The Tropical North

Posted on: 26 March 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Dale Lovell explores the Cape Tribulation road in Australia’s tropical far North.

I arrived in Cairns, in the tropical North of Australia, after a twenty-four hour flight from London. Would Cairns be worth the wait? Cairns is the northern most city in Queensland, on the East coast of Australia. The presence of the Great Barrier Reef off the Cairns’ coast ensures that the sea laps upon the beach like a tepid splash, more characteristic of the Mediterranean than the monster waves synonymous with the Pacific. This has its advantages in that when you venture into the sea you don’t end up drowning from the waves or contend with any surfers, which can only prove to be a good thing in my opinion.

Cairns feels like a frontier town, which I suppose it is really, perched at the edge of civilization, in a cul-de-sac of the world so to speak. It feels as though something dangerous or hostile lingers outside the limits of this urban garrison. Indeed, danger lingers everywhere in Northern Australia if you are not careful. The sea is too dangerous for seven months of the year, inhabited by the killer Boxer Jellyfish. Inland the estuarine Crocodile and the Ostrich like Cassowary are known to cause casualties each year, not to mention the spiders, snakes and other killer bugs which abound in this tropical climate.

So with a little trepidation I embarked further North from Cairns, towards the Cape York Peninsula. I was planninnng on driving to Cooktown, a mere inch away on the map. I left my Americanesque motel in Cairns at the leisurely hour of 9am. I took the road North towards Port Douglas and Mossmann, a mere centimetre or two away on my map. The Captain Cook highway (virtually everything in Australia is linked to Whitby’s most famous son!) clung to the coast like a Koala to a tree for the first few kilometres of my expedition. Just as I was beginning to look for ships out at sea, a wall of sugar cane appeared and blocked my view.

Sugar cane farming is the staple agricultural industry in the far North. Production is immense considering that sugar cane is only grown in the narrow strip of land between the sea and the Great Dividing range, an area covered in dense rainforest.

It was eleven–thirty by the time I arrived at Port Douglas. It had taken me two and a half hours to travel there. That’s the equivalent of travelling from London to Cardiff. That’s when I realised the size of Australia.

On arrival in Port Douglas it became apparent that I had made a mistake turning off the highway. It was apparent that during the winter months (June, July, August) Port Douglas becomes a Mecca for old cronies from the South, desperately fleeing the ‘cold’ weather. The main street was cluttered with tourist junk, renting out bikes and selling naff aboriginal ‘crafts’. The pubs and restaurants all had names like the ‘Iron Bar’ and the ‘Dancing Cockatoo’.

But one good thing about Port Douglas is that the beach is massive, appropriately named Four Mile Beach. This meant I didn’t have to share my space with a pair of Melbourne pensioners whose only pleasure in life comes from interrogating the ‘Pom’ about his roots. I went for a swim. The sea was warm, too warm in fact because five minutes after I had ventured into the Coral Sea, a kindly life guard came towards me in a canoe.

He said coolly “Could you come further in towards the shore a little, mate?”

I, rather arrogantly, was about to inform the lifeguard that I was a perfectly able swimmer and that he could rest assured that I would be in no need of assistance.

But, before I could reply, the lifeguard spoke.

“There's been a shark sighting.”

“A shark,” I shouted. I was in well over my head, literally. My legs and arms became even more uncoordinated and I swore I could hear the faint rumblings of the ‘Jaws’ theme tune. My hysteria took hold of me.

I shouted at the lifeguard “Help, shark.”

He replied coolly, “hold onto the back of the canoe and I’ll tow you in.”

‘Hold on to the back’ I thought. But that would mean I was still in the water, where at any moment I could suffer the same fate as Robert Shaw in Jaws. For a moment the idea of flipping the lifeguard into the jaws of death, while I canoed to safety, fluttered through my mind. I eventually made it to the beach.

I left the beach thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated. Most of the lifeguards had nervously watched me being dragged ashore, for fear that my legs had been ripped off by a Great White, no doubt. Only to discover that the ‘Pom’ had simply had a panic attack upon hearing the word shark. They laughed. My sortie into Port Douglas had not been successful. Therefore once back on terra-ferma, I headed on towards Mossmann, an inland town, thank God.

When I reached the main road towards Mossmann I was relieved to discover that it was only forty kilometres away (24 miles). Once again I was shrouded on both sides by walls of sugar cane. The tall sugar cane looked peaceful in the twilight. Everything was peaceful. Fires were burning in distant fields and the sky was warm with a tropical glow. This was a place to live, I thought, as I drove into Mossmann.

Mossmann was the first town in the Far North where I had noticed large numbers of aboriginal people living. In the centre of town I encountered about thirty aborigines standing outside the Victoria Hotel. It later discovered that they were waiting for it to open.

Mossmann was small. A real town, with real shops, selling stuff like saucepans and tents, y’know survival stuff, stuff you might actually need in the tropic

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