Australia Pt. 7 – Following the Endeavour: Camping with Critters and a Tour of the Shire

Cooktown, QLD – June, 2011

Continued from: Australia Pt. 6 – Northward: Going Troppo in the Gum Trees

Continued here: Australia Pt. 8 – Goon Sacks and Ant Snacks: One Night in Cooktown

Each cabin at the campground slept three, and Asher, Jeff, and I rushed to claim one of the newer looking ones near the entrance. As we switched on the lights, the place looked more like a dormitory than a cabin, with plain white walls, a generic looking bunk bed in the corner, and a third mattress across the room. Asher threw his stuff on this lone queen size and walked into the bathroom, announcing he had been waiting since the emu farm and might be a minute. I was more than happy to let lanky Jeff have the bottom bunk, and I climbed up to my perch, hoping for a quick nap before a late dinner.

Asher shouted and then swung open the bathroom door, and while pulling up his shorts he said to us, in a tone somewhere between laughing and disbelief, “Dude! You guys have to look at this.” He then started to walk back in, pointing at the toilet.

“I don’t want to look in there!” said Jeff. He was busy checking his mattress for spiders, something he had done every night since arriving in Australia.

“No, seriously” Asher responded. “It’s not what you think.”

Cautiously, Jeff and I walked over and peered into the bowl. Sitting halfway in the water was a highlighter green, softball sized frog looking back at us, its neck expanding and contracting, but otherwise still.

“It uh. It got in the way, if you know what I mean” Asher said, really beginning to find the humor at the situation.

“At least it didn’t scare the shit out of you” one of us said, and we joined in his laughter.

“Oh it did, just figuratively.”

The frog remained motionless, glaring at us with unamused googly eyes as if it wanted us to shut the lid and take our business elsewhere. “What are we gonna do about this?” Jeff asked. “Cause I’m next in line.”

“Anyone have a net?” I said, mostly kidding.

“Aren’t the bright ones supposed to be poisonous?” Jeff asked.

We stood for a moment, before Asher said “Eh, it’s probably fine” and reached his hands in the bowl. Once he had the frog, he carried it with outstretched arms like someone who is afraid to hold a baby and quickly made his way to the cabin door, followed by me and Jeff, and placed it at the base of a tree just outside. Its skin looked even brighter in just the moonlight as it jumped up and clung to the trunk.

“Um, I can’t feel my hands” Asher said, holding them in front of him and flipping them over and back repeatedly like a first-timer on shrooms.

I knocked on the screen door of the next cabin to see if they knew what kind of frog it was and what the prognosis is if somebody were to, say, pick it up. Kelly and Ava were watching rugby on a miniature set television and decided this would be more entertaining.

“Have you seen these frogs around here before?” I asked, pointing at the tree once we were outside. Asher had moved on to wiggling his fingers like a frostbitten Mr. Burns.

“Oh yeah, they’re neat. But don’t touch them” Kelly said matter-of-factly. “They’re poison. Your hands will go numb.”

“Well I kind of already did…” Asher said. “Is this, like… how big of a deal is that?”

She smirked at the three of us and then at Ava. “Oh you’ll be right. It goes away after a bit. Probably want to wash your hands before dinner though. Good luck!”

Jeff mentioned that Asher should be glad it only touched his hands, considering where he found it, and we all got ready for dinner.

The entire class met in the dimly lit main pavilion to eat burgers (black bean or cow) grilled up by Mike and, as always, fresh fruit and vegetables. As we ate, Cheryl gave a quick presentation, using only a map and her voice, about what we would be doing the next several days. I was only half-listening because I had already read the synopsis and she was constantly interrupted by Mary, who apparently thought she was the assistant professor, correcting Cheryl with vigor. In the middle of her talk, there was a terrible scream from the forest. I jumped, but nobody else seemed to notice. It wasn’t like the gecko from our lodge in Cairns, which was a shrill and jarring noise, but one that was clearly animal. No, this sounded like somebody running from a slasher movie villain and unfortunately coming up short. It happened a few more times during dinner, but I didn’t interrupt Cheryl to ask what it was as she had been cut off enough by this point. When we moved on to biscuits, I was chosen with a few others for that night’s dish duty, and walked to an outdoor sink with Mike. There were no lights, so we were washing blindly, a task made several times more difficult when handling glassware.

“So what was that screaming earlier?” I asked him.

“Screaming…screaming. Hmm.” He thought for a minute. Whatever it was he had clearly tuned it out.

“Ah. Curlews.”

“Curlews?”

“They’re birds, actually pretty small. But that’s their call when they are frightened. I hear them so often I forget how weird they sound.” He laughed. “Yeah I guess that’s a pretty odd noise for someone who doesn’t spend a lot of nights in the bush.”

It was true. The curlews shrieked all night every night at the campground and by the time we left, even us Americans had tuned them out.

People had already begun to drift back to their cabins by the time Mike and I returned to the pavilion. I was ready for an early night as well, and found Asher and Jeff of similar mind. Alex and small group had found a corner store and brought back some beer but we passed on their offer to join.

“Tomorrow” I promised, and the three of us walked back in the direction of our cabin, using phones as flashlights in the deep, way out there darkness.

We left early to meet with the Council of the Shire of Cook, which sounded like a medieval judgement panel but was really just a handful of people who ran what is basically the Australian equivalent of a county. The bus ride from the campground to Cooktown proper was so quick as to be laughable, as we could, and would later, walk it in under twenty minutes. Councilman Jefferson, a young for a politician, excitable man who reminded me more of an eager operative than the leader of a county equivalent, met us outside an official building that looked almost as temporary as a construction trailer.

“Welcome to the Shire!” he said as we all crammed into a small room and sat around a table. There we learned about the contemporary issues of the town and watched a presentation by the planning department. I learned that Cooktown was not even on the paved road grid until 2006, before which travelers would have to follow the Developmental Road, a dirt and gravel track that was frequently flooded and impassible for nearly half the year during the wet season. I learned how government grants have allowed them to rapidly build a community center and several subsidized and market rate condos, significantly expanding the infrastructure of this tiny town. I also learned how quickly the sun rises past the lone window, shrouded by fat venetian blinds and ends up high in the sky on a perfect afternoon stuck inside.

Mercifully, we broke for lunch and had turkey sandwiches in a park overlooking the Endeavour River estuary, near the exact spot where Captain James Cook landed in 1770, generations before the Uni was named for him. A replica of the good ship sat near the banks and was made of musical instruments like a floor piano for a deck and organ pipes for rafters. The lawn of the park extended down to the water and up the other way to the main street where it was separated by a fence made of poles and old nautical chains. This is where I discovered the addicting distraction of sensitive weeds.

After lunch, a couple of the Australian students were on the ground tapping the grass with their index fingers.

“Have you seen sensy weeds?” asked Ava to Team America.

She gently touched the top of a plant a few inches tall with rosemary-colored leaves that looked like a cross between a miniature fern and a mouse’s Christmas tree. As she did so, the feathery leaves recoiled and drooped like a time lapse of a flower in winter. After half a minute, it slowly sprung back to its original form.

“Well that’s fun” I said, and tried it, touching another one of the plants as lightly as I could. A similar reaction happened, so Asher then swept his forearm over a patch of them and watched them wither. We could do this over and over again without damaging the plant so it served as entertainment while we waited for Councilman Jefferson to give us a tour of the three-block town.

Charlotte Street is the main one, and one side is mostly restaurants and bars, in a style that blended scrapmetal Oceanic with tropical Victorian. Coconut palms grew like weeping willows on the other, hanging out over the water and guarding the shore. Notably, all the boats tied to the city docks were on grand scale, and the estuary was rather empty otherwise.

“It’s because of the salties” said Jefferson when asked why it’s a big craft only kind of area. “Some near six meters long slink around the mangrove there. They end up in the park every once in a while, the one where you had lunch. Kinda clears out the area for a bit. ”

A wall of trees plunged out of the estuary on the opposite bank, where the water faded to land, providing a comfy place for twenty foot crocodiles to hang out, and as such, the wrong place to paddle a tiny fishing boat.

We walked through the museum which showed displays about the town’s mining history, the reason for its original boom a century after Cook’s landing. It was a rough town of saloons and gambling before drying up and eventually easing into its current iteration as an off the grid ecotourism destination, aided by the completion five years prior of the paved road.

As the councilman walked us through the business district, an incredible gust of wind forced its way off the sea out of nowhere, threatening untied hats, bending palms, and forcing everyone to momentarily stop talking. After ten seconds, the air was as still as it had been before. When nobody in the group reacted, he said:

“I see you’re already familiar with the Cooktown Hurricane!”

And we were, as the random gales had happened with the duration and regularity of church bells since we arrived the evening before. The calm, cloudless air would suddenly travel across town at the speed of a lorry tailwind before disappearing for another hour or so. It apparently happens every dry season and nobody has really figured out why, an unexplainable quirk of geography. Locals, and by extension anyone who had been in town for a day it seems, had become accustomed to breaking off a conversation midsentence, index finger in the air, ready to continue when the stagnancy of the dry season resumed.

Where the Endeavour River opened up to the Pacific, Charlotte Street abandoned its straight course and wound up a hill at the point. At the summit sat a white and red building that looked like a lighthouse that a giant had stepped on and squished, retaining the same general shape, but shorter, squatter, and splaying at the base. I supposed it didn’t need the artificial height as nature provided a five hundred foot cliff between the lighthouse and sea level. The hill was called Grassy Hill lookout, known to history as the place where a European first saw a kangaroo. A member of Cook’s crew noticed the strange creature, bouncing around the hilltop looking a bit like a deer in moon boots, and asked a local what it was, and was told “Gangurru.”

Without Cook knowing that the Guugu Yimithirr word was only used specifically for the eastern grey kangaroo, the Anglicized name became broadly used for every similar marsupial on the continent, despite their fairly distant relations.

We saw no kangaroos, eastern grey or otherwise, atop Grassy Hill, but the view was nonetheless phenomenal. The color of the murky Endeavour melting into the crystal aquamarine Pacific was one I had previously thought only possible on a palette. The sandbars, visible from above, swirled in the estuary with the texture of milk pouring into coffee, and the emerald canopy of the mangrove stretched out to the ridge beyond. Straight ahead, the sea appeared to have texture, as if the distant reef bent the light and ruffled the horizon, while tree-covered Mt. Cook, far wider than it is tall, loomed to the south, its ample base jutting out from the coast. The small but mighty lighthouse reflected the high sun off its freshly repainted sides.

Another gust of Cooktown’s finest blew in, practically knocking over Jeff, who was trying to take a picture of himself with the view. He smacked his head with his hand just in time to prevent his baseball cap from ending up downhill and out of mind. It was orange and had a stick figure on it and the words, all in lower case, ‘life is good’. As I looked out once again at the expanse before getting back onto the bus to slowly descend the switchbacks, I thought about how much I agreed.

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