NOOSA: NICE AND NATURAL

NOOSA HEADS, Queensland, Australia – One moment you’re sauntering along Hastings Street, peering into high-fashion shop windows littered with Italian-labeled throw-me-ons of insubstantial life expectancy but substantial price. Maybe you’ve had a swim in the South Pacific, near enough to sometimes flood Hastings, the town’s main artery. And followed that by brunch on the sidewalk at mellow Cafe Kokomo (“Just a name I liked. Nothing like Kokomo, Indiana,” says proprietor Andrew Powell.)

No, certainly nothing Indianan around here. Though condos, motels and homes spill down the low hills sliding toward the sea, they are unobtrusively veiled by tropic greenery (home also to wild goats), and there isn’t much room for Noosa to expand. Ordinary-sounding Hastings – well-known to Australians who get around, as Worth Avenue in Palm Beach is to Americans – can’t reach any longer or wider.

“Fortunately,” says restaurateur Powell. An Aussie who has worked in the wearable rags trade in cities across the globe, including Boston, he decided, “This has it all for me and my family. Near enough to Brisbane if we have to have a big city fix. Sadly, so much of this coast of Queensland, the Sunshine Coast, has been overbuilt like the east coast of Florida. But Noosa remains a small beach town, a good place to raise our kids, a place with a distinctive flavor.”

A blend of quickly embraced chic and primitive for the saunterer. It takes only minutes to get past Hastings’s boutiques, ice creameries, restaurants, public bath house and the Surf Club (hangout of intrepid volunteer life-savers) . . . and plunge into zealously-preserved wilderness. Gawking is good along rocky trails that tilt, dip and climb through forests, beside and above cliff-assaulting surf.

And you might be lucky enough to encounter Ina and Tom Bergin, a delightfully rare blend themselves. Six years ago, he, a burly, bearded veterinarian-biologist-historian, hopefully proposed by fax to her, a petite, dark-haired woman of innumerable talents (nursing and diplomacy to name two) who was a couple of continents away in East Africa.

If you meet, Tom may tell you that the Noosa trails can be a “health menace. You might get a strained neck looking for koalas.”

Worth the strain, though. Seeming furry footballs, latte-toned, they nestle groggily on upper limbs of osteoporotically-twisted gum trees, lulled to sleep most of the day by nature’s maritime boom box below them: heavy-metalically crashing waves.

The ocean appears crazy, all right, at Dolphin Point where surfers loll on their boards, waiting for just the right tide as rollers hit the beach in a clanking of small rocks. The koalas would tell them they’d be better off on a shady bough than a capricious sun-baked board. Alexandria Bay, wild, too, is lined by breadfruit trees with star-shaped leaves.

But the Pacific’s least pacific attack on the headland, gale directed, is around a jutting corner, at a vertical notch called Hell’s Gates. So devilishly ferocious is the wind that you fear standing close to the edge of the V-shaped incursion of black-walled granite. Seventy-five feet below, the waves – liquid kamikazes – crash and bash alarmingly, deafeningly. They, crush and gush, roil and boil, steam and cream self-destructively (nevertheless making an impression over the centuries), while spewing silky foam that floats overhead like escaping souls.

High winds and water have disappointingly cancelled a long-planned boating/eating tour that the Bergins operate aboard Walrus II, covering a neighborhood estuarial route they call the Wild Duck Trail. Damaged in a storm, the Walrus is out of action.

“All right, mates,” says ebullient Tom, “we’ll make it up. You’ve been on boats before, after all – but you’ve never had the best part: Ina’s cooking. You can still have that at our house.”

Their Obi-Obi Cottage, a onetime gold miner’s shack that has been restfully refurbished after being moved from inland Gympie, is out of the 19th century, the oldest house in Noosa. It is as much museum as abode, crammed with art and artifacts from their roamings, Ina’s paintings and photos as well as exotic jewelry that she makes.

This is a dinner that takes hours and (don’t count, please) courses strung together by good conversation as joyous and tragic stories of two extraordinary lives unfold, including the long-distance romance with camels serving as matchmakers.

It is interrupted by a siesta after the appetizers of sting ray nuggets, barbecued duck accompanied by white wine. Delicious.

“Time out,” Ina commands after re-filling wine glasses. “We’ll continue when you wake up. We’ve got all afternoon and evening, right? This is a gypsy meal – I’m a genuine gypsy, by the way. Gypsy hospitality is based on comfort, not perfection. Comfort for the soul, heart and body. Sleep, please.”

Very nice. Couches on a screen porch for the three of us, roomie Aurelio and our friend, Ron Sampson, are receptive. We awaken comforted, hungry again. Dreams of menacing sting rays did not swim in our heads.

More food. Chili con emu, huge shrimp called tiger prawns, cow tripe. wild spinach with hard-boiled eggs. Delectable from her touch. More wine, red. Wild fruit compote. Lemon-scented tea with vodka (“A Tom bomb,” Ina calls it.)

What, no camel tail stew?

Ina and Tom met at an African conference on the diseases of camels, but it took a while for them to get over the hump from formal introduction to love letters by fax. She was a diplomat, a government advisor in Djibouti. He had taken a fancy to camel research, and written a book (“In the Steps of Burke and Wills”) about his arduous 1,000 mile journey by camel, tracing the 1861 expedition of the doomed explorers, Robert Burke and William Wills from the top to bottom of Australia.

A traveling man, no doubt, but a stick-in-the-sand compared with Ina. Her odyssey began as a child in Khazakstan and continued through a girlhood stained by massacre in Hungary, saved by escape to Tanzania, an educational interlude at Stanford for a Ph. D, a Middle Eastern first marriage, eventually another escape, from war-rumpled Djibouti, to Tom’s muscular arms.

“Much of me died in 1956 when the Russians came into Hungary,” she grimly recounts. “A sister and I hid in the pantry as my mother, father and six brothers and sisters were shot in the kitchen by Russian soldiers. They found us. But, tired of the bloodshed, I guess, only beat us with their rifles.” She raises a gnarled hand as evidence.

“Gunfire and explosions were so loud outside of my office in Djibouti that I could hardly hear the phone call from Tom. ‘Marry me!’ he said. ‘You’re drunk,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but please marry me.’

“I was sick of being around death, and the thoughts of Australia and Tom were suddenly very appealing.”

Happily ever after they’ve lived. Soon to be a movie near you? Their story, only briefly sketched here, ought to be.

“Oh, we disagree a lot,” she laughs, “but life here is very good.”

“Ah, yeah,” he beams. “Living with a gypsy isn’t easy, but it’s worth trying.”

Even without a camel as housepet.

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