Genesis

This year marks a decade for me Up North. It feels like an anniversary worth marking. But am I a Territorian yet? Yes. No. I’m not sure. Probably not.

A quick lesson in Australian demography, if you don’t mind. Ahem. Let me get my whiteboard. There are Territorians and then there are Southerners. Arguably, there are also Mexicans, Banana Benders, Sandgropers and Crow Eaters, but really Australia is just made up of Territorians and Southerners.

The NT News created this handy infographic to deal with any confusion

In the media, we’re pretty quick to handover Honorary Territorian status. Olympic swimmer Geoff Huegill spent his first few months in Gove? That’s a Territorian tick! The Beatles transited through the airport in 1964 – give them a key to the city! Cadel Evans was born in Katherine Hospital but now says Victoria is home? Put up a sign at the city limits!

But if you’re not a celebrity, Territorian is a status awarded via the more traditional measure of number-crunching, namely your years of residency, though occasionally a sufficient number of buffalo hunted, crocodiles wrestled, cane toads busted or drink-driving arrests will suffice. The generous hearted might make you a local at twenty years, others will say thirty. Forty. The highest echelons of local are of course reserved for the born, the bred. The born and bred. The families with thousands of years under their feet, or at least, several generations. The rest of us are missionaries, misfits and mercenaries; blow ins, FIFOs and fly-by-nighters.

…You may find yourself 
living in a shotgun shack
and you may find yourself
in another part of the world
and you may find yourself
behind the wheel of a large automobile
and you may find yourself in a beautiful house
with a beautiful wife
and you may ask yourself, well,
how did I get here?

Like Talking Heads, I’ve been asking myself that question.

The idea of Darwin first seeped into my consciousness at the age of eight. The ABC was screening a children’s series called Touch the Sun. The trailers are fairly excruciating to revisit now, but at the time I was mesmerised by the stories. There was a boy named Peter who lived in a caravan park and found the ruin of a Roman ship in a cave. In another episode, a group of kids with bad haircuts disappeared into the Tasmanian wilderness to bring home some missing cattle. There were a couple of pre-teens from Melbourne who won land in South-West WA on a game show, and travelled over there to see it with an eccentric Grandfather. But the story that appealed to me most was set in the Top End. It was the story of a rambunctious 11-year-old named Alice (who had the best blond mullet and ‘80s specs you can imagine). It was all styled to scream frontier. Alice lived in an elevated house, all louvres and mosquito nets, with her single mother who had a night job at the casino. She could drive (the family mini moke and a stolen boat); she knew how to hitch-hike (to Kakadu with her friend Mick, who had a family outstation that way). When they ran out of money, Alice and Mick busked at a truck stop and earned enough money to buy burgers and chips with a fistful of pink notes left over, the paper kind. I spent hours fantasising about running away from home, adventuring, consorting with characters, and also being able to buy my own McHappy meal. Alice was living my dream.

So maybe my Darwin story starts there. But it also begins in the Kingdom of Tonga. At the (highly unqualified) age of 22, I applied for a job running a youth magazine and radio show in the capital, Nuku’alofa. And got it. I didn’t know much about the country at all and the information online was scant (all a quick Google turned up in 2002 was that the place had a King and that he had some weight-loss issues, but didn’t we all, I thought?)

As a bright eyed and bushy tailed Australian Volunteer, I got off the plane, was handed a pungent lei made out of frangipanis, pandanus fruit and lollies in colourful wrappers, and was bundled into one of Nuku’alofa’s best taxis, the windows stitched together with sticky tape. My culture shock barometer sky rocketed. My sunglasses fogged up. We drove into town, past tiny corner stores filled with packets of two minute noodles and cordial frozen in plastic bags (local ice blocks).

And then we passed the prison. The fence was waist-high, if that.

“Sometimes, the prisoners borrow the guard’s car and go into town to pick up supplies. Nobody minds. They come back,” my in-country manager told me.

I think I fell in love with the Pacific at that moment.

I kept travelling. Samoa, Vanuatu. I nearly took a job in PNG but knocked it back when my boss-to-be told me she was cooped up in the compound, waiting for payback from some Highlanders.

I was looking for something humid with palm trees but with limited to no chance of a car jacking. Maybe a little less church on Sundays and more tolerance for singlets and shorts. Darwin soon came to the top of my things to do list.

And so I came to the Territory for the first time in 2006, a rookie arts reporter for Triple J. It was a gig I couldn’t put my hand up for fast enough. I interviewed buskers, graphic artists, dancers, musos, and photographers in Darwin, and anyone handy with a crochet needle at the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. There was so much to take in. The hues of the desert, the turquoise of the Arafura Sea, the country men who heckled me when I got amorous with a fellow backpacker in the sand dunes behind Mindil Beach. I promised myself that I would come back to live.

Just six months later, I was installed in a room at the Mirambeena Resort with two suitcases and a 12 month employment contract in my clammy hand. It was the second day of January, 2007. What a golden age to arrive in the Top End. Sure, they’d just removed open speed limits but you could still smoke in your hotel room (I didn’t), the front page of the Sunday Territorian comprehensively detailed an ice-cream heist from the service station on Daly Street (Cornettos, Paddle Pops and Golden Gaytimes, all stolen in broad daylight) and I found two green tree frogs mating in my bathroom. On the radio, we spoke to someone who had just pulled a nine feet carpet python out of a toilet.

I fell for the place immediately, and hard.

Admittedly, it didn’t have everything. Channel Ten was missing from the TV schedule then, a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald cost around $7.50 even though it arrived mid-afternoon. A backpacker lounging by the pool in a bikini who thought Darwin seemed “pretty friendly” was considered (page 3) news. Good poached eggs were hard to find. Someone insisted on playing a cover of “Fields of Gold” by Sting on the bongos at Nightcliff Markets. A bloke at the pub tried to pick me up by telling me about the time he attempted to get a lizard stoned by blowing smoke in its face. I met another fella who wanted to wash his car, so he (drunkenly) rammed a fire hydrant. When it came to dating, the odds were good but the goods were definitely odd.

But so much of Darwin was just so great. People ate laksa for breakfast, for God’s sake. My work mates had names like Mango and Fridge and Happy. Another was Australia’s reigning air guitar champion. He’d hung up the axe and come to the Territory for a quieter life. The newspaper published a list of where all the speed cameras would be that week. One of the hotels was offering a beer for every (dead) cane toad brought in (maximum of six). The classifieds section had salt water crocodile skulls for sale. It was widely acceptable to call in sick at work so you could go fishing. There were more boats per capita than anywhere else in Australia. There was roadkill in my friend’s freezer that he planned to taxidermy later. My bourgeoning social life was centred around the costume section at Spotlight, one weekend a pirate party, the next, ‘70s funk. I heard the words come out of my mouth at the Sparty’s till. “That’ll be an eye patch, two swords and a blow-up parrot for me, thanks very much.”

There were bars filled with army jocks and drag queens and bikers and miners and dreadlocked hippies, all playing pool and dancing to the same scratched CDs (live music back then, something that wasn’t a bloke with said compact disc collection, anything at all, caused a flurry of inter-office emailing). There was rain, buckets of it, even rivers of the stuff. I felt like Forrest Gump, marvelling at it from my balcony: fat rain, thin rain, stinging rain, flooding rain…

With the same slack-jawed awe that I gazed out of the broken taxi window in Tonga, in that first year, I soaked up everything the Territory had to offer. Footy on the Tiwi Islands and ferry rides to the pub with no chips in Mandorah. Car boots overflowing with mangos, then pineapples, rambutans, dragon fruit and watermelons, depending on the season.

There were bush bands to see at Barunga, tinnys to jump in, mud crabs to catch, rock art galleries to see, gorges to swim, magnetic termite mounds to ponder, festivals to dance at, fish to reel in with a borrowed rod, sunsets to soak up, fake hens nights to host. Swimmers and towel were a permanent fixture in my car. It was a far cry from my childhood in the national capital.

It’s hard to believe that it’s now 2017 and I take all of those things for granted.

And many aspects of Territory life are still the same. Like the menu at Hanuman. The (yet to be completed) Parthenon on Dick Ward Drive. The snakes and frogs in the toilet. The line for Mary’s Laksa. Tits out Tuesday lives on. We’re still Developing the North, Creating the Nation’s Northern Food Bowl, arguing about letting off fireworks on Territory Day.

But the NT has also changed in ten years. The Government, at least—if not the issues, which require far more space than this short, glib, and mostly naval gazing blog post—from Labor to Country Liberal and back again, with five chief ministers in a decade and plenty more aspirants. There are new suburbs, houses, apartment blocks. A harbour filled with INPEX. The CBD is taller. We have a wave pool. Trevor the Rubbish Warrior has now turned his hand to public art and town council politics. We have a hipster café scene with all the baked eggs and pulled pork you could ever dream of. The real estate market has boomed and busted.

As for me? Well, I’ve boomed and busted, too. I arrived as a single, (sorta) gung ho, young(ish) journalist – determined to make life and heart changing radio. I’ve succeeded and I’ve failed. I’ve left Darwin and come back, left and come back. I had to shelve my ambition for a serious illness, then for a baby. Right now, I’m a stay at home Mum, at least for another year.

It’s funny to look back on those first few weeks with decade-coloured glasses. Significance comes later; it always does. I met one of my best Darwin girlfriends soon after I arrived – at a farewell dinner where every other person at the table was planning to leave town. I got her number, pronto. We drove to Kakadu for the first time together, shared a house for years. She’s called Nhulunbuy and Alice Springs home, too, over the last decade, but now we’re both in Darwin again, living a suburb apart. I also met Mr Tea for the first time in those early months, playing on a rag-tag Ultimate Frisbee team. I didn’t get his name but we would cross paths at house parties for years, between stints in Broome and Alice for me, Timor and the Solomon Islands for him.

Now we have a child. We’re getting married in July. A few weeks ago, I tried on big, white dresses in a bridal shop with a painted buffalo skull in the dressing room. In case you’re wondering, some of Darwin’s fanciest bridal couture can be found in the Wulagi Shops, on a strip hosting an old school fish and chippery, a mobile vet and an IGA with a lolly counter that my 1988 childhood wants back (milkos and sherbies and redskins, oh my!)

Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

But Darwin? I’ll gladly be a Territorian, if you’ll have me. Down South feels like a long time ago now.

Take me out

They say if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there. The same could be said of Mitchell Street, the dodgy epicentre of Darwin’s nightlife. And what would it matter anyway, you might ask, if no one remembered the Hot Potato at lock-out time, the very particular texture of a Tommo’s pie at 2am or that Tits Out happened on a Tuesday?

Still, this is our history, unfolding one dirty bar napkin at a time. Maybe future generations will sit around the campfire and sing songs about the middle-aged men with folders of scratched CDs who were billed as “live music” and the cover bands who could play any set you liked as long as it included “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. About the skinny girls with six-inch gel nails and the bearded boys who wore their best going-out thongs to impress them. About the time a legless Defence Force lad offered to buy “five Bacardi Breezers for five lovely ladies”, and then, when we politely declined, threw a chair at us and said “Fuck offffff, you fat bitches!”

Ah, the memories.

And having punched fewer Army jocks and consumed less Vodka Cruisers than many of my Territory brethren, I’m prepared to stand witness. So, let me take you back to 2007 – my Darwin going-out heyday. It was a time when Facebook was still nascent, phones came without high-definition cameras, selfies hadn’t been invented yet, and cab drivers still had to pull out paper maps when you couldn’t find your own house at 3am. Call me Samuel Pepys if you like, but we WILL remember.

Act 1, or, “In Darwin, God is a taxi driver”

“Just don’t let me near any rumbos,” my new friend Nick said. He looked sheepish. “I get a bit punchy on rum.”

Really?

“Yep. Only time I ever got into a fight. Policeman told me: Son. Rum and Coke. It’s not your drink.”

It was just your standard post dinner party small talk, on a regular Saturday night in Darwin. We were hanging out in an elevated house somewhere in Nightcliff. Fooling around with a ride on Esky that two of my mates had bought for a comedy sketch and picking at a bowl of chips that had gone soggy within 10 minutes of being out of the packet. Things had started to get a little dull.

“Let’s go out! Let’s go out! Let’s go out!” The rallying cry spread like herpes. From the living room where SingStar reigned to the plunge pool in the backyard, the collective wisdom was that it was time to find a trashy dance floor, more alcohol or a backpacker to pash, depending on personal preferences.

So town it was, as long as Nick didn’t have any rumbos. The only issue was getting there.

“No problem,” said our mate Tom. “I’ll just call God and get a taxi.”

We chortled. “Call God! Good one!”

“No seriously,” said Tom. “In Darwin, God is a taxi driver.”

We waited around 15 minutes and sure enough, God pulled up in a mini van. God’s business card sat up on the dashboard, a proud testament to the power of home printing and Comic Sans. He greeted us cheerfully.

God? Since when did you become a taxi driver?

“Weeellllll”, he said. “You could say it was a calling. A divine calling. Or you might just say my name was Godfrey.”

He chuckled to himself.

God’s taxi lurched into the night. Down Bagot Road, past the 24-hour Maccas and along the Stuart Highway. The bright lights of Sexy Land turned into endless car yards and then we were onto Mitchell Street.

God pulled up at Duck’s Nuts, a bar renowned for its array of artificial vodka flavours and a dance floor that felt like Velcro, sticky with spilled beer and mixed drinks.

He handed out his business card as we clambered out. “Have a good night,” said God. “Just call me when you’re done.” I stashed the card in my purse.

Duck’s Nuts turned into a Mitchell Street bar crawl: Lizard’s, Wisdom, The Tap. A few hours later, mascara bleeding down my face, I stumbled out of The Lost Arc to a lengthy taxi rank. The line up smelled like popcorn and mildew, nail polish and armpits. A young couple dry humped mid queue, smashing crotches and lips together in oblivious ecstasy. On the other side of the street, a victorious footy team smashed half empty beer bottles on the ground as they made their way into Shenanigans. One of the boys left a small pool of vomit sweltering on the asphalt, a passing gift to fellow party goers. Close by, a handful of country men from the local flats busked with clap sticks, a t-shirt scrunched hopefully on the ground in front of them for tips. A souped up HiLux shrieked past with Ricky Martin singing “La Vida Loca” on the car stereo.

I fumbled around in my bag, hoping to skip this whole scene and call on God but wouldn’t you know it, I had lost his number.

Act 2 – Throb, or, How to make friends and influence people

I met Ryder in my first month through a friend of a friend of an acquaintance. He was tall, quite handsome and had ridden up to Darwin from Sydney on a postie bike. Ryder liked working in the garden, capoeira and long walks on the beach. There was a 95% chance that he used to have dreads. He’d grown up in a commune in California, one of those happy families where everyone dressed in orange and learned sitar from the age of four.

Anyway, one Saturday night Ryder and I decided to go to Throb, Darwin’s premier (only) gay nightclub. In those days, Throb was super friendly and you could still smoke inside, meaning things looked hazy even before you had a stiff vodka and soda. The playlist varied, but someone on the decks definitely had a penchant for terrible drum and bass music. They probably still do but now I’m old and have a baby and what would I know.

But the main reason to go was for the floorshow. Throb held (probably still does, but see prior disclaimer about the baby) a stupendous floorshow every Friday and Saturday night. Foxxy Empire, Marzipan, Katherine Gorge and the other Queens teamed up with the Pussy Cats (straight girls for the Defence Force end of the market) and sometimes a midget. The floorshow was all leather, lycra and feathers, with a thin plot based around Barbie, Batman or whatever was playing at the movies that weekend. The humour was bitchy and up the ass, but winsome at the same time. Everyone loved it. Or I should say, nearly everyone loved it.

From memory, this particular Throb show incorporated mini me and BatmanIMG_1852IMG_1864

With all this ahead of us, Ryder and I jumped on the postie and headed into the city. We stood out the front drinking long necks on Smith Street while the sweat dried off. We hadn’t been there long when we were approached by a couple of older men.

One had a ‘70s panel beater haircut, the other was missing a snaggle tooth.

“You guys from around here?”

Yeah, yeah we are, I said.

I probably would have ignored them, but Ryder was a share-the-longneck-with-all kind of guy.

“What are you up to this fine evening, gentlemen?” Ryder asked.

“Just moved here,” said one. “Gonna get one of those jobs in the mines tomorrow, make a shitload of money. Just looking for a place to drink tonight.”

“We were at the Vic,” said his mate. “But now we’re looking for somewhere else. Whadda you guys doing?”

“We’re just about to go to Throb,” said Ryder. “It’s a fantastic club, very friendly. I think you’ll like it. Why don’t you head on up and we’ll see you in there.”

We kept drinking our longnecks and watched the would-be miners walk up a set of stairs studded with trannies, Tongan bouncers and skinny gay boys.

They came back down about two minutes later.

“What’s the matter?” Ryder was genuinely perplexed.

The miners looked at us with disgust. One of them raised his fist, but the other pulled him away and they strode back into the night, muttering faggot cunt, faggot cunt.

I suppose they went back to the Vic Hotel, but I never saw them again.

I hope they made shitloads of money in the mines.

Act 3 – The Fake Hens Night

I was sitting on a balcony with some friends. They lived in a block of flats that just hugged the edges of the CBD, a great place to watch the rolling storm clouds, the Mindil Beach fireworks and the drunks stagger in and out of The Frontier Hotel. Someone had just come back from Mitchell Street and reported a heavier than usual load of Hens and Bucks traffic. Apparently, the road was awash with ladies in candy pink veils and tiaras and men in Team Buck t-shirts, clutching yard glasses.

I had recently learned that the Hens or Bucks Night was an essential Darwin rite of passage, as important to any wedding ceremony as the rings and cake. And Mitchell Street always played host to these big groups of women dancing to Madonna in pink sashes and novelty sunglasses, to the gangs of men singing “Here’s to Jezza, he’s true blue”, as they stumbled down the road always—always!—with a mate called Damo who for some reason decides to wear a dress and then wets himself after 15 Jagerbombs. The bridesmaids favoured the various dance floors; the best men and grooms-to-be could usually be seen heading in and out of the Honey Pot, a strip club that tried to class up the joint by demanding clientele wore collared shirts. What happened on tour stayed on tour. But if the Hens found the Bucks or vice versa, all bets were off, and maybe the Kuta honeymoon as well.

Judging by the prolific nature of bachelor(ette) parties, everyone in Darwin seemed to be tying the knot.

Or were they?

Just how many people were really getting hitched in this town that seemed to mostly live in sin? Maybe Hens and Bucks outings were just another excuse—in a town that needed no excuse—to get rowdy, down litres of grog, flirt, buy penis straws and cadge booze from strangers?

“We could do that,” I posited to the girls. “Not the wetting yourself in a dress bit…but we could have a Hens night and get loads of free drinks. All we need is a bridal veil and a sign written in lipstick. No one even needs to get married.”

Left to me, the Fake Hens Night would have remained just a drunken dream. But luckily I have a friend called Martina. Some people say, others do. Martina is in the latter camp, a woman of action, and within a week, we were at The Cav with a flashing dildo on a string and an itinerary on laminated card. In exchange for our presence, Martina had convinced a number of establishments to give us rounds of drinks, several bottles of Yellow Glen and even some platters of bruschetta. She also brought along a bag full of vinyl bikers hats, plastic swords and a box of lurid make up, and had devised multiple dares and games, the outcomes of which usually led to one being forced to wear one of the costumes or said dildo on a string. My friend Sarah offered to be the Hen De Jour, and as we downed glasses of cheap champagne, we toasted her imaginary husband to be and his equally imaginary entourage of hot groomsmen.

Just as we’d hoped, our party attracted a feast of attention. And men – both with and without their children’s names tattooed on their biceps. More and more drinks flowed from behind the bar and into shot glasses, schooners and plastic champagne flutes. There were bar stool massages for all; a misguided game of limbo. Hens stumbled on and off the dance floor. We ran into my boss, and within half an hour he donned one of the biker’s caps with faux metal chain and was duly decorated in blue eye shadow.

Around 2am, I stumbled out of the pub and straight into a taxi. Unfortunately this one was not driven by God. Scrunched up like an old tissue, I passed out on the back seat. We got to my block of flats on Chapman Road and the taxi driver woke me up.

“That’ll be $23.50,” he said. And then he leered over the top of me.

“By the way, I like your breasts…”

I jumped out of the cab as quickly as I could and raced into my unit. I locked the door behind me, and I swore off booze and Mitchell Street and Hens Nights forever. Or a few weeks, at least.

Only in the Territory – The Baby Edition

You know you’ve given birth in the NT when…

Your obstetrician comes in to break your waters in what looks like his pyjamas and a pair of crocs.

Another local mum-to-be solicits on Facebook: “Wanted: stripper for baby shower…who is willing to dress in a nappy…only needed for 10 minutes. Will pay in beer.”

You find yourself on a plane heading Down South five weeks after birth and your child starts screaming when you put a jumpsuit on him. You realise this is the first time he has worn clothes.

DSC_9136-3

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.”

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. 

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!

Crocodiles, kayaks and other foolhardy adventures

Kakayk 1

We bought two kayaks for $300 in January; that was Mr Tea’s Gumtree bargain of the year. They’re pretty good to look at too: one is mango cheek yellow, the other is Wiggles Skivvy Blue. They’ve got pedals to steer and not-so-waterproof compartments for valuables. You wouldn’t take them to the Olympics, but they’re more than serviceable for a swing around Lake Alexander or the Nightcliff Foreshore. If you’re into that sort of thing.

And mostly, I am not.

For a lot of this year, I’ve been too sick to do much more than walk around the block a couple of times. I left the heavy lifting and paddling to Mr Tea and whichever sucker he could convince to go with him. But on Friday, after weeks of encouragement/peer pressure, I finally agreed to an ocean paddle. We left the house at half-past six in the morning, just as the sun was rising over Rapid Creek footbridge. We parked in the car park that generally hosts the other extreme sportsmen and women of the Foreshore—the kite surfers, paddle boarders and seasonal cyclone surfers—and unloaded the gear. And then I got a little nervous.

It’s a slightly desperate ocean lover that braves the water in Darwin, even in the dry season. I don’t normally get more than one or two dips in between May and October and even those require a certain amount of chutzpah. You need to pack vinegar for a start, and feign confidence in the face of crocodiles and box jellyfish, washed up oil drums, car engines and the odd shopping trolley.

This Friday morning, the ocean was a murky shade of concrete. The surf was sloppy, even by Darwin standards, with ragged waves riding the edge of a high tide. But the air was cool and it all seemed doable, even for a kayak novice like me. I boarded the good ship Wiggle Blue and we set off for paddle.

The view from Mr Tea's infinitely more stable kayak.

The view from Mr Tea’s infinitely more stable kayak.

My kayak soon filled with water, which Mr Tea assured me was normal. I started to wobble. As we rounded Nightcliff pool in deep water crashing over the rocks, I made the rookie error of pausing, paddle balanced in my arms, and glancing over my shoulder. Next thing I knew, I’d inhaled a good lung full of Nightcliff’s best H2O and my kayak was upside down beside me.

What followed can only be described as sheer, unnecessary terror, in which I lost both my water bottle and my dignity.

It took two attempts to remount the kayak, in a manoeuvre that would make even a desperate beached whale blush. Mr Tea rafted up beside me and said encouraging things. Eventually the kayak was upright again and so was I.

At that point, Mr Tea suggested we keep paddling towards the jetty. I suggested that we go home immediately, if not sooner.

“OK”, he said. “Keep paddling and don’t stop. That’s what made you fall in the first time.”

So I kept paddling on my wobbly kayak.

About ten metres ahead of me I saw a head pop up.

Surely not.

I looked again. The black head popped through the wave once more and then it disappeared into ocean foam.

Just a turtle just a turtle just a turtle it’s just a turtle, I told myself.

I paddled furiously. And then there was that black head again, this time right beside me.

It was a size 12 black thong, sitting in a pool of froth. A big, scary, size 12 Thong-odile.

Finally we got back to the rocks in front of the car park, and I surfed a massive (one foot) wave into the shore. Mr Tea grabbed me out of the kayak and a backwash of sand covered us both.

There’s nothing quite like a Thong-odile to get the reluctant adventurer’s heart racing on a Friday morning.

Thong-odile, Log-odile, Crocodile. In my eight years in the Territory, I’ve seen a few.

Crocodylus maximus scarius by the bank in Yellow Waters.

Crocodylus maximus scarius by the bank in Yellow Waters.

When I first moved to Darwin, I wondered about crocodile protocol. I searched the Internet for some kind of rules of engagement. Was it safe to walk on the beach? Would I see a crocodile on the dunes? How should I greet such a thing? Offer it a beer, gesture that I meant no harm and that we could both happily go our separate ways, then piss bolt?

Long-term locals snickered and patted my back, but they weren’t totally convincing.

“Nah, you’ll be right mate. You won’t see one on the beach. Well, probably not. You’d be unlucky. Hmmmmm, I spose people DO see them down Rapid Creek/surfing on Casuarina Beach/in Nightcliff Swimming Pool sometimes. Maybe it’s best not to go swimming anyway, just in case, eh?”

As far as reassurance goes, it’s pretty shaky but that’s exactly the advice I now dole out to house-guests and visiting relatives.

Crocodiles are damned impressive creatures. Awesome and terrifying all at once, there are about 100,000 of the salt water variety in the Top End. They can grow to over six metres in size. A large male can weigh over 200 kilograms. Crocodiles can swim about three times as fast as a human. And they can sense movement a couple of kilometres away. At least that’s what old mate at the pub told me.

Our closest croc call came on a sailing trip to Escape Cliffs. It was one of the early, failed European settlements in Northern Australia. These days, it’s a pocket of mangroves opposite the mouth of the Adelaide River. It’s gorgeous and glorious: on that trip we watched ocean birds duck and dive for fish amid a pod of dolphins. Unfortunately, we were not alone in our voyeurism. As Mr Tea and I sat on the bow taking in the sunset, a curious crocodile began to stalk our boat. He hovered 100 metres away, then 50 metres from our boat. Within minutes, Mr Tea had him at about 20 metres away. And then he came closer again.

Don't let the poor quality zoom on my camera deceive you, dear reader. This croc stalker was getting up close and personal. I tried to file a restraining order but Escape Cliffs is a little short on bureaucrats.

Don’t let the poor quality zoom on my camera deceive you, dear reader. I tried to file a restraining order but Escape Cliffs is a little short on bureaucrats. And Internet.

We decided not to go for a spin in our inflatable dinghy that evening, no late night fishing for us. We kept all arms and legs well inside the confines of the yacht. I gave a little nervous shudder as I turned over to sleep, under the stars and the breeze that ricocheted off the front hatch.

The next day, we did brave the inflatable and set out for shore. I was a little crocodile anxious. We anchored up and gingerly stepped onto the beach, next to turtle tracks. Which we soon realised were the slide marks, claw prints, of a decent sized crocodile. We were about to get back on the boat when a handful of hunters clattered out of the mangroves. They had three giant pig dogs, muzzled and stained with blood.

Mr Tea said G’day. “How’d you go?”

They looked at us for a bit, alien yachties on a crocodile infested beach.

“Orright”, said one of them. “Fuckin’ hot. But we got one.”

They pushed their way down the beach, to wait for a tinny pick up.

“Oi!” one of them yelled back at us. “Youse know those are croc tracks, right?”

IMG_7061

Yep.

Time to go. I hopped on the inflatable and Mr Tea started the motor. We swung around the mangroves. And that’s when I saw our croc again. Mr Tea floored it until we got back to the yacht.

Two or three metres, we guessed, that crocodile stalking us around Escape Cliffs.

Another time I was visiting a friend in Gunbalanya, a community across Cahill’s Crossing in the escarpment country of West Arnhem Land. Paula was a nurse and had been out there for years. She lived in a wooden house with a verandah that overlooked the local billabong, a stunning vista of wetlands, water lillies and birds. And home to a sizeable population of crocodiles. We walked out the front and one of her neighbours signalled that he’d seen a croc just before we came out.

“How big?”

He gestured with his hands, about the size of a legal barramundi.

Oh, I thought. Just a small one. An ankle biter. Nothing to worry about.

Paula nudged me. “See his hands? That’s just how far the crocodile is across.”

Paula’s neighbour was talking width, not length. Turned out that was a bloody big crocodile, and it wasn’t very far away.

My stories pale next to others I’ve heard. There were a couple of fishos who had a crocodile take a bite out of their tinny. A herpetologist I know, Gavin Bedford, once found himself crawling through crocodile tunnels with a miner’s light and a noose around his neck (best not to ask) and hit a wall. He suddenly realised that wall was a crocodile, mouth wide open. Gavin’s head was inside the croc’s mouth. All he could see was yellow and teeth. He beat a pretty quick retreat and probably needed to change his knickers afterward.

Crocodiles haven’t always been so omnipresent. Back in the good old days, namely the ‘50s and ‘60s, Territorians went swimming in Yellow Waters. Sometimes they had a friend watching out with a rifle cocked, just in case, but often they didn’t. Crocodiles were fewer then, and they were scared of humans.

Croc in Corroboree Billabong

Another day, another crocodile. Corroboree Billabong.

But in the ‘70s, the NT Government protected crocodiles and numbers have grown fast ever since. It would be highly unusual now to go out on Adelaide River or Corroboree Billabong or the East Alligator without laying eyes on two or three monsters on top of the water or sitting on the bank, mouth ajar.

And those are just the ones you can see. Go out at night with a torch, shine it around, and the river will glow red with eyes.

Is it time for a cull? Should we bring back the safari hunt? Or simply acknowledge the primacy of our crocodilian friends? This is a topic of uncomfortable conversation in the Top End and I don’t have an answer to those questions. But we have had four deaths by crocodile this year. One man was just emptying a bucket over the side of his boat, not far from the tourist centre of Kakadu.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared each time we launch or retrieve the tinny, knee deep in murky water on the boat ramp. When I fall out of a kayak. When the reeds get caught on the prop in the slender channels that bloom out of Yellow Waters and Mr Tea reaches down to cut it free with a filleting knife. When I think about the time I partook in that great Darwin rite of passage, tubing down Rapid Creek in the middle of the monsoonal rains.

That’s when you really hope, you pray, that any head you see pop up through the froth is a barra bubbling to the surface, a turtle, or just another thong-odile.

Writing Workshop

Nerd that I am, the biennial NT Writers Festival is something I always look forward to. It’s a mixed bag of wordy delights, with both literary heavyweights from Down South (where they gots culture) and cross-eyed, local self publishers (yours truly). The heavies are always shocked by the tropical heat and the absence of high quality espresso, but they gamely press on before going home to write something indignant, hand wringing or misty eyed about their time on the frontier. I, on the other hand, choose to stay here and do the same thing (see: this entire blog).

Ah, blessed are the writers…

Anyway, this year I decided to sign up for a non-fiction writing workshop. Mr Tea declined to join me. Wordstorm what? Christos who? Why would he do that when there was perfectly good boat maintenance to do?

So on the Sunday, I turn up solo at Brown’s Mart for the class. It’s a genial group of scribblers, including a self-published traditional owner, a few journos, a technical writer and a poet called Fred. Between us, we hail from Darwin, Sydney, Tennant Creek, Germany and Alice Springs.

The teacher, Claire, is a softly spoken English woman who has written a travel memoir about Tibet.

She has hefty hand outs and talks us through the process of writing and publishing non-fiction.

Questions indeed...

Questions indeed…

“The most important thing is just to write it all down. Put yourself in the story,” Claire says. “You can’t worry about what other people think.”

Fred interjects at this point.

“You know, that’s it. That’s the truth. For years as a poet, I’ve sent my poems to my parents. And nothing. For them, it’s just words on a page. They never got it. Never understood who I was or what I was doing.

But when I read them aloud, suddenly they loved it. Even the time they came up to Darwin and I was onstage reading my poem about fucking a dog. So why have I been worrying all this time about what they think of my work?”

Claire gently cuts in at this point.

“Mmmm. Yes. Well. We might leave it there for now…Does anyone have anything else to add?”

She turns hopefully to one of the other students.

“Barbara, what do you think?”

Barbara pushes her glasses back up her nose and giggles. “Well, I’d quite like to hear Fred’s poem”.

Fred holds up his hand and wiggles it, as if he is one of Beyonce’s back up dancers.

“Now, now. I didn’t say I fucked a dog,” he says.

“I just wrote a poem about it.”

Telescopes and Taxidermy

“I’ll tell you what, the strangest thing about this job is the perverts.”

Bruce had come to quote and measure up for a new set of blinds in our bedroom, but it turned out he had much more to offer than we initially thought.

“Yesiree. Bayview. Tipperary Waters. Cullen Bay. Full of perverts.”

Minutes before, Bruce had been harping on about having to fly to China to order 35 kilometres of fabric in various shades of Loft Grey and Beige Sepia, and I’d been less than subtle about the fact that we were running late to meet friends for pizza.

But perverts? The pizza could wait.

“Yep”, said Bruce. “Perverts. I go round to put up blinds and they’ve got telescopes on the balcony, every last one of them. And I’ll tell you for nothing, they’re not looking at the bloody moon.”

Having been in the home furnishings business for more than 30 years, Bruce had done the empirical leg work.

Just recently, he’d done a quote for a mining executive in Cullen Bay.

“The guy had three phones and he was on all of them: he hadn’t said a word to me, so I got on with the job, measuring up. In his bedroom was a telescope and while I was waiting I thought I’d have a quick look. It was zoomed right into a woman’s bedroom on the other side of the Bay, so close you could almost touch it.”

Bruce shook his head.

“I backed away straight off; not my business if he’s not looking at the bloody stars.

But he saw me.

He said, “Bruce, it’s not what you think!”

“I said you’re right. Look, whatever floats your boat, up to you.

He said, “No, wait, you don’t understand. I got this to watch the stars and then one day it slipped and landed on a woman across the way. She had a telescope too and she waved. Turned out she had been watching me in the nuddy; I never wear clothes on the roof.”

So now they have a thing.”

Like a telescope relationship?

“So he reckoned. A long distance thing. Everyone’s just watching each other. If you live in a block of flats, someone’s watching you.”

How many telescopes do you reckon you’ve seen in flats around Darwin?

“Oh well,” said Bruce. “I reckon round the water, nearly everyone. Oh nah, there’s a few old people. They don’t have telescopes. And one guy who really does like astronomy. But everyone else does. Most of them are Defence. A few of them have even got surveillance cameras, or they’re doing, whaddaya call it, time lapse. Perverts.”

That's me watching you watching me

That’s me watching you watching me.

He finished writing out our quote and ripped it out of the receipt book.

“I’ll come and do the install in a couple of weeks. You guys don’t have any cats do you?”

Mr Tea shook his head.

“That’s the other thing people have got. Stuffed cats, taxidermied kittens. The fur feels that real.”

Bruce shook his head.

“I did a job last week and I nearly knocked one over with my briefcase. Only then, you see, it turned out that was actually a real cat. He was an old one, 17 years old. Hadn’t moved an inch and then it sprang straight onto my back. Drew blood and all. I was in that much shock, I pulled it off and threw it against the wall. And that was when the owner walked in.”

Somehow this was more shocking than the perverts.

What did you say? I asked.

“I said I thought the bloody thing was stuffed! She said, well it is now!”

He snorted. “I didn’t get that job, I’ll tell you that.”

Bruce started pulling on his sneakers and patted his pocket for smokes.

I wanted to get back onto the perverts, but then his wife rang and Bruce had to go.

What happens on the fishing trip…

The intoxicating muddy waters of the Daly River

The intoxicating muddy waters of the Daly River

It was the weekend of the Daly Barra Classic and the Banyan Farm Tourist Park was chockers when I pulled in at dusk.

It had been a long, lonely drive on a road with signs that said “No Shooting”. I wasn’t quite prepared for wall to wall fishermen. But there they were, and with all the gear: tinnies, tents and caravans for the fancy. The uniform was short shorts and thongs, with a Bundy and Coke. The air was ripe with competition and under arm sweat; mosquito repellent and the kind of words you don’t use around Nana.

I was in the Daly for a few days of work and I stuck out like a hipster at a rodeo.

“Dinner’s a communal thing”, said Kerry at reception when I checked in.

“Are you happy to eat with everyone else? Otherwise I can set up a table for you on your own.”

Of course, sure, no problems, I said.

“I’ll put you with some of the nicer fellas”, she said kindly.

At 7pm, I walked into the dining hall, a solo woman in a room filled with tattooed testosterone.

Gazza and Terry waved me over immediately.

“You better sit with us”, said Gazza. “Those other blokes are a bit rough.”

We shook hands. Nice to meet you both, I said. How’s the fishing?

Gaz and Terry laughed.

“Let’s just say this”, said Gaz. “It’s fucking lucky I brought plenty of Devon sandwiches.”

I crinkled my nose.

“Devon sandwiches”, said Gaz. “Life does not get better than a Devon sandwich.”

Terry nodded his agreement.

“I even have my own recipe”, Gaz confided.

What’s that?

“Two slices of your freshest white bread. Make sure it hasn’t been frozen. Margarine. Devon – I like a couple of bits, but each man to his own. And a layer of tomato sauce. Bloody beautiful, that is.”

Terry winked and wrapped his mouth around the steak that had been plonked in front of us.

“I could go on and on about Devon”, said Gaz. “So much you can do with it.”

Every fisherman's friend

Every fisherman’s friend

That started a debate down the table. Was it actually even called Devon? What about Fritz? Polony? Baloney? Was it the same thing?

“Well”, said Gaz. “It’s not fucking Pro-siu-to, I’ll tell you that much.”

Gaz was a Michelin star chef when it came to Devon, and he waxed lyrical about his art for our entire main course. Turns out, there are just so many ways to eat Devon. In potato salad. Pasta. You could even put it in a stir fry.

“What about wrapped around those stuffed olives on a toothpick”, said Chris from Knuckey’s Lagoon who was sitting at the other end of the table. “What do you call those? Cocktail olives. I quite like that.”

Gaz pushed back on his chair and swung his legs. His eyes rolled back in his head with ecstasy.

“Devon and olives on a toothpick? I’ll have to try that one.”

Gazza was about the most delightful man I have ever met. He could have found common ground with Kerry Packer, held court with Somali war lords, made peace on the West Bank. In that dining hall near the banks of the Daly River he kept up a gentle pitter patter of conversation that included everyone: me, Kerry from reception, the young guns from Broome who were ready for a barramundi blitz and the older blokes from Larrimah who were short a few teeth.

Gaz told me he had moved to the Sunshine Coast after a long stint on a block at Humpty Doo.

“Yep, I miss the Territory. But you know something? I left for the education. My daughter was at high school in the Rural Area. And they said she was doing great! Middle of the class. Nice girl, doing well, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

“She was colouring in! In Year 9! I’ll tell you what, I wasn’t much good at school in my day, but I’ll be damned if my daughter was going to come middle in her class for colouring in. Now we’ve moved to Queensland and there’s no more colouring in. She’s the bottom of her class, and I could not be happier.”

Gaz beamed with pride and Terry patted him on the back.

The conversation got rougher from there. It started with shoes: how none of the guys would be caught in anything other than a pair of double pluggers. Gaz conceded that he DID, however, have a pair of going out thongs. For special occasions. Adam from Broome said he’d laid down the law to his missus. If she wanted to get married, he was only going to do it in thongs.

Then it got onto footy trips to Bali and what really happened to Adam’s tooth brush when Craig had one too many Sex on the Beach in Kuta.

That’s when I took my leave, but I felt touched to be included for so long.

I didn’t go anywhere near the water, but that Daly Barra Classic was one of the best lessons I’ve ever had on men and fishing and boys weekends away.

I finally got it.

Fishing wasn’t about catching anything. Unless you were a Broome young gun with a competitive chip on your shoulder.

It was about talking shit.

It was about who had the biggest rod and a Shimano reel, and who forgot to bring the gold bombers.

It was about sharing recipes for Devon sandwiches and Bundy and Coke and wearing double pluggers and sweating like a pig.

It was about the time Craig stuck Adam’s toothbrush up his ass in Bali and took a photo, which he didn’t show Adam until the end of the trip.

It was about Gaz telling long stories to Terry and Terry not having to say anything much at all.

It was about male friendship, Territory style.

Guns, business cards and other interior design crimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s genuine spelling and punctuation right there.

But this is my all time favourite:

Leons killing service

Now THERE’S a Territory Tough business card.

Sorry vegetarians. And interior designers.

Afternoon tea with a snake dancer

Frangipani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was that about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck! Fuck! Get her off me!”

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

Tamsin turned back to me.

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

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

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

Bumper Sticker Territory

Eat the peanuts out of my shit.

That’s what the bumper sticker on the ute next to us says.

It’s just…so…specific.

Eat. The. Peanuts. Out. Of. My. Shit.

But then, Territorians love a bumper sticker. It’s our second favourite thing after personalised number plates. In a place where you can drive any car you like as long as it’s diesel, bumper stickers are the means de jour to express personality, eccentricity and anger on the open road.

For example:

I float and I vote = Marginally Political Fisho.

Game fishing is going out with the boys on Her Birthday = Slightly Funny, Mostly Sexist Fisho.

Bundaberg Rum – I like to drink.

Jack lives here – I REALLY like to drink.

Magic Happens = I own a pair of fairy wings.

Fuck off we’re full = Racist. And punctuationist.

It gets confusing when Magic Happens is on a car with a number plate that says SKANKUP, but hey, each to their own.

Another sterling bumper sticker, made even better by the Bundy and Coke can left in the tray of the ute.

Another sterling Territory bumper sticker, made even better by the pre-mix can left in the ute tray.

Mr Tea and I are venturing into Darwin’s Rural Area, and it’s bumper sticker heaven. Where the Hell is Noonamah? screams one Pajero. And then a Hilux speeds by: The Lord Said Unto the Shepherd…Piss off, this is Cattle Country.

The noticeboard at Coolalinga Shops has turkey chicks and quad bikes for sale; someone’s also lost their pet python. $50 reward.

Toto? I don’t think we’re in Nightcliff anymore.

We’ve been home a week and Mr Tea has resumed his favourite interest: looking for boats on Gumtree. He’s managed to find two kayaks for $300 in Bees Creek.

It’s a bargain, so we’ve made the 40 minute trek out to a rural block near the Elizabeth River. After all those months of hankering for rain like a smack addict, it’s finally raining. It’s pouring. The old man is snoring.

We get to Bees Creek and the drive way is a waterfall. A sign proclaims that trespassers will be shot on sight, survivors will be shot again. A rooster and two peacocks are taking cover under the verandah. They nestle under a buffalo skull with horns and a small cross-stitch of a cheerful glass of bubbly that says “Get me a drink!” Three cocker spaniels jump around, while Dave from Bees Creek, owner of the bargain kayaks, greets us and grabs a raincoat for himself and one for Mr Tea.

I’m not a dog person, but I’ve always had a soft spot for cocker spaniels. There’s something about those long ears and pleading eyes.

“We used to have five”, says Dave. “But see that creek down there? They like to chase birds, don’t they? Wound up at the river for a drink and SNAP.”

Yep, this is the rural area. Your pet dog isn’t hit by a neighbour’s car, it’s taken by a crocodile at the bottom of your garden.

Dave leads us out to the shed, and my thong blows out straight away in the rain so I walk barefoot, past a collection of Brahmin cattle, a demountable and some old railway sleepers.

Dave is glad we came today; he has pistol club tomorrow.

The kayaks are in good nick. Dave is a painter and got them from a guy who couldn’t pay up.

“Bloke reckoned they’re worth $500.” He shakes his head.

Mr Tea is drenched in his borrowed Bunnings raincoat but he can barely contain his excitement.

The boat empire continues.

It’s on the way home, $300 lighter and two kayaks heavier, that I spy Mr Eat the Peanuts out of My Shit of earlier bumper sticker fame. He’s driving aggressively, taking over from the left, true to form.

I gawp for awhile. If nice Dave from Bees Creek with his peacock and cocker spaniels is one end of the rural area spectrum, this is the other.

And with that, I’m home. Sri Lanka is over. This is the Northern Territory.

An ode to Territory Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop-up fireworks stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They exploded at ground level and came straight at us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to go home.

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

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

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

Hank chooses Bad Bitch

Hank chooses Bad Bitch