My Imaginary Life

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

My Imaginary Life

Yin of snags, yang of stubbies. Who says you must come home again?
By Randy Wayne White

After only a week in Australia's Northern Territory, mostly hanging around the town of Darwin, I caught myself emulating the strange ceremony of a much-traveled friend of mine.

"Am I so odd?" he once asked me.

Friendship can tolerate anything but joint boat ownership or deceit. "Damn right, you're odd," I told him kindly. "You didn't believe those doctors? Fine. But this is your buddy talking."

No matter where he goes in the world--particularly if it's some godforsaken lonely place--here is what my friend does: He makes inquiries into the price of real estate even though he has no plans to relocate. He studies the local architecture and selects a good place to build. Along with constructing an imaginary house, he also computes the kind and quality of the imaginary life he would enjoy there. My friend's needs are simple. They have been calculated in rupees, pesos, pounds, and African shillings, taxes dutifully included.

He tried to explain himself once, suggesting that I had not yet discovered that travel consumes as surely as it compensates, by which he meant (I'm guessing here) that for every gain there is a loss. To travel is to experience a series of temporal lives, each an illustration of mortality. We arrive, then we leave, one of those yin and yang deals in which dysentery is part of the mourning process. "Don't you get homesick for all the places, all the people you'll never see again?" my friend asked, implying that I didn't yet have a "profound" travel experience under my belt.

Enough Prozac under the belt was more like it. "Just thank the good Lord they don't test for dementia at border crossings," I counseled him. "There are lepers who would have more frequent-flier miles than you."

Not that my friend was with me in Darwin. For the last several weeks, I'd been traveling around Australia and had ended up in the Northern Territory without any guidance from him. There had been Queensland, green and steamy and tropical, and Tasmania, which was cool and forested and gorgeous. I had included Darwin on the itinerary for the sanest of reasons: I had never been there before.

The brochures flogged Darwin as a "modern port on the Timor Sea" and recommended aboriginal rock paintings, "jumping crocodiles," and the desert "Red Centre" of Alice Springs as primary attractions. I found it heartening that a region as immense as the Northern Territory had so few tourist destinations to pitch. Even so, on final air approach, I was unprepared for the horizon of wild space and pure sea light that rims Darwin. The land had a hot, primeval aspect. Tendrils of steam wafted upward, as if the process of chemical genesis were still going on. Darwin did indeed appear modern, and for good reason: It was leveled by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, so most of the high-rise hotels and office buildings were less than 20 years old. But this city at the border of sea and plain communicated a frontier feel, as if wagons had been circled, and I was pleased with the impression that I was flying into an Australian outpost rather than into the region's largest (population 69,000) metropolitan center.

I rented a room and did daily probes. Downtown Darwin was good for jogging. There were outdoor malls, botanical gardens, and outback outfitters. In too many cities around the world, sidewalk travelers wear expressions of introspective rage. Not in Darwin. People here had a blue-collar light, as if they were just damn glad to live in a world that had electricity and indoor plumbing. On February 19, 1942, 93 Japanese bombers with fighter escorts fire-bombed Darwin. It was a defining moment in the city's history and, it would seem, a crucible of the city's character. The citizenry dug in, fought back, and kicked butt. Along with a military museum, an aviation museum, and dozens of memorial sites, Darwin retains a stiff-upper-lipped World War II flyboy attitude. Yanks are welcome. Big-band tunes are still popular on local radio. It's a pleasant thing to lean against the sea battery at East Point Peninsula, watching wild wallabies and listening to the Andrews Sisters sing "Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola."

I liked the place; I loved the people. They had gone "troppo." They were sports. They were bush-hardened. They drank stubbies and threw snags on the barbie. There was a rare racial geniality: whites, blacks, East Indians, Melville Islanders, you name it. Everyone but the enemy was accepted, and the enemy just wasn't around anymore. The only tyranny was isolation. Strangers were the antidote for that.

The guys at the tackle shop insisted I go fishing. A business leader invited me into his home and squired me around. I happened to mention to a local reporter that I was interested in baseball. Two hours later, I was out at Wanguri Park, catching infield, wearing a Northern Territory ball cap and trading stories with the senior all-star coaches. The Darwin Yacht Club allowed me in for sunset tea even though I had never belonged to any yacht club anywhere in my life. ("What the hell, ya look like a decent sort.") And an aborigine family that lived shelterless on Fannie Bay Beach invited me to eat when I stupidly jogged through their luncheon. ("You like fish, we bet!") Within a few days it seemed that I had met just about everyone there was to meet and that I had been welcomed, if not adopted, unconditionally.

In time, I began to probe outward, beyond the city limits and into the outback. But--can you blame me?--I kept returning to Darwin.

I became interested in the Mary River wetlands that lie east of the Adelaide River and east and southeast of Darwin. When locals spoke of the Mary River, they always lowered their voices just a little, as if taking me into their confidence to share a secret. The Magella Plains of Kakadu National Park were more famous, they said. Kakadu attracted nearly 200,000 visitors a year. But they assured me that the Mary River floodplain was equally spectacular in terms of topography and wildlife. Better yet, it was seldom visited by outsiders.

"It's because the best part of the Mary's mostly private property," I was told. "It's got more crocs, birds, and fish than Kakadu. You have to live here to know about it. And you need permission to have a look."

I learned that the man who controlled one of the largest sections of the Mary River floodplain was Neville Walker. Legend is a stanchion of frontier mentality; Walker was a popular local legend. In 1961, he and his buddy Frazier Henry decided to pluck themselves from the ranks of hired labor. They pooled their small savings, made a down payment on a road grader, and subcontracted a job near Alice Springs. They didn't have the cash to transport the grader, so they drove it--nearly 900 miles, at 15 miles per hour. They did the work at Alice Springs, but the contractor had to delay payment. Nearly out of food money, Henry and Walker drove the grader 900 miles back to Darwin--where their second job went bust. Again, they didn't get paid. Broke, in debt, and damn tired of driving a road grader all over Australia, most people would have quit. But Henry and Walker weren't most people. They went to work, accepting any job they could get. Gradually their luck began to change. Over the next three decades, the men parlayed that one piece of machinery into a megamillion-dollar conglomerate with international holdings. In the Northern Territory, Horatio Alger stories must include a full measure of outback sweat and stubbornness to pass muster, which is why Walker is a popular local legend.

The idea of phoning up cold a VIP mogul like Walker seemed about as reasonable as trying to direct-dial the CEO of U.S. Steel, but that's just what I did. I expected Walker to be standoffish and suspicious. Instead, he invited me over, clapped me on the back, and toured me around in his Land Cruiser. Yes, he had holdings that included the Mary River wetlands. He controlled about 1,500 square kilometers, from the Timor Sea deep into the outback.

Six hundred square miles?

Yep. "You won't believe the amount of wildlife out there," Walker told me. "The birds, the wallabies, the crocs--it's truly extraordinary. A magnificent place. Thing is, I'm a bit worried about it."

Walker sat me down and, with a map and photographs, familiarized me with the dynamics. The Mary River wasn't a river as such. It was the drainage conduit for a vast, grassy floodplain. During the monsoon season, January to April, the river and its feeder creeks drain tens of thousands of hectares as they snake along to the sea. During the dry season, the river dwindles and separates into a series of still-water ponds, or billabongs, providing a water source for wildlife. But recently the Timor Sea had been intruding farther and farther into these billabongs, dispersing fauna and killing thousands of hectares of wetland flora. The major cause of the saltwater intrusion, Walker told me, was the Asian water buffalo. The water buffalo was introduced to Australia in 1826 and had flourished in the wild. (There were once tens of thousands of feral buffalo roaming the Mary River floodplain, but most of them were shot--or rounded up and inoculated--during the recent Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign.) During their century-and-a-half reign, however, the water buffalo trampled deep gutters between the sea and the grasslands. Those gutters eventually became a watercourse into the interior, which is why salt water was now intruding into the system.

In an effort to reclaim the region, private landowners such as Walker, along with the Conservation Commission of Northern Territory, were constructing earthen dikes to stay the flow of salt water. They were also battling another exotic intruder, the South American mimosa bush, which, like the water buffalo, was impacting the entire wetland system.

"The potential of the Northern Territory is immense," Walker told me. "The only reason it's not yet tapped is that we lack population--only 170,000 people in an area that takes up a sixth of all Australia. But Indonesia and all of Asia are beginning to awaken, and Darwin is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney. One day we'll be the southern gateway to Asia, and you can wager we won't suffer a lack of population then. When that day comes, I think it would be very wise to have our environmental problems under control, so that treasures like the Mary River can thrive, not just survive."

The next day, I drove a dusty hundred kilometers (the last 20 on a one-lane sand road) to a dock on the Mary River, where a local named Nobby Muhsam fixed me up with a pontoon boat and a chart. I found it odd that the deck of the boat was enclosed with welded grating--until I got out onto the river and saw the number of estuarine crocodiles. Crocodiles were everywhere, basking on the bank, hanging motionless in the dark water. I have been on rivers far prettier than the Mary. It appeared to be little more than a drainage ditch choked with giant lily pads. But never in my life have I been in stranger, more seductive terrain. On all sides, a veld spread away to the horizon. When clouds shifted, the color of the veld changed in slow sync from brown to copper to gold. This was spring, the end of the dry season, and a hot-kiln wind blew down from the sun. It was a leaching wind, deadly dry, but the river was a magnet for every living thing for miles. There were wading birds and hawks and anhingas and parrots by the thousands. Magpie geese flushed in a haze of black and white. As I puttered along, I got a glimpse of a water buffalo in the distance, and maybe a wallaby, too. I couldn't be sure.

When the river dead-ended, I wanted to climb out of the boat and keep going. I didn't, of course--remember all those crocs?--yet I wanted to see more. The floodplains of the Mary River were what I imagined the earth to have been at the beginning of time.

Neville Walker's sons, David and Clint, and their pilot buddy, Mark Grosvenor, lived in a stilt-house bachelor quarters on a cattle station in the middle of nowhere. They wore Akubras, rode horses, mustered cattle, and carried revolvers. They also flew helicopters, did their own cooking, and communicated with civilization via single-sideband radio. In their early twenties, they were big, fit, and happy with their roustabout cowboy lives. The only thing the outback didn't provide them was alluded to by a sign on the living room wall: GIRLS WANTED FOR VARIOUS POSITIONS.

"Meant to take that silly thing down," David Walker said when he noticed me staring. "Bit embarrassing when we get company." But then he grinned. "Thing is, we don't get much company."

I had traveled to this remote station--Woolner Station--because my day on the river had primed me to see more. David Walker said, "Not a problem, no worries." If I didn't mind hanging around the cattle station for a while, I could tag along with him and his mates.

Which couldn't have been better. All successful travelers are necessarily voyeurs and imposters. We drop down into foreign places, interact with foreign people, yet separate ourselves with a gauze of awareness and constant observation. For a day or two, I would be a sham Aussie cowboy.

It was perfect. Clint Walker was doing a spot of welding out in the cattle pens. I struck a pose among the bar stock and cozied up to the horses. Clint put in a ten-hour day. I did not, wandering off when the work grew tedious.

David decided we needed a mess of mud crabs for dinner. I volunteered to assist. We traveled over several miles of grassy plain to a vast mud flat at the edge of the Timor Sea. I waded around, pronging crabs, keeping a sharp eye open for crocs. Within 20 minutes I had a bucketful. David and Mark built a fire on the beach, and we roasted the crabs whole and ate them. This work was more to my liking, certainly better than welding or hauling manure. And a traveler has the right--hell, the obligation--to pick and choose his sham duties. It is our compensation for all the crummy airline connections and ghostly wanderings--and "ghostly" sums up the normal condition of a traveler, does it not? We are experiential bounty hunters, on the track of that which is different. Yet in the end it's only we who are different, different because we don't belong and will soon be leaving.

But in the Northern Territory, around Darwin, particularly on the floodplains of the Mary River, it wasn't that way. Not for me, it wasn't. Earlier, when I had raved to Neville Walker about what I had experienced on my boat trip, he said something interesting. Said it a little shyly: "Truth is, Randy, I've been trying to figure a way that we could let other people see what you've seen. In a limited way--I don't want any resorts out there. There's too much nesting ground. The place is just too delicate. But if we could come up with a way that a few folks could do a spot of bird-watching, maybe a little fishing..."

I took the remark as inclusionary. The problem became personal. Which is probably why I had so much fun roaming around and flying over the region with David, Mark, and Clint. Once, hovering in the Bell 47 helicopter at 700 feet, Mark said to me, "You think Americans would be keen on this?"

I could look one direction and see a herd of water buffalo. Below us, there was the confetti bloom of geese and storks. Ahead, there was Van Diemen Gulf and about a trillion wading birds. Clear to the horizon, there were no roads, no buildings, no sign of man. Keen? There were Audubon people who would fight bare-fisted to see this place.

We banked down low over a billabong to count crocodiles, and I yelled to Mark, "There are tarpon in that pond!"

He shrugged. "There're tarpon in all the billabongs, mate. Loads. But wouldn't fishermen worry about being eaten? The crocs, I mean."

Sensible fishermen, perhaps. But not fly fishermen. Fly fishermen would be willing to risk it--particularly after hearing about the barramundi and bonefish I'd seen rooting off the beach.

That's how it went: looking, planning, trying to figure out a way to open the region a little without using it up. The Northern Territory was still young. It was the new frontier--Neville Walker had said as much. Here, perhaps, there were time and concern and knowledge enough to do things right.

I felt a part of that. For a short time, anyway. Although maybe my old friend was correct when he said that travel consumes as surely as it compensates. One Darwin dusk, drinking a sunset beer at Stokes Hill Wharf, it felt perfectly natural for me to look out past the harbor lights and ask, "Is it tough to immigrate here?" And later to say, "I found this great place to build..."

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