White fingered frost coated the grass on the lawn. The car was spangled with ice. You could scratch thin dark lines on the car windows; you could have written your name if you had chosen to do so. According to later reports it was the coldest Melbourne morning for almost half a decade. It was cold, even by the hairy chested standards of those who claim that we don’t have real winters in Melbourne. It was, as it happens, a good day to travel. Clear air, clear skies, clear roads. A diary clear of the kinds of things you have to do, but would rather someone else do for you; full of the kind of things you plan to do.
Rainbow Lorikeets flew over head, magpies squabbled on the nature strip. The taxi turned up on time and we were on our way north to Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. That’s about 2317km north. Almost the same as London to Istanbul or New York to Dallas. It’s a long way by any measure, but it’s a good measure of how big Australia really is. You can fly and fly and it just keeps going on in front of you, like a rolling road or a treadmill – mile after mile after mile. Sheep stations larger than Surrey. Garden plots larger than Andorra. Although it’s not our intention we will fly far enough north to escape the cold of winter. We pack shorts and sandals. We leave behind heavy winter coats and AFL. We fly over the snow of the high plains and head for the sun of Queensland.
If Queensland was an independent country (and many would claim it’s already a different country!) it would be the 25th biggest in the world – and Queensland is not even the biggest state in Australia. It is, to repeat myself, a good measure of how big Australia really is. Thoughts of travel fill my head. It was not that long ago that the only way people had to see the world beyond their own doorstep was to be shipped overseas to fight in a war. The revolution that started with the steam train broke the bounds of parish and patch. With a steam train you no longer had to marry the girl next door, who was probably a distant cousin, and you could eat food that had been grown miles away. Clipper ships, steam ships, prop planes, jet planes, all pushed out the boundary of what was possible, of what was near and what was far. For a while travel for its own sake remained the privilege of the rich on the Grand Tour. Travel for business was the tricky domain of Jack the Lad sales teams with their “Have I got a bargain for you!” shtick, briefcases full of exaggeration and broken promises. But the gravity of travel pulls more and more people into its orbits – cheap flights and travel agents in your lounge room mean that people can now plan trips beyond the dreams of past generations from the comfort of their own homes. Travel daydreams become the reality of the next morning with a mouse click and a credit card number.
The kids wriggle settle into their seats, stow books in their seat back pockets, arrange their totem animals around them and ask if we are there yet. As we take off H grins at the acceleration, P giggles and we know we are on holiday. We soon settle into the tedium of flight; short sleeps, cheese and biscuits for a king’s ransom, fingering pages of magazines with already completed crosswords. P looks out of the window, down past the wing edge, and declares with the imagination and joy that kids hold and school and adolescence can damage, that “from here the world looks like a map”. We trace a road, count dams and look to the horizon where, and with your eyes half closed you can image the curve of the Earth. The engines drone and in stark defiance of common sense we keep flying.
But the shear unlikeness of the whole process breaks through and makes me think. On board the shiny metal tube of the plane we rely on the push of the engines and the flow of air to lift us from the ground and move us onwards. People dismiss physics as too hard, but rely on it from the moment they step on board the plane. It seems more acceptable to just hope for the best rather than think of pressure and the collision of molecules. Easier to put understanding to one side and embrace the easy words of charlatans. Travel may have become easier, but I think we owe it to the builders of planes to at least think about why we can now fly. The dreams of Icarus have come true, but now some stay so far away from the Sun as to dwell in darkness of ages past. It seems that the weather in Queensland has also made up its mind that we will not get too close to the sun either. The clouds gather and darken as we fly north. Water drops sprint along the windows, a six inch race over in seconds. We step from the plane to walk under lead grey skies and through a gentle rain. It’s not the sunshine state we were promised. The travelling sales team has shifted from the door to the screen – and they still seem to butter the truth to make it more palatable.
But it’s also soon clear that they grey skies shroud a different kind of winter to the one we left in Melbourne. Plants still push up through the cracks between paving stones, tumble from the edges of uncleaned gutters and twist around road signs with a kind of vibrant energy that I have not seen for months. The rush of growth here feels suspended for a little while rather than stopped. The chill of winter may linger for a day or two, but that does not count as a whole season. The locals in their coats and long trousers seem to disagree.
Within minutes of leaving Cairns the road is flanked by fields of tall, coarse grass – sugar cane. You can hear the wind rustle through the cane heads – although the sound could be made by the army of snakes that surely lurk in the dense, waiting fields. Cattle Egrets stalk, white and sharp. In one place they follow the plough as gulls did when I was a kid. In another they gather in a tight circular group, far from the road, harvesting an unknown abundance, looking like an out of place snow field. Whistling Kites drift along road edges seeking the unwary. A Brown Falcon sits on a lonely tree top. A watcher. A waiter. A seeker of movement from the small and furry, the fleet and the feathered. It watches me with focussed disinterest and moves only its head as I walk to towards it. Its patience outlasts my desire to stand in the rain and watch.
Forest Kingfishers sit on the roadside wires and fences in loose family groups. Four birds in twenty metres, then none for a kilometre. In profile they look all beak. For a while we count them, but the numbers run away from us. White Breasted Wood Swallows perch on roadside wires, smart in their formal dinner suit plumage. I flash back to House Martins, another black and white bird and wonder if the colour of these distant birds is a coincidence, or is there a selective story hidden in the black and white, hidden in the sharp divide between breast and belly.
Our accommodation plays on the needs of functionality rather than grace, but at least we get out of the rain. Ceiling fans stir the damp, mild, air. There is no ice in the fridge and the water container is empty. You have to ask why?
As the darkness of evening grows the air fills with the wail of Bush Stone Curlews – strange and possibly unnerving if you did not know its source. Fruit bats fly over head – not “Die Fledermaus”, large enough to be “Die Fledercat”! The drip feed of nature washes away the boredom of the flight and the sterility of the room. To the sound of gentle rain on a cool tropical winter, I go to sleep at the end of the day when my holiday began.
Next morning we head towards the town of Mossman, a real town with a high street, butchers, bakers and (thankfully) a computer store. Behind the town lies Mossman Gorge, a national park with a brand new visitor’s centre. The garden beds are empty apart from a cover of mushrooms. The paths are soft and sticky. Whoever decided to build them from porridge made a mistake. It clags, grey and damp, onto our shoes and later joins us in the car. Rain rushes from the roof of the building into wide stainless steel troughs on the ground. Is this to collect the water? Or is it needed to prevent conventional gutters from flooding in the wet season? No one seems to know, and for once there are no boards telling us the whys and the wherefores.
The centre’s shop sells plastic animals and aboriginal art works, neither of which really feel authentic. The best selling item seems to be plastic rain ponchos, see through and shapeless, only one step removed from cling-film. Putting them on seems to violate the time honoured advice about putting your head into plastic bags. People wait for the shuttle bus, rustling gently, looking like badly wrapped shop window mannequins.
The forest itself is dark and very damp. There is movement everywhere. Leaves flutter from the impact of falling drops; occasionally a whole leaf is dislodged. A damp branch falls near the path. The signs say “your safety is our concern, but your responsibility” – which is refreshing in such a litigious world. But it also means that the walk we want to do is closed because of the risk of “lasting injury or death”. So we walk on well made paths with people in ballet flats and thongs (flip flops for those not up to speed with the Australian version of English) who seem not to have read any of the signs.
The Mossman Gorge is in flood. Torrents of pale grey water crash into rocks and boulders. Even in seeming flat sections there are the tell tale signs of sunken hazards. Waves roll back on themselves, round and round and round; stoppers. Cushions of water boil to the surface, pushed up by rocks that will stay hidden until the level falls. The water pushes through the branches of riverside trees, catching anything floating; strainers. It’s an impressive stretch of water. Full of noise and energy, full of power, but essentially a product of today, or at least yesterday’s, rain. When you walk into the forest you can feel something much older, much slower; the product of thousands of years. A day could pass and nothing would seem to change, the movement of trees and the growth of leaves outside the watch of human, and especially my tourist, eyes. The rapid and the slow, side by side in the rain. The rapids flooding the forests, the forest slowing the rapids. Over head the cloud packed sky gives up its rain.
The forest floor is rich in greens and browns. It smells of freshly turned compost. It smells of growth and decay. White-Rumped Swiftlets dash over the river. Through the binoculars you can see them opening and closing their mouths. I can’t tell if they are calling or feeding, the river drowns all sound. They come from nowhere and disappear again, grey sickles under a grey sky. The river keeps flowing. People keep walking. I stand in the rain and watch the birds. It’s wet, but I don’t really care. Out of the corner of my eye I see a dash of yellow and red – an Australian Brush-Turkey runs from the safety of cover to a patch of open grass. It feeds with jerky head plucks, and preens with slower, smoother movements. It seems to eye the American tourist with an air of distrust – but early July has passed and it’s probably safe.
We walk back towards the car park to catch the bus. The rain still falls. The forest still rattles to the drip of flowing water. The next day we will go across the river and into the trees.