November 14th 2012, Northern Queensland, Australia
My time in northern Queensland was coming to an end. I had yearned for the tropics whilst in Tasmania; warm breezes, swimming in the clear ocean, snorkelling on the reef, lazing on golden crescents of palm fringed sand. I suppose I was, once again, nostalgic for those sun blessed, carefree years of childhood on Curacao, as I had been when I headed across the Atlantic on my yacht searching for a tropical paradise.
Paradise turned out to be elusive here in Queensland. It was rare to find a palm fringed beach, and when I did the water was not clear. The coast is too shallow; the tide goes out too far so you can only swim for a short while at high water. Most of the coast is mangrove, with muddy creeks and rivers discharging their silt burden into the Coral Sea. There were no fabulous reefs near enough to the coast to be able to snorkel; that is if the water was clear enough to see anything. The only way to see those wondrous colours of the coral was to catch a tourist boat to the outer reefs. The tourist operators have got it sown up pretty well and it is a multi-million dollar industry. Still, at least those of us who care about the environment have, to some extent, got the tourist industry on our side to protect the reef from industrial development such as the huge new coal export facilities being set up along the Queensland coast.
No, the Caribbean in the ‘nineties was far superior in terms of being in paradise; as is Ningaloo reef on the west coast of Australia, incidentally. There you can snorkel right off the beach in perfectly clear water and tourism is still very low key, probably due to it being such a long way away from centres of human occupation.
There are other restrictions to living in “paradise” along the Queensland coast, such as dangerous Stingers, various species of tiny jellyfish which inflict excruciating pain and in severe cases can cause death through paralysis and shock. Granted, I was a bit late in the year, for it begins to become a serious problem in October/November when the stinger nets are unfurled and you can only swim in a fifty metre square enclosure. Even then it is not entirely guaranteed to be safe.
Sandflies, so tiny you can hardly see them, are also a cause of intense irritation and create large swellings on my body which last for two weeks, suppurate, itch furiously and leave little scars which seem to flare up again when I’m bitten a month or so later. I may be particularly sensitive to them, which in a perverse way is only fair since mosquitoes do not affect me much at all. In any case, they restricted my enjoyment of the tropics. It was foolhardy to sit on a beach in the cool of the sunset where I was a prime feeding ground for these vicious little insects which did not seem to be deterred by tropical strength insect repellent. I learned my lesson and stayed in the bus when it was a windless evening.
To sum up the Queensland coast; mass tourism, city resorts, too many people, commercial and materialistic values, unbridled development, cloudy water, mangroves, mudflats, crocodiles, stingers, sandflies, march flies, tropical diseases and more...do not add up to the paradise I was looking for. I’m used to snakes, spiders and sharks so they are not on the list, although they are abundant here too. I wonder what the tourists think about it; have they been taken in by the hype pedalled by the tourist industry? Perhaps they have little experience of what paradise can be like elsewhere. But then, everyone has a different idea of what paradise is.
The rainforest, however, is another story. I found it very exotic and enjoyed my wanderings through the damp, dense lushness of buttressed trees, palms, ferns and climbers. It is at the end of the season, hot and humid and there were very few people on the paths constructed by the Parks and Wildlife service. At times I would be walking on my own through the dripping forest, listening to the sound of birds and the rustle of palm leaves, imagining how the first explorers must have felt when they had to cut their way through the tangled undergrowth. The forest cuts back; for many of the plants have razor sharp edges or thorns that tear at your clothes and draw blood from the skin underneath. They named one of the palms “Wait-a-while” because the long, thorny tendrils would hook into your body and halt your progress until you had carefully untangled yourself. The tendrils are intended [another marvel of evolution] to hook into tall trees so that the palm can literally pull itself up to the light at the top of the canopy.
I swam in mountain pools, cut into the granite rocks by streams; carved into sculptural, sensual curves, hollows and chutes. Often I swam naked and alone, and felt like an Original Australian. My body was caressed by the gentle veil, fine as mist, which drifted through the air beneath the tallest waterfall in Australia. As the stream shot out over the lip, as though pumped, the gouts of water disintegrated in slow motion into the depth of the gorge. Halfway down the fall there were few gouts left; just vaporous rain which shattered into rainbow colours against the sun.
On my own I become more attuned to the forest, my senses are keen and I begin to pick out the detail that surrounds me; a rustle that is not leaves, a flash of blue alerts me of a Ulysses butterfly, a swift, dark flutter of a tiny bird. My wide eyes, sharpened by adrenaline pick up a strange movement at the edge of my vision. A huge scaled creature is crawling across a rock in the middle of the stream; I can only see its tail. Are there freshwater crocs up here? It jumps to another rock and I can see it clearly now. It’s a large Lace Monitor or Goanna [the Aboriginal name in eastern Australia]; the largest I have seen at almost two meters long. Surprisingly agile as it leaps from rock to rock gripping the smooth surface with its five fingered claws it glides silently into the forest.
I was very lucky to come across a Southern Cassowary in the fan palm forest near Mission Beach. I stood stock still and tried to look unthreatening as it turned towards me to protect the two chicks. They have a reputation, these huge flightless birds, and can be aggressive; you would not want to get in the way of its heavy, muscular claws. It certainly intimidated me as it stared, looked annoyed and seemed to tense up for something. But then it relaxed a bit and started to lead the chicks down the path, stepping slowly and statefully away from me, looking rather comical with its dangly wattles and the horn balanced on top of its head. Every time I took a step to follow it turned towards me once again. It became a bit of a game for a while since this path was the only way back to the bus for me. After a few minutes the massive bird slid into a crack in the greenery which did not look big enough for a possum. It must have been protected from the thorns by its oily feathers which allowed it to push though them as though lubricated. I could still see the blue of its neck and its beady, bad-tempered eye following me as I passed by rapidly.
Cairns was very disappointing. I had imagined it to be a trendy, arty, enlightened and environmentally aware city but after cycling and walking all around, found nothing of interest apart from a multitude of ripe mangoes scattered all around the public parks. I was astounded that everybody was buying them at the market for the hefty price of three dollars per kilo [imported from Bowen] and what really amazed me was that they were selling well in the air conditioned supermarkets for two dollars each!
The beach was a mix of mud and sand flats, dotted by mangrove shoots. They even imported the sand. A boardwalk had been erected along the esplanade, much the same as the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and other cities by the sea. The mandatory swimming lagoon was larger than most, but did not have the wave machine of Darwin’s. [In Darwin you can often not swim in the sea due to Ecoli bacteria].
The first few rows of buildings back from the beach were resorts and hotels of the “international” kind. The rest of the blocks in the central section were packed with the less expensive, average, budget, sleazy, run down, backpacker and all other categories you can think of, type of holiday accommodation. Oddly, one or two traditional Queensland wooden houses on stilts were still standing amongst the modern, multi storey, characterless hotels on the Esplanade. A couple were for sale and had been left unpainted; no doubt they had a hefty price tag on them for these are prime real estate. A couple of others had been bought [or possibly are still with the original owners], restored to immaculate condition and are used as family homes. I wonder who lives there? This whole centre of town is surrounded by endless commercial strips of all the retail chain outlets that exist in Australia [and many from the rest of the world]. I know... I walked it one night I could not sleep and inadvertently took the long way around. It was one of the most boring trudges of my life, along miles and miles of darkened warehouses, 24hr fast food outlets and concrete car lots, none of which allowed for pedestrians. We walk in the gutter of our rampant materialism.
Cairns appears to be a Mecca for backpackers: Party City. The many pubs, clubs and backpacker hostels were full of young partygoers from Australia but also many other countries. They often had DJ’s and live music to dance and get pissed to, until dawn. The locals welcomed them and divested them of their cash.
I had a quick look at the northern beaches of Cairns, dotted at intervals along the Cook Highway to Port Douglas. They were no more than affluent suburbs by the sea, stinger nets, shallow, murky water, fish and chips and grassy barbeque areas along the mini esplanade. Then up the escarpment into the rainforest tourist town of Kuranda. Oh dear! Once again tourism gone mad, even worse than I had suspected. As the terminal for the Tourist train and Skyrail [gondola cable cars] from Cairns, the visiting passengers would have to run the gauntlet of hundreds of shops and market stalls selling tourist tat. Or they could visit one of a number of nature theme parks; The Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld, Koala Gardens or Poisons Encounter to name some of them. I did visit the Butterfly Sanctuary and was educated a little, but when I asked the guide whether any of the species on display were endangered in the wild he said no. Which means that the function of this facility is not to protect nature but to bring nature to people in the easiest and most spectacular way possible, whilst making loads of money. Speaking for myself, it is much more rewarding and magnificent to spot one in the wild.
I suppose it can be argued that the proliferation of parks such as this do enable the general public to learn something about the marvels of nature and by having a close encounter with some beautiful creatures will take that experience with them and hopefully have more concern for the protection of nature in the future. We will not get into the subjects of how nature is increasingly being seen as entertainment or; how young children are becoming gradually alienated from nature due, in part, to the paranoia of parents and authorities about the inherent dangers of playing out in the open or; how older generations [at least in Australia] still believe that nature is infinitely resilient and pass those ideas on to their kids or; how material values and instant gratification are regarded as far more interesting and important than the spiritual and healing experience of realising our place in the natural world. That’s getting a bit deep; perhaps another time. After a mango smoothie I headed off to find myself a site to watch the eclipse for it was Monday the 12th of November, two days before this rare event, and I wanted to find myself the best possible spot to think about my place in the universe.
The weather had been cloudy and rainy for a few days and the many visitors who had come to see the eclipse were getting a little concerned that these conditions would continue into eclipse day. I had also seen early morning cloud on the horizon for the last week I was wandering along the coast so decided to head inland onto the Atherton Tablelands, where drier, clearer conditions were forecast.
I was up at 5am and cycled to the top of the hill near my campsite where there was an unobscured view towards the east across a large open paddock. A Japanese fellow was setting up some sophisticated looking camera/telescope equipment at the campsite amongst the trees. I tried to tell him that there was a much better view where I was going but he just nodded his head vigorously, smiling broadly and continued with what he was doing; he could not speak a word of English. There were a number of other campers but nobody else was awake yet.
The sun was already up but obscured by a large grey cloud which moved, infuriatingly slowly in exactly the same direction as the sun; towards me. But then the rays broke through and gradually the cloud seemed to dissolve. I took some pictures as the disc of the moon began to slip down across the top and left edge of the sun. My sophisticated equipment consisted of my new compact digital camera; a Panasonic Lumix TZ 30 with 20x optical zoom and Leica lens [for those technical, photography geeks amongst you who are particularly impressed by my results] and some $5 Eclipse 2012 commemorative cardboard viewing specs I had procured with great difficulty at Coles supermarket in Innisfail.
As the eclipse progressed, a bizarre silence fell across the land... It was the traffic on the highway pulling in to the side of the road and the occupants, on their way to work, getting out their own sophisticated equipment. Welding hoods, little cameras, paper sheets with holes in the middle and, I was mortified to see, a whole assortment of commemorative cardboard viewing specs of different origin from that of my own. The only thing that did not fall silent was the birds. As the light grew dimmer they began to fly in formation towards their night roosts. Curlews, Swans, Ducks and Cockatoos obviously thought it was twilight and the day was over. They must have wondered why they were still hungry and did not feel tired.
A couple of guys from Atherton had pulled in alongside me. They looked like twins.
To be honest, the totality was not as great as the hype. I did not even feel the wonder I had felt in Curacao for my first eclipse. I was only about seven years old then and probably more impressed by the excitement of the people around me than anything. Yes, the landscape was enveloped in shadow; yes, the sun became a ring of light for a minute and yes, it was strange how there seemed to be dawn [or dusk] in the east and the west at the same time [that, for me, was the most interesting part, light conditions that can only occur at an eclipse; you could actually see the limits of the moonshadow in the sky, probably because I was at such a good vantage point]. The sun through the viewer was just a ball without reference and even at totality you could not look at the sun without it. The camera had its limitations and without magnification it all seemed rather small, distant and insignificant. Next time I will let the geeks do the work whilst I benefit from the excited hubbub of hyperbole and mange a mango smoothy in front of the telly.
There was a sense of planetary alignment and occasion; a point in time and space which was unique. But it was very cerebral and elusive. I like drifting out into space on a moonless night in central Australia or on the ocean; amongst the stars and galaxies, to let my mind expand with awe and feel humbled. Or just looking at the moon as an old, pitted friend, casting light and comfort into the fearsome, unfeeling power of nature’s night. Or seeing a once stunningly beautiful butterfly, exhausted at the end of its five day flight, settling for the very last time under a leaf.