I’m walking along the Cairns Esplanade, past the hospital. It’s a classic tropical scene with coconut palms, figs trees and lush plantings. The tide is out, and beyond a narrow strip of sand, mud stretches two hundred metres out to the waterline. Sea birds stalk on their long legs and webbed feet, pecking for worms and crabs. A blue sky is reflected in patterns of mud and water, and the calm sea behind gleams like pewter, right across Trinity Bay to the forests of the Yarrabah Range.
Opposite the hospital, a man in a yellow work vest stops me. “There’s a helicopter coming in,” he says. “It won’t take long, but we need to keep people away from the helipad for a few minutes.”
I stand with other walkers and watch. I hadn’t noticed before, but there is a helipad set into the broad grassy parkland across the road from the hospital buildings. “That’s strange,” I say to the man in the yellow vest. “Usually hospital helipads are on the roof of the hospital.”
“They can’t do that here,” he replies. “It’s too close to the flight path from the airport.”
Guards have stopped cyclists on the bike track, too. Across the road, in the hospital entrance, another uniformed man, wearing earmuffs, waits beside a wheeled stretcher. I hear a helicopter coming in from the west, and soon it lowers itself on to the helipad. It’s a large Queensland Government Air rescue helicopter.
Crew in navy blue uniforms climb out of the helicopter as the traffic is stopped and the stretcher is brought across the road from the hospital. A middle-aged man in a high-vis work shirt and straggly goatee beard is loaded on, sitting propped up as he is wheeled back to the hospital.
The helicopter takes off, the men in yellow vests disappear, and we all continue our walking, jogging or cycling along the Esplanade as if nothing had happened.
Cairns Hospital services a huge geographical area, most of it wild and sparsely populated. Patients are transported here from as far away as Croydon, over five hundred kilometres to the west, from Thursday Island, eight hundred kilometres to the north, and even further. From here, patients requiring the most complex care are transferred to Brisbane, eighteen hundred kilometres south. The hospital can provide up to five hundred beds, making it a major regional facility. And its windows offer a view of palm trees and the Coral Sea.
I’ve been a patient here myself. Years ago, Con and I lived at Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, as it was known then, a forty-five-minute drive from Cairns. I’d worked hard one day hacking at the guinea grass and weeds that grew along the creek running by our house, and went to bed as usual that evening; but by next morning I was unconscious, and Con drove me urgently to the emergency department here at Cairns. At four o’clock that afternoon I woke up in the Intensive Care ward, startled by the sight in the next bed of a man wrapped completely in plaster and bandages, his limbs in hoists. He’d been in a plane crash.
While I’d been unconscious, I’d had an encephalogram and a lumbar puncture. The doctors concluded that I’d been bitten by some unknown tropical insect and had had a nasty response.
For the following twelve months I suffered debilitating attacks of vertigo, and it still troubles me from time to time. In North Queensland, it’s not just obvious things like crocodile attacks and jellyfish stings that can hurt you.
Con is a North Queenslander by birth. A tropical plant, as I tell him. He was born in Innisfail, an hour’s drive south of Cairns.
“Did you come to Cairns much when you were a kid?” I ask him.
“Sometimes. We’d come up here in the old man’s Ford ute, to rugby league games.”
“I didn’t know your dad was involved with rugby league.”
“Yes, he was president of Innisfail Rugby League Club for a while. League was strong there.”
Rugby league is strong everywhere in Queensland, but in regional areas there’s a special enthusiasm. In Townsville, in recent mayoral elections, an informal vote had an extra name pencilled on to the voting slip, with a “1” in the box and next to it, “Johnathan Thurston”, then star of the North Queensland Cowboys.
Cairns has always been a lively place, both busy regional centre and tourist hotspot, the best-known place to come if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef. As an American woman said to me at Uluru, “I went to Cairns first, then here. The Reef and the Rock – that’s all I want to see in Australia. I’m off home now.”
We’ve stayed in many parts of Cairns over the years, but the north-western stretch of the Esplanade (the ‘Nade to locals) is my favourite – beyond the tourist restaurants and biggest hotels, across the road from the seaside parklands and within walking distance of the centre of town. Towards Trinity Inlet and the cruise boat terminals is the spectacular swimming lagoon, built to relieve the frustrations of locals and tourists who find themselves beside the sea on a hot day, but unable to swim in it because of the mud – and the crocodiles.
The tropical plantings along Shield Street and Abbott Street are lush and beautiful, and it’s a treat to wander through Rusty’s Bazaar markets, with its tropical produce and hippy vibe; but I avoid the cheerless souvenir shops selling nothing made in Cairns, or even in Australia.
More interesting are the renowned Cairns Botanic Gardens at Edge Hill, the Tanks Arts Centre now occupying the old fuel tanks tucked in behind the hill during the war, and Centenary Lakes, with its boardwalks and walking tracks and a wonderful, wild Nature Playground.
Joe, like his father, is a tropical plant, born in Townsville and just ten days old when we moved to Yarrabah. I’ll never forget the day we first drove over the range and down the steep descent into the town, stopping at the lookout to admire the view over Mission Bay to Fitzroy Island. The Yarrabah Range is covered in rainforest. It is beautiful, and the road is steep. Here and there beside the road are large stones, known as handbrakes, which can be used to put behind the wheels of your car if you break down halfway up the hill. Occasionally a cassowary strolls out of the forest and across the road.
In Yarrabah, we lived in a Queensland government residence, with a view out to sea, the steep, forested hillside behind us, and the sound of a waterfall close by. It was a tropical paradise; although for the local people life was, and is, often hard. I would drive to Cairns once a fortnight, to do the banking and grocery shopping, and I always took little Joe with me, to visit Rusty’s Bazaar and eat icecream on the Esplanade. Now Joe lives in the north, and he takes his own children to Cairns, to play in the waterpark and watch the birds on the mudflats.
It’s amazing what a pull this place has, with its brooding greenery and humid tropical air, its rain-forested hillsides and calm sea. If you were born a local, or even spend a few years here, it has the atmosphere of home.
I can recommend the hospital, too.