The first sight from the air is a glint in the distance, a hill, an impression of water, a scattering of buildings. Then the plane banks and skims across a stretch of mangroves and an arc of river the colour of rust. Cooktown. Outside, the air is warm with its own particular tropical smell: sweet, like a touch of coconut oil, but spicy too. There is the faintest whiff of bat shit.
The knoll known as Grassy Hill rolls down to the river, houses hidden on its slopes. On the track to the beach, waist-high grasses grown in the Wet are browning off as the Dry settles in; sand squeaks underfoot. Lushness and harshness jostle in this part of the world. It's a place that both draws people in and repels them.
Captain Cook beached the Endeavour here in 1770 to repair a mighty gash in her keel, caused when she struck the reef. Cook and his crew were stranded for seven weeks. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander roamed the slopes and shores of the river, collecting specimens and taking notes. But when the Endeavoursailed away, it was another century before outsiders set foot beside the Endeavour River again. Gold brought them – thousands of them – clambering off boats and heading inland towards the goldfield. In the early 1870s, more than twenty thousand Chinese arrived in Cooktown on the trail of gold. Some found their fortune, some died, some became merchants and market gardeners and eventually moved further south; most went back to China. Hardly any traces remain: a few names, a few small biographical notes, a memorial in the town cemetery and a backpackers' hostel called Louey's.
For half a century, Cooktown shrank and shrank. Since the road south was sealed, it has started to grow again. Now there are million-dollar blocks of land for sale overlooking the river mouth, and yachts moored near the wharf. Tourists in shorts and sandals wander the riverside path, map in hand, following the ‘history trail'. As the tide runs out, people come to fish, black and white, family groups, old-timers. There are plenty of Indigenous people about but not a Chinese face to be seen. What if? What might the story have been if the gold had lasted? If there hadn't been cyclones and prejudice, war and evacuation? If the place hadn't been quite so goddamn far from anywhere else? Cooktown may not have been better, of course, but it would have been different.
I think about what makes certain people go to certain places; what makes them leave or stay. And I wonder, too, about the traces we all leave – how easy or difficult they are to follow, or how true. And in the midst of this wondering, I wind up at the Cooktown Botanic Gardens and that's where I find Vera.
IN THE OLD BOTANIC GARDENS, NOW BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE and lovingly nurtured, is an interpretive centre and art gallery. The gallery contains the flower paintings of Vera Scarth-Johnson, an English woman who came to live in Cooktown in 1972 and spent the next twenty-five years documenting, championing and painting the extraordinary plant life of the Endeavour River area.
Her paintings are exquisite in their detail and composition. There is something fine and robust about them that makes me think she may have been this way herself. The descriptive notes beneath each painting are brief, to the point, but also very definite in tone. I can hear her speaking the words. Of the pretty red-berried tape vine she writes: ‘The flowers are inconspicuous, but the bunches of berries are most attractive. Grown easily from seeds. Be careful because it can become an annoying weed. The root of this plant is bitter and an extract of it is extremely poisonous to frogs.'
There are dozens of her paintings on the walls; more than 140 colour plates in her book National Treasures. A remarkable body of work. I ask the woman in the bookshop where I might find more information about her.
‘It's there in her book,' she says, pointing to the few slim pages of biography I've already read.
A photo at the front of Vera's book depicts a group of three women and two men taking a break from their work in a vegetable garden, somewhere in rural England. It must be hot because the women are in shorts and skimpy tops, their hair tied up in scarves. ‘Nursery group, 1943' the caption says. Vera sits to one side, beautiful and long-legged and slightly pigeon-toed. In the foreground is another pretty young woman, Dorothy. Dorothy is mentioned in the acknowledgements: ‘Dorothy Cook, Vera's friend for nearly 60 years.' It sets me to wondering ... but what first piques my interest when I see this photo is how that lovely, leggy young woman from Yorkshire came to end up in Cooktown.
VERA WAS FROM A WELL-TO-DO YORKSHIRE FAMILY. She was sent to finishing school in Paris in the late 1920s and when that didn't work out (the only thing she liked about it was the garden), she attended art school in Leeds. She didn't like art school all that much either. What she really wanted was to be a farmer – not a pursuit I suspect her family would have wanted. A Cooktown local tells me her father was a concert pianist and her mother the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer.
The young Vera was tall and very beautiful. To raise money, she worked as a model, modelling hats and jewellery. Perhaps impressed by her determination – or scandalised by her modelling – her maternal grandfather gave her two thousand pounds to buy a market garden and piggery. He insisted that she add his name, Scarth, to her own, and so she became Vera Scarth-Johnson. She retained that name all her life, through three unsuccessful marriages.
During World War II, members of the Women's Land Army helped out on the farm – enter Dorothy Cook. Dorothy was from a very different background to Vera – one of eleven children of a poor family. Wartime provided welcome jobs for women, but Dorothy didn't want to work in a munitions factory, so she ended up at Vera's farm.
The photo from Vera's book was taken during the war. One of the men – Jim – is Vera's first husband, left behind when Vera became a ten-pound Pom and emigrated to Australia in 1947. Vera was stylish and impressive and a hard worker; she wore shorts, drank, smoked and swore. Clearly she did whatever she damn well pleased. She and her brother Sid ran a cane farm near Bundaberg where they built a modernist house and hung the walls with contemporary paintings. These are things I learn from people in Cooktown who knew her.
Vera had been painting since she was a child, but the wealth of new botanical stimulus in Australia focused her energies on painting flora. In the 1960s she became one of Kew Gardens' band of international volunteers, sending drawings of specimens she had found. She began making far-flung trips – from the Snowy Mountains to Cape York to the Kimberley and Pilbara. As well as collecting for Kew, she also collected for the Queensland Herbarium, providing in the end some 1,700 specimens. Her travelling expanded to Tonga and Tuvulu. A second husband came and went. Then a third.
Then she came to Cooktown.
By the time Vera arrived in Cooktown, she was sixty but not slowing down. She set herself a daunting task: to paint all the plants of the Endeavour region, some two hundred of them. She was inspired by the work of Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. Often in her accompanying notes, where she advises of a plant's medicinal qualities or its possible uses in a domestic garden, she adds where appropriate, ‘Collected by Banks and Solander, Endeavour River'.
Vera went on expeditions with local elders of the Gamay and Waymbaarr clans, on either side of the river, and became their respected friend. They gave her the name Wauru Ngul-gu-rrathan – ‘Innermost Beauty'. When there is a proposal to mine silicon on the banks of the river she urges the locals to action, which eventually results in the declaration of the Endeavour River National Park. ‘My river' she calls the Endeavour – and no one seems to mind. Such is her devotion to the area.
In 1989 Vera gave her paintings to the people of Cooktown and the same year the Vera Scarth-Johnson Foundation was formed, with the intention of establishing a centre that would highlight the preciousness of the region's environment and plant life. By the mid-1990s, Vera was slowing down. Parkinson's Disease had taken hold. Her old friend Dorothy Cook, with whom she had been corresponding for fifty years, was widowed and decided to move across the world to care for her friend. It seems an extraordinary decision but it was one she never regretted. By the time she arrived in 1997, Vera was in a wheelchair. Dorothy quickly became a much-loved part of Cooktown life. People remember her sitting in the main street, selling raffle tickets to help raise money for the publication of Vera's book.
In 1998, the year before Vera died, the first sod was turned for Nature's Powerhouse, the interpretive centre and gallery where I first came across her work – the last grand dream fulfilled. Such are the traces of a life: three illusive husbands; a beautiful, important but almost unknown body of work; a strong connection to community and the devotion of a true friend. Dorothy stayed in Cooktown until she died in 2003. ♦