Only two students, me and Danica, were going to Darwin from our exchange program. The town is so distant from anything. Its state, Northern Territory, is as big as two Texas's but has half the people (175,000) of my hometown.
It's mostly unspoiled Australian outback. Just listen to all the animals there who are capable of killing you: sharks, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopi, saltwater crocodiles, freshwater crocodiles, fierce snakes, brown snakes, tai pans, perenti goanas, dingos, camels, and emus. Don't laugh; a surly emu would mess you up. And that's not all. Before coming here, I took bets for Justin's Death Pool: my best friend thought a platypus would kill me, my uncle guessed an aborigine, and my teacher thought a knife-wielding Aussie bushman would be the winning answer.
The long corridor to our plane would serve as a time machine for Danica and I. We were going to come out adventurers, in a place rarely seen by man, like Lewis and Clark if they had a time machine. It was exciting.
We landed in Darwin. The thick air smelled like honey. It tasted like sugar water. Just thinking, 'It's boiling hot here!' was enough action to make you sweat.
From the airport, we were driven to our school. The plant kingdom ran rampant. Thin trees, three stories high, supported leaves my size. In the suburbs, fat plant fronds hung from everywhere and grew in such numbers that you could barely tell houses six feet from the road were there.
Northern Territory University, though, was on a mostly barren plain. I slept well that night to the crackling sounds of the Lightning Capital of the World.
Riding on a Darwin bus the next day, Danica and I made polite conversation with the driver.
"I hate Darwin!" he said. "It's a hell-hole. Been here twelve years. I can't wait to get out."
He spelled out all-too-clearly for me the important lesson that, when selecting a school, your research should require a "yes" answer to more than two questions: 1. Are there crocodiles nearby to wrestle? and 2. Is it within walking distance of the beach? You see, even these questions beg more questions: 1. Can I swim at the beach, despite the danger of box jellyfish? and 2. Do I really want to wrestle crocodiles? For most people, these answers would be "no", and they'd go to the school offering the best classes. But I, a creative writing major, had failed to realize NTU didn't even have an english department!
"If anything, this place'll make you appreciate wherever it is you come from." The driver dropped us off.
Darwin's downtown consisted of dull shapes and dim colors. The heat and absence of flashiness hinted at a slow-paced lifestyle where friends mattered. There were hardly any chain-stores. Danica and I grabbed a bite at a family-owned restaurant. We walked uphill to a high-perched park that overlooked the dark Timor Sea, green islands, and Darwin's rocky shore.
Back on-campus, a tall, frilled lizard stood on its hind legs and checked me out. What a cool thing to have walking around my campus. I approached him. He ran. His frilled collar flapped, and his bent legs raced in wide loops. But all this limb-flailing was just ostentatious, because he didn't exceed 4 miles an hour and almost anything could've caught him.
By the time it'd become pitch dark, I wanted to go to the beach. Someone pointed me to the foresty, beachward path. I could only make out the ground a few feet in front of me, but I started walking. I hadn't gone more than fifty feet, when I heard the most unholy, low-pitched, soul-piercing snarl, "Hrrrah!" If 25-foot, man-eating saltwater crocs can talk, that's what they'd say. The beach could wait until tomorrow.
The next day, I learned that NTU had no good classes for me, and I was going to have to transfer schools. I decided I'd check out the beach before I left.
The trail led behind a row of houses and was surrounded by tall coconut trees. There was no sign of yesterday's murderous croc or even a body of water for a croc to live in. I came to a grassy plateau, and at its end was a rocky, 12-foot drop to the beach below. I climbed down.
Brown waves whished against the red clay sand. It felt like astroturf, and no one could be seen on it for miles. Brown waves whished against the shore. I thought about swimming, and I contemplated the "Danger: Box Jellyfish" sign. On one hand, box jellyfish tentacles stretch for yards, and you're not supposed to swim because they can kill you or leave horribly disfigured scars. But on the other hand, it was really hot.
So, I went for a swim - my only time in the Indian Ocean. Playing in the waves was fun, and I managed to avoid the jellyfish.
I strolled down the beach, where I met Lucky Balarca and a dozen of his aboriginal relatives. They all looked very similar, with dark beards, round noses, yellow teeth, and pudgy bellies. I couldn't tell the generations apart, except that Lucky's beard was gray. They drank alcohol from soda bottles (its consumption is illegal for aborigines), and they wanted me to photograph their family gathering. They were happy, friendly, and proud, and they put their arms around me and gave me some aboriginal white clay they rubbed on themselves.
I went out that night to the Casuarina Club with friends I'd made at NTU. We drank a bit, especially Kevin, a smily guy who'd just flown in from Seattle.
When we got back to campus, Kevin and I and two Aussies grabbed some flashlights and binoculars and went "croc-hunting" in the university woods.
We had no idea what we were looking for, and any one of us would've made excellent prey for a crocodile. As we walked through the woods, we started spooking eachother out.
"What's that?!" yelled Sam whenever a tiny noise was heard.
"Oh, my god! It's a crocodile!" screamed Kevin dramatically.
Brad, from Melbourne and the best person I've ever played in basketball, was sincerely scared. "You don't really think that's a croc ... do you?"
But, after a while, the whole thing was too ridiculous and fun for anyone to be scared. Brad played along, and he tried convincing us there were monkeys in the trees.
"What's that?!" yelled Brad. "Up in the tree!"
"Oh, my god! It's a monkey!" screamed Kevin.
"Watch out, he'll throw coconuts on you!" said Sam, and we all ran around in a frenzy.
"Oh, no. I think I stepped on a croc," I said.
Kevin really enjoyed himself. "I can't believe this is my first day in Australia, and I'm already hunting for crocodiles."
"Look out, there's one behind you!" said Sam.
Unfortunately, Kevin's first day in Darwin was my last. I got on a bus going across Australia's interior. For 47 hours, I sat in the same seat, crossing thousands of miles of nothing. The nothing disguised itself, not too subtly, with waist-high celery-colored grass, a few thin trees, and a lot of dirt. There were brown rivers, which must've been home to wrestleable six-foot freshwater crocs, but the only animals I saw were two emus and a dingo. I just wanted to get out and explore.
The bus stopped occasionally. At night, it braked quickly for kangaroos in the road. At day, we could get out of the bus every couple hours in a dry town of a hundred or so people. That must be an interesting way to live (I mean boring).
I finally arrived on the East Coast. But, I'll often wonder what might've been if I'd stayed in Darwin. How long could I have tempted fate with the box jellies? Would I have remained on the good side of Lucky Balarca? And, if given the chance, would I actually have wrestled a crocodile?
More specifically, I guess, the question should be: Who would've claimed the prize in Justin's Death Pool?
We'll never know.