Maks and Me in Oz. A walkabout on wheels.
Blog 4, January 17
Three days ago I was writing at daybreak from a treehouse near Cooktown with loud cockatoos flying by, now I'm on the balcony porch of an unrestored 104-year-old hotel in the wonderful peaceful town of Yungaburra, looking over coconut trees in a lovely garden with maniacal kookaburras and a statue of two Chinamen working on the railway built to carry logs out of the rainforest. In the treehouse, Maks slept under the fitted sheet because he was afraid of the big spiders that dangled from the canvas roof; here he's sleeping with the light on to keep feisty Mrs. Molloy from visiting him. She was the Irish woman who was the first landlady in this historic Lake Eacham Hotel, who kept the peace with a shotgun. I woke Maks with an urgent poke in the middle of the night, whispering, "Did you hear that? Did you hear the creaking floorboards? She's out there pacing in the hall. She smells your Asian blood."
If I had a time machine I'd go back to this hotel during World War II, when American flyers from a nearby base flew bombing runs to New Guinea. They'd land with anti-aircraft machine-gun holes in the skins of their bombers and chunks of wings and tails missing, then come to the pub in the hotel to celebrate their surviving another day. The scars from their dancing on the bar remain.
On our previous road trip from our tents in the Cairns caravan park, we went north for three days and 1000 kilometers; this time it's south for two days and only about 400k, on a lush loop with lakes and waterfalls, over the Misty Mountains. If we went down every finger of rainforest road, we could stay in here for a week, or a month. What a spectacular bicycle tour it would be, swimming under the many waterfalls, sleeping hammocks in the rainforest, living on bananas and coconuts, and munching sugarcane from the plantations.
Speaking of swimming under waterfalls, Maks spent a couple hours doing that yesterday, under the 70-foot Millaa MillaaFalls, where he tossed a video camera, believing it would float. It was the size of a small flashlight and waterproof, loaned to Maks by our neighbor in the caravan park, Sam the Australian fisherman with a long nasty scar on his belly and tattoos up and down his arms, who also worked for three years on a cattle ranch in the way Outback in Western Australia. He said no worries if we lost it, it only cost 50 bucks. Maks the wannabe filmmaker thought it would be a cool shot, POV spinning through the air under a waterfall and splashing down. Except it kept going down.
It was quite a day for Maks, having earlier done a tandem skydive over Goondi. Not satisfied with bungee-jumping from 150 feet off a platform over a crocodile-infested pond in the rainforest last week, Maks upped the game to 15,000 feet out of an airplane into a thick mist. I followed. He stuck the landing, I didn't.
The pilot was a young New Zealander from the small nowhere town of Rotorua. He was astounded when I told him I'd been there in the '70s, traveling with some American motorcycle racers. Later I rode a motorcycle around the perimeter of the South Island, and told the pilot that I vividly remember a half-crazy half-genius speaker who spouted his stimulating and sometimes magnificent ideas and opinions from the square in Christchurch. "That was the wizard! said the pilot. "He spoke in the square for 30 years."
The skydiving crew were both Aussies and Kiwis, who tend to be a bit competitive with each other. While we were waiting for the sky to clear, they bantered and needled. The Kiwi pilot had survived the big earthquake in Christchurch a couple years back. "You Aussies think your snakes and crocodiles are a big thing," he said, "but it's easy to avoid them. In New Zealand the bloody earth will swallow you. You can get killed by a can of beans falling off the shelf in a supermarket."
This afternoon Maks and me are going to hit a few more waterfalls, including one with a rock slide into the lagoon; and we'll check out a 500-year-old curtain fig tree and 200-million-year-old volcanic tube, before heading back to Cairns. Tomorrow, Saturday night, our last night in Cairns, we're going to dress up in our best teeshirts and go out for dinner and the theater, kangaroo burgers and Phantom of the Opera. Maybe I can find a phantom mask, to slip on in the middle of the night, shine a flashlight under my chin, stick my head in Maks' tent with a loud unzip, and scare the crap out of him. He'll jump out of an airplane at 15,000 feet and drop through the clouds at 120 mph, but a stupid phantom mask in his tent at night will terrify him.
January 14, daybreak in a treehouse near Cooktown on the Coral Sea, the northernmost town on the east coast. North and west of here it's all Outback and Aboriginal territory, all the way to the tip of Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria. Of course, the whole country is Aboriginal territory, but that's another story, of dreamtime and songlines. Rain is hammering down on the canvas roof, tropical birds are flying past the mosquito-screen walls cawing and cooing and screeching, and the Little Annana River is roaring through the thick green trees. The wet season has begun. It's beautiful.
Maks and me are on a four-day road trip within our 58-day walkabout on wheels. That itinerary I describe in the first post ... madness. Out the window. It only took a couple days in Cairns to realize that there's so much to see here in North Queensland that leaving to drive south into tourist land would be crazy. Also, our "damn cheap classic" rental car, as it's billed by Wicked, would have better been called "shitbox." I managed to talk the Wicked man into an upgrade for this trip of about 1000 kilometers, a spiffy Toyota hatchback that even has a CD player and working AC, which I run full blast for a cool breeze with the windows open for real air, at 120 kph. I'm so decadent. Picked up a couple of two-dollar CDs from Crazy Clark's in Cairns, Jerry Lee Lewis and Django Reinhardt. It's the only thing that costs two dollars here. Well, mangoes.
They're so wonderful in North Queensland that I bought a blender that I carry in my backpack, to make mango smoothies. First stop out of Cairns was the farming community of Mareeba, where mangoes fall like leaves and coffee drips from trees. We visited a giant organic mango plantation where the farmer told me that fruit bats can eat 10,000 mangoes a night. Stopped at a winery to pick up a bottle of mango wine, to drink with fresh flame snapper from the fish market near our caravan park in Cairns.
We drove on, into the jungle where Maks bungee-jumped from a 50-meter tower, dipping his head into a pond (cleared of crocodiles) at the bottom. Maybe you caught my Facebook post with a pic from above the platform, captioned "Maks takes a flying leap in the rainforest."
We stayed in Port Douglas that night, a bit touristy for my tastes, but we found a great hostel where the young women at reception wore tank tops and push-up bras like Hooters waitresses, and pointed the way north for us--wow! a big flock of white cockatoos just landed loudly in the grass beneath the treehouse. Got up early on Sunday morning to hit the Port Douglas market, so I could chat with the vendors before the crowds came. Bought some wonderful Aboriginal art from an Abo painter--spirits and serpents--and Maks and me had steamed tiger prawns with homemade mango ice cream for breakfast.
In my previous post I mentioned how easy Australians were to talk to, and named a few. It's turning out to be maybe the most soulful thing about this trip, as it goes on. Maks doesn't talk much, but I'm hoping he learns from watching me; all the best things so far have come from talking/listening to people and learning. Asking questions. Being curious.
For example, later this morning we're going to take a 4WD tour of Aboriginal rock art, drawings that are 10,000 years old; I met Darrell the guide in the Lions Den pub last night. The funky pub with old teeshirts and shoes hanging from the tin roof has been there since 1873, built during the gold rush. They were playing '60s Bob Dylan and Van Morrison music! Willie Nelson too. The young bartender, born and raised in Cooktown, was a talented musician and is headed to Vancouver B.C. next month; I told him he MUST come down to Seattle and Portland for the music scene, and gave him my email, plus the Jerry Lee Lewis CD, because he rocked like Jerry Lee at the old piano in the pub. I made a girl from Liverpool cry sweet tears because I reminded her of her favorite uncle, and she hugged me about six times. Maks and I shot pool until they turned out the lights. It's not often a 16-year-old has the chance to close a pub.
He's sleeping here in the treehouse as we speak, wrapped under the fitted sheet because he has a fear of spiders. We saw a wicked-looking one on the tree when we came home last night. He says I gave him this fear, because when he was little I made him watch a movie about spiders as big as buildings. It's probably true. Bad dad!
I'm out of space here, and I haven't even mentioned the monsoon at CapeTribulation on our second night. Nor our slow ride on the DaintreeRiver in a boat with electric motors, spotting crocodiles. Maks' guided jungle walk at night in the downpour, stepping over the lizards and toads and ducking around the snakes hanging from branches. Driving out of the Daintree Rainforest the next morning, dragging away the fallen trees over the narrow road.
Today we drive back to Cairns along the edge of the Outback, listening to Springsteen and Joe Ely while dodging the kangaroos and wallabies. Carrion birds are fat here, from all the roadkill. On Thursday we take another short road trip, south this time. Maks is booked for a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet.
I wrote most of this on January 3, in an espresso shop on Bondi beach in Sydney. Today is January 8, and our tents are pitched in a caravan park in Cairns. A lot happened in those five days, so I've got some catching up to do, in upcoming blogs.
The first 36 hours in Australia were kind of a rough start. I made thousands of decisions since December 1, when Maks and me began full-time planning and preparation for this trip that sometimes feels more like an expedition than a holiday. I've been on six-week expeditions to climb a mountain wall in New Guinea with penis-gourd-wearing natives as porters; and to descend the Class V whitewater River of Doubt, deep in the Amazon jungle with treacherous Indians. And I have a friend, Scott Woolums, who leads expeditions to climb Mt. Everest and other peaks around the world. My respect for him is immeasurable, because it's so hard to make all the right choices before you get there. For example, we shouldn't have rented a car in Sydney for our arrival. Even for a racedriver like me, driving at night in city traffic not knowing how to get where you're going, on the wrong side of the road while jetlagged, is asking for disaster. I returned the car the next morning, and cut my losses; in Australia during peak season they don't do refunds for cancellations, but you need to book ahead. So it's problematic to be free-spirit travelers like Maks and me.
One of the many rewarding things about this trip will be the conversations with Australians, who are so easy to talk to. It's something I want Maks to see, and learn from. It's taken 66 years to lose my own shyness, and a lifetime of experiences from my travel in 50 countries and all 50 states to gather stories so there's always something to share. In 48 hours so far, I've had great conversations with an Australian Air Force pilot who flies out of Perth; a Greek Cypriot shuttle bus driver who's been in Sydney 37 years; a guy who's been windsurfing the waves in Western Australia and Maui since the late '70s; a woman who taught at an Aboriginal school way up at the tip of Cape York back when supplies came in every three months (and raised her own two kids there); and a wry woman on the plane who warned us that the roads in Australia are indeed like the movie Mad Max. "So you're one of those smitten tourists who believe there are no bad people in Australia?" she asked. "Yes!" I replied with a big grin intended to hold the power of positive thinking.
Speaking of movies, research for this trip included watching 10 Australian films, from the dumb but entertaining blockbusters Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max, to the wonderful Muriel's Wedding and the little-known gem The Sapphires, and black-and-white films from Nevil Shute books, On the Beach and A Town Like Alice.
And then there's the books. I read a stack of travel and history books of Australia before we left, and was surprised but not shocked to learn that in 1975 in a secret back-room coup, the CIA deposed the Australian prime minister, as documented by investigative journalist John Pilger, who might be described as Australia's Seymour Hersh. It was more about money than politics; American corporations have been pulling the world's strings for a century, not just today. I've carried about a dozen novels down here, to read by candlelight in the tent on the many long nights upcoming, from the late Bruce Chatwin's moving Aboriginal work Songlines, to the lyrical love story in small-town Western Australia, Dirt Music.
Here's the first photo of our journey, taken during the 20-hour layover on Oahu; it's sunset on December 30 at Waikiki, where we stayed in a hostel, with a girl from Columbia and her boyfriend in the bunkbeds next to us. It seemed odd to say "buenos dias" in Hawaii, but no stranger than watching the young Germans here in the outdoor kitchen in the Cairns caravan park, cooking up sausages and potato pancakes in the mid-day heat. As for Maks and me, it's mangoes and barramundi. We go local, mate.
Imagine flying about eight thousand miles and landing in Atlanta for 36 hours, then flying up to Maine and driving to Nova Scotia, before turning around and driving down the coast to New Orleans; then flying north and slicing the continent to about Winnipeg, before driving off-road to Seattle and south to Los Angeles. Switch the North America map for Australia, and you have Maks and Me in Oz, a 58-day road trip. Featuring saltwater crocodiles, hungry sharks, venomous snakes, vicious spiders, deadly jellyfish, and road trains of semi-trucks in the Outback. I'm in trouble if I'm too old for this shit.
Translated, the itinerary is Sydney, Cairns, Cooktown if a monsoon doesn't wipe out the road, Brisbane, Melbourne, Phillip Island for the classic motorcycle races, Adelaide, Darwin, Broome, Dongara for Kitestock the kitesurfing festival, and Perth; about 6000 miles on wheels and another 5000 in the air.
My 16-year-old son and I leave December 30, and after a layover night at a hostel on Waikiki beach, on New Year's Eve we fly into the Twilight Zone. We get on the plane at 3 p.m., and 10 hours later we land in Oz the next evening, in another year.