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.

Scenes from a hospital waiting room

Test tubes are more interesting when you filter the shit out of the photo.

Test tubes are more interesting when you filter the shit out of them.

Nothing strikes fear into your heart quite like arriving into a full hospital waiting room. And in Darwin, it’s got a distinctive smell: unwashed clothes, disinfectant and desperation.

I’m here for my latest round of blood tests and there’s only one plastic chair left. An Aboriginal woman moves her handbag from it and she signals for me to sit next to her, so I do.

I scan the room. Under the diabetes information board, an elderly lady is squeezing her veins, trying to get one of them to pop. On the other side sits a skinny man in a baseball cap. He’s in a wheelchair, and the woman sitting next to him strokes his shoulders. Every so often he asks another in-patient if they will take him to McDonalds.

“Can you buy me a large coke? I want a big coke from McDonalds.”

The pathology assistant sticks her head around the corner.

“Daisy? Is Daisy here?”

Daisy’s not here.

On the other side of the room I hear, “Can we get some chips at McDonalds?”

“After, after”, coos his carer.

I don’t want to go to McDonalds nor do I want to be at the hospital, so I keep my head down and try to avoid conversation. But my neighbour doesn’t need much from me to have a chat.

“I’m real hungry, eh?” she says.

“Nothing to eat all morning. I been drinking water: drinking, drinking, drinking. But [she gestures to her specimen cup] nothing.”

Oh well, I say apologetically.

“It’s alright”, she says. “Doctor says doesn’t matter if you can’t do a wee.”

I nod.

“I’m going to Adelaide”, she says. “9th of December. I’ve got to have my operation then.”

That’s no good, I say. I’m still trying to read my book and pretend I’m not in a hospital waiting room.

She continues. “And you know, I’m missing the Christmas lunch! They putting on a big lunch down at the sea front for the education mob.

I tell you what, when I get out of here, I’m gonna get a big breakfast. My daughter, she gave me $50 to get breakfast. But I got to wait! But I tell you what, I’m going to Melissa’s after this, get myself good mouthy food, some chicken, a little bit Greek, you know?”

She puts out her hand and points to her chest.

“Scramenta”, she says.

I’m Miranda, I reply. I’m not sure what to say next.

How do you spell Scramenta? I ask.

“S-A-C-R-A-M-E-N-T-A”.

Oh, like sacrament?

She smiles. “Yep. I been brought up Roman Catholic, Tiwi Islands church.”

I point to her skirt. I’ve just noticed it, purple with a bold white pattern.

That’s from the Tiwis too?

“Yep”, she says. “My cousin gave me for my birthday. When I retire, I’m gonna open a shop, sell these. Maybe in the Galleria, or on the Highway. Nah, maybe not the highway. Too much humbug.”

We keep waiting for our names to be called, and we keep chatting. It soon becomes clear that everyone knows Sacramenta. The pathology waiting room is a hospital thoroughfare, and she’s the main recipient of greetings, catcalls, waves and cuddles. “Eh, what now?” the indig health workers call out to her. Sacramenta teases the orderlies, and tries to humbug their muffins and coffee.  She strokes the many pregnant bellies that waddle through. I realise I’ve ended up sitting next to the Social Queen of Royal Darwin Hospital.

The pathology assistant calls out again. “Daisy?”

Daisy’s still missing in action.

“Then Sacramenta? Is Sacramenta here?”

My neighbour gets up and chuckles. “It’s SCRAH-mentah”, she tells the pathology assistant.

I ask how much longer it will be for me.

The assistant looks at me blankly. “Have you been a patient here before? You’re not a patient at the hospital? Oh…we need a patient number for you. You’ve NEVER been to the hospital?”

Never, I say.

Sacramenta hits my arm. “Eh! True? You never even been to the hospital? You must be real healthy, eh?”

Yeah, I say. I guess I have been. Until this year.

Not having a patient number is apparently an administrative catastrophe, so I sit back down in my plastic chair. Sweat pools at the base of my spine and spills onto the seat.

Sacramenta eventually leaves to get her big mob of breakfast, and the numbers dwindle in the waiting room. Soon it’s just me, elderly vein popper and the skinny guy in the wheelchair who wants a coke from McDonalds. It’s become a stand off – who gets in next?

And that’s when Daisy finally rolls in. She’s intimidating: big strong face, black hair streaked with grey and tied up in a red scrunchie. Her mouth is fixed in a take-no-prisoners straight line. Daisy is flanked by a relative in a colourful sarong, and the pathology assistant meekly opens the door and lets her in. No apologies, no recriminations. No one in the waiting room complains.

No one fucks with Daisy.

Skinny wheelchair guy eventually gets to go to McDonalds, and then I get my bloods done too.

I’m about to walk through the automatic doors when I hear, “Eh!”

It’s Sacramenta. She’s with another doctor this time.

Sacramenta grins at me and grabs the doctor’s arm.

“This girl! Do you know, she’s never even been to the hospital before? True! First time, eh!”

Despite all the waiting and needles and stuffing around, I can’t help but beam back at her. It’s the healthiest I’ve felt in days.

And then there were none. Pathology waiting room, Royal Darwin Hospital

And then there were none. Pathology waiting room, Royal Darwin Hospital.

Cyclone Season

January 3, 2008. Trees over the road in Nightcliff after Cyclone Helen

January 3, 2008. Trees over the road in Nightcliff after Cyclone Helen

I flew into Darwin during a cyclone last night.

Well, to be fair, it was ex Tropical Cyclone Alessia by the time we actually made it to the Top End, but I didn’t know that when I got on the plane. I was sitting at Sydney airport with my fellow Territorians, all of us checking the BOM tracking map online. There were mixed opinions at Gate 12: some certain we wouldn’t be getting on the plane (too dangerous by far), others thought a bit of turbulence would just help them sleep through the four and a half hour journey.

There have been a few cyclones in my time in the Top End. Tropical Cyclone Helen threw down a few African Mahogany trees in early 2008. Cyclone Grant tried to spoil Christmas one year and failed (I got to drink champagne in a backyard pool while people sent me texts to see “if I was alright”. I think they had bigger hailstones in Melbourne that December). And then Cyclone Carlos was all drain pipe trousers and big moustache swagger, but then he got drunk, fumbled around in the dark and fell asleep on the bed with all his clothes on.

For me cyclone season is usually about being on standby at work, some trees down, a few whistling winds and debating whether I should go with baked beans or tinned dolmades for the cyclone kit.

I’m being glib, but I’m not really. Especially when I think about what happened to Darwin 39 years ago.

The stories from Cyclone Tracy get me every time. My uncle remembers taking refuge in a car, drinking the last of the Christmas party booze and waiting to die. Everyone describes “that sound”: the roar of the wind, the scream of it, like a freight train pounding down the rails towards you.

I’ll never forget Terry Kenwrick’s version of Tracy. Terry was a teacher, actor and man about town; he spent Christmas Eve 1974 in a house in Tiwi with his wife and child. This is how he described the experience:

It was like a giant had grabbed your house and was literally shaking it really hard. He was going to kill you. There was no way out. And then the power went off and we lay on the floor next to the bathtub, with our feet keeping the door closed. Terror kicked in… I can’t remember much after that. We could barely scream to each other. I just thought there was no way out of this one. I tried praying, we all did. We tried everything.

By dawn, the wind was dropping. And as dawn came up, it was raining like hell and very, very windy but lessening. I squeezed out of this cubby hole and stood up.

The view was incredible. 360 degrees of total destruction. Not a building left habitable.

Then I saw a policeman in nothing but a hat and a pair of underpants, with a double barrelled shot gun slung over his shoulder. He was stumbling towards me.

I said, What do we do now mate?

And he said, I don’t know, and went on, looking for something to shoot.

But last night was no Tracy, not even close. When I got off the plane, the wind had died down and the roads had just a dressing of leftover rain.

Today in the grey light of morning, I can see the damage of (ex) Tropical Cyclone Alessia, the Category 1 that never was. The blinds in our bedroom are hanging on by a thread, and two of the large pot plants on the balcony have been knocked over. Never mind. As the internet meme says, We Will Rebuild.

I’m enjoying the scattering of clouds and the silence and the cooler temperature.

It’s actually a bit nippy.

I might even turn the fan off.

Might be time to buy some new blinds.

I’m leaving this job for Mr Tea.

Cassowary crossing

Sign by Cairns Regional Council and local wit

Sign by Cairns Regional Council and local wit

Someone told me a cassowary can disembowel you with its beak. I haven’t been able to confirm this in my limited (non-existent) web research, but I believe it.

Other more factual facts that you might like to know include this: the female cassowary lays the eggs, but it’s the male who sits on the nest and raises them. We have a lot to learn from our fine-feathered friend. I like to imagine the female cassowary as some kind of rainforest dilettante, leaving the child minding to her partner while she gets drunk on quandongs with the musky rat kangaroos and carpet pythons.

Nerd that I am, I studied the “If confronted by a cassowary” sign carefully while I waited for the car ferry to cross the Daintree River into Cape Tribulation. It also had two plaster-cast demonstration birds, which were supposed to assist the novice birdwatcher.

Instructions ran as follows:

  1. Do not run.
  2. Without turning, retreat slowly.
  3. If the bird becomes aggressive, place a solid object such as tree between yourself and the bird. If nothing is available, hold an object such as an item of clothing or a backpack in front of you and continue to back away slowly.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure that my backpack was going to stop a disembowelling Queensland-bred prehistoric Big Bird.

So yes, trepidation. But also anticipation. If Far North Queensland has a hierarchy of animal spotting, the cassowary is up there with the crocodile and green turtle. The cassowary might not be a Gouldian Finch in the ornithological world (what did I tell you? Nerd!), but every tourist in Cape Trib wants a glimpse and (preferably) a photo to tell the tale.

For all the yellow cassowary crossing signs and demonstration models, spotting a cassowary seemed like a long shot. But not impossible. And it happened sooner than I thought.

I was driving along, ready to curse a bunch of tourists who had stopped dead in the middle road. Road raging was my right as a local, of course. I’d already spent a whole three days in the area. Bloody tourists.

But it turns out those bloody tourists had a bloody good eye. As I sped past them, I glanced in my rear vision mirror to see a cassowary leading two chicks across the road. I turned the car around, but they’d already melted into the rainforest.

Later that afternoon I went for a swim at the Blue Hole, a freshwater swimming spot that is a preview for heaven if ever I saw one. I wandered down to the creek, and that’s when I saw it.

Blue of neck, red of jowl, tan of comb. It had two chicks in tow and walked like an Egyptian. I gestured the former to a couple of other tourists walking back from the Blue Hole, and together we watched the cassowary. Who watched us. And then walked closer, puffing up his chest.

I’ll take you, he mouthed.

I remembered the sign and crept backwards. Where was my backpack?

It was probably three minutes but it felt like an hour, and then the cassowary and his chicks disappeared into the bush.

After that, I felt less worried that I would return to Darwin disembowelled. Sure, if it came down to a me-versus-cassowary situation, well then it would be a lay-down misere for the cassowary. But hopefully he’d just rough me up a bit. Take my lunch money and give me a wedgie.

Now that I think of it, I also have a friend called Cass, aka Cassowary. I never thought much of the nickname before, but with hindsight it seems about right. She too is an impressive creature, and you wouldn’t want to fuck with her either.

Terrible photo I took of said cassowary in the heat of the moment

Terrible photo I took of said cassowary in the heat of the moment

Familiar faces

“Hey, I know you from somewhere.”

This happens a lot in Darwin.

I usually feign recognition, at least while I’m scanning my brain for parties, introductions, friends of friends.

Oh yeah, I recognise you, I normally say.

We must have met… somewhere.

But today, after an hour and a half of yoga, my social skills are lost somewhere between trikonasana and downward facing dog.

I don’t pretend.

Really? What’s your name?

“Gavin”, he says.

How do we know eachother?

“We met a few years ago…” He hesitates. “On RSVP”.

Now I remember. Two dates, one at the museum, one playing lawn bowls.

I’d thought Gavin was cute and I would have happily gone out with him again. I don’t know if it was my lawn bowling skills or my conversation or my hips, but I never heard from him again.

I saw Gavin out a few months later with a pretty blond girl, and ran into him another three years after that. He’d just got back from China and wanted to return.

Now his face is familiar but also different.

What have you been up to?

“Well”, he says. “I got smashed up.”

Did you have an accident, a fight?

I’m picturing Mitchell Street, a beer glass, 3am.

“I was on my motorbike…along Daly Street. Car came up the side,” he says.

“My pelvis got smashed. I’m all metal rods. And my brain, it got a bit…splattered.”

I look at his face more carefully and can see his eyes darting around, some of his facial muscles paralysed, the words just slightly scrambled.

God.

I’m so sorry, I say.

“I’m stuck in Darwin now”, he says. “Since the accident. I can’t leave.”

But there are worse places… We say it at the same time.

He smiles a little.

A life that could have, might have, never was flashes before me. A few years of relationship, then a car crash. Remnants of a motor bike. A partner with a smashed pelvis, splattered brain, putting his life and memories back together piece by piece, yoga class by yoga class.

That life’s not mine.

I shake his hand.

It’s nice to see you again, I say.

Take care of yourself. Maybe I’ll see you at this class. I come on Fridays.