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.

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Have child, will travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in travel, as in life.

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

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

“You have my passport,” I replied.

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

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

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

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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.”

(Not so) Great Boggings of the Northern Territory

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

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

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

I had so much to learn.

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

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

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

I blame the baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now where was I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep on driving

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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. 

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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New Girl

“Kakadu? More like Kaka-Don’t!”

My next-door neighbour Bev gives a hearty pack-a-day laugh.

It’s a muggy day in January and we’re having a beer together in the pool behind our apartment block. The water feels more like a warm bath, but it’s better than nothing.

Three weeks earlier, Bev and I didn’t get off to the best start. I’d just moved up to the Territory and the removalists who came to deliver my worldly goods (one double bed, two book shelves, a bike and a dozen boxes of books, CDs and mis-matched crockery) had taken up the whole drive way leading into our block of flats. Bev knocks on my door; she needs to get her car out and go to work.

I talk apologetically to the movers and they grudgingly reverse their pink truck out to give her 30 centimetres of clearance. Sure enough, Bev backs out and scrapes the entire right hand side of her white Commodore along the truck. She slams the palm of her hand into the steering wheel.

“Yer fucking kidding me. Fucking dickheads.”

Bev shakes her head at me and takes off down Casuarina Drive, wheels squealing.

The movers shrug. They didn’t give a shit before and they certainly don’t give one now.

The older, beefy guy has some serious five o’clock shadow and a salt and pepper pony tail. His offsider couldn’t be more than 19; he’s streetlight-skinny with scabs on his knees and elbows. They drop the last two boxes into my flat with a thud and I sign the delivery papers.

“D’you get to the footy last night?”

I go to answer politely in the negative, but Beefy’s not talking to me.

“Nah,” Skinny says. “Just had a few beers, chucked a fatty and went to bed.”

Beefy grunts. They ignore me and get back in the truck.

It’s at this point I sense living in the Territory might be a bit different to Canberra.

I’m worried about Bev’s car though. I spend the next couple of hours doing some hand wringing and anxiously wait for Bev to come back so I can apologise/circumvent a Commodore scratching lawsuit.

But by the time I get to say sorry, Bev has cooled down and has a ciggie in hand.

“Don’t you worry, love,” she says. “Those guys were just a couple of cunts. Excuse my language, but that’s all you can say about people like that.”

I relax. Bev isn’t going to sue me or put dead rats on my doorstep, I realise. This isn’t the litigation-happy big smoke. It’s the Territory. We’re cool, Bev and me. What a relief.

Cleaning the maggots out of the communal bins, sitting in the pool, chatting by our cars, I get to know my new neighbour. Bev’s spent most of her career teaching in remote schools, places I couldn’t even imagine or pronounce during those first few weeks in the Territory: Alyangula, Naiyu, Gapuwiyak. She loves the kids and the holidays and the generous living out bush allowances, and says she’ll never leave the Territory.

“They’ll have to take me out in a box,” she croaks. “You won’t get me on a plane back to Sydney. No fucking way.”

Anyway, Bev is keen to give me tips on where to go and what to do, but Kakadu, according to Bev, is a big no-no.

“Too bloody hot,” she says. “Seen one rock painting, you’ve seen them all. And there’s nowhere to swim! Just busloads of tourists, sun visors and sandals, wall-to-wall. Yep, you won’t catch me out there. Waste of bloody time, when you could be sitting in a water hole, having a drink. Litchfield, that’s where you want to go. Take a slab and settle in for the afternoon, that’s more like it.”

But for me, there’s a lot to get my head around just in Darwin. People watering their concrete driveways, for a start. Thongs as acceptable office-wear. I soon learn that the local currency is beer: it’s a Darwin Stubby for a Kris Kringle, a six pack for an office bet, a carton to move a fridge and two slabs to put my workmate’s cat on a flight to Brisbane. Different beers are described by colour rather than brands – green cans, red cans, yellow cans.

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

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

I drink more than usual too, and learn to cure my hangovers with Mary’s laksa, gado-gado and satay sticks at the Parap markets. I relish the ever-changing displays of rambutans and dragon fruit in Rapid Creek and decide that if I can only eat one food in the world for the rest of my life, it will be spicy papaya salad made by a no nonsense Thai woman with her supersized mortar and pestle.

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

There’s a new lexicon to learn too, words and expressions that are thrown around with abandon. This mob, that mob, biggest mob. Whitefella, blackfella, long-grasser. Territory Tough. The rest of the country is called Down South. Down South is inhabited by Southerners or Mexicans. At work, we talk about yarns, not stories. I learn about lures and culverts and tight lines from my fishing mad colleagues. Then there are tinnies – one’s a drink, the other you can fish from. The word true always has an ay and a question mark behind it, “True, ay?’ And there’s a tongue click “Nglaaaaaa” that gets thrown around, usually with words like gammon. It takes me a while to work out whether gammon is good or bad, an adjective, verb or noun.

Bit by bit, I get my bearings. I learn to navigate the sleaze of Mitchell Street and knock off drinks at the Deck Bar on a Friday night. I get to know the distinctive smell of the number 10 bus: a rare combination of armpits, barbecued onions and damp t-shirts fresh out of a mouldy cupboard. I get used to finding green tree frogs in my toilet and in the shower. I find the Beachfront Hotel and my local take-away, which makes a mean marinara pizza. I walk along the Foreshore and inhale frangipanis, and more than occasionally, the faint smell of piss.

On the lawns opposite the pub one afternoon, there’s an Aboriginal woman passed out on the ground, the contents of her handbag strewn around her skirt. People are just walking by. I’m not sure what to do.

I bend down. “Excuse me, are you alright?” I ask her.

No reply.

She’s snoring a little, I can see her chest rising. There’s a purse next to her. I try and tuck it under her arm in the hope that no one will steal it and keep walking, just like everyone else.

After a few weeks, I make some friends. We start to venture out of town. I swim in hot springs and stop along the Stuart Highway to take photos of mango trees and a paddock full of road trains. And at Easter, my new best friend Ange and I decide to go to Kakadu for the first time, against Bev’s better judgment.

We hop in Ange’s Subaru and sing along loudly to our favourite CDs: Paul Kelly and Jimmy Eat World. We stop halfway at The Bark Hut and take in the sights: men in singlets, stuffed crocodiles, buffalo skulls, a pig’s head and piss-take signs.

Interior Design 101 with the Bark Hut.

Interior Design 101 with the Bark Hut.

At the Jabiru Bakery, we grab margarine-laden rolls with salami and limpid lettuce, and drive out to Ubirr, Kakadu’s rock art mecca. To get there, we have to cross Magela Creek. It’s the end of the Wet and running at 20 centimetres over the road and we’re nervous newbies in a 2WD. Our first water crossing and I hold my breath, keep a look out for crocodiles. A high five at the end – Ange and I have survived. We pull into the dusty car park at Ubirr and find ourselves wandering the rock art galleries. Way too early for sunset, we lie on the ground and look up at the handprints, the x-ray style barramundi, kangaroos and crocodiles in red ochre and white. No one else is there; it’s just us, swatting flies.

After a couple of hours, we remember the sunset and stumble up the escarpment to a 360-degree view: of flood plains, green and silver, dotted with billabongs, scruffy trees and red, red rocks. I feel suddenly emotional, almost teary, which surprises me.

Nadya in Darwin 195Nadya in Darwin 080

The next day, we take the requisite cruise out on Yellow Water at dawn, marvel at the paperbarks, the pandanus, the glowing orb of sunrise. There are passing crocodiles and fishermen chugging along in tinnies. There’s a jabiru nest, a kingfisher spliced with green, gold and blue, then a sea eagle. Whistling kites float above us and we spy a tiny jacana, the Jesus bird, who pads around on lilies and walks on water. The sky is mauve then pink and smouldering orange. It’s beyond wild, more like nature’s had one too many glasses of wine, pashed an ex boyfriend, taken acid and gone on a week-long bender.

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

Being new in Darwin has felt like a handicap up to this point. I still remember waiting at Adelaide airport for my plane, hungover from New Year’s Eve, feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. I didn’t know anyone, or really anything, about my new home. But in Kakadu, my newness feels like a gift. I revel in the colours, sights and tropical smells still so exotic to a Mexican from Down South.

When we come back to Darwin, my legs are covered with mosquito bites. I can’t stop scratching. They soon get infected and I have to get antibiotics. But I’ve fallen hard for Kakadu: the flood plains, the jacanas, the growling crocodiles and the egrets that are brave enough to perch next to them on the banks of the billabong.

I’m not sure what to say to Bev. But I’m pretty sure she sees me for the lily-livered, green can spurning, Kakadu-lover that I am, anyway.

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

New Year’s Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1. More made up names for babies.

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

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

#2. Don’t become an NT News headline.

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

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

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

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

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

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#3. Adopt an unusual pet.

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

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

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

Charlie the Buffalo - gone but not forgotten.

Charlie the Buffalo – gone but not forgotten.

#4. Greg! The stop sign!

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

It gets better than that, but not much.

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

Possibly the ultimate Territory tatt. Thank you, Internet.

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

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

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

That’s democracy.

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

Who could forget this tattooed gem?

Who could forget this tattooed gem?

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

A dalliance with Alice Springs

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

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

In a big country, dreams stay with you

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

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

henley to mt gillen 036

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

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

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

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

open garden ilparpa 037

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

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

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

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

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

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

A for Alice Springs?

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

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

I hoped we could still be friends.

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

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

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

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.

Cobourg or bust

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I’ve just come back from a week in one of the more remote parts of the Territory. The Cobourg Peninsula is 570 kilometres North-East of Darwin by road. It’s a trip that takes you over the East Alligator River at Cahill’s Crossing and through the Aboriginal community of Gunbalanya. You go past billabongs and into the Murganella Plains, skirting half a dozen family outstations and over corrugated roads. Dust on the windscreen, coating the wheel rims and up the nose, all the way to Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. This is home to the Arrarrkbi people and approximately eleventy million crocodiles. Entry by permit only.

Was it an experience of a lifetime? Yes, yes it was. Was it a holiday? No, I would not say that. Unless your fantasy holiday involves eight adults (including your father-in-law), four kids under the age of four, mosquitoes the size of rats, searing sun, being in a perpetual state of rank body odour, little shade and gorgeous beaches where you can’t swim for the crocodiles.

The latter, my friends, is the true meaning of waterboarding.

No, this kind of holiday is called “fulfilling your partner’s dream”. Or, to use the dirtiest, most pursed up and martyred word in the relationship dictionary: compromise.

Ever since Mr Tea bought the boat, he has been salivating at the thought of sailing to Cobourg. Nothing could make his mast more upright, so to speak. Unfortunately for Mr Tea (and more unfortunately for me), I get seasick and have spent many of our sailing weekends curled up in the foetal position wishing for a bullet. I’m not proud of being a reluctant adventurer, but there you have it.

Which brings us to the classic relationship fight – I don’t like doing what you like doing…so how will we spend our holidays?

It’s a first world problem, certainly. I’ve got plenty of those: including the battery life of my IPhone, the quality of café-poached eggs in Darwin and the fact that we live up three flights of stairs. But nonetheless, the Cobourg dream has been a source of tension for sometime. The Sick doesn’t help matters. There may have been a few fights. There may have been some tears. I might have preferred to drink tea in Tokyo, or lie on the beach in Bali. Or to have stayed home on the couch and re-watched every available episode of True Detective.

But instead, eight days ago, I found myself in a car with my father in law, while Mr Tea sailed 150 nautical miles from Darwin to Black Point.

Still, we were in excellent company and a veritable flotilla of 4WDs.

Let me introduce you to the rest of our touring party:

Andy and Prue: good friends of ours.

Andy is an avid fisherman, whiz chef (I can vouch for his camp oven damper) and master of all things related to the esky. Long live block ice. Prue is an environmental campaigner and master twin wrangler. The carat for her future engagement ring may or may not have got bigger each time Andy headed off fishing and left her with the girls.

Tom and Anna: friends of Prue and Andy’s.

Tom: renowned erradicator of weeds, bush tucker maestro (fresh oysters off the rocks, anyone?) and patient father. Anna: primary school teacher, even more patient mother of two and detoxer with a will of iron (sorry about the double chocolate brownies, Anna). Purveyors of the finest home-made curry. Owners of a temperamental Toyota 100 Series Landcruiser.

Meg and Edie: Andy and Prue’s twin girls.

They just turned 3 and had two cakes to mark the occasion: a dinosaur and a butterfly (their choice). They like: weeing standing up, eating pesto pasta off their tummies, changing into clean clothes and then rubbing each other into the dirt.

Sophie: 3 and a half. Belongs to Tom and Anna.

Much bigger than Meg and Edie, who are only just 3. Likes: wearing a pink Dorothy the Dinosaur hoodie and looking for crabs in rock pools. Dislikes: getting car sick on windy, corrugated roads. Fair enough, too.

Milly: 18 months. Belongs to Tom and Anna.

Likes: singing twinkle twinkle little star (she mashes it up with Baa Baa Black sheep, a bit of campsite freestylin’, know what I mean? – “baa ba baa ba baa baa ba”)

Dislikes: sleeping through the night.

Mr Tea Snr: My father-in-law.

Superhero qualities include tetris-like packing of the Prado, driving long distances and putting up with my car music choices.

Likes: fixing engines, talking about tractors, and I couldn’t quite follow, but something about hydraulics. Also enjoys telling Mr Tea where he is going wrong.

James: Lindsay’s First Mate and a loveable over achiever who tracks down orang-utans in Indonesia, dives with sharks, climbs mountains and wrestles crocodiles with his bare hands (well, he would if it was necessary).

James likes: making tea in the morning (high five for James), finding turtle tracks and ticking things off his bucket list.

Dislikes: nothing. Much too positive for that.

Uneasy with: cooking and small children or “rug rats”.

Miranda Tea: Yep, that’s me.

Likes: going to bed early, bringing enough food for three small African countries, clean sheets, being gourmet and force feeding people brownies. Again, sorry Anna.

Dislikes: mosquitoes, falling over, extreme heat and having dirty feet. Which was unfortunate, given the circumstances…

Biggest trip planning error: changing heart and blood pressure medications two days before leaving. Now there’s a trap for young players.

And of course, last but not least, the irrepressible Mr Tea…who has been planning his Cobourg sailing trip forever, who spent his life savings on boat gear (yep, that’s the technical term) and who may have been found reading the tide charts and nautical maps in bed for the last six months.

Likes: being the Captain, his new sounder and putting up the spinnaker.

Dislikes: being told what to do by his father.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in the end, surprisingly little. I did sprain my ankle on a bushwalk around the cultural centre deemed “easy”. The Landcruiser had a few hiccups. The Mr Teas had a few power struggles. Despite kilometres of sparsely populated and pristine coast line, none of us were much good at catching fish, but there were a couple of intellectually challenged barramundi that fell onto fishing rods by the time we left.

For all my reluctant adventurer guff, Cobourg does earn its place on the bucket list. It’s the remote Northern Territory at its best: stark and windswept beaches, mangroves, wetlands, miles of ocean, milky blue bays and all the wildlife that comes with that.

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The crocodile crossing sign isn’t a tourist gimmick: you can see the slide marks and the claw prints in the sand. The stretch of dunes between the croc’s favourite stomping grounds of swamp and ocean are littered with flaky white bones, the remnants of Banteng cattle (at least, I hope it’s just the cattle).

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There are turtles nesting up and down the beach and birds circling, ducking and diving over big schools of Giant Trevally and Spanish Mackerel. At night, when I made the trek to the composting toilets (luxury!), my head torch reflected off hundreds of tiny spiders on the ground. Under the light, they gleam like loose diamonds in the dust. We saw snakes writhing in unison, making love under the Milky Way. On a drive up windswept Smith Point, Mr Tea Snr saw two black spots bobbing in the water. With binoculars, we eventually deduced that it was a crocodile with a turtle in its mouth.

Survival of the fittest, indeed.

For hundreds of years, the Cobourg Peninsula has also been a curious intersection of people: Aboriginal clans, European colonisers, Macassan traders seeking trepang.

We took the yacht out to Victoria Settlement, built in the 1830s as the third European attempt to settle in Northern Australia.

It’s only accessible by sea. The day we go, the water is like glass and the outboard sputters through the ocean, past deep red cliffs and white sandy beaches. We pull up at a place called Record Point and a dozen sting rays swarm around the yacht in the shallows.

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It’s another hour or so to the Settlement. On a three kilometre hike around the headland, you can still see the remnants of the hospital, garrison, cemetery and stone houses replete with Cornish style chimneys. Just what you need in this Territory climate. There are broken pieces of 19th Century glass bottles on the beach and ceramic fragments in the crumbling kitchens. It’s strange to imagine those soldiers in red uniform and women in wool dresses with leg of mutton sleeves, so very ill-equipped for the elements. Perhaps not surprisingly, a quarter of the population perished of malaria and the settlement was eventually abandoned in 1849 after 11 years, many (most?) happy to up sticks and leave a hell of their own making.

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That’s the remote Northern Territory for you: dazzling, devastating, deadly.

On our last morning, we make tea, throw out spoiled veggies and pack up camp.

It’s a slightly lighter load for the Prado when James and I get in for the long road trip back to Darwin. We make jokes about removing all sharp objects from the yacht and leave Mr Tea and Mr Tea Snr at the beach on Black Point to make the sail back to Darwin, hopefully unscathed by the weather and each other.

Home again, home again, jiggety jig. My feet still have the dust imprint of my Birkenstocks and I have a few days to scratch at my mosquito bites while I wait for Mr Tea.

Who am I kidding? I’m off to Bali for a real holiday.

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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Reporting from Arnhem Land

“Fuck Maningrida.”

That’s what the graffiti scrawled on the community store says. They’re harsh words, angry words, and they give me a jolt as I sit on the nice clean mini bus while someone fetches my lunch.

I’m with a dozen other journalists from around the Territory waiting to tour the community and report on a trachoma eradication program there.

It’s a good news story that’s a bad news story. Trachoma is a communicable disease that can cause blindness; it’s a bacterial infection in the eye linked to poor hygiene and poverty. It’s predominantly found in the third world, but is badly affecting Aboriginal people in first world Australia. And the levels of trachoma in Maningrida are particularly high: the community of 3000 people is one of the biggest in the Northern Territory and overcrowding is rife.

So with all that in mind, we board a charter flight one Wednesday morning at 7am. Like a packhorse strapped with recording equipment, I clamber into the fixed wing plane and we take off with small jumps through the turbulence. The landscape out my scratched window is spectacular as we pass over the snaking waterways and remote coastline all the way to Arnhem Land.

Reporting in remote communities is problematic for many reasons, as you might expect.  For a start, it costs around $600 for a return flight from Darwin to Maningrida, or Elcho Island, or Wadeye, so few media organisations are willing to cough up those kinds of funds, and if they do, it’s not very often. Mostly, remote reporting is done when the Territory or Federal Government (or an NGO) charters a plane and invites journos along. The terms of the story and the itinerary are understood and most reporters don’t deviate too much from that script. Besides, there isn’t time, there are language barriers, there are deadlines and media talent is always hard to find, beyond the faces provided by the organisation in charge.

So here I am, on a hot and sticky morning in Maningrida.

I’m tempted to take a photo of the community store graffiti, but while I’m wondering if that will be frowned upon (and rustling around for my camera), the mini bus moves on. I’m sitting next to one of the newly elected ministers in the Territory Government and we make small talk and watch the handful of mangy dogs that chase after our mini bus.

First stop is a house with a trampoline, half a dozen kids, and a mother who doubles as one of Maningrida’s outreach health workers. The TV cameras and microphones come out quickly as doctors dole out medicine alongside pieces of fruit for the kids.

Maningrida truck

One journalist gets his grab from an older man who stops by for his dose.

He says he’s had bad eye problems in the past, and the journo records that onto his IPhone, immediately edits it and presses send. After he does that, it comes out that in fact the eye problem this guy is talking about happened with an argument and a glass of beer.

As we go from house to house, interviewing locals, doctors and health workers, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that we’ve turned the joint into a zoo. The media crushes around families as they are dispensed medicine, and gets footage of kids being measured, weighed and examined. We’re another pack of camp dogs, only with flashing cameras, broad brimmed hats and packed lunches. The health workers grin and bear it; for that matter, so do the locals albeit with a degree of suspicion and fatigue.

The pollies gather for a press conference on the lawns of one of the better community houses, overlooking the Arafura Sea. The house belongs to one of the traditional owners, I gather, and I watch the pollies shake hands and slap backs. Most of the journos stand in a line and fire questions. I hold out my microphone and record but after a while I get bored and wander away to talk to some of the women holding kids. Some of them are earning money working on the program, and they’re happy. There’s a health worker dressed as a jolly green goanna, the program mascot, and the kids are happy with that.

It all feels quite surreal.

After the press conference, a couple of the TV crews still want some more footage, so we walk down the road. The houses here aren’t as tidy as the earlier part of the Maningrida tour; there are more dogs, more car bodies, more rubbish spilling out of cracked bins.

Community home in Maningrida.

We get to one home and the health team says that this family are happy to be videoed, just don’t step on that piece of corrugated iron by the verandah.

The TV girls start recording their pieces to camera, while some of the women and kids sit on the concrete floor outside their home. An older woman wears a T-shirt that says I’d like to help you out. Which way did you come in?

The walls are smeared with dirt and hand prints. The tiles around the door are dirty and there’s black plastic over one of the windows.  A handful of kids play with plastic toys, textas and eat chips from the local takeaway, some from the ground.

Then a cameraman from Channel 9 stands on the contraband piece of corrugated iron. He almost retches from the smell. The corrugated iron is covering a litter of dead puppies, just centimetres from the kids and the plastic toys and the chips on the ground.

It’s an awkward moment: the smell, the kids, the health workers, the householders and the cameras. The litter of dead puppies. The corrugated iron grave.

Afterwards, everyone gets on the bus and no one knows quite what to say. We drive back to the airport, get back on the plane, go back to Darwin. In my report on air, I tell the facts and figures of trachoma and the eradication program in Maningrida, but I know I haven’t done my job properly. That wasn’t the story and neither is the one I have just written for you now.

Dr Rainlove

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wet Season (again)

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I moved to Darwin seven years ago this January, so I know the monsoon deal well.

Dark clouds, thunder, lightning, pouring rain, sunshine, humidity, repeat.

And I loved it too. The chaos of the storms. Negotiating sudden flooding on Bagot Road in a hatchback. The thrill of the temperature dropping to 25 degrees and reading a book on the couch in your tracksuit pants, fans turned off.

I loved all the different kinds of rain: fat rain, skinny rain, sleeting rain, sheets of rain. I loved the way it smelled and I loved the way I’d get out of swimming laps because the pool must close during a thunderstorm.

I even had three different umbrellas for the spectrum between casual and formal wear.

But somehow, somewhere, in the two weeks of monsoon since I got back from holidays, I lost the love. I’m prepared to take hate mail now from rusted on Territorians, bushfire beleaguered Southerners and The Farmers, but there you have it.

I’m not sure what tipped me over the edge. It all started with 12 straight days of rain, load upon load of washing that never dried and a cupboard full of mouldy shoes that even ten bottles of oil of cloves, three pairs of pantyhose and Shannon Lush couldn’t fix.

There was the smell in the back of Mr Tea’s car like something had died, nay that something crawled in between the spare tyre and canvas fly with the sole, spiteful intention of inflicting stench. Then again, that could just be the golf buggy Mr Tea found at the dump. (“Just $5! And I’ve wanted one of those for ages”, he told me.)

Every social invitation we received was to a farewell, as friend after friend moved south for new jobs, study, opportunities and to bring their kids up closer to family.

The only song in my head was by Mental as Anything. I found myself humming in the car…“If you leave me, can I come too?”

Add to this the general climate of back to work blues, or in my case, not back to work blues. And by the end of last week, the inside of my brain smelled like an open sewer in South East Asia and the soundtrack was even worse.

…You’ll never get better your career is over you’re hopeless you have to lie down after you have a shower you won’t be able to work full time ever again you’re a financial burden you’re a shit friend you let everyone down you’re a burden to your family everyone thinks you’re boring now why can’t you just get better why do you have to be such a broken down loser…

Yep.

I was ready to curl up in the car with the thing that died (or the golf buggy) and call it a day. So it was with limited enthusiasm that I agreed to join Mr Tea for a monsoonal weekend away.

And we didn’t get off to the best start.

“Shall we go down the back road to Litchfield?” asked Mr Tea

Umm, OK, I said.  Is it even open? Won’t it be flooded?

“Why don’t you check the road report?” said Mr Tea.

I checked the road report.

It’s flooded, I said.

“Let’s try anyway”, said Mr Tea.

Let history record that the road was, indeed, flooded, and we had to turn around and go back the way we came.

The dark space in my brain was still pretty fetid at this stage.

But over the weekend, the black clouds hovering over the highway started to become beautiful again. The magpie geese honked, the station horses brayed. The termite mound scarecrows, dressed in high vis and sodden Carlton Draught caps, made me smile. So did the bullet holes in road signs and the Stuart Highway wit who put up the placard “Emerald Springs: Population 1”. I drank a delicious mango smoothie in Pine Creek and we stripped off for a brave swim in the raging flood waters of Mother’s Day Gorge.

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

I remembered that this time of year there are more shades of green than we have words or Dulux paint chips for. Fluorescent green, pandanus green, eucalyptus green, green with a sheen of mud, where the water levels have dropped. Kaffir lime green, spear grass green, unripe guava green and dew soaked green.

On the way back to Darwin, we drove back to Litchfield for a walk and swim in my favourite secret spot.

Just as we arrived, the rain began again, with interest.

I was a bit nervous about scaling a waterfall in torrential weather, but we walked in anyway. And as the rain soaked my hair, my shirt, my trousers and then my sneakers and socks, I felt more and more elated.

Pink pretties in the rain (also known, I think, as native ginger flowers, step in now naturalists...)  Litchfield National Park.

Pink pretties in the rain (also known, I think, as native ginger flowers, step in now naturalists…)
Litchfield National Park.

The rainforest was alive and green—all those many kinds of green—and the trees were covered in intricate fungi. An entire corridor of native ginger plants had burst into pink and yellow flowers. The path had become a creek and every step up the escarpment was trickling with water. By the time we got to the top, the waterfall was bursting at the seams. I was so sodden, I jumped into the falls with my clothes still on.

“You look like a drowned rat”, said Mr Tea. “An excited drowned rat.”

Isn’t this terrific, I enthused.

Mr Tea agreed that it was terrific.

Isn’t this just life affirming!

“Yes”, he said.

There was a 40% chance that Mr Tea was not finding our walk in the rain especially terrific or life affirming, but he’s good like that.

We sloshed back to the car, made sandwiches out of the stale bread we had left over and I felt a sense of calm for the first time in weeks.

This morning, I’m back in Darwin and it’s raining again. The record in my brain is still playing, broken bore that it is, but at least it’s a bit quieter. Like any good tailings dam, my mind might take a few decades to clean up, but it’s nice right now to have fresh memories of all those beautiful black clouds and the many, many shades of wet season green.

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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.

green ants

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.

This is the build up

Yesterday I was doing the washing up in my bra and undies.

I hesitated on the undergarment terminology for a second there, but yes. I’d like to say knickers but that suggests lace, and the word panties makes me want to stick my finger down my throat. Or make random accusations of paedophilia. Nope, they’re definitely undies when you’re sweating it out over the sink.

I wasn’t trying to give the neighbours a show. Nor was I getting ready for a surprise visit from the electrician, wow wow wackka wackka wow wow. There just wasn’t any point in wearing clothes. It was 32 degrees, eleventy hundred percent humidity and I’d already had my second shower for the day around noon.

This time of year in Darwin is perverse. It’s even worse when you go from a sanctuary of air conditioning into the fray. When I was working, to go get lunch we’d have to cross two alleyways of pavement to awning concrete. My friend Anna used to call it 30 seconds on High. It was a gauntlet you’d brave only to grab a sandwich or laksa.

The build up makes you fantasise about rain. Dream about rain. You can be doing something really nice, like getting a massage or eating a piece of cake and you think, how much BETTER would this be if it was raining? You count clouds. You refresh the BOM website. You start tapping your veins. You’d break into someone’s car to get rain if it was sitting on the passenger seat.

And I moved to Darwin FOR the rain. I was tired of drought and water restrictions and the lit up sign on Barry Drive that reported how low the dam levels were in Canberra. I wanted lush green lawns and tropical gardens. I wanted to be in a town where the locals watered their driveways.

Most Territorians encourage people to visit in the Dry Season. I waxed lyrical about all the rain you could see from December to February.

You can just sit on the verandah and watch it, I enthused.

Well, Mother Nature must have felt sorry for this rain crack addict. Or she wanted me to put some clothes on. At around 3am this morning, it rained.

No, it didn’t just rain. It poured. Fat rain, horizontal rain, stinging rain. The lightning curled around the street lights, the thunder smashed like dinner plates. 98 millimetres at the airport, 85 at Nightcliff pool.

When I lived in Tonga, they had a word for rain that heavy: faka’uha. And yes, it’s pronounced as per the expletive.  Faka’uha was rain you could have a bath or shower in. Whenever there was a downpour, I remember my Tongan host mother grabbing the shampoo and running outside to lather up. The chickens and pigs would be scuttling for cover, but she’d be out in the yard, singing in the shower.

I should have gone out at 3am this morning to faka’uha.

When I woke up again, the rain had finished. The sky was grey and the air was cooler and I could think again.

By lunchtime the steam was rising.

And in two hours I’ll be washing up in my bra and undies again, tapping my veins, sweating into the sink and dreaming of rain again.

Poinciana picnic

Flame trees at East Point

Flame trees at East Point

I’m going to be away for my best friend’s birthday and she’s not happy. So one Sunday afternoon, I buy a bottle of Moet, some strawberries and olives and pick her up for a surprise picnic at East Point. We pick a luscious Poinciana tree glowing in the sunset light and get comfy: fold out chairs, esky, plates of food. I’ve even packed real glasses – champagne flutes and water tumblers.

We’re sitting there, talking about nothing and everything. The red orb of sun folds into the sea. It gets darker and darker and soon there’s just the light from the street and the tanker across the harbour, and a voice makes us jump.

“Ladies? Excuse me, ladies?”

It’s a man in his 40s, bald, well-built, shirtless, on a bike, eyes slightly rolled back in his head, words slurred.

“Ladies, could I beg some of your water for my dog?”

Of course, sure, no problem, we say too quickly.

The dog is nowhere to be seen.

He opens the bottle of water and glugs down half a litre or so, then throws it back to us.

“Thanks. My dog’s called Amos, he’s a harmless little thing.”

The man rides off, and moments later, a giant pig dog comes and sniffs around our picnic and the hermit crabs diligently combing the sand.

My friend hisses and the dog hesitates.

A slurred voice from the dark.

“Amos?”

There’s a whistle, and the water borrowing man and his pig dog disappear into the night.