Nelson’s legacy

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The Sports Desk cannot confirm that the crumbly corners of Nelson Lodge had anything whatsoever to do with the Lord Vice Admiral himself and more is the pity. However, its stoic bulk, lodged like fat in an artery on the brim of Unwins Bridge Road in Tempe, certainly lends itself to the comparison. With its bits tucked into well-made sleeves, proud demeanour, and wearing unconventionality with precocious flair, it is a handsome place.

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It is detailed in countless real estate ads as having “hallmark period details and original colour palette, traditionally large rooms featuring soaring ceilings, four self-contained dwellings, huge rustic kitchen, functioning bathrooms, vast storage area/cellar, ante-rooms, versatile outbuildings, carriage shed, leafy established gardens and ample off street parking”.

Nowhere does it mention stone flags worn smooth and cursive by centuries of feet, the green-gold speckle of patina’d age, a ripple of cobbles beneath ancient tread, verdant forests or an abiding sense of soul.

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Born in an era of bushrangers and boatmen, clay quarries and iron gangs, Nelson Lodge was built in 1858 by the owner of the Lord Nelson pub. Next to its salacious sister The Hero of Waterloo, known for its rum smuggling and shanghai-ing (the forced indenture of unwary drinkers into the Australian Navy, their bloodshot eyes missing the coin dropped into the foam of their ale, the mark of the newly recruited sailor), the Lord Nelson is positively pious, Sydney’s oldest continuously licensed hotel.

I wonder if the Lodge is as pious…

Built as a travellers’ resting place – a highway lodge – the sandstone skeleton resembles a motel – all beds and baths and connecting hallways. There is no cosy hearth in the heart of the building, no shared space or communal living, save for the kitchen, sheathed as it is in cobwebbed curiosity. Dust bunnies with the fortitude of enraged wildebeest inhabit the cracks, the paint is intent on furtive escape and the central hallway, with its soaring ceilings and scalded-skin-tone palette, channels a fearsome breeze.

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Today, an age from then, smooth-as-skin cedar boards echo footprints and laughter, smoke from a brazier tangles in the air and cool respite from an intense summer sun slinks in darkened corners, an invitation so seductive the gathering of people I am here with shifts and sighs within the space like a restless wind, from cool corner to burning bright and back again.

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This was no gentleman’s home, no free-settler’s landed pile or exclamation of standing. Neither was it bawdily designed to slake the thirst of the road, with ale, smoke and grease the domain of the kitchen. The Lodge was akin to a colonial motel or staging post, to offer succour from the jarring of the road, where horses could be stabled and travellers revive their delicate sensibilities in “one of four separate suites, six bedrooms and seven bathrooms”.

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But that’s not to say there wasn’t a good time to be had – these bones have jangled in joy, broad balconies brimming with revellry, glasses clinking, meat roasting and voices threading through the air… And as then, so today, chatter fills the spaces that time has germinated, a rich song of words and laughter that brings the Lodge to life once more.

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Caught as it is in the cradle of a protective garden, softly cushioned from the present, Horatio himself would have liked it here, a final Trafalgar heady with comfort and peace.

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River Queens

Forever in debt to the rapacious canine demands of The Kelpie, the newest member of the mob, I find myself in the weedy gutters of anonymous backstreets being tugged towards the park – any park. With noses snuffling, ears twitching and eyes bright with the expectation of rotting treasure, she and I explore our daily date with dedication…

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On a lip of land that juts above a sulky river was once a castellated Victorian Gothic mansion, a queen sporting a regal demeanour over her 130-acre domain. The Warren, so called for the tumbling colonies of rabbits bred on the estate to be hunted, was home to wool merchant and politician Thomas Holt in 1864; a prestigiously leafy estate overlooking the Cooks River, she wore her grandeur as freshly-combed ermine.

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Thirty bedrooms, a dining room to seat 50, art gallery, bathing sheds and Turkish baths, and located in the heart of riverside Marrickville, The Warren was a real-estate’s wet dream. Today, little remains, though there is a distinct sense of propriety, of sweeping capes and walking canes, of parasols and rum at dusk, as the bats flit silently by.

The Warren may be long gone, but it still exerts a powerful fascination. Residents, both old and new, often refer to their locality as The Warren, and its presence can be sensed in many ways.

Ferncourt School is built from the stone of The Warren’s demolished stables. On the banks of Cooks River, hidden behind concrete, are the remains of The Warren’s burial vaults, and a large amount of sandstone… has been recycled into retaining walls and kerbs and gutters throughout the suburb.

                                                               dictionaryofsydney.org

Two towers, originally piers from the back of the building, stand sentinel on Richardson’s Lookout in Holt’s Crescent in South Marrickville, a spindly curve of street that follows the swell of the river. Cobblestones rumble beneath ancient figs, a memory of a driveway perhaps, and the ghosts of garden paths linger, lined with sandstone flags worn soft with time.

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Gazing into the distance you can imagine languid lunches on the lawns, the clip of a sulky bearing well-dressed guests and the breezy air of entitlement.

And while the castle was demolished in 1919 (after hosting an order of Carmelite nuns and an artillery training camp during the First World War), the estate remains closely guarded by its feudal community. Despite the glaring absence of the original mansion, a hollow lost to time, the glory of Holt’s domain is steeped in a run of ageing river queens moored to the sludgy banks of the Cooks River.

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With their toes in the damp, mottled faces staring resolutely uphill, the grand dames of Thornley Street would once have been landscaped gardens. In a later incarnations, they were the boom-time beauties, Edwardian weatherboarders and Californian bungalows of the late 1800s, turn of the century and ’20s respectively, sought after seclusion perched high above the banks.

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These landlubbers have time sequestered in their dappled flanks, weary memories surging like tidemarks in the rising damp. Paint peels like sunburnt skin, raw patches peeking out from beneath, fly-screened verandahs scratch in the heat, and pastel fibro fades in the glare.

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Their captains are invariably polite yet reserved, wary of too much attention. Lola and Luigi, deep in conversation over the fly spray, are happy to pose for a shot, asking; “why you want love? You like us old peoples?” Well, yes. I do. What with your stories and insight, life mapped on your faces like sea charts speckled with salt. Further along, an old fella caresses the tarp tied taut around his late ’80s Mazda; “Got a few of ’em love, great motors. Bloke next door hates ’em, says they is an eyesore. But his whole place is a bit on the nose if y’ask me…”

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The bush thrives here, in this slice of suburbia; the river breeds it in swathes along her banks; mangrove roots thick with mud, sandstone cliffs that create shadows of cool, banksia, acacia and mulga ferns, speargrass, she oaks and prickly-leaved paperbarks that line walkways yipping with dogs on leads and kids wobbly on their wheels.

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Between the faded faces and gentrified glitz of Thornley Street are cool diving driveways that strip down to the water hundreds of metres below, asbestos afterthoughts – home to tarped cars and garden tools – clinging to them like carbuncles.

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It is like looking down an old woman’s gullet, a vaudeville trick that vilifies. Beyond the tidy-town streetscape, straggly ends trail to crippled Colourbond fences that lounge near the water’s muddy flanks, bereft of bilges. Flood marks are a permanent stain, and veggie patches are overrun with natives.

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Like decaying paddleboats hauled high on their hitches, the river queens slump slowly into their watery graves, an expression of resigned implacability on their tired faces.

Yet while the river continues to inveigle her prey, inch by sodden inch, The Warren Estate persists with its page-one status in the brochures of local real estates. It is the ever-enduring wet-dream…

The Kelpie and I walk on, the river warbling her sordid siren song…

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A timeless endeavour

It’s mid-January-duco-stripping-red-raw-trucker’s-tan-Holden-seats-that-peel-thighs-as-an-ape-undoes-a-banana-HOT. The tar ripples, snaking into the distance like a strap of liquorice that writhes indecently in the sun, and while I cope admirably with such adversity (a packet of frozen peas between now steaming knees), cold water is called for.

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In this wasted fringe of the city, once the site of fellmongers yards and slaughter works and still shrouded in heavy industry – its legacy of contamination worn like a muzzle –wharfies and stevedores rumble in gangs in fluoro, a fine mist of av-gas sprinkles burning shoulders and the sun bakes an oily blackness deeper into the earth. And while Foreshore Beach is just moments away from the wreckers I am hunting through for hot-to-the-touch Kingswood parts, its sand/ sea/ sun = beach classification got cancelled a while back.

The grease monkey points west: “Best get up there doll, it’s cool and wet”. Not entirely sure I understand what he is talking about I enquire further – he goes on to describe a fertile sanctuary: “Honest love, we all get up there after a coldie at the end of the day…”

Almost louche in its reclining glory, the Botany Aquatic Centre lounges amid a sea of city green, hidden from the horror of the stained industry at the bay’s edge. With a Soviet-style entrance and solid concrete floor the centre is a throwback to a simpler time, and a paean to 70s swimming culture.

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It inadvertently celebrates the halcyon days of summers past, with sole-burning bricks that steam as the drips dry, concrete fissures that sprout lurid life, springy grass sprinkled with bindis, a Peters-ice-cream-blue kiosk doing a roaring trade in schitzies and hot chips, drumsticks and zoopa doopas – all drizzled in utilitarian institutionalisation for good measure. Can’t be getting out of hand now.

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This is a world steeped in blue and green, the surf and turf of the colour palette, with flecks of neon and soda adorning skin from chocolate to Pepto-Bismol pink in delicious contrast. Pools are lapped by grass while ancient paperbarks dip their toes in the damp, and shady groves curl out tendrils of cool, home to sprawls of families their boundaries littered with picnics, floaties and striped towels that flak and flutter in the breeze.

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I follow the trawl of tip turkeys that sidle and stalk for Jatz and hot chips, red sauce like blood on their beaks. They lead me to my plastic moulded nirvana, a place that is maudlin in its search for a frosted glass of tequila sunrise…

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Umbrellas crowd excitedly, splashes of tango, turquoise and out-of-fashion blue. They are the stars of the show, selflessly casting pockets of shade onto passing birds and their reluctant sidekicks, chained to them to prevent ‘an incident’:

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There is a rowdy scrabble of youth, from goggle-eyed babes to splashing small fry who squeak and giggle, tweens that tumble and preen, and teens closely monitoring the ride of hi-cut swimmers and low-slung boardies. They are hunting. Mostly each other.

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Beads of salty water roll from goosebumped skin and the wet bricks sweat. The kids’ pool is like a chlorinated Lord of the Flies, piggy howling in the shadows and ripe fruit smeared along the edge. A scrawny, wiry woman with a litter of kids still suckling her home-brewed homilies entreats Lozza to “ger outta the water, youse getting wrinkles!” Her age-rippled back reads Live Not to Lose and she is as yet unaware of the rusting hose coiled menacingly behind her…

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Shrouded women lead their lycra’d progeny to the water’s edge but resist the temptation, the sedate demeanour of their darkened attire balanced by a swooping cursive dialect, non-stop chatter and bawdy laughter: Asra and her toes again…

Stained creme caramel coloured brick blocks squat around the largest expanse of water, bleachers climbing high with a ‘competitive edge’. The lane markers are rolled up tight, despite the best machinations of a toddler intent on their release, and the bunting droops – it’s been a busy day.

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Credit: Awol Monk.

 

A lifeguard trundles past on rubbish duty, a message on his back reading; WHERE IS YOUR CHILD?

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I recover quickly, realising he doesn’t mean mine, and that the Tin Lid is safely ensconced in Kindy. He can, however, shed no light on what this is:

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An older woman sporting a natty zebra one-piece, straw hat with a knitted brim band and a jaunty ankle flick wanders through the generations, perusing life. She stops for a chat: Beryl’s a local, been coming here for ‘too many years my dear. But it’s always the same. It’s real and genuine and honest. Now, you enjoy your little slice love. See you next time, I’m off to the waterslide…”

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Unbound palms sprout and seed with abandon at the entrance to the water slide, indicative perhaps of the jungle that awaits. Harassed lifeguards corral the mob in human sale yards that get sprayed with salt each time another cork pops from the pipe, yelling. On and on hot steaming skin is flushed through soupy water in sun-cracked tubes in a febrile ripple of sound, flumes spewing laughter and one-piece bum-wedgies.

Eyes closed, toes exposed, it surges over me, a sluice of a time past yet vividly of the now as cool drips of water sprinkle my exposed skin, courtesy of a cartwheeler as she spins past.

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An oasis is defined as a ‘fertile spot in a desert, where water is found amid the burning desert sands, a watering place’. Beyond the oil-streaked mirage out the back of the wreckers, I was led to my oasis by a grease monkey and an ibis. I just have to work out a way to thank them…

Mt Romance

Kununurra is the opposite of a town drowned, a place that will forever hold a morbid fascination, from the lost city of Atlantis to Jindabyne’s sunken spire. Kununurra, with its clash of consonants and stuttery alliteration – a curdled curse spat from between revolted lips – was built to service the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and is billed as the gateway to the Kimberley. And if these images are anything to go by, it’s one hell of a gate, all curlicues and shrieking valkyries…

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Rising in the red stone ranges of Australia’s rugged north west, the Ord River surges along for more than 600km before spilling into the Timor Sea. The ancestors of the Aboriginal people of the east Kimberley called the country Kununurra, or ‘big water’, and in this continent of climatic extremes the big water flows all year round.                 ABC

The scheme, built in stages during the last century, has Lake Argyle at it’s heart, this hot, dry continent’s largest artificial lake. This vast eddy of trapped water sucks at the watery remains of the famed Argyle Downs Station, once home to the pioneering Durack family.

In 1879, so the story goes, Patsy Durack, pastoral pioneer and all-round good egg, drove 7259 head of cattle and 200 horses from Queensland (over 3000 miles to the east) to stock Argyle Downs and Ivanhoe Station. The journey took three years and it is the longest ever recorded.

Both stations now lie in sodden graves on the bed of the lake, sacrificed for the scheme, though the Argyle homestead was moved, brick by brick, to higher ground:

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Irrigation on this vast scale was probably Australia’s last great nation building scheme, harnessing the flow of one of the north west’s wildest rivers and creating fertile faming land out of vast grazing country.

The Ord River dams provide water for irrigation to over 117 km² of farmland and there are plans in place to extend the scheme to allow irrigation of 440 km² in the near future. More than 60 different crops are grown in the Ord catchment area, and the main dam generates power for the whole of Kununurra.

So it’s a good thing, right? Lush lawns, tropical verdancy and damp toes?

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Maybe not. While there is a distinct whiff of nature-based tourism, with crags and peaks and dams and lakes aplenty, the heart of this teenage town is drier than a drover’s dog…

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Hand-painted signs look almost comical and give the place a gentle cartoony feel, but the gates, it seems, are less ostentatious and a tad more prosaic in reality.

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And while the facades are cheerier than Wilcannia and Walgett, it’s apparent there is little window shopping in Kununurra, the eyes of the souls boarded, barred and black.

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There are a few boutique eating options, which makes the Tin Lid happy:

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As does the comms tower – he is savvy enough to know this means the phones will bleep back into service. And service means kids’ TV…

But most of the mob in town eat here, where the sign reads Please + Thank you = Welcome:

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And then there’s Valentines, a shrine to romance… and $10 spag bol with a side of GB (I can only assume this is bread of the garlic variety).

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There are promised lands of green – rich cobalt, veridian and jungle vying for supremacy on a canvas of red dirt – but they are sanctioned,cul de sacs of nature’s wealth in suburbs of paucity littered with crippled shopping trolleys. And they are generally located right outside the most expensive accommodation options. In fact, the Kununurra Country Club looks positively strangled with vegetation…

The abandoned buildings circling the central car park hold my attention for longer, straggles of life weeping from shattered orifices, a place in the shade to while away time atop a carpet of crushed cans and crinkled glass.

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We find a toy shop that is barred. Once past the security guard, the Tin Lid finds an orca he cannot live without and we leave, all to aware of the kids who stalk and skitter around the door, just out of reach of the guard. A quick trip back in secures a pod of orcas to share around…

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And while there are big sifting mobs enjoying the shade of broad-brimmed trees – still lives dappled in green – the bottlo is deserted and the streets echo with a strange emptiness. The customary rumble of life is dulled yet impatient. It’s as if we are waiting for something…

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The backpacker’s lodge is greasy with the sort of promise that comes out of the bottom of a pie wrapper. It’s swill time, and the fluoro shirts – the new colour of the outback – are sloping in, bruised men with angry egos and a hard-earned thirst. Bivouacked around rusting SPC peach cans outside dingy dorms they are the face of endeavour, albeit crumpled in defeat after a long day.

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The rooms come with little fanfare, bunks stripped of what little dignity they were born with. The Tin Lid and I, flat out like lizards lounging, are cornered while enjoying the delights of the cement pool by a woman named Mary (her shirt promised this, along with “I’m the f****ing boss, that’s why”);

“Youse stayin’ with us are yas?”

Well, yes. I reply, a steely look in my eye.

“Yeah, well, we’ve had some problems with smoking round the pool – see them? There’s bloody piles of ’em every morning there is, and I don’t bloody like it. So I’m warning youse, no bloody smoking round the pool, right?”

 

I snarl an appropriate response and she storms off, intent on stomping out the base corruption that exists deep within backpacker cartels.

Having sacrificed the Savoy cabbage to the fruit fly quarantine station we feast on smuggled honey, Jatz crackers and contraband beer. Talk turns to the Kimberley’s ancient mountain ranges, savannah plains and sandstone cliffs 300 million years old, of zebra rock, sandalwood plantations and sugarcane rum, of Hidden Valley, Mt Romance and Valentine Creek.

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But when the contraband runs out talk turns, as it inevitably does in Kununurra, to grog. Seeping through the locked gates out the front of the backpacker’s the chatter from the mob goes on late into the night, a barrelling fracas of noise and laughter, of hurled curses, V8 power and scuffles on bitumen. It is the noise of a town camp relocated, parked up in the bottlo carpark.

As part of the Eastern Kimberley Liquor Accord, purchasing alcohol in Kununurra is restricted to certain hours (hence the empty streets and edgy feel to the town), one transaction per day, and limitations within that transaction of:

  • 2 x slabs of beer     or
  • 6 x bottles of wine    or
  • 1 x bottle of spirits     or
  • 1 x slab + 3 x bottles of wine
  • No flagons

No flagons? I head over to the bottlo to investigate. Not one flagon breeds here, though RSA rules and restrictions are plastered across the hurricane fencing and slatted concertina doors, each with a bouncer on duty. Surly recrimination crests the counter, as Paula, harried beyond measure, metes out a well-travelled line:

“I said get out mate! Lance I mean it. This is like the fourth time today. Youse know the bloody rules I can’t serve ya. Go on, git.”

Lance stumbles off, past the supermarket with its rash of security, where matches and lighters are kept behind the counter, back out to the party in the car park in search of a sly grogger and the desperate release his money can’t buy inside. A fight duly erupts. The mags squeal and the women scream as two fellas are dragged away attached to the car. Security looks on glassy-eyed.

At eight on the dot, beneath charcoal skies, the bottlo slams shut, chains on the gate in seconds. The complex sighs and blinks out, but the carparkers rage on late into the night. Behind sturdy compound walls and a sky-high solid steel gate that wears its tags like gang tattoos, we are left to ponder how a place of such beauty can inhabit such pain.

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Red dirt country

This land, this raw-edged end-of-the-world where frills of habitation unfurl, has history. It broils with stories and lore, it is speckled with the patina of the past, and its callous beauty slams the senses.

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This is the red-dirt country of The Kimberley, splayed across WA’s northern reaches with ferocious pride. Beyond Broome, on the northern extremity of the Dampier Peninsula, Cape Leveque succumbs to the ocean in a fit of bleeding intensity, blood red rocks leeching into bone white sand strewn with ragged rocks, a pirate’s curse in paradise…

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Up here The Kimberley Land Council (KLC) represents the traditional owners of the land, with the aim of assisting Indigenous mob in ‘getting country back, caring for country, and securing the future’. The council is charged with the responsibility to do everything in its power to protect traditional land and waters as well as to protect, enhance and gain legal, social and political status for the customs, laws and traditions of the traditional owners. And its doing its job well – parts of the Kimberley have recently been awarded Indigenous protection and have been heritage listed.

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From where I am standing, bathed in the last rays of a setting sun, this country has a greater glory, swathed as it is in the care of its people. An ancient magic settles around me, and, for a landscape so starkly lunar, the Cape has an embrace that is wholly peaceful, almost loving.

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With time at a standstill we could be in any era – past or future – the slough of foaming waves and the ticking of the rocks as they cool our only constants. Fat slabs of black volcanic rock break the sea into splashing frivolity, salty debris litters the sand and as the sun blinks out in a fiery exchange with a bruised horizon we are bathed in pink, a surreal glow that is almost nauseating…

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The notorious Cape Leveque road, a gun-barrel of dirt that borders on mental instability is the reason the peace is so intense. A mere 90kms of back-jolting chassis-smashing pain divides the Cape from the rest of the world. And while we are not afraid of a little dirt, many are. Hence the quiet.

This maniacal streak of red trammels into the distance, insistent, demanding and as vitriolic as a vicious teen. It is littered with wrecks and exploded tyre treads, the rubber curled menacingly in the powdery bulldust as dire reminder, and on the odd occasion you meet a fellow traveller the casual outback wave carries the tremulous quiver of a hope not yet lost.

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Tumbledown joints sit waiting at the end of yet more dirt, protected from visitors by Locals Only signs, corrugations the size of small cars and deep sinks that swallow vehicles whole.

But deep in this primordial spirit world, ringed by bushfires, Middle Lagoon is safe water, a local fishing spot veiled in spicy eucalypt smoke,

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It is prehistoric, an ancient place that begs investigation. After a quick bear hunt – an obligation on empty beaches that howl for the cries of delight of a four year old at play – the Tin Lid and I go in search of shells and fill our pockets and hats and shoes with treasure washed in from the deep.

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The Cowboy meanwhile, after ploughing lines in the sand with glee, gets out the rod and a Burmese fishing skirt:

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He catches nothing but a thirst, though the Tin Lid is most impressed, asking why his dad is throwing back the tiddlers…

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“They’re too little mate, we gotta throw  ’em back in and try and catch a big one”;

There is a pause, a whirring of cogs in a bright little mind:

“But I’m only little Dad, I could have that one for my supper…”

Later, beneath a crinkled moon, we settle in for the night, the sift of the surf and a beach fire our only companions.

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Mean machines and chicky babes

With smoke pluming in lewd balloons from every steel orifice, the fetid flowery sweetness of methanol – a lingering promise of speed – and a vitriolic V8 Armageddon, a battle of sound that clangs righteously as it rides the cooling air, the speedway tangles itself into my subconscious. It feeds a memory as liquor feeds oblivion, of hot nights in a faraway land, my Dad and his mates drinking tinnies beneath the bonnet of a hot rod, 10CC bawling from the 8-track stereo at full bore.

The cowboy’s got the scent too… he knows his way around these events. No matter the class or race, he comes from a long line of hot-rodders, spending taper-thin tar-filled days on the quarter-mile at Eastern Creek, racing, rigging and living life at high velocity, a shortened diff snug between his thighs.

The cowboy's old man and his trusty steed

The cowboy’s old man and his trusty steed

It’s as if we have been called in, slotting seamlessly into a world of metal and fuel, rubber and gas…

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Arriving in Broome from the dirt tracks of the Kimberley, we have been doing a lot of this:

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and plenty of that:

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Our playground is a turquoise coastline fringed in Pindan – the rust red dirt of the Kimberley – sunbaked days knee-deep in rockpools, hot chips, cold beer and salty nights beneath endless skies bivouacked around the fire.

But let’s be honest, in the face of such wholesome wholesomeness the consensus was that a little balance was in order…

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The speedway is the abject celebration of man vs machine, the blast of speed, hollering testosterone, the wanton release and the final ignominy of being dragged through the dirt on a chain. It sparks with cultural references, alight with the high-pitched rumble of AC/DC, of Swan in crumply cans, of hot fireys dolled up in neon reflectives and a full face of makeup – it is the speedway after all…

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Barb’s running commentary crests the whump whump of the centrifugal track, spruiking everything from Auto One to Clarke Rubber, the bain-marie and Broome Cemetary; I can’t help but question if there is a correlation.

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She is excited: rapid-fire annunciation spills from the tannoy and the fireys start making a beeline for the track, schnitzy burgers tucked into deep pockets.

The throaty roar of a V8 snaps our heads up in anticipation and the tension is palpable. The dirt puffs into the air, a choking fog that adds taste to the putrid gas of the burnout cloud that hovers balefully over the track…

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Shiny wrecks howl around the track bucking and butting each other in a parody of Darwinism – here, only the headlong maniacs with ‘real good drivin’ skills, eh?’ and a car that doesn’t fold into pieces survive. Little tuckers are next, knee-high rev-heads slotted into souped-up billycarts that peel in and out of formation on the quarter track, proud parents jockeying for position on the hurricane fencing.

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The Tin Lid has wangled a bright blue Zoopa Doopa and stops his wholesale demolition of it to tell me the bain-marie lady told him the family meal includes:

  • 2 x cheeseburgers
  • 2 x chips
  • 2 x nuggets (of unknown origin)
  • 2 x Zoopa Doopas

We’ll be having hot chips then and pretending we are not really a family…

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A toddler bowls up and down the concrete in the shed pushing a Tonka. He is utterly absorbed, oblivious to the tonnes of metal being flogged through the dirt just metres away, fire flashing from bellies, smoke pouring from arseholes…

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There are tin lids on the prowl everywhere, from nappy-straddling tots to leering teens, stalking the lolly jar while sizing up the beer fridges and each other:

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Ours, though, is more interested in second place and the misappropriation of a Double Diggity Dog cooker. This leads to a confusing moment as I realise he has no idea what a ‘dimmy simmy’ is. This is quickly rectified, in theory rather than in practice.

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The official (the one calling the shots, or at least the tow truck) up there in the box with Barb, is wrapped in shiny black, a motorcross-hatcheted cap pulled down tight over black wraparound sunnies and a mid-shoulder length grey rat’s tail. His shirt reads: Official. 2013. Perhaps the other one is in the wash? Or maybe he’s just a fan of Barb.

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It is he, however, who announces the lolly storm. Pint-sized punters pour towards the track as a lumbering effie – the rescue truck – barrels onto centre-stage. From the back of the tray a couple of young fellas are hurling white paper lolly bags into the crowd that seethes and boils in anticipation, breaking left to curl around the track in hot pursuit. The Tin Lid can hardly believe his little sugared-up eyes and beseeches the Cowboy to assist him. The reward is greater that he could imagine, two paper bags crammed with teeth and milk bottles and snakes, and a stolen moment to gorge himself.

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As the rumble dies down, the children suddenly quiet, Burnout Billy is back. For Billy, the aim is to spin doughnuts in his low-slung not-ever-gonna-be-street-legal mean machine –in a fetching shade of lime – until the tyre pops. Billy is a legend though, and the crowd chew on his smoke as they bellow him on. He gets not one but two, and drags his whooping arse out through the dirt on sparking rims.

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The speedway has a viscous seam of Australiana pulsing through it. As the big guns roll out, throbbing to a bass line that can be heard 10kms away, mobs of spectators flock to their eskies atop utes and trucks decked out in lawn furniture, and parked trackside for your viewing pleasure. This is a passion, a shared love with something for everyone. Kids roam free in the dark, high on lollies, adults lounge in precise formation and the sharp whine of speed continues deep into the night.

Shrouded in smoke, the speedway is a neon-coated sugar-filled beery wonderland.

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A tale of two cities

Australia’s only tropical capital,  Darwin gazes out confidently across the Timor Sea. It’s closer to Bali than Bondi, and many from the southern states still see it as some frontier outpost… But Darwin is a surprisingly affluent, cosmopolitan, youthful and multicultural city, thanks in part to an economic boom fuelled by the mining industry and tourism. It’s a city on the move but there’s a small-town feel and a laconic, relaxed vibe that fits easily with the tropical climate.

                                                                Lonely Planet, 2014

The last time I was in Darwin it was 1998. My world was aflame with anarchy, and I spent my time stomping solidarity into the dirt at Jabiluka, in protest against the threat of a sister uranium mine for Ranger. The wetlands of Kakadu, to the east of Darwin, and the Mirarr people whose land it is, face an ongoing battle with the deadly removal of yellowcake, though there are significantly fewer protest buses to help these days…

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In town, our days were spent parked up beneath the shade of the pepper trees on the Esplanade, toes curled into still-damp buffalo grass, brewing up tea in the billy, lounging, laughing and alive with the heady fervour of our campaign. At night, catching stars in longnecks, we would sleep on the grass until the rangers’ devious 5am sprinkler plot to move us on forced a retreat to the back of the Falcon.

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It didn’t matter that you couldn’t swim in the ocean; the seedy yet strangely exotic confines of the Hotel Darwin, a colonial dear who struggled with her hearing, brimmed with salt water and draught beer, potted palms giddy sentries that lolled against time-worn walls. Her crackly pool cradled hot bodies flush with Thursday’s dole cheque, and her patina was flecked with hiccuping shadows as the sun fell into the sea.

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Or we would drive out to the cool green waters of Howard Springs, a red-dirt slash deep in the jungle 35kms south of the city, and sink into a waterhole teeming with barramundi the size of small crocs that would brush up against our pimpled skin with lascivious delight.

Now? Like a sullen teen in a skin-tight dress and heels too high, Darwin is all show and no substance, her flesh exposed yet promising nothing. The Esplanade is off limits, save for a bikers’ meeting fringed with TRG (Territory Response Group, a tactical police division with a reputation that snarls). Howard Springs is barred to swimmers, a tacky playground for the kids where the fish look mournfully up sensible skirts. And the city skyline is cleaved in two by towering cranes that vibrate with the angry buzz of machinery from below.

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Darwin has its toes in the saltwater and its ears in the dirt. The nuances of its character have been forged by the tough-as-guts mentality of a people who thrive in this remote outback space, surrounded by water too dangerous to take a dip in, survivors of Japanese air raids during World War II and a cyclone that levelled the town in 1974 (Tracy, you bitch). They have a reputation for stoic understatement; “yip, it was blowy…”

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Herald Sun

But the muscly brawls and stubbied banter I remember has been replaced. The Hotel Darwin was the victim of concrete cancer they say, though in a curious coincidence the demolition crew came in just 24 hours before the heritage order was slapped on her creaking frame, razing her to the ground to make way for a tourist village, which is, at its best, oxymoronic.

And the seditious lawlessness that holds hands so coyly with frontier towns the world over seems to have been cold shouldered, dropped in favour of cosmopolitan gated living and frozen yoghurt.

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There is art beneath the cranes, and there are glimpses of the glory that is the tropics:

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There is tasty looking wildlife:

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and more art:

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But this brash young thing is all about the glitz and the glamour of her newest attractions, from the neon holler of the waterfront precinct – STEP RIGHT UP FOLKS, PLENTY TO SEE HERE! HURL YOURSELF INTO THE TREATED WATER! NO NASTIES! YES! WE HAVE FROZEN YOGHURT! AND A WAVE POOL! AND BANDY-LEGGED SECURITY WHO WILL ENSURE YOU ARE CONTAINED AND SOBER AT ALL TIMES! WHAT COULD BE BETTER? – with its metallic sand and murky depths, plastic tat and high-rise prices,

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To her overly expressive signage, for those with little imagination I assume.

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Somethings remain steadfastly Territorian:

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And on a night out on the tiles the Cowboy and I glean more about Darwin’s botched facelift. A fella who does hair and his pretty Indo girl (fabulous hair) talk of excess, of salons across the Territory, Asian brides, fast lives and digging up Bagot Road just to use up the cash that is splashed around by the government.

Sipping genteelly from a fishbowl of lurid liquor, Damon explains that the Territory belongs to Canberra. It is wholly owned. So there’s little chance of a recession here, propped up as it is by the government, the military, tourism and mining. That also means no self-governance, but who needs that when there are rickshaws peddled by long-legged scantily-clad backpackers and late licenses and an armada of tacky hotels that breach the Esplanade like a badly steered invading fleet?

And really, who doesn’t like a gas mine off the coast, what with its dutiful employment record and killer profits?

At least Mindil Beach hasn’t changed much, with its smoky tang and bubbling lilt, the heady brew of a cosmopolitan society who still throng to watch the sunset over Fannie Bay:

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And the sprinklers still work:

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There are moments that are ripe with the past – the girl with bi-polar and a sad story shares her chips beneath the whine of Baby Don’t Hurt Me; squaddies bail up a ringer in for a big one and shout him a night on the piss; Jesse, curled into a ball, sleeps beneath his ute, the healer in the back on guard; and an old fella invites us to go crabbing at Lee Point, “but mek sure youse brings plastic feet eh? Der’s crocs up der” – but mostly the city is concrete and steel, sapped of memory, its faded glory lost to the shadows cast by progress.

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Heading inland, away from this flirtatious fringe with its skyscrapers and sun loungers, the sky reveals a ancient horizon. I can’t help but think that Darwin, with her blowsy revamp and hefty shopping allowance, has turned into a spoilt little rich girl, pearls dripping from freshly shot ears and diamonds on the souls of her shoes where once bare feet and a broad smile sufficed. More is the pity. 

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The road out of town