June 14 is a major holiday in the far-north community of Cooktown. On this date every year, Cooktown celebrates the 1770 landing of Captain James Cook and the first settlement of white people on the Australian continent. The population of this small town increases ten-fold as thousands of fun-loving Aussies descend for three days of major bashing. My girlfriend Rockie and best friend Anthony said they would like to check it out. I asked Anthony how we could get up there. "Easy mates," he said in his thick Melbourne accent, "we hitch."
Massages to pass the time between rides.
The three of us set off northbound on the Bruce Highway one beautiful summer morning. We elected to take the scenic coastal road rather than the boring highway through the bush. Catching rides was easy until the paved road turned to a dirt road. Around sunset our last ride was in the back of a pickup truck with three teenage hippies. When we got as far as the driver was going, it was pitch dark out. We asked the teens where they intended to crash. They said they had an open-air shack in the woods called a "humpy," and would we like to join them? We accepted and followed them into the rainforest. We stayed up late into the night talking, drinking wine, and smoking billies (bong hits). When the candles were blown out and everyone bedded down, the sounds turned on. And then they came in. Crickets, toads, and little melemes (marsupial scavengers) came into the humpy looking for food. The melemes appeared pretty cute and harmless, but their little beady red eyes freaked us out a few times during the night.
The next day hitchhiking was terrible. Our progress was interrupted because the tide was up on the Bloomfield River and therefore impossible to cross. The whole day we traveled just thirty kilometers. We were only half the distance to Cooktown, but it was already the first day of the celebration! We decided to stay and explore the beautiful Cape Tribulation and try again the next day. After sunset, we helped ourselves to free showers and prepared our meals in the community kitchen of a backpacker hostel. Then we crashed on the beach for free.
Early in the morning we talked to a convoy of redneck Aussies loading their pickups in the hostel parking lot. We asked if they were going to Cooktown, and could we ride in the back? They said okay, but it would be a bumpy ride. It was a very bumpy ride and after a while our wrists and butts hurt from absorbing all the impact. The discomfort seemed minimal compared to the excitement, especially crossing the Bloomfield River at low tide. Our guided tour of the outback with "The Lads" (as they called themselves) was all the better because we were going to Cooktown for free.
Crossing the Bloomfield.
We finally reached our long awaited destination -- Cooktown -- as the festivities were in full swing. For The Lads, this meant a full-on, never sleep, piss-up rage. Anthony, Rockie and I got caught up in their drunken fun, and between the nine of us we were going through a slab (case) every 10 minutes. Activities on the second day included: soap box races with a lot of wipeouts, drinking, a re-creation of Captain Cook’s landing, more drinking, three live bands, heavy drinking, night fireworks, sloppy drinking, and finally, watching fist fights among the tanked Aussies.
The abundance of merry-making among The Lads attracted an Aboriginal named Jacko who called himself "Snake Eyes." Jacko was a tribal leader who was drunk and kept asking our group for more beer. As long as Jacko kept The Lads entertained, they kept giving him beer. Jacko told us he was 64 years old and on walkabout from the Northern Territories. The Lads teased Jacko that he was really on drunkabout.
Snake Eyes glaring for another beer.
An elderly white woman came up and recognized Snake Eyes and said, "G'day Jacko, do you remember me? I'm the wife of Sergeant Tate." Jacko's eyes lit up as he remembered and queried, "Ahhhh yes, how is Sergeant Tate?" "He passed away some years ago," she said. After a few moments of reflection she continued, "He sure took good care of you natives." Jacko nodded in agreement.
Later in the evening The Lads and Anthony were scamming on girls and getting into trouble, so Rockie and I hid out somewhere they couldn't find us. We choose the only pub where Aboriginals were served drinks (Australia is still segregated this way). We sat next to an Aboriginal actor still wearing his war paint from the afternoon Captain Cook landing performance. I asked him if he really was a warrior. Yes, of course he was. "Well then," I told him, "I'm Captain Cook." He looked at me sternly and asked, "Yea? You bring the social man with you?" With this comment I laughed and bought him a drink.
A host of other characters entertained us for the rest of the night. Sloshed Elizabeth begged everyone for a drink. Jacko was falling down everywhere so he wasn't being served. Then there were the flirtatious sisters who later in the evening had sex with two of The Lads in the tall grass near our campsite. One asked pre-penetration, "I am Aboriginal woman, will you respect me in the morning?" In the morning, nothing but laughs and jeers from The Lads.
When all was said and done the next day, we recovered from our hangovers and bid farewell to Cooktown. Rockie and I got a ride back to Cairns with The Lads. Anthony left earlier with another group.
Free ridin' with The Lads.
About three months later while in Sydney, I heard a radio debate about Aboriginal rights to re-acquire vast amounts of land from the government. One of the guests was none other than snake-eyed Jacko himself. He demanded autonomy and declared, "We can take care of ourselves again." Sergeant Tate would be proud.
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