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. 

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New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Stop watching Sex and the City.
  2. Run my hands through a bucket of pearls.
  3. A plate of chips is not dinner.
  4. Be better at doing more good things well, and stuff.
  5. Go to Japan?
  6. Have a pet fish for longer than three months.

New Year’s resolutions have never been easy in the keeping or the follow through. I should know, I’ve made a few. I don’t want to give away all my secrets, but if I rifle for long enough in my top drawer, I’ll find a few notebooks stashed away with lists of self-improvement and Oprah-style mission statements.

But self-flagellation aside, NY is my favourite of the public holidays (although Territory Day runs a close second, despite not being a day off). I love New Year’s Eve. I (used to) love going out just before or after midnight, watching everyone in those precious few minutes wearing their heart on their sleeve, sharing too much information about the year that’s been or the year that’s ahead. It always feels like the time when people are wearing their most authentic face in the world. When a complete stranger confides that they’re never going to sleep with their third cousin ever, EVER, again, you know it’s been a special evening.

Good, horrifying or indifferent – New Year’s has always been an important marker for me. These days I’m less likely to be awake at midnight (a couple of years ago, Mr Tea and I set a new “party record” by having a lemonade and watching the Edinburgh Tattoo on video at his Gran’s place in Hobart, before we went home to bed at 9pm) but I still like the anticipation, the ritual, the jokes in the supermarket check out lines as everyone buys their last minute booze (“you go right ahead love, I’ve got all year…” etc, etc, boom chit.)

This year, as you might have noticed, I’m struggling a bit for New Years resolutions. I don’t know why, since it’s not as if I lost that ten kilos, eradicated Times New Roman or set up my breakfast café business that also sells pallet furniture and jam jars to hipsters on the side.

But if I can’t make resolutions for myself, I can at least make some for the Northern Territory at large. Here are a few that I feel quite passionate about.

#1. More made up names for babies.

I’m an avid reader of the Hello Baby! page in The Sunday Territorian and have well and truly welcomed Charleyanna, Xayden and Blayze to the world, probably more than most. Sometimes I get a tear in my eye, just imagining Sharneeshiya’s first step or wondering whether Ziyomee has learned to roll yet.

So I say unto you, new parents: go forth and invent more names. I particularly suggest using combinations involving the letters J, K, Q, Z and Y. Not too many vowels and maybe even some punctuation. Jak-Zhyq! That’s a good one. Or let geography be your guide, with a strong emphasis on capitals and countries. May postcards be sent throughout the land, sharing your joy over little Cairo, announcing your bundle of joy Malawi or baby Burkina Faso. Blessed are our children.

#2. Don’t become an NT News headline.

I’m almost reluctant to write that. Because I love a visionary as much as the next Territorian, and there are plenty of free thinkers to applaud in our fine (not-quite-a-grown-up) State. Springing immediately to mind are the Darwin Ice Hockey club, the chap who decided to 4WD (underwater) to Mandorah, the good folk who experimented in the early ‘70s by strapping an outboard motor to a raft made of tinnies and former politician Roger Steele who thought we should make a beer can mountain. I also hate a nanny state just as much as Dave Tollner does, and it’s sad to see the Territory head in this direction: signs emblazoned with defeatist language like “No standing on the edge of the cliff”, pool fences and whatnot.

But I do think that “Should I, really?” is a good question to ask yourself, or a mate, when you’re thinking of:

  1. Swimming across a crocodile-infested body of water
  2. Dancing on a crocodile trap in your bikini
  3. Speeding down the Stuart Highway while furiously masturbating or
  4. Sticking a firework up your ass.

If you’re one of those “at risk”, maybe it’s even worth tattooing on your hand/leg/neck (see Resolution #5).

On the other hand, it is always tempting to just let stupid take care of itself.

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#3. Adopt an unusual pet.

Remember Charlie the buffalo, who starred in Crocodile Dundee? The zoo out at Tipperary Station with its collection of pygmy hippos or Norman the legendary beer drinking Brahmin?

Norm was a fixture at the Humpty Doo Hotel for a long time and he could down a Darwin stubby faster than anyone (they timed him: 47 seconds). He belonged to a bloke called Bluey (or maybe it was Bluey’s brother, let’s not quibble about the details) and Norman could sniff out a tinnie faster than most. One bloke in the neighbourhood was reckless enough to leave his door open one night while he was enjoying a bevvy and watching Friday Night Footy. Who should start breathing heavily over his shoulder, nosing the beer can out of his hand, but Norm?

Unfortunately, Charlie is stuffed—literally—on the counter of the Adelaide River Inn, the “zoo” has closed down and Norm is no more. It’s time for the next generation of NT pets to shine. Do your part, people.

Charlie the Buffalo - gone but not forgotten.

Charlie the Buffalo – gone but not forgotten.

#4. Greg! The stop sign!

You can’t swing a purse in this town without hitting someone who might yell “Show us your tits!” at a cyclist from their souped up Hilux, even sans alcoholic beverage. That’s the worst side of our communal consciousness when it comes to road rules.

It gets better than that, but not much.

Our approach to the road sounds kinda folksy and charming on paper: indicators optional, stop signs just a gentle suggestion, red lights, something to think about. But it’s time for all Territorians to own up to some terrible driving, myself included. Repeat after me: flooded roads aren’t for Corollas. Let the bus go first. School zones aren’t for accelerating. Yes we can!

Possibly the ultimate Territory tatt. Thank you, Internet.

Possibly the ultimate must-have Territory tatt. Thank you, Internet.

#5. Tattoo or not tattoo? I say, Tattoo.

This one is more contentious Down South, where the non-inked rule as a repressive, establishment-kowtowing majority, but not so in our beloved North. You’re nobody without your Southern Cross, nobody. And while not all of us can pull off a sleeve tat including their son’s name, some Ozzy Osbourne lyrics, a few Chinese characters, a thorned rose and a crucifix, at least we’ve got plenty of people trying.

That’s democracy.

Sure, not everyone is on board. As one wit quipped on Facebook recently, “Your neck tattoo says Don’t Judge Me, but here I am”. But I say haters gonna hate. Or maybe that’s what Taylor Swift says. Either way, go forth, my proud Territorians. Let your body be a canvas, and let your neck be inked with a bar code. May 2015 be the year you got something mis-spelled on your skin. Permanently.

Who could forget this tattooed gem?

Who could forget this tattooed gem?

And, it is in this vein (boom-chit reprise) that I wish for you a 2015  lived in true Territory style: frangipani scented hangovers, ear-cracking storms, iced coffees, turtle sightings, camping trips with too much food, a couple of near-death escapades (but see #2), ocean-drenched sunsets, deep fried eggs from the Parap markets and not too many visitors this Dry Season. Happy (15 days late) New Year!

Telescopes and Taxidermy

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

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

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

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

But perverts? The pizza could wait.

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

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

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

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

Bruce shook his head.

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

But he saw me.

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

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

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

So now they have a thing.”

Like a telescope relationship?

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

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

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

That's me watching you watching me

That’s me watching you watching me.

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

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

Mr Tea shook his head.

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

Bruce shook his head.

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

Somehow this was more shocking than the perverts.

What did you say? I asked.

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

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

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

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