Perhaps when you hear the word ‘Darwin’ you think of Charles and his theory of evolution. Perhaps you think of the capital city of Australia’s Northern Territory. The only association I could make was that Darwin was the name of the monkey from The Wild Thornberries, a cartoon where the main character has the ability to talk to animals. You can imagine my surprise, then, when my parents told me that Darwin was a place, and that we were to move there.
An all-girls boarding school in Havelock North, New Zealand, had been my home for five years, and while the boarding school girls were my family, I needed to leave them behind. I was fifteen years old and convinced that I had depression, there was no other explanation. I’d just found one of my best friends in the bathroom, wrists bleeding into a sink, another two were on medication and visiting counsellors. I was as angry and self-loathing as they were, but not because of my drug addiction, low self-esteem or psychotic parents. I was bored; miserable that I had nothing to be miserable about. Nothing terrible or exciting or even remotely interesting happened to this straight A boarding school student; I had no stories to tell. The time Chloe Morrison demonstrated her safe sex knowledge by putting a condom on a banana and then spinning it so furiously it exploded all over the classroom, was not going to be the only ‘story of my youth’ I had to tell my grand babies.
I have seen far too many films where the angst-ridden teenage protagonist is forced to move to a new school, hating their parents for turning them into the awkward new kid. This was not that situation. I was offered every opportunity to become an international boarder — stay in Havelock North, and live atschool while my parents and two younger siblings moved to another country. Ha. Good one. The remedy for my self-diagnosed mental ailment was adventure, and Darwin was where I was going to get it.
My friends did an admirable amount of research to convince me to stay and thanks to them; I had a lot of expectations of my first steps out of that air-conditioned airport terminal. Darwin was going to be a barren wasteland, covered in red dirt with not a tree in sight. The locals would be simple folk with missing teeth and pet kangaroos and there would be no supply of water for six months of the year. I would contract syphilis from a public toilet seat and, after becoming delirious with heat exhaustion I would take my own life, and all they would find would be a puddle of melting, sunburnt skin.
The second I stepped off the plane into Darwin’s atmosphere, a prickly coating of sweat materialised over the space between my jeans and my legs. But other than the ridiculous heat, things were not as they were prophesised. Darwin was green and beautiful. The sun was so bright it lit everything perfectly and though it was hot, you could cope. I’d always believed palm trees belonged to exotic islands, but in Darwin they were everywhere. Unlike the tiny Havelock North Village, Darwin was big. The roads were unbelievably wide, there were buildings with more than three stories, and you could see the ocean from almost any vantage point. To my joy, even the ants were on steroids.
The weird and wonderful wildlife that Darwin had to offer was the most fascinating thing about those first few weeks of exploration. Havelock North had a lot of sheep, but Darwin had wallabies, dingos, snakes, and most exciting of all; crocodiles. After living in Darwin for a few months my family had decided enough was enough and it was time we saw a croc. If one wasn’t going to find its way into our swimming pool, we would have to go out looking and that is why we rented a houseboat. To this day I am bewildered as to how it managed to float. It was, essentially, a two story shipping container surrounded on all sides by a fenced metal veranda and perched dangerously over an accumulation of old tyres and empty barrels.
Despite the cool inviting flow of its water in extreme temperature conditions, the Mary River is not somewhere I’d recommend you go swimming. Ten minutes into our weekend we had already seen more wild crocodiles than most people care to in their lifetime. Every few metres another croc was spotted, lolling on the bank, and the further upriver we went the more powerful and potentially death inducing they grew. At night time we’d shine a torch over the water and dozens of glowing eyes would stare back. On the last day of our journey our croc obsession was satisfied when we met a true monster. His skin was thick and spiked and his eyes were golden. Curled in half on a sunny bank, he didn’t move an inch during the six times we drove back and forth past him, steering so close; we nearly ran the boat aground. His incredible muscular form could have easily launched itself over the low railing of the houseboat. But the fence wasn’t really there to keep anything out, it was there to keep us in, should one slip send you tumbling into the dark water to meet their ever-watching eyes.
After the houseboat weekend the only logical thing my father could think of doing was buying a boat of his own. Not a house boat, thank God, something edgier and more boat-shaped, with a bigger motor and the capacity to move in a straight line. Like the Thornberries, my family loved the great outdoors, so we jumped at the opportunity to test out this new boat by pushing it out into the ocean that was our front yard and going for a wakeboard.
With both of my feet strapped to the board I was squatting in the water, psyching myself out, waiting for the tipping point, the opportune moment. The secret to wakeboarding is that you don’t actually have to do anything; the boat will do all the work. When I was finally pulled upright my hands gripped the rope and I rode in and out of the wake. Nothing made me feel cooler than wakeboarding. I would classify it as an extreme sport. Not everyone can do it, and I might pretend otherwise but I am a massive show off. My jumps may only be miniscule but they make me feel dangerous, and when I actually achieve a ‘switch’ without face planting, I feel like I should be on an energy drink commercial, rocking my wakeboard tricks to the sound of heavy metal. The current wakeboarding situation, however, was even more extreme than anything my imagination could conjure. We’d been up and down the bay all afternoon and my legs were cramping and my arms were like jelly. I could barely lift them, let alone pull myself up again so this was the last ride before we called it a day. The motor was dead, the air was still and the boat and I were slowly, calmly drifting further apart.
“Get out of the water.”
My father was not a stern man, and there was no panic in his voice, only an extremely composed urgency as we both became aware of an immensely large, water-dwelling creature, splashing not a metre to my left. I was at the wrong end of a seventy-five foot ski rope. After the initial urge to piss my bathers had passed I experienced the bizarre sensation that it was all happening to someone else. I held the rope and remained in my seated position as my father and brother pulled me swiftly towards the boat. I thought about removing the board and rolling over to swim my way back, but if I was going to get eaten it was comforting to know there was weapon attached to my feet for me to fight with. When I finally reached the boat my arms were so weak and shaky that I could barely pull myself on board.
When safety had been achieved, rather than fleeing the scene my dad started up the boat and ventured forth for a closer look. There were three of them in total. Their mouths were gaping holes, like drawn on faces. They were giant creatures, over five metres wide; manta rays. We later discovered they were harmless, in fact, they probably only wanted to play, but the sheer size of them meant no one was game to get back in the water. Instead, we sat in the boat sipping lemonade as the sun set on these mysterious creatures, zebra striped and dancing, flipping, spinning, skimming their bodies across the top of the water.
We lived like tourists right up until the day school started. This was when it finally sank in. We lived here now; Darwin was home. I was both nervous and excited to begin classes at Darwin High School. Why? It was Co-ed. Finally, this was what my life had been missing; men. Having explored every corner of Darwin in search of all its bizarre creatures, I really did think I had seen it all, but then I discovered the weirdest creature of all, the sixteen year old male. Sixteen is not a flattering time in his life, you see he is still struggling his way through the last moments of puberty, and each individual is experiencing this transformation at varying speeds. Some of them are still as short as they were three years ago, and others don’t quite know how to walk properly, given the sudden vast increase in the length of their legs. They are pimply, hairy, awkward, and aggressive at the best of times, but if you add into the mix thirty degree heat that gives even the most delicate woman a moustache made out of sweat, Darwin High School’s crop of sixteen year old males were not sexy people.
If this wasn’t enough to put me off interacting with the opposite sex, my first year group induction meeting included an educational pictorial slideshow about genital herpes and how the STI rate in the Northern Territory is significantly higher than anywhere else in Australia. My mother came home from work having clearly witnessed a similar presentation. She entered my room with incredible caution.
“Can we talk?”
I thought about the potential sex partners I had met at school that day and assured her she didn’t have anything to worry about.
I have never seen my mother more uncomfortable than she was then, perched on the edge of the bed. It was about then I realised we had such a superficial relationship we may as well have been strangers. I had always had so many friends to share my problems with that it never seemed worth bothering her about. It wasn’t her fault — I didn’t mean to be secretive, I was just unsure of what was appropriate to talk to her about. I was afraid of disappointing her or worrying her, but what is a parent’s job if you can’t worry or disappoint them occasionally? My lack of experience in mother-daughter etiquette made her assume that every time I didn’t come home at a reasonable hour, I was out having unprotected sex, sneaking into clubs and getting bottled in the face by a drunken backpacker.
The closest I ever dared venture towards the nightclub strip on any late night occasion, was when we’d ditched some dull party and found ourselves at Uncle Sam’s twenty four hour diner. Someone once found an entire rubber glove in their Uncle Sam’s meal. Needless to say we didn’t go there for the food, but there was always a good time to be had in one of those dirty cushioned little booths.
On one Uncle Sam’s occasion we ran into Darwin High School’s psychology teacher, Mr. Jenkins, the only white male I’ve ever known with more booty than Beyoncé.
“Why are you kids out so late? Shouldn’t you be at home, studying?” he paused, trying to decide whether we were laughing with him or at him. “We’ve been at the Hookers’ ball!” he told us, eloquently explaining both his inebriated state and the Fred Flintstone costume.
The Hookers’ Ball: The highlight of Darwin’s nightlife calendar where everyone dresses as much like a prostitute as possible.
If anything could make a mother worry for her daughter’s wellbeing, it is when she is let loose in a city where the unmissable event of the year is the Hooker’s ball. Darwin’s local news publication, the NT news, also did its part to increase my mother’s paranoia, where every second story was about shootings, stabbings and punch-ups.
Granted this was also a newspaper that published a story about a woman being fondled by Kevin, the horny ghost of her home’s previous owner*, but in any case she had reason to be concerned for my safety outside after dark. She looked at me, her face an aged reflection of mine, and her big green eyes silently begged me to be careful. But when Darwin treated me to my first physical brawl, it was in broad daylight, on a footy oval.
I had stayed for an after-school dance class which was rudely interrupted when a group of girls waltzed in, made a lot of noise, and ran out again. In their hurry they somehow managed to knock over Eddie, a Filipino break-dancer.
“Did they take anything?” The dance teacher, asked. The wrinkles on her face contorted into a frown, so misplaced alongside her fit, young frame.
We hadn’t thought anything of it until now, and I walked slowly towards the bags as calm Sophie; Sophie who’d never been disrespected or robbed or punched in the face. Halfway across the room I noticed that my shoes had been flung across the floor. My heart leapt to an unnatural location in my chest, as I realised my bag was gone.
Eddie, the dance teacher and a few of the other dancers accompanied me outside, where the intruders sat at a table on the edge of the oval. When they saw us, they stood up and began to stroll casually away, abandoning my bag beneath the table. I rummaged through it.
“My phone and my iPod are gone.”
“Right.” Aimee marched towards the girls, tight-lipped and furious.
Students lingering around the oval, kept their distance, but none could believe the nerve of these strangers, coming to our school and disrespecting Aimee, a teacher whom every student admired.
“Give back what you took please, girls.”
“We didn’t take nothing!” The bigger girl turned to us as she spoke, opening her arms widely, confidently, aggressively.
“Just give it back and walk away.”
“What you sayin’? You sayin’ I’m a thief, Bitch?”
Eddie intervened, angrily and the girl spat her words in his face, “this is my country, go back to where you came from Chinaman.”
This ridiculous back and forth exchange continued for what felt like hours, with no one getting anywhere. I heard Aimee’s calm voice and the girl’s aggravated replies, over and over until I was dizzy from the round and round motion. In a daze I stared at the girl. Everything was in slow motion. She spat as she yelled and her huge nostrils flared like an angry bull.
In my daze, I noticed the unmistakable white, ruined edge of my headphone wedged between the girl’s sweating cleavage and as my vision continued to focus on her breasts, their shape grew more and more odd. Well, now that I knew where she was hiding my belongings, perhaps I didn’t want them back after all.
I was still staring at the girl’s chest as she took a step towards us. If a person is angry and a lot bigger than you are, sensibly you would move back. But I was feeling stubborn and held my ground, looking directly into her eyes. I saw a flash of something; Weakness? Fear? Guilt? And then a sharp smack to the side of my face. I never got my stuff back.
Nothing terrible or exciting or even remotely interesting happens to me.
Sometimes getting what you want is not a nice feeling.
Darwin has a rich military history. During world war two, the Japanese dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbor. To be honest, given the damage caused by Darwin’s cyclones in the past, and the sheer deafening volume of the wet season thunder, I wonder if anyone would notice it happening all over again. Regardless, Darwin has an Army or Navy base at every turn and is currently home to a major defence base for international aid services.
Finishing year twelve, I was at another stage of major life transitions, and it was time for me to narrow down my tertiary education options. I puzzled over degrees I could get quickly and without having to read any textbooks. While I made my decision I was paid thirty-four dollars an hour to import medical data about Aboriginal women with maggot infested head wounds into a computer. It was during my stint of full time employment that the yanks came to town.
If one hadn’t noticed the USS Peleliu and the USS Pearl Harbor, docked at the wharf, or the hundreds of A.Js roaming the streets with their crew cuts and bad sunglasses, they would have certainly read about their arrival in Darwin’s favourite newspaper.
“Darwin’s prostitutes and local ladies have been busy trying to keep pace with the swell of cute, horny US seamen on our shores.” ~ The NT news
This particular article also reported low condom stocks at chemists and the Navy boys’ interest in whether a prescription was needed to purchase Viagra. The girls from work decided it would be a great weekend to hit the town. Cashed up American boys who have been on a ship for months on end will practically beg you to let them buy you a drink. Sadly, everyone in Darwin had the same bright idea and the nightclub strip was crawling with more people than I realised populated the city.
“Let’s catch a cab home. “ Shelly, from work, suggested. I had never been more enthusiastic about going home, and it was probably the most sensible thing to do, having lost most of the members of our initial clubbing party in a swarm of seamen.
“If you get them on their way into the city you don’t have to wait at the taxi rank.”
This made perfect sense so we headed away from the lights and noise and towards the suburbs. I had never felt threatened walking through this part of town, past the entertainment centre and out of the city, so I thought nothing of our little detour. It was just the two of us, Shelly and I had reached the farthest, darkest corner of an empty car park when we realised we were being followed.
They had come from nowhere, two huge army boys stalking closely behind. They walked faster, moving stations in a choreographed attack, one on either side of us, looming dangerously. In my mind, this was a prime example of a situation that may occur before you find yourself getting raped. We walked faster.
“Why are you girls in such a hurry? We just wanna talk!” One of them said in his thick American accent, every syllable drawn out at an irritating rate.
“If you wanted to talk why did you sneak up on us in a creepy car park?” Shelly snapped.
I grabbed hold of her hand and wished she would shut up, but at the same time, marveled at how brave she was. The stalkers continued to talk and stalk and Shelly continued to reply bluntly, with each footstep we grew closer to safety. We crossed a road and entered another car park. Empty taxis filled every space and Uncle Sam’s star ridden top hat had never been a more welcome sight.
The diner was buzzing with life, and Uncle Sam, a personification of the government who recruited these soldiers, now seemed to frighten them away. They thought better than to follow us inside against the obvious, strikingly ironic wishes of Uncle Sam, instead, they left us with parting words;
“You know, you girls remind me of girls from New York. Except your fatter!”
They laughed as they walked away, but Shelly laughed louder.
We spent nearly the whole night sitting in Sam’s fluorescent green, vinyl couches. An old drunk had passed out in the booth opposite us, stinking of the urine he was covered in. None of the employees looked keen on removing his flaccid body from the premises, so there he stayed, and as the night wore on every patron bonded over their shared delight of the poor bum’s predicament, and every patron took home a photo with him. Nothing so disgusting had ever felt like home. This was exactly what Darwin was to me; hot, sticky and smelly, dangerous and terrifying, comfortable and familiar.
I don’t live in an RV, travelling the globe like Eliza Thornberry, but when I moved to Darwin I felt like I had never lived anywhere else. I moved back in with Mum and Dad, ready to establish a real mother-daughter relationship. I know now that I can tell my mother anything, but that time I was nearly, almost, could-a-been raped in a car park will probably never come up. Regardless of the dangers Darwin puts me in, or the dangers the NT news told my mother about, I always had this inexplicable assurance within me. This is your home, you are alive and everything is going to be fine. That feeling, I believe, is one that is all too familiar to the people of Darwin. It doesn’t matter if there is a cyclone looming, a shortage of food in the supermarkets, an intense heat wave, an e-coli outbreak or an infestation of cane toads. No matter what goes wrong, if everything turns to shit, she’ll be right.