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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A love letter to the Nightcliff Foreshore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are passing dolphins and the occasional fight.

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

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

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It’s definitely my favourite spot for people watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Owls, owls, look, it’s an owl!”

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

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

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

Do you know what they are?

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

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

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

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

There’s space on the Foreshore for us all.

Cassowary crossing

Sign by Cairns Regional Council and local wit

Sign by Cairns Regional Council and local wit

Someone told me a cassowary can disembowel you with its beak. I haven’t been able to confirm this in my limited (non-existent) web research, but I believe it.

Other more factual facts that you might like to know include this: the female cassowary lays the eggs, but it’s the male who sits on the nest and raises them. We have a lot to learn from our fine-feathered friend. I like to imagine the female cassowary as some kind of rainforest dilettante, leaving the child minding to her partner while she gets drunk on quandongs with the musky rat kangaroos and carpet pythons.

Nerd that I am, I studied the “If confronted by a cassowary” sign carefully while I waited for the car ferry to cross the Daintree River into Cape Tribulation. It also had two plaster-cast demonstration birds, which were supposed to assist the novice birdwatcher.

Instructions ran as follows:

  1. Do not run.
  2. Without turning, retreat slowly.
  3. If the bird becomes aggressive, place a solid object such as tree between yourself and the bird. If nothing is available, hold an object such as an item of clothing or a backpack in front of you and continue to back away slowly.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure that my backpack was going to stop a disembowelling Queensland-bred prehistoric Big Bird.

So yes, trepidation. But also anticipation. If Far North Queensland has a hierarchy of animal spotting, the cassowary is up there with the crocodile and green turtle. The cassowary might not be a Gouldian Finch in the ornithological world (what did I tell you? Nerd!), but every tourist in Cape Trib wants a glimpse and (preferably) a photo to tell the tale.

For all the yellow cassowary crossing signs and demonstration models, spotting a cassowary seemed like a long shot. But not impossible. And it happened sooner than I thought.

I was driving along, ready to curse a bunch of tourists who had stopped dead in the middle road. Road raging was my right as a local, of course. I’d already spent a whole three days in the area. Bloody tourists.

But it turns out those bloody tourists had a bloody good eye. As I sped past them, I glanced in my rear vision mirror to see a cassowary leading two chicks across the road. I turned the car around, but they’d already melted into the rainforest.

Later that afternoon I went for a swim at the Blue Hole, a freshwater swimming spot that is a preview for heaven if ever I saw one. I wandered down to the creek, and that’s when I saw it.

Blue of neck, red of jowl, tan of comb. It had two chicks in tow and walked like an Egyptian. I gestured the former to a couple of other tourists walking back from the Blue Hole, and together we watched the cassowary. Who watched us. And then walked closer, puffing up his chest.

I’ll take you, he mouthed.

I remembered the sign and crept backwards. Where was my backpack?

It was probably three minutes but it felt like an hour, and then the cassowary and his chicks disappeared into the bush.

After that, I felt less worried that I would return to Darwin disembowelled. Sure, if it came down to a me-versus-cassowary situation, well then it would be a lay-down misere for the cassowary. But hopefully he’d just rough me up a bit. Take my lunch money and give me a wedgie.

Now that I think of it, I also have a friend called Cass, aka Cassowary. I never thought much of the nickname before, but with hindsight it seems about right. She too is an impressive creature, and you wouldn’t want to fuck with her either.

Terrible photo I took of said cassowary in the heat of the moment

Terrible photo I took of said cassowary in the heat of the moment