An ode to Territory Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop-up fireworks stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They exploded at ground level and came straight at us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to go home.

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

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

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

Hank chooses Bad Bitch

Hank chooses Bad Bitch

Add thongs* for formal wear

Casually kicked off at the beach, or add pearls for the red carpet

Casually kick off at the beach, or add pearls for the red carpet.

Darwin isn’t exactly the fashion capital of Australia. Put it this way. If you go to one of the sailing clubs, there are signs that request you to put on a shirt and some thongs.

There are people who need to be told this.

Of course, not all of us are this sloppy. Some of us even have “going out thongs”. In fact, I have two pairs.

In the Top End, thongs are definitely the footwear of choice: for weddings, red carpet and the workplace. Closed toe shoes are for the back cupboard; you pull them out and wipe off the mould only when you need them for a trip down south.

But when the ABC’s Q and A came to film an episode in Darwin a couple of years ago, the audience members were all sent an email asking them to wear shoes. It caused such a panic that there was a follow up email saying that the double plugger would, in fact, be fine after all. This led local author and audience member Barry Jonsberg to open the questions by asking whether he should “celebrate this concession to the Territory lifestyle or worry that the rest of Australia thinks of us as bogans?”

If the shoe fits, Barry. If the shoe fits.

One of my workmates, Gary, eschews even the double pluggers. He’s obstinately barefoot, with an emergency pair of thongs in the top drawer in case one of the head honchoes should suddenly drop by.

Gary is one of my favourite people at work and an absolute gun at what he does, which means that nobody says too much when he rocks up at work wearing a baseball cap and an Alawa Primary School T-shirt that he found in the op shop. Or a pair of shorts he picked up on the Nightcliff foreshore and then washed.

But that’s not to say that Gary can’t dress for the occasion, when required.

For example:

Gary: Louise, the Prime Minister has just arrived. I’ll go let him in. Back in a mo’.

Louise: OK. Thanks.

She looks up.

Louise: Hang on a second….Gary! Take your hat off! And for God’s sake, put some thongs on!

I just hope the Prime Minister appreciated it.

*Apologies to non-Australian readers who think I am writing about racy underwear.

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.

Just check under the bed first

January 3, 2007. Getting a tour around my new rabbit warren of a Darwin workplace.

Boss Lady: …That’s the control room, down that corridor. And here’s the sick bay, if you ever need a lie down or a panadol.

Me: Great, thanks.

Boss Lady: If you do need to have a lie down though, maybe just check under the bed first. Sue from Tech Services sometimes keeps her injured birds here. Last week she had a kingfisher and two flying foxes.

I had a couple of panadol before having a cuddle with this little fellow.

I’m not so good with birds or bats up close. So I had a couple of panadol before getting too familiar with this little fellow.

This is the build up

Yesterday I was doing the washing up in my bra and undies.

I hesitated on the undergarment terminology for a second there, but yes. I’d like to say knickers but that suggests lace, and the word panties makes me want to stick my finger down my throat. Or make random accusations of paedophilia. Nope, they’re definitely undies when you’re sweating it out over the sink.

I wasn’t trying to give the neighbours a show. Nor was I getting ready for a surprise visit from the electrician, wow wow wackka wackka wow wow. There just wasn’t any point in wearing clothes. It was 32 degrees, eleventy hundred percent humidity and I’d already had my second shower for the day around noon.

This time of year in Darwin is perverse. It’s even worse when you go from a sanctuary of air conditioning into the fray. When I was working, to go get lunch we’d have to cross two alleyways of pavement to awning concrete. My friend Anna used to call it 30 seconds on High. It was a gauntlet you’d brave only to grab a sandwich or laksa.

The build up makes you fantasise about rain. Dream about rain. You can be doing something really nice, like getting a massage or eating a piece of cake and you think, how much BETTER would this be if it was raining? You count clouds. You refresh the BOM website. You start tapping your veins. You’d break into someone’s car to get rain if it was sitting on the passenger seat.

And I moved to Darwin FOR the rain. I was tired of drought and water restrictions and the lit up sign on Barry Drive that reported how low the dam levels were in Canberra. I wanted lush green lawns and tropical gardens. I wanted to be in a town where the locals watered their driveways.

Most Territorians encourage people to visit in the Dry Season. I waxed lyrical about all the rain you could see from December to February.

You can just sit on the verandah and watch it, I enthused.

Well, Mother Nature must have felt sorry for this rain crack addict. Or she wanted me to put some clothes on. At around 3am this morning, it rained.

No, it didn’t just rain. It poured. Fat rain, horizontal rain, stinging rain. The lightning curled around the street lights, the thunder smashed like dinner plates. 98 millimetres at the airport, 85 at Nightcliff pool.

When I lived in Tonga, they had a word for rain that heavy: faka’uha. And yes, it’s pronounced as per the expletive.  Faka’uha was rain you could have a bath or shower in. Whenever there was a downpour, I remember my Tongan host mother grabbing the shampoo and running outside to lather up. The chickens and pigs would be scuttling for cover, but she’d be out in the yard, singing in the shower.

I should have gone out at 3am this morning to faka’uha.

When I woke up again, the rain had finished. The sky was grey and the air was cooler and I could think again.

By lunchtime the steam was rising.

And in two hours I’ll be washing up in my bra and undies again, tapping my veins, sweating into the sink and dreaming of rain again.

Poinciana picnic

Flame trees at East Point

Flame trees at East Point

I’m going to be away for my best friend’s birthday and she’s not happy. So one Sunday afternoon, I buy a bottle of Moet, some strawberries and olives and pick her up for a surprise picnic at East Point. We pick a luscious Poinciana tree glowing in the sunset light and get comfy: fold out chairs, esky, plates of food. I’ve even packed real glasses – champagne flutes and water tumblers.

We’re sitting there, talking about nothing and everything. The red orb of sun folds into the sea. It gets darker and darker and soon there’s just the light from the street and the tanker across the harbour, and a voice makes us jump.

“Ladies? Excuse me, ladies?”

It’s a man in his 40s, bald, well-built, shirtless, on a bike, eyes slightly rolled back in his head, words slurred.

“Ladies, could I beg some of your water for my dog?”

Of course, sure, no problem, we say too quickly.

The dog is nowhere to be seen.

He opens the bottle of water and glugs down half a litre or so, then throws it back to us.

“Thanks. My dog’s called Amos, he’s a harmless little thing.”

The man rides off, and moments later, a giant pig dog comes and sniffs around our picnic and the hermit crabs diligently combing the sand.

My friend hisses and the dog hesitates.

A slurred voice from the dark.

“Amos?”

There’s a whistle, and the water borrowing man and his pig dog disappear into the night.

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.