Cooktown will always be a special place for me. The first trip I made there in the early 90s left an indelible impression.

A university mate and I decided two weeks out to go. There were no cheap airfares back then. And there were no spare seats on flights for our trip up so we took a bus to Cairns, and bought a Qantas ticket for the trip home.

I remember the 48-hour bus trip. Slowly stewing in “tracky dacks”. Albury, Goondiwindi, Brisbane. Changing buses. Mackay, Townsville. The humidity. I’d never been this far from home. Up in the far north. Near the pointy bit.

My friend was a Spanish-born Australian. A traveller with experience. I was out on the road for the first time. We went out to Magnetic Island and walked the length of it. Bussed up through Mission Beach to a backpackers in Cairns. My friend wanted to go out and party but I was pretty damned nervous about that. We went up to Kuranda and out to the reef on a schooner, which made most people chunder. And then we caught a 4WD bus up towards Cooktown.

Cape Tribulation was a remote and feral stop-over back then. Shared dormitories under the rainforest. Dirt, Forest, Beach, Reef. I remember a European girl giggling at me, making me feel so self-conscious. She was olive skinned and gorgeous. The next day on the beach I watched as she bent and stretched her dress over her head revealing her naked, tanned body. Holding back, shy and lost, at a distance.

Fishing on Cooktown Wharf (Fayes4Art via Flickr)

The bus to Cooktown took in the Black Mountains and the aboriginal township of Wujal Wujal. It was not the Australia I knew. I stayed on the bus. Peering through the window.

We arrived at the backpackers in Cooktown via a gravel road. The backpackers was on the edge of town. The view over the Endeavour River was amazing especially later in the day.

It’s the last town on the east coast. The 4WD track north of town still teases my imagination; the last hours through wilderness to the Cape.

One evening we were down at the jetty. The water was brimming with the kind of fish you might eat back in Victoria. But here you jigged a hand-line and caught the fish for bait; to then haul in bigger fish. A little kid, tanned and shirtless, had a triple-headed hook on his line. It was big. He cast in at one end of the wharf and waited. A big fish surfaced and he started running behind us, the line over our heads. I thought with bemusement, silly kid you’ll never catch a fish this way. There wasn’t any bait on the line! Then the hook caught. I wish I could remember what kind of fish it was. It was about a metre long. Possibly a mackerel. The line pulled taut. People ducked. The hook held, and then it didn’t. The hook flew over our heads. This little kid, about eight years old, let fly, “Fuckin’ cunt!”.

The backpackers had a special celebration that night (for some reason), and the owner barbequed up some Red Emperor fish. They were smoked, smooth and soft, melting away in our mouths. We sat around with other backpackers talking about ghosts and how the town was full of them. People from Europe and Asia had died here during the Gold Rush. The local aboriginals had been cannibals we heard, adding to the exotic drama, who hunted down the new arrivals.

The next day my friend and an English backpacker walked the botanical gardens to Cherry Tree Bay. It was a hot walk through somewhat barren gardens. The little cove hid a beach. Completely quiet and isolated. We had snorkels and flippers. The others had knives too. We agreed to swim across the bay, as it seemed so small. I’d never swum in deep ocean water before. For the first time on the trip I jumped in instead of watching.

The ocean floor was simple to look at. To my right the sand came up higher to shore and was lighter. The waves broke further on. To my left the floor sloped down into the deep blue. The others were confident and swam ahead while I followed in a state of mild anxiety and excitement.

I saw the manta ray first, concealed on the ocean floor. It’s impressive tail and eyes protruding from the sand. I grabbed a flipper in front of me and pulled. The guys joined me to tread water and peer down at our giant find. There was some loose coral rock back where we had started swimming from so one of the guys swam back to get a bit. Above the manta ray we let the rock gently fall. The beast was startled. An explosion of sand from the flat. The ray turned, its pectoral fins rippled with energy, and it faded into the deep. We took a deep breath, laughed and swore quite a bit.

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