My alarm sounds at 5AM but I don’t remove my body from the swag until 5:15AM. We make our way to the beach to try and catch the sunrise. The sky is slightly overcast; very-nearly identical in colour to the pastel blues and yellows that are reflecting across the ocean. The breeze is soft and even a little cool.
We watch as the light spreads from the horizon back to the mountain range behind us. The sunrise isn’t as beautiful as it might otherwise be with a cloudless sky, though it is special in its own way.
We pack fast in the hope that the ranger has slept-in this morning. It isn’t long before we’re riding back into Cape Tribulation where we sneak back into PK’s to make good use of the showers available.
We wait around for the small IGA to open, though it never does. 9AM passes, and then 10AM rolls-on-by. We eventually ask at the bar whether it will actually open today, to which the man replies “It might open, though there’s a chance it might never open. Whoever was rostered on this morning probably had a big night last night!” whilst holding back a snigger.
We wait only a short-while longer before submitting to the enormously expensive breakfast at PK’s. Brogs and Rah devour bacon and egg muffins while I make short-work of a toasted mushroom, cheese, onion and baby spinach sandwich, before heading into the camp grounds to find Marcos, Dianna, Leah and Lucille and say our goodbyes.
We part-ways, turning right and heading north along Rykers Road. It isn’t long before the tarmac turns to hard-packed gravel. The road is covered in a fine, extremely dry dust that kicks up for thirty seconds after riding over it.
Rykers turns into Bloomfield Road and things start to get really tropical. The trees hang over the road and meet in the middle, completely enclosing us and providing a nice shady ride into the rainforest. The surrounding green struggles to show its true colour; the lack of rainfall leaving a residual layer of the fine dust covering everything within a hundred metres of the winding dirt road.
We hit our first creek crossing; a rocky bottomed, axle-deep, flowing body of water no more than three or four metres long. The water is crystal clear. Brogan is already on the other side so I approach it slowly, dropping back to first gear, and coast through trying to maintain a steady speed. It works-a-treat, though the bank leading to higher ground after the creek is super slippery. Any confidence gained after successfully crossing the creek quickly dissolves when I nearly bin-it riding back up the other side. Rah’s fingers dig in a little and the silence becomes overwhelming once I kill the engine.
Riding two-up through the Bloomfield certainly makes for some interesting moments on the motorbike. It doesn’t take long before I regret not switching to the fourteen-tooth sprocket. The tall gearing is making it increasingly difficult to tame the weight of the beast as the climbs get higher and the surface looser.
I continue to find myself in situations where I approach an impossibly steep, loose-gravel climb – complete with water run-off ruts and off-cambered corners to test my nerves – and I try to grab first gear only to realise I’m already there! Each and every time it happens I am already part-way into the climb and the split second it takes to realise I’m out of gears (and luck) is enough to ensure I don’t have the momentum required to make the climb, leaving me no choice but to pop the clutch, twist in a touch more throttle, and then release and hold on for dear-life as the rear tyre spits fist-sized rocks back down the hill and the front tyre heads for the horizon. A truly scary experience for everyone involved.
I approach the steepest climb yet with a long run-up the tell-tale sign of its severity and, eager to defeat the daunting, corrugated obstacle I wind first gear right out and grab second before I even start climbing! The added momentum helps, though I’m forced to slow down for a sharp left-hand corner before continuing the climb, which leaves me in the same predicament as before!
Still, we push on and make-do with the setup we have. We wind along the edge of the rainforest with glimpses of the tree-tops to our left and shear drops to our right. I have very little time to be looking around and taking in the view with such a large percentage of my concentration being directed toward the road ahead.
We hit another crossing – this time a little deeper – as we descend down an open-faced mountain. I catch a quick, vast view of the ocean to my right and then my attention hones back in on the crossing. There are road workers who look to be building a bridge or cementing a causeway in. Brogan is sitting knee-deep in flowing water and his engine is kicking over and over and over without starting. His body language tells me of his frustration with the situation at-hand. His engine gradually splutters to life with a couple of harsh misfires closely followed by the sound of the rev-limiter. His frustration with the situation comes out in the form of a wheelie from the middle of the crossing out onto the bank across the other side.
I roll down and enter the water whilst sticking to the right. The water is slightly murky after being stirred up by Brogs’ rear tyre. I commit to the line and hold it steady, slipping straight through without a hint of hesitation. The road bends around to the left and then back to the right, where I find a shaded area and pull up for a rest. One of the workers walks up and we get chatting about the trip so far. We speak for long enough for me to gain valuable information of the road ahead and into Wujal Wujal, though the conversation is short-lived as the thick heat is a little too much to bear.
We continue on until we come to the steepest section of road I’ve ever seen. I stop at the top and psych myself up enough to go any further forward. It makes the ‘Big Dipper’ back at home look like a flat, rural highway, and puts Brown Street in Newcastle to shame. I select first gear, roll in as slowly as possible, cover the rear brake with the weight of my right leg and the front with only two fingers so as to not over-do it, and hope that the engine breaking will work its magic. I stay as upright as I possibly can and around halfway down I begin to feel my arms losing the battle to the weight of both Rah and myself, as well as the weight of our luggage pressing forward and down on us. We pick up momentum forcing me to apply more front brake in an effort to slow the motorbike before a sharp left-hand bend. The RPM’s increase, as does the intensity of the backfires making their way out of the muffler. Much to my relief we make the turn, though it is very lucky that no one is coming the other way as my increase in speed forces me to veer onto the opposite side of the road. Things flatten out slightly and it provides much needed relief for my somewhat shaky arms.
We pass through a dense woodland; thick with low-lying growth and skinny eucalypt stemming up from the deepest earthy-red soil. Our surroundings are absolutely glowing; rich in essential nutrients and life, though the greens struggle to show their true beauty as the dust finds even the most concealed surfaces to settle upon.
The road widens as does the buffer between us and the trees that are whizzing on-by. We work our way down to meet the southern bank of the Bloomfield River, crossing over to Wujal Wujal – a small indigenous community surrounded by crocodile-infested waters and tropical rainforest.
We pass through the community as the road winds and flows alongside the northern bank of the Bloomfield River. Tarmac under the tyres feels sensational and so I use the opportunity to blast some of the dust from all the crevasses it has worked its way into. It is nice to have such enjoyable roads to ourselves.
Bloomfield Road turns into Cedar Bay Road as we pass through Rossville; another small community situated just back from the river. We stop briefly to pick-up some supplies for the next few days after missing the opportunity to do-so in Cape Tribulation. It is particularly quiet around these communities though the people we do meet seem friendly and welcoming.
We hit a few sections of unseal road where road works are currently underway. I have a feeling this entire stretch of road was unsealed not long ago! We round a corner and rise over a crest when I hear a muffled scream. Rah has spotted a beautifully vibrant peacock feather on the side of the road. We turn around to grab it and as we’re getting back onto the motorbike a lady pulls over to make sure everything is okay. She lives in the area and tells us of a peacock breeder nearby! We continue on passing the infamous Lions Den Hotel which was built in the late eighteen hundreds.
Shortly after we’re treated to a quick succession of slow, tight corners followed by a narrow bridge that crosses a small, dry creek bed. The road opens as we pass through scattered patches of wild ginger and turmeric in amongst the grassy growth. We come to a T-intersection and turn right onto the Mulligan Highway which is to take us all the way in to Cooktown.
The tarmac is pitch black – maybe freshly poured – and radiating extreme heat back towards us. We pull in to admire the Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) National Park, which is essentially a humungous mountain made up of gigantic black granite boulders that look to have dropped from the heavens above. The mountain is extremely dangerous as the rocks have been known to shift unexpectedly, swallowing multiple people without a trace to be found. It has also been documented throughout history that horses and entire herds of cattle have vanished into the labyrinth of rocks, never to be seen again!
We pull out from the car park and I give in to the building-temptation to stretch The DR’s legs. Presented with a long section of straight tarmac that disappears down into the valley many kilometres below, I roll-off in first gear, short-shift into second and then wind it out, grabbing third and then fourth before bouncing off the rev-limiter and finally settling for fifth! It’s exhilarating to say the least, and it makes me feel alive as the adrenaline works its way through my veins and keeps me focused for the next twenty-five kilometres of mostly straight road into Cooktown.
We ride into town and find ourselves in the main street. The first sign I see is one belonging to the Cooktown Café. I instantly recall the lime-malt thick shake that Rah had recommended we try once in Cooktown. Being all out of lime means we settle for vanilla-malt and a fresh lamington to smooth things over.
We decide it is definitely time for lunch and so we make our way to Coles. A big salad and some red meat is on the menu. We carefully pick out the thickest steaks we can find and then walk happily to the registers to pay. When we finally reach the park and begin cooking them we find that we’ve completely blown it and purchased eight thin minute-steaks.
With only a small camp-stove pan to cook in we heat it as much as possible and slap the steaks on. About five minutes later we’re battling with a minute-steak stew that is boiling away in its own juices though still cold to the touch.
As we wait for the pan to heat again we’re interrupted by a man who’s pulled his car over and come bowling down the grassy hill screaming “Check out that Salty! It’s got to be five metres long – the biggest I’ve ever seen!” We all head over and watch from a distance as it cruises past in the shallows of the retreating tide.
It takes us a while though we finally manage to get something edible together. We listen to the sound of various instruments being played on a musical ship that has been installed in the park, whilst we devour our lunch in the shade. For desert we’re treated to fresh mangoes that have fallen from the surrounding trees; succulent, juicy, and as sweet as can-be!
As the last of the steak is digesting I notice a really large man on a really small motorbike. The first thing I that catches my eye is his belly that is breaching the confines of his well-worn, stained singlet, and the second are the two tight plaits of grey, wiry facial hair that drape down twenty centimetres from his chin. He’s wearing an open-faced helmet, a shoulder bag that follows behind him and a pair of aviator-type sunglasses that are losing their reflective shine. He rides into the park and pulls up by the ocean’s edge, looks around for a moment, and then rides toward us before pulling-up next to our table. The smile painted upon his face both intrigues and scares me. At a glance he looks ill; perhaps both physically and mentally. The whites of his eyes are yellow, and his skin sports an uneven discolouration.
Without removing his helmet he kills the faint wheeze that’s coughing from the exhaust of his almighty 250cc Yamaha Virago, and then asks “Well, whaddya know?” To which I retort what I think is a witty comment about the winning lotto numbers. He laughs a laugh of approval before launching into conversation.
The basic arrangement of a travellers’ conversation ensues, and after a while we’re chatting about places to stay in and around Cooktown. He tells us what we already know – that places to free-camp are few and far between – before offering us a patch of grass to roll our swags out onto. “There is plenty of space on our property just out of town” he states. His voice is raspy and strained, though confident and calculated. I try hard to pick him – assessing his energy and making judgement on his character and intensions. Alarm bells are ringing, though the setting sun and exhaustion from the first day riding 2UP on unsealed roads are the little devil on my shoulder.
We make a snap-decision to take-up his offer and camp there for the night. After all, what could possibly go wrong? Delighted, he regurgitates rough directions to his property before prodding his mule back into life. “You’ll see a sign that says ‘Herb & Marie’s’”, he says. Brogan chimes in with “I assume you’re Herb?” To which he replies “I’m Marie. Herb is my gay lover.” There’s an awkward silence – the kind that follows news that could actually be true, though which you really hope isn’t. He finishes with “Of course I’m Herb!” First gear is selected and, just before easing away, he says “I hope you like music because I usually stay up late into the night playing guitar and singing!”
We clean up after the late lunch and then pack our motorbike before making our way out to Herb and Marie’s via the supermarket and then the bottle shop. I recall the directions as best I can; head south out of town, turn right at the first roundabout, over a small crest before turning left along Racecourse Road, the first right onto an unsealed road, and then the first right at their sign: ‘Herb & Marie’s’.
Herb’s description of their driveway into the property is spot-on; just like their own private tropical rainforest complete with a low-set canopy and damp grounds below our tyres. We roll in, past a sign painted in capital letters reading ‘NO MOBILES, ONLY HUGS’, and are greeted by the shrill bark of a tiny fluffy dog named Chloe, followed closely by an even smaller puppy, Bronson, running sideways toward us!
We get off the motorbikes and are introduced to Marie; a lovely lady of similar age to – or perhaps a touch older than – Herb appears to be. She’s skinny, wearing lose clothing, and smiling a warm smile in our direction. The smile forces her eyes to almost entirely close-over, hiding her glazed, bright eyes; a squint that begins in her cheeks and works its way up toward her forehead. The energy felt by her beaming presence counter-balances Herb’s conflicting energy. “Surely it would be impossible for someone so sweet to be with a dangerous man,” I keep telling myself this as I convince myself that we’ve made the right decision staying all the way out here on the outskirts of town – far, far away from civilisation.
We crack a beer and unpack our bags as the sun sets over the range in front of their house. Rah and I opt to sleep in the swag next to an ancient caravan under the roof of their shed, while Brogan takes the opportunity to sleep in an actual bed and takes the spare room. The first cold beer goes down fast and I feel the effects on my tired body as I set up the swag for the night.
Herb is far more intimidating now that he has removed his helmet to reveal a very closely shaven head and an earring in each earlobe. He’s also covered in faded tattoos that are impossible to make-out in the dull evening light. We all sit down to a few more beers while Herb recounts tales of his past with such conviction it causes the hair on my arms to stand up, proud of the goose bumps that have worked their way over the extremities of my body.
He begins with his teenage years as a paramedic in the Vietnam War, where he served right up until he was involved in a scooter accident resulting in the loss of his best mate who was riding on the back as they slammed into an ambulance at speed. He returned to Australia and shortly after landed a job as a deck hand on the prawn trawlers in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He worked hard and stuck with the physically demanding job – working his way up the ranks – and eventually decided that he’d like to captain a trawler. He took time off to study celestial navigation; the art of navigation using sights and angular measurements taken between a celestial body (the moon, sun, a star or a planet) and the visible horizon, gaining the qualifications he needed to captain almost any ship!
When he wasn’t out at sea competing with the Indonesian trawlers for half-million dollar schools of prawns, he was riding his 860cc Ducati road bike around Australia. He circumnavigated Australia twice, making a trip up to Cape York on his second trip around. He tells us of the difficulties riding a road-oriented motorcycle fitted with off-road tyres; pushing it through kilometres of sand, and floating it across crocodile-infested waters on a tractor tube using a small rifle as protection from the looming jaws.
The stories continue to grow in length and intensity, and as Herb pauses to lick the length of a freshly rolled cigarette Marie fills-in the gaps. They met in the Northern Territory eighteen years ago when Herb passed through the small indigenous community where Marie was living at the time. She spent her earlier years filling the role as a seamstress, and then went on to become a cook at the local pub where she proclaimed that she focused on Asian flavours and incorporated their colourful culture into our Australian cuisine. She speaks proudly of her favourite dishes, and as the words leave her mouth I get a whiff of dinner which is stewing away in one corner of the yard over hot coals which are sitting under a small make-shift roof held up by three walls; aptly named ‘Marie’s Bush Kitchen’. On two of the three walls are more heavy-bottomed pots and pans than you’d ever need.
I’m so consumed by the way Herb is retelling stories of his past that I am surprised to find a car has driven through the rainforest and pulled up next to the front deck where we’re all sitting. A couple exit the late-nineties model Holden Jackaroo, followed by their young daughter. They introduce themselves as John and Dianna, though don’t introduce their daughter who is very shy and doesn’t divert her attention away from the phone she’s using.
Both John and Dianna are overly friendly straight off-the-bat. “Is it strange that we’re here?” I ask myself. “Should we leave Herb and Marie to spend time with their guests?” I whisper to Rah as I notice she is feeling just as out-of-place as I am. It’s as though I only just snap-back to reality and realise where we are and what we’re doing.
John breaks the silence with a story of his son, Alex, who he proudly states is a kick-boxing champion. The story involves a pub, his sobriety, a girl and two thugs. As it unfolds I find myself doubting the every word that leaves John’s mouth, though I really have no reason to do so. The doubt is instilled by means of his delivery rather than the story itself; the polar-opposite to the raw sincerity in Herb’s storytelling voice as he describes details so fine it transports me to the exact time and place, capturing his perspective and state of mind like well-shot photograph captures a landscape. It only takes one glance into his glazed eyes to understand what he has experienced. I’ve never met anyone who can recount a story with such precision.
After dinner is done and dusted the conversation begins to wind down. Herb rolls a joint and smokes the entire thing in a single sitting, before slowly rising to his feet and lurching towards the corner of their deck that houses his guitar, a couple of amplifiers and a microphone. It is only now that I notice Herb’s knees; one wrapped in a bandage as he recovers from surgery, and the other bloodied and grazed from earlier today when a local indigenous man reversed into him in the car park, knocking him off his Virago!
He sits in a chair and begins singing almost instantly; warming his voice before getting stuck into it. After a while he adds in some guitar; singing and strumming flawlessly to such artists as Cat Stevens and Alan Parsons, and then transitioning into Pink Floyd once the joint he’s just smoked consumes his consciousness and takes him to a far-away place. He plays as though there is no one watching him, though at the same time performs like the whole world is peering on the show.
After what feels like an hour of amazing music Herb retires and assumes the position at the head of the table once again. We all stay up for a while longer talking the night away, and just as John and Dianna prepare to leave Herb asks if he may recite a poem for us. He retrieves the words from his memory as if they are typed clearly on plain paper in front of him. The world around me stops-dead in its tracks once he starts talking; I can’t look away as he speaks with his entire body – every muscle in his face tensing and releasing during the course of the recital to ensure the themes hit-home. He pauses strategically for effect, taking a drag of his cigarette just before each climax in the poem’s progressive story. His stoned eyes pull me into the context of each and every sentence, and until he turns away again it is as though I’m trapped – unable to think of anything else and certainly unable to move.
The six beers in my belly feel like sixteen sitting heavy as ever, and so I decide to retreat to bed for the night. It doesn’t take long to fall asleep, though the time between getting into the swag and losing the battle to my tired mind is spent listening to Herb singing and playing guitar off in the distance. “Where the heck are we?” I think to myself.