Subject: Australia Memoirs, part 2

Here's part 2... Once past Crocodylus, we're perilously close to our destination: Cape Tribulation, and I am anxiously spotting favorite views, palms, creeks, ferns. We scoot by Coconut Beach (we can always come back down later), but now, PK's Jungle Village is too close and we're eager to arrive. The road here drops into creekbeds on causeways, no bridges, and the normally clear water seems murky. This should have been a clue about the early arrival of the rainy season, we ignore nature's warning system and go merrily along. Past Paul Mason's store, past Ferntrees, and we're there! It's not for everybody, PK's Jungle Village, but it's captured a place on my all-time favorites list. On one side of the road is the main lodge, sturdily built of huge rainforest timber, housing the dining area, kitchen and pub. Accommodations here are dorm-style hostel rooms, a few four-person cabins, and camping space, It's a backpackers' haven, it's noisy, rowdy, busy, and it's just great fun. Across the road, there's the infamous Boardwalk Café (a take-away) which sells some of the most calorie and cholesterol-ridden menu items you can imagine. I swear some of the meat pies in the hot pie case have been there ever since the café opened! But, beyond that, aah, the lovely canvas castles of the Homestead side: roomy canvas cabins with wooden floors and soaring rain flies, grouped in a garden setting around an inviting pool. The showerblock, laundry and communal refrig and hot beverage heater complete the amenities. I did say it's not for everyone, but this is the place I can dream about all year round! Our friends, PK and Heather, the owners, are not to be found as we arrive, however; P.K. is at a conference in Sydney and Heather is up at their glorious rainforest home with their daughters. No worries, though, for there are lots of other friends to catch up with, tall tales to be swapped and gossip to be shared. The weather does seem awfully still and muggy, though.

We take only minutes to drop our bags on beds, stuff food in the fridge, and then we're off on the short boardwalk to Myall Beach. It's a tropical paradise, all right: rainforest right up to the sand, a cove of pulverized coral, so soft it seems like sifted flour, and the blue, blue, blue water caught between the sheltering capes of the bay. The creeks are running high, though, and we finally wake up enough to ask why so much water during what is normally the dry season. Yes, it's an odd year and the rains seem to have begun early! We walk, swim, lounge around and try to ignore the lowering skies. That's ok for awhile, but when the Wet begins, it can't be ignored! Rain begins to pound down, 8 in a day, then 10 the next. Causeways are flooded, buses are stranded, water is running everywhere. One of the horses out on a morning trailride gets swept down Myall Creek, luckily without his rider. Once upright and stuck on the other side of a deep pool, Oscar the horse doesn't want to move. No one wants to swim across to get him (it's on the downstream, or crocodile, side of the road), so the little boat has to be dragged up the creek and Oscar urged upstream, back to the stables. He'll not want to budge for a day or two! We see the stable crew coming back to the Village on the back of PK's ute (utility vehicle, and they are). My friend Donna nearly explodes to see them all wearing life jackets. Is the water that high down at the causeway? She's pretty well convinced we won't get out; this can happen once the Wet begins. Meanwhile, it's great fun to splash around the paths for it's not cold although clothes and shoes seem to grow mold before our very eyes. As usual, Donna approaches this adventure with great spirit, though she wraps up under a couple of soggy quilts.

We spend an afternoon at Heather's enjoying tea and scones while the rain pours down. Built of rainforest timber felled during years of cyclones and aged to perfection, the home sits high on a hill overlooking Cape Tribulation, with heart-stopping views of the Coral Sea. Rainforest surrounds the home, and with its deep verandahs and open rooms, it feels as if I'm perched in a tree. A shimmering rainbow makes a brief appearance, with its pot of gold atop Cape Tribulation itself. We barely make it back to our canvas castle, as the causeway is flooding fast.

During a break from heavy rain, and we enjoy dinner at Coconut Beach, a first-class resort just a few kilometers down the road. Another night, it's Ferntrees for dinner on a verandah with rain drawing a silver curtain all around us.

However, we're beginning to think we may be stranded. A bus has turned over in a causeway and the rain just keeps coming down. Four other buses are waiting on the north side of the causeway waiting for the water to recede; stranded backpackers are hanging out at the lodge playing cards, swimming pools are flowing over their coped sides, paths have become gurgling brooks. After a night of light rain, one of the high-chassis buses has arrived from the south. We go down to the causeway to watch the intrepid drivers hurl their vehicles at the dropping water; most are equipped with air-intake bypasses (called snorkels) as well as the Australian standard 'roo bars, frog screens and winches. We're not the only ones watching the show; many local folk have come out to offer advice, critique the driving styles and recount stories of past flood events. The four buses are snorkel-less; so the high chassis bus winches them one at a time through the causeway, where the water is now less than a meter deep. This parade will be repeated at several other causeways, especially at Cooper's Creek where incoming tide raises the water level even more. Looks like our window of opportunity, so we make our tearful farewells (as always for me when I leave here!), throw sodden bags into our little hire car and join the sloshing exodus south. The only sustaining thought is that I'll be back in a few months.

For all the furor at Cape Tribulation, once we cross the Alexandra Ranges, the road is clear. How can it take so little time to get back down to Cairns? To compensate ourselves, we enjoy dinner at the Raw Prawn again, and Peter and his staff take good care of us. One more pass through the Night Markets, and we're back to the unit for a packing party. My son is off on an early flight back to the US next morning, and Donna and I are taking the Sunlander train to Brisbane. We've booked a sleeping compartment, and since the two-bedded cabins are all booked, we're sharing with a third woman. The train is great fun, with families and heaps of luggage coming on board. Settling in, we stow our still-damp luggage, get our books and look forward to the 30-hour trip to Brisbane. We plan to eat in the dining car, stare out the window and dry out! Our companion joins us in the evening at Townsville; a lovely Australian lady who's been visiting family. We have a quiet evening visiting and sharing stories. I'm in the top bunk, as the earliest and soundest sleeper of the three of us, so as the train rocks its way south, I'm lulled into a delicious sleep.

But at about 1:00am, our compartment is lit as if by a series of camera flashes and I awake to deep rumbling. And the train is stopped. Oh oh. No surprise: it's a tropical deluge, complete with roiling clouds, lightening and thunder. The track is flooded and we're stranded, but at least at the station in Mackay. The hours creep by as the water rises everywhere. The payphone is so full of coins that it can accept no more outbound calls, so stranded passengers aren't able to contact family downline. Later, we find out that it rained over 20 in a 24-hour period! Rumors stir up and down the cars: we'll be here for weeks, we'll be out in a few hours; there's no place to stay in town, they're going to billet us at local hotels. Queensland Rail staff is wonderful, working 24 hour shifts.. Finally, the roads are clear enough they can load us on buses to Rockhampton, about six hours south where the northbound train was stalled. Remember all that luggage I saw being loaded on the train in Cairns? Now it all comes off again, only it has doubled in volume. Three hundred bedraggled travelers push onto buses; after 11 hours at Mackay even leaky buses look good! The QR staff on our bus starts working on a crossword puzzle, calling out for help with the correct words. It's great fun and makes the hours fly by. Clever women!

At Rockhampton (called Rocky on this coast), the story is repeated in reverse: off the buses, on the train, and the luggage has magically tripled in volume. A QR staff member greets us as we disembark the buses and gives us our compartment assignments. How they've managed to stay so polite and cheery is beyond me. We're still in a compartment with our companion, but unfortunately, there are only two bunks for the three of us. No worries, as the designated sleeper in the bunch, I just curl up on the floor &I'm out. We arrive in Brisbane about 1:30am amidst much greeting, goodbye-ing and shuffling of mountains of luggage. Lucky us, we have only to pop in a cab and head to nearby Kangaroo Point, where we have accommodations at the Oakford Terraced Suites (thank you, 'Ziners, Marghe and Marty for the recommendation!).

Our townhouse is quite fine, complete with kitchenette, ironing board, and other domestic stuff I plan to avoid using. Later in the morning, it's a short cab ride to Hertz' downtown location, where our hire car is miraculously still waiting for us, although we are 17 hours late. We're off to Beerwah, where the Australia Zoo is located; yes, the home of TV's Crocodile Hunter. Donna's daughter is a friend of Terri Irwin (Mrs Croc Doc) and we have gifts for baby Bindy. Of course, they're in New York for the Jay Leno show, but we'll play tourist at the Zoo anyway. It's a tidy zoo, with lots of crocodile ponds and informative croc shows. We enjoy watching Harriet, the Galapagos tortoise captured by Charles Darwin in 1840-something, slowly munching on her favorite item, red hibiscus. There's a small 'roo enclosure, and a very sobering exhibit on feral wildlife (dingo, camel, and fox) and the effects on Australia's fauna with the introduction of competing species which have no antepodean predators. Steve Irwin may not be all that popular in Australia, but we hear mostly American accents amongst our fellow visitors. And no rain all day! For our last full day in Oz, it's not bad.

After the frenzied pre-departure packing mayhem and a light sleep, we're off to the airport for our flight to Sydney, where we connect for the States. There's a great little travel trick for connecting in Sydney, which has separate domestic and international terminals: book flights which are classed as international when connecting from or to trans-Pacific segments. This eliminates the nasty bus transfer from the domestic to international terminals in Sydney. So here's an example: reserve a Qantas flight series below 400 Brisbane/Sydney, remain in the international terminal in the transit area, then board the trans-Pacific flight Sydney/San Francisco. This means clearing immigration and customs in Brisbane to avoid being sent to the basement in Sydney to complete those formalities. Because of schedules and carriers, this little trick won't always work, but when it does, the griefsavings is astounding.

I like the 12-hour flight to San Francisco; it gives me enough time to sift through conversations, memories, and images before re-entry into my other life. Re-entry takes longer and longer because I leave more of myself downunder with every visit. Now, let's see, maybe I can squeeze in a couple of weeks in April, or maybe I can't wait that long.