In a big country

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 western transport is missing – instead, the land is broken only by lines of stone and the transitions of geology and climate.

The flight from Melbourne in the south to Darwin in the north. Image: Stewart Monckton

A flight across the heart of Australia, from southern Melbourne to northern Darwin, gives more than enough time to think about the real meaning of the word ‘big’. Four hours and more of flying provides 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 twentieth 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 that seems empty. About 240,000 people live in the NT, with more than half of these people living in Darwin. Reading in the UK, Geelong in Australia and Glendale in Arizona each have about the same population as the entire NT. The part of Somerset in which I was born also has a similar population, packed into an 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 the arrival of 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.

Darwin Harbour. Image: Stewart Monckton

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 like sand; percussive and shifting. Long distance adventures and the wonderful smallness of home. Summer in January. Seasons as rainfall. Fire as a creator, not a destroyer. A land that has been walked on and known for 60,000 years or longer, making a mockery of the idea of emptiness or wilderness. A place that was often ignored by the Europeans, and for many (myself included) remains essentially unknown.

This is a different kind of north.

Darwin War Memorial. Image: Stewart Monckton

On the first evening in Darwin I walk through a park by the sea; 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 hands and the sea breeze pushes flame and smoke away from their faces. This is a vision of Australia that I rarely see. My leafy suburban home is a world away from here.

Double-barred Finches. Image: Stewart Monckton
Orange-footed Scrubfowl. Image: Stewart Monckton

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.

Early dawn light. Image: Stewart Monckton

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’s 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 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.

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.

Boats moored along Corroboree Billabong. Image: Stewart Monckton

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 ten 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 but many, many crocodiles. The first is disappointing, the second predictable; if there is a place in Australia that is the centre for all things crocodilian then this must be it. 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 bask in the sun on muddy banks – solar panels with teeth. I find myself valuing the stability and space of the boat.

The smoky vapour over Corroboree Billabong. Image: Stewart Monckton

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, a landscape spreading 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.

Rainbow Bee-eater. Image: Stewart Monckton

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 Grunters snatch slowly sinking pieces of bread, but ignore our lures; 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.

This article was originally published on Stewart’s blog, Paying Ready Attention.

Banner image courtesy of Patjosse / Pixabay.

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