Much to learn, Grasshopper*

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

November 17, 1845.

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

January 24, 2013.

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

It’s the first stop on our adventuring itinerary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m nervous every time, watching for crocs.

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

Nature is a show-off sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again*

OR: How to hike Jim Jim Falls, the hard way

The Escarpment looms large. Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park

The escarpment looms large. Kakadu National Park

I am thankful to Mr Tea for many things, and one of them is getting me back into the great outdoors. When I first moved up to the Territory, I went out to Kakadu and Litchfield and Katherine and any remote community having a festival within a 400 kilometre radius. I even bought a tent and a gas stove. But I don’t know that I would have taken much more initiative beyond that. I grew up in a house where we read books on weekends, and then discussed those books over the dinner table. We could barely change light bulbs, let alone read a compass.

But it’s second nature for Mr Tea. He is one of those Kathmandu clad cliches, devoted to his art. When he’s not sailing, he’s fishing, bushwalking, snorkelling, scuba diving or snowboarding, except when work gets in the way. It’s exciting but comfort zone crashing, especially for someone as challenged in the practical department as I am. And every trip, something always goes awry. What starts as a quiet weekend away on the boat usually ends up with me clutching the spinnaker mid-ocean, throwing my guts up in a massive storm. Or one of us (ok, me again) sliding down a cliff dangerously close to a crocodile infested river.

In the retelling, many of our outdoor adventure stories include the line “and then I cried”.

This is one of them.

It was fairly early on in our relationship, and Mr Tea wanted us to go for a three-day bushwalk with his good friends, Justin and Leida. They, too, sounded dauntingly like outdoor types – Leida was competing in the National Orienteering titles and Justin owned not one but two Camelbak drink bladders.

Mr Tea decided that we should do a walk around Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu National Park. Jim Jim Falls is one of the big attractions in Kakadu, 150 metres worth of falls down a (fairly sheer) cliff, and only accessible during the dry season (and then, only by 4WD).

Mr Tea had previously hiked between Jim Jim and its neighbour Twin Falls, a trip he described to me as a death march. So to my immense relief, he decided on something easier. We applied for permits and using Google Earth, Mr Tea mapped out a route that he described as a piece of piss: we’d hike up the gorge and over the escarpment to the top of the Falls, with an easy descent down to the car park. In retrospect, I should have picked up on the “over the escarpment” bit, but I was starry eyed and in love and had never been to that part of Kakadu.

We drove out one Friday night, and camped in the car park before setting off the following morning. Our packs were filled with camping gear, two silver bladders of wine and an assortment of food that you would never eat when there was a fridge close by. Long shirts, sunscreen, daggy camping hats. We were ready.

Mr Tea led us along the track away from the Jim Jim plunge pool. We stone hopped across the creek, and veered up the escarpment and then down towards the gorge.

Every so often, one of us would brush up against a green ant nest. These nests are a formidable feat of architecture. The ants glue leaves together into a cone; the internet tells me the glue is a silk derived from the larvae. It must take days, so I don’t blame them for getting pissed when some hairy backpacker knocks into it. But it did mean that every couple of steps, I would get another nip: I found green ants down my sleeve, in my hair, and inside my bra.

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The sun was right above us and shade was minimal. It’s hard to describe the heat. The breath feels hot in your throat. Your eyeballs swell. And this is the dry season. It didn’t take long before I could wring the green ant laced sweat out of my shirt, but then Leida pulled out a chocolate muffin she’d bought at the service station the night before.

So far, so good.

Eventually we got to a clearing with a water hole that looked like a decent enough place to pitch a tent. But it was only 4pm, and Mr Tea wanted to push on. It started to get harder. Vines and pandanus leaves scratched at my face and hands. The ridges above the creek had been burnt to ash, and in crappy sneakers, my feet could barely hold on. My bravado and I slid up and down the slopes, gasping for breath, desperately trying to keep up with Mr Tea and Leida the national orienteering champion.

Eventually I had to stop, choking through tears and sweat and exhaustion. Leida took pity on me, and sent the boys ahead on a reconnaissance mission. She spoon-fed me Gatorade powder while I sat on a rock, quietly sobbing behind my sunglasses.

Mr Tea returned half an hour later and reluctantly admitted that we would have to camp back at our original clearing.  I swallowed my told-you-so, and we lit a fire, sucked down wine from the silver bladder and watched a tree snake wind its way from tent to tree to tent.

The next day, we continued up the gorge. But where Mr Tea and Google Earth had envisioned an easy rocky plateau, there was in fact a barely penetrable jungle. Mr Tea cut vines with his pocket-knife and we fought for each footstep forward. Two hours passed and the jungle ended, but then the boulders began. We pushed our packs up first and then hunted for footholds around the water streaming down the boulders. Google Earth and Mr Tea had also missed the additional waterfall at the end of the gorge. I think it was around then that the sole of Justin’s boot split in two. Luckily Mr Tea had some superglue handy and he patched it back together.

I was still reeling from scaling boulders and the fact that superglue was the only thing Mr Tea had in his first aid kit. And then came the cliffs, as far as we could see. The only way was back. Or up.

Who in their right mind would walk up that?

Who in their right mind would walk up that?

I was tempted by the back option, but then I remembered the jungle. Up it was. We made it two hundred metres or so, and then we came to a dead end. The first of many. We’d follow caves in the cliffs, hoping for an opening over the escarpment, and then we’d have to double back, try another cave, another cliff opening, another non-existent path.  It was like The Labyrinth, only without David Bowie or the Bog of Eternal Stench. Then again, we had been sweating a lot…

Eventually we made it over and the sheer rock turned into scrub. I’ve never been so glad to see head-high spear grass. By sunset, we staggered to a white sand beach near a waterhole and set up camp. Leida and Justin cooked two-minute noodles with cabbage and soy sauce and it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. We tallied up our water intake for the day: ten litres or more, each.

The walk across the plateau the next day was exposed but easy enough. Jim Jim Falls was spectacular, as promised. And there we encountered other tourists for the first time in two days. One of the guys didn’t have a shirt on, and two of the girls were in thongs. They barely had 600mls of water between them, and I hoped they weren’t continuing onto our Kokoda trail.

I’d anticipated the descent for 24 hours, but after a couple more hours of sliding down mud steps and clinging to tree roots for balance, my calves were aching and the pack had become a monkey on my back. A very heavy monkey.

Finally, we got to the bottom, and staggered back onto the main path with friendly orange triangles signalling the way back to the car park.

Mr Tea dusted his hands.

“Well, that was a bit harder than I thought.”

No one said anything. Even Leida was a bit teary by then. We debated walking up to the plunge pool for one last swim, but that idea was quickly kyboshed. Time to shed our shoes and go back to the car, back to the highway, back to Darwin.

Justin and Leida haven’t come bushwalking with us since.

*I doff my cap to David Foster Wallace.