We lay awake in the swag, chatting quietly about Herb and Marie until the sun rises up. I help around the yard before it gets too hot, chopping logs for use in Marie’s bush kitchen. It feels good to get some blood pumping through the muscles in my arms, shoulders and chest, and to sweat whilst not wrapped in riding gear. It provides a distraction from the aches as a result of riding the Bloomfield Track yesterday.
Rah and I treat ourselves to thinly sliced tomatoes on toasted wholemeal bread before ducking into town to pick up some food supplies. We’ve offered to cook dinner tonight for everyone. Rah always gets nervous about cooking for other people as she never quite feels up-to the task – even though she’s a brilliant cook.
We can’t ride past the Cooktown Café without stopping in for a milkshake! I can see this unhealthy treat becoming ritual soon enough! We slurp down a mid-morning lime and malt milkshake which feels like wet cement in my belly, sloshing around as we ride up to Grassy Hill Lookout.
We hit Hope Street and head east, passing-by houses fenced in by tropical gardens that look overgrown and unwieldy. The road is narrow and the tarmac undulating. It is refreshing to be riding The DR without the top bags hindering its handling characteristics. We climb rapidly before reaching the beginning of a series of tight, first-gear hairpin corners. We’re off the motorbike as soon as we hit the top, and are blown away by the vast view before us! Nature as far as the eye can see; towering mountain ranges that begin on the northern bank of the Endeavour River, and that stretch far north, following the coastline out of sight; the expansive ocean’s perfectly flat surface that is unobstructed by ocean swells due to the outer reefs, and that is gently caressed by the nor’easter; the Endeavour River itself which, winding like a giant serpent vanishes inland into the Endeavour River National Park and beyond.
Once back at Herb and Marie’s humble abode I whip all the gizmos out and put them on the charge, before opening my laptop to get some work done. Everyone spends the afternoon pottering around and keeping to themselves – some necessary downtime it would seem. 6PM rolls around and so Rah and I start on dinner, chopping and frying onions, garlic, mushrooms and bacon before pouring in the cream and letting it simmer away for a while. It isn’t long before dinner has come and gone, and Herb announces that he’s taking us out to the local Cooktown talent night at the RSL, where he is one of three on the judging panel.
I slip into some jeans and sip a beer while we all wait for the courtesy bus to arrive. There’s a flash of headlights closely followed by a couple of beeps of the horn as a mini-bus approaches. The temperature inside has to be less than half of that outside. We walk inside and it becomes apparent that the entire population of Cooktown is crammed into the RSL for what could be the second biggest event in Cooktown. Second biggest, because nothing comes even remotely close to the Cooktown Hotel Hog Hunt – where the most-manly of men spend two days in the wilderness with nothing but a rifle and the clothes upon their back, returning to town on Sunday afternoon with the biggest hog they could slaughter strapped to their roof, bonnet or tray. A truly horrific sight I’m told.
Herb assumes his position at the judges table next to Merv – an extremely popular and talented local indigenous artist wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a guitar – and another fellow who I’m yet to be introduced to. Brogs, Rah and I squeeze in at the back of the audience after grabbing a drink from the bar. Over the next hour and a half an array of people of all ages, from all walks of life, one-by-one take to the stage and put everything they have into playing an instrument, singing their heart out, or both! There are definite standouts – one of which happens to be Arlene’s sister, Leanna, who looks nearly identical to Arlene and has the voice of an angel – though everyone has my full appreciation, if for nothing else other than having the will and determination to stand in front of a large group of people and open up to them, sharing something that they love and know without fear of the critical eyes staring back at them.
Now that all the entrants have been and gone it is Merv’s turn in the spotlight. The room goes silent a second before Merv begins strumming his guitar. His hand moves with such confidence and precision that it is impossible to look away. Then he starts singing. His voice, rough and weathered though somehow silky and smooth in its delivery, is raw, rustic and real. His entire body swings and shifts, augmenting the story told by the lyrics that leave his mouth. Merv, the local sensation, captivates his proud audience and not a single word is spoken until he is done, when the room erupts in yells of pure joy and happiness!
Merv sits back down and gulps the remainder of his beer as Herb rises to his feet and makes his way to the stage without a guitar in his hand. It takes me a few seconds, though as he sits in front of the microphone and prepares his voice I realise what he is about to do. He speaks the same words as the night prior, reciting the poem as if it is printed on the back wall of the room, with the same seriousness and conviction radiating dark energy throughout the room. Again there is silence from the audience, though this time it creates a strange, eerie feeling deep within sending a shiver right up my spine! Once the last word is spoken Herb stands and walks to the back of the room, whilst everyone claps and cheers. It is the kind of cheer riddled with uncertainty; gaining momentum due to the sheer number of people in the room. I whistle and Herb acknowledges it with a glimpse of a smile before resuming his role as the intimidating, tattooed bald man with facial hair one can only acquire from long lengths of time spent trawling the wild seas.
We stay for another beer after meeting a man named Connor. He’s a forty-two year old brickie – contracted to a job in Cooktown which will see the erection of an indigenous community centre – and has obviously been drinking for some time now. He mentions that he spotted us walk into the pub, and confided that he made a conscious decision to have a chat with us at some stage throughout the night. He has a twenty-one year old son and a twenty-five year old wife-to-be back at home – a cattle station located a hundred kilometres north of Charters Towers, which I must have passed on my way up to Cairns – who he speaks fondly and passionate of, to the point of tears welling in his eyes and streaming down his reddened face. Cooktown is full of surprises. He shouts all of us another drink and we chat about travelling for the rest of the night, before parting ways and heading back out to Herb and Marie’s.
Rah and I crawl into bed and fall asleep to Herb singing Cat Stevens at the top of his lungs in the distance, which sounds nothing like the man himself though is surprisingly pleasant nonetheless.