CAPE YORK, Australia – End of the line. Out on a limb is the feeling, although you’re really out on a rock, amid a clutter of them that seem a lineup of toast in a breakfast table rack.
One more step – it wouldn’t be wise – and you’ve plopped off the continent and into a rowdy, swirling sea where two headlong-colliding adversaries – the Indian and Pacific oceans – trade curling punches, uppercuts, as each roars: “This strait isn’t big enough for both of us!” But they roll with the punches to keep Torres Strait roiling right here, the tip of Cape York, in Queensland.
You’re alone, except for a discreet metal marker advising: “YOU ARE STANDING AT THE NORTHERNMOST POINT OF THE AUSTRALIAN CONTINENT.”
“Thrilling,” says my friend Aurelio, who is energized by geographical extremities. “We’ve done Cape Leeuwin, the southwestern tip; Wilson’s Promontory, the southeastern. All that’s left are Cape Londonderry, the northwestern, and Cape Inscription, the westernmost – and we’ll have an Australian ground slam.”
Save your money, kid, and maybe we’ll get there. Obviously she likes tips more than a waitress or race track and stock market aficionados.
Cape York rises for 500 miles into Torres Strait, a rugged, undeveloped peninsula that looks to me like a bird-flipping finger in the direction of Papua New Guinea.
Aurelio objects to that description. “Coarse. If you look at Australia on a map, it looks like the profile of a terrier’s head, with Cape York as an ear.”
OK, so it’s a dog-eared country, and out here at the continental limit you won’t find anything as civilized as a dog catcher, a hot dog, or, as in Hanoi, roasted dog. You will find white-lipped green frogs that give you sassy lip by croaking, architecturally-minded termites, salt-water crocodiles, and sharks that take your mind off swimming from gorgeous Frangipani Beach. (Incidentally, here’s a useful tip: A neighborhood 10-year-old boy who was grabbed by a shark had the presence to give the creature the fingers – in the eyes – and it let him go. There’s also a delicious fish called barramundi that turns your mind to eating rather than being eaten. And more birds (230 species, including trumpet manucode, chestnut-breasted cockatoo, white-streaked honeyeater, magnificent riflebird) than you can shake a camera and binocs at. My favorite is Billy, a jabiru (or black-necked stork). Appearing tuxedoed in black-and-white plumage, Billy, standing 4 feet with a 12-inch beak, is the house greeter at Pajinka Wilderness Lodge.
“Click-click!” goes Billy’s scissoring bill as he nitpicks himself and wanders the open-air dining room in a welcoming manner.
His spokesman, Paul Warburton, the resident naturalist, says, “Billy seems pretty happy with us, for the moment anyway, because he’s on very good terms with the kitchen. But he may fly away sometime. The jabiru is Australia’s highest-flying bird. They can get up to 10,000 feet.”
Billy looks as though he’d rather feed royally than fly high.
Arriving on the Cape by ferry through the bumpy Gulf of Carpenteria from Thursday Island, we were picked up at the
seaside settlement of Seisia by Warburton in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the only kind worth having in these wilds. Following red dirt tracks through a tropical rain forest, he got us to Pajinka in the midst of rare, raw beauty.
Didn’t see people, but the elegant termite communities were well populated. Ant and termite mounds are an Australian specialty. When razed, they provide the surface grit for rural, homemade Queensland tennis courts on which such Hall of Famers as Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and Mal Anderson first frolicked.
The insect hills of my previous experience seemed to be impersonating fire hydrants. But the Cape’s think-big termites are master builders, creating imaginatively-shaped mini-palazzi of 12-or-so feet in pleasing Tuscan red.
A quarter-mile up-and-down walk from the tip of the Cape, the Lodge is tucked into the forest, a modest refuge with only 24 rooms, good food, and civilized enough (i.e. indoor plumbing).
“The swimming pool will be swimmable one of these days,” says a laughing Ian Wright, the congenial manager, and Billy nods approvingly.
Quiet and isolated (thankfully no TV, radio, clocks, phones in the rooms), Pajinka is a hub for walking and driving safaris into the bush, archeological prying, birding, ocean and freshwater fishing, boat excursions, and what Warburton, the amiable and knowledgeable naturalist, calls “our mystery tour. I’ve researched the territory and take people to unexplored areas.”
Though not virginal, Crocodile Creek has that feeling. Meandering from the sea inland, parting mangrove thickets and tangles, branching off in countless slivers of a watery maze, it is primeval, mysterious, the haunt of its namesakes.
At Frangipani Beach, a glorious mile-and-a-half stretch of sand swinging away from the peninsulan point, we board a dinghy with Warburton at the tiller and put-put-put slowly into the stream that changes colors from soothing green to olive drab to black as the boat penetrates deeper.
The mangroves, 37 varieties, spread scrambled junkyards of roots. Small tarpon leap and splash. Fish called mudskippers slap the bank – “Pop!” – territorially with their flippers. Lords of the bank, the crocodiles, have deserted their nests of leaves to pursue sunshine elsewhere.
No noise now but the wind and intramural messages of birds, like chuckling yellow orioles on their party line. You believe Warburton as he says you could get lost in this swamp easily.
“Did you ever get lost?” asks Aurelio.
He just smiles.
Presently he finds his way back to the sea, to land on the beach of craggy, uninhabited York Island, a half-mile across from the point. In the distance is historic Possession Island, also uninhabited, where in 1770 the intrepid voyager Captain James Cook went ashore and claimed the east coast of Australia for Great Britain.
“This territory isn’t a whole lot different from his day. The wilds are pretty well preserved and protected,” says Warburton. Glory be.
York Island is a pile of granite outcroppings that, in some places, resemble the jammed-together tombstones of the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague. I am content to lie on the beach while Aurelio exercises her mountain goat instincts by granite-hopping to the top of the bluff.
“It’s a terrific view of land’s end over there,” she reports.
“The view is OK from here,” I say, raising myself on my elbows on the sand. “A croc’s eye view of the end of the Aussie line.”
As we near the end of 2000′s line, kind readers, Aurelio and I wish you Holiday Huzzahs, Very Best of the Season, health, happiness, and the pursuit of whatever your dream destination.
The e-mail address for Pajinka Wilderness Lodge is firstname.lastname@example.org.