Australia Pt. 2 – Cairns at Night: Planks and Legends

Cairns, QLD – June, 2011

Continued from: Australia Pt. 1 – Arrivals: A Tour of Orpheus Hall

Continued here: Australia Pt. 3 – Great Barrier Reef: Snorkeling and Sea Turtles

We met Samantha and Emily at the bus stop, and then paid the criminally high fee to ride past cane fields and through the resort towns north of the city, arriving at the main terminal about twenty minutes later. The central district of Cairns is laid out like a nineteenth century American city, with wide, straight lanes, flat facades, and walk-up apartments above street level retail. It was clearly a tourist town, and the only thing outnumbering gift shops were restaurants, namely Indian and Italian. The latter were nearly all attached to gelato stands, and Cairns must have more gelato per capita than anywhere else this far from the Mediterranean. Closest to the sea was an area of pleasure boat docks, as well as a long boardwalk, called The Esplanade, that ran alongside the coast instead of jutting out over the water. We walked it for as long as it took to get out of the city and into a park featuring a statue of Captain Cook and a forest of coconut palms. There wasn’t really a beach in Cairns proper, all instead to the north, so they made one. Sunbathers lounged next to an equally artificial pool of clear water as the late afternoon rays shone down and sparkled off of tall fish-shaped weathervanes. The actual ocean was at low tide about three meters below the park, leaving a mud flat between the Esplanade’s railing and the first waves.

It was nearing five o’ clock and we decided to follow a suggestion from one of the lodgelings and check out the Night Markets. Besides not opening until five, the Night Markets were like any seaside market in the world. They were located inside a large steel-framed building sectioned off into crowded corridors flanked by vendors selling art and fruit and homemade Australiana.

One guy had an entire side of an aisle for his collection of oddities, mostly made of parts of local animals. Amongst them were cane toad products – wallets, purses, credit card holders. Mike had mentioned that these were a thing people had but that they were a bit uncouth in polite society. This didn’t dissuade Jeff and he had been talking about getting a toad wallet ever since he was told of them. Cane toads are poisonous, but usually not deadly to humans, and are so prevalent that intrepid Queenslanders are constantly trying to find ways to simultaneously turn their eradication into profit. They were brought into Queensland in several waves during the 1930s in an attempt to eliminate the beetles that were destroying the state’s sugarcane crops.  The toads have accomplished pretty much everything except that, multiplying and spreading disease, living among the sugarcane fields, all while having no appetite for the insects they were brought in to remove.  An invasive species in the crudest sense of the word, they are now so common and spreading so quickly that there is no regulation for taking them out before they threaten the larger cash crop plantations further south.

“My brothers and me would stand in a circle whackin’ em with cricket bats” said the salesman, a gangly middle aged man in a black fedora who came across as far too zealous about the subject. “We thought we’d try and play an actual match if we’d have enough guys, but the toads didn’t fly as far as the balls did.” 

Underground cane toad cricket leagues popped up all over Queensland, but were quickly squashed, probably rightly so, due to the cruelty of it all. Animal rights groups have suggested freezing the toads humanely instead, claiming that cane toad whacking is a gateway action to animal cruelty after some kid in Townsville took a golf club to a kitten. Jeff tried to talk the salesman down but his idea of the price was less than a quarter the number on the sticker so they just kept slicing off a few dollars on each side like risk-averse Jezz Ball players, ignoring the gaping several hundred dollar hole in the middle.

I wandered to a stand where Emily and Samantha were looking at tee shirts with sayings like ‘It’s a bloody long way!’ and Aussie bitches do it better!  Next to these were plastic didgeridoos that looked like worthless brown vuvuzelas, speedos with an Australian flag design tilted so the stars of the Southern Cross traveled upward along the front center, and postcards with naked women holding tiny flags above the words ‘Go Down Under’. A few stands featured things resembling art, and I took a moment to look at a woman’s traditionally painted wood carvings. An elaborate wine rack was covered maroon and white dot art of emus and lizards. I returned to buy it the week before I left.

Asher picked up what looked like a metal bar connected to a furry lump from the stand run by the cane toad guy and announced he had found what he was looking for.

“What is that thing?” asked Samantha, and Asher grinned.

“Kangaroo scrotum bottle opener.”

I looked to where he found it and that is indeed what the sign claimed it was.

“Are you seriously getting that?”

“Already did!”

Just about everyone we met at the lodge earlier was already at Phillip’s apartment, a small studio above a coffee shop with a window overlooking the Esplanade if you squinted and looked to the left. We had brought beer from a convenience store but Phillip was having none of it.

“I’m flying out to Bali day after next when the girls go home” he said, handing us each a bottle. “This all needs drank, I won’t be back until God knows when.”

“Don’t say home!” said Ellie, definitely experiencing that kind of pre-reminiscing drunk that happens when anticipating leaving a place. She wavered a bit and caught herself on the TV stand. “Oh yeah, sign my flag!”

She handed us a silver colored pen and asked us to sign an Australian flag like it was a high school yearbook. We had all only met that afternoon but that just seemed to be how quickly people get to know each other as solo travelers.

“We’re going hard today, even though tomorrow is our technical last day” said Amanda. “Don’t want to be hungover on a seventeen or whatever hour flight.”

Asher opened up his bag from the Night Market and pulled out the bottle opener and popped open his lager. ‘XXXX’ the bottle said. “Queensland’s finest” Phillip said. There was no Foster’s here, and I would actually go the entire summer without seeing it anywhere.

“Pass me that scrotum” I said and opened my bottle and took a swig. It was no different than lagers everywhere but it was cold and I was in Australia and it was wonderful.

We chatted about whatever and after a couple of pregame beers the sun was gone, sunk instantly over the mountains to the west without any fanfare or inbetween. According to the locals in the group, the sunrises take hours, slowly crawling up from the sea, before heating up the day and seemingly hovering all afternoon, but that especially this time of year, nearing the southern winter solstice, just disappears in the evening. The mountains are so close to the coastline that the sun was behind them before dinner, even here above the Tropic of Capricorn. This was our sign to head out and we did so, but not before Kaleo climbed up on top of a bike rack and lay prone, face down, hands at waist. Phillip was there with a camera.

“Are you seriously planking that bike rack?” somebody asked.

Planking was a short-lived fad in the early 2010s in which people would take photos like this in exceedingly weird locations. The higher the exoticism or level of danger, the more internet points the picture would receive. Planking made its way to America around the same time, but never took off as the social media sensation that it did in Australia.

“Gotta keep up the plank war!” Kaleo said as he lowered himself back to the ground.

“Yeah, those two planked the floor of the skydiving plane last week” Philip added, pointing at Ellie and Amanda. “Kaleo and I are just going for quantity over quality at this point.”

They showed us pictures of the four of them lying flat on all sorts of things – cabinets, a barstool, the wall near the Esplanade, a James Cook University sign.

“So basically” Asher asked “I just climb that tree, plank it, and then post the picture?”

Asher did just as he described and Kaleo took the picture with his phone.

“Exactly. Does team America want in?”

“Oh it’s on.”

We spent the evening going to a couple of backpacker bars. The one of note was called Gilligan’s, whose massive dance floor was the first floor of the largest hostel in Cairns. Dubstep played loudly and green lasers twisted and flipped like searchlights. Our group got separated gradually, and I ended up walking around Cairns with Jeff, both of us tired of the din and the close quarters of the clubbier bars. He, completely sober, and I, on a pace of less than one beer per hour, appeared to be the only coherent folks in the city, as the streets were sloppy by midnight. Two guys stumbled by wearing plain white tee shirts sheer enough to see upper arm tattoos in the dim light. The taller of the two tried to jump over the nearest park bench, failed quite handily, and sent his phone flying into the street.

“Oh shit. Oh double shit.” He said as he drunkenly tried to put the part that held the battery back onto the rest of the phone. He kept shoving the pieces together like a kid making dolls kiss, not trying to clip them but just repeating the action over and over while his buddy tried to instruct.

“It’s over!” cried the first, and he threw up his hands to castigate the ether.

“May I?” asked Jeff, as he took the two pieces and easily reconnected the phone, causing the startup light to blink in the night.

“You’re a legend!the guy shouted in response. “A legend!”

He ushered Jeff and I over to a group of strangers

“This guy! This guy is a legend!”

They followed us back toward Gilligan’s telling everyone we passed how much of a legend Jeff was, and by the end I was considered a legend by extension, despite not doing anything so legendary as fixing a phone.

“These guys are legends!!” he told the bouncer. At the bar he said “Have a shout on us. You’re legends!”

The guys set down a row of pints, and even Jeff took one before we made our way back to the group, hearing the echo of “You’re a legend!” as we walked off. We remained with our group for another beer or two, discussing upcoming travel plans, the rugby match on tv, how sad the rest were to be flying home. Gradually the crowd began to dwindle as people tired and milled back to the bus stop, and we felt like it was past time to go plank our beds. Tomorrow we would wake early to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.

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