I first visited the Territory on a family holiday when I was thirteen. I loved it from the start. Six years later I was back with a backpack of clothes and an enrolment form for NT University. And aside from a few longish stints overseas, I made my home between Darwin and Alice Springs for the next fourteen years.
I remember when I first arrived in Darwin having a sense that surely the magical bubble would burst soon. Life would return to something more mundane where worthwhile things could only be gained through a mixture of struggle and luck, wouldn’t it? But I still got the same whoosh of quiet exhilaration almost fifteen years on with the smell of the first dry season burn, the crackle of eucalyptus caps on sap as you cycle past the Todd Tavern on a hot November morning, the gurgle of diesel as you round the creek and catch your first glimpse of Boggy Hole. I even enjoyed the Alice summers with their empty streets and the quiet intensity of relentless heat. I loved the people I met and my friendships were deep and satisfying. I loved living on the edge of the expanse and the mythology of the frontier.
I started to think that I might stay forever. Maybe I would die in the Territory, old and wrinkled and tough. My children would be grubby with dust and unhesitating as they brushed the prickles out of their bare feet. When we started spending most of our time down at the date farm I wanted to join the dots between what we were doing there and other arid places all over the world. Being on the farm gave me a sense of connection to place, landscape and community which my other work hadn’t.
Still, Chris and I talked a lot about whether our comfortable lives could really be sustained in Alice Springs. Every time we turned on a tap we were using fossil fuels to pump the water. The food we ate came from a long way away, in a diesel powered truck. The food we grew relied on the water that got pumped out of the ground. And on the farm, the diesel we used to make the bore run was a tiny blip compared to what we used driving in and out of Alice to do the laundry and the shopping. What would happen if diesel was $3 a litre or $4? And could we really hack it if the temperature did rise by 5 degrees in our lifetime? The prospect of harvesting dates at 50 degrees was slightly intimidating.
Being on the date farm made me think a lot more about what I could reasonably do to make being in Central Australia a long term proposition. I was inspired by people like Elaine Ingham, Mark Shepard, Darren Doherty and Neil Spackman who were working to make agriculture restorative rather than destructive. The idea of using a landscape to provide for people while maintaining ecological function, restoring the water and mineral cycle and storing carbon resonated with me. With a piece of ground, Chris and I could actually start experimenting with some of the strategies we’d been hearing about and see if they’d work in an arid, Australian context AND whether we could earn a living from doing it.
When we decided to leave the Co-op and the date farm I was sure we would find something else in the NT. We made an offer on the other date farm (recently short listed as a nuclear waste dump site) but couldn’t offer enough. We met with the Arid Zone Research Institute so enquire about leasing their land and were politely told we wouldn’t fit with their requirements. We offered to buy a friends beautiful quandong orchard at Ilparpa and were told the family would never sell. Was Oraminna Bush Camp really for sale for a quiet million? Could we go halves in a block at Honeymoon Gap with friends? Maybe we could find something in Katherine or south of Darwin?
Ultimately however, the bubble burst and what I now found I really wanted wasn’t on offer in the place I called my home. It’s ironic that the thing which would have made the two of us really commit to staying is the thing we couldn’t find: a piece of land big enough to make a go of a regenerative farming business without a crippling debt which we could use securely until we were old. Interestingly, people seemed very interested in the story of why we left the Co-op and the date farm but not so interested in why we ended up moving to SA. It seems there’s just this underlying assumption that eventually everyone will head back down south to where they’re from, taking their learnings, gleanings and inspirations with them.
To me, the narrative of living well where you are is all about what will enable people to stay in the long term. Now I’m not the first to puzzle over the “land shortage” around Alice Springs but it seems that the conversation about the kinds of land use which will facilitate people staying on in the town in future generations hasn’t got going yet. (In my mind, a resilient community is one where at least fresh foods are produced by small, local, regenerative farming enterprises and people eat foods appropriate to their climate which can be produced without massive inputs of fossil fuel based energy. And I don’t think there’s land available for people to start working out how to do that round Alice.)
Here in Watervale I’m not sure if that conversation is going either (although I’m looking forward to meeting the people who are having it down this way…) and it’s hardly as if our lives have immediately become a model of zero carbon regenerative living since arriving. But due to some quirks of history and economics it was pretty straightforward to get on realestate.com.au and find a small and affordable farm. Who knows if we’ll succeed in our dreams of ultimate regenerative agriculture but at least we can actually have a go!
As for the magical Northern Territory…. I think it’s like when an old friend moves away. You miss them. And when you catch up there’s something deliciously familiar and easy there, alongside the knowing that the time when you were in the same place is already gone.