Along for the Ride
Cape Tribulation, North Queensland, Australia
“Thanks for motioning me to stop, mate. Not many people do and I drive right by them,” chirps the man. I don’t know which gives away his friendly charm more – his kind, white-bearded face or the lilt in his Australian accent.
With my bag full from one of the few general stores in Cape Tribulation, I hop into the first row of the empty minivan.
“I’d like to go to the Beach House. But you have to do the whole route first, right?”
“Yeah, but it won’t take long. Have you already been to the Dragonfly Cafe?”
Had I been there? It was only my best find of the day. It’s a welcoming place, standing stately in a clearing where unruly rainforest is replaced by a spacious lawn perimeter and barramundi pools. Through its broad wooden frame and tall tin roof, air wafts out open windows to the spinning ceiling fans in the veranda, creating needed reprieve from the oppressive North Queensland heat.
I’ve never considered owning a restaurant, but I quickly decided that it combines everything that I would want my never-before-considered restaurant to have – a tempting menu, local art for sale, an internet loft, a relaxed and airy feel. I stumbled across its brochure after petting Nelly, the bat at the Bat House down the street. I had to see it for myself.
“I have and I absolutely loved it,” I answer.
“Glad to hear that,” his eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. “I built it.”
No kidding. I’m stunned into silence, wondering at the odds, as we bounce down the road. Flashes of green pass by from a curtain of palms and vines. Mold seems to grow on the air drafting through the open windows.
“Are you originally from here?” I ask.
“No, I’m from outside Sydney. When my two sons moved up here, I followed. Now they manage the cafe.”
By now we’re at the next shuttle stop.
“This is the upscale joint around here,” he says.
It’s the Coconut Beach Resort, where a woman is waiting out front. She pops her head in, as the automatic door opens.
“How far is the store?” she asks in a loud, nasally voice.
From where I’m sitting opposite the door, I can see the lace down the sides of her jeans, the dark roots in her short platinum hair.
“I need coke for my scotch and the hotel only has one can in the fridge.”
The driver explains with a smile that he has to complete the full loop, which takes an hour.
“I don’t mind waiting for you at the store, but I do have to pick up the Fruit Loops on time,” he says, visibly pleased with his pet name for the tourists on the exotic fruit tasting tour.
“Oh well, what else have I got to do?” And with a slam of the door, she settles in on the bench behind me.
She leans forward and asks me where I’m from. My oft-repeated story seems to tell itself, skimming the highlights – San Francisco, worked in Sydney, travelling up coast, six months.
“Good on you. I backpacked through Europe,” she smiles with a knowing twinkle. “But that was about 20 years ago.” She laughs and I suddenly warm to her.
“Do you like it up here?” she asks me.
“Yeah, I do,” I say, thinking of the peaceful isolation and exotic canopy of this World Heritage-protected rainforest – a backdrop for the likes of dinosaurs and Robinson Crusoe.
“Really? I’m not sure if there’s enough for me up here. I like to keep busy.” I find out that she’s on a three-day holiday from the Gold Coast. “What’s there to do at night around here anyway?” she asks the driver.
“It depends on what you mean. Dancing? Dinner? You could come to the Dragonfly.”
He reaches behind the passenger seat to point to a menu tucked into the seat pocket. I catch a glimpse of the dragonfly logo on the front of his baseball cap.
He turns left off of the paved road, then another left into the Dragonfly’s driveway. As he shuts his door, I decide to let her in on the secret.
“It’s his place,” I whisper.
She counters with a surprised whisper back. “Really?”
Unsure why we’ve stopped, I follow them to the veranda, taking in the building with a different appreciation only two hours later, as though I’m able to see the performance from backstage this time.
He taps my arm. “But did anyone show you the frogs earlier?” Seeing my puzzled look, he walks up to one of the hanging plants. “There,” he points.
It takes me a few seconds to recognize the still animal, colored in the same florescent green as the local flora in unfiltered sunlight, moist and perched at the base of a long leaf. I squeal over the sounds of a bubbling zen fountain below. Walking a few steps to the plant at eye-height on his left, he points to another. “We just found them two days ago.”
We move inside. It’s not busy. At mid-afternoon, the dozen customers are seated on the veranda at the thick, rough-edged wood dining tables – all rectangular except for the round one in the corner, ironically labelled with a “camelot” iron sign that hangs above.
No one sits at the coffee table inside, where I had sat earlier in the day – not to read the magazines or play the board games stacked on a side table, but to read the laminated newspaper articles that still lay atop it. One described the now familiar story of the American climber who amputated his own arm.
How gruesome, I had thought, not from the idea of amputation as the fact that the article sat side-by-side with other harrowing stories, including two copies of a croc attack. Suddenly, I questioned the mind state of the owners. I turned the article over to reveal another, exactly the same size, that listed the top 20 world beaches. I was happy to see that it included my newest favorite (rated too low at #18) – Whitehaven Beach, about 500 miles south in the Whitsunday Islands. My confidence in the cafe was restored.
With a slight puff to his chest, the man pulls random facts out of the warm, slightly sticky May air – the difficulty of inserting the main beam during construction, the types of local woods used, the lax closing hours.
“You should’ve been here last night. We had a cellist lined up. Then someone came out with a guitar.” He lowers his voice as a disclaimer. “They’re not as bad together as you might think.” He continues. “And then we thought of somebody who works at the hostel, so we called him up. Before we knew it, we had a top group together.”
“Will that be on again tonight?” I ask, already writing a mental note into my day planner.
“No,” not even considering the appeal it would have. I curse my luck for not having been in the cafe for the impromptu gig.
As though suddenly remembering his job, he turns and we follow him to the van – a stream of compliments follow like the dust that trails the van. The grinding noises from the dirt road drown out any conversation inside.
The woman asks some questions about how far the road goes. Even though I’m sitting in between her and the driver, I don’t catch his answers past “Cooktown,” but apparantly she does as she continues to nod and volley his eager chatter.
My eyes and attention focus instead on the fan palms overhead – their exaggerated span and accordion folds acting as umbrellas, layered 20 to 30 feet above to help create the rainforest’s high ceiling.
“Ohh,” she exclaims, obviously still following his mumbles. “Remember that,” she says to me. “The Bloomfield Track is like…like…” searching for a worthy metaphor. “Well, it’s a big thing to say you were on the Bloomfield Track.”
As we turn right into the entrance of the Beach House, she hands me the menu to return to the front seat pocket, next to other brochures for other tours, restaurants and hostels.
“So, do you think you’re going to go there tonight?” I try to ask under my breath. “Absolutely, and I already know what I’m going to have. Yeah,” she says again. “My husband and I will be going there tonight,” as though practicing the determination she’ll use to explain that to her husband.
I’m impressed. I glance at the menu again before putting it in its place – hardly the variety of pastas, salads and mains I’d expect in the middle of nowhere.
We stop in front of the Beach House’s reception office, which gives little hint of either the charmingly basic bungalows or the nearness of the beach. I hop down from the van, saying bye to the woman and thanks to the man.
“Nice man,” I say in the direction of the Fruit Loops who are waiting to board, as the man greets them with a smile. I realize that the whole transaction has taken place without me paying my three-dollar fare.