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…

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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

Proddy dogs and tormented souls

When the Tin Lid was tiny we would walk the boundaries of our world together, just me, him and his bawling insistence at life.

Number 22 Hillcrest Street would sometimes still his wailing. His scrunched-up eyelids would unfurl to reveal baby blues that gazed at the decaying gates that barely contained a jungly fervour. Whatever it was that stilled his fury I will never know, but perhaps it was the ghost of a nine-year-old girl whose name was Anne.

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The daughter of Richard Way, who built Lymerston House as a family home in 1842/43, her memory is conserved in a window of the Anglican church at St Peters and still shines brightly on a cloudless day, a fitting memorial to a child of the light.

I don’t know how she died and I haven’t seen the window, but when I venture in to number 22 on an afternoon bearing shards of violent light from the belly of bruised clouds, something shifts curiously in the dusty innards of a once grand home.

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It’s a clearance auction, no reserves, no buyer’s premium, a lot sale flecked with post-it notes. And I am not alone despite a singular lack of other viewers.

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There is a stirring, an implacable sense of something else, a restless energy that whorls around me in curious curls of ether and sparkling light. It is at odds with the dour consecration that weighs heavily on the building; of the eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, large kitchen, formal dining room, anterooms and more, the star of the show is the inner chapel, which gives the property its bulbous Anglican nose and crystalline showers of light.

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Moribund velvet sags over furniture from the yard sale of life, representative of every era and redolent of guest house giveaways. Scratchy lace curtains twitch nosily at the outside world, rubbing up against etched glass and flaking paint complete with sticky fingerprints. It doesn’t take much to imagine the curious eyes that peered from here…

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A woman sidles up to me as I am clocking the world below:

They used to call out ‘proddy dogs!’ to us whenever we walked past”,

she whispers. Who? I enquire…

“Them bloody tykes, that’s who. Never did like ’em. Used to stand right where you’re standing and shout out the window at us in our school uniforms till the nuns dragged ’em away, scolding ’em at the top of their voices, screeching really.”

Utterly confused, I ask the proddy dog if she will elaborate. It turns out after Richard Way died in 1872, the staunchly Anglican Lymerston House was acquired first by the government to house rail workers as the rail line was built, and then by the Sisters of Mercy, a catholic order that is defined by its enduring allegiance to Catherine McAuley, the first merciful sister.

And God no doubt.

They also ran the convent as a catholic school while Tempe High was being built.

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No less confused, I wander off to unravel the tangled thread of history that weaves its way through this sighing place. Being secular in nature I am not sure if the iconography I see is of one team or the others:

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And some is perhaps of a more domestic ilk:

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Needless to say, it is not the trappings of tortured/ saved souls that intrigues me but the light that shafts through the space like a rapier, dancing and vibrating with glee.

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It is a dream-like phantasmagoria of ephemeral form, flitting and quivering around my every movement. It adds a warmth and humour to the stern austerity that resides here still, as if giggling at the premise that the house could be anything but a playground for a child.

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In 1982 Lymerston House was purchased again and reborn as the Kriskindl Residential Education Centre and Guest House. There is no information as to the teachings of the residential education centre but the reviews of the guest house are illuminating:

“There were notices everywhere warning guests that infringement of rules would necessitate a fine. Warning signs were also posted to the effect that residents in various rooms were on night shift and guests were to be quiet. It was then we realised that this was not a guest house in our understanding but a hostel which housed permanent guests as well as taking in the budget traveller. The permanent guests were a dour lot and obviously did not take kindly to the temporary guests.”

 

“I called the owner and picked me up on time and warmly welcomed me. The difference, he is a good christian. I like the environment, affordable for those that can not afford luxury. Basics provided.”
http://www.tripadvisor.com.au/

Described variously as ‘bleak’, ‘honest’, ‘unrelenting’ and ‘frankly terrifying’, Kriskindl did little to live up to its Secret Santa moniker, though I suspect there was hidden meaning in its religious symbology. It certainly explains the untethered furniture, shuffling off its mortal coil one spring at a time, and darkened corners crammed with hoover parts and plastic cups.

But nothing explains the ghostly presence that is following me cheerfully. My mind tells me it is a trick of the light but deep within me I recognise the soul of a child who playfully tugs at my conscience.

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An Anglican home converted into a convent before housing the weary beneath the moniker of Christ’s child (Chriskind is the German for Christ-child and the likely origin of Kriskindl), Lymerston House has played many parts, but my money’s on the playground for a little girl whose life was cut short but whose spirit plays on.

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See you around Anne Way.

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Another one bites the dust

It was the Tin Lid who found the passageway, cowering behind a pile of poles, neglected and long unknown. It is the  green mile for a old girl losing herself to the times, a concrete snicket snuck between towering walls dank and abandoned. We ducked beneath meaty railway sleepers stacked and forgotten, over rusted manholes and between discarded shards of life…

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What we found was the relic of a memory, the fading glow of nostalgia dispersing softly into empty air, no-one to hear. I don’t know who once lived here, though I can guess at the sound of ready laughter, the scent of rollies and nag champa and cheap snags, the clink of toothbrush mugs brimming with Fruity Lexia and the rabble of joy at the end of a long night on King Street.

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I can taste the stolen lust of a pool-room hook-up, the splash of pizza grease on a tatty sleeve that gets you through till lunch, and grazing for food at Newtown’s happy hour haunts. I can hear the opening strains to the midday movie, the slam and rattle of a favourite track and the crinkle of hot water hitting instant coffee.

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I remember lost afternoons adrift in a sea of marigold green, limpid skies that stretch to forever, and long nights of venal delight roaming in packs along wholly owned streets and in bars that bawl and titter with conspiratorial vim.

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And I sense the familiarity, that innate understanding that life can wait – there’s living to be done.

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In the fading breath of a dying life the ghosts of the past are ripe. Fat veins of memory pulse with propriety while the deeper recesses crank out serotonin-laced recollection, hazy chapters with happy endings. Words clatter into my mind, sodden with the past: the Oxford and its sticky carpet; a snort of tequila from the depths of the gutter; a pride of marchers howling righteous discontent; a velour sofa, home to a family of four on a summer’s night. Light spilling from open doorways, no need for an invitation; sprawling across a robber’s grave drinking in the moonlight that blankets the cemetery; a vigil beneath I Have a Dream

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Those days are gone my son…

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And the remembered corners of the city will be sold to the highest bidder, reams of DA notices papering over the folds of history.

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The former glory of this happy realm lies dormant, waiting for its next incarnation, “prime commercial units that front a nineteen-unit four-storey build” like a gap-toothed wallflower dreading the slow songs.

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Show’s over folks, the fat lady has sung.

 

 

 

 

The last resort

Scabby-kneed little sister of the cheap hotel, the motel is generally a masterpiece in peeling paint, clogged sinks, cigarette-burned nylon bed covers and cat-sized roaches.

Cast in the pall of a flickering neon light, with seedy characters skulking in corners, motels wear their atmosphere like a moth-eaten velour death shroud – horror, crime, sex, violence, losers, misfits and hapless humour stains of life in a rundown joint that time has forgotten.

It is the scene for lusty teens charging experimental fumblings to their parent’s credit card and hapless hookers leading their johns back to fake pine laminate and a buzzing lightbulb; it can be the tatty home of resolute despair, a dank weariness infecting all who sleep there. Perhaps even the last resort.

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Tip-top spot to take the Tin Lid then.

Decked out in trakky daks and sun hats, boardies, rashies, a smear of zinc and a stash of sunnies in varying degrees of able-bodiedness, we hit Thirroul, a lazy stretch of surf just south of the Royal National Park between Austinmer and Bulli, and its infamous beach motel. Once known as the Oral Eagle Motel (though why is unknown), the joint is the last resting place of Brett Whiteley, who slipped from this mortal realm in the smooth yet unrelenting grip of a heroin overdose on 15 June 1992, aged 53.

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Much was reported at the time:

 His squalid death in room four of the Beach Hotel

The coroner’s verdict was ‘death due to self-administered substances’

But this is my favourite – it seems to say so much more than the others, that perhaps the end was well-flavoured:

On the bedside table is a near-empty bottle of Lang’s Supreme Whiskey…

And as luck would have it, we are in room four. There are no ghosts. No Lang’s Supreme by the bed. Just some unprepossessing art and ‘contemporary’ finishes. I take a picture of a picture of a 4WD raging up a beach for the Cowboy, deep in the knowledge he will appreciate this.

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And then we hit the sand in a flurry of small feet, the Tin Lid joined for the jaunt by his besties, two dark-haired beauties whose sisterly bond has stretched to include him. There is a requirement for chocolate Paddle Pops, accompanied by deep sighs of patient waiting:

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The crackling, squeaking sand shifts with impatience, enticing us down to the edge, where the world falls away in a plume of spray.

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Slung between the steep foothills of the Illawarra Escarpment and the surging Pacific, Thirroul is an exposed beach and reef break shafted with rips and thumpingly reliable surf. It also has rocks, sharks and bluebottles, quicksand, drop-offs and a pool-pipe outlet. 

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The Tin Lids play safe, back from the edge, happy to watch mobs of neon-suited surf lifesavers cresting waves in rubber duckies, exhilaration foaming in their wake, and the laden bulk of a container ship as it hauls itself towards a distant horizon.

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The beach is a glorious indictment of Australiana, rich in a raw pride that is wreathed in a sense of weathered gratitude. An old fella sits up from his sandy slumber and calls out to the Tin Lids: “Youse ‘aven a good time kids? Good beach ‘eh? You tell ’em, come to Thirroul, it’s a good place. Right?”

Flocks of gulls soar and dive, stiffening less-than-hot chips their object of affection. The lazy M-A-T-E  M-A-T-E of their call to arms hangs in the air, feathers drifting on the breeze like snow. Miss Woo points out that the seagulls are not listening to her. The Tin Lid replies, “that’s ‘cos they don’t have ears…”

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But best of all, the southern end of the sands are home to this:

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and this:

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and these:

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Rusting into dereliction, flakes of iron burnt black by the tide, the pipes strain to be free of the pastel pumphouse that stands sentinel over craggy rocks. Like aging arteries, the pipes funnel water, that clangs impatiently at its enforcement, to and fro from the ocean to the pool, a salty circulatory system that booms and hisses like a caged beast.

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But it is the striated rocks, striped with ochre, that hold magic for the little people, an adventure waiting to happen. Bottle tops, nets, sand crabs and bailer twine, stones, sticks, shells and sand are soon treasure to be claimed and bartered, the highest rocky pinnacles a crows nest that gazes out to a stormy sea full of marauding pirates…

It takes some time to entice them from their realm…

But promises of hot chips of icy cold lemonade sift through the myopia, and the tribe are on the move again, hot-footing it up a cooling beach, long shadows damp underfoot.

In changing rooms that sigh nostalgically of the past, wet swimmers slap on the floor and hot-chip eating attire is shrugged on over wet shoulders.

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And after a cursory glance at the ocean pool, a still-life in dappled light, we hit the street with sun-tight skin.

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The pub is mottled in neon candy – screeching peach, lime soda and acid lemon float around perma-tanned bodies atop towering heels that stab the worn boards with staccato precision. It’s a girls’ night out, stiff with perfume and high-pitched crescendo. The surfers are looking up though, faces bright with anticipation of the chase…

But sated at last, the little people are finally in need of a little motel dreaming, so we weave our way past an eclectic rabble of consumerism, including these little gems:

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The Tin Lid’s Nana remembers Thirroul in 1945, a day-tripper’s delight; “bowling down the Bulli Pass in a ’39 Chev with seven people, picnic baskets, blankets, soggy salad sarnies and homemade ginger beer that popped in the bag in the boot”.

His memories will be of the motel, with its sachets of sauce, sprinkles of sugar in a pushed-together bed and jam sandwiches in the middle of the night. Of waking to find his mother slouched out the front of the darkened room, sipping a glass of blood-red wine on the forecourt. Of sand in the shower, a bright-eyed dawn and hot concrete.

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With my back to the still-warm wall of room four, the Beach Motel gives me a deep sense of comfort as it cradles my boy back to sleep. Its retro facade and lurid tales lend a sense of the macabre, of a joint that time forgot. But time is here; it is languid and slow, and stretched gossamer thin as the light dies.

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RIP Mr Whiteley.

A glory of women

In need of a little respite, the kind you can’t find at the bottom of a bottle of red, I find myself flip-flopping tired feet to the women’s baths at Coogee.

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A place so imbued with peace it remains shrouded in the echoey corners of your mind when you need it most, McIver’s Baths are a sacred watery idyll brimming with 50s kitsch queens, burgeoning bellies ripe with new life, the spiced lilt of Arabic as it curls through salty air and sun-baked skin.

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Clinging to a scarred eyrie – part cliff face, part rocky outpost smack between Coogee Beach and the nautical striped awnings of Wylies Baths – and a one-time traditional bathing place for Indigenous women, McIver’s is the last women’s-only seawater pool left in Australia.

Elizabeth Dobbie Sydney Morning Herald

Elizabeth Dobbie
Sydney Morning Herald

Built in 1886 the baths have soothed the souls of countless women, from those who come to worship the dawn to decked-out day-trippers pulling a sickie, and those of us who need a gasp of ocean rehabilitation, to fill our lungs until they ache and sink our minds into cool salty depths.

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Squalls of kids (under 13 if they are boys) frolic in the limpid shallows as matriarchs motor past under full sail, their destination a slow and steady 20 lengths. Woman bask on the rock walls, glistening with sea water and contentment. Rogue waves courtesy of a king tide sidle up and boom into the pool eliciting squeals of joy or a tut of annoyance, and the scents of tobacco and coconut, perfume, salt and the fine dust of Lily of the Valley talc mingle deliciously.

A luxurious flock migrate to this sanctuary, their chatter echoing along the rock walls and slinking to the surf. A clatter of nonnas sit playing cards at the entrance, tasty pastry chocking up their elbows; a bearded lady preens herself, splayed in her nudity; a sisterhood of shrouded beauties quickly divest themselves of their sheltering, flicking long, dark hair in anticipation of the cool, safe depths; and a zealous snorkeler, hiking boots slung over a purposeful shoulder strips down commando style. 

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The swells and curves of the female form are many and varied, a nubile tribe unfettered by responsibility and care, though there is much in evidence. The pool mirrors their form, an extended limb of land curls around the soft swell of a rock belly that is caressed by the ocean. On the flat caramel rock shelf, pockmarked by time and sluiced by the ocean, women lounge like carnival seals, splashes of vermillion, indigo and pearl and the smooth hairless planes of their bodies lending an exotic melee to this ancient coastline.

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They share their roost with time and tradition, Amphitrite‘s pool long considered a sacred space. Originally it may have been a bogey (swimming) hole or Aboriginal fish trap and it is believed that the colonial population of the greater Sydney region followed established Aboriginal practices of segregated bathing at Coogee when they developed male and female-only baths.

I can’t help but wonder what the Indigenous dreaming is here. What is evident is that for each and every woman or child who finds their way to the baths, it is the realisation of a personal dream, be it a slice of space or time, deep peace or raucous chatter, a ritual unveiling, shared stories, communal food, a sisterhood, motherhood, childhood or absolution and healing.

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The baths are named after Robert and Rose McIver, who began operating them in 1918 and developed them into the form they are today after their young daughter was not permitted into the men’s club down the road.

With Mina Wylie, Bella O’Keefe and other swimming legends, Rose McIver established the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Amateur Swimming Club in 1923 and to this day the club operates the baths and maintains their exemption from the 1995 NSW Anti-Discrimination Act.

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Overlooking Wedding Cake Island and the stretch of the coast as it winds south, the baths are a glorious exemption to the helter-skelter pace of contemporary life. It costs just 20c to enter and patrons are trusted to chuck the shiny silver into a plastic bin. There is no kiosk, no vending machine and no hot water. What there is is a library of books and a lifetime of stories, a grassy slope, sunbaked rocks and the rhythmic swell of the ocean.

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The straining of time is taught across a toned and trim reality here, a too-tight waistband, courtesy of gentle indulgence, that snags and worries. The generations slide into each other – a gentle word here, a friendly smile there – and you can almost believe the world is standing still, patiently waiting for you to jump back in, slick, salty and alive.

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Lollapalooza

I have often wondered, gazing at the last vestiges of retro kitsch straddling Enmore Road, just what the story was behind Marie Louise’s salon, its tin-pressed lilac and candy-pink front a beguiling enticement to pressed-nose window-gazing.

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Turns out, its a lollapalooza, a tale that ties itself into pretty bows and tangles of twine to hold up wayward pants slung low on skinny hips. It’s a story of spirit – of strength of character; of ghostly ephemera that quiver in shafts of light; and rum, knocked back with a grizzle on a cold night.

Shrouded in legacy and sticky dust, time has stood still for this 50s beauty queen, a landmark for the retro, vintage and rockabilly subculture of the inner west. An accidental museum, while the doors were closed and the shop shut the window display was occasionally tweaked, a foil wig added, a chintzy ornament repositioned, all by an invisible hand.

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So, needless to say, when the doors opened for two days, “stickybeaks and instagrammers welcome”, my usual view was reversed

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and I gazed curiously back at myself.

The Marie Louise salon was run by siblings, Nola and George Mezher, who started working in the salon in the late 1950s. Both were hairdressers and became public figures in the early 1980s with their almost half-million-dollar Lotto win, their lucky numbers the Saints’ birthdays.

Michael Amodelia Photography

Michael Amendolia Photography

George and Nola used their money to set up the Our Lady of Snows on the corner of Pitt Street and Eddy Avenue, on the fringe of Belmore Park in the city, a refuge for a straggly mass of lost souls, and a soup kitchen with table service. They divided their time between the salon and cooking, serving, shopping and cleaning for Our Lady. Well, their lady really, and the beloved lady of hundreds of Sydney’s homeless community.

Fairfax Media

Fairfax Media

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Dishing it up

Nola died in 2009, and since then George has tended the window display. Until now. Today it’s all for sale, a dollar here, a dollar there. I wish I knew if George was OK with this dismantling of his work, enamoured hands clutching at relics of the past to be cherished long into the future. I also wonder where George is.

Back in the day, live models perched in the bug-eyed window seats, chugging plonk and smoking durries. A rabble of grannies smeared in Fanci-full rinse hooted with delight at gossip that writhed and squirmed in its own deliciousness, while the acrid scent of perm solution, hairspray and hot air would accost passers-by in an exotic fug, chemical warfare in slingbacks.

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Today, the only thing missing are the customers, replaced by wide-eyed hipsters, dreamers of dreams and urban scavengers, all curiously quiet in this one-time den of raucous insalubrity. And while the stickybeaks stream through the doors to glimpse this cornucopia of kitsch sentimentality it is upstairs and out the back that I find treasure.

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Light streams into the space causing the shadows to sigh and slide. It gives the impression of being watched, a curious trick of illumination in a space long dark. Dust mites sprinkle the air, shafts of sunlight catch on insipid remains, and scraps of a lost life twinkle deliriously in their revelation.

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In mulish contrast to the frenetic wonderland of the salon, the living quarters remain stark and simple, a utilitarian space with little adornment save for the light, the hero of the show… (and a dedication to pastel hues)

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In the steeped quiet of this solitary space I can taste the resigned loneliness that coats the walls and floor. Windows are lid-less eyes that peer myopically into an unknown world that canters ahead and unseats this old rider, leaving him legs akimbo and alone.

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I don’t know when these walls lost their people: the bed is a little rumpled and the phone directory is open on a pizza joint that no longer exists. There is post from a couple of years ago and a mobile phone cover that cost $4.99 from Paddy’s.

But in this empty space George’s spirit courses through the air, surfing waves of light. Wherever he is, today he and Nola are remembered.

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In 1983, George and Nola were awarded the Order of Australia for their services to the community, after establishing 14 suburban refuges throughout Sydney. Their dedication to others was astounding – a way of giving back to a country that had been good to them they said.

Clutching three lolly-bright 50s melamine ice-cream dishes as if they might be ripped from my grip at any second by a rabid collector or a counter-culture revolutionary intent on wearing them as earrings, I cannot shake the feeling that Nola and George are watching on benevolently, seeing their generosity appreciated even in their absence.

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To George and Nola: thank you.