I’d thought it more stark than beautiful.

I was wrong.

ormiston 120

In July 2010, I fell hard for Alice Springs. I discovered the joy of big skies and big country. Sheer cliffs; gorges and swimming holes in the desert. The famous clay pans. I learned to find the peace I associated with the ocean in the East and West MacDonnell Ranges. I’d sit up on the hill near Telegraph Station and watch green and yellow budgerigars play in the white gums and ragged stretches of rock disappear into the folds of the horizon.

I even walked along the Todd River singing In A Big Country, a Scottish one hit wonder that somehow wound up on my playlist:

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime

In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountain side….

The infatuation got more fully formed the day I walked up Mt Gillen with my friend, Trang. Covered in sandy boulders and a pink flowering weed called Ruby Dock, it looked like another planet. It was a hot day, but on top of Mt Gillen the air was cold and the sky was blue and all was beautiful and right in the world.

henley to mt gillen 036

Alice Springs felt like a friendly and colourful place to park myself for a few months; full of characters ordinary and extraordinary. There were road train drivers and ringers, developers and cowboys. Bureaucrats and bird watchers. Traditional owners. Real estate agents in ‘80s era power suits who told me smugly that the rental vacancy rate was less than 1 percent, which was good news for them but pretty shitty for me. Aboriginal mob came into town from places I had to learn to pronounce: Titjilaka, Amperlatwaty, Atitjere. There were tour guides and sculptors, coppers and journos. Legal Aid lawyers pulling suitcases full of briefs along to court. Children rode bikes down the street. Teenagers ruled Billy Goat Hill. And from Eastside to Ilparpa, there were plenty of earnest young (and old) things), all dressed in a uniform of short-brimmed Akubras and beards or dresses with leggings and desert boots.

Racing a boat on a dry river bed. Henley on Todd, another great Territory tradition.

Racing a boat on a dry river bed. Henley on Todd, another great Territory tradition.

People in Alice Springs cared. They joined in. They marched down streets and held town meetings and made parade floats for the Desert Festival. They raced “boats” down the empty Todd River. They showed films, played music, hosted cabaret nights, protested against uranium mining, planted heritage seeds, held Open Gardens. They were members of Rotary or Apex or the Lions Club. They elbowed each other out of the way to get the best pickles at the Old Timers Fete and to buy Aboriginal art at Desert Mob. People waved to each other. In the correct season they played footy or cricket, softball and netball. They danced late into the night at Annie’s Place and drank when it was Happy Hour and drank when it wasn’t. They went to see John Williamson play at the Memo Club. They crocheted blankets and wore beanies and adopted camp dogs.

open garden ilparpa 037

In the freezer section of the supermarket, you could find trays of chops next to chunks of kangaroo tail. Sturt’s Desert Pea bloomed on roundabouts and verges. Train tracks for The Ghan ran through the middle of town. There were locally grown dates and Vietnamese market gardens; peanut shells on the floor and saddles on the walls of the local night-spot, Bojangles. Every so often, the Todd River would flow with the rain, and then overflow, flooding causeways and cutting off the golf course. And with the rain came the wildflowers. Pussy Tails and Mulla Mulla flowered on Anzac Hill and right through the Botanic Gardens. There were paddy melons on scrappy bits of walking paths and on the red dust roads leading out of town; the melons looked like tennis balls scattered up and down the Plenty Highway. I never was sure if you could actually eat them. There were more cafes than Darwin, good coffee and more lesbians per capita than any other town in Australia.

ormiston 033

It all felt warm and vibrant and inclusive and yet it also wasn’t. The night I arrived, I turned on the TV in my hotel room to find Four Corners telling the story of Kwementyaye Ryder, an Aboriginal man who had died one year earlier. He was bashed and kicked in the head, attacked by five young white men out on the town and full of grog. Kwementyaye Ryder had died in a river bed five minutes away from my hotel room. The next day, I walked back into Alice Springs sunlight and under those big skies but I couldn’t get his story out of my head.

As a blow-in, it was almost impossible to get a full grip on the complex Alice Springs politics of race and land and history and culture, of alcohol and money and having and not having, but I felt its presence. It was in everything, everywhere. It was in the Kwementyaye Ryder case. I felt it at the Aboriginal town camps, which were tucked into corners around town: Mount Nancy, Hoppy’s Camp, Little Sisters. In heated arguments about council by-laws and over a Freemason sponsored statue of explorer John McDouall Stuart with a rifle in his hand. In the vigilante styled leaflets left in my letter box and in angry missives to the Alice Springs News. It was in the art, on the paper beneath the water colours that followed in the grand tradition of Albert Namatjira, in the number plates and pieces of scrap metal painted over by Tangentyere artists.

And the spectre of alcohol loomed large: on Friday and Saturday nights in town, in the taverns close to where I lived in The Gap, in casual, late afternoon domestic violence and in the empty green cans and wine bladders left behind in the Todd River bed.

Alice Springs was a small town, too. The pharmacist would tell me he’d been listening to me on the radio, as he handed over my prescription medicine. I went to get a massage and my therapist turned out to be the affable Murray Stewart, then Deputy Mayor. I was much taller than he thought I was, listening to my voice on the airwaves. I got that a lot. One lonely afternoon, I burst into tears on a walk around the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and then had to smile and wave at five people I knew. I found myself using the word ‘intense’ a lot, too much, in an effort to describe the people, the heat, the flies, the landscape, the arguments, the politics.

Work was challenging. Romance was hard to come by. I briefly dated a podiatrist, who I pressed for gruesome stories about amputations and gangrenous, diabetic feet and then was sorry that I had. Finding a place to live proved to be difficult and expensive. Petty theft was rife. In my first week, the teddy bear I’d had since I was a kid was stolen from my hotel room, along with a bag of toiletries. I hoped it was just a lonely hotel maid, not a more sinister stuffed-animal kidnapping ring. My apartment complex came under siege by bored teenagers during the school holidays. They’d jump the fence and break into houses, cars, whatever was going. I still have the “A” they scratched onto the back window panel of my car.

A for Alice Springs?

I got insomnia. My old mates Depression and Anxiety decided to unroll swags on my living room floor and settled in for the long haul. I started to become sick. And with that, Alice Springs and I broke up after just three and a half months.

“It’s not you. It’s me,” I told Alice Springs.*

I hoped we could still be friends.

It was time for me to head back North, to re-tread the Berrimah Line. I came home, to humid, sweaty, ocean-hugged Darwin.

Maybe Alice Springs and I will get back together one day. I hope so. Maybe we’ll watch the sunset over the East Macs and laugh about everything that happened in those few strange and surreal months, when I was new and young, brave and afraid, impatient, lonely, hungry and naive all at the same time.

*OK, it was a little bit Alice Springs. But mostly me.