/Location Redacted/, QLD – June, 2011
Continued from: Australia Pt. 3 – Great Barrier Reef: Snorkeling and Sea Turtles
Continued here: Australia Pt. 5 – James Cook University: Aussie-isms and the Poison Room
At the cafeteria that evening, Kaleo was looking for challengers in a game of ping pong to eleven. Loser buys dinner. I mentioned that meals come with tuition so he should be covered, like the rest of us.
“See, that’s where you’re wrong, my man. I haven’t been a student for months.”
The others began milling into the cafeteria for their final meal before flying on.
“Just hanging out, trying to figure where to travel next” Kaleo continued.
I accepted his challenge, lost uncompetitively, and bought him a sandwich from the counter.
“What are you all doing for your last night here?” Emily asked Ellie and Amanda.
“I don’t know.” Ellie said “really don’t want it to end.”
“Secret beach!” Kaleo interjected.
There is a beach north of Cairns that isn’t labeled on maps, one of the only ones on the eastern coast that doesn’t have a resort community clinging to it like barnacles to a tidal rock. We all said we would go but had no way of getting there. Kaleo said that his best friend and fellow nomad, Jack, definitely had a car, maybe had a local driver’s permit, and should be able to pick us up. Kaleo texted him, and the answer, as this was Australia, was a resounding affirmative.
Jack wore a dusty pair of cutoff jeans, an open silk shirt, and long blond dreads squeezed together by crushed bottle caps that looked like rusted clamshells. He looked like someone who enjoyed tightrope walking on a bungee tied between two trees. He told us all about how the transition from driving on the right to the left was much smoother than you’d think while sandwiching our seatbeltless lot by quickly yet deftly maneuvering a roundabout.
“Shame I just met you guys now, I moved out of the lodge last week” he said, flinging a lock out of his line of vision while checking for a right turn.
“Where are you staying then?” Emily offered. “Sometimes right here.” He patted the car seat. “Mostly just on the beach though.”
He noticed our surprise. “You know, a quick fire will keep the crocs away, and sometimes I’ll bring a net for the mosquitos. Peaceful.”
I don’t know how Jack and company found this place, but after leaving behind the tarmac and driving down what had become a road only in theory, I realized just what they meant by a secret beach. For an instant I began to second guess willfully getting into a beat up old Toyota abroad with a stranger that smelled like patchouli. In reality, the trail couldn’t be going in the direction of anything but the sea, but it inched forward far longer than the remaining land my mental map had accounted for until we came to a stop in a dusty clearing surrounded by a mélange of palms and thicket. “This-a-way” Jack instructed and gestured in a two fingered salute toward a thinner part of the brush.
After slinking through the branches we realized that maybe we should have been a bit less wary of our new friend, as an immaculate beach materialized just below us down a small set of rustic stairs made from knotted tree branches. Several people sat about five meters from the waves in a semicircle around a bonfire, including one heavily bearded fellow entertaining the rest by rapidly playing a didgeridoo.
Most of those on the beach were those I had met around the lodge earlier, but the musician and the girl passed out on his lap were entirely new faces. He stopped playing for a moment to breathlessly introduce himself as Dan. The sudden lack of sound startled the girl laying on his lap like a backseat child on a highway off ramp, and she sprung up instantly. I don’t recall her name but it was something monosyllabic and nature-based.
Before we could even bury our pints in the sand, Kaleo was shimmying his way up one of the taller, straighter palm trees with the handle of a cleaver wedged in his teeth. Once at the top, he gripped the slender trunk with one hand and took a few quick cleaver swings with the other, knocking several coconuts the seven or so meters down into the sand. Kaleo himself followed shortly thereafter and hacked open one of the fruits to pass around the group.
In a circle around the fire we passed around the coconut, scooping out the flesh with our fingers and sipping the water, still warm from the sunny afternoon, the temperature of the last sip of coffee. With Jeff, who had decided to give beer a try, I went over to the fire and popped open a XXXX with Kaleo’s cleaver and sat listening to Dan toil away on the didgeridoo. Half a pint in, Jeff had to go to the bathroom, and made his way towards the edge of the jungle.
“Whoa, mate!” Dan shouted, stopping mid-melody. “Ya don’t want a saltie gettin’ at your root!”
“Suppose not” Jeff responded, using context to understand what he meant by ‘saltie’ and ‘root,’ and instead walked toward the surf. Dan also suggested someone to go on croc watch if he were straying that far away from the fire. Jeff asked me to do the honor, and I fumbled down the beach before standing with my back to him, facing the jungle making sure a crocodile didn’t nip him from behind while he doing his business into the ocean. I was less concerned with wildlife attacking from the brush than I was that the waves would knock him over in the act and I would end up on the business end of some unfortunate friendly fire, but luckily there was no such disaster.
The girl that was there with Dan was apparently impressed as we walked back toward the group. “I have a life goal to pee in every major body of water” she informed us “I’ve hit the Pacific, Mediterranean, Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Should be able to knock out the Indian Ocean later in the month when I’m in Bali.” I asked her if she keeps a pushpin map for this like some people do for destinations they’ve traveled but she gave me a look as if this were the stupidest question imaginable and said “No…I just remember them” and turned around and walked away from the fire.
We remained on the secret beach until deep into the night, the Southern Cross peeking up from one horizon, turning the sky, midnight blue and hazy from the dying embers, into a ceiling fresco of the Australian flag. The pints of XXXX, sandy-bottomed from condensation and from using the beach as an ad-hoc cupholder, piled up empty, and several in the group began to doze. I lay back and watched the smoke twist moonward as the didgeridoo backdrop now switched to a slow transient bass, the lapping waves and sloshing retreat of the grandest ocean a metronome for the ethereal dreamtime. I remained motionless for a while, unconcerned about past, future, or if anyone was on croc watch.
Asher, Jeff, and I went back to the secret beach the next afternoon while Samantha and Emily were riding bikes with Kaleo. We figured out where it was by a combination of memory, satellite images, and asking Jack how to get there at breakfast that morning. We remembered a rocky cliff abutting the edge of the beach and thought it a fine weekend afternoon activity to climb it and see what was on the other side. The long, flat road through the brush that seemed endless in a vehicle was even more so by foot, but we eventually found the tree-tunnel that ended up in the sand. By day, the place seemed far less remote, a small wooden footbridge over a small swamp connected it to the adjacent beach, and there was even a skinny sign warning us about crocodiles in at least four languages.
What it lost with sun in seclusion, the beach gained in idyll. Beneath just the Southern Cross and a dying campfire, we weren’t able to see the calm turquoise water or the coconut trees hanging over the surf at acute angles, or the distant islands spread out in rows like green knuckles of an underwater giant. We relaxed for a bit, watching the sea or planking palm trees before finding the extinct fire pit from the previous night and the wall of rocks demarking the end of the beach.
Asher hoisted himself up onto the ledge, and I followed. Jeff, the tallest of the three by at least a brow, easily flipped over a flat-faced boulder. From then on, we clambered over what was like a Lake Erie breakwater interspersed by smooth diagonal rock faces which came to an end a few meters above the water. The sea pounded the rocks which made the lowest platforms slippery and the glassy calm of the beach seem like an ocean away despite being visible behind us around the curve of the bay.
A dark, shaded critter scurried out from underneath a boulder. With a wide, rotund center and a bunch of independently moving appendages it looked like a swarm of picnic ants making off with a dinner plate, but the speed and ease with which it glided along the tops of the rocks was more like a zigzagging remote control car. As the thing drew closer, each ant squadron molded into long strands of legs and it became clearer that this was one creature, moving in sidestep like a crab, but black.
“Spider!” Jeff shouted and jumped up and backwards onto a rock. It kept its distance and darted into another crevasse, but not before I got a decent look at it. At a foot or so wide, this could only be a Bird Eating Spider, a beast that fulfills the requirements of its name and then some, snacking on rodents and other small mammals as well as trapping birds and quickly poisoning them with a couple pokes of fang. Despite their size, they are not near the top of the list of most dangerous spiders in Australia, as the bite is rarely fatal to humans, merely a night of nausea and profuse sweating accompany a bite to an adult.
We climbed up in elevation, not to give the spider a wide berth but the waves, and followed along the top of the ridge. Scrawny, windbent trees grew out of the rocks to about my height, and had trunks like storm-tossed sticks with leaves hung impossibly sideways like date palms in a Dr. Suess oasis. We reached a point at which the rocks abruptly ended and our options were to rappel about ten meters down onto another empty section of sand or turn back. Choosing the latter, we were soon back on the secret beach and walking back toward the lodge to say goodbye to the crew who was moving out. We missed them by a few hours, and that night at dinner, the cafeteria was even emptier than the sparsely populated student lounge it was before. Classes would resume the following week, but for a few days, the lodge belonged to Team America.