Summer began early for H and I this year, as by September I was jack of everything and decided it was a good time to go north to do research for my third novel, The Sea Creatures. This is set in a tropical Queensland town by the sea, although Queensland won’t be described as such in the work. I didn’t want to go on my own and asked H if he would come too and, being good-natured, he agreed.
H & I found each other in Townsville airport, hopped into our hire car and ventured into the cane fields. I had never seen cane before (in the novel it acts as a border to the town), and as the sun fell behind the ranges, they were drenched in golden light. We went up into those ranges, and as we came down the ocean was on our right, filtering into the delta next to Hichinbrook Island. In the dying light, the water reflected the pink and pale purple sky.
We drove into Cardwell, and hopped out to look at Hichinbrook and the water. A young woman in a black floppy hat was throwing sticks to her dog. The dog’s name was Atticus, she told us, then ordered him to shake hands, roll over, and speak with a bark. Atticus was cute.
I’d been too busy to plan every detail of the trip the way I usually do, so we were winging it (quite against my nature). H had at least booked accommodation for that night to keep my panic at bay, and we pulled into a very basic caravan park.
‘I wasn’t sure what your budget was,’ he said to me.
‘Ergh, I can probably afford a bit more than this,’ I replied. I think we were both relieved.
That aside, the lady at reception was very nice, telling us about Cyclone Yasi, a huge print of which hung in the office, and in the kitchen we met a girl who swore at the oven in French. As the light was nearly going, we walked along the shore.
‘What if the crocodiles come out of the water and eat us?’ I asked.
‘There aren’t any crocodiles, Jess.’
I remained unconvinced, and was much happier when we stepped back onto the road.
The next day we headed for Atherton, stopping first at Tully. On the outskirts of the town, a sugar mill belched smoke over the adjacent school. I liked the place, however, with its strip of Art Deco shops, a giant boot and wooden cassowary at one end, and the mountains at the other. From there we detoured to Mission Beach, and the cane became claustrophobic, pressing against the road.
Mission Beach was touristy, but where there are tourists, there is usually passable coffee, so we parked at a café and ordered lattes, which passed muster for yours truly. Behind a tangle of shady rainforest was the beach, white and flat, and then the water, turquoise and flat. I was astonished, having only seen such views on postcards.
We travelled inland, up into bright green paddocks of tea bushes, passing various microwaves on posts that had been turned into mailboxes. We stopped at Millaa Millaa falls, which were crowded with tourists, and the water was so cold I started hyperventilating. However, it was nice to have a swim, and when I saw these falls in Danie Mellor’s exquisite exhibition at UQ Art Museum, I was glad that I had visited.
Next on the agenda was Mt Hypipamee National Park. After a few wrong turns on account of the navigator (cough), we pulled up in the carpark.
‘Look, Jess, a cassowary!’ H said, pointing at a bird on the lawn.
‘That’s not a cassowary,’ I replied, ‘that’s a bush turkey.’
H looked disappointed.
The park wasn’t all that exciting. Some French ladies heard us laughing at a joke and offered to take a picture of standing us before a tree. The park’s feature, a crater, was filled with creamy green algae. On the way back, we found a couple standing in the middle of the track. They mentioned there was a cassowary up ahead, so we had better wait for it to move.
‘Are they aggressive?’ I asked.
‘Can be,’ they replied. We chatted to them some more, and it transpired they were from WA and had moved to the area a few years before. They then walked back up the track to find their friends.
The cassowary decided to come our way, moving through the bush to the right of the track. We crossed the path into the other side of the bush, but it kept moving forward, looking for food in the leaf litter. Then it crossed the path and saw us behind a tree. I started sweating. The thing was as tall as I was, with feet the size of dinner plates. It made eye contact with me, didn’t like what it saw, and made a dash for us. I lost my marbles and ran onto the track. When I turned, H was standing the cassowary down, his hand outstretched. He hissed and shouted at it, and for a few tense seconds the cassowary glared at him, feathers ruffling, then it turned and walked away.
It takes quite a lot to impress me, but I was rather proud of my brother at that moment. Then the adrenalin overload kicked in and I started shivering.
The bird traipsed back the way it had come. More and more people arrived, including a tour group headed by an Indigenous man. The crowd created a a bottleneck in the track.
‘What should we do?’ someone asked the Indigenous man.
‘Don’t go into its territory and don’t turn your back.’
A tourist hurried to the front of the group to take a photo, then ran back and hid behind the Indigenous man. A bloke without a shirt on, flanked by two sheilas, appeared and walked through the crowd. No one said a word, which I thought highly entertaining, but he passed unharrassed.
Finally, the bird wandered off a way and sat down and we could all go our ways with relief. As H & I reached the car, we saw the bush turkey again.
‘Do you still think it looks like a cassowary?’ I asked, and we laughed.
That night we ate at the Barron Valley hotel in Atherton. I was beside myself, because it was a beautiful Art Deco building with matching furniture and lofty bedrooms upstairs. Aside from it being gorgeous, I needed such a place for one of my characters to stay in when he leaves his wife.
Sadly, I couldn’t write Atherton’s wonderful Chinese temple made out of a tin shed into my book. It was unfortunately closed, but H opened the gate at the adjacent dog park and we had a look that way. The red of the painted eaves, and the rust on the tin against the blue sky, was stunning.
After caffeinating in Yungaburra, we discovered another lovely Art Deco pub, which was open and airy. Yunguburra was a sweet and quiet town, and from there we drove to the crater lakes, Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham. We swam in the latter, and the water was warm on top, but bitterly cold beneath. There were also turtles floating about.
‘What if they bite me on the foot?’ I asked H.
‘They won’t bite you, Jess.’
We lunched on the lawn by the river, then checked out the Curtain Fig and Cathedral Fig trees, which were astonishing, and made us feel like we were in The Lord of the Rings. This sort of tangled rainforest is also a feature of Danie Mellor’s gorgeous art. The next stop after that was Jacques’ Coffee Plantation near Mareeba, graced by a mannequin in a dried-out trenchcoat at the cattle grid. They did at least have good coffee and a nice garden to sit in among those flat, dry plains.
We checked out Mossman Gorge, which was a bit underwhelming, although I liked that it was a successful business run by Indigenous people.
As we walked through the rainforest, H overhead a conversation between a father and his small son, which he then relayed to me.
‘Daddy, where are we going next?’ the boy asked.
‘Why, Daddy, what’s at Palm Cove?’
‘I don’t know, son, but you try saying “no” to your mother.’
I burst out laughing. We ventured on, up to Cape Tribulation. In the caravan park, the girl at reception recognised H (what a small world), who had gone to school with her fiancé.
There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Cape Trib, except relax. I’d been having visions of hotels with infinity pools but I realised that’s not the point of the place; it’s underdeveloped, and they want to keep it that way to look after their environment. We read novels, lay on the sand, swam a bit (by that point we’d found out it wasn’t croc season), and watched a monitor lizard poke through someone’s belongings at their campsite.
H got up early the next morning to watch the sunrise, but sleep was more important for yours truly, so I passed on that option. When he came back he announced, ‘Jess, something without opposable thumbs was desperate to get to the peanut butter last night.’
I went outside and found the peanut butter missing most of its blue lid. It was pretty funny, but I hope the critter didn’t get a blue bellyache.
The snorkelling wasn’t until the afternoon, so we wandered around (coffee was pointless), then decided to visit the insect house, home to an entomologist. However, it didn’t open till 10. ‘Honestly, these people have no idea of commerce!’ H said, exasperated. After he pretended to be a spider stuck to the gates, we read our books until someone drove up and let us in.
The insect house was full of beetles, butterflies and moths, some the length of my forearm, pinned inside glass cases, although there was a plant being eaten by live praying mantises (mantisii for plural??). Some of these the lady at the desk put into boxes and put in the post for whoever had bought them.
The snorkelling was cool. It was a small group of no more than 20, run by Ocean Safari, who took us out on a boat to some small cays (islands of coral). In the water, which was bitterly cold, we saw big turtles, blue starfish, clouds of tiny fish (forgotten their names) and a giant angelfish, which reminded me of the little angelfish I’d kept in London, and I followed it around for a bit.
The reef and rainforest were beautiful, and I was absolutely heartbroken by the decision a few days ago to dredge Abbott Point. I had protested with Getup on a march around Brisbane, signed petitions, rang the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority who are supposed to be protecting the place (on their website they exhort people to use Responsible Reef Practices), and left a message on their Facebook page, but they caved to greed, never mind the fact that what has taken a millennia to build will be gone in virtually an instant. A legal challenge is in the offing, thank God and if, like me, you still want to keep fighting, you can donate to the fund here.
The Sea Creatures is about a number of issues, the most prominent of which, as in all my works, is the question of belonging. However it also details the degradation of our environment. I was raised in the country and taught to appreciate nature, and it depresses me that people don’t care about their surroundings, but rather than give up hope, I would like to think I can effect some change through my writing.