Travelogue: The Red Centre (Part 1)

I’m in the middle of a road trip that’s taken me from Katherine to Kings Canyon so far. The unique circumstances in which I find myself make this a strange and wonderful adventure: I’m getting paid my usual wage while I travel to some of most iconic places in this vast country, often getting lookouts and trails to myself due to the restrictions on travel and travel-related services out here, and meanwhile I’m paying no rent back in Katherine! In gratitude for this privilege, I decided to pay my dues by patronising places that aren’t getting much of a tourist season this year. I’ll rent their rooms, eat their meals, drink their drinks and buy their wares. And hopefully it’ll make a little bit of a difference.

Day 1: Katherine to Daly Waters
About two hours south of Katherine is a tiny place called Daly Waters whose main attraction is an historic pub that opened in the 1930s. The entrance is marked by a very healthy-looking bougainvillea, and across the road there’s an ‘outback servo’ that, on first glance, just looks like a mash of old cars, old car parts, and rusty old fuel pumps. Inside the pub, the walls are plastered with paraphernalia from yesteryear: exotic number plates, footy jerseys and team flags, maps, faded news clippings and signed photographs. I stayed the night in one of their demountable rooms because I vowed not to drive after dusk: my RAV4 is a noble steed, but it’s no match for a camel or a kangaroo!

The telegraph pole on the left is one of the original pieces of equipment used when the pub first opened 90 years ago.

Day 2: Daly Waters to Tennant Creek
It’s legal to drive at 130km per hour on some roads in the Northern Territory. I enjoyed that for a while, before I realised it was no good for my fuel economy. I think I filled up three times on this day of driving… And the price per litre is nothing short of daylight robbery! Anyway, I was glad to have free accommodation in Tennant Creek to compensate for my expensive drive. I scoffed some lunch I’d brought from home in a rest area beside the a petrol station while I watched a road train driver offload three trailers then drive away looking amputated – like one of those worms that continues squirming, and eventually regrows a body, after it’s been cut into pieces.

I stopped at a women’s dreaming site called Kunjarra/The Pebbles and took a walk amongst the piles of curvy rocks. I also stopped at Lake Mary Ann just north of Tennant, but it turns out it’s just an ugly dam with some desolate walking trails in its vicinity. I found a few thick boughs for my firewood stash, though.

Because Kunjarra is a sacred Warumungu women’s place, tradition requires Warumungu men passing through the area to seek permission or to go around the long way.

A colleague at Katherine High School who used to teach in Tennant Creek owns a beautiful house there, with pressed metal ceilings, bull-nose wrap-around verandahs and lead-light windows. It’s full of historic stuff that came with the house when she bought it, making for a sort of live-in museum of local history! The two guys who are living there at the moment (the Tennant tenants) were very hospitable. We ate chicken parmis at the ‘Memo’ (Memorial Club), then I bashed out a last-minute entry for another short story competition before falling asleep with a little sausage dog called Boss in my arms. He was still there in the morning.

The view from the lane behind the house where I stayed. At one point just before dinner, the guys got a beep on their Fire Service pagers and had to rush off – literally with only a two-word explanation, ‘Grass fire’.

Day 3: Tennant Creek to Alice Springs
On entering Alice Springs, it occurred to me that I had drastically underestimated winter in the middle of Australia! I looked like the village idiot walking down the mall in shorts, thongs and a flanny. At a cafe called Page 27, I warmed up with a falafel burger and an excellent flat white. My accommodation was a backpackers’ hostel a five-minute walk from town, where I spent the evening building a lovely fire and eating dal, parathas and fried fish cooked by some Bangladeshi fellows who were keen to stay warm.

Day 4: Alice Springs to Glen Helen
My hostel roommate was watching videos on her phone from about 6am, so I was up early, bundled my life back into the car and went for breakfast to another great Alice Springs cafe, The Goods. I had a jaffle stuffed with home-made spicy baked beans, and a couple more excellent coffees.

Journaling with a jaffle and a cup of joe from The Goods in Alice Springs.

The drive out of Alice Springs towards West MacDonnell National Park is dangerously beautiful! I wish I’d been a passenger, not the driver! I spent the whole day detouring via the wealth of stunning spots along Larapinta Drive en route to my next overnight stop.

Someone thoughtful corrected this road sign on Larapinta Drive.

Simpson’s Gap reminded me just how loud slowly-dripping water can sound when there’s no other noise to compete with. Standley Chasm introduced me to the demanding terrain of the Larapinta Trail: I ventured about 6km into Section 3 before turning back on account of the wind. Ellery Creek Big Hole (yes, that’s its name) was so lush that it’s no surprise it had the most campers out of all the places I visited. I snaked my way up to the lookout over Serpentine Gorge, where a token railing sort of encloses some of the steepest, longest drops I’ve ever seen. I sat up the top on my own for a long time and wondered whether the silence sounded the same thousands of years ago.

View from the top on Section 3 (Standley Chasm to Jay Creek) of the Larapinta Trail.

Ormiston Gorge blew me away: there was a blue pool of water filled with algae resembling green plumes of smoke, partially sheltered by a curve in a cliff face whose colour in direct sunlight was almost as vibrant as orange highlighter. I followed the gorge one corner at a time; it felt like walking into a set of gigantic jaws. Everything echoed; even when I tried not to move a muscle, I could hear sound. I joined a path that winds up one side of the gorge to a look-out platform. Whether I viewed it from the bottom or the top, the size of the gorge walls knocked the breath clean out of me.

Perched at the top of Serpentine Gorge. I wanted to post a photo of Ormiston too, but it’s one of those places you’ve just got to see for yourself and my photos would only sell it short.

In Part 2, I’ll write about my bumpy adventure along Red Centre Way, exploring Kings Canyon and the drive to Yulara, where Uluru and Kata Tjuta can be found.

Travelogue: Hiking Jatbula

I forgot I had a body ‘til I hiked through the bush for five days. Maybe your days are also a blur of stimulate-brain-with-coffee, engage-brain-for-work, relax-brain-with-wine – all conducted, more or less, in a seated or horizontal position. If that’s you, might I recommend bush walking.

The Jatbula trail is a sixty-odd kilometre walk through Jawoyn country in Nitmiluk National Park. Due to the sacredness of the land and the small size of the campsites along the track, only fifteen people are permitted on the trail at a time. Usually, spots are filled by tour groups months before the weather gets good for hiking; this year, for obvious reasons, is different.

I hiked with Anna, a fellow teacher. There were eleven people booked in for the day we set out, making for an even more serene experience than hikers normally enjoy on this remote walk. For five days my awareness was centred on walking, shouldering the essentials in my pack, and not falling over. All else was irrelevant, and, because of this, I had a chance to come home to the body in which I live “this one wild and precious life”.*

Crystal Falls, where we camped on Night Two.

On the first day, I remembered that I have feet. My hiking shoes are well worn-in thanks to mountains climbed in Indonesia, but no footwear seems able to compensate for how my funny-shaped feet make contact with the ground. The aching in the balls of my feet stayed, but didn’t worsen, over the five days of walking. I am grateful for my feet – curly, nobbly toes and high arches, sinewy tops and calloused bottoms.

On the second day, I remembered (or did I realise for the first time?) that I have hips. Not in the Beyoncé or J-Lo sense of the word ‘hips’, but in the sense that I was forced to acknowledge the presence of my pelvis as I squirmed on the slippery surface of my camping mat in an effort to devise a sleeping position that didn’t feel like prodding a bruise. There was a little rush of something pleasant and victorious, like belonging, when I was able to join in with Anna’s lament about sore hip bones the next morning. ‘See,’ I snarked at my inner critic, ‘I might not look like much of one but I am a woman. I have hips.’

Biddlecombe Cascades. The beauty of hiking well into the national parks is that one gets this kind of spot to oneself! The more accessible gems are understandably much, much more crowded.

On the third day, I remembered that I have light brown skin. We chewed through the kilometres early to beat the worst of the heat, and had the afternoons to luxuriate in the sunshine beside idyllic cascades or in waterholes clear and clean enough to drink from with your hands. My torso, whose soft regions I’ve been hiding inside one-piece swimmers for months, collected colour quickly. When I noticed my brownness I felt young, healthy and strong. Which is what I am. And I am so very thankful.

On the fourth day, I remembered my legs. Yes, they’d come to my attention in the previous three days but on this day I really felt them, you know? We hiked 17km before lunch. Quads zinging, hammies pinching, glutes whinging, calves cross-hatched with scratches. And my ankles! My puny ankles, behaving like they always do, as easy to overcome as the rubber band around a bunch of limp broccolini. But they carried me, and they did not fail, and I am in awe of them, my legs.

After taking this photo one evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about that film Mrs Betts made us watch in Year 10, Rachel Perkins’ One Night The Moon. (I remember thinking, ‘One night the moon what?’). In it, the white man sings: ‘This land is mine / All the way to the old fence line’ and the Indigenous man sings: ‘This land is me / Rock, water, animal, tree’.

On the fifth day, I drained my two-litre water bladder twice before lunchtime trying to drown a headache I blame on heat, fatigue and the sudden change to an uncommonly healthy diet. Still, there was something really liberating about having nothing to worry about other than keeping my mind and body safe while I put one foot in front of the other (in the direction of a Maiden’s Lane double cheeseburger…).

I actually love the smell of a shirt damp with perspiration because it smells like being alive, and the salty taste of my skin when I wipe away the sweat trickling into eyes, nose and mouth because it reminds me I live in a body. And I love the endorphin rush, like a breeze breathed in, when I reach a high place and look around at the vastness I’ve already traversed. I recommend bush walking.

*This phrase, which is in my thoughts a lot, is borrowed from Glennon Doyle’s most recent memoir, Untamed.

Travelogue: She Ain’t No Lady

That’s what they say about this town.

This place is wild, difficult, attractive and I love it. My first 17 days in Katherine are about to be condensed into a very, very short summary because the students have well and truly worn me out and it’s Friday and I can barely string a sentence together?

The weekdays are tough. The school is a catch-all for so many children who need the entire staff to themselves for the nurture and attention and boundaries they lack. Some kind colleagues have helped me find my way in the job and in the life of the town. It’s thanks to them I had a plate to eat off and sheets on my bed for the first 14 days before my freight (mostly) arrived! But it’s been hard. That much is certain.

The weekends are stunning. On my first weekend, I invited myself on a drive to Edith Falls with three other women who work at Katherine High and definitely felt like I was in a Northern Territory tourism ad. I also found a green tree frog in my toilet.

On the second weekend – the long one – I went camping in Litchfield National Park with some other people I met through a colleague. More luxuriating in clear water beside stunning escarpments, and a few good campfires to boot. This weekend, I’m taking a solo drive to the Bitter Springs in Mataranka, about an hour’s drive out of town.

Check out Instagram (@stephsomebody) for photos of the aforementioned excursions! Finally, here’s a lightning round Q&A because I know you’re bound to ask…

Q: Is the dirt really red?
A: Yes. The dirt is red. My shoes are red. My car – once white – is red. My dry laundry is red. At dusk, the sky is red.

Q: Have you seen a croc?
A: Not yet. I will, though. I bloody well will.

Q: Have you met anyone called Katherine in Katherine?
A: Yes! A Sydney friend named Kathryn linked me up with a contact of hers in Katherine, whose name is also Kathryn. It’s okay if you need to read that sentence again.

Q: Is alcohol really expensive?
A: No more than in Sydney. However, there’s a cop in every bottle shop and licensed premises, and you need to show your drivers license so they can check you’re not on the Prohibited Drinkers Register. The Services NSW app doesn’t count as a license, and they’re pretty suspicious if you don’t have a Northern Territory card. So I got one yesterday.

Q: What are your students like?
A: Fascinating. In my short career as a teacher, this is the first time I’ve come across kids who’d rather be shovelling manure on a station, herding cattle or mending bridles for the rodeo than watching a movie in History class. It’s also the first time I’ve taught Year 8s who read at a Year 2 level due in part to the effects of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome…

I’ll write again soon. Right now, I just need to fry up some frozen dumplings and watch several episodes of Killing Eve.

Travelogue: Welcome to the Territory (Part 3)

When the clock strikes midday tomorrow, I will cross the threshold of my Quest apartment and re-enter society! No more expired yoghurt for breakfast! No more Haidee from reception telling me that dealing with expired yoghurts is not within the scope of her remit! No more hospital shower! No more eating dinner in the glow of a candle and the TV, just to avoid the white glare of the overhead light that makes the room feel like a 7/11! No more phantom knocks on my door, meals left like ghosts on the doorstep, not a soul in sight! No more calls from the lovely Red Cross volunteer who can’t get through more than a sentence of our welfare checkup without exploding into a coughing fit!

But also… No more wake-ups to the happy sound of kids playing at recess at the school across the road. No more watching entire seasons of Killing Eve during daylight hours with zero guilt about wasting time. No more workouts in my underwear, blasting old Keith Urban albums. No more cool drinks on the balcony in the evening, watching eagles ride the breeze while the sky sheds blue for pink and gold.

Quarantine might not seem like a particularly warm way to welcome a first-timer to a new part of the country, so the fact that I can say that I really do feel welcome is a credit to the Territorians who’ve looked after me over the past two weeks. Special mention goes to Paula from Parap Fine Foods, who went out of her way to bring me deliveries of wine and snacks. Also, the smiley after-hours security guard who delivered my takeaway right to my door and wished me ‘Bon appetit’ on the nights when I simply couldn’t face the standard issue slab of mash topped with a grey slick of stroganoff.

Mention must also be made of the NT Police and the Welfare workers who checked in daily. Most days I was awake to answer their calls and confirmed that no I had not absconded, no I did not have symptoms and yes I had everything I needed. One morning, though, I was asleep when they rang my phone twice and my room twice. I woke to the sound of a booming knock on my door and a man’s voice saying, ‘Please open up, this is the police’. In my hurry to comply, I rushed groggily to the door wearing a singlet. In the corridor stood a male police officer in uniform and two female welfare workers with lanyards and clipboards. All three of them were smiling. All three of them glanced down – then quickly back up at me. All four of us knew then that I’d forgotten to put pants on. I tried to do the lean-your-top-half-out-the-door-and-hide-your-legs trick, but struggled to look casual. Oh well. At least they had visual confirmation that I was still there. And at least I was wearing a singlet.

Finally, even though I’m not a real Territorian and even though it feels a bit funny, I am also going to acknowledge me. I was nervous about the effect two weeks of total quarantine would have on my mind and my body. Maybe I over-prepared but, in any case, as this period comes to an end, I recognise a resilience and resourcefulness in myself that makes me feel braver than I did fourteen days ago. In case you’re interested, here are some of my proudest quarantine achievements:

I invented a new type of salad. I got really good at doing remedial work on soggy burgers to salvage the fillings I considered worth it (i.e., bacon). I relished the disappointment I felt at past me every time a Woolies delivery arrived carrying only healthy stuff. I killed two hours correcting, with a red pen, an astonishing number of misspellings of ‘MacDonnell Ranges’ in the NT Life tourism magazine (McDonnell, Macdonell, McDonnel, McDonalds…).

Yes, I think ‘wholesome’ is a fitting adjective for the life I’ve lived in this little space for the past two weeks.

Travelogue: Welcome to the Territory (Part 2)

“Jump aboard the stretch Cadillac we’ve rustled up for ya!” The policeman is wearing a face mask, but his eyes say he’s smiling. Sporting a Hawaiian shirt under his police vest, he leads the occupants of the holding pen out to Bus #1 – all of them except me and one other guy who doesn’t look quite as crazy as old mate from 20C.

My companion, Rob the nurse, and I are led to Bus #2. Turns out NT government employees get put up in better quarantine digs than the general population. And the cop wasn’t wrong about the stretch Cadillac: an entire coach is idling outside the airport – just for the two of us! I prop my suitcase and guitar in the luggage compartment and climb the stairs into the coach.

“Have youse got plenty of sudokus and crosswords to stay busy for the next two weeks? Ha!” The bus driver, in her face mask and latex gloves, reminds me of Sharon from Kath & Kim. As we drive the 15 minutes to the suburb of Parap, she keeps mentioning local events and attractions – “That place has good Saturday markets”, “This is the best Thai place in Darwin”, “There’s a pretty walk along the foreshore…” – then apologising when she remembers we won’t be doing any sightseeing for at least a fortnight.

Rob’s been to Darwin plenty of times, en route to more remote places where he takes short-term Department of Health contracts in community clinics. Rob, I learn, is also partially deaf. Every time Sharon* points out something interesting he, in a loud voice, repeats the commentary almost word for word, just on a fifteen second delay. I squirm; Sharon seems unfazed.

This time, Rob’s here for a five-week contract in a tiny remote community accessible by light plane. That means that when Day 14 rolls around, he’s not allowed to leave his apartment. Whereas I’ll be let out to explore Darwin from midday on my last day of quarantine, Rob needs to stay in his room until he’s taken to the airport. It’s an indication of the high risk that he might otherwise bring Coronavirus and/or a host of other bugs into an Indigenous community with already compromised immunity due to poor general health.

Playing around with a fisheye lens on the balcony of my apartment.

Sharon drops us off at Quest and, sure enough, the next person we meet is another classic character. Haidee (pronounced Heidi) is the receptionist on duty and from the start I know she and I will annoy one another. She persists in calling me Miss Penny (!?) even after I gently point out that ‘Steph’ will do just fine. (English is not her first language, I assume, so I’ll be Penny for now to keep things as simple as possible.) She holds her arm straight out behind her as she leads the way to my room, presumably to ensure that I don’t come too near to her with my NSW germs. (It looks like a kind of dance manoeuvre for getting from one side of the stage to the other.) She reiterates – once at the front desk, once en route to the room, once when I’m in my room and she’s about to head back downstairs – that I must complete my meal order form as soon as possible to ensure I get dinner. I promise her I’ll do it promptly. I close the door (I don’t get a key! Prisoner!) and flop on the couch, then all of a sudden am almost scared to death by the shrill ring of the room telephone.

“Yes? Hello?”

“Hello Miss Penny, this is Haidee from reception.”

(A note on her delivery of this greeting: Remember in primary school when the teacher said ‘Good morning KL’ and everyone intoned, very, very slowly, ‘Gooood mooooooooooooorning Miiiissus Laaaaaaamb’? That’s how this lady says, ‘Haidee from reception’. I timed myself saying it the way she does. It took six seconds!)

“Hey Haidee!”

“Have you completed your meal order form?”

“Ah! Not yet, but I’ll get straight onto that.”

“OK, thank you Miss Penny.” Click.

As I’m sorting through the ‘Welcome Pack’, which includes the meal order form and menu, Haidee rings again. I’m just as startled by the ringtone the second time. It really is abnormally loud.

“Hello Miss Penny, this is Haidee from reception. Just to let you know that you only need to fill out the first seven days of meals. You can order for the other week later.”

“Thanks, Haidee. Will do.” I wait by the phone. Sure enough, it rings again. “Hi Haidee.”

“Is it OK if I come and get your form in five minutes?”

“Oh, right! Um… Sure!”

I sit down and start speed-reading the menu, scribbling things into boxes on the order form. It can’t have been more than forty five seconds after I hung up the phone when she knocks on my door and I hear a muffled, sing-song, “Hello Miss Penny, this is Haidee from reception.” (Good heavens! This is a scene straight out of a horror movie!)

“Nearly done!” I wail.

When I’ve ordered some sort of chow for the next seven days I leap to open the door and thrust the paper into Haidee’s face. She snatches it, turns on her heels and marches back downstairs, with a trailing “Thank you, Miss Penny!”…

When my dinner is dropped outside the door a couple of hours later, I bless Haidee in my heart. The gigantic serving of fettuccine and meatballs is the first thing I’ve eaten all day, and it’s way too salty but I couldn’t even care because I got dinner.

In the next instalment of ‘Welcome to the Territory’, you’ll meet Paula – plus we’ll talk about ‘Best Before’ dates and how to spell the name of a popular NT tourist spot.

*Not her real name. Don’t know her real name.

Travelogue: Welcome to the Territory (Part 1)

20A. Thank the Lord: a window seat. The man in 20C shuffles out to let me shuffle in. When the plane’s up and banking hard left over the Sydney suburban grids, an announcement from the cabin crew offers an apology in advance for the amended in-flight service. In an effort to minimise the health risks to passengers and staff, they say, there will be no breakfast served on this flight. A mild bummer, I think to myself, but I’ll grab something when we refuel in Alice Springs.

I drift into one of those droopy, interrupted plane sleeps until the man in 20C nudges me in case I should want the mini packet of rice crackers and the mini bottle of water the steward is offering me in a latex-gloved hand. I pop them on the seat between us and, after five-or-so minutes, my neighbour asks if I’d mind if he ate them. I’ll grab something when we refuel in Alice.

In Alice Springs airport, everything is closed. A masked police guard corrals those travelling on to Darwin in one pen and directs the rest down a different cordoned corridor. The family standing 1.5m to my left came prepared: they have muesli bars and juice boxes. Maybe the refreshments on the next flight will be an improvement on rice crackers.

The plane and its shadow over the Red Centre.

I get to my seat before 20C this time, so I notice his hi-tech Nikes and how at odds they are with everything else about his aesthetic. He’s about 65, with wiry hair that sticks out fifteen odd centimetres the whole way round his head (kind of spherical in effect). He sports holey trackies and a Kathmandu fleece over a grimy band t-shirt. On his left hand he wears a silver ring that covers the bottom 4cm of his finger in a design that’s like there are little wings wrapped around it. It’s part bikey, part hippie. From Alice to Darwin, he divides his time between meditating and drawing intricate, abstract patterns on the back of his boarding pass with a biro. He eats his packet of cardboard pretzels and mine. Interesting bloke, I think.

For now, crossing state lines in Australia is like entering a new country. Customs queues snake and bank up all the way back to the aerobridge. I clasp my NT border arrival form in a sweaty, sanitised hand. Once my paperwork is signed off and I’ve located my suitcase and guitar I’m ushered into another pen, this time collecting people to be taken directly to quarantine. Here, a welfare lady takes my details and gives me a sympathetic frown when I report I’m on my way to Katherine to work as a teacher. This happens a lot. What the heck am I in for???

It stands to reason that when you treat people like they’re diseased livestock, you’ve got to be prepared for the animalistic behaviour you bring out of them. During my 45 minutes in the quarantine holding pen, I witness in the antics of my fellow passengers two examples of such primal instincts: firstly, the drive to find a mate; and, secondly, the need to escape captivity.

Too busy eavesdropping on a conversation between a Chinese-Australian businessman and a pretty young doctor, I don’t notice the slick Sri Lankan chap sidling up to me with his matching Hugo Boss luggage. He deserves full credit for the obvious effort he put into his appearance this morning: cuffed chinos, boat shoes, collared shirt (a bit toooo slim fit, perhaps?) with perhaps a few tooooo many buttons left undone at the top, perfectly gelled hair and a blingy timepiece. He deserves full credit, also, for a record-breaking two opening gambits (‘First time in Darwin?’, ‘So, quarantine eh?’) before he suggests dinner on Night 15 and asks for my number.

I’m a bit sheepish about this next part. He’s cheerful and has a lovely smile, but I could not be less keen to have dinner with this man. (Will I feel differently after a fortnight in a budget hotel, I wonder?) Under normal circumstances, I would’ve excused myself and ‘gone to the bathroom’ (read: and never come back) but here I am, in a holding pen, destined for quarantine. There’s no escape.

Thinking as quickly as I can on an empty stomach, I give him nine digits of my number but change the tenth. He proceeds to ‘leave me a missed call’, which I too hurriedly pretend to receive before he says the number doesn’t exist. Sprung. I mumble some crap about having recently travelled overseas so maybe my phone isn’t working properly…? (Come on, girl. Really??) Mercifully, he gets the message and retreats… right into to the pretty doctor who’s since managed to fend off the flirty businessman! Sorry, I say with my eyes as she glances at me, showing with her smirk that she’s caught every last word of my bungled encounter with the plucky chap.

The other instinct on display is the urge to escape captivity – to claim freedom, to run wild, to go rogue! You’ll be relieved to know it isn’t me causing a scene, and you’ll be amused to know it is the man from 20C. He starts having a very loud conversation with the police officer at the customs desk about how it makes much more sense for him to talk to the welfare lady before signing the quarantine deed poll, not after. They’re tricking him, he says with a flourish of biros and forms.

The histrionics continue: ‘he has a right to not go into quarantine’, ‘he can’t apply for exemption because he doesn’t have the internet’, ‘he maintains it’s just plain abusive for the police to ask him to wait in such a tiny section of the airport’, ‘he’s sooooo thrilled to spend two weeks in a ****ing hotel room’, etc. The rebellion becomes louder and more sarcastic by the minute and I’m mortified when he tries to get me to support his tirade, thinking, presumably, that he’ll find an ally in his sleepy neighbour from row 20.

Not so, my man, not so, I think. I have my own battles to fight in this holding pen!

Landing in Darwin. Spot the croc! …Just kidding 🙂

In the next instalment of ‘Welcome to the Territory’, I’ll bring you along on the bus ride with Rob the nurse and introduce you to Haidee, the very persistent receptionist at the Quest apartments whence I write.

Travelogue: 2020 version 2.0 (and recollections of an expensive mistake)

On Tuesday afternoon, I’ll be in Darwin. For fourteen days I’ll be confined to my room at the Quest Apartments in Parap to ensure I don’t bring Coronavirus into the Territory. After that, I’ll be bussed to Katherine, three hours south, where I’ll start my job as a Social Science and PE teacher for Year 8 students at Katherine High School.

We’ve all been learning about plans – how they change, how they fail, how they mutate into things unforeseen! My plans for this year, COVID aside, didn’t involve moving to the Northern Territory to teach geography… But here I am, packed and ready for the removalists to take my stuff and my car up north.

I’ve been soaking up the seawater and enjoying the bush near here in acknowledgement that I’m about to inhabit a very different kind of landscape. I made a pilgrimage along several big chunks of The Great North Walk, covering about 60km, and I borrowed a friend’s surfboard (thanks Stu!). The evenings have been fresh enough to justify indulging my fire-building habit at least a few times a week.

Berowra Creek campsite along The Great North Walk to Mt Kuring-Gai.

The other day I walked / ran the section from Berowra station to Cowan station, via Berowra Waters. Just past the Berowra Waters trackhead there’s a little path that leads into a tunnel created by the thick forest growing on the banks of the river. I’ve walked that track four times in my life: once on my wedding day during our photo shoot, once on my first wedding anniversary*, once in 2017 with a group of Year 10 students completing their Silver Duke of Ed award, once last week when I’d just been advised of the details for my flight to Darwin.

An especially photogenic fire.

This blog will live on. The Travelogues will continue. Only difference is the adventures I’d planned to have are being replaced by another kind. The essence of an adventure year, really. As for The Thank You Series, there’ll be updates on that to follow.

*I’d booked us a table at the Berowra Waters Inn for dinner on our first wedding anniversary. It’s a beautiful, three-hatted restaurant just around the corner from where we had our wedding reception, so seemed like a fitting location for the occasion. We were picked up by a little boat and ferried to the other side of the water, away from where we’d left the car. Having been ushered to a candlelit table by big windows and a roaring fire we surveyed the menu – a seasonal tasting degustation. Lovely, but a bit trop for our stage of life. At least one of us (perhaps both; I can’t remember) was a uni student, ergo the budget was tighter than the corset on the dress I’d worn on that day a year earlier… I asked to see the à la carte menu. Turns out there isn’t one and I should’ve read the website properly. ‘Chef’s seasonal tasting menu only, madame.’ We were caught unawares in a restaurant accessible only by pre-booked private ferry, already being served sparkling mineral water and house-baked bread, staring down the barrel of nine courses and an astronomical bill. (In fact, as I write this I recall that the only reason we decided to go ahead with the fancy dinner was because I’d found a voucher in the Entertainment Book for $50 off, and had brought a leftover bottle of our wedding wine to save money on drinks.) So there we were, caught in a luxurious trap. Long story short, we panicked for a split second and thought about leaving (maybe I could suddenly become very, very ill?), then we looked at each other and said something along the lines of YOLO, before ordering two coupes of champagne for a toast to accompany the amuse-bouche. Oh and we both had matching wines with the nine-course degustation. It was phenomenal. That was in April 2015 and, if memory serves, I think we were still paying it off in instalments on our credit card in July.

Travelogue: Sweat, dead tree, brother

My brother Philip walked to Bunnings this afternoon and came back with a saw. Together, we cut down a dead tree at the back of Mum’s garden then ripped and chopped at it until it was packed neatly into three boxes of variously-thick kindling and a stack of tidy, round logs. Two hours of immensely satisfying work, and now I’m sitting back with a cold beer, thinking about how my day went from very bad to a little better than okay.

Due to more than a year of recurrent nightmares, I’m taking an anti-psychotic in the evenings to help me sleep through the night. Last night, I forgot to take my pill. The night was a long tunnel that got so narrow I could feel the sides, shaped like faces, pressing me at times. At 4:30am I read a chapter of a novel, fell asleep around 6 and slept until 11:30.

I got up and skulked around, resting my head on my mum’s shoulder, like some puppy that’s taller than her, while she answered emails on her iPad. I remembered to take my other meds, made a coffee, went back to bed, wrote an angry letter in the notes app on my phone then deleted it.

Dry trunks and tangled boughs at Lorna Pass. Not the tree we felled…

It was 2:17pm when I thought, ‘Enough’s enough.’ I pulled on my giraffe socks and my mum’s runners, which have become my runners because mine are in a box somewhere in my mum’s shed. I ran past Aldi and the spice shops, along the street with the massive council cleanup piles on the nature strip (monuments to boredom and reluctant productivity), across the oval and into the bush.

Sometimes when I’m running on a blue day like today, it helps to pretend I’m Jason Bourne or Wonder Woman or something, so I leap from rock to log to stump with as much dramatic flair as I can manage without rolling one of my puny ankles. I passed one other runner – Beware! Friend or foe? – before hitting the Comenarra Parkway, the road that would take me back home. Mission almost accomplished. Spotify served up an Anberlin track right when I needed it, and I was flying.

Philip ambled in from his Bunnings reccy wearing Birks and sweeping handfuls of luscious hair off his face just as I was chugging water at the kitchen sink. My patient, competent brother and I spent the next couple of hours quietly dismembering the sorry tree, listening to Mum’s clarinet lessons drop in and out over FaceTime and making sure Ollie the sausage dog didn’t munch too much ash from the fire pit.

My brother, Philip, last summer.

I’ve been back in Australia for a month. Today I thank sweat, dead tree and brother for lifting me. These days are lonely and low, and sometimes, on my own, I can’t remember which way’s up.

I’ll be posting different stuff for the next little while – coming soon!

The Thank You Series: #3

I started journaling when I was 11. Wish I could remember who gave me My First Prayer Diary, a collection of cloze passages to be filled with particulars under headings like ‘A Prayer When I am Happy’ and ‘A Prayer When I Feel Afraid’, and surrounded by cartoons of animals.

For six years after all the other pages were filled in, one remained empty. ‘A Prayer When Someone I Love Has Died’. Nanna died when I was 17 and I completed the page I’d saved for that special lady. It felt like an important moment.

The road to Bethany, Adelaide Hills. A visit to wine country with work friends inc. Katrina.

In the meantime, I’d started filling exercise books with rhapsodic doxologies, far-fetched fantasies, complaints and to-do lists. How many books have I written in the interposing almost-eighteen years? It must be hundreds! Thousands of pages! Hundreds of thousands of words, words, words!

If the stack of 16 books here beside me – documenting 2018, 2019 and the first three months of 2020 – is a fair sample, then it’s a lot. And that’s minus the seven I made sure to see dissolve into ash before I left the country…

I’ll never know exactly how many, not that it really matters, because I burn most of them when they’re full. Two reasons: 1. I just cannot live with the anxiety that comes with imagining someone reading my mind. And 2. I cringe so hard when I read back over my stupid anger and desultory self-pity.

I’ve occasionally kept one for a little while longer if there are entries I want to revisit or type up for posterity. (Yes, that’s supposed to sound ironic.) Then I burn those, too.

A fire Katrina and I built from scratch at The Basin.

Turns out Helen Garner, one of my favourite writers, also burned her earlier diaries. (Twinnies!) Everything up to 1978, when she was 36: gone. I’m glad she kept them from then on, else I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the first volume of the excerpts she published late last year. It doesn’t matter that lots of other people also have copies, there’s something intimate and deeply privileged about reading the diary of a person you find fascinating and admirable.

I learned a lot from Helen Garner aged 36 to 45, a remarkable woman who had at that stage already endured so much pain (and inflicted a bunch), and whose expansive sense of humour and reverence for ordinary time have given back to these long, lonely days a shimmer of the enchanted.

This post is dedicated to Katrina, my friend who loves at all times, in honour of her donation to my Writers Residency campaign. She buys me notebooks to fill up then burn in fires we build together from scratch, and she took me to hear Helen speak. If you’re interested, here’s my review of Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1.

Travelogue: One Life

I’ll admit it was tricky to begin with. I turned up to the surf lodge where the tour was supposed to start, dripping with sweat, having carried my bags for over an hour to avoid a second creepy taxi-driver encounter for one day. When I found the group, most of the accents were versions of British. Did they all know each other already? My roommate was a recent high school graduate from south London. For a few days I thought she was a quiet girl.

At 11:30pm that first night in Canggu I FaceTimed Emilie from the hotel lobby, feeling lonely and silly. I’m 28 – almost 29, actually – and separated – almost divorced, actually – and these fresh-faced tiddlywinks are dancing their way through gap years. Emilie gave me some good advice: Just show up to each day. And sure enough, as I sit in the airport twelve days later, waiting to board my flight out of Denpasar, I miss all ten of my tour-mates.

Surfing at Red Island

Here’s a brief introduction to the crew.

1. There’s Fleur, the Dutch uni student who’s heading home with a tattoo her folks don’t know about.

2. There’s Rach, a friendly, well-travelled nurse from Bristol.

3. Another nurse, Emily from Wales, has really cool taste in music.

4. Emma and Fiona, hilarious besties from the UK, are on gap years. We’re planning to meet up so they can show me around Guildford next month.

Eloise, Brooke and I got ‘chizza’ (pizza on a base of chicken schnitzel) for lunch at the Javanese KFC. Also pictured is the only English-speaking employee.

5. William and Wendy, so kind and so wise, hail from the craft beer capital of America: Asheville, North Carolina. Special mention goes to William who’s one of those great guys that doesn’t seem at all weirded out by being the only man in a group of women.

6. There’s my roomie, Eloise: a clever and unpredictable barrel of laughs. She too got a tat that’s been met with less than total parental approval.

7. We got lucky and had two guides because Brooke (USA) was training Emma (UK). They’re both competent, gorgeous and a lot of fun.

Got blessed at a Balinese Hindu holy spring temple in Ubud.

My photos attest to the amazing times we had – but it’s always the people that bring the magic, right? They’re the reason I’m on my way to Vietnam and Cambodia, in defiance of my original plans! Sure, I need my alone time, and twelve days is a decent chunk. I was surprised to find that the hours of quiet travel here and there on trains, buses and boats were sufficient to recharge the relational batteries. I cherished the company of these precious people, and I’ve got renewed confidence in my capacity to make friends. I think I’ve become one of the lucky buggers with mates on different continents!

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that my visa for Vietnam didn’t come through in time for me to board my flight this evening. (The reason’s probably part Coronavirus, part the fact I applied at relatively short notice.) That’s why I’m sitting in Denpasar airport, waiting on a 1:35am flight to Bangkok. It’s a step in the right direction… Here’s hoping I make it to Hanoi in time to join the 15-day north-to-south cycling tour of Vietnam that begins on Sunday morning!

Sunset on the crater of Mount Bromo