Managing a Queensland Summer

Our Matt woke up early on Thursday, ready to drive across Germany to Berlin for Christmas – the first visit to the girls’ grandparents for two years. Sunrise was at 8.30am, and the back garden was under four degrees of frost.

Sunrise Duisburg Germany, Thursday Con O’Brien

It would be a cold drive. He scraped ice off the car before they began, and he’d need to watch out for perilous black ice on the roads.

His girls already know the rules of living in a cold climate. Don’t lick an icy fence or your tongue will stick. Don’t eat snow – you never know if a dog has lifted its leg there. Or a drunk. When skating, look out for the signs of thin ice; and learn how to wrap a long scarf around your neck.

In Queensland we’re used to heat, at Christmas and through the months that follow. I’ve seen Sydney people reduced to sweating exhaustion by Brisbane heat and humidity, and the further north you go the hotter it gets.

Here are some things we know about Queensland summer.

  • It’s cooler under the house; especially if you hose the concrete.
  • Park the car under a shady tree, even if you have to drive around the block to find one. But not in a storm.
  • Leave the car windows down a crack to let air circulate while you’re doing your Christmas shopping. But not if there’s a storm coming.
  • Never run out of talcum powder. Prickly heat and chafe will ruin your day.
  • Plan before opening the fridge. It’s a crime to stand in front of an open fridge door, wondering what you might like to eat. Think of the icecream and the prawns.
  • On the subject of prawns, take the scraps to a bin far away. If you’re putting them in the freezer, double-bag them.
  • Have an adequate supply of stubby coolers/holders.
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Con sorts his collection of stubby coolers, ready for Christmas
  • Keep up the supply of ice for the drinks.
  • Sand is hot. Walk quickly, on tiptoes.
  • Bitumen melts. Your thongs may stick to it.
  • Bras are optional on a hot day, clothes minimal.
  • Don’t swim in the middle of the day.
  • Swim between the flags.
Lifeguards goldcoastaustralia.com
  • No matter how hot it is and how clear and beautiful the water looks, take notice of the crocodile and stinger warnings. Achtung!
Crocodile warning sign, Bramston Beach, North Queensland Wikimedia Commons
  • March flies hurt. You may have to stay under water up to your chin and pull your hat down low.
  • Eat that icecream quickly or it will melt and run down your arm.
  • Fans, fans, fans – even in the air-conditioning.
  • Drink lots of water. Your wee should be a pale lemon colour. Really!
Pale lemon
  • In a cyclone, shelter in the bathroom – it’s the safest place.
  • Wear a hat. Akubras are good.

In Berlin, it’s snowing. Beautiful.

Berlin in snow this week Sophia O’Brien

Drunks and homeless people may die of hyperthermia in snowy Europe. Here in Queensland, kids will play under sprinklers and dogs will be given frozen treats; and stubby holders will be in use on our verandah.

And phone calls will be made to family coming for Christmas lunch.

“Can you pick up a couple more bags of ice at the servo on your way?”

Cheers. And Happy Christmas.

Big Girl’s first Christmas

Counting Prawns

The bitumen is too narrow for two vehicles. One of them at least will need to go on to the sloping, gravel shoulder.

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The Savannah Way

I’m with Joe, in the front passenger seat of his ageing Commodore, driving from Cairns to Karumba, a distance of over seven hundred and fifty kilometres. We’re driving through a plague of grasshoppers.

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Grasshoppers

West of Mount Surprise the Gulf Development Road narrows to a single strip of bitumen.

Joe has never driven on a road like this.

“When we meet on-coming traffic, what should I do?” he asks.

Joe’s driving has all been on motorways and city streets, and he is expert at changing lanes and reverse parking. Now he needs to learn another skill.

“When you see an oncoming vehicle, put two wheels off the bitumen,” I tell him. “Give them lots of room.”

Out of the mirage ahead of us a Toyota ute appears, heading our way, at speed. At one hundred kilometres an hour, Joe puts two wheels on to the shoulder and we fly along the gravel, past the Toyota, and back on to the bitumen.

“Maybe, next time, you should reduce speed before you do that,” I suggest to Joe.

“Good idea,” he says, drily.

Con and Joe and I going to visit our daughter Lizzie and her family. They’re living in Karumba, a small town on the mud banks of the Norman River, close to where it flows into the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria. Russ, a scientific assistant, spends his days sitting in a shed overlooking the river, with a microscope and tweezers, counting juvenile prawns by species: banana, king, tiger.

This is crocodile country, so no one swims in the river or in the Gulf. There are box jellyfish in these waters too. On Google Earth, the Norman River and its tributaries look like twisting tree branches or a beautiful abstract painting. Up close, it looks dangerous.

Karumba exists because of prawning and fishing. Prawns and barramundi come off the trawlers already frozen and go straight into freezer trucks destined for the southern markets.

In the winter months retirees come from the south for the fishing. That’s what Karumba is about. Prawns and fishing.

Con and I last came this way in the 1970s, on the way west to Burketown, driving our old Holden sedan. When we’d passed through Croydon, over five hundred kilometres into the trip, the sun was low and shone directly into our eyes.

The road had once been sealed, but the bitumen had worn away to sharp-edged tracks running through bull-dust. Half-blinded by the sun, Con bogged the car half off the road, and we had to wait with our young children for a tow.

Today this road is part of the Savannah Way, stretching three thousand, seven hundred kilometres from Cairns to Broome, in Western Australia, and although still narrow it is well maintained.

We’re following the line of the Gulflander, the rail motor that connects Croydon and Normanton with a once a week service. Built in the late 1880s to service the Croydon gold rush, now it’s a tourist attraction, a welcome sight to travellers on this lonely road as it goes rocking slowly on its way.

Mid-afternoon we meet the Burke Development Road and turn north towards Normanton. Karumba is seventy kilometres further north again, and just on dusk we pull in at Lizzie’s place, a cabin behind the motel in the shade of a poinciana tree. The front of the car is plastered with dead grasshoppers.

We spend a week in Karumba, visiting the barramundi farm and going up-river with Russ to glimpse the low scrub on the barren river flats, crocodile slides showing clearly in the muddy banks. We collect hermit crabs at low tide with our grandsons, visit the tavern, admire the town brolga and swim in the motel pool before heading back to Cairns.

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Collecting hermit crabs, low tide, Gulf of Carpentaria

Lizzie and her family are enjoying their few months here, but she worries about cyclones. “There’s nowhere to go,” she says. “No hill, no safe building. A tidal surge would go right over the town and wipe it out.”

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The Norman River at Karumba

A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, Tropical Cyclone Charlotte crosses the coast at Karumba. Only one building is damaged. While Lizzie, Russ and the boys shelter in the bathroom, that poinciana tree falls and crushes their cabin. No one is hurt, so they put it down as just another Gulf Country adventure.

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Before the cyclone: that Karumba poinciana

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