Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Life's a Beach, Final Chapter

Well, it’s been nine months since I last wrote (don’t worry; I didn’t have a baby) – and four months since I left Cairns – but I’ve had a few requests for an update and have been organizing my pictures, so I think it’s time to get ‘er done. (What can I say; my people have spoken.)

Now, Cairns was a ridiculously beautiful place, but you may recall that I was frustrated because there wasn’t always a lot going on. It seemed to be a trade-off you make in life: either you live in a big, smelly city and have all sorts of arts and culture, or you live in a beautiful town by the beach and you have cable tv and lots of time to cook nice things and stare out the window.

(I do mean it when I say “nice things,” though: check out this yummy casserole with hearts carved into it. Yes, I am getting that good!)

But then, if you don’t get to have all the good city stuff, you shouldn’t have the bad city stuff either. Like, say, mugging, or pollution. Or, oh, I don’t know – just off the top of my head...


Right? You know how I feel about them, you know how much sleep I lost when I thought a rat had jumped on my bed: it was a kitten, I saw it myself, I even patted it – I still woke up in a cold sweat at least twice a night for weeks. So I’ll let you just imagine my dread when I opened the pantry one day and saw this:

Now, there were rats living in the trees outside our house (the discovery of which prompted an immediate and permanent end to outdoor dining) so I was understandably freaked out. The poop being closer to mouse size, though, I tried not to blow it out of proportion. (I’m no friend to mice, but the idea of rats living in the house is in a whole different category of nightmare.) We already had all open food stored in plastic bins or in the fridge, but we doubled up, threw out anything that wasn’t fort-knox secure and scrubbed that kitchen to within an inch of its life. I bought a varied and extensive collection of mouse traps and poisons, which Mark helped me set up just before... he left for a week in New Zealand. The timing could have been better, yes? I had trouble sleeping for the first few nights...

And there were obviously lots of them, considering how much poop there was. And everywhere – it was everywhere! There was no reason for them to run over the stove, but there was poop there. And under the guest bedroom pillow upstairs – you understand, they were crawling up on beds and running through the sheets and pillows. This is horrifying. The nightmare of a rodent crawling onto your face while you’re sleeping? It could happen!

There was nothing left for them to eat (except for the delicious poison, which was specifically far away from our food), the whole place smelled like cleaning chemicals, I was sure they were going to give up. Instead, they started in on root vegetables and chewed through the plastic handle on a tin jug of olive oil. Was this normal? Was I exaggerating the gravity of the situation? I ran it by my day care colleagues, the whole mice-gnawing-through-plastic thing, and was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had a rat.

Guess how much sleep I got that night.

My rat fears were put somewhat to rest when I saw a mouse run out from under the fridge and dive into the dishwasher. It was definitely bigger than any mouse you would see in a normal country, but this is Australia: everything’s big here and rodents are no exception. So, okay, we were dealing with mice. Huge, hungry, terrifying mice, but mice nonetheless. I spent that evening sitting on the arm of the couch, rocking and staring maniacally towards the kitchen; I could hear them eating the poison cube, because it was attached to the cupboard for monitoring purposes and kept banging against the door. I knew it was ridiculous to be held hostage by my own fear, too scared to leave my safe perch on the couch and risk encountering another giant mouse, but what are you going to do.

By the time Mark got home from his trip, I was so sleep-deprived and jittery that I was barely functioning. My hands were chapped and scaly from touching so many cleaning products and rubber gloves. My right eyelid kept twitching. I was practically hallucinating, thinking I saw mice everywhere – crawling out from vents, peeking through couch cushions, wriggling through the shower drain... I didn’t go anywhere in the house without closed-toe footwear and I had pretty much stopped eating because I couldn’t face going into the kitchen. I could only imagine how many there must be, as they were eating the poison at an alarming rate, and while I was grateful that I hadn’t actually caught any in the traps when I was alone and couldn’t pass the dead-rodent-disposal buck to Mark, I was spooked by their ability to eat the bait and escape unharmed. I suspected that this breed of giant, mutant mouse was just too big and strong for our puny little mouse traps, but I hadn’t seen one up-close to know for sure. Yet.

Now, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the universe, or whoever or whatever is out there looking out for me, for watching my back on this fateful Saturday night. Because, instead of just heading downstairs when I was ready for bed, I decided – either with a touch of premonition or just because I had become so skittish – to wait for Mark. He turned on the light (which I never bothered to do) and was thus standing between me and the enormous mouse that was blissed out on poison, just sitting there on the railing, blinking in the sudden light – sitting, you understand, exactly where my hand would have been. (There but for the grace of the universe goes my hand, if you will.) Now, I have to assume that something happened between that moment and me finding myself standing on the coffee table in the living room in tears, but I couldn’t tell you what it was – though adrenalin was definitely involved. Once Mark had “dealt with” the mouse, he had to accomplish the considerable feat of talking me down off the table, past the traumatic railing and down the stairs. Unfortunately, his clean-up job left something to be desired; when I saw blood on the steps of the crime scene, I ended right back on the coffee table. Did I even make it to bed that night? Who knows. We were both pretty highly-strung at that point.

After that there were a few more incidents – including the morning when I reached into my milk crate of exercise clothes and a panicky monster-mouse ran out, just missing my foot, at which point I a) screamed bloody murder, then b) dug around and discovered that I had been wearing workout clothes that a mouse had been nesting (and pooping) at the bottom of for who knows how long – but after a while they must have all died off, and there wasn’t a scrap of unprotected food anywhere in the house to lure in new ones, so the Mouse Episode was officially over and life got back to normal. I stayed pretty twitchy if I heard any kind of scraping, scratching or shuffling anywhere in or near my house (or car, or shopping trolley, or classroom, or…) but I hoped the universe would recognize that I’ve had more than my share of rodent encounters and give me a break. (It didn’t, but that’s a story for another day.)

Once it was official that we were leaving Cairns – though the departure date got bumped around a few more times – Mark and I made sure to get out and actively enjoy the Cairns region, since we knew how much we would miss it when we were gone. We started by going back up to do a crocodile cruise along the Daintree River, since last time we were there it was summer and the water was too warm for the crocs to bother coming out. They weren’t exactly lining the banks as we’d expected – the tour guides had told us to come back in winter, "when they’d be lining the banks" – but they were definitely out and about in all their creepy, toothy glory.

We thought we had scored big when we were the only people on our river cruise, with a boat all to ourselves: Sorry suckas, this is a private ride! Azzam! Then the guide told us about a tour a few weeks earlier where a croc had lunged out of the water to chomp and destroy a chunk of the boat – presumably trying to eat the young German backpackers sitting in it. (Apparently the tour company paid for the backpackers’ dry cleaning – enough said.) Suddenly, as we inched our way quietly towards the middle of our really-not-as-big-as-it-first-seemed river boat, we weren’t so thrilled with our private cruise, you know what I’m saying? We might just have appreciated having a few other juicy tourists on board, especially if they were a little chubbier (or more deliciously fishy) than we were.

The best way to get out and enjoy the neighbourhood is to show it to someone new, so we had a great time when Pierre, my not-technically-an-uncle-but-might-as-well-be, came through Cairns on his way to meet his new grand-daughter in Darwin, with his brother along for the ride. They saw things locally and up the coast, and on the weekend we did a tour of the Atherton Tablelands. Now, if ever you’re anywhere near Cairns, whatever else happens, get yourself up the hill to the Tablelands. You can do the dairy farm and coffee plantation thing, which is nice, and you can have afternoon tea at a volcanic lake, which is nicer – but mostly you can just drive around between gorgeous waterfalls and bumpy, weird landscapes that you can’t believe are real. I suspect I wasn’t making any friends by the end of the day, when the light would change yet again and I’d freak out about how ridiculously beautiful this place was. Will my pictures do it any kind of justice? Of course not; add it to your travel list and make it happen. (Though check with me first for seasonal details; no point going when everything smells like wet dog for three months.)

A nice view from one of the coffee plantations.

Millaa Millaa Falls

High tea at Lake Barrine with Pierre and Guy

Tablelands: do it.

What else happened in those last months?

I read Infidel and was deeply affected by it; I think you should read it too. (Thanks, Kay.)

I was in a grade two class around Mother’s Day and particularly liked two of the cards the kids had made: Douglas wrote “I Love You Mum, because I like it when you cook,” which might just have created an existential crisis for poor Mum, and Emma said “I love you because you’re pretty” – sounds like somebody forgot to have that little chat about values with our friend Emma – and then the picture was of a monster version of Frida Kahlo, with warts, claws and a unibrow. It will be a real triumph of motherly love over self-esteem if that card ends up on the fridge.

Of course, I kept working at day care until the end. One funny moment was when four-year-old Kate asked what the sparkly thing was on my nose; when I explained that it was like when people wear earrings, except it’s in my nose, she looked unimpressed, said, “well, that makes no sense,” and turned back to her bowl of pasta.

On Canada Day, I brought in stickers and washable tattoos. It was a big hit and seemed like a good idea – until I saw all these little kids running around with “I ♥ Canada” tattooed onto their arms. It turns out there’s a fine line between culture-sharing and propaganda and I felt the need to hover around at pick-up time and explain that I was just being fun, not trying to image-brand my country onto their highly-receptive-to-sticker-based-marketing kids.

And then, inevitably, the day came when I had to say goodbye to all my gorgeous day care children and it was very, very sad. What else can I say.

One of the things Mark and I had been meaning to do was to visit Paronella Park.

It’s a turn-of-the-century estate built by a Spanish baker who fell in love with the Cairns region, bought this land in the middle of the jungle with a waterfall and created hydro-electric power, making his property the first in Queensland to have electricity and running water.

We started with the day tour, where you see all the Aztec-y buildings and the beautiful jungle property, and it really is quite beautiful. The park has been hit by quite a few cyclones over the years and there are some parts that are completely falling to pieces, but then the whole aesthetic is old and crumbly, so it doesn’t matter if some bits are in ruins. There’s a lovers’ lane, there are secret little waterfalls all over the place, there are turtles and parrots and all sorts of great things. It’s the kind of place that makes you wish you were a better photographer. (Though let's blame the camera, shall we?)

It’s really good stuff, as long as you stick to the day tour. Then the sun starts to set, so you walk around one more time, set up your tent and head through the property and across the street to grab dinner at the local pub. Except they don’t tell you that when you’re coming back for the night tour, you should really have a flashlight with you because it’s pitch black. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I mean it: pitch black. We could vaguely see the lights of the property, off in the distance and behind the trees, and we knew there was a big patch of grass we had to cross to get back to the bridge, but we couldn’t see our own feet, the road they were supposed to be walking along, or the snakes crossing in front of us.

You: Wait a second, snakes?!

Me: Yes, snakes.

You: As in, harmless little garden snakes?

Me: No, Australian snakes, mate. They’re big and they can really mess you up.

A car came along behind us and its headlights shone on a huge one lying right in front of us; two more steps and one or both of us would have stepped on it, which I suspect would have ended badly… I mean, I like reptiles as much as the next guy, but I’m not looking to get snake-bitten in the pitch black, in the middle of nowhere and who knows how far from the nearest hospital.

And then, of course, once the car had passed, we were still standing in the dark and we still had to cross that patch of long grass to get back to the bridge, only now we knew that there were probably huge bloody snakes living in it! I don’t know exactly how long we stood there, frozen like statues and trying to come up with a genius strategy that involved not crossing the grass, but eventually we just had to suck it up, grow a pair and run through the snake-a-rific grass in our flip-flops and bare legs – high-stepping and screaming like little girls, of course – all the way to the bridge. Good times.

Now, the point of the night tour is that they do all this lights-and-fairy-music stuff and it’s oh so dreamy and magical. Great, right?

Except that in-between the dreamy and magical moments, the place is a nightmare. At the beginning of the tour they took us through a bat cave – yes, literally, a cave full of bats. Live bats. At night. In a cave. And don’t forget that bats in Queensland aren’t the little hand-sized ones that you find in normal countries; they’re Australian-sized. They’re basically flying raccoons. Flying groundhogs at the very least.

(I probably don’t have to tell you that I waited outside the cave. There were still lots of bats – they were heading out for their night hunting and there was plenty of wing action around my head - but at least I wasn’t specifically in an enclosed space full of them.) (You can’t tell how big they are from the pictures, can you? Dammit. I’d take a picture of me and a bat so you’d get a sense of the scale, except that – well, I’d rather die.)

After the bat fun, we headed down to the water where we were encouraged to feed a wriggling, writhing mass of hundreds of slimy eels that were so aggressive and monstrous, they were actually pushing each other out of the water and onto our feet. Oh my god it was so totally gross.

**This is Bron’s picture from when she did the tour. I hesitate to include it because she had shown it to me and told me how gross it was but I didn’t really grasp the horror of the experience, so now I don’t want you to see the shot and say “so there are eels – what’s the big deal?” (or rather, “what’s the big d’eel?”) (I went for it – I’m not ashamed.)
So. To get a better sense of the scale of revoltingness, use this picture as a starting point, then add: near darkness (the flash makes it look a lot brighter and less spooky than it was), the eels’ crazy screeching, slithering and splashing, and especially, as the camera’s scope is limited, hundreds more eels. And don’t forget about them pushing up onto the pavement at your feet. Grossest thing ever, right? Whose idea was this?

**Bron, I hope you don’t mind me using your pictures like this; I didn’t get a clear shot of them, probably because I was too busy puking into the bushes…

Meanwhile, when we weren’t being introduced to a specific group of hideous night creatures, we were walking through the jungle on narrow paths with trees all around us and over our heads. When I nervously asked the tour guide what all the scratching and shuffling might be, hoping to Mickey that it was just frogs and geckos, she said there was nothing to worry about: it was just the tree rats.

I’m surrounded by rats? Oh, that’s no problem. That’s just fine. No problem at all. And you know what I’m really excited about now? Sleeping in a small canvas tent in a jungle full of rats – it’s going to be great! Yay, camping! What a stellar idea! Well done, campers, well done – way to think things through.

Incidentally, it was our first time using this tent, and we had just assumed that it would be like our Townsville one, which had at least an extra foot of space all the way around the queen mattress. This assumption was incorrect. The new tent is quite a bit smaller, with just enough space for a double mattress and a bottle of water squeezed along the side.
Obviously, then, our heads rub right up against the wall. Would you like to guess how much slithering and scratching you hear when your head is right against the wall of a thin tent in the jungle? Maybe the real question here is, how many years can you age in one night? Mark had to come with me when I needed to visit the toilet to help with the stomping (to scare the snakes away), to keep watch for any creepy crawlers while I was in there, and to shush me and stop my whimpering as we passed the other tents. Needless to say, though with sincere apologies, there was very little sleep for anyone that night, possibly including our fellow campers. Paronella Park: check.

Wrapping it up: we saw our first echidna in the forest (it was terrified of us, immediately hid and stayed impressively still for ages, while we tried not to swat at the mosquitoes feasting on our flesh and wait the little guy out) and it was super cute:

My official bedroom spider, Mal (Missing-A-Leg) finally disappeared for good, and within days another huntsman had taken up residence in the exact same spot on the ceiling, directly above my pillow. What’s with that?
(I didn’t name him; he was just a regular old creepy spider.)

I got a proper, grown-up, salon haircut (by the father of three of my day care kids, which was fun) and look how nice and straight he made it! So shiny! I was so inspired that the next week I bought a tiny hair straightener - called the “Straightini,” no less – and spent close to two hours making my hair look: flat and dull. I guess salon hair will have to be a salon treat.

And that’s it. I helped Mark pack up the house and then it was a whirlwind: home and to France – not staying as long as I’d originally planned and so feeling rushed and panicky and not seeing half the people I wanted to see – and then more tearful goodbyes (I should be getting better at it by now, but – well, I’m not) and back on the plane for the kajillion hours to Perth. Lots has been happening and we’ve got good things lined up for the holidays, but that’s for another update… As was to be expected, the minute I left Cairns, I realized how crazy beautiful it was and how lucky I was to live there, spiritual home or not. And so I’ll end this final Life’s A Beach with some favourite pictures from Cairns; hopefully I’ll start getting better at appreciating the good things I have while I have them. In the meantime, I’ll appreciate them in hindsight.

Thanks for reading along!


The green mountains all around Cairns - these ones specifically at our house.

Fuzzy purple cane fields everywhere - killer for allergies but so lovely!

This was always my favourite drive, home from the city, all dripping gold and green.

Trinity Beach

Stoney Creek, favourite hiking and swimming spot in the forest

Barron Falls

Daintree River

Crystal Cascades

Thanks and good night Cairns, you're beautiful!

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