Cairns

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.

D39C46BE-AFC8-41F4-A8A7-DE5B186AF171
Trinity Bay, Cairns, from the Esplanade

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.

cairns helicopter 3
The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter ready to evacuate a patient from a remote property to Cairns Hospital

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
Jogger passing Cairns Hospital helicopter pad

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 thurston
Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections
cairns thurston 2
Johnathan Thurston, 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.

cairns lagoon
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

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.

cairns_rustys-markets_own
Rusty’s Bazaar

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.

cairns tanks
Tanks Arts Centre

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.

cairns cent lakes
Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

Snake Stories

A red-bellied black snake was stretched along the pipe at the back of the laundry tubs, behind the taps. I could see its glossy colours.

I’d been washing up while little Matt played outside the back door. Hearing him bumping something down the three steps that led to the yard and the laundry shed of the old house, I dried my hands and went to see what he was up to.

Matt had dragged a chair over to the concrete laundry tubs and climbed up on it, and he was reaching out, laughing, to the snake.

snake red-bellied
Red-bellied black snake

We were living in the school residence at Rosevale, south-west of Ipswich. Local farmers had warned us that the Rosevale valley was notorious for snakes – both brown and red-bellied black.

Trying not to startle either Matt or the snake, I called out, softly, “Come here, Matt. I’ve got a bikkie for you.”

He turned and climbed down. I grabbed him and ran back up the stairs and watched the snake slither away out of sight into the long grass behind the shed.

fullsizeoutput_453d
The old school residence, Rosevale. Laundry shed on left.

Another day Matt was playing in the yard with the cats. Suddenly they stood frozen, ears forward, staring at a patch of long grass, and the two deadly brown snakes sunning themselves there. Con ran to get the hoe.

Snakes are protected by law, and snake catchers will come to your house and take the snake away for release into the bush; but there are many who still consider that the only good snake is a dead snake, and delight in going into battle with sticks, hoes and mattocks or whatever is handy.

As children, my brothers and I entertained ourselves by leaving a rubber snake on the back landing where our father would be bound to find it.

He did. He grabbed a big stick and killed it.

Rubber snakes bounce in a most lifelike manner when hit with a stick. Dad heroically beat that rubber snake to death, and carefully lifted it on the stick to examine it. He said, “It’s a young brown. Dangerous things, those.” That was before he noticed us laughing.

He didn’t think it was funny.

I’ve played that trick on Con. He didn’t think it was funny either.

Most encounters with snakes happen in the bush. Walking down the zigzag track in the rainforest of the Palmerston, west of Innisfail, I met a large brown snake crossing the track. I met the same snake again on the next leg of the path down the hill. You don’t know how high you can jump until you almost put your foot on a snake.

All Australians have snake stories. They are a favourite topic of conversation, and we particularly love to tell them to foreigners. The English are best, and Americans. They respond with such horror.

An American visiting Brisbane asked a local, “Why are so many Brisbane house on stilts?”

“It’s because of the snakes. They can just slither straight under the house instead of coming inside.”

To white farmers and squatters of the nineteenth century, often living in primitive conditions in what was to them hostile bush, snakes were a deadly enemy. Henry Lawson wrote about it in his spare, atmospheric story “The Drover’s Wife”. Living in isolated bushland, alone with her young children in a slab hut, protected only by her kangaroo-dog Alligator, a woman sits up all night with the dog, her children bedded down on the rough kitchen table, waiting for a snake to re-emerge through cracks in the wall.

Alligator and the drover’s wife kill the snake between them, after a fierce struggle; and she lifts it on the point of her stick and throws it on the fire.

We have a love-hate relationship with snakes. They eat chooks, they kill dogs, and sometimes they kill people; but they’re part of our environment, a feature of legends and stories, from ancient Aboriginal culture to the Bible and modern literature and painting.

snake ayr
Giant carpet snake “Gubulla Munda”, Ayr, North Queensland

Rainbow serpent legends exist all over the country, and snakes are a common theme in Aboriginal art.

IMG_20190204_115256_resized_20190204_011100777
“Bloody Big Snake”, Shepparton Art Gallery, Victoria

Some say the rainbow serpent is a carpet snake: the “Kabul” that gives its name to Caboolture.

A carpet snake once ate a litter of kittens under our house at Yarrabah, then coiled up on the front door mat to sleep off the feed. There are carpet snakes living in my Brisbane back yard, too. I know when there’s one about by the screeching of noisy miner birds, harassing a snake on a tree branch or curled up behind a staghorn fern. They’re beautiful creatures, and we like to have them around.

snakes carpet
Carpet snake

It’s best not to walk out on our verandah at night without shoes, though. Carpet snakes like to slither across the boards and into the wattle tree. Sometimes we see a long, patterned snakeskin hanging across its branches.

No wonder birds don’t visit the bird bath I hung there.

Not even a kookaburra can win against a carpet snake.

snake kookaburra

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑