This year marks a decade for me Up North. It feels like an anniversary worth marking. But am I a Territorian yet? Yes. No. I’m not sure. Probably not.
A quick lesson in Australian demography, if you don’t mind. Ahem. Let me get my whiteboard. There are Territorians and then there are Southerners. Arguably, there are also Mexicans, Banana Benders, Sandgropers and Crow Eaters, but really Australia is just made up of Territorians and Southerners.
In the media, we’re pretty quick to handover Honorary Territorian status. Olympic swimmer Geoff Huegill spent his first few months in Gove? That’s a Territorian tick! The Beatles transited through the airport in 1964 – give them a key to the city! Cadel Evans was born in Katherine Hospital but now says Victoria is home? Put up a sign at the city limits!
But if you’re not a celebrity, Territorian is a status awarded via the more traditional measure of number-crunching, namely your years of residency, though occasionally a sufficient number of buffalo hunted, crocodiles wrestled, cane toads busted or drink-driving arrests will suffice. The generous hearted might make you a local at twenty years, others will say thirty. Forty. The highest echelons of local are of course reserved for the born, the bred. The born and bred. The families with thousands of years under their feet, or at least, several generations. The rest of us are missionaries, misfits and mercenaries; blow ins, FIFOs and fly-by-nighters.
…You may find yourself
living in a shotgun shack
and you may find yourself
in another part of the world
and you may find yourself
behind the wheel of a large automobile
and you may find yourself in a beautiful house
with a beautiful wife
and you may ask yourself, well,
how did I get here?
Like Talking Heads, I’ve been asking myself that question.
The idea of Darwin first seeped into my consciousness at the age of eight. The ABC was screening a children’s series called Touch the Sun. The trailers are fairly excruciating to revisit now, but at the time I was mesmerised by the stories. There was a boy named Peter who lived in a caravan park and found the ruin of a Roman ship in a cave. In another episode, a group of kids with bad haircuts disappeared into the Tasmanian wilderness to bring home some missing cattle. There were a couple of pre-teens from Melbourne who won land in South-West WA on a game show, and travelled over there to see it with an eccentric Grandfather. But the story that appealed to me most was set in the Top End. It was the story of a rambunctious 11-year-old named Alice (who had the best blond mullet and ‘80s specs you can imagine). It was all styled to scream frontier. Alice lived in an elevated house, all louvres and mosquito nets, with her single mother who had a night job at the casino. She could drive (the family mini moke and a stolen boat); she knew how to hitch-hike (to Kakadu with her friend Mick, who had a family outstation that way). When they ran out of money, Alice and Mick busked at a truck stop and earned enough money to buy burgers and chips with a fistful of pink notes left over, the paper kind. I spent hours fantasising about running away from home, adventuring, consorting with characters, and also being able to buy my own McHappy meal. Alice was living my dream.
So maybe my Darwin story starts there. But it also begins in the Kingdom of Tonga. At the (highly unqualified) age of 22, I applied for a job running a youth magazine and radio show in the capital, Nuku’alofa. And got it. I didn’t know much about the country at all and the information online was scant (all a quick Google turned up in 2002 was that the place had a King and that he had some weight-loss issues, but didn’t we all, I thought?)
As a bright eyed and bushy tailed Australian Volunteer, I got off the plane, was handed a pungent lei made out of frangipanis, pandanus fruit and lollies in colourful wrappers, and was bundled into one of Nuku’alofa’s best taxis, the windows stitched together with sticky tape. My culture shock barometer sky rocketed. My sunglasses fogged up. We drove into town, past tiny corner stores filled with packets of two minute noodles and cordial frozen in plastic bags (local ice blocks).
And then we passed the prison. The fence was waist-high, if that.
“Sometimes, the prisoners borrow the guard’s car and go into town to pick up supplies. Nobody minds. They come back,” my in-country manager told me.
I think I fell in love with the Pacific at that moment.
I kept travelling. Samoa, Vanuatu. I nearly took a job in PNG but knocked it back when my boss-to-be told me she was cooped up in the compound, waiting for payback from some Highlanders.
I was looking for something humid with palm trees but with limited to no chance of a car jacking. Maybe a little less church on Sundays and more tolerance for singlets and shorts. Darwin soon came to the top of my things to do list.
And so I came to the Territory for the first time in 2006, a rookie arts reporter for Triple J. It was a gig I couldn’t put my hand up for fast enough. I interviewed buskers, graphic artists, dancers, musos, and photographers in Darwin, and anyone handy with a crochet needle at the Alice Springs Beanie Festival. There was so much to take in. The hues of the desert, the turquoise of the Arafura Sea, the country men who heckled me when I got amorous with a fellow backpacker in the sand dunes behind Mindil Beach. I promised myself that I would come back to live.
Just six months later, I was installed in a room at the Mirambeena Resort with two suitcases and a 12 month employment contract in my clammy hand. It was the second day of January, 2007. What a golden age to arrive in the Top End. Sure, they’d just removed open speed limits but you could still smoke in your hotel room (I didn’t), the front page of the Sunday Territorian comprehensively detailed an ice-cream heist from the service station on Daly Street (Cornettos, Paddle Pops and Golden Gaytimes, all stolen in broad daylight) and I found two green tree frogs mating in my bathroom. On the radio, we spoke to someone who had just pulled a nine feet carpet python out of a toilet.
I fell for the place immediately, and hard.
Admittedly, it didn’t have everything. Channel Ten was missing from the TV schedule then, a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald cost around $7.50 even though it arrived mid-afternoon. A backpacker lounging by the pool in a bikini who thought Darwin seemed “pretty friendly” was considered (page 3) news. Good poached eggs were hard to find. Someone insisted on playing a cover of “Fields of Gold” by Sting on the bongos at Nightcliff Markets. A bloke at the pub tried to pick me up by telling me about the time he attempted to get a lizard stoned by blowing smoke in its face. I met another fella who wanted to wash his car, so he (drunkenly) rammed a fire hydrant. When it came to dating, the odds were good but the goods were definitely odd.
But so much of Darwin was just so great. People ate laksa for breakfast, for God’s sake. My work mates had names like Mango and Fridge and Happy. Another was Australia’s reigning air guitar champion. He’d hung up the axe and come to the Territory for a quieter life. The newspaper published a list of where all the speed cameras would be that week. One of the hotels was offering a beer for every (dead) cane toad brought in (maximum of six). The classifieds section had salt water crocodile skulls for sale. It was widely acceptable to call in sick at work so you could go fishing. There were more boats per capita than anywhere else in Australia. There was roadkill in my friend’s freezer that he planned to taxidermy later. My bourgeoning social life was centred around the costume section at Spotlight, one weekend a pirate party, the next, ‘70s funk. I heard the words come out of my mouth at the Sparty’s till. “That’ll be an eye patch, two swords and a blow-up parrot for me, thanks very much.”
There were bars filled with army jocks and drag queens and bikers and miners and dreadlocked hippies, all playing pool and dancing to the same scratched CDs (live music back then, something that wasn’t a bloke with said compact disc collection, anything at all, caused a flurry of inter-office emailing). There was rain, buckets of it, even rivers of the stuff. I felt like Forrest Gump, marvelling at it from my balcony: fat rain, thin rain, stinging rain, flooding rain…
With the same slack-jawed awe that I gazed out of the broken taxi window in Tonga, in that first year, I soaked up everything the Territory had to offer. Footy on the Tiwi Islands and ferry rides to the pub with no chips in Mandorah. Car boots overflowing with mangos, then pineapples, rambutans, dragon fruit and watermelons, depending on the season.
There were bush bands to see at Barunga, tinnys to jump in, mud crabs to catch, rock art galleries to see, gorges to swim, magnetic termite mounds to ponder, festivals to dance at, fish to reel in with a borrowed rod, sunsets to soak up, fake hens nights to host. Swimmers and towel were a permanent fixture in my car. It was a far cry from my childhood in the national capital.
It’s hard to believe that it’s now 2017 and I take all of those things for granted.
And many aspects of Territory life are still the same. Like the menu at Hanuman. The (yet to be completed) Parthenon on Dick Ward Drive. The snakes and frogs in the toilet. The line for Mary’s Laksa. Tits out Tuesday lives on. We’re still Developing the North, Creating the Nation’s Northern Food Bowl, arguing about letting off fireworks on Territory Day.
But the NT has also changed in ten years. The Government, at least—if not the issues, which require far more space than this short, glib, and mostly naval gazing blog post—from Labor to Country Liberal and back again, with five chief ministers in a decade and plenty more aspirants. There are new suburbs, houses, apartment blocks. A harbour filled with INPEX. The CBD is taller. We have a wave pool. Trevor the Rubbish Warrior has now turned his hand to public art and town council politics. We have a hipster café scene with all the baked eggs and pulled pork you could ever dream of. The real estate market has boomed and busted.
As for me? Well, I’ve boomed and busted, too. I arrived as a single, (sorta) gung ho, young(ish) journalist – determined to make life and heart changing radio. I’ve succeeded and I’ve failed. I’ve left Darwin and come back, left and come back. I had to shelve my ambition for a serious illness, then for a baby. Right now, I’m a stay at home Mum, at least for another year.
It’s funny to look back on those first few weeks with decade-coloured glasses. Significance comes later; it always does. I met one of my best Darwin girlfriends soon after I arrived – at a farewell dinner where every other person at the table was planning to leave town. I got her number, pronto. We drove to Kakadu for the first time together, shared a house for years. She’s called Nhulunbuy and Alice Springs home, too, over the last decade, but now we’re both in Darwin again, living a suburb apart. I also met Mr Tea for the first time in those early months, playing on a rag-tag Ultimate Frisbee team. I didn’t get his name but we would cross paths at house parties for years, between stints in Broome and Alice for me, Timor and the Solomon Islands for him.
Now we have a child. We’re getting married in July. A few weeks ago, I tried on big, white dresses in a bridal shop with a painted buffalo skull in the dressing room. In case you’re wondering, some of Darwin’s fanciest bridal couture can be found in the Wulagi Shops, on a strip hosting an old school fish and chippery, a mobile vet and an IGA with a lolly counter that my 1988 childhood wants back (milkos and sherbies and redskins, oh my!)
Everything changes. Everything stays the same.
But Darwin? I’ll gladly be a Territorian, if you’ll have me. Down South feels like a long time ago now.