(Not so) Great Boggings of the Northern Territory

I’m coming up to a decade in talkback radio and there are some things I know will light up the switchboard. Leadership spills. Parking regulations. Your favourite collective nouns. Forgotten cocktail recipes from the 1970s. Anyone for a crème de menthe?

Up North, some of those talkback topics take on a more local flavour: how to deal with bush chooks, 101 ways with mangoes, the strangest place you’ve found a snake and Great Boggings of the Territory.

All of those concepts were new to me when I arrived in Darwin. As I might have mentioned, I did not grow up in a family known for our bush skills or for our technical and practical prowess. No one was out the back rebuilding car engines or mastering crystal sets. Our garden was a suburban wasteland where only dried up lemons and patchy grass grew. I was scared of chickens and would hide behind a curtain with a book when my Grandfather rallied up the kids to collect eggs on his farm. Mum outright refused to go camping although she did let us put up an old canvas tent in the backyard that no one ever slept in, what with beds inside and all. In lieu of extensive time in the Great Outdoors, my siblings and I played school sport, mostly badly. Very occasionally, we went for bushwalks on marked paths. If there were snakes, I didn’t see them. And mangoes? Annabel Crabb recently described the experience of a friend bringing a mango to school in South Australia when she was 7 as akin to being seen with a talking monkey. We were slightly more cosmopolitan in the nation’s capital, but mangoes were for Christmas and my brothers, sister and I fought over who got to suck the pip. I don’t recall even having seen a 4WD – I certainly didn’t know anyone who had one. And if we had bogged our family car, I can only imagine that we would have collectively shrugged our shoulders and abandoned the vehicle to its muddy grave. Vale Ford Falcon. No more car for us.

I had so much to learn.

And still do. I got on top of mangoes pretty quickly and I’ve now seen my share of snakes, although I wouldn’t rush to wrangle one. But the bush chooks have defeated better gardeners than I’ll ever be, and I’m light years away when it comes to mad bush mechanic skills. You probably have to learn to change a tyre in the first place, before you can stuff it with spinifex and snake skins and get back on the road, Warlpiri style.

But Mr Tea tries to put me through my paces on some of the North’s lesser known tracks. We’ve spent quality time bogged on the sandy banks of the Pentecost River. There was a memorable birthday on which I spent a couple of hours in a muddy ditch on a back road near Wagait Beach. Two hours (and a clutch) later, Mr Tea snatch trapped us to freedom (which it turned out, was but 50 metres away on the main road). The car resembled one of Jackson Pollock’s lesser known masterpieces by the end of it and Mr Tea wasn’t too far behind. I, contributing far less (read: nothing much) to proceedings, was pretty well unscathed but I guess it was my birthday.

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And then most recently, there was an incident at the boat ramp at Hardies Lagoon.

I blame the baby.

Just a week before, we had been at our first day of birth classes and the midwife was holding up a doll and a plastic replica of the pelvis. She also had a cotton wool stuffed placenta replete with cord, it was quite the bag of props.

“It’s amazing how flexible the birth canal is,” she enthused, pushing the coccyx back and forth.

“Look,” she said. “No problems at all! It really can just bend with your baby…”

At that point, the plastic pelvis rebelled. The coccyx broke off in her hand and flicked across the room.

“Oh!” she said. “Oh dear. That’s never happened before.”

One of the other partners scrambled to pick up the broken and brittle faux coccyx, and she put it back on the shelf.

“Now where was I?”

My third trimester of pregnancy wasn’t looking promising at this point, and I decided that we needed to go away for the weekend. Immediately if not sooner. So we pencilled in a trip down to Mary River just on the fringes of Kakadu: a cabin with air conditioning and a pool, a wood-fired pizza or two and some time on the tinny.

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We launched at Hardies Lagoon late Saturday afternoon, where the water was low and crocodile infested. We puttered around, past jabirus holding court and egrets relaxing on the bank, surrounded by slack jawed salties. They seemed particularly foolhardy, those egrets, like chickens having a casual hang out with the Colonel. Mr Tea threw a line out and trawled back and forth for barra; I tested out our new camera and attempted to master the zoom and macro settings. Not far down the billabong, en route to our favourite fishing spot, the boat bottomed out. Another four-metre crocodile sunk into the water just metres from us. We turned the tinny around in a hurry. I waved to the only other boat on the lagoon, a young family fishing away, and we headed back to the muddy boat ramp. I held onto the boat and watched the water for wayward crocs, while Mr Tea reversed the car into position.

Then, with the tinny hitched on, he hit the accelerator to pull the boat out of the water. The front wheel spun out. He did it again. Gravel and mud flew everywhere; there was no traction. Mr Tea got me behind the wheel and pushed. No luck. We tried backing the trailer further into the lagoon and then out again, in an attempt to grab onto a firmer piece of embankment. The mud just churned and the trailer dug in deeper.

This went on for about half an hour. We had no retrieval gear. I was 30 weeks pregnant; there had been no plans for 4WD adventures or a good old fashioned Territory bogging.

At this point, the only other boat on the billabong offered to help, and we reluctantly accepted. Our saviour arrived in a Hilux with his three young daughters crammed into the back seat. He got out to assist Mr Tea, and I made small talk with his wife.

Thanks so much for helping, I said. I’m not much good in these situations. And…I pointed to my belly. I can’t really push the car out at the moment.

“Oh!” She said. “I thought you were looking a bit useless. Well, fair enough then.”

It’s nice to know that while some people have resting bitch face, I have resting useless face.

Anyway, in five minutes flat, we were snatched out, grateful and shame faced, just as the sun was going down. The air was smoky with nearby bushfires and the mosquitoes were getting more frenzied. We got out of Hardies Lagoon as fast as we could.

So there it was. Another entry into the canon that is (Not so) Great Boggings of the Northern Territory. I told the story on the radio the Monday after, and sure enough, the switchboard lit up. More tales of shortcuts gone wrong, car drownings and sudden thunderstorms on the back blocks of Lee Point that defeated better cars than ours.

And then there was some discussion of the price of assistance. A gentleman named Frog rang in – greatly concerned that today’s Territorians weren’t paying the proper price for bogging retrieval.

“It’s definitely a carton,” he told us on air. “But people forget! I’m owed so many cartons! The tourist bus I pulled out near the Arnhem Highway. The truckie I helped just outside of Palmerston. And the copper I got out of the Daly River…actually, nah, he doesn’t owe me a carton.”

When I spoke to Frog again off air, I confessed my own failure on that front. We’d forgotten to reimburse our Hardies Lagoon samaritans.

“Yeah, well just you remember for next time,” he told me. “If you get pulled out of a bogging, it’s definitely a carton. But Miranda? I know you’re from Canberra. And I reckon you’re fitting in up here real well.”

It was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

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Catching crabs

In a concrete car park, amid signs banning hawkers and humbug, I was asked out on my first Territory date. I was sweaty, wearing an inappropriately synthetic dress, and standing in front of Video Ezy at the Nightcliff Shopping Centre.

Back in the day, there used to be a Drive-In there on Dick Ward Drive, but by the time I arrived, that had long gone. It was a rental DVD or nada. I guess I’ll tell my grandkids about it one day, but Video Ezy Nightcliff was the place to be back in the olden, golden days of the naughties, especially on a Friday night or after school sport on a Saturday. In those days, hiring out DVDs in Darwin must have been almost as lucrative as the bottle shop trade. Action films ruled and the overnight new release market was booming; the Maltesers were overpriced and overflowing. You could get 7 weeklies for $7, and probably still rent on VHS if you asked nicely enough.

Sadly for Video Ezy, those glory days were short lived. These days, the shop barely exists, relegated to some lower rent real estate in the Centre where the quilting and patchwork shop used to be.

But back then, Video Ezy had pole position and I was its newest devotee. I hunched over their table of TV boxed sets, trying to do the kind of budgetary analysis that Joe Hockey dreams of: if I owe nearly $50 in overdue fines, is it better for me to buy Season 4 of Sex and the City outright or should I still just rent it from the weekly shelf?

A tall bloke with a shaved head and a slightly crooked nose broke my reverie with a one liner. We shook hands and made some awkward small talk. I made a joke about having a substance abuse issue (namely my Sex and the City addiction) and he mentioned something about having one, too, although unfortunately I would later find out that his wasn’t to 25-minute episodes about fashionable, libido-driven New Yorkers.

After a little more chat and a car park proposition, Daz became my first Territory boyfriend. Permanently clad in a fishing shirt, a pair of boardies and a broad brimmed hat, he’d driven up the Tanami after a couple of years milking cows in a Margaret River dairy and was couch surfing with mates. Daz loved making sushi, had ridden his bike through France and worked his way across Canada. He didn’t stay in jobs too long. While I knew him, he sold power tools, worked at a croc farm and drove trucks. At one stage, he bought a tinny and used his bicycle to tow it to Nightcliff Jetty. He didn’t believe in sunscreen, was partial to a cold beer or ten and stitched up his own drunken injuries with dental tape and without painkillers. Daz was Territory Tough, despite hailing originally from Western Sydney.

Our first date was at a now defunct Indian restaurant. For our second date, Daz invited me to come mud crabbing at Buffalo Creek. I thought that sounded romantic in a frontier kind of way, which shows how little I knew at the time about either romance or mud crabbing.

Daz picked me up mid afternoon that Saturday in his ageing Camry. We drove up Lee Point Road, past the caravan park, towards Buff Creek. Despite reports of pollution, proximity to the sewerage treatment plant and a couple of resident crocodiles, the boat ramp provides access to fishing in Shoal Bay and the creek is a favourite amongst hardened Darwin land-based fishos.

Daz locked the Camry and grabbed a small bag of gear, a couple of fishing rods and half a dozen crab pots. I followed him into the mangroves, a muddy grave yard of sharp black roots and greying trees, their once green leaves covered with a film of dust and mangrove muck.

Wearing my best thongs was a mistake. The patent black Birkenstocks I’d bought in Melbourne were swallowed in gulps of mud almost immediately. I abandoned them and the mangrove roots pierced the bottoms of my feet and in between my toes. Sand flies went to work on my legs, running down my calves like a Disney character eating a cob of corn. I madly swatted away the larger mosquitoes, wiped away the sweat and tried not to grimace.

Finally, we got to Daz’s favourite crabbing spot. He opened up the first pot and dug around in his bag for a blunt filleting knife. Then he unwrapped a smelly piece of kangaroo tail from a freezer bag.

“You want to bait it?”

I picked up the tail tentatively and tried to slice through the sinews. After five minutes of effort, all I came away with was a ragged, bloody string of meat.

Daz shook his head at my filleting efforts and grabbed the knife. He sliced off a large chunk, replete with fur, and then hurled the trap into the murky water. It bubbled and sank. Daz wiped his fingers on his shorts and repeated the exercise five more times down the creek bed, tying the traps off on scrawny branches. Every so often we interrupted a furtive fisho, dropping lines for barramundi. They glared, annoyed to have their secret spots interrupted by dirty crabbers. As we walked along the water’s edge, I noticed disconcerting piles of white foam. They smelled like regurgitated fish guts if you got too close.

“Now we wait,” said Daz. We sat down on a rotting piece of tree root. I picked at the streaks of mud on my calves and tried not to scratch my sand fly bites. Minutes dragged into hours, as we checked the pots and Daz threw in a line. I stared into the water, pondered the foam and kept an anxious eye out for crocs. I wished for a book, a fold out chair, some bug spray, or better yet, my couch at home. It was the worst date I’d ever been on, and I had once been out for dinner with a man who kept his bike helmet on the whole time.

Still, we did eventually come home, and with a bucket of crabs. Daz dropped some of the extras into his neighbours, an older taxi driver and his young Thai wife. He put the rest of the kangaroo tail back in the freezer and poured our writhing bucket of crabs into the laundry sink, which he filled with tepid water.

After a shower and half a bottle of stop-itch, we stretched out on the mattress Daz called a couch to watch DVDs for the rest of the afternoon. I can’t remember what we watched, but it definitely wasn’t Sex and the City. And it also wasn’t long before I heard tapping and scratching and claw clapping across the linoleum.

The crabs had self-liberated.

Daz jumped up from the couch mattress.

“You little fuckers,” he admonished the runaways. “Get back in here.”

He scooped them up with a dirty cereal bowl, tied their claws with rubber bands and returned them to the sink.

Later, Daz and his best mate pulled out the camp stove and started boiling water. Chilli mud crab for dinner, that was the promise. A dish that would out-price everything else on a restaurant menu, if it was even available. After the torture of crabbing, I was hoping at least for a Territory taste sensation.

But the chilli, ginger, coriander and lime I was expecting were conspicuously absent. Instead there was a bottle of sweet chilli sauce to go with the freshly broiled crab. This was chilli mud crab, share house style. The boys salivated over cylindrical tubes of crab leg, breaking them open with gusto and sucking out the contents. I was more tentative, picking up a crab claw awkwardly. Daz leaned over and stripped the meat from the shell and I popped it in my mouth. Underneath the veneer of sweet chilli, it tasted like manky estuary and rancid kangaroo tail. I took a couple more half-hearted bites and pushed my plate away. The taxi driving neighbour came over to join the party. He’d already eaten his fill of chilli mud crab at home, a more genuine article, no doubt. The beers were flowing. Taxi leaned back in his flimsy plastic chair, getting drunker and drunker as the plates piled with joints, claws and legs licked clean. The conversation moved from fishing to footy to the best ways to clean vomit out of car seat covers. They all had theories on that one.

After an hour or so of talking shit, Taxi leaned over suddenly and grabbed Daz by the collar.

“You trying to get in good with my wife? That why you bring around crabs?”

He shook Daz again.

“You stay away, mate, you just bloody stay away. I paid good money on the Internet; she’s married to me.”

Daz put up his arms in protest, and flecks of crab fell out of the corners of his mouth.

“Hey man! Hold up! I think you’ve got the wrong idea. She just said she wanted to make chilli crab.”

Taxi stood up then and his plastic chair clattered back behind him. He threw his empty beer bottle against the fence. The smash echoed around the apartment complex and we watched the pieces shatter into the palm trees. Everyone went silent. Taxi grunted and grabbed another beer to go, then staggered up the path, back to his unit, back to his wife. The last of our crabs boiled away on the gas burner.

Daz and his best mate shrugged it off. They kept drinking.

Taxi came over to apologise the next day, but I didn’t see his wife again.

I never got a taste for chilli mud crab either.

Despite this experience, I did go mud crabbing one more time, on the Dampier Peninsular with a guide who wore acid wash jeans. I pulled one out of a tree hollow with a metal hook and then proceeded to get lost in the mangroves for an hour with my best mate Nicki before acid wash jeans came and found us. We cooked the crab bounty over a fire, but it didn't taste much better than the broiled crab made by Daz and his mate. I've never gone back for more.

Despite this experience, I did go mud crabbing one more time, on the Dampier Peninsular with a guide who wore acid wash jeans. I pulled a crab out of a tree hollow with a metal hook and then proceeded to get lost in the mangroves for an hour with my best mate Nicki before acid wash jeans came and found us. We cooked the crab bounty over a fire, but it didn’t taste much better than the broiled crab made by Daz and his mate. I’ve never gone back for more. Live it, learn it. 

Much to learn, Grasshopper*

*Namely cane toad busting, boat trailer parking and how to conduct insect-finding expeditions in 40-degree heat.

November 17, 1845.

 ‘Whilst on this expedition, we observed a great number of grasshoppers of a bright brick colour dotted with blue: the posterior part of the corselet and the wings were blue; it was two inches long, and its antennae three quarters of an inch.’ — Ludwig Leichhardt

January 24, 2013.

Mr Tea and I are on a slightly different expedition to that of Ludwig Leichhardt. Leichhardt took 14 months to travel from Moreton Bay to Port Essington. He had all the time in the world to carve his initial onto trees and spy unusual insects. We’ve got a long weekend. Still, there is a half-baked plan, cooked up with our friends Kristi and Bec, that we’ll look for Leichhardt’s famous and elusive grasshopper. We’re taking the tinny as well, for a spot of fishing and some sunset bird-watching, but to be honest, I’ll happily settle for my book and a banana lounge pool-side. Mr Tea wants to do all of the above, but most of all he wants to go to the Jabiru Bakery.

It’s the first stop on our adventuring itinerary.

“I just think they do a really good vanilla slice,” he says. “It’s the best bakery in all of Kakadu.”

It’s the only bakery in Kakadu, but Mr Tea has always been a glass half-full kind of guy.

With our great personal organisation skills, we walk in three minutes before closing. With palpable relish, Mr Tea surveys the spread of caramel slice, finger buns and pizza bread.

“Looks great,” he says. “Any recommendations?”

But she’s monosyllabic and no nonsense, the lady behind the counter. The other minion shrugs her shoulders, too; she’s busy salting one last order of chips before the shutters go down.

Mr Tea and I settle on a lamington and the much-anticipated piece of vanilla slice, which we pick at on the plastic outdoor furniture provided. The steady drip of sweat glues my bare legs to the chair and I have to peel each one off when I stand.

Now sated and covered in desiccated coconut, our expedition continues on to Cooinda. We check in and go to launch the tinny in Home Billabong. It’s all going well until I have to park the boat trailer. I accelerate a little too hard out of the water and lurch over a muddy pot hole into the car park. In the process, I manage to collide with a fellow fisho’s trailer, leaving a pretty severe indentation and taking out a tail light.

The fisherman is nowhere to be seen but his girlfriend is on the boat ramp and is angry enough for two people. She demands my licence, which of course is back in the hotel room, so she hustles Mr Tea’s instead and makes a point of taking a photo of it on her iPhone. Together, we lift the corner of our trailer off theirs. Stressed, I resort to my default emotional response of tears. I’m mortified, especially because I don’t know Bec and Kristi that well and I want them to like me.

I wish I‘d brought my sunglasses, so I could cry in camouflage.

Mr Tea is unperturbed and we get the boat onto the billabong, and follow the channel down to Yellow Water. The water level is only just high enough to lift the boat over the floodplains. Every so often, Mr Tea turns the engine off and grabs the filleting knife in order to free the prop from a stranglehold of weeds and water lillies.

I’m nervous every time, watching for crocs.

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We finally make it out onto Yellow Water. My tears ease somewhat as we whip around the billabong. The light changes from mauve to spectacular orange, yellow and pink. The rain that hovers oh too far away whips the clouds into tornado spirals, and purple lightning flashes between them. I watch two crocodile heads submerge on approach. The magpie geese honk in formation above our heads while the whistling ducks form a shuffling mosh pit on the bank.

Nature is a show-off sometimes.

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When we get back, it’s dark and the air is thick with the sound of burping cane toads. A few get squashed under the Prado wheels, but Kristi decides to take the fight further with a quick cane toad busting session before tea. She collects about a dozen cane toads in a plastic bag, which she takes back to her hotel room freezer. We meet up afterwards for a drink on her small porch. When I go to the fridge to get a second glass of wine, I can hear the toads moving around in the freezer. I slam the door shut.

The next morning, we have to sort out the unfortunate boat trailer situation before we can hunt for grasshoppers. But I am banned from the negotiation process.

“You’ll hand over your entire bank account and offer our first born,” Mr Tea says, rolling his eyes. “It’s only a dent and a tail light.”

He cuts a deal with our angry fisherwoman and her nonplussed boyfriend. We settle on $150 compensation and some repairs, which Mr Tea performs with a shifting wrench he happened to have handy. When the transaction is done, I’m glad to see the couple begin their drive back to Katherine.

Bec and Kristi also have to check out, so Kristi asks if she can leave her bag of toads in the freezer of our room.

“I don’t think they’re quite dead yet,” she says.

Mr Tea tells her to take them in Bec’s Esky. I direct her to the freezer.

Finally, our Leichhardt’s Grasshopper expedition gets underway. The four of us head out to Nourlangie rock. It’s lunchtime by the time we get to the car park. A couple of dishevelled backpackers are munching sandwiches in their 4WD, burning diesel for the aircon.

We walk 100 metres up an access track. The bush is burnt out. Regrowth sprouts from the trees, while the charred remains of shrubs abound. This is escarpment country, sparse but beautiful.

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I’ve got my eyes akimbo; our grasshopper is notoriously hard to find. His namesake, Leichhardt, was the first European to record a sighting back in the 1800s. But after a few more glimpses, the colourful grasshopper disappeared for around 120 years. Scientific records show that sightings began again around 1973. Now Leichhardt’s Grasshopper is only found in the Northern Territory at Keep River, Nitmiluk and in Kakadu National Park.

I’ve never spotted any kind of wildlife first in my life, but suddenly a vision of orange and blue flies past my face.

It’s our grasshopper. Long antennae, blue beads for eyes. Resplendent in a costume of bright orange, blue and black splotches. It’s never even heard the word ‘camouflage’. Leichhardt’s Grasshopper is an insect world centrefold. It nestles on a bush of green that has sprung from the burnt out land, pityrodia jamessii. It smells like mint and tea tree oil. Then there’s another grasshopper. And another. One flies off when we get too close, but four more hang tight on the same shrub, munching through those aromatic leaves, leaving the stems in their wake. It’s obviously quite the cordon bleu meal.

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People spend months looking for this grasshopper. Our gang of four has walked 100 metres. I’ve spent more time looking for my keys. Our sighting seems as accidental as my collision with the boat trailer.

Later that night, thunder starts to crackle as we sit down to eat interpretations of pizza and vegetable korma. And then the sky erupts, blue and purple lightning and rain that pours through. It pools under the fluorescent lights and picnic tables.

I remember reading that the Jawoyn and Gundjeibmi people of West Arnhem Land call Leichhardt’s grasshopper Alyurr. Alyurr are children of the lightning man, Namarrgon, a powerful ancestral being. I’ve seen Namarrgon painted in white ochre, in Aboriginal rock art. The lightning slices the sky again; perhaps he’s looking for his children.

In the morning, I put Kristi’s bag of now-frozen cane toads in the bin. On the way home, I put my feet up on the dashboard and turn up The Black Keys. I think about our weekend expedition in flash cards. Orange and blue insect centrefolds, sunset on the billabong, cane toads in the freezer. Purple lightning and my boat ramp altercation.

I’m still a bit ashamed of my tears. I’m not sure Leichhardt would have wanted me in his touring party, but I’m glad to have seen his grasshopper.

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New Girl

“Kakadu? More like Kaka-Don’t!”

My next-door neighbour Bev gives a hearty pack-a-day laugh.

It’s a muggy day in January and we’re having a beer together in the pool behind our apartment block. The water feels more like a warm bath, but it’s better than nothing.

Three weeks earlier, Bev and I didn’t get off to the best start. I’d just moved up to the Territory and the removalists who came to deliver my worldly goods (one double bed, two book shelves, a bike and a dozen boxes of books, CDs and mis-matched crockery) had taken up the whole drive way leading into our block of flats. Bev knocks on my door; she needs to get her car out and go to work.

I talk apologetically to the movers and they grudgingly reverse their pink truck out to give her 30 centimetres of clearance. Sure enough, Bev backs out and scrapes the entire right hand side of her white Commodore along the truck. She slams the palm of her hand into the steering wheel.

“Yer fucking kidding me. Fucking dickheads.”

Bev shakes her head at me and takes off down Casuarina Drive, wheels squealing.

The movers shrug. They didn’t give a shit before and they certainly don’t give one now.

The older, beefy guy has some serious five o’clock shadow and a salt and pepper pony tail. His offsider couldn’t be more than 19; he’s streetlight-skinny with scabs on his knees and elbows. They drop the last two boxes into my flat with a thud and I sign the delivery papers.

“D’you get to the footy last night?”

I go to answer politely in the negative, but Beefy’s not talking to me.

“Nah,” Skinny says. “Just had a few beers, chucked a fatty and went to bed.”

Beefy grunts. They ignore me and get back in the truck.

It’s at this point I sense living in the Territory might be a bit different to Canberra.

I’m worried about Bev’s car though. I spend the next couple of hours doing some hand wringing and anxiously wait for Bev to come back so I can apologise/circumvent a Commodore scratching lawsuit.

But by the time I get to say sorry, Bev has cooled down and has a ciggie in hand.

“Don’t you worry, love,” she says. “Those guys were just a couple of cunts. Excuse my language, but that’s all you can say about people like that.”

I relax. Bev isn’t going to sue me or put dead rats on my doorstep, I realise. This isn’t the litigation-happy big smoke. It’s the Territory. We’re cool, Bev and me. What a relief.

Cleaning the maggots out of the communal bins, sitting in the pool, chatting by our cars, I get to know my new neighbour. Bev’s spent most of her career teaching in remote schools, places I couldn’t even imagine or pronounce during those first few weeks in the Territory: Alyangula, Naiyu, Gapuwiyak. She loves the kids and the holidays and the generous living out bush allowances, and says she’ll never leave the Territory.

“They’ll have to take me out in a box,” she croaks. “You won’t get me on a plane back to Sydney. No fucking way.”

Anyway, Bev is keen to give me tips on where to go and what to do, but Kakadu, according to Bev, is a big no-no.

“Too bloody hot,” she says. “Seen one rock painting, you’ve seen them all. And there’s nowhere to swim! Just busloads of tourists, sun visors and sandals, wall-to-wall. Yep, you won’t catch me out there. Waste of bloody time, when you could be sitting in a water hole, having a drink. Litchfield, that’s where you want to go. Take a slab and settle in for the afternoon, that’s more like it.”

But for me, there’s a lot to get my head around just in Darwin. People watering their concrete driveways, for a start. Thongs as acceptable office-wear. I soon learn that the local currency is beer: it’s a Darwin Stubby for a Kris Kringle, a six pack for an office bet, a carton to move a fridge and two slabs to put my workmate’s cat on a flight to Brisbane. Different beers are described by colour rather than brands – green cans, red cans, yellow cans.

Proof that beer is hard currency. In the NT, we assign police to guard it.

Proof that beer is hard currency. In the NT, we assign police to guard it.

I drink more than usual too, and learn to cure my hangovers with Mary’s laksa, gado-gado and satay sticks at the Parap markets. I relish the ever-changing displays of rambutans and dragon fruit in Rapid Creek and decide that if I can only eat one food in the world for the rest of my life, it will be spicy papaya salad made by a no nonsense Thai woman with her supersized mortar and pestle.

Nadya in Darwin 061Green papaya salad at ParapRambutan seller at Parap

There’s a new lexicon to learn too, words and expressions that are thrown around with abandon. This mob, that mob, biggest mob. Whitefella, blackfella, long-grasser. Territory Tough. The rest of the country is called Down South. Down South is inhabited by Southerners or Mexicans. At work, we talk about yarns, not stories. I learn about lures and culverts and tight lines from my fishing mad colleagues. Then there are tinnies – one’s a drink, the other you can fish from. The word true always has an ay and a question mark behind it, “True, ay?’ And there’s a tongue click “Nglaaaaaa” that gets thrown around, usually with words like gammon. It takes me a while to work out whether gammon is good or bad, an adjective, verb or noun.

Bit by bit, I get my bearings. I learn to navigate the sleaze of Mitchell Street and knock off drinks at the Deck Bar on a Friday night. I get to know the distinctive smell of the number 10 bus: a rare combination of armpits, barbecued onions and damp t-shirts fresh out of a mouldy cupboard. I get used to finding green tree frogs in my toilet and in the shower. I find the Beachfront Hotel and my local take-away, which makes a mean marinara pizza. I walk along the Foreshore and inhale frangipanis, and more than occasionally, the faint smell of piss.

On the lawns opposite the pub one afternoon, there’s an Aboriginal woman passed out on the ground, the contents of her handbag strewn around her skirt. People are just walking by. I’m not sure what to do.

I bend down. “Excuse me, are you alright?” I ask her.

No reply.

She’s snoring a little, I can see her chest rising. There’s a purse next to her. I try and tuck it under her arm in the hope that no one will steal it and keep walking, just like everyone else.

After a few weeks, I make some friends. We start to venture out of town. I swim in hot springs and stop along the Stuart Highway to take photos of mango trees and a paddock full of road trains. And at Easter, my new best friend Ange and I decide to go to Kakadu for the first time, against Bev’s better judgment.

We hop in Ange’s Subaru and sing along loudly to our favourite CDs: Paul Kelly and Jimmy Eat World. We stop halfway at The Bark Hut and take in the sights: men in singlets, stuffed crocodiles, buffalo skulls, a pig’s head and piss-take signs.

Interior Design 101 with the Bark Hut.

Interior Design 101 with the Bark Hut.

At the Jabiru Bakery, we grab margarine-laden rolls with salami and limpid lettuce, and drive out to Ubirr, Kakadu’s rock art mecca. To get there, we have to cross Magela Creek. It’s the end of the Wet and running at 20 centimetres over the road and we’re nervous newbies in a 2WD. Our first water crossing and I hold my breath, keep a look out for crocodiles. A high five at the end – Ange and I have survived. We pull into the dusty car park at Ubirr and find ourselves wandering the rock art galleries. Way too early for sunset, we lie on the ground and look up at the handprints, the x-ray style barramundi, kangaroos and crocodiles in red ochre and white. No one else is there; it’s just us, swatting flies.

After a couple of hours, we remember the sunset and stumble up the escarpment to a 360-degree view: of flood plains, green and silver, dotted with billabongs, scruffy trees and red, red rocks. I feel suddenly emotional, almost teary, which surprises me.

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The next day, we take the requisite cruise out on Yellow Water at dawn, marvel at the paperbarks, the pandanus, the glowing orb of sunrise. There are passing crocodiles and fishermen chugging along in tinnies. There’s a jabiru nest, a kingfisher spliced with green, gold and blue, then a sea eagle. Whistling kites float above us and we spy a tiny jacana, the Jesus bird, who pads around on lilies and walks on water. The sky is mauve then pink and smouldering orange. It’s beyond wild, more like nature’s had one too many glasses of wine, pashed an ex boyfriend, taken acid and gone on a week-long bender.

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Being new in Darwin has felt like a handicap up to this point. I still remember waiting at Adelaide airport for my plane, hungover from New Year’s Eve, feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. I didn’t know anyone, or really anything, about my new home. But in Kakadu, my newness feels like a gift. I revel in the colours, sights and tropical smells still so exotic to a Mexican from Down South.

When we come back to Darwin, my legs are covered with mosquito bites. I can’t stop scratching. They soon get infected and I have to get antibiotics. But I’ve fallen hard for Kakadu: the flood plains, the jacanas, the growling crocodiles and the egrets that are brave enough to perch next to them on the banks of the billabong.

I’m not sure what to say to Bev. But I’m pretty sure she sees me for the lily-livered, green can spurning, Kakadu-lover that I am, anyway.

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A dalliance with Alice Springs

A few years ago, I took a contract in Central Australia. Just for three months. I was single (again) and had a hankering to hit the road, start anew. I packed the Corolla full of everything I needed and everything I didn’t and took off down the Stuart Highway.

It wasn’t my first time in the Centre. I’d enjoyed a couple of Beanie Festivals in Alice Springs over the years, recorded a few stories for Triple J, walked some of the Larapinta Trail. But Alice Springs had always left me gulping for breath. I found it difficult to wrap my head around the reality that I was thousands of miles from the sea in any direction. I’d thought it more stark than beautiful.

I was wrong.

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In July 2010, I fell hard for Alice Springs. I discovered the joy of big skies and big country. Sheer cliffs; gorges and swimming holes in the desert. The famous clay pans. I learned to find the peace I associated with the ocean in the East and West MacDonnell Ranges. I’d sit up on the hill near Telegraph Station and watch green and yellow budgerigars play in the white gums and ragged stretches of rock disappear into the folds of the horizon.

I even walked along the Todd River singing In A Big Country, a Scottish one hit wonder that somehow wound up on my playlist:

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime

In a big country, dreams stay with you

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountain side….

The infatuation got more fully formed the day I walked up Mt Gillen with my friend, Trang. Covered in sandy boulders and a pink flowering weed called Ruby Dock, it looked like another planet. It was a hot day, but on top of Mt Gillen the air was cold and the sky was blue and all was beautiful and right in the world.

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Alice Springs felt like a friendly and colourful place to park myself for a few months; full of characters ordinary and extraordinary. There were road train drivers and ringers, developers and cowboys. Bureaucrats and bird watchers. Traditional owners. Real estate agents in ‘80s era power suits who told me smugly that the rental vacancy rate was less than 1 percent, which was good news for them but pretty shitty for me. Aboriginal mob came into town from places I had to learn to pronounce: Titjilaka, Amperlatwaty, Atitjere. There were tour guides and sculptors, coppers and journos. Legal Aid lawyers pulling suitcases full of briefs along to court. Children rode bikes down the street. Teenagers ruled Billy Goat Hill. And from Eastside to Ilparpa, there were plenty of earnest young (and old) things), all dressed in a uniform of short-brimmed Akubras and beards or dresses with leggings and desert boots.

Racing a boat on a dry river bed. Henley on Todd, another great Territory tradition.

Racing a boat on a dry river bed. Henley on Todd, another great Territory tradition.

People in Alice Springs cared. They joined in. They marched down streets and held town meetings and made parade floats for the Desert Festival. They raced “boats” down the empty Todd River. They showed films, played music, hosted cabaret nights, protested against uranium mining, planted heritage seeds, held Open Gardens. They were members of Rotary or Apex or the Lions Club. They elbowed each other out of the way to get the best pickles at the Old Timers Fete and to buy Aboriginal art at Desert Mob. People waved to each other. In the correct season they played footy or cricket, softball and netball. They danced late into the night at Annie’s Place and drank when it was Happy Hour and drank when it wasn’t. They went to see John Williamson play at the Memo Club. They crocheted blankets and wore beanies and adopted camp dogs.

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In the freezer section of the supermarket, you could find trays of chops next to chunks of kangaroo tail. Sturt’s Desert Pea bloomed on roundabouts and verges. Train tracks for The Ghan ran through the middle of town. There were locally grown dates and Vietnamese market gardens; peanut shells on the floor and saddles on the walls of the local night-spot, Bojangles. Every so often, the Todd River would flow with the rain, and then overflow, flooding causeways and cutting off the golf course. And with the rain came the wildflowers. Pussy Tails and Mulla Mulla flowered on Anzac Hill and right through the Botanic Gardens. There were paddy melons on scrappy bits of walking paths and on the red dust roads leading out of town; the melons looked like tennis balls scattered up and down the Plenty Highway. I never was sure if you could actually eat them. There were more cafes than Darwin, good coffee and more lesbians per capita than any other town in Australia.

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It all felt warm and vibrant and inclusive and yet it also wasn’t. The night I arrived, I turned on the TV in my hotel room to find Four Corners telling the story of Kwementyaye Ryder, an Aboriginal man who had died one year earlier. He was bashed and kicked in the head, attacked by five young white men out on the town and full of grog. Kwementyaye Ryder had died in a river bed five minutes away from my hotel room. The next day, I walked back into Alice Springs sunlight and under those big skies but I couldn’t get his story out of my head.

As a blow-in, it was almost impossible to get a full grip on the complex Alice Springs politics of race and land and history and culture, of alcohol and money and having and not having, but I felt its presence. It was in everything, everywhere. It was in the Kwementyaye Ryder case. I felt it at the Aboriginal town camps, which were tucked into corners around town: Mount Nancy, Hoppy’s Camp, Little Sisters. In heated arguments about council by-laws and over a Freemason sponsored statue of explorer John McDouall Stuart with a rifle in his hand. In the vigilante styled leaflets left in my letter box and in angry missives to the Alice Springs News. It was in the art, on the paper beneath the water colours that followed in the grand tradition of Albert Namatjira, in the number plates and pieces of scrap metal painted over by Tangentyere artists.

And the spectre of alcohol loomed large: on Friday and Saturday nights in town, in the taverns close to where I lived in The Gap, in casual, late afternoon domestic violence and in the empty green cans and wine bladders left behind in the Todd River bed.

Alice Springs was a small town, too. The pharmacist would tell me he’d been listening to me on the radio, as he handed over my prescription medicine. I went to get a massage and my therapist turned out to be the affable Murray Stewart, then Deputy Mayor. I was much taller than he thought I was, listening to my voice on the airwaves. I got that a lot. One lonely afternoon, I burst into tears on a walk around the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and then had to smile and wave at five people I knew. I found myself using the word ‘intense’ a lot, too much, in an effort to describe the people, the heat, the flies, the landscape, the arguments, the politics.

Work was challenging. Romance was hard to come by. I briefly dated a podiatrist, who I pressed for gruesome stories about amputations and gangrenous, diabetic feet and then was sorry that I had. Finding a place to live proved to be difficult and expensive. Petty theft was rife. In my first week, the teddy bear I’d had since I was a kid was stolen from my hotel room, along with a bag of toiletries. I hoped it was just a lonely hotel maid, not a more sinister stuffed-animal kidnapping ring. My apartment complex came under siege by bored teenagers during the school holidays. They’d jump the fence and break into houses, cars, whatever was going. I still have the “A” they scratched onto the back window panel of my car.

A for Alice Springs?

I got insomnia. My old mates Depression and Anxiety decided to unroll swags on my living room floor and settled in for the long haul. I started to become sick. And with that, Alice Springs and I broke up after just three and a half months.

“It’s not you. It’s me,” I told Alice Springs.*

I hoped we could still be friends.

It was time for me to head back North, to re-tread the Berrimah Line. I came home, to humid, sweaty, ocean-hugged Darwin.

Maybe Alice Springs and I will get back together one day. I hope so. Maybe we’ll watch the sunset over the East Macs and laugh about everything that happened in those few strange and surreal months, when I was new and young, brave and afraid, impatient, lonely, hungry and naive all at the same time.

*OK, it was a little bit Alice Springs. But mostly me.

Crocodiles, kayaks and other foolhardy adventures

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We bought two kayaks for $300 in January; that was Mr Tea’s Gumtree bargain of the year. They’re pretty good to look at too: one is mango cheek yellow, the other is Wiggles Skivvy Blue. They’ve got pedals to steer and not-so-waterproof compartments for valuables. You wouldn’t take them to the Olympics, but they’re more than serviceable for a swing around Lake Alexander or the Nightcliff Foreshore. If you’re into that sort of thing.

And mostly, I am not.

For a lot of this year, I’ve been too sick to do much more than walk around the block a couple of times. I left the heavy lifting and paddling to Mr Tea and whichever sucker he could convince to go with him. But on Friday, after weeks of encouragement/peer pressure, I finally agreed to an ocean paddle. We left the house at half-past six in the morning, just as the sun was rising over Rapid Creek footbridge. We parked in the car park that generally hosts the other extreme sportsmen and women of the Foreshore—the kite surfers, paddle boarders and seasonal cyclone surfers—and unloaded the gear. And then I got a little nervous.

It’s a slightly desperate ocean lover that braves the water in Darwin, even in the dry season. I don’t normally get more than one or two dips in between May and October and even those require a certain amount of chutzpah. You need to pack vinegar for a start, and feign confidence in the face of crocodiles and box jellyfish, washed up oil drums, car engines and the odd shopping trolley.

This Friday morning, the ocean was a murky shade of concrete. The surf was sloppy, even by Darwin standards, with ragged waves riding the edge of a high tide. But the air was cool and it all seemed doable, even for a kayak novice like me. I boarded the good ship Wiggle Blue and we set off for paddle.

The view from Mr Tea's infinitely more stable kayak.

The view from Mr Tea’s infinitely more stable kayak.

My kayak soon filled with water, which Mr Tea assured me was normal. I started to wobble. As we rounded Nightcliff pool in deep water crashing over the rocks, I made the rookie error of pausing, paddle balanced in my arms, and glancing over my shoulder. Next thing I knew, I’d inhaled a good lung full of Nightcliff’s best H2O and my kayak was upside down beside me.

What followed can only be described as sheer, unnecessary terror, in which I lost both my water bottle and my dignity.

It took two attempts to remount the kayak, in a manoeuvre that would make even a desperate beached whale blush. Mr Tea rafted up beside me and said encouraging things. Eventually the kayak was upright again and so was I.

At that point, Mr Tea suggested we keep paddling towards the jetty. I suggested that we go home immediately, if not sooner.

“OK”, he said. “Keep paddling and don’t stop. That’s what made you fall in the first time.”

So I kept paddling on my wobbly kayak.

About ten metres ahead of me I saw a head pop up.

Surely not.

I looked again. The black head popped through the wave once more and then it disappeared into ocean foam.

Just a turtle just a turtle just a turtle it’s just a turtle, I told myself.

I paddled furiously. And then there was that black head again, this time right beside me.

It was a size 12 black thong, sitting in a pool of froth. A big, scary, size 12 Thong-odile.

Finally we got back to the rocks in front of the car park, and I surfed a massive (one foot) wave into the shore. Mr Tea grabbed me out of the kayak and a backwash of sand covered us both.

There’s nothing quite like a Thong-odile to get the reluctant adventurer’s heart racing on a Friday morning.

Thong-odile, Log-odile, Crocodile. In my eight years in the Territory, I’ve seen a few.

Crocodylus maximus scarius by the bank in Yellow Waters.

Crocodylus maximus scarius by the bank in Yellow Waters.

When I first moved to Darwin, I wondered about crocodile protocol. I searched the Internet for some kind of rules of engagement. Was it safe to walk on the beach? Would I see a crocodile on the dunes? How should I greet such a thing? Offer it a beer, gesture that I meant no harm and that we could both happily go our separate ways, then piss bolt?

Long-term locals snickered and patted my back, but they weren’t totally convincing.

“Nah, you’ll be right mate. You won’t see one on the beach. Well, probably not. You’d be unlucky. Hmmmmm, I spose people DO see them down Rapid Creek/surfing on Casuarina Beach/in Nightcliff Swimming Pool sometimes. Maybe it’s best not to go swimming anyway, just in case, eh?”

As far as reassurance goes, it’s pretty shaky but that’s exactly the advice I now dole out to house-guests and visiting relatives.

Crocodiles are damned impressive creatures. Awesome and terrifying all at once, there are about 100,000 of the salt water variety in the Top End. They can grow to over six metres in size. A large male can weigh over 200 kilograms. Crocodiles can swim about three times as fast as a human. And they can sense movement a couple of kilometres away. At least that’s what old mate at the pub told me.

Our closest croc call came on a sailing trip to Escape Cliffs. It was one of the early, failed European settlements in Northern Australia. These days, it’s a pocket of mangroves opposite the mouth of the Adelaide River. It’s gorgeous and glorious: on that trip we watched ocean birds duck and dive for fish amid a pod of dolphins. Unfortunately, we were not alone in our voyeurism. As Mr Tea and I sat on the bow taking in the sunset, a curious crocodile began to stalk our boat. He hovered 100 metres away, then 50 metres from our boat. Within minutes, Mr Tea had him at about 20 metres away. And then he came closer again.

Don't let the poor quality zoom on my camera deceive you, dear reader. This croc stalker was getting up close and personal. I tried to file a restraining order but Escape Cliffs is a little short on bureaucrats.

Don’t let the poor quality zoom on my camera deceive you, dear reader. I tried to file a restraining order but Escape Cliffs is a little short on bureaucrats. And Internet.

We decided not to go for a spin in our inflatable dinghy that evening, no late night fishing for us. We kept all arms and legs well inside the confines of the yacht. I gave a little nervous shudder as I turned over to sleep, under the stars and the breeze that ricocheted off the front hatch.

The next day, we did brave the inflatable and set out for shore. I was a little crocodile anxious. We anchored up and gingerly stepped onto the beach, next to turtle tracks. Which we soon realised were the slide marks, claw prints, of a decent sized crocodile. We were about to get back on the boat when a handful of hunters clattered out of the mangroves. They had three giant pig dogs, muzzled and stained with blood.

Mr Tea said G’day. “How’d you go?”

They looked at us for a bit, alien yachties on a crocodile infested beach.

“Orright”, said one of them. “Fuckin’ hot. But we got one.”

They pushed their way down the beach, to wait for a tinny pick up.

“Oi!” one of them yelled back at us. “Youse know those are croc tracks, right?”

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Yep.

Time to go. I hopped on the inflatable and Mr Tea started the motor. We swung around the mangroves. And that’s when I saw our croc again. Mr Tea floored it until we got back to the yacht.

Two or three metres, we guessed, that crocodile stalking us around Escape Cliffs.

Another time I was visiting a friend in Gunbalanya, a community across Cahill’s Crossing in the escarpment country of West Arnhem Land. Paula was a nurse and had been out there for years. She lived in a wooden house with a verandah that overlooked the local billabong, a stunning vista of wetlands, water lillies and birds. And home to a sizeable population of crocodiles. We walked out the front and one of her neighbours signalled that he’d seen a croc just before we came out.

“How big?”

He gestured with his hands, about the size of a legal barramundi.

Oh, I thought. Just a small one. An ankle biter. Nothing to worry about.

Paula nudged me. “See his hands? That’s just how far the crocodile is across.”

Paula’s neighbour was talking width, not length. Turned out that was a bloody big crocodile, and it wasn’t very far away.

My stories pale next to others I’ve heard. There were a couple of fishos who had a crocodile take a bite out of their tinny. A herpetologist I know, Gavin Bedford, once found himself crawling through crocodile tunnels with a miner’s light and a noose around his neck (best not to ask) and hit a wall. He suddenly realised that wall was a crocodile, mouth wide open. Gavin’s head was inside the croc’s mouth. All he could see was yellow and teeth. He beat a pretty quick retreat and probably needed to change his knickers afterward.

Crocodiles haven’t always been so omnipresent. Back in the good old days, namely the ‘50s and ‘60s, Territorians went swimming in Yellow Waters. Sometimes they had a friend watching out with a rifle cocked, just in case, but often they didn’t. Crocodiles were fewer then, and they were scared of humans.

Croc in Corroboree Billabong

Another day, another crocodile. Corroboree Billabong.

But in the ‘70s, the NT Government protected crocodiles and numbers have grown fast ever since. It would be highly unusual now to go out on Adelaide River or Corroboree Billabong or the East Alligator without laying eyes on two or three monsters on top of the water or sitting on the bank, mouth ajar.

And those are just the ones you can see. Go out at night with a torch, shine it around, and the river will glow red with eyes.

Is it time for a cull? Should we bring back the safari hunt? Or simply acknowledge the primacy of our crocodilian friends? This is a topic of uncomfortable conversation in the Top End and I don’t have an answer to those questions. But we have had four deaths by crocodile this year. One man was just emptying a bucket over the side of his boat, not far from the tourist centre of Kakadu.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared each time we launch or retrieve the tinny, knee deep in murky water on the boat ramp. When I fall out of a kayak. When the reeds get caught on the prop in the slender channels that bloom out of Yellow Waters and Mr Tea reaches down to cut it free with a filleting knife. When I think about the time I partook in that great Darwin rite of passage, tubing down Rapid Creek in the middle of the monsoonal rains.

That’s when you really hope, you pray, that any head you see pop up through the froth is a barra bubbling to the surface, a turtle, or just another thong-odile.

A love letter to the Nightcliff Foreshore

Every town has its promenade: a scene, the place to be seen. In Darwin, for my money at least, that’s the Nightcliff Foreshore.

70 odd years ago it was the boon docks, the site of military camps during the War. You can still see the metallic left overs—engines, axels, and the odd bullet—melted onto the rocks around the Nightcliff pool. And if you know where to look at low tide, there are remnants of a plane carcass, a B-25 bomber that crashed killing five servicemen. Wendy James, a long-long-long-time Darwin resident, once told me that she and her brother used to roam the abandoned army camps in the late ‘40s, skipping school to play with left over ammunition. Wendy’s favourite trick was putting cordite into her dad’s cigarettes. Those were the days….

Now, the Nightcliff Foreshore is home to swing dancing on a Sunday and family reunions with lamb on a spit. Kids fossick in the mangroves. Long grassers and new arrivals gather around the BBQs.

On the jetty, adolescent boys take it in turns to jump, somersault and hurdle the barrier into the salty water below.

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Tourists in sneakers and socks clatter out of hire cars to get the ultimate sunset shot.

Fishing fanatics drop a line at the jetty and off the rocks. They flick, hope and repeat.

This craggy coastline is where the young things park on a Sunday night. They show off their souped up cars and discreetly pair off under the moonlit sky.

There are random acts of urine and impromptu games of badminton.

There are passing dolphins and the occasional fight.

And from Sunset Park to the Beachfront Hotel, there are all kinds of drinkers: can crushers, sun downers, champagne sippers, cask wine wielders and punters who have been kicked out of the pub and drink on, regardless.

This is the Nightcliff Foreshore: a microcosm of Greater Darwin, all in three or four beautiful kilometres that stretch from the high rise units crammed into the coast line along Progress Drive, right up to where Trower Road crosses Rapid Creek.

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It’s definitely my favourite spot for people watching.

There’s a Timorese guy who rides his bike with a pet cockatoo on the handlebars and a boom box on the back. Sunday evening is his favourite night for tunes and cruising.

Most nights, there’s an older Sikh gentleman in a turban who holds hands with his granddaughter while she pulls her scooter along the path. I say hello and he occasionally gives me a reluctant, grave nod.

I like seeing the twins: identical ladies in their forties who dress alike, sometimes in polka dots and sometimes in cut off jean shorts. They are inseparable: always arms linked and whispering conspiratorially.

Then there are the countrymen who hold court in a rotunda and sleep on the crumbling dunes. Sometimes they sing in the stingrays or fish with handlines under Rapid Creek footbridge. Once I was picnicking with friends and an older lady presented us with a magpie goose, fresh, ready for butchering. She borrowed our bread knife and my friend Alice tried to help, but drew the line at squeezing out the entrails.

Further along the Foreshore are the exercisers. A leathery man who runs topless in the same pair of short white shorts every day. A Greek woman with her hair piled up high in the tightest bun I’ve ever seen. Her arms pump in perfect rhythm as she gossips with a friend. An older lady walks a dog that wears sunglasses. There are cyclists, skateboarders, paddle boarders; surfers in the cyclone season.

In true Darwin style, not everyone’s body is a temple. One bloke’s running singlet reads, “Hey Princess! Go and get me a beer”.

I’m better at people watching than I am at bird watching, but the birds are out here too. Whistling kites circle the palm trees and masked lapwings bustle about like the busy bodies they are, picking through the best fish and chip left overs near the jetty. Sometimes the curlews startle me with that distinctive scream. I like seeing the occasional kingfisher, surveying the scene from the fence line above the beach.

But my favourites are the red-tailed black-cockatoos that swarm in like drag queens, brighten up the joint for a bit, and then leave.

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A couple of times I’ve watched a huge swag of ocean birds circle around in a perfect frenzy. They become a moving patch of black that zips from one end of the beach to the jetty and back around. Is there a word for that? A collective noun for birds that flash mob at sunset and then leave? They are spectacular, especially in those minutes after sunset when the last of the sun bleeds into the ocean then the ground, and all three become the same misty shade of purple.

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I’ve got an especially soft spot for the Foreshore. It’s where I first landed in Darwin, the site of my first home: a bottom floor unit in a crumbling block of ‘80s flats with musty carpet and communal bins crawling with maggots. It was a five-minute sweaty cycle to Rapid Creek markets. It was 100 metres from the beach and even closer to the local pub, which in days gone by used to lock rowdy patrons in a cage. Because you can’t actually swim at the beach (stingers, crocs), I could just afford to live there on my own.

And now, eight years on, I live here again.

But just recently, the Foreshore has become groovy. You can’t walk down the bike path these days without falling over a coffee caravan or a pop up Italian restaurant, replete with red checked tablecloths, fairy lights and a humming wood fire pizza oven.

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It’s slightly shocking and also thrilling to me. Provincial Darwin embracing big city ways. Once someone’s out there with a stand selling green juice in jars with bamboo straws, we really will have arrived. I can’t imagine what the men in wife-beater singlets at Hidden Valley Tavern think, but I guess if they can have TOT (Tits Out Tuesday), it’s OK for me to dine occasionally on home made pasta alfresco.

When my sister Pip comes to town, I take her down to the Foreshore for pop up coffee by the sea.

Pip buys a latte and we run into my friend Jade and her kids. This part of the Foreshore has become a mecca for the CMC (Cool Mum Crowd). The kids run in circles and take it in turns to be a tiger, while Darwin’s fashionable young matriarchs fortify themselves with caffeine and confidences.

While we’re sitting on our milk crates, another groovy mum turns up, rocking full sleeve tattoos and four kids. She’s cooler than a cucumber.

The kids suddenly gather around one of the trees and a collective cry goes up.

“Owls, owls, look, it’s an owl!”

Groovy mum turns around and looks into the branches to spy a pair of birds camouflaging into the scrubby bark.

“Tawny Frogmouths, kids”, she yells out. “Tawny Frogmouths. They’re not owls.”

She turns to us. “It’s important to tell kids the correct names”.

Groovy, tattooed Mum turns back to her coffee and the baby fussing on her lap.

As an aspiring bird-nerd, I grab Pip and head over to check it out.

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

Pretty average photo of said Tawny Frogmouths

“They’re not owls”, Jade’s daughter Mem tells me.

I want to give these ornithological protégés a moment to shine.

Do you know what they are?

The other group spokesman, a four year old with long dark hair and a cotton summer dress, steps up.

“They’re…..ummm….they’re….birds. They’re birds.”

On that decisive note, our young twitchers scatter like the flash-mobbing flock on the horizon. They get back to the many tasks at hand: pretending to be a tiger, keeping a look out for crocs and humbugging for ice cream.

The Tawny Frogmouths don’t move. The mums stay perched on their milk crates.

There’s space on the Foreshore for us all.

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.

IMG_4131

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

A story that starts with too many boats and winds up in a “police sting”

There's nothing quite like the smell of two stroke in the morning.

There’s nothing quite like the smell of two stroke in the morning.

(OR: DARRYL KERRIGAN, EAT YOUR HEART OUT)*

The Northern Territory has the highest rate of boat ownership in the country. Boat ownership here is a marker that you are Territory Tough; it’s a signifier of freedom and a ticket to the inner sanctum. Because in the Territory, boating means fishing. And fishing isn’t just a way of life, it’s THE way of life.

Mr Tea isn’t the blokiest of Territory men (thank God), and he’s not a bleeding gums, crazy eyes fisherman either. But he’s certainly pulling his weight when it comes to the boat ownership stakes.

Somehow, we seem to have become a five boat family. This is troubling given the fact that Mr Tea and I don’t have children. Between the garage and the Darwin Sailing Club, we have a couple of tinnies, a kayak, a 25ft yacht and an inflatable dinghy to service said yacht. When Mr Tea isn’t fiddling around with one of these, planning a trip or going on a trip, he’s busy haunting Gum Tree and boatsales.com.au. Let it be said, he has a problem.

The yacht really was the gateway drug, taking us from tinny owners to empire builders. And when Mr Tea first flagged buying one, I was supportive. I (like you, no doubt) imagined that on the yacht, I would instantly become thinner. I would swan around in a plunging one-piece. I’d sport white linen and a tan, and we’d drink nothing but champagne and strawberries, just like a menthol cigarette ad from 1987.

Unfortunately, the reality was less menthol cigarette and more profound sea sickness, occasional moments of oceanic beauty (look! A dugong!) and shitting in a bucket.

But I digress.

Because, just as Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob, the yacht begat more boats. Because once you have a yacht, you need a tender to get from the yacht to the beach. And that’s how we wound up with 40 kilos of an inflatable Zodiac in the shed.

And then Mr Tea and I went to visit the yacht one evening. Ostensibly to retrieve some sails, but I actually think Mr Tea just wanted to pat it. At any rate, we got there, only to find that an enterprising criminal had climbed into the boat park and removed our motor with bolt cutters.

Mr Tea was gutted. So to console himself, he went on Gum Tree and bought another (smaller) tinny and a trailer.

“The perfect car topper,” he told me. “And I can use the motor on the yacht. This is a bargain. A real bargain.”

He promptly dropped the rest of the insurance money, and then some, on trailer registration and a service for our new replacement motor.

So then there were five.

Sure, I had a boat addict for a partner and I thought Bunnings should probably stop selling bolt cutters, but apart from that I was pretty zen about the whole thing. I’d embraced our new life as a five boat family. I accepted there was no room in the shed for any of my possessions. And I had let the stolen two stroke Yamaha go. God speed, long shaft motor.

And that was when Mr Tea found it on Gum Tree.

He immediately sent off an enquiry, and sure enough, someone called “Nathan” sent us a few photos of our stolen motor.

Mr Tea is a law-abiding sort of bloke, and was a bit flummoxed by this.

“Are they really that stupid? They’d just rip off a motor and sell it online? In a place the size of Darwin?”

I assured him that there were many, many people in the Territory who were exactly that stupid.

But then we also started to freak ourselves out a bit. Maybe this was bigger than stupid. Maybe this was a boat motor smuggling ring, some kind of offshore bikie side project. Luckily, I had been watching The Bill and Water Rats on and off for years and was alert to such dangers.

So we went down to the Darwin Police Station. After repeating our story to about three different officers, we finally were assigned a pair of crack crime hounds to get on the case. Let’s call them Steve and Darren.

Mr Tea repeated his story.

Darren scratched his nose. “Hmmm. So what are you going to do about it?”

At that stage, I almost giggled. We’re at the police station, I said. What are YOU going to do about it?

Steve had the courtesy to shrug his shoulders in a way that said touché.

Darren and Steve consulted with their boss for another hour, and then the plan was in place. We would go to Stuart Park and inspect the motor and double check that it was ours. Constables Steve and Darren would tail us and as soon as we gave them the nod, they would bust this two stroke motor stealing, drug smuggling, sex trafficking bikie ring wide open.

Mr Tea immediately banned me from the police sting operation.

“Babe”, he said. “There’s no need for both of us to get caught up in this. We don’t know what will happen in there. It could get dangerous. I want you to go home. I’ll call you as soon as it’s over.”

I protested and put up a fight on feminist grounds, but really, I’m a coward at heart and I was tired of hanging out in the police station. Plus I had some important lying down to do.

So I agreed to stay clear, though nervous about leaving my love to face the inevitable bikie shoot out alone. I went home and gripped my phone for about an hour until Mr Tea called me back.

Turns out it was a bit less dire than we had imagined. No bikies or guns. No, our motor was in the hands of a couple of drugged out, skinny 19 year olds who wanted to make a quick 500 bucks. They claimed to have “bought it off a guy at One Mile”.

Our fearless constables Steve and Darren went in, retrieved the motor, delivered some wrist slapping and went back to the office for doughnuts.

Well, that’s great, I said to Mr Tea.

A win for us. Take that, petty crime.

The next day, Mr Tea made some space in the shed again for the motor, and started to rig up a hanging space for the new tinny between the 4WD and the kayak.  And true to form, he went back on Gum Tree.

He turned to me from the IPad.

“How would you feel about a stand-up paddleboard?”

*With apologies to anyone who hasn’t watched The Castle. And with sympathy to all the other long suffering significant others who have to get the Torana out to get to the Commodore. Or the tinny to get to the kayak.