Australia Pt. 9 – The Far North: Hope Vale and the Rainbow Serpent

Hope Vale, QLD – June, 2011

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

Continued (and concluded) here: Australia Pt. 10 – Departures: The Long Way Home

We weren’t far past Cooktown when the pavement disappeared, and we had crossed over the northern extent of tarmac on the entire Cape York Peninsula. Before we could continue along the dirt road, we had to stop on a platform that looked like a cattle grid. We sat there as the underbelly of the bus was sprayed with water or something similar to prevent us from bringing our city bugs into the sensitive peninsular environment.

“This takes a few minutes, but we can always go in and get some lollies” Cheryl said, and suggested we go into a small convenience store made of plywood that was likely placed there for this very purpose.

I stepped off the bus with Jeff and a few of the Australians to go into the tiny depot and have a look around. The interior of the place looked like a coffee shop from a minimalist’s caffeine dream but with items from a Cracker Barrel gift shop in lieu of crostini and cortados. Kelly and Ava became nostalgic about some of the items offered there, like gummi octopuses and something called salty plums.

“You don’t have salty plums in the States?” Ava said, incredulously, when I picked up a package with a picture of a guy puckering sort of like the Warhead logo.

She bought it, and once we were back outside in the dust, passed Jeff and I each a piece of candy that looked like a prune covered in salt. That was essentially what it was, but even so the look deceived. I bit into half of the plum and was reminded me of accidentally sucking in ocean water through the snorkel at the reef. I coughed and drank half of the lemonade I had purchased and asked how anybody could eat that for enjoyment.

“It’s like Vegemite, I suppose. You get used to it.”

I wondered why, with this mindset, it was so impossible to find any spicy food in this country.

Cheryl took advantage of the delay to put gas into the bus, so Jeff and I walked around the tiny outback crossroads. The tree savanna continued as far as we could see, with gum trees sprouting up at equal intervals, covering the ground on either side of the curving red dirt road, which wound its way up a hill and out of view. Termite mounds, as tall as someone on stilts and as wide as a totem, rose from the dry ground like the turrets of a hardened sandcastle.

Further onward, we once again arrived in a lush but fairly open forest. The dirt road straddled the climate line between tropical oceanic and the drier savannah, so the view out of the window constantly alternated between a deep jade green and a dusty golden orange as if we were driving across the flag of Togo. Not long after the gas stop, the bus turned right into the empty lot of a place called Endeavour Falls Tourist Park.

I wasn’t sure why we were here, but we had all gotten used to Cheryl’s habit of stopping at seemingly random places along the way. At one point on the first day, we had taken a detour to a turbid pond of standing water behind a row of powerlines where she had apparently had an epiphany several years ago. We also stopped for an unnecessarily long time near Cooktown’s recycling bins to see if anybody came by to use the service. When and old woman arrived with a milk crate of empty plastic bottles and began to pour them into the bin, Cheryl exclaimed “Look! She’s doing it!” and we all tried not to awkwardly watch this elderly Cooktonian run errands. By this standard, however, Endeavour Falls was at least interesting, and we took the opportunity to wander around on what felt like a Midwestern September day.

The main building looked a bit like an English country estate and there were signs pointing to trails into the jungle. A chicken strutted around the front lawn, and its feathers were colored with rainbow splotches as if it were dunked in cups of Easter egg dye. As we approached, it let out a frightened scream and sprinted away, its head bobbing forward faster and faster as it sped up like a coupling rod on a locomotive.

A small group of us followed the short trail through into the forest to see the waterfall, which took less than five minutes. The waterfall itself wasn’t particularly imposing or impressive, but the area surrounding it was pleasant. High-canopied trees created a half dome over the babbling river, and we followed a string of stepping stones to the point where the Endeavour tumbled down several meters into a rocky pool below. Forgetting about Aussie time, we only stayed a moment, before backtracking and heading for the main building.

Asher, Jeff, and I entered the little general store attached to the lobby while we waited for the rest of the class to use the loo or read placards in the display room. On one wall of the shop was a tank containing a golden retriever sized fish that looked a bit like a shiny bass with a grumpy underbite.

“That’s a barramundi” said the cashier. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen, and was clearly happy to have somebody else in the store other than herself and the fish.

“Would you all like to feed him?”

We said why not, and she handed us each a cold, damp prawn from somewhere underneath the counter.

“So, hold the prawn above the water, like this.” She took the crustacean out of Jeff’s hand and hovered it a bit above the surface of the tank. “And then put it just a centimeter or two into the water. And make sure you don’t drop it!”

She stepped back and handed the prawn back to Jeff and I walked up to the tank, looking for the cashier’s approval that I was doing it right. Slowly, I lowered the bait, and the instant the shell touched the water, the barramundi was suddenly across the tank and had inhaled the prawn like an aggressive Kirby on Benzedrine, sucking in half of my hand in the process. It felt like I had stuck my fingers inside an industrial strength vacuum cleaner. I jumped back and splashed some water onto the floor. The girl was doubled over laughing, as if she had done this before when bored on particularly slow days. Jeff tried to feed it next, but his hands shook and he ended up dropping the prawn in early, so I got to watch how fast the fish darted across the tank, intercepting its lunch before it even broke the surface.

“I’m gonna see what happens if you hold on” said Asher, and confidently strode up and put his whole hand in the water.

The barramundi, unmatched, engulfed prawn, fingers, and thumb in one gulp as if Asher was noodling for catfish. He yanked his hand away almost as fast as I did, giving the cashier even more laughter than before.

The road eventually led us to the small Guugu Yimithirr community of Hope Vale. Most of the town spread out across a clearing in the forest, but we turned down a dirt lane that wound through a patch of gum trees to a partially finished eco-lodge the community was hoping to open. Three wood-framed cabins backed up to the edge of the trees, while a spacious courtyard took up the other half of the cleared area. Along the perimeter were ten-meter logs like the ones used as seating around a campfire.

A man named Tom walked out of the largest building to welcome us to the site. “It’s a work in progress, but I hope you see the potential here” he said, and we did.

With ecotourism on the rise, Tom said, the lodge they are building would be a boon to Hope Vale, a community which suffers from high unemployment and the other problems that come with it. Unfortunately, construction has been extremely slow, and nearly a decade had passed since they broke ground. The eventual pavement of the remainder of the Cooktown Development Road would help bringing in supplies.

We had lunch with Tom and his family, as well as a few other locals who were part of the group advocating the resort. Asher, Samantha, and I sat on the log benches next to Wendy, a soft spoken but talkative woman of about fifty who wore a muumuu and was curious about our lives in the States. She asked about everything from snow to Barack Obama, and while we enjoyed the conversation, when lunch was over we regretted that we didn’t get to talk about life in Hope Vale as much as we did about Ohio.

Beyond Hope Vale, the road began to turn and split in ways that turned my internal compass into a board game spinner. When we arrived at yet another crossroads near high noon, I couldn’t tell which direction we had traveled, and to this day am unable to do so while retracing our steps on a satellite image.

“I think this is where we are to meet Willie” Cheryl said, and pulled us to a stop near a small path leading downhill and into dense subtropical brush. There looked to be no way to turn a bus around on the skinny ribbon of dirt we had been on since Hope Vale, and eucalyptus branches whacked the bus windows and forced us to squeeze them shut long before the tossed up dirt would have. After a few minutes, a cloud of dust moved up the side trail, surrounding a formerly white truck that barreled in our direction. Once it reached the main road, it turned around and we followed.

A moment prior I had a hard time imagining a moped traversing the side trail, but Cheryl maneuvered the bus over bumps and holes and roots like a test driver in a Jeep commercial. We came to rest in a dirt cul-de-sac near a cappuccino colored cliff. Out of the truck stepped a stocky man of about fifty wearing a blue polo that said ’Guurbi Tours’ and a goatee the color of milk tea. This was Willie, a Nugal-warra elder who operated one of the most critically acclaimed tour compaines in Australia, and was to be our guide for the Rainbow Serpent rock art tour. Willie had spent some years living in London before coming back to his ancestral lands and deciding that what he was meant to do was share the stories of his clan and educate on the lives and culture of the Cape York Peninsula’s first inhabitants. He had felt a calling back to these lands and became one of his nation’s most successful entrepreneurs. Willie introduced himself and his cousin, who was also a guide, and handed us all water and walking sticks before leading us across a dark rock slab plateauing above the eucalyptus forest.

“Just a short bush walk before we get to the caves” he advised. “And if anybody sees a snake, tell me and I will take care of it. Do not worry.”

For all the usual Australian horror stories about spiders and swimmy things, the fact is that in rural Queensland, snakes are possibly the most dangerous creatures of all. However, as Willie then explained, his people did not fear serpents but treated them with a mutual respect, which we would soon see in rock art in many of the caves.

We descended a steep set of rocks that looked like a winding staircase but natural, and then turned backward into a shallow cave. On the walls were mahogany colored paintings of emus and smaller birds, wavy segmented snakes, and what looked like a set of boomerangs. Willie said that the best estimates of the age of these images was ten thousand years before present. Those I found to be the most interesting were the handprints, which looked as if someone several millennia ago had held their hand up to the rock ceiling while a fire burned soot onto the roof of the cave, leaving several imprints of large splayed palms like permanent shadow puppets. To see the outline of human hands from an unfathomably distant past was surreal, and was made even moreso by the stories Willie told, from thousand year old lore to tales from his childhood on these very cliffs. It was like putting the timeline of human history into the bellows of an accordion and squeezing it closed.

“I want to tell you that it is okay to take pictures. Of me, of the art. You have my blessing” said Willie.

It is taboo to take photos of First Nations people or sacred sites without asking permission first. After he said this, many pulled out phones for the first time all day and clicked away. I took a few, so that I could remember what the rock art looked like but otherwise was content looking and listening.

The second stop was the Nugal-warra birthing caves, where people as recently as Willie’s father were born. In the last half-century, however, there has been a debate over whether people should give birth in country or be flown to the towns to hospitals. The people themselves have often decided they prefer the former. It sounds to me, then, that the issue should be settled, and progress has been made now that the Royal Flying Doctor service, a helicopter-based medical team that tends to the medical needs of any of Australia’s rural residents, has begun assisting clans like Willies so that they are able to have their children at home. When it came up that Jeff was pre-med, our guide asked his opinion on the matter. Jeff spoke affirmatively that he absolutely would consider being a flying doctor who would help them keep their start-of-life traditions alive and Willie seemed pleased. Mary elbowed Jeff, pointed to the sky and said “They heard what you said. They appreciated it.”

We visited six different rock art areas, some in caves and others on cliff faces, before climbing back up to the outcropping where the vehicles were parked. Willie talked about community, the importance of shared beliefs, and connection to one’s past. It strangely echoed what I felt during my time in Australia: the cooperation of people from different backgrounds, how natural and integral it is for humans to have shared experiences, how we became ‘Team America’ instead of Jeff, Samantha, Asher, Emily, and Nick. We aren’t meant to be solitary creatures, but part of a greater story. It’s how societies were created and grew and thrived for thousands of years and it is part of why travelers today seem so much more content than the rest of us. I have tried to combine the vagabond’s communitarian ethos with the traditional concept of a home tribe, a life not behind a screen but with people and for people, a backpacker mentality meets clan elder sense of country that is increasingly slipping away from western society. I found it briefly in Australia, and it is still something I consistently strive for ten years later.

As we drove back through Hope Vale, toward one final night at the Cooktown caravan park, Wendy asked if we could give her a ride into town so she could do a bit of shopping. Cheryl obliged, and Wendy took a seat near the front of the bus as we drove across the bush away from the setting sun.

“Do you all want to see Black Mountain?” Wendy asked, a bit hesitatingly.

I didn’t know what she meant but Cheryl and a few of the other Australians looked surprised, and readily accepted the offer.

The mountain was just outside Cooktown, and it was accessible only by another side trail off of the main road. When it came into view, the rounded peak towered eerily above the eucalyptus forest and was covered in black boulders piled on one another in the shape of a shallow pyramid. There were a couple of bushes clinging to the sides, but otherwise the entire promontory was completely barren. It has been called the Bermuda Triangle of North Queensland for the disappearance of climbers who attempt a summit. The traditional owners, the Kuku Nyungkal, beg people not to step foot on its rocks, or even to approach it, for fear of dark forces and unintended consequences. Like legends surrounding Egyptian tombs, it is said that climbing the Black Mountain will continue to haunt you even after going home.

Wendy said that she would grant us permission to view it and to take photos, but that it would be best if nobody else exited the bus in its presence. Cheryl parked at the base of the mountain, and the old woman slowly got out. She called out to the spirits in the Kuku Nyungkal language, holding up one hand and waving it around, not dismissively but in a way that looked like she was reasoning with the mountainside. Once back inside, she announced that we could safely photograph it and we did so, before quickly driving away. The next afternoon, we were a world away back in Cairns, among traffic lights and backpackers and wifi, and with just one part of my summer in Australia to remain.

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