Mount Molloy, QLD – June, 2011
If you can look past the driver sitting on the opposite side, school busses are the same across hemispheres and the experience consistent in all phases of life and education. As I climbed up the stairs I was brought back to vinyl seats big enough for a pair but with no seatbelts, the windows that required harnessing an entire arm’s worth of strength into one finger in order to open, and thirty students all trying not to sit above the wheel hump. I was fortunate enough to be called on to help Cheryl carry in the eskies so I had my pick and got a window seat near the front. Jeff sat to my left and eliminated that final childhood fear of getting someone obnoxious as your seat partner. Kelly and Greensleeves were across the aisle and the other Americans were nearby as well. Most of the locals, who had watched the landscape transition from lush mountains to near-Outback hundreds of times, were content to lounge in the back with their eyes shut and earbuds in.
“Looks like I’ll be chatting to you all” said Cheryl as she sat down in the driver seat and pulled the door lever.
Upon leaving the parking lot and traversing a roundabout, the road immediately began upward into the Macalister Range, an extension of the Great Dividers that hem in the coastal cities which keep all the rain for themselves. After one switchback, the Cairns suburbs were out of sight and thick jungle foliage swooped down from the canopy, blocking out the sun and turning the road into a verdant tunnel. Hunter green leaves the size of the bus windows hung limply near dangling arcs of Tarzan vines, and for the entire climb up the eastern slope the scene looked less like Australia and more like the bottom half of a Peruvian cloud forest. A branch swinging primate or a fog shrouded waterfall would have looked more in canon than what we did see when we finally crested the first mountain and the trees fell away: The suburbs of Cairns sprawled below, a Qantas plane landing on an asphalt strip, and the sapphire sea sparkling beyond. Though it was, at most, twenty minutes into the trip, Cheryl stopped the bus an instructed us to take a group picture.
Kuranda looked like a zoo exhibit. The tiny town featured several long, wooden market stalls with the curved iron roofs typical of the Australian bush, all shrouded by palms and Poinciana, and highlighted by the Rainforestation, an eco-exhibit advertising a chance to hold a koala named Timtam. We were past it in seconds and into another long section of wild forest before it became noticeably dryer and we leveled out onto the tablelands, an area of towering eucalyptus and the occasional farmhouse.
“We get out here pretty quickly” I said to Jeff. It seemed as if we had just left Cairns.
“Wait until we get out to the bush, then” said Cheryl.
“This isn’t ‘out in the bush’?” I asked.
“Not even close. There’s still houses here.” We drove by a wooden shed that was more practically a three-sided lean-to. “After Mareeba, there’s nothing.”
To me this was nothing. I don’t mean that pejoratively either, just that you have to travel hours outside even a mid-sized city in the US to come to an area even half this remote. I was excited to see what would follow.
As the bus pulled into Mareeba, a town with a square that wouldn’t look out of place in Wisconsin, Cheryl deftly paralleled the thing, and walked into a grocer with Mike and a couple of students.
“Time to go bogan hunting!” Alex excitedly shouted and he and several girls rushed toward the side windows, peering out as we did the reef from the plane.
“Bogan?” I questioned yet another Aussie word that sounded like a Dr. Suess character.
“A bogan. You know, like, an ocker.” Kelly said.
This cleared up absolutely nothing, but I was nonetheless compelled to look where Alex and the others were, hoping to catch glimpse of some as of yet unseen marsupial bounding down Mareeba’s main street.
Kelly tried to help the Americans out again: “It’s a guy, like an old white guy, who walks around in flip flops and board shorts. He’s drunk in the morning and rude. You can barely understand his accent…”
“Florida man!” Asher interjected, referencing the meme describing a similar character in the American south. It has been said that Queensland and Florida have much more in common than the Sunshine State nickname, and as the denizens of Mareeba walked by, several bore a striking resemblance to the noon crowd at a Key West bar. We remained long enough for Cheryl and the others to pick up four days supplies for thirty and exited further outbush.
After Mareeba, the vegetation continued its descent into aridity, the fan palms now completely replaced by scraggily eucalyptus laid out like an oblique dot pattern, giving just enough space for each’s branches to avoid entangling with its neighbor as if it were savanna full of whirling dervishes. The ground beneath became beige and resembled west Texas. It was then a surprise when Cheryl turned the bus down a dusty lane and announced “Just a couple more food stops. My mate Denny is expecting us on his mango farm.”
The road into her mate Denny’s mango farm was lined with rows of cubical mango trees, extending over undulating hills without bending like layers of vines in Bordeaux. It was not yet season, so the fruits dangled like green apples in an Ohio orchard, the pale jade leaves and twisted bark completing the similarity. We parked in front of an old barn, weather worn from the alternating deluges and droughts, beneath an iron awning that had seen its share of monsoon drops and blazing sun. Denny was as jovial as they come, stepping outside and greeting us warmly even though we startled his chickens, and he and Cheryl embraced as old friends do.
“So you all want to become mango farmers, huh?” His thick northern accent fit the visuals – a large man in both height and weight, he wore a blue flannel and tucked his long white hair under a curved brim hat. He looked like a stock photo from a seed catalog.
“Denny, stop trying to steal my students for next season” Cheryl joked.
The farmer handed us each a small booklet that he gives his temporary workers, usually backpackers or other vagrants who stay for free in a dormitory and get paid enough to travel around. On the front was a cartoon of a sunburned bogan in a floppy hat, SPF-not enough splashed on his large nose, lifeguard style. The title: How to Pick Mangoes Without Going Troppo.
I flipped through the book as Denny led us on a short tour of the place. He told a story about a uni student who was traveling around Australia and had stopped to work a couple months of picking season. He stood on a wooden stepladder about three meters up, grabbing mangoes and dropping them into a back basket when a crocodile slinked out of a nearby gully. Panicking, the kid knocked over the ladder and scrambled up the tree as the beast approached, neck up like a defeated dog who missed the squirrel. While climbing, he unknowingly smacked his hand right in some sap which eventually made its way to his face. His eyes swelled up as if pepper sprayed and, not able to see whether the croc had moved on, he was forced to stay in the tree for several hours until another farmhand came by with an entire crate of fruit and asked what on earth he was doing. “That one went a bit troppo” Denny added, beaming as he did through the entire story, downplaying danger the Australian way.
“But no matter! That won’t happen to you lot! I don’t know how long Cheryl’s keeping you locked up in that classroom, but if you’re still around come October, you know where to find some beer money!”
We left with enough mangoes for multiple each per meal and filed back onto the bus. I kept the pamphlet and flipped through it as we continued northwestward, admiring the drawings that looked like an Aussie knockoff of the Ziggy cartoon, if Ziggy were harassed by grinning crocodiles or experiencing heat stroke. I actually emailed with Denny via Cheryl a little over a year later during a jobless postgrad stretch and considered spending a northern hemisphere winter picking mangoes but ultimately decided not to splurge for the flight.
The road after Denny’s became straight and dusty, and even the eucalyptus gave up their fight against the encroaching outback, giving way to scrub brush and ever reddening soil. I understood what Cheryl meant when she said the area near Mareeba was not at all the bush, as for over an hour after leaving the mango farm, we passed not one manmade structure save for road signs, nor another vehicle. As we inched up Mt. Carbine, the highest point on our drive, the brown expanse stretched to the horizon in every direction, the road we followed an accidental dark strand on a thin-weaved taupe quilt. The rural continental United States, outside of a few pockets of the west, is not truly humanless. There are fences and sheds and gas stations fairly regularly, and what we call the boonies is not at all the wide open expanse that country songs make them out to be. We were a quick ride from Australia’s east coast, and there was absolutely nothing. And if we turned left instead of right at the next intersection, there would be twelve hours of driving before reaching Mt. Isa, the next town with a population of more than 10,000. Even before reaching the edge of the true outback, this is an empty, empty land.
When at last a house appeared on the left side, Cheryl slowed down and said “I know this fellow! Let’s stretch our legs a bit” before turning the bus up a gravely drive.
Nobody was sure exactly what was going on, but it seemed we were just showing up at some guy’s house, the only one for a hundred kilometers, to use the bathroom and have a look around. We parked in a dusty lot between two barns with large wooden doors so warped they appeared to hang diagonally. Rows of crates filled with some kind of animal feed lay opened up on the far side next to a hand-cranked mechanical bull. Rusted metal sheets stood vertically as a makeshift fence, atop which was a tightly curled strand of barbed wire, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether it was keeping something in or keeping something out. Nobody exited the main house to greet us, so Cheryl walked out of the bus and toward an outdoor privy that looked like Shrek’s.
When she realized the class didn’t follow, she said “Nobody has to go, but me? Wow you lot have some impressive tanks.”
With that, a few others left the bus and I joined in, eager to walk around a bit before driving the rest of the afternoon. A little puppy, the same color as the dry ground and the size of a throw pillow, ran from behind a wall of scrub wagging its tail at the unexpected company. We scratched around its neck and played fetch-the- twig, as more of our classmates stepped out of the bus to have a wander or get in line for the privy. On the far end of the lot, under a fat eucalyptus tree with a hanging tire swing near where the puppy came from, grasses began to sway as if a critter was prowling and the dog perked up its ears and became disinterested in the branch we were hurling. The movement continued and I began to think it was Cheryl’s roadside friend playing a joke on us. This’ll show them to fill up the privy without asking.
Instead, the brush parted and I was nearly eye to eye with a two-legged bird, its body of brown matted feathers shaped like a sideways tear drop. Its long legs were thin and straight like an Acacia switch, similar to a flamingo’s but blander in color and sturdy as if it did squats. It walked within two meters of me and stopped, staring back as dumbly as I was at it.
“Might want to keep your distance from that” said Ava as people began to back away. It seemed harmless but I figured I’d best defer to the Australians on this one.
“Oh look, an emu!” Cheryl said excitedly as she walked back around the sheds. She reminded me of a dark haired Miss Frizzle the way she never gave any surprise a worried thought.
Next to her was a man in a cowboy hat with a red bandana tied around his neck who looked like a kid’s show cartoon of an Australian farmer.
“Ah, I see you’ve met Charlie!” he said with a beaming smile that reminded me of Mango Denny. “Don’t worry, he’s friendly.”
I looked back at the emu and it began strutting around the yard. The puppy was rolling around on its back in the dirt getting a belly rub, and I wondered if in fact it was always that color.
“And just in case you’re worried about it, the dog won’t hurt ya either!”
We stayed at the ranch for a bit while Cheryl chatted with the farmer, wandering around with Charlie and the dog. Asher tried to sit on the mechanical bull, which had the size and sturdiness of a playground spring rider and looked like a tiny pommel horse. I turned the crank as hard as I could, and it emitted thirsty squeals for oil and resisted the motion like I was stirring thickened dough. The unsteady faux bull twisted in circles and flopped back and forth as I attempted to toss Asher into the dust. He held on admirably but eventually relented and hopped off before his white tee shirt ended up the same shade as the dog.
The desert stretched onward as the sun began its evening retreat, a much slower ordeal here on the far side of the Macalister Range than the sudden curtain closing of the day by sea. Nearing the horizon, it became a glowing ball the color of Uluru, shining behind scrawny trees and illuminating their silver-green leaves like embers dancing off a matchstick. Out of the left window of the bus, and seemingly trying to pace us, was a bounding kangaroo, appearing as a silhouette only against the giant setting sun. It kept up for longer than expected, the clunky bus on the thin darkening road claiming no speed records, before slowing down and bunny-hopping back into the bush. It checked to make sure Jeff saw it too, since its apparitional appearance after a long travel day of staring at emptiness made me doubt at first that it wasn’t a sort of imagined travel guide leading the way north, but he confirmed I was not seeing things.
It was dark when the desert scrub sprung back into jungle as we neared the outskirts of Cooktown, a tiny frontier town at the swampy mouth of the Endeavor River where we would be spending three days as a base for exploring the Cape York Peninsula. Cheryl drove us down a dark lane on the edge of town and then down a gravel drive to a campground with several clusters of cabins surrounded by a dense forest of eucalyptus. The bus crossed a wooden bridge, one which I would hesitate traversing in a bicycle, and came to a stop in front of a pavilion. Cooktown would prove to be one of the wilder places I would visit in Australia, and the villages nearby some of the most memorable, but first it was time to get some dinner.