The Top End Wedding star on what spending Balnba on Larrakia country means to her.
Every two years I have a blissful summer with my family down in Wollongong. My in-laws live reasonably close to my relatives on the South Coast of NSW, which makes it 10 times easier to see everyone. After breakfast with my in-laws, an uncle of mine, Kieran, holds a family lunch on Christmas Day at his place. My dad’s family is huge, so it’s the best time to catch up with them all. Kieran holds a Christmas cake competition every year. My late grandmother used to bake a cake for each of her 12 children. As you can imagine, November was a busy time for her! My dad had always looked forward to getting a cake from his mother so he always enters the competition. Dad often burns it because he’s doused it in brandy then forgets it’s in the oven. But I tease, he’s gotten better. I’ve had the Australian Christmas everyone knows so well – sun, sand and champers.
Every other year, I’m on my traditional lands in Darwin. Territorians call summer the wet season but my people, the Larrakia, call it ‘Balnba’ – the rainy season. I’m grateful when it pours. It completely cools down my parents’ house. The first Christmas I took my husband James up north, my mum asked him to take the bins out during a monsoonal storm. He wasn’t about to say no to his girlfriend’s staunch, no-nonsense mum. So he went out in the wind and rain to do what he’d been asked to do.
James and I treat our trip home like a trip to Spain or South America. Get up early, nap at midday. I often wake up to Radio Larrakia playing on an old stereo in the kitchen. I don’t know an Aboriginal person who hasn’t grown up with country music so naturally, that’s what callers end up requesting. There’s lots of Charley Pride, Merle Haggard and the like. Dad brings me and James coffee from either Sweet Brew or Salvatores, two local cafes that have become incredibly popular. Melbourne’s made me such a coffee snob!
The rest of the morning is spent visiting relatives or having them over. No matter how hot it gets, Mum always steeps a pot of tea. She makes it really strong with lots of milk. I know it seems strange to have in such a humid place, but I find it comforting. Drinking her tea tells me I’m home. I don’t get to go up often so Mum makes sure that when I do, I see as much family as I can. Particularly nieces and nephews who grow up way too fast. When guests are over, no one is allowed to watch TV. Mum’s rules. One thing I adore about my relatives is that they know how to tell a good yarn. I laugh so hard when they get up out of their chair to act out whatever strange or foolish thing they’ve witnessed – and they always embellish it. I truly learnt from the best. I mean, if you can’t have a bit of dramatic licence in your story, then honestly, why even bother telling it?
On the weekend we go to Parap markets and grab stuffed chicken wings, Cambodian rice balls and barbecue pork rice paper rolls. I throw all of my money at it, but trust me, once you’ve eaten the most amazing Southeast Asian street food on this continent, you’d pig out too. I end up eating so much seafood. Whether it’s eating my dad’s famous spaghetti marinara or local grilled barramundi from Stokes Hill Wharf, I’m spoilt for choice. I’ve hit the jackpot if I have local mud crab or danijarra (edible mangrove shellfish).
Later in the day James and I do a few laps at Parap Pool. Most of it is undercover so the water doesn’t feel as soupy as Territory pools can when they’ve been in the sun. We get back to my parents’ all cooled down to have a nap. The early afternoon should always be spent inside or undercover rehydrating if you’re going to adjust to the humidity. My dad is a huge film buff like me, so we all tend to pick a midday session rather than at night. Early evening is more bearable in temperature, so we make the most of it by having barbecues at East Point Reserve or having gin and tonics on my parents’ back verandah. I change into a maxi dress or long cotton pants to avoid getting overly bitten by mosquitoes. Mum burns amazon candles or coils to keep them at bay. I also apply the old-fashioned repellent mixture of Dettol and baby oil. I try to save Aerogard for when it gets really bad, but when you grow up with mosquitoes, they just become part and parcel of Christmas.
On Christmas Day, my uncle Alfie often brings over magpie goose (gakkingga) to put on the barbecue. It’s a wild bird with black and white feathers (hence the name) that we like to eat. It’s bush tucker my relatives get from nearby floodplains. It’s a rich, dark meat like duck and my uncle marinates it in soy sauce so it’s always salty and charcoal-y. Beats any bar and grill. All of the Southeast Asian cuisine we have up here inspires a lot of local cooking. In fact, most meats my family cook end up with a rub with some form of soy sauce, ginger and garlic.
My family eat with lots of spice, so we garnish a lot of our food with homemade blachang paste or locally made chilli sauce. Everyone’s learnt not to touch their eyes after they’ve cooked or eaten. There’s always too much rice. Mum always makes a salad she saw in a magazine but it’s too metropolitan for everyone’s taste that ultimately her Nigella work ends up in the bin. But her trifle doesn’t. I’m about to burst by this point of the day, but I love it so much that I always manage to fit it in. I have been so inundated with country music across this time that if my cousins play any more of it, I crack it. You’ve got to have a bit of a break from all the heartbreak. No matter how much I love Dolly and Kenny. My nana loved Boney M, so Mum often puts on their Christmas album. It’s like having Nan with us.
As overwhelming as the summer holidays are – I always want to spend them with my family. Being on Larrakia country with them forces me to stand still for a minute. They make the heat and the mozzies all the more bearable. Since it’s always a time where people reflect on who they hope to be, it makes sense to me that I’m around the people who know me the best. I come from such a loving and generous stock that being with them always brings out the version of myself that I like the most. It makes me want to be better. To stay curious. To stay kind. To stay brave. To love being a saltwater woman. I don’t know when I’ll be up there next, but I hope I’m back up in Balnba.
Visit our Reclaim Summer hub to read our collection of essays by notable Australians on what summer means to them and many more great reads.