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.

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Genesis

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.

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.”

Really?

“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 trannies, Tongan bouncers and skinny gay boys.

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.

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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).

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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.”

Keep on driving

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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.

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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.

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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

Tasmania

Koala

Stevia

Cairo

Mullet

L-A

Sequetia

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.

Porridge.

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

Onion.

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

Lentil

Lemon

Sesame seed

Kidney bean

Prune

Grapefruit

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

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.

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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.

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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

A love letter to the Nightcliff Foreshore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are passing dolphins and the occasional fight.

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

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

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It’s definitely my favourite spot for people watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Owls, owls, look, it’s an owl!”

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

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

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

Do you know what they are?

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

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

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

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

There’s space on the Foreshore for us all.

Cows with Guns in our spare bedroom

Banana republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Ricky Martin gay?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“Hey Miranda, how’s it going?”

I’m good, I tell him.

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

Sure, I say.

“Is your house quiet or noisy?”

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

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

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

Do the NT, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty reasonable, actually.

No.

Yes, but he was avoiding gluten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He genuinely thought that was a pick up line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit of Dana was irrepressible.

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

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

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

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

Only in the Territory

I’ve never forgotten the front page of the Sunday Territorian on my first weekend in Darwin. Unfortunately I can’t remember the headline, but the article comprehensively detailed an ice-cream heist from a local servo.

Stolen: three Cornettos, a Golden Gaytime and a packet of Bubble O’ Bills. Or something along those lines. The crook might have grabbed a pie as well.

You don’t have to be in Darwin for too long to realise that things are, well…. a bit different around here. The expression “Only in the Territory” has crease marks, it’s that well used, but I love it anyway. How else do you explain murder by saucepan, crocodiles in the public swimming pool and a guy playing scratched CDs being billed as “Live Music”?

Sometimes “Only in the Territory” is just too easy. Racing boats made out of beer cans? A pub decorated with bras? A regatta in a river that has no water? A main road called Dick Ward Drive that starts in Coconut Grove and ends in Fannie Bay? Tick, tick, tick and tick. That’s when we aren’t even trying.

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And credit where credit’s due: The NT News has put in a lot of “Only in the Territory” leg work. How else would we know about the infamous young man who “stuck a cracker up his clacker”? Or the Jock-odile Hunter (a fella who took to croc wrangling in his undies)? How can I forget the “Best Man left Bleeding After Being Hit in Head by Flying Dildo” headline? And don’t get me started on the peacock who terrorised the caravan park, the horny emu or the driver who filmed himself masturbating at 150 kilometres an hour.

Fair to say, our criminals aren’t the smartest. A few weeks ago the NT Police reported a woman making a complaint to them about her stolen cannabis. They said they were only too happy to hear from anyone else who found themselves in a similar situation.

That also reminded me of the time I watched someone get ejected from the NTFL Grand Final.

Him: You can’t kick me out for a crime I committed three years ago.

Cop: Crimes.

Him: Orright, crimes.

Cop: C’mon, off you go.

Him: Fuck you! I’m just here to watch the footy! Youse are just jealous that I made more money than you. I made thousands of dollars a day!

On that note, he spat on the ground, gave the double finger and stalked off.

So there’s stupid. But then there’s also Territory Tough. I recently enjoyed the tale of a traditional owner who sneers in the face of Box Jellyfish and their more prevalent friends, the Irukandji.

“When I was a kid, we used to chuck them on each other and have box jellyfish fights”, Rodney Brown told journo Megan Palin.

“I’ve been stung two or three thousand times throw netting on Rapid Creek. You just go to shallow water, kneel and wash it off…and within 20 minutes you can be eating at Hungry Jacks.”

You can’t argue with that.

My Only in the Territory (also known as You Never Saw this Shit Down South) List is a bit more tame than all of that (and you might have some seen some of these already), but here goes:

My first Darwin boyfriend refused to go to hospital when he cut his leg open, drunk, on the Nightcliff Jetty. Instead, he took some painkillers that were prescribed for his friend’s horse and sewed the gash up himself.

A buffalo skull holding on the spare tyre in downtown Darwin.

Opening a library book to find a pre-squashed mosquito.

On my first day at work, I was introduced to the team. New names to remember included Happy, Mango and Fridge. I then toured the building and shown the sick bay. “Jo from Tech Services sometimes keeps her Wildcare rescue animals here”, I was told. “Best check under the bed first.” Sure enough, there they were: two flying foxes and a Kingfisher.

Kids throwing rocks off the Rapid Creek footbridge, trying to sink box jellyfish as their tendrils are carried out by the tide.

A guy with this tattoo:

Thank you, Anna Daniels

Thank you, Anna Daniels

Driving to work behind a mini van filled to the brim with boxes of salty plums.

Driving down a deserted Territory road and the sign says “No Shooting”.

Coming home to find my housemate has turned the wheelie bin into a “plunge pool”.

A three year old kid in a Bintang singlet.

An afternoon in Litchfield National Park watching a water monitor eat a yabby three times the size of its head.

Half an hour. That's all it took.

Half an hour. That’s all it took.

Getting home to find two geckos mid-coitus above the doorway.

Walking along the Nightcliff Foreshore and spying one of the regulars: an Indonesian guy who rides a bike with his pet cockatoo on the front and a boom box on the back.

An evening with thirty fishermen discussing the best ways to prepare devon, going out thongs and the defiling of toothbrushes on boys’ trips to Bali.

559 lightning strikes in one night.

A friend buying a house in the rural area. It comes with a gun cabinet. The gun cabinet (with replica(?) guns) is in the kids room.

Having a mechanic called Bomber and buying your bed off a guy called Knocker.

Finding green ants down my bra.

A bumper sticker that says Eat the Peanuts out of my Shit.

Watching a family light fireworks off a pram. Baby is still inside of said pram.

Getting to work and finding that someone has shat on the doorstep (Actually that was the Kimberley)

Driving a cop car when you’re not a cop (No, that was the Kimberley too)

Grove Hill Hotel. Just…Grove Hill Hotel.

Bullets in the road sign to Batchelor.

Checking the classifieds and finding a Bitch Box for sale ($50) and a crocodile skull available (with permit).

And that’s just skimming the surface. “Only in the Territory” can be crazy, wild and stupid, but also beautiful and grotesque. Like watching Whistling Kites duck and dive for road kill on the highway in the Dry Season. Or finding a full collection of Margaret Fulton Cook Books (including Cake Icing and Cooking with Eggs) on the second hand shelf at the IGA next door to Litchfield Pub.

God I love this place.

Being Sick

Recently I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker about a woman who started a gluten-free diet. She’s having lunch with a friend in a cafe and she says, “I’ve only been on it for a week and I’m definitely more annoying.”

That’s me. Well, sort of. 18 months of chronic pain and fatigue and something called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (ten points if you say it three times fast) has led me to try it all. Gluten free, lactose free.  Green smoothies, acupuncture, kale. Blood tests, specialists, more specialists. Naturopathy, massage therapy, meditation. I drew the line at getting an aura reading, but to be honest, I’m not ruling it out.

“When in pain, get on a plane,” goes the Territory saying. I’ve tried that too.

I thought I knew what words like fatigue and pain meant, but they keep changing. Some days it’s like being knifed, or having multiple fractures inflicted down my spine. Other times I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain or run a marathon, which is a pretty sick joke. My muscles pop and spasm. Some days I lie down after taking a shower and before I have breakfast. And then I lie down again.

On the days I can’t leave the house, I know what the ceiling fan sounds like on all three speeds. I hear the school bells across the road ring for each period; I curse the neighbourhood whipper snippers and the hoons that speed around the roundabout. I get up and the room spins again.

It’s easy to feel very alone sometimes and I do.

But every Friday, I go to a yoga class in Coconut Grove.

It’s a suburb that’s part hippie, part public housing and part industrial. It begins on Dick Ward Drive with The Parthenon, a Mediterranean style home replete with crumbling columns and discarded slabs of concrete. The owners have been building it (or not) for over a decade, maybe two. Amongst locals it’s also known as “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

There are battle-axe blocks that lead to the mangroves. There’s a drying out clinic. There are generations of Aboriginal families who live in run down units. Further along, there’s a locked fence with a sign saying “Burial Ground: Do Not Enter”.

In between, there are panel beaters, picture framers and furniture importers. Warehouses filled with mahogany furniture and day beds from Indonesia, brought in by the container load. We bought our bed from a guy there called Knocker, who drives a bright orange sports car with a personalised number plate.

Down Caryota Court there are massage therapists and Family Planning offices. There’s a burlesque dance studio. A German guy called Martin runs the town’s only vegetarian café.

And then there’s the yoga space.

It’s a strange and surreal precinct to go and get your Iyengar on. Sometimes the next door neighbour likes to weld during our class or play records, usually The Ramones or Hoodoo Gurus. He listens to that music the way it is played: loud.

But for the most part, this yoga class takes me out of Darwin, at least for an hour and a half, and away from the strut, the larrikin antics and the bar stool bravado of Territory life. It’s a warehouse sanctuary of wooden floorboards, with a little garden brimming with tropical plants. In between bromeliads and banana trees sits a small, smiling statue of Buddha, decorated with hibiscus flowers and rows of tiny beads.

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There are eight of us who go regularly and almost everyone in the class has some kind of significant illness or injury. One man has two toes missing. He comes every week with his girlfriend in a beat up station wagon. Another woman broke her back last year. There’s the guy I went out with a couple of times, who had his brain smashed around in a motorcycle accident on Daly Street. And there’s me.

We don’t talk or gather for coffee afterwards. I don’t know where they live or if they work. Except for the guy I used to date, I don’t know their names.

But each week, I know that somehow, deep in the neurons and blood cells of bodies that don’t work like they should, they understand. We’re in it together.

I can’t make a joke about downward facing dog: none of us can do that anymore. But we twist and turn and stretch. We bead with sweat in the irrepressible Darwin humidity. We reach through the pain and the sick and the heart break of what we used to be and who we are now.

The man with three toes always seems to know who is having an especially hard day and he helps to put away their mat, bolster and blankets at the end of class.

We don’t say goodbye when it’s over; but each week my heart is warmed by this motley crew and this chequered suburb, which somehow has enough room for our collective pain, all of it, and our hope for better things to come.

Lofty and Beaches

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If you were in any doubt about what Darwin is all about, a quick drive down Cavenagh Street clears it up. Head towards the Magistrate’s Court, just before you get to the Roma Bar, and you’ll take in a big sign that says “Guns. Fishing. Fishing. Guns”. That’s above the local tackle and outdoor shop. Cast your eyes a little higher and you’ll spy a replica tank, gun cocked, and an Australian flag. Next door, the RSL club squats above Vintage Cellars.

At first glance, Darwin is a fisherman’s Nirvana first, defence town second. But maybe it’s the other way around.

There are still physical memories of the Bombing of Darwin in 1942, if you know where to look. A bomb crater on McMinn Street and the duly named Air Raid Arcade. Bullet holes in the fence at Burnett House on Myilly Point. The oil storage tunnels near the harbour and the gun turrets at East Point. There are still people who remember those days: of slip trenches and explosions and evacuations.

Memories of War. Cavenagh Street in 1942, after the Bombing of Darwin. Photo courtesy of the Northern Territory Library collection.

Cavenagh Street in 1942, after the Bombing of Darwin. Photo courtesy of the Northern Territory Library collection.

And today, there are thousands more soldiers, navy personnel and US Marines, stationed from Larrakeyah to Robertson Barracks and in subsidised rentals from Bayview to Palmerston.

In Darwin, our military past and present is a reality rather than an abstract.

So it was only a matter of time before I was invited to the Cavenagh Street RSL. I met Lofty Plane through work; Lofty was the Club President, a WW2 vet who loved to have a drink and take the piss. He told me to come down for a lemonade and to meet the boys.

I asked my housemate Dave along for the ride and we walked down Cavenagh Street, as far as the “Guns. Fishing. Fishing. Guns” sign, then up the stairs and past the Roll of Honour for Northern Territory soldiers killed in action.

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You sign in and it’s your choice of bistro or bar. The bistro is filled with laminex tables and the daily special, usually some form of veal schnitzel or a ham steak. The bar has pokies and televisions tuned to whichever horses or dogs happen to be running around a Southern Hemisphere racecourse at that given moment.

Beer and men, men and beer; on bar stools, benches and plastic chairs.

Dave had a white boy afro and I had breasts, so it was fair to say we stood out a little. But Lofty waved us over to come and meet the fellas.

Lofty signed up for the army at the age of 17; like so many others of his era itching for an adventure, he lied about his age at the recruitment office. Lofty came from a family of servicemen: his dad had been gassed in France, his uncle lost a leg in the first world war and his Grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel Chaplain at Gallipoli.

His Dad was still in a military hospital when Lofty joined up.

“Keep your bloody head down,” he said.

But Lofty wasn’t put off.

“This is Australia mate, the best country in the world”, he said.

“That’s why I joined up, I didn’t want to be walking around with bloody Nazi flags. But when you got over there, they were firing live bullets at you.”

Lofty found himself on the Aitape-Wewak campaign in Papua New Guinea.

“It had its moments too, I can tell you. The majority of the Japs were in the hills, and that’s where they stayed. At that stage of the game, we had to go in and try to find them. And there it was. There are things that I’d much rather not talk about. When I was going down the Sepik River, there are things that I saw and probably did that leave me a bit cold even now.”

He shook his head. “I’m lucky to be here and enjoying life, at least at the moment.”

Lofty was on the strip at Wewak when General Adachi handed over his sword and surrendered. He volunteered to go to Japan for Reconstruction. He joined the first Australian troops into Hiroshima after the bombing, with miles and miles of nothing standing. Lofty dug in and cleaned up, in just shorts and a pair of boots. No protective clothing in those days.

Eventually, he got out of the army and bought a touring talkie show. Lofty showed movies—a double bill that always featured a murder mystery and a Western—in dozens of country towns in Southern Queensland. He met his wife. And then they boarded a DC-3 and came to Darwin where he was tasked with the Territory’s most important resource: the cold stores. Yep, Lofty was in charge of the ice cream and the beer.

I could have listened to Lofty’s stories for hours, so when he invited me to join him for a drink at the RSL later, I said yes straight away. That Friday lunch time, Lofty introduced us to the rest of the crew: Blue, Jimmy, Dave and Beaches.

Beaches was Lofty’s best mate, a cheerful rotund fellow with grey whiskers and glasses. He’d been in the navy.

Why do they call you Beaches?

Beaches smiled. “Well, I don’t know why. I can’t say for sure. Some of the fellas around here, they’re a rude lot. You’d have to ask them. But they might reckon I look a little bit like a beach ball.”

And then I could see it too, a brightly coloured ball with Beaches’ face in the middle. Bouncing around a swimming pool.

Lofty didn’t get out much any more by the time I met him, but he always made it to the RSL for a “few lemonades” on a Friday. It was his favourite thing to do. Lofty, Beaches and the boys had a busy schedule: beers, lunch, pokies. Sledging each other, a punt or two, more beer. And then Lofty would get a taxi home. It was his weekly outing, one he never missed.

Beaches and Lofty also used to buy a weekly lottery ticket. They had a syndicate of two, with big plans for the winnings.

“We’ve got it all worked out”, said Beaches.

“We’re going to go on a world trip: starting with New York. And we’re going to stay at the Waldorf Astoria.”

“Tell ‘em about the robes”, said Lofty.

“Oh yes,” said Beaches. “We’re going to have those robes – terry towelling robes, you know the ones? And someone’s going to serve us drinks on a silver tray. A crystal glass and a nip of something strong, no ice.”

“And then a nice New York steak, thick and as juicy as you like”, said Lofty.

Beaches licked his lips. “Yep, it’s going to be that good. I’ll tell you. I can’t wait for that trip.”

“Just got to win the jackpot”, said Lofty. “But it’s coming. Oh, it is coming.”

Dave and I dropped into the RSL a couple more Fridays after that, for a veal parma and to talk to Lofty and Beaches. Whenever the conversation hit a lull, Dave would ask Lofty and Beaches for an update on their lottery syndicate.

“Any wins yet fellas?”

“Not yet”, said Lofty. “But I tell you, when we do…The Waldorf Astoria, that’s where we’re headed.”

“Yep,” said Beaches. “Terry towelling robes, crystal glasses and a big fat steak, as thick and juicy as you like.”

Dave and I eventually stopped our Friday visits to the RSL. We started to feel like intruders on the lemonades and the memories. And the laminex tables and ham steak special started to lose some of its charm.

Lofty passed away last year, but I still remember everything he told me.

About his time in Papua New Guinea and Japan, and how he wore long socks with shorts while he minded the Territory’s ice cream and beer.

How he didn’t much get modern music; his favourite songs were Moon River and The Cat Came Back by Tex Morton.

How he liked going fishing at Vestey’s Beach, in the days before it was a gay beat, and when you actually caught fish there. How he liked listening to Julia on the radio in the morning, and her fishing report from places he couldn’t get to any more.

I don’t know that Lofty and Beaches ever made it to New York.

But I do know this: Lofty’s daughter wore his medals on ANZAC Day and marched down the Esplanade, up Knuckey and then down Cavenagh Street. I’m sure she had a lemonade or two at the RSL afterwards. I reckon Lofty would have liked that.

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Guns, business cards and other interior design crimes

A glass cabinet filled with sawn off shotguns and antique pistols.

That’s what came with the house my friends just bought in Howard Springs. I’m not sure if the guns added to, or detracted from, the value of the property, but at least they’re real Rural Area residents now.

Free guns, with every house purchase south of the Berrimah Line. Now that’s a line for any real estate agent.

I can’t decide whether it’s rustic or redneck chic, but I’m leaning towards the latter. Especially since the glass case is just next to a miniature built-in bunkbed. The guns are in the kids’ room. Sweet dreams, little Jimmy.

My gun photography skills aren't quite what they should be (box shadow or silhouette for the 19th Century pistol? I couldn't decide.) But you get the picture. Free guns, with every house purchase in Howard Springs. And these babies are just two tugs from being disconnected from that wall - the glue is on the way out.

My gun photography skills aren’t quite what they should be (box shadow or silhouette for the 19th Century pistol? I couldn’t decide.) But you get the picture. And these babies are just two tugs away from the wall – the glue is on the way out.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the Darwin aesthetic lately. We’re not exactly renowned for interior design. Or exterior design, for that matter. With our penchant for concrete, air conditioned box houses and some grim building decisions made in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, you don’t come to Darwin for the architecture.

Or the shopping. Or customer service.  Or a good cafe breakfast.

But I digress. While there are a few people living the dream with troppo elevated houses, at-home Aboriginal art galleries, Balinese day beds and pool-side swim up bars, most of us are sitting around drinking beers on cement verandahs with cobwebs and buffalo skulls for decoration. Sad but true.

So it should come as no surprise that one of our best (nay, OK) Italian restaurants is fitted out with wooden veneer panels, cuckoo clocks and wall to wall collage. I can see some of you artistic types nodding along at this point. “Oh how quaint!” I hear you murmur. “A pastiche of colonial frontier meets European kitsch. How delightful!”

Well, you’d be wrong. I’m talking about interior design that involves 8-10 walls completely collaged with business cards.

But I won’t deny that there’s a certain charm. While you’re waiting for the owner to slap down some garlic bread with a side of discontent, it’s always worth a look for gems like these:

I'm biased because we share a name, but it looks like Miranda Fox offers value for money for the discerning older gent.

I’m biased because we share a name, but it looks like Miranda Fox offers value for money for the discerning older gent.

Who doesn’t want an escort with their pizza? Totally legit too, I checked out her website. Satisfied customer “Glen” says:

Miranda is the best professional value I’ve had since I visited the Phillipines in the mid 70s. (Thats a sincere compliment babe….) 

That’s genuine spelling and punctuation right there.

But this is my all time favourite:

Leons killing service

Now THERE’S a Territory Tough business card.

Sorry vegetarians. And interior designers.

Afternoon tea with a snake dancer

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Down the gravelly back roads of Coconut Grove, just before you hit the mangroves, there used to be a fantastic commune of a group house. My friend Eve lived there for a while. It was owned by one of Darwin’s better known Madams; a beautiful but rundown property with a pool under palm trees and a garden populated with heliconias, caravans and dongas in various states of repair.

I enjoyed going over there. Eve had some great housemates—Bryn, Anna and Sarah—who all became friends of mine, plus an ever changing parade of oddballs, transients and German backpackers. It was always fun to sit around and talk rubbish, eat a big curry under the stars and watch possums paw through the leftovers in the open-air kitchen.

One Saturday, Eve decided to have friends over for afternoon tea in the garden. She put together curlicue metal tables with embroidered tablecloths and cushions, and laid out generous piles of home made scones and vegan cakes. Candlesticks covered in cobwebs, doilies and streamers finished off the decorations. Everyone was handed a hat from the Anglicare Op Shop. The overall aesthetic was a little like Miss Havisham gone troppo.

I made my garden party greetings and slid in beside the newest housemate, Tamsin. She smiled vaguely and fluttered her hands in welcome. I leaned back in my chair, stretched my feet out and felt my toes scrape against something firm in a soft cotton bag underneath the table. I planted them back under my seat and grabbed a scone.

We all chatted away. Eve enthusiastically described their latest house project – screening films against one of the caravans under the stars. There were also plans afoot for a camouflage jungle party, inspired by the Coconut Grove surrounds. Eve wrapped herself in a vigorously sprouting vine to demonstrate how easy it would be to create party haute cotoure.

After a few more cups of tea, Tamsin retrieved the soft cotton bag from under the table near my feet. The top was tied with string, which she gently untied.

And then a two-metre long snake uncoiled into her arms.

“This is Medusa,” Tamsin cooed. “I couldn’t leave Sydney without her”.

She described hitch-hiking up to Darwin with Medusa in a wicker basket.

“Not everyone wanted to give us a ride,” she giggled.

Tamsin was your classic Darwin hippie pixie dream girl. The kind you’d see with dredlocked boys and battered vans along the Esplanade. They would arrive in the Dry to dance unselfconsciously with the fire dancers and the band that played didgeridoo to bring in the sunset at Mindil Beach. They shopped at Greenies, or worked there part-time, and made milk out of mung bean sprouts. They were the first on the dance floor at bush doofs out at East Point. They wore backless Balinese dresses, swapped crystals and talked about chakras.  Sometimes they’d sleep under the stars at Lameroo Beach with the long-grassers for a cultural experience.

They usually drove back to Byron Bay in the build up.

Texta battle between hippies, rednecks and humourists. Old Woolworths Building, Knuckey St.

Texta battle between hippies, rednecks and humourists. Old Woolworths Building, Knuckey St.

True to form, Tamsin had arrived in Darwin that June and immediately landed a job working in a health food store. In her spare time, she was a snake dancer.

Medusa was the latest in a long line of pet snakes, Tamsin explained, and pointed to the giant glass aquarium I’d only just noticed jutting out of the kitchen.

“I used to let my last snake sleep in my bed,” she told me.

“But then she started to behave strangely. She stopped eating, for one thing. And then I’d wake up and she’d be stretched out beside me like an exclamation mark.”

What was that about?

“Well”, said Tamsin. “It was really strange. I went to the vet, and she said I needed to get rid of the snake immediately. The vet said that when snakes lay out flat next to you like that, they’re preparing their stomachs. They’re starving themselves to eat you whole.”

Let me get this straight, I said. You were sleeping with a pet snake that wanted to eat you?

Tamsin giggled again and stood up. Clearly imagining a group of tribal drummers accompanying her, she started dancing around the table, with Medusa winding around her torso, her arms and her neck. Then the imaginary tribal drumming stopped and she took a bow. The garden party dutifully applauded.*

One of the more macho of the German backpackers who lived in the rustic dongas out back asked to have a hold, and Tamsin passed Medusa over.

Medusa did the same trick again, winding around his arms, then his neck and face. And then she began to tighten.

Everyone went silent. All eyes were on Macho German backpacker. His face went red and you could see him trying to stay cool.

The silence got louder as Medusa wrapped round and around his neck, palpably tightening again, and eventually he cried out.

“Fuck! Fuck! Get her off me!”

Tamsin put out her hands and Medusa slithered over, with the smugness of a Siamese cat. She stroked those lithe, diamond shaped scales and Medusa poked out her tongue.

Tamsin turned back to me.

“I’m working at the health food shop for now,” she said.

“But the snake dancing is really my passion. Let me know if you hear of any work going.”

*I’m sorry that I don’t have a photo of this. But it all happened in the days before IPhones. You know, the olden days, where we sometimes just watched things with our eyes.

My love affair with Cold Chisel

It’s always amusing to head south and see ’80s fashion on display – high waisted jeans, mesh singlets, Ken Done jumpers and pleather.

Because in the Territory, the ‘80s never really ended. Visit Casuarina Shopping Centre or the Humpty Doo Hotel; folk might be texting on an IPhone, but they’re still sporting the same haircut they had in 1983 and why the hell wouldn’t they?

Same goes for our music. While the young hipster things Down South might be listening to bands like Iguana Bloody Mary or The Macrame Wizards, we’re still enjoying a good meat and three veg diet of ‘80s pub rock with the occasional ‘90s breakthrough song. The Macrame Wizards are never going to get a sell out crowd at the Darwin Entertainment Centre. That’s a job for our ‘80s legends– Ross Wilson, Colin Hay, Paul Kelly or Barnesy. Or Farnsy for that matter, should he decide to do another farewell tour, and more power to him.

I never truly appreciated Aussie pub rock until I came to the NT. I was a lover of indie rock and ‘90s grunge; I smelled like teen spirit.

But I’ll tell you something for free. You’re never going to get the Adelaide River pub on the dance floor with The Pixies or Sleater-Kinney.

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Want to make 95% of the people at Daly Waters happy? Put on Khe Sanh. Two guys who were about to fight now have their arms around each other. Someone at the bar is reminiscing about the time Cold Chisel played the Diamond Beach Casino. The next is recalling what Ian Moss got up to at high school in Alice Springs. The guy next to him was actually in a band with Mossy back in the day. The dance floor is full. All because of Khe Sanh.

Being something of a sponge, I quickly got on board with the ‘70s and then the ‘80s of pub rock. The indie CDs moved to the back of the shelf, making way for Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, Icehouse, Men at Work, even 1927, which I’ve always secretly liked. I danced to The Boys Light Up at rodeos and started putting Flame Trees on road trip compilations. I began requesting Choir Girl at the Jabiru Social Club.

And then it was 2009. I finally went to see Jimmy Barnes live in concert at The Mangrove Hotel in Broome. My friend Woo came with me, even though it was a school night.

There were an array of black, red and green cans doing the rounds; the audience was liquored up and Barnesy was rocking the stage. Every so often the band’s PA system would trip the electricity for the whole hotel and the sound guys would scramble around hysterically. Barnesy, the true professional, would pick up on exactly the note he left off on, mid lyric if need be.

I left the concert giddy on pre-mix vodka and the power of ‘80s pub rock, and walked home to Old Broome with my ears still ringing.

By the time I moved back to the Territory, the unthinkable–or very thinkable–occurred. Cold Chisel announced a reunion tour, around Australia. They would play Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and they would play a show at the Gardens Amphitheatre in Darwin. Everyone knew their ‘80s haircuts had just been vindicated. The band was back together.

So one sticky build up October evening, I rode my bike to the Gardens and snuck into the Casino to get changed. The high rollers at the roulette table might have been oblivious to the Chisel factor, but Darwin was electric that night. If you’d seen the band in the ‘80s, you were there. If you were a johnny-come-lately like me, you were there. If you had two ears and a soul, you were at the concert, or at least up the hill behind the Buff Club peering over the black plastic.

I went on my own but found some friends in the middle of the crowd, and then a guy I vaguely recognised came over. He gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“Hey!” he said. “It’s good to see you!”

You too! I said.

“I’m so sorry”, he said. “I don’t remember your name”.

That’s OK, I said. I don’t remember your name either.

We’d met years ago playing Frisbee with friends; he’d been in Timor and I’d been in Broome and Alice Springs.

He was with a guy I knew from the Weather Bureau, and they hung out with my mates for the rest of the night.

We danced to Cheap Wine and Standing on the Outside. To songs I knew, and songs I didn’t. Cigarette lighters came out. It felt like everyone in the audience was hugging or crying or kissing. A few of them were probably throwing beer bottles. Or remembering other days, when they listened to this music and were younger and things were better and worse all at the same time.

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When it ended, two encores later, this man who didn’t remember my name got my number. I left the Gardens buzzing with attraction and music and anticipation and the stickiness of a build up evening in the Gardens.

That was the beginning of Mr Tea and me, a relationship built on the pub rock foundations of Cold Chisel.

An ode to Territory Day

Behind this happy family, children are throwing lit fireworks at dogs and their parents are lighting crackers on prams and strollers.

Behind this happy family, someone is setting off $500 worth of fireworks from their pram.

I grew up in Canberra, where fireworks were as easy to find as politicians and pornography. They went nicely with locally grown, decriminalised marijuana and I saw a lot of letterboxes go to a better place. Those were some halcyon days in the nation’s capital.

But the NT obsession with fireworks is something else (again, see “Why I Stuck a Cracker up My Clacker”).

Every year on July 1, we have Territory Day. We like to celebrate self-government in the Northern Territory by lighting up a lot of explosives and scaring the bejesus out of pets, refugees and veterans with PTSD. You can light fireworks anywhere you like: on your balcony, on the beach or on top of your baby’s pram. Legislatively, it’s just one day of carnage but it always blows out into weeks, often months, as any Territorian who has been woken by a whistling cracker in the middle of January can attest.

I got my first taste of Territory Day in 2006. I was in Alice Springs, staying with some friends in Northside. We were playing poker on the verandah, and in the spirit of celebration the neigbours threw crackers at us from over the fence and siphoned all the petrol out of my mate’s car.

By the time Territory day next reared its head, I had moved to Darwin and my good friends Abbie, Paul and their four-year-old son Hank were up visiting from Canberra.

It would be a lesson in mayhem for all of us.

Territory Day always starts early. Firework stands pop up in every neglected or empty shopfront through the suburbs. It’s definitely a sellers market and lines of customers curl right around the door. Bogans, backpackers, cashed up public servants and families all come together for this happy occasion.

These punters spend many good minutes agonising over their firework purchases. Some will need multiple trolleys; they are stockpiling for the apocalypse. There are individual crackers, with names like Anger Management, Hot Cougar and Bad Bitch. Or you can buy in bulk – go “Mongrel” for $150 or keep it simple with a Croc pack for $25.

“Just a few buzzing bees, sparklers and one rocket to keep the kids happy”, says one Dad with a glint in his eyes, trying to convince his more reluctant wife.

Pop-up fireworks stand

Traditionally fireworks take place at night but not in the Territory. In fact, it’s generally considered best to start letting off your loot immediately if not sooner. Wherever you are standing is just fine. OH and S be damned, it’s every man, woman and child on a tricycle for him or herself.

By 5pm on July 1, 2007, the carnage was well and truly underway. Crack, bang, crack, bang, crack, crack, bang bang bang. All you could hear were rockets, bombies and the neighbourhood’s new favourite: Osama Boom-Laden.

Abbie rang her brother Sam from Baghdad, formerly known as Darwin. Sam had blown up a lot of shit in his time, and he immediately booked his flights to Darwin for the following year.

“Can you take a video?” he begged.  “And maybe bring a few Osamas home for me?”

We contemplated digging a bomb shelter, but my friends Leanne and Anna were having a Territory Day party at their flat in the city, which boasted a view all the way out to Mindil Beach.

So in the early evening, we began to make our way there. The drive in from Rapid Creek was a little hairy. My hatchback shuddered as we dodged Atom Bombs and War Angels, all fired at us from streetside battlements. When Paul wound down the window, the passing breeze reeked of gun powder.

By the time we got to the CBD, everyone needed a nerve-restoring beverage. The idea had been to watch the official fireworks from the balcony, maybe light a few sparklers of our own. But it didn’t take long before I realised that the NT Government’s display would be completely dwarfed by what was happening in the suburbs.

On our own turf, Leanne’s dentist friend Idham had invested $2000 in a Territory Day good time, and started letting off rockets downstairs. With a few to spare, he shared the wealth.

I rifled through the box of fireworks. Bad Bitch or Osama Boom-Laden? After weighing it up carefully, Hank thought I should go with Bad Bitch.

Leanne and I picked up a couple and headed downstairs. We lined the crackers up on the road. I struck the match; Leanne lit those bad girls and we paced backwards, waiting for the impending bang and skyward spray of colour.

But the fireworks we lit must have been faulty. Or, more likely, we set them up badly.

They exploded at ground level and came straight at us.

Pure panic. One of the crackers skimmed my bare shoulder and I screamed. Leanne grabbed my hand and we piss bolted to the other side of the road while the boys started laughing hysterically.

Meanwhile, back on the balcony everything was hazy and you could see spot fires dotted right across The Gardens. But after awhile the flames seemed closer than that, mostly because they were.

The neighbours had experienced a misplaced firework too, only theirs had set the empty block next door on fire.

It started with a lick of flames in the long grass and we called the firies. But the men and women in yellow were otherwise engaged. I could hear the fire truck sirens reverberating around the suburbs. No one answered the phone.

The flames got worse, and started to climb the African Mahogany in the middle of all that long grass. So my friend Jack led the charge and jumped the fence. Alice and Cassie followed, pulling the fire hose from the basement car park and the rest of us grabbed every bucket and container we could find. A relay line got underway, and Jack doused the tree until it was just smoking, sweaty and singed and so was he.

You’d think that would have put a dampener on things, but the next thing I knew, my otherwise placid mate James was on a ladder strapping fireworks to the third storey eaves.

It was time to go home.

The next morning, Hank woke up crying and asked if the grownups would let off any more bombs. But luckily for him, Territory Day was over for another year. Hank would soon be leaving Baghdad and heading home to the comparative nanny state of Canberra.

I took Abbie, Paul and Hank down to the beach for one last crocodile tempting dip. The road was paved with firework remnants. It was as if Territory Day had thrown up along the foreshore, leaving little pools of cardboard containers, discarded fuses and streamers in his wake.

The Council spent days cleaning it all up, sometimes with prison work crews in tow. I’m still not sure what was more punishing for those inmates in fatigues: wiping up the mess, or missing out in the first place.

Hank chooses Bad Bitch

Hank chooses Bad Bitch