In a big country.
Everything is big these days. Big meals. Big games. Big news. Big risks. Bigger promises, backed by bigger lies. And today’s big is much bigger than yesterday’s, and will be much smaller than tomorrow’s. Yesterday’s big TV will be tomorrow’s phone screen. Everything is so big, and hence so uniformly forgettable, that when you come face to face with things of genuinely enormous magnitude it takes you by surprise.
Four and half hours out of Melbourne airport and I’m still in Australia. For much of that time the view down from the window has shown nothing but red soil and rock pocked hills running off into the distance. The flight path to Darwin takes you over Australia’s red centre, over lands that are some of the most thinly populated in the world. For the most part, over landscapes not riven by the familiar comfort of road or rail. The straight and narrow of human transport is missing – instead the land is broken only by lines of stone and the transitions of geology and climate.
A flight across the heart of Australia, from southern Melbourne to northern Darwin, gives you more than enough time to think about the real meaning of the word ‘big’. Four hours and more of flying gives a sense of scale that is often missing in the simple facts and figures.
But in this case, the facts and figures are almost enough by themselves.
If the Northern Territory, with Darwin as its capital, sat alone as a country it would be the 20th largest in the world. Larger than France. Larger than Germany. Almost six times larger than the United Kingdom. Countries that stride the world stage with a confidence disproportional to their size would slip easily into the coat pockets of the Northern Territory – assuming it even got cold enough there to need a coat.
You don’t ever really get a feel for how crowded a place is until you go somewhere essentially empty. About 240,000 people live in the Northern Territory, with more than half of these people living in Darwin. Reading in the UK, Geelong in Australia and Glendale in Arizona have the about the same population as the entire NT. The part of Somerset in which I was born also has a similar population, packed into are area 1/380,000th of the size of the NT – and it never struck me as crowded! Such numbers, such disparities of scale, are almost beyond comprehension. I was born into a place of classic rural Englishness, small woodlands, streams that flooded in winter but ran all year thanks to regular rain and fields of almost incandescent greenness. There were always villages and people just over the hill, or waiting in the valley bottoms. There were four seasons, which changed with a kind of fluid predictability. Sun in summer, dull rain and sometimes snow in the winter. Spring with a riot of new green and migrant birds. Autumn with leaf colours, conkers and the first touches of frost. You were never far from rain. The seasons behaved themselves and made sense. They mirrored the stories in books and on the TV.
But around Darwin there are only really two seasons - a wet one and a dry one. Talk of spring or winter is little more than an attempt to force a round southern peg into a northern square hole. I arrive well into the dry. Temperatures in the early morning are cool, but by the afternoon it’s an energetic version of warm. You need a hat, but not for warmth. Cool water is better than hot chocolate – although tea in the morning is still welcome. This is not winter in any way that makes sense.
I fidget in my seat, watching the land from the air, my book lodged in the seat pocket, ignored. I cannot settle. Too many thoughts. Too much anticipation. Ideas roll around my head, like marbles on a table or stones on a wave washed beach. Only when these ideas collide does anything new form. Ideas as impacts and sand; percussive and shifting. Long distance adventures and the wonderful smallness of home. Summer in January. Seasons as rainfall. Fire as a maker creator not a destroyer. A land that has been walked on and known for 60,000 years or maybe longer, making a mockery of the idea of emptiness or wilderness. A place beloved of myth makers and interveners. A place that, for much of the time, is ignored and for many (myself included) remains essentially unknown.
This is a different kind of north.
On the first evening in Darwin I walk in a park by the water. A long hem of green stitched between the city and the sea. The path wanders, meanders even, through benched viewpoints and flowering trees. The piles of clothes and football themed bags stacked under the benches speak of something I cannot see. Directly opposite my hotel is a War Memorial, simultaneously saying that we will remember, and reminding us not to forget. Blank stonewalls wait on either side of the memorial for more names to be added: virgin pasture where the ambitions of old men can be sown with the blood of the young. A couple sit on the steps, eating takeaway from cardboard cartons. The air smells of cigarette smoke, beer and fried food. I don’t know if this is disrespect or the kind of freedom that was hoped for by the names engraved on the walls around them.
The evening is warm and the sea adds salt to the mix. Below the bushes, off to the side of the path, in the dust and the weeds, a family of Double Barred Finches beg for food and squabble in a feathery heap. Orange-footed Scrubfowl mine beneath the larger trees. With pointed heads and fast moving feet they search for food in the mulch. Dig and look, dig and look. As the light fades small groups of people begin to gather under trees, loose groups that talk in a language I can’t follow. Bright lights flare in cupped hand and the sea breeze pushing flame and smoke away from their dark faces. This is a vision of Australia that I rarely see. My leafy suburban home is a world away from here.
In the dark before the next dawn, I walk back out through the gates of my hotel. The groups of people are still there, some sleeping, some standing by the sea wall - silhouettes cast against the pale of the sea sky. I can’t help but wonder how many times this scene has played itself out. And it surprises me still that in my life time the original people of Australia were still excluded from any formal census. We can protect, even explain, the actions of those who came before us by saying that ‘things were different then’. But the lack of humanity needed to dismiss people as being no more than part of the fauna of the continent defies belief.
I find such thoughts, such observations, hard to bear. They weigh me down when they occur – I have no idea how the people who carry the real consequences of such things manage to do so. Some statistics would suggest that they do not.
The line of light between sea and sky has widened a little, though the streets are dark away from the pools of lamplight. In the fig trees that flank the road birds squabble and bats talk. Walking back towards the light of the hotel gate I hope the day will bring clarity of thought – or at least the stillness in which new things can grow.
A brightly lit four-wheel drive wagon pulls up, the pale hull of a boat following like a metal tail. Fishing rods waggle over the stern of the boat, like antennae or whiskers. The wagon is cleaner than any fishing vehicle I have ever seen; no smell of bait, no half eaten lunches or abandoned coffee cups. No scatter of hook packets or boxes of lead weights. It’s shocking really. But it does give everyone more legroom, and you don’t have to drive with the windows open.
Soon the road opens into the kind of straightness that signifies open spaces and far-flung places. A few roadside wallabies hop away from the lights of the wagon and an owl, otherwise unidentified, drifts through the beams. Away from the sea the night seems to have crept back, so that it is darker than before and the line between sky and land fades to ambiguity. The headlights drown out the stars and we drive in a bubble of light in the darkness.
Up ahead, a pale glow reveals itself as a truck stop where we pull in to buy functional coffee and ugly but delicious bacon rolls. Putting the coffee in a cup holder in the wagon it feels like a small desecration. We turn left from the bitumen road onto one of gravel and dust. The wheels clatter chunk over bumps and the coffee in the cup vibrates in sympathy. By the time we reach the water I can see clear arches of dirt on the windscreen where the wipers have caused an otherwise unseen change.
As the boat is readied, I walk down to the jetty where other craft are tied up. A large dragonfly, not yet sun warmed, perches on a branch that reaches down to grab my hat. In the distance a flock of Magpie Geese take wing; hundreds of birds, maybe more, like smoke on the horizon. There is a faint chill in the air; like a memory of something that has yet to happen. Wisps of smoky vapour lift from the water and disappear into nothingness in the air. A communication between the two great oceans of water – the liquid and the gas. Blocky boats, drawn from the simplest parts of both house and boat hold fast to moorings, ungainly, their sides wrapped in two forms of water. A state change where things become new, but stay the same.
If water had a memory, what would be its dream state? Would it hark back to the crystalline order of ice? The disorder of liquid water in which all things are found? Would it long for the space filling capacity of gas, where it could be everywhere at all times, and still be absent? And what of me? Would I also hark back to some time past or does the dream state lie ahead? How long would I have to wait here to find the answers to the questions?
I realise that somebody is calling my name. The cascade of thoughts breaks off and I walk away from the jetty and towards our boat.
For me, fishing is about silence and repetition – the cast and recast, and the quiet observation are hypnotic, therapeutic. So it comes as a disappointment that today we will be trolling for fish. A lure is towed behind the boat, concentrating on fishy looking areas; it is not the most energetic way to fish. I have heard this method likened to looking for a lost golf ball with a lawn mower – you just drive about, backwards and forwards, until you collide with your target. This may be unfair – and the need to flick the rod tip every 10 seconds or so does add a sense of rhythm, but it feels very passive. Two fish come to the boat, neither to me and a third is lost. The sky lightens to full blue and I continue to troll. No more fish come to the hook and we seem not to be able to try anything different – maybe there is no need, maybe the fish really are not in the mood, maybe it’s just me and my confused thoughts putting the fish off the feed.
We are fishing in Corroboree Billabong, an off-shoot of the Mary River. We meet no more fish and but many crocodiles. The first is disappointing, the second predictable, as these waters hold more crocodiles than anywhere else in the whole of Australia. They rise from the riverbed – logs come to life – and swim off through the clear water. They thrash away from the surface of weed beds, disturbed by the boat and they bask in the sun on muddy banks – solar panels with teeth. If find myself valuing the stability and space of the boat.
If the fishing is slow then the wildlife is more than compensation. As the waters of last season’s rain run out and off to the sea the wildlife of the top end gathers around the shrinking waterholes and falling rivers. There still seems to be plenty of water in the Billabong, but the level is the best part of three metres lower than its peak. At high water this is an inland sea of fresh water – spreading landscape wide as far as the eye can see. It would surely be a thing to witness.
Dragonflies are now thick over the lily patches, flycatchers flash past and Rainbow Bee-eaters hunt from flowered watch-posts. The hunter becomes the hunted as a bee-eater catches a large dragonfly and subdues it by smashing it, hard and often, onto a branch. The diversity is remarkable, the food webs uncertain.
We eat lunch sat in the boat, tied below a tree, shaded by the branches and the number of Kites that sit on them; a congregation of birds of prey, hoping to share some part of our lunch. In the water Sooty Grunter snatch slowly sinking pieces of bread, but ignore our lures. Lunch spot fish educated beyond the tricks of my amateur hour castings. Out-foxed by a fish.
We keep trolling and the fish keep staying away. Sea Eagles wait, also unfulfilled, for a fish to show itself. High in the trees the eagles have the best view of the water and we have the best view of them. I assume that in the long run the eagles will always out-fish the people. Kingfishers do the same. Nature is waving at me and laughing; it has a valid point.
Eventually the fishing comes to an end – one last troll, one last hope for collision, but nothing happens. The fish have won, and I have seen more than enough to keep me happy: the dawn mist alone made the early start worthwhile. All else is a bonus.
I return to my hotel fishless but happy.
On the grass across the road there are still groups of people who I do not know how to reach. Some small part of the happiness drains away. It’s a different kind of north and it needs a different kind of response.