Tag Archive: Ellis Beach


Nightmare in the Tropics

The cane bins were frequently empty so we had time to nap, some nights we slept for 3 or 4 hours.

The night shift for some workers was ideal, it gave them a significant pay bonus and the chance to work in cooler conditions. However, I really disliked night work, I found sleeping during the daytime virtually impossible and quickly built up a sleep deficit. It left me feeling incredibly grubby and tetchy, unable to enjoy any free time during the day.

It had only been 4 weeks since we moved into our new home, a third part of an interesting stilted Queenslander home in Cairns. Already the cycling to and from the sugar mill had been replaced by a ride/share arrangement with a co-worker. Unfortunately our shifts swung out of sync as we both took any overtime available. This left me having to cadge a lift with others, use the infrequent bus service or hitch-hike. Some days as I got back to the house mid morning or lunch time I was beside myself with fatique and strung out on caffeine overload. It just wasn’t working for me.

To compound things the bedroom was incredibly stuffy during the daytime. I would open the front door and the small bedroom window to get some relief. The mattress was an old foam affair that made me sweat even more. When I got back from the mill I would shower, drink a load of fluid, cram some food in my mouth and crash. Sleep came instantly but was fleeting and fitful, my body against the foam mattress would sweat, sometimes my hair was soaked when I woke up. My only means of feeling better was to get out onto the verandah with a sleeping bag. The fresher air was helpful, but sleep was more difficult to achieve because of all the activity around me.

One third of the house was occupied by an unemployed couple who fought frequently. They had little money and were living on the edge. During the daytime it was more peaceful, but as the afternoon wore on their friends would turn up in utes with dogs barking. The noise level would surge as a turntable was filled with vinyl.

In the other third were the Aboriginal family we met when we moved in. Grandpa, Mum, Dad, his brother and three children. They were incredibly friendly and well organised. The kids went off to school with Mum each morning, the 2 young men were away working on a Tableland cattle station which left Grandpa in the house during the daytime. He would potter around the place from early morning, I don’t think that he did anything constructive, but he was always on the move. I could hear him plodding around, moving things and scraping chairs on the wooden floor. What was he doing?

Persistent activity during the daytime was tweaked to the max from mid-day onwards as Grandpa instigated his daily grogfest. Sometimes when I was sleeping out on the porch I would wake with an inexplicable eerie feeling and realise that he was sitting by me on the door step. He always had a stubbie in one hand, a smoke in the other and a ripped cardboard case beside him. As soon as I opened my eyes he would offer me a bottle. My sleep addled state only allowed me to smile inanely, shake my head and scream like a banshee deep down in my core. Eyes would swing in their sockets like scorched castanets. He would grin and take another swig as he lolled against the weatherboard. This was my cue to go inside and seek some solace there, back to the heat and sultry murk that was my depleted oxygen cell. By this stage my brain would be jiggling inside my skull, sleep, oh please let me have some sleep.

Dream after dream would be disturbed by Grandpa as he sculled the beer, or the young folk hooting raucously on the other side of the building. When the sun swung around to where Grandpa was sitting he would move under the house. His hammock set up so that he could still see things on the street. When the alcohol had stewed his senses he would begin to sing, it sounded like some dreary ancient warrior tune that young Aboriginals sang as they endured agonies of their teeth being smashed out with sticks during rite of passage! With his hand he would tap out a monotonous beat on a stilt that supported the house.

Eventually I struggled to differentiate between dream and reality, couldn’t tell if I was awake in Hell or slithering in and out of a nightmare. It had to stop, I was incapable of doing simple things such as going grocery shopping without feeling miserable and clumsy. On night shift week I would barely eat so I started to lose condition.

Temporary relief was provided by wearing wax earplugs. Being wax they were able to be molded into a perfect fit in my ear and excluded practically all external noise. Once the plugs were in place my body temperature seemed to go up which made the sweating worse. Perhaps the ears also act as body temperature regulators? In time the earplugs slid out and I would waken in a haze and have to jam them back in. I gave up with these after the second round of night shift because they were too much hassle in the intense humidity of Cairns.

Leonie was generally sympathetic, but understandably fed up of me being spaced out. We could do very little in our spare time when I was on night shift because I needed to put my head down and sleep whenever the opportunity arose. Our solution was genius. We decided to pool our money and buy a campervan, it didn’t matter about the condition as long as it drove, it would be somewhere for me to sleep after a nightshift. If I was struggling to sleep I could always get in a campervan and drive off to a quiet location for a few hours kip.

We scoured the local papers and found a VW campervan for sale in Edmonton at $550. The advert said it was driveable but needed some work, I could fix it. We had enough money so called from a nearby payphone and arranged to go over to Edmonton. It was an ancient split screen van with a crack across the passengers window. The tyres were worn down and the valences were rusted up but it started immediately. We were mobile. Score!

In a plume of black smoke we drove away like royalty. After dropping Leonie at the house I pushed a light blanket and pillow into the back and set off straight away to the mill for the next ration of night shift. In the car park I slept like a log for 2 hours. It was bliss. From then on the sleep issue ceased to be a problem for me and I was able to work as many hours as possible to build up some funds.

I have never worked a night shift since finishing at the sugar mill and have massive respect to anyone who does. You are made of much sterner stuff than me. Most creatures thrive by sleeping from sundown til dawn, I subscribe to that ethos entirely.

Butcher’s Bike to Ellis Beach

Like any addict once the lure of the silver spoon strikes it is virtually impossible to resist, similarly the kick of travel and adventure has one mighty compelling high.

At the peak of my travel addiction I would have donned flippers and mask in a heartbeat if somebody had asked me to swim to Tahiti. Life was a surging rush and I wanted to be soaked in every possible way.

In Cairns, after deciding to stay in Australia rather than head off to Papua New Guinea, we needed to perpetuate the dreamtime we had been living on Green Island, yet we had little money to support our fantasies. Our new found jobs were providing us with a little surplus, barely enough to plan a major adventure. Talented Leonie came up with a solution, wondering if we could create leather goods to sell at the Sunday market to boost the coffers for another travel fix. I had been mainlining on travel for so long that the withdrawals were like a gnawing ache, she didn’t have to ask me twice, I needed a fix.

We figured out a way of making bespoke sandals from hides, bought some cheap hides and a few handtools, traced around our feet to get the general shape and proceeded to cut out the soles from the thicker parts of the hide. Great ideas often come in tsunami format, so once the entrepreneurial lid was lifted we were ready to sell our leather goods internationally.

Of course that never happened, but we did benefit from several interesting days on the Cairns Sunday market selling our stuff. We managed to break even and met loads of other Bohemianesque bodies. However, the greatest discovery at the market was a stall selling secondhand household goods. One Sunday I wandered over while Leonie was selling ‘stamped’ purses and beaded leather bracelets. At the back were two butcher’s bikes, both dull and rusty but with tyres and a semblance of brakes. Instantly I fell in love, swirling dreams of leisurely cycling into the sunset or laughing like hyenas as the bike bobbled down a grassy slope, Leonie in the front carrier, until we fell off into the wavy grass. (Or was that a scene from Butch Cassidy?) I bought them both for a few dollars and proudly walked my new travel facilitators back to our stall.

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Bike bought on Cairns Sunday market for a few dollars.

We never went back to the market. When we managed to get a few days together we would pack up our gear, load it into the front baskets and set off from work, often pedalling up the coast from Cairns toward Port Douglas.

It didn’t matter how far we pedalled. What did matter was being able to get a dose of that travel  syrup. Our early journeys, until we could trust the old bikes, were gentle meanders around Cairns, we stopped frequently to investigate things. We rode slowly to absorb it all and let the immense variety and beauty seep into our souls.

Once we were riding with open fields to our left when I spotted a hedgehog in the grass. A hedgehog? Long slow squirl as the mouldy brakes nibbled a catchy tune on the wheel rims. Dropping the bike I loped back to the dark hedgehog like lump with a curious elongated nose.

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In the spotlight.

‘Leonie, come and have a squiz at this.’

Completing a 360 in around 5 minutes, one foot tapping the road, she wiggled her loaded butcher’s bike to a halt. Leonie’s bike had a narrower front wheel which looked a bit dodgy on the point of separation from the rest of the bike. In truth it barely functioned unless treated with extreme kindness.

‘What do you reckon to that? Is it an echidna?’

‘Well. I guess it is. Not sure, never seen one before.’

Leonie was full of hippie knowledge, a converted Bohemian, self-styled nouveau-Aussie-townie who knew everything about making dried potatoe into colourful jewellery. She had a penchant for extracting juice from dandelion stems and pressing fresh flowers. Her other mind juggling skill was creating  astrological charts crammed with mysterious witchlike signs. Indigenous flora and fauna were a shade alien to her nebulous thought pattern.

After scouting out the local terrain we began to hanker after a bigger challenge. We bought a road map and realised that a little further up Captain Cook Highway were long ribbons of palm fringed beaches. Ellis Beach became our prime target, a short journey from Palm Cove, practically a suburb of Cairns.

Ellis Beach was quite startling because we didn’t expect to find a mini tourist haven. We had set off early one Saturday morning, pedalling much harder than on previous trips. Our objective was to use the bikes purely for transport then spend time camping on the beach, lazy swim and wander around on foot before we had to head back to Cairns on Sunday. After leaving Palm Cove we pushed on steadily, enjoying the birdlife and smelling the ocean off to our right with a seemingly constant strip of inviting sand. It felt good to be extending ourselves.

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Saddle sore? You bet!

This was our longest ride to date and our backsides were feeling a little sore in the bucket like saddles, so we decided to stop at a slight rise on the highway with good views out to Double and Haycock Islands. Enticing places that appeared attainable by small boat.

‘Hey Leonie. Perhaps we should buy a rowing boat? It would be ace to go out to those islands and camp there.’

Leonie was used to this kind of speculation. ‘Dream on Johnny Boy. Are you going to tow the bloody boat at the back of your butcher’s bike?’

She was equally familiar with my responses. ‘Mebbe! Give me a little more time with this idea.’

‘Crazy Pommie bar steward!’

We slaked our thirst with some curious concoction Leonie made from pomegranates, lemons and purified water. What on earth is purified water? Water is water, it pours out of the sky by the lake load, surely that is as natural and purified as it needs to be.

Refreshed we mounted up again and pushed on. Very shortly, round a smooth curve in the road it rapidly became obvious we were coming to Ellis Beach. Actually there was a sign that said … Ellis Beach.

The map showed virgin beaches in this area, imagine our amazement as homes appeared amongst the trees. Many with corrugated tin rooves, verandahs and pretty gardens alongside burger bars and ice cream booths that wouldn’t have been out of place on a spaghetti Western set. The giveaway sign that we were in tourist town were the beach wear shops, selling the usual bucket and spade mish mash. Family groups laden with towels were skipping across the road, older folk carrying umbrellas and foldaway canvas chairs made their way to the beach. Teenagers with eskies and tanned surfer boys with packs of Fosters joked as they kicked up the sand. Music was already blarting out from a rudimentary beach bar.

We stopped in the midst of it all, legs straddling the bikes, nodded disapprovingly through stiff smiles then kept on riding. Ellis Beach was a long development with a lovely beach but wasn’t for our free radical, Bohemian sense of adventure.

Tired and disgruntled we needed to stop. Once out of the busy beach atmosphere we decided to find somewhere nearby to pitch up for the night. The silky beach had given way to a rougher aspect but we still found a place to pitch our tiny tent, stash the bikes and go for a swim to replenish our skittered spirits.

The following weekend we determined that finding utopia would require greater effort to bust past dystopia and find our Shangri La. Next target was a whopping 60 mile round trip by butcher’s bike – Turtle Cove.