Before the invasion of 4-wheel drives and
southern investors, Cooktown was a town of cheap land and unique
characters, some weird, some nuts and others plain funny. The
local butcher, for example, was as bald as a badger except for
one amazingly fertile patch on his scalp where he grew a ponytail.
With his head down wrapping meat, the ponytail would surrender
to gravity and uncoil like a lazy spring towards the counter
at which time he would deftly flick it aloft to resume its role
as a sort of toupee covering much less of his baldness than he
wanted to believe.
And when leaving the butchery - or any
shop for that matter, there was a fair chance of a Russian women
standing on the opposite side of the street shouting heavily
accented prophesies of doom regarding the Cuban missile crisis.
I never did get her drift, but then, I doubt if she did either.
There was also a small sawmill near Cooktown
Railway Station where, if you needed a piece of timber, the owner
would escort you through his shed describing all the species
available, then, on making your choice, he would refuse to sell
it because, to quote him on a couple of occasions; 'I can't let
you have that piece, I may need it to fix up me shed one day'.
If you were young and female - as a couple
of my friends were, camping in the derelict Buffalo's Hall (now
the RSL), you were guaranteed a serenade from a dignified gentleman
claiming to be a Duke who would daily waylay you on the street,
bow, kiss your hand and sing you a love song. He was a thumping
bore, but a delightfully well-mannered one.
Another character, memorable for how his
employment marked the wonderful lack of progress in Cooktown
in the early sixties, was the harbour lamplighter. It is difficult
to believe that less than fifty years ago the harbour's two entrance
beacons burned kerosene and needed attention twice a day: once
every evening to light them and once every morning to blow them
out! The gentleman who performed this unusual task lived alone
in the old powder magazine and used his lovely clinker rowboat
for the job.
One Cooktown story I cannot confirm - but
can easily believe, involved an elderly couple living out in
the sticks. According to those who knew them, they were mystified
by their changed behaviour every time they stayed in town. After
a day or two they became inhibited, up tight and took life much
more seriously than back on the farm, and could never understand
why. One popular theory was that on the farm they ate mushrooms
with every meal, never realising that they were of the mind-changing
variety very popular in those days with hippies.
The king of Cooktown characters lived on
the opposite side of the river, behind Saunders Point. His name
was Jack Legg, a fact you could never forgot because his favourite
introductory line was; 'Hello, my name's Jack Legg. It has an
egg in it, yoke can see that'. And after telling you that he
was in the mounted cavalry during World War One, he would add
that his name has two Gs in it - 'Gee Gee, that proves I was
in the light horse'.
Like so many who had experienced the true
horrors of war, Jack preferred to forget, but he sometimes provided
insights with off-the-wall humour. When asked if he was in the
famous Beersheba charge he went uncharacteristically silent,
then said, 'Well, I was presented to the King and Queen. They
inspected our line in Buckingham Palace. The King stopped in
front of me, looked down at my shoes and said. "Struth,
Jack, they're filthy", so I said, 'Give us a go cobber,
I've been out fighting the bloody Turks in the mud and the filth,
what else would you expect?' At which the King replied, "I
understand Jack, but, you know how it is with the Queen, she's
a bit houseproud and has just spent all morning vacuuming the
Jack passionately hated Churchill because
of the offhand way he 'fed us to the Turks' to take the pressure
of his own forces, and he had a similar opinion of all politicians
who create wars then send the cream of our youth to get slaughtered
while they stay safely at home. His idea of sweet revenge was
to live to twice the pension age just to see the government's
response when he claimed a double pension.
If anyone had a chance of living to 130,
Jack was definitely in the running. He was tough, resilient and
full of fun, and thought nothing of walking briskly for hours
through bush, marshes and along the northern beaches in search
of wild pig. He was a reminder that it takes a special person
to live in isolation because, far from being easy, it is one
long battle to keep body and soul together. Yet he was often
condemned as being a lazy, indolent waster by those of comfortable
circumstance. He especially suffered such criticism on the rare
days when tourists, up from Cairns on the weekly ferry, would
suddenly appear at his shack, peering in as if he were a zoo
One group included a truly insufferable
urban female who berated him for being a bludger: a burden on
the public purse. Not one to suffer fools easily, Jack responded
by politely saying, 'Good heavens lady, I'm not here by choice,
I have a fatal, contagious disease. I was quarantined here by
the Department of Health'.
The look on the lady's face as she swung
around and strutted quickly back along the beach, anxiously herding
her flock as she went, was one of Jack's most cherished memories.
And his telling of the story was his way of assuring cruising
yachties that they were different and always welcome. He hated
tourists but enjoyed the company of serious travellers and was
always wonderful company.
I'm not sure when Jack disappeared, I only
remember the shock of finding his shack empty and vandalised
during one of my regular visits in the early 1970s. Obviously
he didn't make it to twice the pension age, but if you're listening
Jack, things were much better in your day, and if you think it
was hard being an individual then, now you'd either be heritage
listed or evicted as a security threat - unless, of course, you
opened your shack to tourists.