it’s a net zero
lockhart river may be one of the quietest, most out of the way communities in the country that invented the outback. the little town — population about 800 people– may be unknown, even to most aussies, but it is a dream destination for a certain class of folks, exotic birders who travel from the far ends of the planet to catch a glimpse of winged creatures that average folks would never even imagine palm cockatoo, anyone?
so of course we’re in lockhart river. pernille’s reached another milestone birthday, and what else to celebrate but with a journey up australia’s east coast about as far as it’s possible to go, 800km north of cairns, the nearest city of any size. she’s booked us in a birdwatching motel called the greenhoose, which is “just outside lockhart river”.
travel by road along the croc-infested cape york coastline is darn near impossible, but a surprisingly professional airline (skytrans) offers daily flights along the route from cairns, (pronounced cans) to the iron range airport, which according to a sign on the building was built by the u.s. army corp of engineers during world war two. (what were those guys thinking?)
the iron range airport is on the outskirts of lockhart river, which is little more than a general store and service station surrounded by a collection of houses that look like they were also built during world war two, but not by the army corps of engineers. the streets of the town are alive with a collection of children and women carrying infants, all of whom seemed to be of aboriginal background, as are the majority of lockhart river’s residents.
far more enticing than the lockhart river is chilli beach, which is maybe 15km away but takes the better part of an hour to reach by road. chilli beach is NOT chilly. dipping a toe in the surf is a surprise to us scandinavian seafarers. the water off our danish island is typically 18 degrees celsius in the “heat” of summer. here it’s the beginning of spring and it must be close to 30 degrees. it’s the tropics, stupid.
the long strip of white sand is an invitation for a walk along the beach, so i kick off my sandals and wander barefoot in the direction of a pickup truck parked on the sand a couple hundred meters away. approaching, i hear the familiar sounds of bob marley and the wailers pulsing from the chassis. sitting behind the truck along the bank of the beach is a group of presumably aboriginal people with beer cans in their hands.
this is a dry part of the country. alcohol sales are severely restricted. there’s no liquor store in lockhart river. so to see a group of black people (or anyone else) drinking beer at the beach is something of a surprise. i approach them and ask what it would take to “liberate” one of the cans.
“what’s your name?,” the most burly of the men, asks. “peter,” i reply. in answer, he bellows, “i’m solomon. and this is my son peter; and my daughter claudia.” he goes on to introduce the four others, all friends of his kids. a beer appears from within the crowd and is thrust into my hand. it’s a great northern, not one of my favorite brews, but it tastes exquisite on this unkindly warm day. i’m not sure any beer has ever tasted better.
the young people in the crowd are curious about my background, and are eager to hear more about texas. they’ve never been, but are hoping to visit the states soon. i’m equally curious about their backgrounds, especially since i’ve heard that the lockhart river aboriginal community has decided to experiment with limited alcohol sales at the local canteen. it’s an innovative experiment. alcohol is strictly prohibited in many aboriginal communities, but here is a group of black people enjoying a beer on the beach.
as we chat, a dilapidated truck trundles along the beach toward us. an old white man climbs out and begins beachcombing. “hey, there’s stu,” solomon exclaims, pointing to the man. “he’s the owner of the greenhoose, the place you’re staying.”
the owner, eh?
“hey, stu” solomon shouts to the scavenger. “hey, solly,” the old man shouts back. they’re soulmates, two men who’ve grown up and lived their entire lives together in a town so tiny everyone knows everyone else’s secrets. their conversation quickly turns to the latest family news and gossip.
it turns out stu has come out to the beach to collect a box of rocks. pumice stones to be precise. he’s foraging for the rocks to line a garden he’s planning to build at the greenhoose, and he’s learned that pumice stones tend to wash up on shore around chilli beach. his box is half full already. (or half empty, depending on your point of view)
since stu’s the owner of the greenhoose, i ask him if he’s got a clue about the origin of the odd name. and he nails it. it’s pretty straightforward. the founder of the “motel”, stu says, was a scotsman, and he wanted to call the place “the greenhouse”, but with his scottish accent, he pronounced “house” as “hoose”, and the name stuck the way he pronounced it. so greenhoose it is.
before we break up, solly suggests we take a picture. it’s not what we expected, as many aboriginal people are said to be superstitious about having their photo taken. on the other hand, it’s the least we can do to say thanks for the beer and the hospitality, and he’s not superstitious. as we’re posing for the photo, i notice the emblem on his shirt. he’s a member of the lockhart river aboriginal ruling council, and an elder, the highest honor achievable in his extended family. “we’re the traditional owners of this land, going back thousands of years,” he says with a chuckle. “i guess we’re the welcoming committee”
with “thoroughly modern solly” in our rear view mirror, dinner calls. we’ve made a reservation at what is said to be the best restaurant in the region, at a place called portland roads, a few miles further down the road. portland roads, we soon learn, is not so much a town or a village. it’s simply a road, decorated with a collection of picnic tables situated around a miniature palm lined bay. there’s one sign that says ‘cafe’. it’s at the front of a three or four (who knows?) story building that backs up to a cliff rising over the bay. the structure is partially obscured by dense rainforest underbrush, so it’s a bit of a riddle to even find out how to get in.
the “cafe” sign at the entrance informs that the place is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. thursday through sunday. but we have reservations for dinner at six. pernille rings up the number on the sign, which is promptly answered by a pleasant female voice. the voice says yes, she’s expecting us, but our reservation was for six. it’s only 5;30, she points out. could we come back in half an hour?
of course we can. so we’re killing time in portland roads, population eight (all in one family) there’s a young aboriginal boy in the bay across the road trying to catch fish with what looks like a spear. he’s probably catching our dinner. it’s fascinating, so we decide to spectate, but just as we take our seats at a picnic table, his parents, who are in a car nearby, decide to call him in for the day. there goes our entertainment. in the end, the twenty five minutes was well spent watching dusk descend over the water.
dinner is five star fare, served simply and without fanfare outside the kitchen where it was prepared. a seafood sampler brought in from the bay that day –squid, calamari, a lightly baked fillet, and some heavenly fried fish balls with a dipping sauce. we were not the only patrons, however. another man came in and was seated at the table next to ours. we imagined he was either the chef’s husband or brother. in a one-family town, it’s a pretty good guess.
Peter, awesome as always. Hope you continue to enjoy your time down under. How much longer will you be there?
Pete, as usual, a well written, entertaIning, and educational short story. You writing talents are exceptional and needless to say exceed your good looks. 🙂 Please keep your travelogue coming….a lot of fun sharing your experiencing your time in Oz.
Thanks so much for sharing experience. As always very well written and entertaining! Keep ‘em coming!
Another masterpiece of writing. We’ll done.