The NT with my NT

My amazing niece (NT = “Niece of Titanium”) Bekah spent 10 days with me in the NT (Northern Territory of Australia). The trip changed my understanding of the country I live in, and created memories that will last a lifetime.

The origins

When I was about 12 years old, my family was vacationing in the “lower 48” (how we Alaskans referred to the rest of the country other than Hawaii), in Arkansas where my mom’s family was from. My brother, Steve, was working as an auditor for a large chain of department stories, and was working in Dallas. My brother flew me out to Dallas to watch a Cowboys football pre-season game. It was the first NFL game I had ever seen. I got to see how my brother lived, how he had his own apartment, how we could eat popcorn any time we wanted, and it was a glimpse of adulthood. While the walls of my bedroom were covered with posters of Dallas players (and cheerleaders), my brother is NOT a Dallas Cowboys fan, so this was an even bigger act of kindness. It was a wonder, a miracle to me at age 12, and looking back, it’s an even bigger one than I realized then.

A couple of years later, my sister was graduating from college, and she flew me out for the week before her graduation. When I was graduating from undergrad, the last thing on my mind would have been dragging a nerdy, awkward teenager around.My sister had left for college three years earlier and I had been the “only child” since then. We went around Portland, we threw a frisbee in a parking lot, we did lots of small things. I fell asleep during a party that was going on in her apartment. I woke up and realized three of her college (female) friends standing over me. I pretended to sleep.

Since I had no younger siblings, I began my own tradition with my nephews. Jonathon came out to Austin for a weekend, and it began a bond between us that has made us close to this day. Braden’s pain tolerance was on display during his trip to Austin, as he didn’t utter a word of complaint during our kayaking trip where he was turning blue due to the cold. When Benjamin came to Australia, he popped up on the surf board and rode it all the way in on his first attempt. I’m a lucky guy to have these three as members of my family.

My final Unclet (the correct plural of nieces and nephews for a male) is Bekah, who turned 14 this year. There are advantages of being the youngest, which include that the Uncle now lives in Australia and has actually figured out how to be a better host.

I wanted a memorable experience for her, and selfishly I wanted to explore some part of Australia I hadn’t seen before. Since she was coming in US summer and Aussie Winter, the Northern Territory was the ideal place to visit.

But first, a word from our sponsors

This trip would not be possible without my amazing best friend Vic. He picked Bekah up in Los Angeles so she didn’t have to sit in the airport 12 hours between flights, and he picked us both up on the way back from Australia.

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Bekah, Elaine, Little Bryan, Vic

Sydney

We had two days in Sydney after she arrived, and a final day before she left. We hit a lot of great spots, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, dinner with Kara and Tiago at a small Japanese place, in the CBD The Australian Museum, akubra shopping, walking through the Botanic Gardens, the Manly Sea Life aquarium, dinner with the Buntings, and enjoying the Bastille day festival in Circular Quay.

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Bekah takes advantage of the free food in the Atlassian kitchen while being exposed to a global Atlassian “Town Hall.”

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Hanging out under the bridge before the bridge climb 

Darwin

The majority of our week would be spent in Kakadu National Park, so we flew to Darwin. We explored the small Charles Darwin park, and stayed at a holiday park just South of the city.

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Bekah didn’t like her picture being taken, so I had to take surprise selfies. This one didn’t turn out so well. My skills improved over the week.

Ubirr

Day two in the NT found the adventurous duo driving into the park and spending time in Ubirr. The indigenous artwork on the rocks were amazing – like chalkboards with white, red, and occasional yellows that had “x-ray” like pictures of local wildlife like barramundi and catfish.

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Rugged explorers of an untamed landscape

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Sandstone escarpments are the only element of topography around Ubirr and all of Arnhem Land

Arnhem Land River Cruise

Across from Ubirr is Arnhem Land, which is a Dutch word, since they were the first white people to visit this area of Australia, and why the indigenous word for white man sounds like “Bollander” (from hearing the explorers say they were from ‘Holland’). We took an afternoon boat cruise down the river, which was filled with crocodiles.

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There are days when I wish I had chosen “warning sign artist” as a career.

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Our guide, Tyrone, who grew up in the area and lives in Arnhem Land

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Another local, warming up in the sunshine

Jabiru

We stayed the night in a bungalow in Jabiru. It was probably my favorite place we stayed, though it took a long time for it to cool down at night.

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Bungalow sweet bungalow. Pretty cush with power outlets and a sink!

Arnhem Land 4wd tour

The next day we spent on a tour of Arnhem Land. Our guide, Richard, was phenomenal, and made a constant effort to help us understand how the people viewed the land around us.

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Richard helping explain that maybe tourists don’t know everything..

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Rock art showing the arrival of Dutch ships . “I’m sure these whitefellas can’t be that harmful to us, can they?”

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This rock was where young men proved they could be warriors for their clan, by throwing a spear and getting it to stick in the crevasse at the top. People pictured in the photo are not warriors of any sort.

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Jeffrey explains how indigenous artwork is created in this artists enclave. 

The Falls Tour

The next day was another day in a 4wd bus – “The Spirit of Kakadu 4wd Tour”. While the tour itself was much less instructional about the way of life of the people, and mostly about getting to two sets of gorgeous falls, and swimming in the waters below them, our guide Trevor was a fascinating guy.

Trevor talked about his childhood, being raised in a family with one indigenous parent – not completely accepted by either side. How he learned the language of his clan, his people. How he was instructed by elders dreaming and helping him know his destiny, and his animal spirit. And that his specific knowledge that he was given to learn, to help his people, and to pass on. And he shared that with us.

The horrors of what was done to the indigenous people still stun me. Children were beaten if they spoke their own language. The list of massacres is so long, and they believe not all are counted.

Aboriginal people were given the right to vote in 1962, Indigenous people were given the right to vote. Amazing what barbarians we were – and of course it took the United States three more years to given all races the right to vote. Indigenous people were first counted in the census in Australia in 1971.

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Maguk falls.

The waters of Maguk falls have crocs in them during other times of the year. Currently it is considered croc-free, meaning no crocs have been seen for the last 30 days.

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Jim Jim Falls. Curious about the name? It is named after the nearby Jim Jim creek. 

Swimming below Jim Jim falls connects you to the rock and water in way I can’t quite describe easily. The water is cool and your breath catches, the dark water below you flows right up to the stark walls of the encircling cliffs. You wish you could never leave (and that all the other people around you would leave). I need to get out of the city.

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I kid you not, this is a termite mound. The big bad wolf might try to blow your house down, these fellas could chew through it no worries.

Yellow River

The Yellow River was the absolute best part of the trip. We did the sunrise trip. So much of Aussie wildlife is nocturnal because of the heat, but in the early morning as the sunrises the entire wilderness opens up to reveal the menagerie of egrets, crocs, water buffalo, whistling ducks, snakes, black winged ibis, blue-winged kookaburra, and wallaby.

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It’s early. But not to early to sneak a selfie.

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The Sun Also Rises.

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A croc after performing the death roll, clenching an egret in its mouth

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The Yellow Water.

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The world is waking up. But the world has been awake for a long time.

Cooinda

We stayed two nights in Cooinda. The lodge there is fine, the food edible but not stellar.

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Before we left Cooinda, we walked to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The dry season is here.

Mt. Bundy Station

We stayed our final night in Mt. Bundy Station a converted ranch. The ranch has water buffalo, other cattle, and is a neat property to explore. But staying in the Cook House near the “pub” is not great if you want a good night’s sleep. The rest of the camping spots appear to be great and quiet.

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On the way to Mt Bundy Station, and old stamp mill in a Mining Park. My Uncle rebuilt a stamp mill in Downieville, California, so they have a place in our history.

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I can sense that you do not like the flies.

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An unforgiving country, where it’s never easy to survive.

Adelaide River Jumping Croc Tour

Our final event in the NT was a jumping croc tour.

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Getting an early start, we began the two hour drive towards the location. I stopped to take a picture of the sunrise. It was beautiful, but something seemed wrong. A few minutes later I realized it was rising in what I thought was the West. I was driving the wrong way. The next 2+ hours were “action-packed” and we arrived just after the boat had left, but the AMAZING people on the tour got the driver to turn back for us.

We saw A LOT of crocs. Bekah has all the pictures here. But these crocs were big, and right up next to the boat.

Final day in Sydney!

On our final day in Sydney, we waited for lost luggage, then hit the Australian Museum. The next morning, it was off to the airport. We flew to LA together, then Bekah had a direct to DC while I was off to SF for a week of work.

65,000 years

Okay, now that I’ve written enough to exhaust the attention span of 99% of the people who would read this, we’ll get to the real story of the trip.

I can’t claim to have a deep knowledge of the indigenous people of Arnhem Land, or pretend to be able to understand what they have experienced. But they did teach me a thing or two.

The harsh climate of Australia created a fascinating system of life. Unlike the fertile crescent where 1 person could work and feed 10, then 100, then 1000 as technology emerged, Australia offered no such ability, so survival was day-to-day, month to month, and year to year. And the land was life. Yams, wallaby, water. And if you damaged the land, you suffered. One of the elders, Big Bill Neidjie wrote:

Old people say
‘You dig yam?
Well you digging your granny or mother
through the belly.
You must cover it up,
cover again.
When you get yam you cover over,
then no hole growing through there.
Yam can grow again.’

‘You hang on to this story,’ they say
So I hang on.
I tell kids.
When they get yam, they leave hole.
I say
‘Who leave that hole?
Cover him up!’
They say
‘We forget.”
I tell them
‘You leaving hole.
You killing yam.
You killing yourself.
You hang on to your country.
That one I fight for.
I got him.
Now he’s yours.
I’ll be dead,
I’ll be coming to earth.’

It’s incredibly simply, but incredible powerful. The stories, the legends of the rainbow serpent, the creation story, all the stories – they are lessons on how to survive. The missionaries called the people ‘Devil worshipers.’ How ignorant could we be? if they had listened, they would realized these were not stories of gods, but of life. Their ceremonies were not worship, but lore and lesson. Indigenous people burned the land to hunt and harvest. They learned how to live and created stories to teach the next generation how to survive, how to care for the land.

There is a story of ‘sickness land,’ a place to avoid because families who camped and slept there had deformed children. ‘Sickness land’ turns out to have large deposits of uranium. One of which has been mined. And the uranium from there went to Fukushima. The Elders laugh at us, we think we’re so smart with our technology. We’re not that smart. We don’t understand the most basic things about our planet and how fragile it is, and how we’re killing ourselves with pollution, plastic, and over-population.

They survived this way for 65,000 years.

We might not last another 10 days.

Instead of of a true leader, an elder, with wisdom, today we have an elected narcissist with no sense of right or wrong, without purpose, and yet with the power to start the end of all things.

I grew up in a small town, a few hundred people, and I played by myself along the river, in the forest, along the paths worn down by bears. Over the last 40 years, I lost my way. It’s time I started to find it again. But in simple ways, one step at a time.

Start covering the holes.

The cruelty of adolescence

The years of 13-14 were the worst two years of my life. My kidney disease, the loss of my father, the failure of two marriages – all of these were easier to handle than the two years of self-hatred and cruelty that is junior high and adolescence. Nothing make sense – your body is sending you natural signals that you are told are evil. You want to run forever, you want to sleep for days, you want to eat for hours, you are uncontrolled and boundless. The world around you rejects you. You are supposed to be on your way to adulthood and you are completely incapable. Yet your identity will be shaped by this cruel time. Will you carry your insecurities forged in the classroom and recess and inflict them on the next generation? Will your defense mechanism trained into you hour upon hour ever realize you don’t need to fight anymore?

I picked 14 as the age I wanted my Unclets to visit because of the difficulty of that age for me. An escape from some of the daily structure, peer pressure, parents, and everything we don’t know how to deal with.

Bekah was an amazing travel companion. Capable of entertaining herself, I think she was more at ease than I was. While I’ve worked years on building physical endurance for things like swimming or running, I have few skills or strengths when it comes to caring for another life, in being responsible for the survival of another. I found myself frustrated at times, even barking at Bekah for something that was my own fault, not hers. Ten days is a long time for any two people to spend together, and she’s an incredible kid, who knew when I needed some space. She laughs easily, her manners are better than mine have ever been, and she’s clear about what she wants or doesn’t want. Looking back, every time I was frustrated or tense or nervous about anything, it was always about my shortcomings, about my image of myself at her age, about my failure to care for her in the way that an Uncle should.

Don’t misread that – the time together was excellent, the adventure was unforgettable and I don’t regret a single moment. But it taught me about family and reminded me that I’m still carrying a lot of the useless baggage from when I was that age.

I’m a lucky Uncle to have the Unclets that I have.

On a separate note, I just made rice with spicy silken tofu for lunch. Meat, your days in my life might be numbered. It might still be a high number, but it could be a number.

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