But what about Queensland now? In August 2008 I caught the bus from Cairns to Cooktown via the coast route through the Daintree on mostly dirt roads. The last stop on public transport on the east coast. It was one of those small sunliner buses, with a trailer behind for the bags, and full of people, white people going to work in Cooktown, young backpackers and Aboriginal people going back to their community.
We whizzed along through amazing country, sugar cane, rainforest, past huge rivers until we got to a small vertical stretch of bitumen that the bus refused to climb. So we all walked up the hill and the bus came along later towed by a passing four wheel drive.
Welcome back to the Australia that I remember - friendly, helpful, where not everything works all the time.
I was going up there to have look see and because it’s the closest town to Jowalbinna camp where somebody would take me out to see the Quinkan paintings. I suppose that I thought it would be like Yandina in the seventies, not far from Cedar Bay, scene of the worst hippy hatred by the Qld police. I thought that the kind of people that I used to know might just have moved up the coast ahead of the raging development and be somewhere around Cooktown.
Driving into Cooktown on an over cast winter afternoon past the few houses and wondering where the town was I begin to doubt what I’d done coming all the way from a small town in England to this isolation. Where was everybody?
There’s a postcard of Cooktown by night that’s completely black but hey I wasn’t going for the nightlife anyway - I never went in a pub the whole time I was there, I wanted to go out into that enormous landscape and eat the view of the Endevour river sliding down the plateau past the town.
The day I arrived a snake wrangler was called in to pick up a taipan that had wandered onto the main street in the middle of the day and the day I left, six weeks later, a man was eaten by a crocodile. This was a much more edgy place than Yandina, but in those six weeks I met great people, did a lot of work in the shed of the motel where I was staying, walked about thinking and scared myself badly a few times.
To get out to Jowalbinna camp I hired a four wheel drive from Joe Bliss the car man and set off. I lied and said I could change a tyre no problem and had driven all over the place in trucks, I think Joe probably knew I hadn’t done any of this but he gave me the car anyway.
So off I went with my only company the radio, fading after about half an hour into crackly silence. I drove to Laura a few hours away, which was only medium bad in driving terms. From Laura though it was a very small track through bull dust, creeks and very rough bush - as the car slid about and misbehaved in the bull dust I tried not to think of every eventuality and start screaming in panic.
When I got to the camp in the middle of nowhere it all seemed very normal and it was G’day Margot and stuff - they didn’t seem to understand this was not normal where I live now. There was an evening around a huge camp fire talking tall stories with people who live out there all the time and lying watching the truly majestic star show thinking of how easy it is to feel connected to the universe out there.
Tom took me out to see groups of rock paintings, scrabbling up hillsides for half a day. These paintings were very different to ones I’d seen in the Kimberleys and Kakadu, for me the most impressive work was a huge red woman painted with very delicate lines and her breasts sticking out sideways - it is a figure that is both The Great Goddess, Earth Mother and a beloved wife. The other paintings were increase works of wallaroos, flying foxes and emus. It was later suggested to me that these paintings had been tampered with and enhanced by white men, don’t know if that is true but I knew I’d never be taken to see the real paintings along Battle Camp Road, so Jowalbinna was what I could see.
The bush up on the Laura plateau is very harsh and scary and it seems not just to me, as it’s the place where four aboriginal language groups meet and where the magical, warning, Quinkan figures are painted on rocks as keep out signs.
On the way back to Cooktown I stopped at the Laura pub for a beer and an encounter with a man who had a snake in a bag which he’d picked up outside the pub and assured me was poisonous. It seems you can tell, if you get close enough, by whether the thing has scales or not and this one did. I know it’s supposed to be good to confront the thing you’re most fearful of but at the time I could see no advantage to even looking at a bag full of venomous reptile.
Back in Cooktown I went on Willie Gordon’s great tour of a chunk of his ancestral land, met his painter sister Helen, talked to the German and Japanese girls who were packing bananas and went up the Endevour River with Nikko.
The trip up River in a tinny was another scary moment for me as the other people wanted to fish and tied up the boat to the mangroves to cast about. Within minutes of staring about me at the wonderful tropical wilderness there appeared to be an enormous crocodile very close to a boat that seemed to be shrinking by the second. I pointed the beast out to the guys thinking they’d want to move the boat, by now the croc had gone to the bottom, always a bad sign as they are known to then pop up under the boat, tip the people into the water and gobble them up. All OK in a Roald Dahl story, but not in My story. So they didn’t move the boat then and we didn’t get eaten.
Further up River was an idyllic pond to the side of the river, white swamp lilies, waterlilies, vines draped through the trees, silver fish swimming about, lovely warm light and some rather creepy dark shadows. All that tropical paradise stuff suddenly became very, very dark and sinister when I was told that a truly monster croc lived in there. This became another image burned into the retina and turned into a painting.
Driving down the bitumen road to Cairns to pick up Eddie was another image that became a painting. The bitumen was only a year old and there were no fences to keep wandering cattle and other more native beasts off the road, so there was lots of road kill and lots of Kites eating it. They’d put a huge scar through the landscape, and I stood looking at the road winding through the orange, blue, purple and green hills, at a road going nowhere except the tip of Cape York and no point in going except to say that you've been.
Then there was flying in a light plane over the Reef and the atolls. Unbelievable, iridescent colours and shades of blue, from the plane it was impossible to tell what was up, where the horizon was, it looked like Heaven with little white fluffy clouds floating through it. And if they’re right about the water levels rising those little bits of sand and coral will be gone soon. Paradise Lost.
I didn’t find any people left from the alternative days in the seventies but I heard that they were around, out in the bush and not in town much. I understood why they stayed away from Cooktown when I was breathalysed at 9.30am driving into town, a well monitored town, but easy and friendly.
The final day I went to give the car back to Joe Bliss and asked him if he’d read Peter’s book of the same name. When I told him I was Honey Barbara he scratched his head, had a think and asked me to sign the car hire papers as her. So in a strange way fact, fiction, now and then all became one.
You can view all the images from the exhibition at:
You can view all the images from the exhibition at: