Cooktown, QLD – June, 2011
Daylight was retreating quickly as we arrived back at the campground, but Alex had found a ride to take us back to Charlotte Street to pick up some drinks for the evening so a few people in the group essentially turned right back around. Money was divided and a small group packed into the back of a white van driven by a guy from Mt. Isa who was camping there with his family.
“Hey Team America, what are you drinking tonight?” Alex asked us when we handed over a bunch of orange and purple bills.
“Just whatever beer they have in bulk” I said.
“Four X or something.” Asher agreed.
“Naw you don’t want that” Alex responded. “Not here. Goon will cost heaps less. You sure you don’t want some goon sacks?”
Goon is Australian boxed wine, sold in bulk at places like Cooktown quick stops, and fills in for thirty packs of light beer in a land where even watered down brew can be pricey.
“I think that’s what we’re all doing” said Kelly. “That and Bundaberg Rum.”
We agreed to try the goon in lieu of beer and Alex sped off with two other classmates and twenty people’s money. “Just don’t let them make you play slap the bag later. Believe me, you’ll regret it.”
He wasn’t gone but fifteen minutes before the van crunched back down the gravel drive through the trees and pulled to a stop in front of the pavilion. “Come and get it!” Alex shouted, and we all began to help unload.
In the states, boxed wine usually comes in clear bags, showing off the content within, all wrapped neatly in a carton featuring a generic Italian first and last name in black cursive next to a picture of whatever delight awaited swirling around in a stemmed glass. When Alex flopped the dozen of goon sacks onto the picnic table, it took me a moment to realize that is what they were, their metallic wrap and bloated appearance made them look like throw pillows in pop tart wrappers. The style of wine was written in black marker on the bags: chardonnay, shiraz, red blend, etc.
When Alex saw me looking at the labels, he said “Doesn’t matter mate, they’re all shit.”
I helped him unsheathe a few packets of plastic cups and the group began passing around the wine and the rum.
It was indeed terrible, dryer than the Cooktown wind and it burned going down like acid reflux in reverse. That said, the goon was no worse than cheap American college beer and actually cost less, even in hyperexpensive Queensland. It also worked quicker without the repeated trips to the edge of the jungle that several pints would require.
Once again, it was totally dark by dinner and the curlews began squawking. I ate falafel and washed it down with the vilest wine imaginable, chasing it all with huge gulps of water that accomplished the same as a drizzle on a cracking lakebed. We all sort of broke into subgroups after clean up and I found myself back in front of our cabin watching Asher and Jeff, a couple of glasses deep each, trying to outdo each other in a pushup competition. Samantha and Emily were egging them on, and Alex was holding up a bottle of Bundaberg up like a trophy yelling “winner gets a swig, loser gets two!”
Asher and Jeff continued their cycle of crunches and pushups on the rainforest floor, hoping that the girls had one eye on the rugby match they were watching in the adjacent cabin and the other on the spontaneous workout session. Clearly not satisfied, Asher jumped up and announced that it was time to take the half-drunken exercise routine to the next level. With a running start, he jumped upward, grabbing onto the overhanging trunk of a curved coconut tree, slipping off seconds later, and cursing it for the newfound scrapes on both forearms.
Never one to accept a failed attempt, Asher jumped again, this time managing to pull his chin over the tree, which was now nearly parallel to the ground with his added weight. After three or four successful reps he slipped off, this time voluntarily, letting fly a few rounds of “Shit!” and some others as he landed. He frantically swatted and smacked his body with both hands and fell to the ground in a pseudo cower, ripping off his sleeveless shirt and hurling it into the bush.
“You alright man?” I asked, once he had finally contained himself.
“God damn ants!” He said, while still flicking off the remaining few from his shoulders. “Those things bite.”
He had the attention of the girls in the cabin now, as they had completely lost interest in the match on tv and were firmly entertained watching the astounded shirtless American have yet another run in with the local wildlife.
“Seriously, look at this” he said calmly, attempting to save face by under reaction.
Jeff and I grabbed our nearly empty drinks and walked over and sure enough there was an entire troop of green bottomed ants striding in lockstep along the crest of the palm. Large for ants but not freakishly so, they were rust-colored for the front two body segments, but the interesting part was the green behind, plump like a satiated tick and the color of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Laughing at the events of the last few moments, Kelly and Ava told us they are everywhere in tropical Queensland, and it was pretty surprising we hadn’t seen them yet. These green ants developed as an offshoot species of the weaver ant, a highly territorial insect native to equatorial Africa and Indochina. While not technically venomous, they cause a painful reaction by biting their target and spitting acid into the resulting wound. The pain downgrades into a discomfort quickly, not lingering like the attacks of many Aussie creatures, and leaves you with a small red gash. “A battle scar” as Asher put it, though the story of how he got them probably has changed as he has told it in subsequent years.
Camila, another student from class, walked up from the main pavilion and plucked one off of the tree. It squirmed as she put it on display for us between her thumb and forefinger. “Are you eating them?” she asked with coy smile. We exchanged confused glances and I pointed at Asher and said “I think it’s the other way around.”
“Oh they’re delicious, mate!” Steve added from a little ways away, walking towards us with a larger than normal bottle of beer, already over the idea of goon it seemed. “Crazy you haven’t tried ‘em yet.”
“What do you mean, yet?” Jeff responded, he and I immediately thinking that they were entertaining themselves with a game of let’s see what dumb stuff we can get the Americans to do, like a raised-stakes version of the ‘Mother onion’ bit.
“But you have to try it!” Camila continued, immediately proving my theory wrong by popping it into her mouth gleefully like movie theater candy.
“So good, not that sour. Here! Anybody?”
She grabbed another specimen and held it out in the direction Jeff and me. Its legs squiggled around in between her thumb and forefinger as she offered around to the group, the green part shining from the light on the cabin porch like a sickly firefly. Jeff said no way but Asher, looking to regain advantage over nature after his first run in with the creatures, placed it into his mouth.
“Huh” he said, and swished it around. “That’s…not bad.”
“Nick?” Camila asked, holding another writhing ant like a gradeschool dare.
“Can’t be worse than vegemite” I said and took it from her.
It was not worse than vegemite, though I wouldn’t call it call it tasty. It was like a tiny, wiggly version of those tortilla chips with the lime flavored salt that make you exceptionally thirsty. If local lore is to be believed, then the ants are both a hangover cure and an aphrodisiac, in which case then at least they are palatable. They’re such a staple in many indigenous diets all the way up through Southeast Asia that some use a mortar and pestle to grind handfuls into a powder in order to spread them on things. I thought that one was plenty.
With the group, I walked back toward the pavilion, which was lit by overhead bulbs hung high enough up that the attracted bugs failed to be a nuisance. Half of the students seemed to be there, a few looking around for a way to hang a goon sack to play slap the bag. Cheryl and Mary, the only two people on the trip over thirty, sat drinking a bottle of better wine than we had, discussing the days ahead with the Hope Vale community.
“I lived alone in a cabin with no electricity for ten years, from age thirty five to forty five” I heard Mary say. “I wanted to feel what it was like to live completely sustainably.”
This seemed out of character for the Mary from our class project, who started most sentences with “Actually…” and seemed as rigid as a eucalyptus trunk, but there is always more to everyone than first impressions. They offered us some crisps and some green mango salsa that Mary had made after plucking a few unripe fruits from a tree. It was bitter and spicy, but not at all bad, and temporarily masked the taste of the wine.
We were distracted by a wallaby hopping into camp, bounding on two feet, arms hung down lamely like a T-Rex. It made it a few meters away before stopping and looking at us, as if it knew we were from elsewhere and actually found its presence interesting too. The Australians paid it no mind, of course, but I enjoyed watching the creature, which was smaller than I expected, look around, sniff the twigs and then leap back into the brush. I was sure this one existed too, unlike the shadow I saw on the ride into Cooktown, because Emily hopped after it, performing a decent impression of the little wallaby as it headed deeper into the forest.
Elliot walked over and said the first words that weren’t required of him during the entire project:
“You know, lorry drivers attach a bumper to the front so when they hit ‘em, they just go flying instead of damaging the truck. That way the driver doesn’t have to stop.” He looked at us, but we said nothing. “It’s called a roo bar.” He took a sip of rum, nodded, and walked away.
Alex and Asher had successfully rigged up a bag of goon with a rope they found behind what looked to be a maintenance shed, and were trying to get people to kneel down and drink directly from the nozzle while smacking the side of it with their other hand. Camila and Elliot both gave it a shot, spilling wine on themselves in generous amounts. After Alex took his second turn, he looked at Team America, offering the coveted spot beneath the bag. Jeff predictably refused, as did the girls. I held up my cup, half full of the world’s driest merlot, and said “Nope, I prefer to chug my goon the old fashioned way” and finished my glass.
A large group was discussing walking back into Cooktown proper to try out a couple of the bars, now that some of the bags had been flattened, and all five of us Americans agreed to go. We figured we would have no problem with the twenty minute walk.
“Just be careful” said Cheryl. “This is an odd town.”
I walked down the middle of the dark country lane that dead-ended into the campground on one end and connected to the main street in Cooktown a couple of kilos away on the other. With me were the other four Americans, plus Alex, Kelly, and Ava. Camila was far too drunk to join, and when we left, Cheryl was fetching her water. Elliot had simply said “No, thank you” and Mary suggested that she might meet us later.
We arrived on Charlotte Street which was as dark as the walk there except for bar lights, and as empty save for a couple of long haired guys in cut off shorts and flip flops lounging in a doorway. The midnight blue of the estuary announced itself with a gentile roll. Alex pointed to a place called the Top Pub that was attached to an inn.
“That’s where we’re going” he said. It did appear to be the most crowded of them all.
“Sounds good. Why that one?” Asher asked.
“That guy who drove me to the store, he comes here all the time. He said here they’ll just act like assholes, but we’ll be safe. The other ones not so much.”
As our group of eight clearly-not-Cooktowners walked into the pub, it reminded me of a b-movie where everyone inside stops what they were doing at once and looks in the direction of the door. Forks clinked, conversations halted, eyes turned on us in unison in a way that implied they had rehearsed the move, but this was no drill. However, after sizing us up and returning to their own evenings of merriment, we were generally ignored, just as the guy from Mt. Isa said we would be. Among those in the pub was Mary, who had inexplicably arrived before us and was guzzling something iced and chatting to two men in leather jackets by the bar. The surliness of the indoor area was not matched by the bar in the beer garden, where the bartender greeted us warmly and began filling glasses. Even though I had started with wine earlier, I saw a semi-local stout on the beer list and ordered it in a size called a schooner. It was quite good.
We got a large table in the back of the garden and chatted over the music as Jeff tried to show Kelly and Ava how to do the shuffle dance from LMFAOs Party Rock Anthem, a song that played thrice in the hour we were at the pub. We all tried to learn what they referred to as the ‘Melbourne Shuffle’, we all failed, and I’m sure damaged any chances of future outsiders had of a warmer welcome.
“Who wants another drink, I’ll get a shout.” Asher said, practicing is Australian.
We all passed him some cash, even though that’s not what a shout is technically, and I offered to help carry. Asher and I stood at the bar waiting for eight drinks, preparing to give the server a little extra for the trouble, even in this country of no tipping, when two guys bellied up who looked like they had just rode in from Sturgis. The first one, whose face reminded me of the Heat Miser from that old Christmas cartoon slammed his hand down with a wad of bills like a western cowboy demanding a whiskey. It was two shots of tequila, however, that was their libation of choice.
“Ever do a tequila suicide?” slurred the Heat Miser, looking at us.
“Uhh, no.” Asher and I shook our heads. The bartender had dropped off a plate with salt, two limes, and a pair of plastic straws.
“Do one with us then mates. On us. Welcome to Cooktown!”
The bartender turned his back and resumed filling our drinks.
“Alright, so here’s what you do” the guy with the tequila continued, as if we agreed to join them.
“Listen carefully!” said the other, even more dizzily than his friend.
The first unwrapped his straw and looked at us as if about to reveal something classified.
“First, you snort a line of salt. Take a moment, shake it off if you need to.” He was looking intensely at us now. “Then take this here lime slice, and squeeze a few drops into your eye. Just one though, doesn’t matter which. Then you slam back the shot.”
“You’re screwing with us” Asher laughed, and we began to gather the eight glasses in front of us to bring back to our table.
“Alrighty then” said one of the bikers and they each stuck straws up their nose, huffed the salt off the plate, dripped the lime juice into their eye like green Visene, and swallowed the tequila.
“Yeah, I’m not doing that” I said and carried four pints toward the group. I dropped them off and went back to the bar to help Asher with the rest.
“I tried doing a tequila suicide with those guys” he said. “I was like ‘what the hell, you’re only in Captain Cooktown once, right?’ But the bartender said no.”
“He said no?”
“He said those guys are always here, but he doesn’t want to deal with outsiders doing dumb shit at his bar.”
We were telling the group about the two bikers when Party Rock Anthem came on again, louder somehow, and we collectively decided this would be our last drink. Some of us were getting super tired/beyond tipsy and there was still the uphill walk back to the campground. Alex had his head in his hands and might not have been awake, despite the booming voice deadpanning ’everyday I’m shufflin’ from the speakers just meters away. This iteration must have been the closing song of the night, because as soon as it ended, the speaker lights shut off and people began to file out of the bar. Mary walked up to our table with the leather clad guys from earlier, both of whom were severely potbellied, their middles threatening the foundation of their tight jackets.
“This is Clark, and this is Rob” she said, introducing the men with an ear to ear smile, as happy as I had seen her. They nodded hello.
“They have just given us a wonderful opportunity! They have a homestead in a valley not too far outside town, and they wanted to invite us all over for some drinks and some weed. We can even crash there since it’s a ways from the cabins.”
This was a second offer in fifteen minutes I felt the need to hastily decline, and even Asher wasn’t convinced to honor his try everything once mantra. Alex barely moved, and Samantha and Emily were quickly approaching joining him in the land of nod.
“I think we’re going to pass” Kelly said slowly. “But thank you, really, thank you for the offer.”
We all began heading for the exit as well, Alex groggily holding onto Jeff’s shoulder. Mary was zipping across the parking lot on the back of Clark’s moped, a yellow contraption so old and tiny that sounded like a kid crammed a baseball card in the spokes.
“Last chance” she said. “We can come back for you!”
Still with nobody taking up the offer, they sped off into the night, and the rest of us began a much slower slog back to camp.
“Well that was unexpected” I said as we walked the dark undulating lane, meaning Mary specifically but the whole night at the pub by logical extension.
“Nah, I’m not surprised” said Asher, matter-of-factly. “I smoked weed with Mary last night.”
We laughed and he smirked, and said, as if he were trying to convince us:
“Really. After everyone else went to bed. She’s a super interesting lady. Annoying. But super interesting. She was like, an original hippie.”
Mary didn’t seem quite old enough for the math to check out for that claim, but I got the basics of what Asher was trying to say.
We arrived back, again using cell phone lights to cross the little wooden bridge near the entrance of the campground, and found a group of our classmates winding down from some chaos of their own. Apparently, Camila had wandered off to empty her stomach of the night’s wine, and hadn’t returned for a while. A blacked out visitor in a pitch dark jungle full of creepy crawlies could become a quickly escalating situation, but fortunately Elliot had found her stumbling around the treeline looking for animals. He had tried to walk her back to the pavilion but she began sobbing about something and Elliot, not loquacious in the most comfortable of situations had no idea what to say and made it worse with silence. Now she was sitting with Cheryl in front of her cabin with her head in her hands, awake only by technicality, occasionally yelling at Elliot for being a terrible listener.
“Is she ok?” Samantha asked, and Cheryl said “she’ll be right, we’re going to walk her over to her cabin in a minute. Reckon sleep will fix what ails her.”
Sleep sounded good to just about everybody, but Asher, Jeff, and I decided to have another glass from the nearly deflated goon sacks and sit around an unlit fire pit. Kelly and Ava joined us, followed by Cheryl, who had dropped Camila off and was perhaps making sure she wouldn’t have to repeat the experience with one of us.
We all chatted about anything and everything despite not being able to see whether somebody was still there or not. Kelly had a fiancé who worked in a mine in the Northern Territories, Asher was deemed to have the most stereotypical American accent of us all, Jeff finally answered why, as premed, he decided to do an environmental planning program, and Cheryl told us about growing up in Papua New Guinea with her military father. I mostly listened, and after an hour and a couple glasses, conversation between the six of us began to slow. I could see nothing but an occasional flip of a light from one of the cabins, but when I looked up, the canopy created a periscope surrounding a blanket of stars so numerous and complex it looked as if someone was using the ceiling of a planetarium as a dartboard. Standing out amidst it all was the Southern Cross, staring down at us and watching me float around in a pseudo-dream, goon groggy and sensory deprived, the darkness as absolute as I’ve seen outside of a cave, the silence broken only by the occasional remark, a cool Cooktown gust on the palms, or the scream of a curlew.
The zenlike illusion shattered as I accidentally took a deep breath of the dry air when laughing at something Jeff said and immediately regretted it. Hiccups. Maybe nobody would notice. Anyway, I deserved this after going from wine to beer like a restaurant menu, but that didn’t mean it was welcomed. I tried holding my breath and counting to ten, but at around eight or so my diaphragm made a sound that would rival that of the shrieking jungle birds and I had to start over. I excused myself for some water, but the jig was up, and now I had a brand new suggestion of remedy from everyone in the circle.
“Three breaths in, one out” someone said.
“It’s dark enough out here, one of us could scare you” Asher offered.
When none worked, I decided it was time for bed and that before settling in I would try Cheryl’s suggestion of hanging upside-down and drinking water. I flicked on the lights inside the cabin, and climbed to the top bunk and locked my legs around the railing, letting my hands fall free and my head dangle. In hindsight this was a poor thing to do after a night of drinking but it seemed to be working, despite water rolling down my forehead. Asher and Jeff walked in shortly afterward, my exit seemingly reminding everyone we had a seven o’ clock wake up quickly arriving.
“What’s up guys” I said to their feet.
“How’s that working out for ya?” Jeff asked, his upside-down head almost level with mine.
“I think it’s work…hyeup…working. Or maybe not.”
Asher had walked into the bathroom and Jeff began his nightly routine of checking his mattress for spiders. As he untucked his fitted sheet he jumped back suddenly and I swung back up onto the top bunk to avoid a headfirst swan dive onto the tiled floor. Looking down from my perch, I saw a half dozen little black arachnids scuttling up from the wall, escaping from Jeff’s swatting and PG-rated expletives. Desperately looking around for something to either trap or squish them, he darted around the tiny cabin before knocking on the bathroom door.
“Yeah?” Asher said from the other side.
Jeff stopped and thought, but then shouted “I’m coming in!” and burst open the door.
“Dude, what the hell?” Asher said, and by this point I couldn’t control my belly laughs. Jeff unrolled several sheets of toilet paper with the speed and focus of a bored cat and ran back to his bed to deal with the spiders, swinging his hands this way and that while I rolled around laughing from the top bunk. My mirth subsided slightly when I saw one make a break for it up the wall towards me, but fortunately Jeff was there with a wadded piece of paper before it could find my pillow. When all the spiders seemed to be spoken for, Jeff asked if I could help him move the bunk away from the wall, which I did.
“Hey man, thanks for that” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“All that laughing finally got rid of my hiccups.”
Asher walked out of the bathroom, still confused and now wondering why we were moving the bed, so we told him what had transpired. He then started laughing almost as hard as I was.
“Why is it that every time I’m doing my business in Cooktown, some local creature interrupts?”
I climbed back into bed and immediately passed out.
Though it seemed like just seconds, it was allegedly three hours later when Mike came knocking on our cabin door.
“Rise and shine!” he was saying, the early dawn light announcing itself through the front windows just as loudly.
I couldn’t move. My head felt like I had slept beneath a coconut tree and my tongue and the roof of my mouth did a convincing act mimicking Velcro. It was as if all the water my body ever possessed was absorbed by the wine and I was left a raisin in a sardonic twist of fate. Jeff had thankfully opened the door for Mike and spared me the impossible descent down the wooden ladder near my feet.
“A few of us are heading down to the fruit market in a few if anybody is interested in joining.”
He was so chipper and I wanted him to go away. Mike had gone back to his cabin the previous night as soon as dinner was finished, probably the only one in the entire group who didn’t imbibe and I relished his place among the sentient at seven in the morning. Jeff muffled some sort of respectful decline, Asher stirred a little, and I am never drinking wine again.
“No worries, we’ll be back in about an hour then to load up.”
As he shut the door, I drifted back to sleep. One more hour before getting back onto the bus and riding a dirt road even further up the Cape York Peninsula, to Hope Vale and then beyond to go on an rock art tour. One hour.
Miraculously, one of the best things about being twenty two, as I can now attest with nearly a decade of additional experience, is that a glass of water and a bit of breakfast can wipe out a hangover before it begins, like orange juice to a sore throat. After second wake up call, we joined a small group of classmates near the trunk of a big eucalyptus tree, the amount of missing peers indicating that our cabin had fared better than many in terms of morning struggle. The group that had went to the fruit market returned, and we were surprised to see that it included Mary. She smiled and handed us each something called a sticky bar, a sweet treat made with coconut, cane sugar, and rice, all clumped together to look kind of like a long and narrow Rice Krispies Treat. The last stand of last night’s wine retreated with the first cloying bite and I packed my stuff and self onto the bus, ready for what lie north.