If you take the inland route, the drive from Sydney to Cape Tribulation is a mere 2500 kilometres. My husband and I decided to go via the coast. It was a few hundred kilometres longer, but it passed through Brisbane and other places we'd heard of.
In our optimistic naiveté, we figured the coastal route would be an extended version of the Great Ocean Road. By the time we hit the Queensland border in our rented Kia, we'd given up hoping for a view of anything other than the scraggly eucalypts that lined the highway.
Steve and I had already been living in Australia for a few years, having left our home in Winnipeg, Canada. We'd only intended to stay for twelve months. But once you've escaped winters that can drop to minus forty Celsius and last up to seven months, it's difficult to go back. We found ourselves applying for permanent residency, on track to possible citizenship. This was fine for Steve, whose identity was solidly entrenched in managerial accounting. I was more uncertain. Wanting to better understand this vast and baffling country and how I might fit into it, I'd coaxed Steve into a trip to Queensland's tropical north. I wanted to see the country, to meet some locals, to gain some real insight into the place that was becoming my home.
Along the Sunshine Coast, two barefooted pre-teen boys raced along the pavement, with three surfboards between them. One rode a bike, a surfboard under his arm; the other pushed along on a skateboard, struggling with two surfboards at once. It was the perfect Australian tableau - alive and joyous, yet still life-threatening, the wind rippling through the hair of the boys' unhelmeted heads.
When we first arrived, I thought Noosa might be the most picturesque spot in the world. We picnicked on the beach with fish and chips, then watched the sun set from a riverboat cruise. It was a fine day, but we could have been in Waikiki or Cancun or a dozen other places. Walking back to the hotel, I felt flat.
"Vacation spot not nice enough for you?" Steve asked. I didn't reply. Maybe I had set my Queensland expectations too high.
"Would this help?" Steve handed me a bag from one of the souvenir shops. "I found it when I got the fish and chips." The bag held a single item, brown and furry. I pulled it out. "What is it?"
"A coin purse made from kangaroo balls," he said, as if describing any ordinary purchase. "An ad in the store said I'd be nuts not to get it." Occasionally, Steve knew how to make my day.
The Northern Territory had been my first choice for this trip, but in Steve's appraisal the outback was "too hot and dry". The bargaining chip he'd used to dissuade me was a three-day live-aboard Great Barrier Reef excursion that left from Airlie Beach. The shiny marketing pamphlet showed young, attractive people having the time of their lives on a sleek white boat. The night before, our excitement kept us awake long after we'd turned out the motel room lights.
Early the next morning, we abandoned the hire car and boarded the boat with ten other tourists and expats. The first let-down came when the crew introduced themselves. Two were from the UK, the other from Auckland. In hindsight, we probably would have met more Australians driving the inland route.
Grey clouds blew in soon after we set sail, and the wind that brought them hounded us for the next three days, rocking the catamaran relentlessly. Everyone vomited off the back deck at least once a day. We tried to socialise, but Steve's face had a greenish tinge, like he was in the first stage of turning into the Hulk. By the time we reached our snorkelling spot, I barely cared about the reef; I wanted in the water for seasickness relief. I floated facedown in my life vest, letting Steve pull me around by the hand in search of sea turtles.
"Was that a particularly Australian experience?" I said when we arrived back in Airlie Beach. "When Aussies think of the Great Barrier Reef, does it bring back the taste of vomit?"
"It was the most I've ever paid to throw up," Steve said, as he searched his bag for the car keys.
We climbed into the dust-streaked Kia and continued north. The bush gave way to cane fields, and for hundreds of kilometres on either side of the highway, there was nothing but sugar cane. I felt restless, chasing some illuminatory experience of Australianness just beyond my grasp.
Soon we'd reach Cape Tribulation, then leave the car at Cairns airport, catch a flight to Sydney, and return to our everyday lives, my classes full of disinterested students, appointments with my psychologist, the grind of writing, the loneliness that had seeped into our apartment.
For a hard, pounding minute, the landscape flashing past, returning felt unbearable. The world turned leafy green by the time we hit the Daintree River. The muggy air smelled tropical, rich with heat and vegetative decay. Climbing out of the air-conditioned Kia was like stepping into a hot, damp sock.
Steve and I were worn out, not fully recovered from our three days of sea sickness and the 3000 kilometres we'd covered in a too-small car. I'd had to convince him it would be worth driving the extra distance past Cairns. Still, we exchanged a smile when we boarded the river ferry and spotted the two welcome swallows riding with us. They chirped sweetly, flying off into the thick foliage as the ferry docked.
I'd booked a cabin, one of several set into the jungle. The receptionist, a fellow Canadian on a working holiday visa, handed us a flashlight as she checked us in. The pathways between cabins were no longer lit, she explained. Ants had eaten into the wiring. "The owners replace it, and the ants just eat it again," she said with a shrug.
In Sydney, and everywhere else I'd lived, ants invaded kitchens to scavenge for crumbs. In Far North Queensland, they cut the power. That fact alone was worth driving several hundred kilometres for.
The ants hadn't yet managed to disconnect our cabin's electricity. We dropped our bags and headed out.
"So?" I asked, as we navigated to the parking lot with the flashlight. "Excited?"
"Not really," replied Steve.
"We're going to see the oldest rainforest in the world! It's older than the Amazon." I hadn't known Australia had any rainforest before I'd planned this trip, let alone such a distinguished one.
"I don't know if we're going to see very much," Steve replied. It was 8pm, the sky was a moonless black, and we'd booked a jungle night tour.
We joined a small group waiting for the tour to start. We'd encountered so many Brits, Kiwis and North Americans working along the Queensland coast that I'd given up on meeting any Australians. Maybe they'd all left to work at Canada's ski resorts. Our two-hour tour through the Daintree would probably be led by a poli-sci graduate from the University of Calgary.
But I was wrong. The guide was a lanky guy named Colbee. He was dressed like a long-haired Steve Irwin, with a black bushranger hat and the sleeves of his tan button-up shirt rolled to his elbows. He might have been playing to the stereotype, but the clothes were worn, with fraying hems and a series of small tears in his shorts, like maybe a freshie had gotten at them.
"The only wildlife I can guarantee you'll see tonight is right here." He shone his flashlight at a large rock. On top of it sat a monstrous frowning toad, its mouth a long downturned line, its black eyes pointed in different directions. Its shoulders and chest hulked out around its head, like it was on toad steroids. A woman behind me gasped.
"One of our infamous cane toads," Colbee said. "This one probably weighs close to 2 kilos, and is about 25 centimetres long, by the look of it."
He gave us a brief history of cane toads, the error in judgment that had brought them here, the difficulty in slowing their destructive expansion.
"When I was a kid, I'd take a golf club and whack toads into traffic." He stood with one hand in his pocket, relaxed and unhurried, his other hand holding the flashlight on the still unmoving beast. "But they're tough. One time I saw a toad get run over by a truck, its guts spewed over the highway. The damn thing picked itself up, shoved its guts back in its mouth, and took off."
If he was exaggerating, I didn't care. Steve scrunched up his face. Colbee leaned over and grabbed the toad. It squirmed in his hand.
"There's a law up here that says if you catch a cane toad, you have to kill it. So, everybody, flick off your flashlights." The darkness closed in. Brush crunched under Colbee's feet. Then we heard a wet thud, and another. As he switched his flashlight back on, a boy began to cry. Colbee waved his light around until he saw the boy, who looked about eight and was holding his mother's hand.
"Hey, kid, you okay?"
"I've never heard anything die before!"
The boy's accent had an Ohioan crispness. Colbee gave the mother an apologetic grimace. The boy continued sniffling, but I felt exhilarated.
Colbee led us deeper into the jungle. Had he switched off his flashlight and left us there, we never would have made it out. We moved slowly, turning off our lights at times to listen to the rustling foliage, the burble of some unseen creek. Then Colbee would illuminate a centipede scuttling up a tree trunk, a scrub python slithering along a branch, or a huge spider. He taught us about mahogany trees, strangler figs, and the spiked wait-a-while vines that hung from tree branches, entangling themselves in our clothes.
We emerged from the rainforest into the harsh light of the parking lot, where the Kia waited to return us to Cairns in the morning. The rest of the group scattered to their vehicles, the traumatised American boy and his mother the first to drive off.
As Colbee was about to turn away, I asked, "Have you always lived up here?"
"Yep, my whole life." He tucked his hands in his pockets. "Tourists always want to know what it's like, you know, like it must be so scary with all the creepy crawlies. I got a bunch of mice in my place last year, so I caught a scrub python. He lives in the house now, takes care of the mice."
"You just went out and caught a snake?" Steve asked. He sounded as fascinated by this bloke as I was.
"I grew up snaking. It's good fun. Snakes don't always like it though. I took a bite from a python one time, ended up with a tooth wedged in my middle finger." He held up a hand, waggling the finger. "Couldn't bend it for five months. I worked it out with a knife eventually."
I could have spent the rest of my life listening to Colbee.
- This is an edited extract from How to Be Australian: An Outsider's View on Life and Love Down Under by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, published by Affirm Press.