Diving in

We’re on a yacht cruising round the scattered islands of Vava’u, glasses of champagne in hand. I’m completely out of my depth, riding on the coattails of a mate who is much better at small talk than me. She can socialise with anyone, befriend everyone, and has generously wangled us the invitation to cruise. I’m no good in these fancy expat social settings – it’s a world away from the youth centres I usually work in. The bubbly is a very different drop to Pineapple Fanta, I have nothing to add to the conversation about luxury boats, and the best I can do is cringe when our hosts talk about how hard it is to get good help around here.

I know, cue the violins.

But the setting is superb – the boat, the turquoise water, the vacuum-sealed Pringles that aren’t even in the neighbourhood of stale. Plus, the Captain and his family are taking us to Mariner’s Cave – one of Tonga’s legendary snorkelling experiences. A free dive two metres down and about four metres across takes you into a cave teeming with ocean life and other magic.

Despite the opulent setting, I am poorly equipped. My snorkel is ill-fitting and scratched. I neglected to bring a waterproof torch and forgot flippers so my friend D is going to share hers with me. One each, a single flipper, for the most substantial dive I’ve ever undertaken. Needless to say, I’m terrified.

I wouldn’t even be trying this if it wasn’t for D.

The first time I met her was at a resort on the edge of Canberra, where we were bundled in for a week of cross-cultural training prior to taking up volunteer positions around the Asia-Pacific. D was fresh from climbing the Andes, a trip she took after first cycling the junta-ridden backroads of Myanmar. She’d grown up on a sheep stud, and had biked and hiked and travelled to the most remote corners of the world. Later, it came out that she was once in a plane crash off the remote Tasmanian coast and had to swim to shore with a broken back. In our break, undeterred by her lack of swimsuit, she jumped in the pool in her underwear and smashed out some laps while I was still chewing down on the Scotch Finger biscuits rolled out for morning tea. I was completely in awe of her. Too awed to strike up a friendship. In fact, by the end of the week, I decided that I had no business hanging around with D, or any of these other intimidating, worldly, foreign aid over-achievers. I was ready to drop out of the program all together.

But somehow I didn’t, and a few weeks later, D and I found ourselves at Sydney Airport, ready to board a plane to Nuku’alofa. Unfortunately, there was a pesky cyclone railing through the Pacific that day, so we got sent home. I caught the bus to my aunt’s house doubled over with all my gear; D got a romantic interest to collect her in a pick up truck and camped overnight in a beach cave somewhere in the Royal National Park.

Our second attempt at international departure was more successful, and we made it to the Kingdom of Tonga. I couldn’t stop looking out the taxi window: the wandering pigs, the acres of palm trees, the security guard wearing a slam dunking basketball t-shirt that said “Air Jesus – the Ultimate High.” Culture shock hit me like a rocket. I lay on the hotel bed under a lazy fan, breathing in the sickly sweet smell of frangipani and pandanus flowers. D headed out exploring.

Within a couple of days, the other volunteers organised an outing to one of the nearby islands. We were told that Pangaimotu was a popular Sunday outing, a ten minute boat trip from the capital with a beach, good snorkelling, and fish burgers that apparently tasted just like chicken.

D studied the map. “Just one or two kilometres from the shore, is it?” she asked one of the other girls. “I might swim over,” she told me. “Want to come?”

I declined. I took the boat with the others, and watched D arrive on shore an hour or two later, shaking off her snorkel, triumphant.*

Game of Thrones wasn’t in our popular subconscious back then, but D could have played her choice of characters: Daenerys Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, Arya Stark. At best, I might have played Sansa, and frankly, that’s a stretch.

But somehow we became friends anyway. D is a generous facilitator of adventure, a surefooted leader. And I suppose I’m a determined and curious, if inept, follower. She took me to places I never would have dared alone: we kayaked the outer islands in a leaky boat, hitchhiked and skinny dipped on remote beaches, slept under coconut trees, cycled around the main island, scaled cliffs for obscure snorkelling spots. Together we lived with a local family for two or three months, honing our Tongan language skills, and yes, there was that free dive into Mariner’s Cave off the back of a luxury yacht that we had no business being on.

I’ve been thinking about that cave, that dive, that one flipper, especially these past few days. I feel like I’m sitting on a similar precipice, waiting to give birth to my daughter. A chasm of death that lies between life and life; I can see it from the boat. Two metres down, four across. Like a crossword. But I’m much better at Women’s Weekly cryptics than lung-crushing tunnels. They require more guts than I have. And once again, I’m ill-equipped, unprepared. I’m not ready. The waves are crashing around me, and this time there’s not even the option to stay on board with my glass of misgotten champagne. And I’m sorely resentful–bitter even–of what’s being demanded of me, of my body, despite what’s also promised in return.

“But aren’t you excited?”

This is what you get asked at 38 weeks pregnant.

“It must be so hard to wait!”

Oh, I can wait. The waiting is the easy bit. It’s diving in that’s the trick. Acceptance and surrender. Staring down the terror. The suspension of time. The excruciating pain. Some people do it so well, but I’m not one of them.

And in this case, there is everything that comes afterwards: those first weeks–months–of fractured body parts, sleep deprivation, and the need to soothe, feed and sleep a baby that doesn’t know how to soothe, feed or sleep.

If only I could take D into the birthing suite with me. In motherhood, as in life.

D stayed three more years in Tonga, then worked in Somaliland and Sri Lanka before coming to live in Darwin for awhile. We organised a trip to Timor Leste together, and she dropped by my house three weeks before to tell me she was (accidentally) pregnant (to an old friend, a one night stand). We still went to Timor and hired a 4WD with bald tyres. She drove. All the way, along the pot holed roads that circle the coast from Dili to Tutuala. We slept in huts, took a boat out to Jaco Island and went snorkelling, despite assurances about sharks and crocodiles that were ambivalent at best. The morning sickness meant I could just about keep up with her this time. A few months later she packed up a Landcruiser and drove south with her old friend, now partner, to have the baby.

Back in the day I could have imagined D ending up anywhere, everywhere. A houseboat with a famous musician lover on the Ganges. A Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. Working in a refugee camp in Syria. But at the moment, she lives on a farm in NSW with her fella and their three children. I took Mr and Little Tea out there before Christmas. We took the kids on swings in the outer paddocks and for rides on the pony; we rumbled around on the back of the truck. We ate cake loaded with sugar and butter on her sunny, windswept back verandah, which has a slippery dip into a sand pit. The setting was just right – equal parts what I could and could not have imagined for her. Because when you’re sitting on the boat, you never know how life will turn out. Like my life in Darwin, with Mr Tea. The daughter in my belly and my son playing with his tractor. They are a daily surprise to me, too.

It’s hard to believe that 14 years have passed since we did that free dive into Mariner’s Cave, and I’m still grateful for D’s friendship then and today. For the adventures. For her belief in me, even when I haven’t believed in myself. For the flipper.

And not just hers. Despite (or, because of) my reluctance–my resentment–about giving birth again, flippers are coming in from so many friends. Here in Darwin, but also from other corners of the country. They come as freezer meals, take away curries, cooked dinners. Grocery shops and offers of babysitting. They are clothes: hand-me-down and new. Breast pumps and slings, toddler distractions. Books, massage oils and herbal teas, chocolate, phone calls, and messages of support.

They come from people who are parents and people who are not. Because haven’t we all sat on the back of the boat at some point and thought I can’t I can’t I bloody well can’t and then done it anyway? Sucked in our breath and descended, crossed the divide. Two down, four across. Some of you did it with no snorkel at all. You pushed down on lungs that were already empty. You got scratched on the limestone, stung and bloodied on the coral. The terror was justified. Or it wasn’t. Perhaps the dive took you somewhere you never expected, never imagined. Somewhere both harder and easier, better and worse. It was traumatic; it was exhilarating. It was ordinary; it was a miracle. It was sweet relief; it was an anti-climax.  Maybe you, too, thought about dying and living and living and dying. And then some of you even did it all again. And again.

Now it’s my turn. The back of the boat. Turquoise water chopped up with white. A school of silver fish, ducking under the wave. One flipper. Deep breath.

It’ll take a bit longer than Mariner’s Cave, but I’ll see you on the other side, I guess. With my daughter.

Bring the bubbly. Or the Pineapple Fanta, that’s probably more my thing.

*Just to keep it real, I want to include this disclaimer from D.  She says “You do know I was terrified on that swim to Pangaimotu.  I pretty much had to dog paddle the whole way because whenever I put my head in the water I could see imaginary sharks coming at me from every direction.”

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Cobourg or bust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy and Prue: good friends of ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milly: 18 months. Belongs to Tom and Anna.

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

Dislikes: sleeping through the night.

Mr Tea Snr: My father-in-law.

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

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

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

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

Dislikes: nothing. Much too positive for that.

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

Miranda Tea: Yep, that’s me.

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

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

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

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

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

Dislikes: being told what to do by his father.

What could possibly go wrong?

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

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

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

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

Survival of the fittest, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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