(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.

IMG_3926IMG_3940IMG_3941

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.

IMG_7698IMG_7699

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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_1126

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.

IMG_1117

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.

IMG_1136

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.

IMG_1155IMG_1140

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.

IMG_1159

A story that starts with too many boats and winds up in a “police sting”

There's nothing quite like the smell of two stroke in the morning.

There’s nothing quite like the smell of two stroke in the morning.

(OR: DARRYL KERRIGAN, EAT YOUR HEART OUT)*

The Northern Territory has the highest rate of boat ownership in the country. Boat ownership here is a marker that you are Territory Tough; it’s a signifier of freedom and a ticket to the inner sanctum. Because in the Territory, boating means fishing. And fishing isn’t just a way of life, it’s THE way of life.

Mr Tea isn’t the blokiest of Territory men (thank God), and he’s not a bleeding gums, crazy eyes fisherman either. But he’s certainly pulling his weight when it comes to the boat ownership stakes.

Somehow, we seem to have become a five boat family. This is troubling given the fact that Mr Tea and I don’t have children. Between the garage and the Darwin Sailing Club, we have a couple of tinnies, a kayak, a 25ft yacht and an inflatable dinghy to service said yacht. When Mr Tea isn’t fiddling around with one of these, planning a trip or going on a trip, he’s busy haunting Gum Tree and boatsales.com.au. Let it be said, he has a problem.

The yacht really was the gateway drug, taking us from tinny owners to empire builders. And when Mr Tea first flagged buying one, I was supportive. I (like you, no doubt) imagined that on the yacht, I would instantly become thinner. I would swan around in a plunging one-piece. I’d sport white linen and a tan, and we’d drink nothing but champagne and strawberries, just like a menthol cigarette ad from 1987.

Unfortunately, the reality was less menthol cigarette and more profound sea sickness, occasional moments of oceanic beauty (look! A dugong!) and shitting in a bucket.

But I digress.

Because, just as Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob, the yacht begat more boats. Because once you have a yacht, you need a tender to get from the yacht to the beach. And that’s how we wound up with 40 kilos of an inflatable Zodiac in the shed.

And then Mr Tea and I went to visit the yacht one evening. Ostensibly to retrieve some sails, but I actually think Mr Tea just wanted to pat it. At any rate, we got there, only to find that an enterprising criminal had climbed into the boat park and removed our motor with bolt cutters.

Mr Tea was gutted. So to console himself, he went on Gum Tree and bought another (smaller) tinny and a trailer.

“The perfect car topper,” he told me. “And I can use the motor on the yacht. This is a bargain. A real bargain.”

He promptly dropped the rest of the insurance money, and then some, on trailer registration and a service for our new replacement motor.

So then there were five.

Sure, I had a boat addict for a partner and I thought Bunnings should probably stop selling bolt cutters, but apart from that I was pretty zen about the whole thing. I’d embraced our new life as a five boat family. I accepted there was no room in the shed for any of my possessions. And I had let the stolen two stroke Yamaha go. God speed, long shaft motor.

And that was when Mr Tea found it on Gum Tree.

He immediately sent off an enquiry, and sure enough, someone called “Nathan” sent us a few photos of our stolen motor.

Mr Tea is a law-abiding sort of bloke, and was a bit flummoxed by this.

“Are they really that stupid? They’d just rip off a motor and sell it online? In a place the size of Darwin?”

I assured him that there were many, many people in the Territory who were exactly that stupid.

But then we also started to freak ourselves out a bit. Maybe this was bigger than stupid. Maybe this was a boat motor smuggling ring, some kind of offshore bikie side project. Luckily, I had been watching The Bill and Water Rats on and off for years and was alert to such dangers.

So we went down to the Darwin Police Station. After repeating our story to about three different officers, we finally were assigned a pair of crack crime hounds to get on the case. Let’s call them Steve and Darren.

Mr Tea repeated his story.

Darren scratched his nose. “Hmmm. So what are you going to do about it?”

At that stage, I almost giggled. We’re at the police station, I said. What are YOU going to do about it?

Steve had the courtesy to shrug his shoulders in a way that said touché.

Darren and Steve consulted with their boss for another hour, and then the plan was in place. We would go to Stuart Park and inspect the motor and double check that it was ours. Constables Steve and Darren would tail us and as soon as we gave them the nod, they would bust this two stroke motor stealing, drug smuggling, sex trafficking bikie ring wide open.

Mr Tea immediately banned me from the police sting operation.

“Babe”, he said. “There’s no need for both of us to get caught up in this. We don’t know what will happen in there. It could get dangerous. I want you to go home. I’ll call you as soon as it’s over.”

I protested and put up a fight on feminist grounds, but really, I’m a coward at heart and I was tired of hanging out in the police station. Plus I had some important lying down to do.

So I agreed to stay clear, though nervous about leaving my love to face the inevitable bikie shoot out alone. I went home and gripped my phone for about an hour until Mr Tea called me back.

Turns out it was a bit less dire than we had imagined. No bikies or guns. No, our motor was in the hands of a couple of drugged out, skinny 19 year olds who wanted to make a quick 500 bucks. They claimed to have “bought it off a guy at One Mile”.

Our fearless constables Steve and Darren went in, retrieved the motor, delivered some wrist slapping and went back to the office for doughnuts.

Well, that’s great, I said to Mr Tea.

A win for us. Take that, petty crime.

The next day, Mr Tea made some space in the shed again for the motor, and started to rig up a hanging space for the new tinny between the 4WD and the kayak.  And true to form, he went back on Gum Tree.

He turned to me from the IPad.

“How would you feel about a stand-up paddleboard?”

*With apologies to anyone who hasn’t watched The Castle. And with sympathy to all the other long suffering significant others who have to get the Torana out to get to the Commodore. Or the tinny to get to the kayak.