24. Australian Road Trip - Tropical Night
The tropical latitudes are beautiful – bright sunny days; balmy nights; warm lapping seas; swaying palms; the aroma of frangipanis and coconut. All this is true, but not all year round, and certainly not during the wet season....
So, here we are, parked up in this brand new, near-empty caravan park at a place called ‘Rollingstone’, about 50kms north of Townsville. It’s 9.30 at night and except for some dim lighting and the distant sparkle of the amenities block and Camp Reception, it is pitch black, as only the tropics can be - one minute it's daytime, then there is a short, sweet sunset, and then click! a cloak of blackness descends, relieved only by the blanket of stars and the moon when it rises.
The time difference in England means that if I want to phone my daughter at her University, then now would be a good time to catch her. I have a phonecard and a sack of change; all that I need is one of those vanishing public conveniences, the once ubiquitous public payphone. Fortunately, the glossy Park Brochure says there is one at Reception, at the other end of the park.
In true tropical fashion, it is too bloody hot for night-time. The slightest movement brings on torrential sweating, and I have already donated a pint of blood to the mosquitoes that launched a surprise attack at sundown, forcing us to retreat into the sanctuary of our insect-proof camper. I could do without a kilometre walk in the boiling hot, pitch black, mosquito-infested night, but I haven’t called my kid for weeks and I really need to. Calling on hidden reserves of energy and courage, I spray myself liberally with Aerogard and set off from our fan-cooled haven, armed with a flashlight and my bag of change.
Make it Snappy
My first consideration on this mini-expedition is personal safety, in particular:
Are there any crocodiles lurking about in the dark?
This fear is not as silly or as unfounded as it sounds. This afternoon we were chatting with our camp neighbours, a local couple from Townsville on a weekend break from the city, and she told us that it was right here, only two months ago, that she saw a croc 'sunning itself' on the grassy strip above the beach – just across the road from where we are parked. "Huh?" To reinforce that, there are signs everywhere - in the toilet block, on the glossy Brochure, and at the top of the path leading to the beach - warning of the 'Danger of Injury or Death' from crocodile attack. This is not a joke or a wind up by cheeky locals.
The warnings on the Crocodile Beware signs tell us not to go into the sea, and to take care near the water’s edge. It is common knowledge too that crocs will actually hunt their prey over a period of time. It’s advisable not to regularly walk along the same path or track to get somewhere, as the beasts learn your movements and set a deadly trap for you. Nevertheless, I am fearless and set off in search of the phone, brandishing my torch like a light sabre. The Reception Block is located at the end of a long, palm-lined boulevard which runs past a man-made lagoon about the size of a football pitch and referred to on the map in the glossy Brochure as a 'water feature'.
This baffles me: If there are crocodiles in the nearby sea, and up the adjacent creek, and even lurking on the manicured lawn above the beach, why would you build a campground and put a lagoon-sized water feature in the middle of it? Surely this is paramount to putting up a big sign that says “Crocodiles Welcome” or writing "Croc Bait" on the backs of all the campers?
Baffled, I walk briskly along the lonely stretch of road, the small puddle of light from my torch the only thing between me and a growing sense of doom. The black lagoon to my right is as still as a mirror, reflecting the awesome canopy of stars hanging in the southern sky above, while the jungle on my left is chirruping and croaking madly. Around my ears I hear the occasional drill-like whine of tropical-strength mosquitoes and overhead, large fruit bats flit from tree to tree.
My torch is also coming in handy as a means of avoiding Cane Toads – I definitely don’t want to step on a cane toad! Again, It was only this very afternoon that I commented to Sheila on our lack of toad sightings since we entered the tropics, and already, at this campground tonight, I have seen more toads than I have seen in my entire life, including the ones I have seen on TV documentaries about toads. They are literally everywhere, sitting motionless like grotesque garden gnomes on the paths, camping pitches and roads. They are lined up across vacant expanses of lawn like legions of frog-like warriors, Tolkienesque in their ugliness. Not to mentiona all the flattened ones out on the Rollingstone Road, squashed flat by cars and trucks, ground into the pavement and baked rock hard in the fierce sun - how many thousands of these creatures are there? Our helpful camp neighbours from Townsville also warned us not to get too close as the toads can spit and their gob is toxic. Shit, so this is the tropics – welcome to paradise Mick!
At last, Reception, and there is a phone booth with a working phone, but despite covering myself in a pint of Deet-strength Aerogard I am being eaten alive by voracious mozzies while I fumble through the sack for dollar coins. I count sixteen toads squatting on the triangle of lawn next to the phone box.
Dialing the mind-numbingly long international number in the phone booth is an experience I don’t want to repeat. It is dim in the there because there is no light bulb, presumably so as not to attract insects and other creatures into the booth. The only light is from a street lamp nearby and that is surrounded by a dizzying haze of moths, beetles, bugs and mozzies. I am forced to pin the torch between my head and shoulder to shine it on my address book, while I press the buttons. I am also slipping a handful of change into the slot and holding the receiver so I can hear what’s going on, AND, there are quite a lot of insects in here despite there being no light bulb, AND my flashlight is beginning to attract flying beetles that are crashing into my head, getting caught up in my hair and burrowing into my ears.
The phone rings, and all my money is gobbled up as my daughter’s answering machine kicks in. Bugger!
I leave a short message and sadly hang up the phone, which spits out five cents change from a five dollar chat with a recorded message. The walk back to the van is even more harrowing. A distant street lamp casts long shadows off the legion of toads who appear to slowly and menacingly advance towards me down the boulevard. As I pass the Black Lagoon (sorry, Water Feature), I am chilled with fear by a large splash – like the sound of a decent sized fish jumping, or a crocodile preparing to attack. I’ve had enough. I break into a run, side-stepping toads like an Olympic slalom skier. I’m pleased it is too dark for anyone to see me zigzag irregularly down the road like a scared twat, but what the hell.
An attempt to make a simple phone call has left me tired, sweaty, bitten, itchy, and secretly ashamed of my irrational fears. I finally reach our van and shut out the primordial night behind our screen door. I remove my soggy T-shirt, flop down on the couch, crack a cold one (XXXX of course) and reflect on the true nature of the tropics....
The hazards are many, especially in the wet seaon, of which we are experiencing the tail end. Even if there was no threat of crocs, you couldn’t swim in the sea this time of year as there are deadly jellyfish in the water - Irakanji and sea wasps. Almost invisible they are, but with a sting that leaves you ‘delirious, vomiting, sweating and with a terrible sense of doom’, brought on by heightened blood pressure, which soon causes death.
Other than that, and the clouds of insects and the ecologically destructive cane toads, the tropics are truly beautiful and the people that live up here swear they wouldn’t live anywhere else. But let’s face it, they’ve probably lived here too long and have all gone mad, or Troppo, as the condition is more popularly known!