Writing Workshop

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

Ah, blessed are the writers…

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

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

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

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

Questions indeed...

Questions indeed…

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

Fred interjects at this point.

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

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

Claire gently cuts in at this point.

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

She turns hopefully to one of the other students.

“Barbara, what do you think?”

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

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

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

“I just wrote a poem about it.”

Being Sick

Recently I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker about a woman who started a gluten-free diet. She’s having lunch with a friend in a cafe and she says, “I’ve only been on it for a week and I’m definitely more annoying.”

That’s me. Well, sort of. 18 months of chronic pain and fatigue and something called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (ten points if you say it three times fast) has led me to try it all. Gluten free, lactose free.  Green smoothies, acupuncture, kale. Blood tests, specialists, more specialists. Naturopathy, massage therapy, meditation. I drew the line at getting an aura reading, but to be honest, I’m not ruling it out.

“When in pain, get on a plane,” goes the Territory saying. I’ve tried that too.

I thought I knew what words like fatigue and pain meant, but they keep changing. Some days it’s like being knifed, or having multiple fractures inflicted down my spine. Other times I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain or run a marathon, which is a pretty sick joke. My muscles pop and spasm. Some days I lie down after taking a shower and before I have breakfast. And then I lie down again.

On the days I can’t leave the house, I know what the ceiling fan sounds like on all three speeds. I hear the school bells across the road ring for each period; I curse the neighbourhood whipper snippers and the hoons that speed around the roundabout. I get up and the room spins again.

It’s easy to feel very alone sometimes and I do.

But every Friday, I go to a yoga class in Coconut Grove.

It’s a suburb that’s part hippie, part public housing and part industrial. It begins on Dick Ward Drive with The Parthenon, a Mediterranean style home replete with crumbling columns and discarded slabs of concrete. The owners have been building it (or not) for over a decade, maybe two. Amongst locals it’s also known as “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.

There are battle-axe blocks that lead to the mangroves. There’s a drying out clinic. There are generations of Aboriginal families who live in run down units. Further along, there’s a locked fence with a sign saying “Burial Ground: Do Not Enter”.

In between, there are panel beaters, picture framers and furniture importers. Warehouses filled with mahogany furniture and day beds from Indonesia, brought in by the container load. We bought our bed from a guy there called Knocker, who drives a bright orange sports car with a personalised number plate.

Down Caryota Court there are massage therapists and Family Planning offices. There’s a burlesque dance studio. A German guy called Martin runs the town’s only vegetarian café.

And then there’s the yoga space.

It’s a strange and surreal precinct to go and get your Iyengar on. Sometimes the next door neighbour likes to weld during our class or play records, usually The Ramones or Hoodoo Gurus. He listens to that music the way it is played: loud.

But for the most part, this yoga class takes me out of Darwin, at least for an hour and a half, and away from the strut, the larrikin antics and the bar stool bravado of Territory life. It’s a warehouse sanctuary of wooden floorboards, with a little garden brimming with tropical plants. In between bromeliads and banana trees sits a small, smiling statue of Buddha, decorated with hibiscus flowers and rows of tiny beads.

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There are eight of us who go regularly and almost everyone in the class has some kind of significant illness or injury. One man has two toes missing. He comes every week with his girlfriend in a beat up station wagon. Another woman broke her back last year. There’s the guy I went out with a couple of times, who had his brain smashed around in a motorcycle accident on Daly Street. And there’s me.

We don’t talk or gather for coffee afterwards. I don’t know where they live or if they work. Except for the guy I used to date, I don’t know their names.

But each week, I know that somehow, deep in the neurons and blood cells of bodies that don’t work like they should, they understand. We’re in it together.

I can’t make a joke about downward facing dog: none of us can do that anymore. But we twist and turn and stretch. We bead with sweat in the irrepressible Darwin humidity. We reach through the pain and the sick and the heart break of what we used to be and who we are now.

The man with three toes always seems to know who is having an especially hard day and he helps to put away their mat, bolster and blankets at the end of class.

We don’t say goodbye when it’s over; but each week my heart is warmed by this motley crew and this chequered suburb, which somehow has enough room for our collective pain, all of it, and our hope for better things to come.

Lofty and Beaches

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If you were in any doubt about what Darwin is all about, a quick drive down Cavenagh Street clears it up. Head towards the Magistrate’s Court, just before you get to the Roma Bar, and you’ll take in a big sign that says “Guns. Fishing. Fishing. Guns”. That’s above the local tackle and outdoor shop. Cast your eyes a little higher and you’ll spy a replica tank, gun cocked, and an Australian flag. Next door, the RSL club squats above Vintage Cellars.

At first glance, Darwin is a fisherman’s Nirvana first, defence town second. But maybe it’s the other way around.

There are still physical memories of the Bombing of Darwin in 1942, if you know where to look. A bomb crater on McMinn Street and the duly named Air Raid Arcade. Bullet holes in the fence at Burnett House on Myilly Point. The oil storage tunnels near the harbour and the gun turrets at East Point. There are still people who remember those days: of slip trenches and explosions and evacuations.

Memories of War. Cavenagh Street in 1942, after the Bombing of Darwin. Photo courtesy of the Northern Territory Library collection.

Cavenagh Street in 1942, after the Bombing of Darwin. Photo courtesy of the Northern Territory Library collection.

And today, there are thousands more soldiers, navy personnel and US Marines, stationed from Larrakeyah to Robertson Barracks and in subsidised rentals from Bayview to Palmerston.

In Darwin, our military past and present is a reality rather than an abstract.

So it was only a matter of time before I was invited to the Cavenagh Street RSL. I met Lofty Plane through work; Lofty was the Club President, a WW2 vet who loved to have a drink and take the piss. He told me to come down for a lemonade and to meet the boys.

I asked my housemate Dave along for the ride and we walked down Cavenagh Street, as far as the “Guns. Fishing. Fishing. Guns” sign, then up the stairs and past the Roll of Honour for Northern Territory soldiers killed in action.

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You sign in and it’s your choice of bistro or bar. The bistro is filled with laminex tables and the daily special, usually some form of veal schnitzel or a ham steak. The bar has pokies and televisions tuned to whichever horses or dogs happen to be running around a Southern Hemisphere racecourse at that given moment.

Beer and men, men and beer; on bar stools, benches and plastic chairs.

Dave had a white boy afro and I had breasts, so it was fair to say we stood out a little. But Lofty waved us over to come and meet the fellas.

Lofty signed up for the army at the age of 17; like so many others of his era itching for an adventure, he lied about his age at the recruitment office. Lofty came from a family of servicemen: his dad had been gassed in France, his uncle lost a leg in the first world war and his Grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel Chaplain at Gallipoli.

His Dad was still in a military hospital when Lofty joined up.

“Keep your bloody head down,” he said.

But Lofty wasn’t put off.

“This is Australia mate, the best country in the world”, he said.

“That’s why I joined up, I didn’t want to be walking around with bloody Nazi flags. But when you got over there, they were firing live bullets at you.”

Lofty found himself on the Aitape-Wewak campaign in Papua New Guinea.

“It had its moments too, I can tell you. The majority of the Japs were in the hills, and that’s where they stayed. At that stage of the game, we had to go in and try to find them. And there it was. There are things that I’d much rather not talk about. When I was going down the Sepik River, there are things that I saw and probably did that leave me a bit cold even now.”

He shook his head. “I’m lucky to be here and enjoying life, at least at the moment.”

Lofty was on the strip at Wewak when General Adachi handed over his sword and surrendered. He volunteered to go to Japan for Reconstruction. He joined the first Australian troops into Hiroshima after the bombing, with miles and miles of nothing standing. Lofty dug in and cleaned up, in just shorts and a pair of boots. No protective clothing in those days.

Eventually, he got out of the army and bought a touring talkie show. Lofty showed movies—a double bill that always featured a murder mystery and a Western—in dozens of country towns in Southern Queensland. He met his wife. And then they boarded a DC-3 and came to Darwin where he was tasked with the Territory’s most important resource: the cold stores. Yep, Lofty was in charge of the ice cream and the beer.

I could have listened to Lofty’s stories for hours, so when he invited me to join him for a drink at the RSL later, I said yes straight away. That Friday lunch time, Lofty introduced us to the rest of the crew: Blue, Jimmy, Dave and Beaches.

Beaches was Lofty’s best mate, a cheerful rotund fellow with grey whiskers and glasses. He’d been in the navy.

Why do they call you Beaches?

Beaches smiled. “Well, I don’t know why. I can’t say for sure. Some of the fellas around here, they’re a rude lot. You’d have to ask them. But they might reckon I look a little bit like a beach ball.”

And then I could see it too, a brightly coloured ball with Beaches’ face in the middle. Bouncing around a swimming pool.

Lofty didn’t get out much any more by the time I met him, but he always made it to the RSL for a “few lemonades” on a Friday. It was his favourite thing to do. Lofty, Beaches and the boys had a busy schedule: beers, lunch, pokies. Sledging each other, a punt or two, more beer. And then Lofty would get a taxi home. It was his weekly outing, one he never missed.

Beaches and Lofty also used to buy a weekly lottery ticket. They had a syndicate of two, with big plans for the winnings.

“We’ve got it all worked out”, said Beaches.

“We’re going to go on a world trip: starting with New York. And we’re going to stay at the Waldorf Astoria.”

“Tell ‘em about the robes”, said Lofty.

“Oh yes,” said Beaches. “We’re going to have those robes – terry towelling robes, you know the ones? And someone’s going to serve us drinks on a silver tray. A crystal glass and a nip of something strong, no ice.”

“And then a nice New York steak, thick and as juicy as you like”, said Lofty.

Beaches licked his lips. “Yep, it’s going to be that good. I’ll tell you. I can’t wait for that trip.”

“Just got to win the jackpot”, said Lofty. “But it’s coming. Oh, it is coming.”

Dave and I dropped into the RSL a couple more Fridays after that, for a veal parma and to talk to Lofty and Beaches. Whenever the conversation hit a lull, Dave would ask Lofty and Beaches for an update on their lottery syndicate.

“Any wins yet fellas?”

“Not yet”, said Lofty. “But I tell you, when we do…The Waldorf Astoria, that’s where we’re headed.”

“Yep,” said Beaches. “Terry towelling robes, crystal glasses and a big fat steak, as thick and juicy as you like.”

Dave and I eventually stopped our Friday visits to the RSL. We started to feel like intruders on the lemonades and the memories. And the laminex tables and ham steak special started to lose some of its charm.

Lofty passed away last year, but I still remember everything he told me.

About his time in Papua New Guinea and Japan, and how he wore long socks with shorts while he minded the Territory’s ice cream and beer.

How he didn’t much get modern music; his favourite songs were Moon River and The Cat Came Back by Tex Morton.

How he liked going fishing at Vestey’s Beach, in the days before it was a gay beat, and when you actually caught fish there. How he liked listening to Julia on the radio in the morning, and her fishing report from places he couldn’t get to any more.

I don’t know that Lofty and Beaches ever made it to New York.

But I do know this: Lofty’s daughter wore his medals on ANZAC Day and marched down the Esplanade, up Knuckey and then down Cavenagh Street. I’m sure she had a lemonade or two at the RSL afterwards. I reckon Lofty would have liked that.

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Telescopes and Taxidermy

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

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

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

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

But perverts? The pizza could wait.

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

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

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

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

Bruce shook his head.

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

But he saw me.

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

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

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

So now they have a thing.”

Like a telescope relationship?

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

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

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

That's me watching you watching me

That’s me watching you watching me.

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

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

Mr Tea shook his head.

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

Bruce shook his head.

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

Somehow this was more shocking than the perverts.

What did you say? I asked.

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

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

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

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

Death and renting in Broome

When I moved to the Kimberley, the mining boom was reaching its zenith. The airports were a sea of fluorescent vests and real estate agents were buying Moet. The baby journos in Karratha were paying $300 a week for a bedroom in a donga and Broome wasn’t far behind. The Global Financial Crisis was only a couple of months away, but I didn’t know that at the time.

I set about house hunting straight away, circling all four possibilities listed in the Broome Advertiser. I drove to look at a tiny flat just off Anne Street, not far from a notorious block of units where Bradley Murdoch, the convicted murderer of Peter Falconio, had lived for a period of time. My knuckles grazed against the door when I rapped and a skinny man in his 50s opened the fly screen. The lounge room stank of cigarettes and bong water. He showed me a bedroom the size of a pantry. I could share the flat with him for $250 a week.

The other frontrunner was a room in a sharehouse of seven people; one of them managed The Bungalow, Broome’s notorious (and only) nightclub. They had a pool and a BBQ, and thinking of the crack den I’d seen earlier, I said yes.

The next day a colleague at work passed me a contact.

“A woman called Krysti’s got a granny flat. It’s beautiful, used to be an artist studio. You should go and have a look.”

It was right in the middle of Old Broome, a stone’s throw away from the Courthouse Markets and Roebuck Bay.

broome hosue

I pulled up in the driveway and Krysti was pulling weeds out of the red dirt of her garden. Her daughter Polly was next to her, nude, painting on butcher’s paper.

“Are you much of a gardener?” she asked.

I surveyed the big granny flat: two dongas joined by a verandah. I took in the extensive garden, the towering mango trees and the notable absence of bongs on the outdoor table.

Yes, I lied.

Krysti offered the place to me for $360 a week and I agreed.

$360 a week in rent didn’t leave me with much small change, so my approach to interior design was minimal. I had a camp chair, a small box television and my swag in the lounge room; in the other donga, a bed and a single rack for my clothes. I used sheets and sarongs for curtains, and put up a hammock on the verandah.

The property had quite a history. Someone told me it had once been the second general store in Broome. Before Krysti, it was owned by the Durack family, first Elizabeth and then her daughter Perpetua.

Elizabeth Durack was famous for her place in that pioneering Kimberley pastoral family and also as an artist. She was infamous for painting under an Aboriginal name, Eddie Burrup. Elizabeth painted dreaming stories and Aboriginal children and Kimberley landscapes. She had turned the main house, an old Broome hut with cyclone shutters and an elevated verandah, into her gallery and lived in the pre-fab out the back.

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Broome was a hard place to live in many ways, but I loved the house. I loved the worn patina of eccentric lady artist. The party of green tree frogs in the toilet. The banana tree that groaned with purple flowers and hanging bunches of green fruit. The mango trees that gave shade over the native pindan garden.

Donnie, our next door neighbour, was a born and bred local and great friends with the Pigram Brothers. Of an evening, I’d hear them playing guitar around an oil drum fire. The singing would waft into my bedroom after dark.

I may have been Krysti's tennant but I was subletting to an army of green tree frogs who had a permanent party in my bathroom and toilet cistern.

I may have been Krysti’s tennant but I was subletting to an army of green tree frogs who had a permanent presence in my bathroom and toilet cistern.

While I was installed in the dongas out back, Krysti and Polly lived in the main house, the former Durack Gallery.

Krysti was intense and fiery. A lawyer and activist. After a miscarriage and years of wanting a child, she’d fallen pregnant at 38 and at 40 was a single mother.

She adored her daughter. Krysti told me she held a smoking ceremony when Polly was born and buried her placenta under the biggest eucalyptus tree in the front garden. At Polly’s second birthday party, I watched them unwrap presents together. One package held a collection of books, all inscribed to Polly with “kisses from Mummy, who loves you forever”.

Krysti was asset rich and cash poor, but I watched her give away money, food and other bits and pieces to anyone who asked. She smoked rollies on the back step. Sometimes she held court on the verandah with friends and a motley crew of small children, her opinions and chatter louder than everyone else. But often she was alone and I knew she hankered for company.

I was friendly but kept my distance: I had enough problems of my own. But when Christmas came around, I invited Krysti and her daughter and a few other mutual friends with their kids. I cooked for hours: baked fish, roast lamb, salads and pudding. I bought presents for the kids: little purses and plastic helicopters. I hid gold foil covered chocolate coins in the sand pit.

I was getting dessert out of the kitchen when I heard Krysti’s voice ricochet across the verandah.

“Polly Jean! Who gave you chocolate???”

I had inadvertently given Krysti’s daughter her first taste of the most dangerous white powder drug of all: sugar.

I never helped in the garden, but Krysti and I happily co-existed for my twelve month lease before I left Broome for good. We lost touch soon after.

A few years later I caught up with some old Broome mates in Melbourne. We were sitting at a rooftop bar, rugged up and drinking cocktails from jam jars.

Ryan suddenly turned to me.

“Oh my God. Did you hear that Krysti died?”

Krysti had neuro-endocrine cancer. She was only in her 40s, with a young daughter under the age of five. As a lawyer, she’d fought hard for Aboriginal people. She was needy and anxious and fierce and kind. I probably still owed her money for an electricity bill.

It struck me that I knew Krysti both intimately and not at all. Knowing and not knowing her made the news of her death a strange pain. Like the shock of a needle going into your arm. Then there’s nothing. And then, a dull ache that lingers after the nurse plugs the pin prick with cotton wool and medical tape.

My brain started reeling. I remembered the Christmas dinner I’d held on the verandah. The gold foil covered chocolate coins. The little ashtray of cigarette butts on the back step. The time Krysti lent me her swag and gave me a washing machine because I couldn’t afford one. I thought of the rotten mangoes that piled up on the driveway every October and the pindan garden she would never weed again.

I know that dying is the one constant. It’s the one event we’re all guaranteed to attend. The invite stands from the moment you’re born. But death before old age seems so arbitrary, so unfair. Like the reaper stood on a lazy susan in the middle of a packed Chinese restaurant and spun around drunkenly to choose his victims. You, you and you.

I thought about the collection of board books that Krysti had bought for Polly’s second birthday. The inscriptions she’d written; at the time I thought they were so over the top. Suddenly they were priceless.

I thought of the dust under the Eucalyptus tree where Polly’s placenta was buried.

I thought about the way we belong to a place, the way we carve ourselves into a piece of earth and make it our home. I thought about the way we share those homes, those patches of dirt, with people for a time.

Some of them we never see again.

I’m still thinking about that.

What happens on the fishing trip…

The intoxicating muddy waters of the Daly River

The intoxicating muddy waters of the Daly River

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, sure, no problems, I said.

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

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

Gazza and Terry waved me over immediately.

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

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

Gaz and Terry laughed.

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

I crinkled my nose.

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

Terry nodded his agreement.

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

What’s that?

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

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

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

Every fisherman's friend

Every fisherman’s friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I finally got it.

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

It was about talking shit.

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

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

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

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

It was about male friendship, Territory style.

Best Australian Blogs Competition 2014

Dearest and most hearty blog readers,

Forgive my hubris/self-promotion, but in the vain hopes that one day I might give up my day job, I entered the Australian Writers Centre blog comp.

If you’d like, you could vote for Postcards from the North in the People’s Choice Category.

But then again, there are a few pages to scroll through and there are many cat videos on the internet that you could look at instead.

Or you could read this ten month old’s letter to Santa – hilarious!

Lots of love,

Miranda Tea

The odds are good, but the goods are odd

Ask anyone you like, Australia is in severe drought.

A man drought.

From Perth to Melbourne, Sydney right up to Brisbane, there’s many a single, smart, sassy, sexy woman who can’t find a man her equal. But in my neck of the woods, the roads are veritably paved with fellas: six to one, once you cross the Berrimah Line. Ringers, Army Jocks and diesel mechanics. Fitters, turners. Fitters and turners. FIFOs and fishermen. If you’re a lady looking for a bloke, this is the Holy Grail, especially if you like rough diamonds and men in high vis.

Yep. The odds are good, but the goods are odd.

That’s an expression that gets bandied about regularly by women up here. The dating world up north is rife with mercenaries, missionaries and misfits. I’ve dated many from their ranks: from aspiring politicians to helicopter pilots and professional gamblers with mother issues. I once went out with a guy who wore his bike helmet for our entire coffee date. Another time, I met up with a bloke who was about to get kicked off his mine site for three drug test fails in a row. When it comes to the odds being good and the goods being odd, believe me, I’ve done the leg work.

But the story I’m about to tell you was the oddest experience I ever had. And by odd, I mean freaking bat shit crazy.

His name was Rashid. And he was very good looking.

I met him in an ugly coffee club in the even uglier Broome Boulevard, in between K-Mart and half-price Sex and the City DVDs at Sanity. I wasn’t really a Broome Boulevard regular, but my friend Jen was up from Kununurra for an Internet date and she wanted a taste of the big smoke.

Jen was a character. She drove trucks at the Argyle diamond mine. Big trucks where she only came up to the hub cap by the scrape of her hard hat. All day, she’d drive back and forth, backward and forward, taking dust and rubble and miniscule flecks of diamonds from the pit.

Jen had done a bunch of outback jobs; working as a governess on a station and in a pub at Fitzroy Crossing. And it was from working in Fitzroy Crossing that she knew Rashid, who was trying on sunglasses across the Boulevard.

They waved and he raced over to give her a big hug.

“Jenny! Been a long time!”

They swapped gossip and tidbits from down the track, and when he left, I pumped her for details.

Who was that?

“He could be good for you!” she said. Jen didn’t remember too much about him, but he was a nice guy, she said. She hadn’t seen him for a few years, he had disappeared a bit suddenly after a goanna hunting trip with some of the local boys. I was intrigued.

Later that night, we went to Diver’s Tavern for drinks, gossip and to check out the local talent.

Rashid was there too, and he came over to talk. He sat right next to me and our thighs just barely touched. Later he came over to the bar when I was ordering a drink and lifted up my hair.

“Hello gorgeous,” he whispered.

A couple more hours, and a group of us moved on to the Roey, The Roebuck Hotel, made famous by wasters and wet T-shirt competitions. We hit the dance floor. Rashid performed the lawn mower, fed the chickens and imitated an eagle. He was the worst and best dancer I’d ever seen and I was smitten.

I didn’t expect to hear from him again but I did, the next day. We met at the Courthouse Markets. He said he missed me. I thought it was intense but thrilling.

Gas rallies and other things 034

That night we drove to Gantheaume Point and he spotted sting rays in the waves for me.

We watched the sun set over those red and ochre rocks. Rashid told me about how he used to be a paramedic, but one day he’d been handed a baby with barbed wire around its neck and he couldn’t do it anymore. So he moved up north, to the Kimberley.

We cuddled and he stroked my hair.

“You’re so beautiful, Bub”, he said.

A few days later, we walked on the beach, and his sister rang. He told her all about me.

“You’re going to love Miranda”, he said. “She’s the best girl I’ve ever met.”

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Pretty soon, we started spending long afternoons and longer evenings in my Old Broome flat.

A couple of weeks later, my best friend was in town and she liked Rashid a lot too. Thought he was cute. Affectionate, sweet. We had a big night out together, dancing at Zee Bar, and they got on like a house on fire, although his hanger on mate didn’t do much for her.

After that, things started to go strange. One night, I asked Rashid to pick up some rice for dinner but he said his wallet had been stolen.

A few days later, he disappeared for hours to comfort a friend. It was past midnight when I got a knock on my screen door and he came in smelling of cigarettes and tinned rum. He got angry when I asked him to have a shower.

Rashid wouldn’t let me go over to his house.

He’d ask me to drop him off at the servo on the corner.

“I’m sorry, Bub”, he said.

“It’s just my housemates. And the house. That house is a mess. Pizza boxes, dirty dishes, the works. I don’t want to take you there. They won’t like it that you’re a white girl.”

Other times he’d tell me very bloody bedtime stories. Fights he’d seen, fights he’d been part of. The time they dug up his grandmother’s grave and found blood on her bones. And the cousin who lost his mind and cut off his penis. Rashid found him on the toilet, bleeding profusely with the dick still in his hand.

One day, I came home to find Rashid sitting on a fold out chair on my deck, head in his hands. He’d just got a phone call from home, Lightning Ridge, to say that his brother had committed suicide.

I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say so I just put my arms around him. We looked up flights on the Internet.

He disappeared to talk to a friend from work and packed a suitcase.

That night, we held eachother and didn’t sleep much.

I offered to take him to the airport.

“No Bub,” he said. “It’s OK. John from work will take me. I’ll be OK. I’ll call you as soon as I get there.”

He called me three hours later.

“I’m here, Bub, it’s pretty awful. I miss you already.”

Three hours seemed quick: Broome to Perth to Sydney and a train to Lightning Ridge. In fact, it didn’t seem possible.

“That was a quick flight”, I said.

“Yeah, yeah, they got me onto the best connections because of what happened, Bub.”

We got off the phone and I went for a walk on the beach with my friend Beth.

Rashid called me again, mid walk.

“Where are you?”

He sounded desperate.

Just on the beach, I said. The sand and wind were whirling around us, and the phone was cutting in and out.

I’ll call you when I get home. I hung up.

Beth suddenly launched into a story. She’d been living in the UK a few years ago, dating a girl who was a bit high maintenance. Big mood swings. Beth was just about ready to call it off when this girl’s grandmother died, and she flew back to Australia.

The next day, Beth walked into her local bar to find her girlfriend, sitting on a barstool.

“I don’t know why I just told you that story”, she said.

We looked at each other.

“He’s still in town”, she said.

He’s still in town.

The next day, after my radio show, I did a drive-by of Rashid’s workplace. And then I called their number.

Hi, there, I said…I’m looking for Rashid.

A voice that sounded very familiar said, “Who may I say is calling?”

I panicked and hung up.

Rashid rang me almost immediately.

His voice was hard. “Hey Bub, I haven’t heard from you for awhile. Don’t you like me anymore?”

Sure I do, I said. How are…how is….Lightning Ridge?

“My family are crazy,” he spat. “I’m going to come home.”

Don’t you think you should stay and help, with your brother and his family?

“Nup. Not after what they’ve said to me.”

Rashid, I’ve gotta go.

His voice got harder still. “Yeah? Go. You should go. The next time you see me, I’ll be hanging from a tree, I’ll be hanging from that mango tree outside your house. There’s nothing for me to live for anyway.”

That night, I could feel shadows creep around my pindan garden. My flat consisted of two dongas, with my bedroom in one and the bathroom in the other. I was too scared to cross the verandah.

The next day, I left the house to have dinner with a couple of other friends and told them the story.

“I know,” said Kate. “Tomorrow. I’ll ring his work. He won’t know my voice. I’ll ask to speak to him.”

She did it from work, from our blocked number.

“Hi, it’s Kate Matthews here. Can I please speak to Rashid?”

“Speaking!” replied a cheery voice.

She hung up. He was in Broome. He’d never left Broome.

Rashid rang me straight away.

“Hey Bub, what’s going on?”

I said he was lying. I said there was no Lightning Ridge and no brother and no one had died. I said he’d been watching me and hanging around the house and he should get some help.

He huffed and puffed.

“Actually…Actually, I just got in this morning. I was going to surprise you, But thanks a lot Miranda, thanks a lot. Thanks for nothing.”

He hung up.

I called the police and they promised to keep an eye out for me. I worried each time I reversed my car out from under the mango tree, worried that he’d be hanging from the branch. I still felt him around the house, at the end of missed calls and watching me from the car park when I went to work early in the morning.

Eventually I broke down and couldn’t leave my bedroom. I had to call in reinforcements. My friend Flic brought over a male friend one night, a solid station boy who had never told a violent bedtime story in his life. He shone the torch in every pindan crook and cranny. Nothing.

My friends Beth and Ryan put up security lights, triggered by human movement. In the meantime, I stayed in their spare bedroom. I was still scared of my house, of the shadows and especially of the mango tree in my front yard.

I felt like I was going crazy, so I ran away to Darwin for a few weeks. When I came back, I walked up and down Cable Beach, trying to decide whether I should stay. Eventually I found a trident shell the size of both my hands on the low tide watermark. I took it as a sign. I’d stick it out in Broome, at least until the end of my contract.

I never found out who Rashid really was. If he’d ever been a paramedic. If he was just a guy who liked to cheat on his girlfriend with gullible newcomers. If his housemates really hated white girls. If he had a drug problem. If he was a compulsive liar, or if he was mentally unstable.

It took me a long time to go on another date.

As they say, the odds are good but the goods are sometimes very odd.

Guns, business cards and other interior design crimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s genuine spelling and punctuation right there.

But this is my all time favourite:

Leons killing service

Now THERE’S a Territory Tough business card.

Sorry vegetarians. And interior designers.

Afternoon tea with a snake dancer

Frangipani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was that about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck! Fuck! Get her off me!”

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

Tamsin turned back to me.

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

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

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

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.

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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.

My love affair with Cold Chisel

It’s always amusing to head south and see ’80s fashion on display – high waisted jeans, mesh singlets, Ken Done jumpers and pleather.

Because in the Territory, the ‘80s never really ended. Visit Casuarina Shopping Centre or the Humpty Doo Hotel; folk might be texting on an IPhone, but they’re still sporting the same haircut they had in 1983 and why the hell wouldn’t they?

Same goes for our music. While the young hipster things Down South might be listening to bands like Iguana Bloody Mary or The Macrame Wizards, we’re still enjoying a good meat and three veg diet of ‘80s pub rock with the occasional ‘90s breakthrough song. The Macrame Wizards are never going to get a sell out crowd at the Darwin Entertainment Centre. That’s a job for our ‘80s legends– Ross Wilson, Colin Hay, Paul Kelly or Barnesy. Or Farnsy for that matter, should he decide to do another farewell tour, and more power to him.

I never truly appreciated Aussie pub rock until I came to the NT. I was a lover of indie rock and ‘90s grunge; I smelled like teen spirit.

But I’ll tell you something for free. You’re never going to get the Adelaide River pub on the dance floor with The Pixies or Sleater-Kinney.

Chisel 1

Want to make 95% of the people at Daly Waters happy? Put on Khe Sanh. Two guys who were about to fight now have their arms around each other. Someone at the bar is reminiscing about the time Cold Chisel played the Diamond Beach Casino. The next is recalling what Ian Moss got up to at high school in Alice Springs. The guy next to him was actually in a band with Mossy back in the day. The dance floor is full. All because of Khe Sanh.

Being something of a sponge, I quickly got on board with the ‘70s and then the ‘80s of pub rock. The indie CDs moved to the back of the shelf, making way for Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, Icehouse, Men at Work, even 1927, which I’ve always secretly liked. I danced to The Boys Light Up at rodeos and started putting Flame Trees on road trip compilations. I began requesting Choir Girl at the Jabiru Social Club.

And then it was 2009. I finally went to see Jimmy Barnes live in concert at The Mangrove Hotel in Broome. My friend Woo came with me, even though it was a school night.

There were an array of black, red and green cans doing the rounds; the audience was liquored up and Barnesy was rocking the stage. Every so often the band’s PA system would trip the electricity for the whole hotel and the sound guys would scramble around hysterically. Barnesy, the true professional, would pick up on exactly the note he left off on, mid lyric if need be.

I left the concert giddy on pre-mix vodka and the power of ‘80s pub rock, and walked home to Old Broome with my ears still ringing.

By the time I moved back to the Territory, the unthinkable–or very thinkable–occurred. Cold Chisel announced a reunion tour, around Australia. They would play Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and they would play a show at the Gardens Amphitheatre in Darwin. Everyone knew their ‘80s haircuts had just been vindicated. The band was back together.

So one sticky build up October evening, I rode my bike to the Gardens and snuck into the Casino to get changed. The high rollers at the roulette table might have been oblivious to the Chisel factor, but Darwin was electric that night. If you’d seen the band in the ‘80s, you were there. If you were a johnny-come-lately like me, you were there. If you had two ears and a soul, you were at the concert, or at least up the hill behind the Buff Club peering over the black plastic.

I went on my own but found some friends in the middle of the crowd, and then a guy I vaguely recognised came over. He gave me a kiss on the cheek.

“Hey!” he said. “It’s good to see you!”

You too! I said.

“I’m so sorry”, he said. “I don’t remember your name”.

That’s OK, I said. I don’t remember your name either.

We’d met years ago playing Frisbee with friends; he’d been in Timor and I’d been in Broome and Alice Springs.

He was with a guy I knew from the Weather Bureau, and they hung out with my mates for the rest of the night.

We danced to Cheap Wine and Standing on the Outside. To songs I knew, and songs I didn’t. Cigarette lighters came out. It felt like everyone in the audience was hugging or crying or kissing. A few of them were probably throwing beer bottles. Or remembering other days, when they listened to this music and were younger and things were better and worse all at the same time.

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When it ended, two encores later, this man who didn’t remember my name got my number. I left the Gardens buzzing with attraction and music and anticipation and the stickiness of a build up evening in the Gardens.

That was the beginning of Mr Tea and me, a relationship built on the pub rock foundations of Cold Chisel.

Reporting from Arnhem Land

“Fuck Maningrida.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maningrida truck

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

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

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

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

It all feels quite surreal.

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

Community home in Maningrida.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Rainlove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

I checked the road report.

It’s flooded, I said.

“Let’s try anyway”, said Mr Tea.

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

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

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

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t this terrific, I enthused.

Mr Tea agreed that it was terrific.

Isn’t this just life affirming!

“Yes”, he said.

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

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

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

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Bumper Sticker Territory

Eat the peanuts out of my shit.

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

It’s just…so…specific.

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

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

For example:

I float and I vote = Marginally Political Fisho.

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

Bundaberg Rum – I like to drink.

Jack lives here – I REALLY like to drink.

Magic Happens = I own a pair of fairy wings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boat empire continues.

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

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

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

The slow train from Ella to Kandy

Railway tracks also double as a footpath for traffic savvy Ella locals

Railway tracks also double as a footpath for traffic savvy locals

When it comes to trainspotting, I’ve traditionally been more of the Irvine Welsh school of thought. Despite a year living in the UK when I was regularly told to mind the gap, I’ve had little interest in donning an anorak and seeking out obscure locomotives. As far as I was concerned, trains were just for transportation and, occasionally, long chats with anarchists who had day jobs making stained glass windows.

But in Sri Lanka, I’ve become an ardent trainspotter.

Partly, so one doesn’t crush me. Despite laws to the contrary, locals use the train tracks as an all-purpose footpath and cattle thoroughfare and we have followed in their footsteps. It therefore pays to have a lookout and a good working understanding of the train timetable, which any self-respecting local can rattle off for you at a moment’s notice.

“Ella to Kandy, Sir? It goes at 6. 40, 9.20. 12.30….”

But it’s more than that. It’s spectacular to stand by the side of the tracks and watch the trains pass, with locals hanging out the doorframes and waving from the windows. The train is a means to an end, but it’s also an end in itself for tourists who actively seek out vantage points from which to wield their telephoto lenses. We learn to exchange gems of trainspotting wisdom as readily as guesthouse numbers. An excitable Swedish couple tells us, “If you follow the track through the pine forest at around 7am, you’ll even see the train pass over the Nine Arch Bridge!”

All this enthusiasm, and not an anorak in sight.

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Part of it is that Sri Lankan Railways still has an air of ye olde colonial glamour that you definitely don’t find on the Train Link Xplorer from Sydney to Armidale.

And then there’s the renegade adventure of it all. Michael Ondaatje (he of The English Patient) hails from Sri Lanka and has written a fantastic memoir that includes some of his father’s exploits on Ceylon Rail back in the day. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Mervyn Ondaatje was known to get drunk on the train and wave his army pistol around. On his most infamous journey, “he managed to get the driver of the train drunk as well and was finishing a bottle of gin every hour walking up and down the carriages almost naked, but keeping his shoes on this time and hitting the state of inebriation during which he would start rattling off wonderful limericks—thus keeping the passengers amused.” And this with a war on.

Not surprisingly, Mervyn was banned from Ceylon Railways in 1943. Maybe it’s not so different to the Sydney-Armidale Xplorer after all.

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With all this in mind, Mr Tea and I wanted in and we decide to book train tickets from Ella to Kandy. In a country where people are almost unanimously friendly and courteous, the single guy manning the fort at Ella Station missed the customer service memo from Colombo. He’s busy chewing betel nut and watching an Indian soap opera and why we got to be so STUPID and ask HIM for a ticket when we clearly need to wait for the station master?

Betel nut chewer gets back to Bollywood and we sit around on the platform for a while.

Eventually the station master shows up, and Mr Tea asks for two first-class tickets; we’ve been warned about poultry and overflowing pit toilets. The Station Master is only marginally friendlier than his accomplice. He can offer us two third class tickets, that’s it, take it or leave it, suckers.

We are suckers, any tuktuk driver can tell you that, so we take the tickets and hand over our 800 rupee.

At 6.30am on the appointed day of departure, Mr Tea and I walk down the railway tracks to wait for the train. It’s only ten minutes late and we get on board. The seats even look like they recline; this isn’t so bad, I say.

But our fellow carriage mates wave us away – “This is second class! Not reserved!”

We head towards first class, but the ticket master sends us right back to where we belong – Third Class Reserved. Two young Sri Lankan women snigger behind their hands. “Third Class!” I hear them whisper, as we schlep our luggage down to the other end of the train.

Fortunately, Third Class has seats, a working toilet and no chickens in sight. The trip is six and a half hours at a brisk jogging pace, but it’s magic. The train rattles and clanks along to panorama after panorama: of mist floating off the top of mountains, tea plantations, waterfalls and rice paddies.

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We watch a wedding party alight, dressed in elaborate saris and holding drums and bags of food. At smaller stations, local children run after the train, squealing and waving. At the larger stations, entrepreneurial types stroll the platforms, selling “Wade-Wade-Wade-Wade”, a lentil cake deep fried in coconut oil, or strips of green mango to be dipped in chilli salt. In our carriage, several families munch away on these snacks or on home made lunches of rice and curry packaged up in old homework papers.

Half way through the trip I remember that Prasanna, our hotel manager, pressed a styrofoam box of train treats into my hands at stupid o’clock. Hungry mid morning, I open it up to find sesame balls, pistachio shortbread and deep fried biscuits laden with chilli salt and cumin.  It’s perfect road trip food for the perfect Sri Lankan road trip, and I get to thinking that maybe those railway enthusiasts back home are actually onto something.

Helga’s Folly

Helga de Silva Blow Perera, replete with diamante sunglasses

Helga de Silva Blow Perera, replete with diamante sunglasses

“Helga’s chief folly was being on lithium when she decorated”—Luxe City Guides, Sri Lanka

Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second biggest city with 1.5 million people in the district, but Helga de Silva Blow Perera is hard to miss in the crowd.

Helga is the owner and creator of Helga’s Folly – a hotel right up in the hills of Kandy. I think the Luxe Guide is a little uncharitable, but then I’ve always been a fan of the more is more philosophy both in life and interior decorating. Fair call on the lithium though.

Helga’s Folly is a bit difficult to describe but I’ll do my best.

Just imagine that Frida Kahlo had a Sri Lankan love child with Paul Gauguin, and let it smoke opium for breakfast every day until it turned 12. And then gave it a paintbrush and said, knock yourself out, kid.

Yes. That’s what Helga’s Folly is like.

Stalactite candles, stag horns and unicorn murals

Stalactite candles, stag horns and unicorn murals

When you walk through the front entrance, there are plastic skeletons sitting on a chaise lounge and a Sri Lankan man called Lionel who will reluctantly take your drink order.

Around the corner, it just gets more fantastic: stalactites of candle wax dripping from candelabras and bright green and pink Indian silk cushions. In one cabinet sits the family’s collection of antique pistols. In another, oriental lamps and wooden carvings of Buddha and various Indian gods and goddesses. There are murals, Sri Lankan folk art, Dutch antiques, teak and lattice recliners and chandeliers. One room is pale blue and the walls are lined with blue china plates. Another is bright red, with a Sri Lankan elephant procession painted on one wall and gaudy Mexican characters drinking on the other. Above the doorways are stag horns, family photographs and paintings of unicorns. And because it was Christmas a week ago, they’d done some extra decorating: wreaths, baubles and glittering fairy lights.

Outside Helga’s Folly is a backyard made of jungle. There are monkeys swinging from the eaves and sitting on the window sills. Apparently one used to be nicknamed Captain; Captain liked to expose himself to guests at regular intervals.

Helga’s family story is something else. She hails from European-Sri Lankan stock, with a father and grandfather who were both politicians. Her grandmother fought for women’s rights, her mother was an artist and designed the original chalet and her aunt was the first Asian woman to become an architect. Helga herself is an artist, celebrity and local eccentric with three husbands under her belt. Her daughter is a fashion designer in London and her sons are similarly inclined.

Celebrities have flocked here over the years. Helga’s Folly has entertained Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, Paula Yates and the Ghandis. Vivian Leigh had an affair with Peter Finch here. Kelly Jones from The Stereophonics stayed once and wrote a song in honour of Helga; the lyrics to ‘Madam Helga’ are up in the entrance.

The Dining Room, darling. Well, one of them.

The Dining Room, darling. Well, one of them.

I was desperate to meet Helga, but when we inquired the staff were suitably vague. I think she is still in London with her daughter, Madam, said one.  She has been very unwell.  Another murmured, I’m sorry but she is up country riding elephants, Madam.

I would have believed anything.

And then at around 7pm, Helga sashayed into the dining room.

I actually heard her before I saw her. Helga was behind the oriental screen and monkey statue when she introduced herself to a couple of guests and enquired after their wellbeing.

“I do hope your room is clean?”

Well may she ask. I wouldn’t describe Helga’s Folly as the most hygienic hotel in the country: the antiques and bohemia all come with a good layer of grime and spider webs. It’s just so hard to get good help around here.

Helga meeted and greeted for a while, and then finally she came our way, dressed in diamante studded sunglasses and a long black evening dress cinched in at the waist with a gold leaf belt.

She had a flimsy handshake and indeterminate accent.

It was like meeting an aged film star or obscure member of the Swedish Royal Family: you’re a bit dizzy with excitement but not quite sure why. Mr Tea isn’t easily impressed, but even he got a bit carried away. I turned to get something from my bag, and all of a sudden I look up and he’s showing her our Christmas photos from Galle.

We stayed with Henri and Koki at Kikili House, I tell Helga.

“Oh yes”, trills Helga. “Henri is a dear friend. I must write to her. We’re friends from London, same circles you know.”

I don’t know.

“It’s so nice to meet you”, she says. “We’re going to have Christmas dinner now, it’s my daughter’s last night. But I do hope you enjoy yourselves.”

She leaves us star struck, and after a three course meal by candelabra, Mr Tea and I return to our homestay waxing lyrical about Helga’s Folly.

But Patthi our host is less than enthused.

“That hotel!” he cries. “It is so dirty. I take guests there and one of them got an electric shock. And you pay $240!”

He shakes his head. “Much better you stay here.”

I know Patthi is right, but part of me still wants to take up residence in the gothic museum that is Helga’s Folly and write opium-laced poetry.

Mr Tea settles in for another G and T. How appropriate.

Mr Tea settles in for another G and T. How appropriate.