(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.

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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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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

Driving across East Timor

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I’ve hitch-hiked in China, been skydiving in New Zealand and eaten dog in Tonga, but it’s in Timor-Leste that I really decide to take my life in my hands.

We’re going to hire a car.

It seems like a fairly natural thing to do on a holiday, but the roads in Timor are notoriously bad, or nonexistent. Not surprisingly, decades of occupation and tragedy have done little for local infrastructure. The country has about thirty kilometres of good road to rub together. Even in Dili, the pot holes are craterous; some the size of a small car. The roads are so bad that although Baucau—the country’s second largest centre—is just over 120 kilometres away, it will take us five hours to drive there.

But we’ve heard of spectacular beaches and snorkelling to the east. I want to go there.

The microlets, or local buses, are lively but slowed by loads of rice, mattresses and chickens in hand fashioned cages, not to mention the passengers who hang out the door. I spy one heading out of the airport: “God Only Knows” is scrawled on the windscreen next to a lewd cartoon of a green woman in a bikini. All promises of an interesting journey, but no guarantees on the destination.

And for all my early bravado, I’m too scared to get on a motorbike.

So my friend Dimity and I get off the plane, and head straight to the country’s only hire car outlet. They know the roads are bad too and the chance of having an accident is high. No one will insure us, but it seems a deal can be cut to reduce your liability in the likely event that something goes wrong. We hand over a good portion of extra money and agree to go halves if we total the car.

They talk us into a three door Pajero. It has that new car smell, but the tyres look old. None of the other vehicles look more promising. Fingers crossed, we back out of the rental premises and drive onto one of Dili’s many one way streets, the wrong way.

After looping the back streets, we begin the climb up the mountain through folds of rainforest and road side stalls selling coconuts and bedraggled green vegetables.

Eventually, we start to hug the coastline. I’m bemused by pineapple shaped pandanus baskets on tables, one corner after another. We stop. A smiling mother and her four unsmiling children untie the pineapple package to reveal two kilos of sea salt. The road winds on, and the blue ocean to our left is almost blinding. Around one corner, we spy the husk of a troop carrier bearing the UN insignia, roof crushed and windows smashed. It’s only just hanging onto the cliff.

But our more immediate concern is whether we can avoid running over someone’s prized chook. With a radio of limited means, the soundtrack to our journey is the horn, beeping as we attempt to shepherd goats, pigs and chickens away from the wheels. I’ve been warned that road kill will require significant financial compensation, and can end in fists. I don’t have the will or vocabulary for a fight, so it’s slow and steady driving behind the wheel.

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We arrive in Baucau, and the back tyre is looking precariously low. A few false starts lead us to a mechanic whose workshop is decorated with Xanana Gusmao stencils and portraits of Che Guevara. There’s a language barrier. I mime pumping up a tyre to the sudden crowd that has amassed around our vehicle. The Che fan club dissolve into giggles.

Eventually the tyre is pumped, and a container of fuel is strained through a cast off pair of shorts and funnelled into our tank. This is the petrol station, apparently.

The road trip continues. It’s as if we’ve passed through Pakistan and into Thailand as a stone littered steppe turns into green rice paddies with water buffaloes grazing. Ten kilometres on, windswept grey beaches remind me of picnics on Scottish beaches.

But it’s not a world tour; we’re still driving through Timor. Each village has its share of Fretilin flags and graffiti. “What do we wanna do for peace?” cries one school wall.

We decide to make for Tutuala and Jaco Island, renowned for pristine white beaches and the aquamarine waters that sell postcards. It’s Timor’s Far East, and the road progressively becomes more bumpy, and soon, indiscernible. We pass through crumbling ruins of old Timorese houses, raised on stilts, and decorated with swathes of shells and horse skulls. I buy some eggs and salad vegetables from a rare road stall. Forget about restaurants with byo alcohol; we’ll need to bring our own food.

Timor!!! 179

As the light turns purple and the trees become more windswept, we pull up to Tutuala, and drive up a rubble strewn hill to the village’s only accommodation. It’s a pousada that remembers better times. A gang of children gather at our feet, and then turn fallen columns into slides. They frolic on the faded tables, under painted concrete umbrellas.

The caretaker arrives, and for five US dollars a night, this can be our home. It’s musty, and has the air of a forgotten Swiss ski lodge. There are old maps on the wall, and spider webs around the beds. No running water, just litre bottles which have been dutifully carried up by the caretaker for us to flush the toilet. Some of the windows are smashed; what role did this building play during Indonesian occupation?  We beg some hot water, eat two minute noodles and watch the light fade over the cliffs.

The next day, after stiff Timorese coffee and bread rolls, it’s a treacherous 4WD crawl down to the beach. Two locals are quick to jump in our spare seats, and as we descend down a road which runs almost vertical, I understand why they didn’t want to walk. I’ve mentally emptied my bank account, certain the car is not for this world much longer, when we reach the beach, a fleet of outrigger canoes and a jumble of beach shacks.

Timor!!! 203

For a small price, the fishermen persuade us that there are no crocodiles and drop us at Jaco Island, to rub noses with the angel fish and meditate amongst the coral. They land their canoe down the beach half an hour later, with a barracuda and Spanish mackerel tied to the helm. The fish will become our dinner. The fishermen disappear, and then rain clouds gather above. It’s the rumble of an unexpected dry season storm, and soon the ocean is fluorescent against the sky. Our fishermen soon appear in the distance, and ferry us back to land before the waves take over.

A few days later, when food supplies run only to bananas and rice, our car manages to cling to the scrabble of rocks on the track, back up to Tutuala. We stop once more in Baucau. There’s a swimming pool which is filled every three days with pure spring water from the mountain side, then drained again. It’s electric blue, and with cement banana lounges, it looks like a resort for the ancients. A get-away for Socrates, a few laps between classes and opining to the village square. I feel like I’m swimming in Evian.

Timor!!! 282

We overnight at the Pousada Baucau, a bright pink guest house with the best round steak in town. I spend an hour on the porch with the hotel’s receptionist, a sparky woman named Gabriella. She trained to be a nun, but decided to leave the church. She doesn’t elaborate. Her parents were both Fretilin fighters, and sheltered in the mountains out of town. At night they would creep down to siphon water from buffalo drinking holes, filled with the blood of the disappeared, shot dead. Later, an expat friend tells me that our pink Pousada too was an interrogation and torture chamber during the occupation.

It’s a slow drive back to Dili, passing once more through Scotland, Thailand and Pakistan. The dusty capital—home to one million people, many more livestock and a giant statue of Jesus—is a welcome sight.

And unbelievably, the car is unscathed.

The country has much bigger problems than nervous tourists in hire cars, but it’s still with a sigh of relief that I hand over the keys and relinquish the little 4WD that could. We flag down a taxi driver with a cracked windscreen and just one broken door, and climb in.

I let him worry about the potholes and suicidal chickens. I watch the road, the occasional cluster of graves and the acres of frustrated graffiti splashed across Dili, as we drive to the airport.

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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Pimp my ride

Alice practices the all essential frisk or "pat down"

Alice practices the all essential frisk or “pat down”

The Northern Territory revels in its frontier image. There’s pride in the population make up, in the demographic break down of characters and chancers, bounders and bogans, misfits and miscreants. The newspaper is filled with stories of these people. They name their children Zyleem and Sequetia. They find brown snakes in the toilet and crocodiles in the backyard pool.  There are bikini clad girls dancing on crocodile traps and people having sex while they fill up at the service station. There are dildos thrown at engagement parties that cause hospitalisation. And if that wasn’t enough, there are still those special few who stick fireworks in unmentionable places (see my favourite NT News story of all time: “Why I stuck a Cracker up my Clacker”).

When I arrived in WA, I was disappointed to see that the Broome Advertiser had none of these hijinks. But just when I thought the Kimberley wasn’t nearly as renegade as the Territory, my friend Alice and I drove a paddy wagon all the way from Broome to Fitzroy Crossing.

We were at work when the cops first rang us up.

“Any of you girls going to the Rodeo?”

They were short staffed and needed a car taken over. Would we like to drive a police troopie to Fitzroy Crossing?

Why, yes. Yes, we would.

When Alice picked up our new ride, the on-desk constable reluctantly handed her the keys. And warned her against using the siren. Waterboarding may have been implied.

“DON’T you even THINK about it. We’ll know if you did, and there will be trouble.”

And so it begins. Alice and I get into the cop car, all denim mini skirts and cowboy boots, and start driving through Broome. From my new vantage point, I see a mate’s husband driving down Hammersley Street. He looks over and does a double take.

I wave.

We stop at Woollies first, and clamber out to get rodeo supplies – some wine, some meat for the BBQ. The car park goes silent.

As we head out of town along the Great Northern Highway, I pump the music up loud. We’re revelling in our new role as lady cops on a mission. I’m not sure what we’ll do if someone flags us down to solve an actual crime. We sing along to Creedence Clearwater, then The Travelling Wilburys. We get the finger from a couple of cars, a friendly wave from others. No one overtakes us.

Then Alice pulls off at the Willare Road House turn off and suddenly I hear woo-oooo woo-oo woo. I think it’s in the music; we’re listening to Daft Punk.

But I don’t remember that sound in the song. Tourists jolt up at picnic tables; everyone stops and stands to attention. What the fuck?

It takes me a second to realise. Alice has driven the car over some corrugations and it’s set off the siren.

What? Oh my God. We are gonna be in so much trouble.

There’s a button labelled CANCEL in the middle of the dashboard, and I punch it. The siren stops. Alice and I look at each other and laugh manically. And then tumble out of the car and grab a cheese and ham toastie from the roadhouse bain marie.

The tourists are confused.

Finally we get to Fitzroy Crossing three or four hours later. We meet our friends and drive to the campsite, start to put up some tents. The police are there quick as a flash. Four of them, it’s quite the welcome party.

“We’ll take it from here, girls.”

Alice offers to drive the car to the station but the lady copper says, “Oh no, no, no, that’s fine. We got it.”

One of the men takes his hat off, wipes his forehead, shakes his head.

“I can’t believe the boss let you do this.”

I can’t either.

Later that night we go to the Fitzroy Crossing Rodeo hoping to catch a cowboy, but all I get is some mid strength beer and a lot of Shania Twain.

Didn’t hear boo about the siren.

On duty

On duty

How to drive from Darwin to Broome

The Great Northern Highway, Kununurra to Broome

The Great Northern Highway, Kununurra to Broome

I broke up with my boyfriend, I needed to lose weight and I’d been in Darwin for at least 18 months so it seemed like a good time to move to Broome.

It was July, the year was 2008.

I was meant to start the job in six weeks and I was skint. On the facts, I decided that the best, most economic thing to do would be to drive 1800 kilometres in two or three days. I’d put my most precious possessions into the hatchback and start work the day after.

I told my Dad about this plan, driving from Darwin to Kununurra, and then through Halls Creek to Fitzroy Crossing and finally onto Broome. I’d never driven more than about three or four hours at a time before, but you’ve got to start somewhere, I thought.

Dad was less enthusiastic.

“On your own? That’s a stupid idea. What if you break down? Or hit a kangaroo? There’s a good chance you’ll get car jacked and raped in Halls Creek. And do you have enough insurance? You could get caught in a bushfire this time of year. Or an early cyclone. What if they run out of fuel at the roadhouse? And you’re going to CAMP along the way? No, no, no… I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”

I suppose it wasn’t an unexpected response. We come from a longstanding family of fearmongers, and I can catastrophise with the best of them. I slept badly that night, dreaming of Halls Creek car jackers and rapists.*

The next day Dad rang me back.

“You know, I think a road trip from Darwin to Broome sounds like a great idea. I’ll come with you!”

And that’s how, at the age of 28, I ended up going on a five day driving holiday with my Dad.

On the face of it, a Yorkshire-born Canberra lawyer in sandals and the Australian outback aren’t natural bedfellows. But Dad wore his geek credentials with pride, and made friends along the way with everyone: surly petrol station owners, helicopter pilots, rural reporters, publicans and even the guys on the NT-WA border who frisk you for illicit carrots and cane toads.

He got excited about road trains and ate barramundi for dinner every night.

Plus he brought a good camera, a bunch of tools and spare parts I still don’t know how to use (give me a call if you need a spare fan belt sometime) and a credit card with a much higher limit.

Let it be said, travelling with Dad had many advantages over my original Go West Young Woman solo road trip.

But what he didn’t bring was music. Or rather, good taste in music. Or rather, my taste in music.

Turns out there are only three songs we both like –In My Life by The Beatles, Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears.

Mostly we compromised, but every so often our creative differences made the kilometres longer. It made me think of a song by Modest Mouse, sort of in the vein of the crowd pleasing “10 green bottles hanging on the wall…”:

100 miles is a long drive inside a car.

200 miles is a long drive inside a car.

300 miles is a long drive inside a car.

400 miles is a long drive inside a car.

500 miles is REAL long drive in a car.

 600 miles is a long drive inside a car.

700 miles is a long drive inside a car.

800 miles is a long drive inside a car.

900 miles is a long long long long wait in a car.

And a thousand miles is a LONG drive inside a car.

1100 miles is too far, inside a car.**

I would have played it, but it’s pretty shouty and Dad wasn’t really into Modest Mouse. Or music that was shouty.

We drove the Great Northern Highway in build up heat. It’s an intense and beautiful landscape; all boab trees and jilted car bodies. Termite mounds and red ragged ranges and bitumen. It drizzled with rain and the road smelled like burnt brown sugar.

We drove 1800 kilometres, and we didn’t get car jacked or raped. We didn’t run out of fuel. We didn’t get caught in a bushfire or an early cyclone. We didn’t break down, or hit a kangaroo, or any of the Brahmin bulls that liked to chew the cud best by the side of the road.

Just before we pulled into Broome, Dad remembered the only other song we both liked.

We crossed the town limits to Neil Murray.

Just in time to sit on the beach; stare at the moon.

*Having lived in the Kimberley now, I have many good things to say about the fine people of Halls Creek. And I reckon there are no more carjackers or rapists there than anywhere else in the world. We’re cool, right Halls Creek?

**Modest Mouse also wrote a great song called Talking Shit about a Pretty Sunset. I’ll get onto that another time.

Car bodies and boabs. Warmun, East Kimberley

Car bodies and boabs. Warmun, East Kimberley