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Northern Territorians are an interesting bunch, possessed of a unique blend of high disposable income, burning competitiveness, and sheer batshit lunacy. These three characteristics combine with particularly spectacular results on 1 July every year – Territory Day. This is the one day of the year when it is completely legal to buy, sell, and set off fireworks, pretty much wherever in the Territory one desires. The day when Territorians celebrate the commencement of self-government in 1978 by blowing some shit up, and setting some other shit on fire. We’re not talking standard firecrackers here either, people drop serious cash on all kinds of fireworks for the occasion.

Leading up to the event, I’d heard an acquaintance describe the day as “the scariest experience of my life,” and several others recommend staying home and locking the doors, so I was ready for anything and expecting some serious carnage. We found a great vantage point on the cliffs near East Point, with a clear view across the bay to the official fireworks, and right in the middle of several large groups setting off rockets roughly every two minutes.

There is something truly liberating about rushing giggling around in the dark, diving for cover as explosives misfire in all directions, watching grandparents frantically stamping out spot fires in picnic rugs. At one point some friends arrived and ran towards us through the thick smoke, explosions going off around them. I was just waiting for someone to drop to their knees with their hands in the air, a la Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias in Platoon.

In a country like Australia, where it feels like we are wrapped up in cotton wool so much of the time, a day like this is a reminder of simpler times, when burning fingers or singing off eyebrows were acceptable side effects of a good time. I loved it.

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There are some days when I really feel like I live in paradise. Dripstone Beach is fifteen minute bike ride from my place, and it’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen. Sure, most of the time you can’t actually go in the water, but walking along the shoreline in the evening is a wonderful relaxing way to end the day.

As a kid growing up in Melbourne, I had limited exposure to pre-made ice coffees. Big M, and later Ice Break and IC were the only options around, until the glorious day that Farmers Union invaded from the west and became readily available in supermarkets and servos across Victoria. I thought it couldn’t get any better, but I was wrong.

According to Wikipedia, Paul’s Ice Coffee is the second most consumed drink in the Northern Territory, and for good reason. It has a narrow edge over Farmers Union in taste, and has the added cachet of exclusivity – you can only buy it within the borders of the Territory. I’m taking orders if anyone wants a delivery.

Located about 80 km north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands hold an annual Grand Final and art day, when visitors can partake in the culture of the indigenous people as well as take in a football game of a reasonable standard. The event is held on Bathurst Island, the second-largest of the group.

Several galleries across the Tiwi Islands show their wares and give some insights into the production of the various carvings, paintings and textiles on sale. While the openings have the feeling of warehouse sales, they are definitely not places to find bargains. I suspect a dedicated collector would be better served doing their research and negotiating with artists separately.

With only 2,600 people, a huge proportion (35% according to Wikipedia) of the islands’ population play in the local Tiwi Islands Football League, a competition with a distinctive free-flowing playing style, spawning numerous AFL players. The rest of the population are fanatical supporters of their chosen team, little old ladies and young children screaming encouragement and abuse from behind (and sometimes on) the goal line, brandishing empty two litre Coke bottles and flags bearing team colours.

On this day the Imalu Tigers took on the Tapalinga Super Stars, with the Stars opening up a wide margin by the beginning of the final quarter, showing silky skills and more discipline than their opponents. At that point the Imalu players appeared to decide that if they weren’t going to win, at least they would put a few Super Stars in hospital, with some bone-crunching illegal tackles and shirtfronts setting off brawls seemingly every minute. While it was a disappointing end to the action on the field, the crowd was whipped to fever pitch, creating a manic atmosphere of fun for the spectators.

Located about 250 km from Darwin, Umbrawarra Gorge is a surprisingly accessible camping and swimming spot.  The road turns off the Stuart Highway, shortly after Pine Creek on the way to Katherine, with about 20 km of unsealed road varying from easy when freshly graded and dry, to difficult when deeply corrugated and criss-crossed with washouts after heavy rain.

An excellent campsite with fire places and toilet facilities provides an ideal base to explore the gorge itself: a beautiful narrow water way lined with towering cliffs, deep pools shadowed from the afternoon sun, here by smooth rock faces, there by a craggy lasagne of stone.  Pick your way among the scattered boulders and it gets better the further along you go, water holes teeming with tiny fish, monitors stalking the surface, tongues flicking, or lying flat on exposed rocks soaking up the sun’s rays, sandy beaches dappled with leafy shadows.

Edith Falls middle pool
Finding beautiful swimming spots in the Northern Territory is easy, if you don’t mind sharing the water with deadly creatures.  Fortunately, while the lower pool at Edith Falls is surrounded by crocodile warning signs, the middle pool pictured above is clear.  It’s worth climbing the rocks behind the waterfall to the upper pool and taking in the scenery, perched between glass-smooth waters and a torrent of water.

“You won’t be able to do the Mereenie Loop in your car, not after the rains.  Sections of the road have been completely washed away.  There’s another track you could do though, Ernest Giles Road.  We came through there the other day in a Camry, so you’ll be fine.”

The sign at the turnoff promised 100 km of unsealed, heavily corrugated red dirt and sand, just what we were looking for.  A short cut through to the Stuart Highway on our way to Alice Springs, it was also a chance to push our car to its 4WD limits.

I began tentatively, cautiously easing the car over the deep corrugations as we bumped along, gear clattering away in the back.  While the state of the track was an impediment to speed and comfort, it was relatively clear and wide, and apparently quite safe.

I picked up speed as my confidence grew, and the bone-rattling furrows in the road flattened out.  Soon we were flying along at 80 km/h, clouds of red dust billowing behind us.  We were looking good for an early arrival at Alice Springs – we’d be able to relax, maybe find somewhere with a pool, have a few beers and get some much-needed rest after several days in the outback.

Almost imperceptibly at first, the steering wheel took on a mind of its own and the car began to drift, tyres losing their grip in a deep bank of sand covering the track.  I gunned the engine, hoping to maintain forward momentum.  There was no need for panic; the road was straight, wide and clear in both directions, and the sand drift petered out after a few hundred metres.

Suddenly a metal post, three quarters buried in the sand and almost invisible from a distance, reared up at a 70 degree angle in front of the car.  Braking sharply or swerving on the treacherous surface was impossible, and we braced for the inevitable impact, hitting with the crunching sound of metal tearing against metal.

I started to panic, jerking the car to an inelegant halt just beyond the sand drift.  Throwing the door open, we leapt from our seats to assess the damage.  Visions flew through my mind: shredded tyres, fuel tank torn open, spewing petrol onto the hot gravel, an engine hopelessly mangled by slivers of metal, axles mutilated and useless.  Imaginations running wild, we inspected the car.

Tyres looked ok.

No obvious fluids leaking from the undercarriage.

“Oh shit.”

Protruding from between the rear axle and the exhaust was the metal post, dangling about 10 centimetres above the ground.  I dropped to my knees to examine the damage, but the ground was baking hot, making a detailed assessment impossible.  Grasping the post, I made an ineffectual attempt to shake it loose, to no avail.

“What the hell are we going to do?”

200 km from the nearest petrol station and mobile phone reception, we had few options.  We could wait in the car with the air conditioning running, hoping someone passed by before our water and petrol ran out.  We could set out for the main road on foot, hoping we didn’t die of heat exhaustion before we found help.  Or we could drive the car back to the main road, hoping not to exacerbate any damage that had already been done.

We resolved to try driving back, figuring we would find out pretty quickly if anything serious was wrong.  After about 10 minutes of nervous staring at the temperature and fuel gauges, we arrived at the intersection.  The car seemed to be operating fine, but we still had the metal post hanging from its underside like an arrow emerging from armour.  We had no idea of the severity of the wound beneath, but seeing as we had made it that far, decided we might as well strike out for the petrol station at Eridunda.

By the time we reached Eridunda we had travelled more than 200 km, with no apparent problem other than a constant rattling of metal under the car.  My heart rate was beginning to return to normal; although Eridunda is little more than a road house and petrol station, at least there was a constant flow of traffic.  There was also a source of shade there, allowing us to clamber underneath the car without burning ourselves on the blistering hot ground.

There didn’t seem to be any serious damage.  The post was aluminium, a soft metal heated even softer by the sun, and had merely bent itself around the axle.  Relief washed over me.  We were going to make it to Alice Springs on time, our car was not going to need an expensive repair job, and we were safe.  With the assistance of a local, we extricated the warped, torn post, and soon were flying down the highway again, this time with a new resolve to stick to sealed roads until we reached our destination.