Thursday, November 26, 2009

Full Moon in Townsville

Jumped out of bed at 4 a.m. on a Friday morning in late October to head to Tullamarine airport, which is a solid one hour drive away. I'm still not comfortable with the roads leading to the airport, as there isn't one direct route. You can take one freeway, the M1, but it's under construction, and there can be huge traffic delays. When I went to get Roberta and Aline in August, traffic into the city was crawling at 40 kph or less. I was at least 1/2 hour late, but fortunately their plane was late as well, so they didn't have to worry. A better way to drive is to avoid the M1 and use the newer toll highway, which basically puts you right into one of Melbourne's older neighbourhoods, on city streets. Returning from Brisbane, in the dark, I missed a turn off on a city street (not the freeway) and was heading north again before I knew it. It can be quite stressful, so I've taken on the challenge of driving and navigating, leaving Tom free to work out all the nuts and bolts of teaching.

We made it, got into long term parking, jumped on the shuttle bus and had ourselves in the departure area drinking (excellent) coffee before we knew it. A quick 50 minute flight into the fog surrounding the Canberra airport, where we disembarked, hung out in the airport for a few minutes, and then got back on the same plane. This short stay was fortunate, as they were selling the Byron Bay Cookie Co ginger date cookies we discovered in Byron Bay and I snatched a few (paid for them too) for the next leg of the flight. Shades of shorter flights in Canada, you have to buy every single item you want on the short haul airlines in Australia (this was Virgin Blue, with great friendly service). We had prepared by making brekkie sandwiches, bringing fruit, yogurt and juice boxes, but you still have to spend a few hours flying further north. Townsville is a 2 1/2 hour flight north from Canberra. The flight attendents were at their witty best, and one managed to paint a few kids' faces before we hit some rougher air which made the face pencil a precarious proposition.

Skidded in on some bouncy air into Townsville's airport, reminiscent of Victoria's airport about 15 - 20 yrs ago. Turns out it's owned by the Australian Air Force (and was an airforce base during WWII), who rent out space/time to the commercial airlines. Quonset huts on the outskirts, military jets and helicopters waiting near runways. Hot as, in Townsville. Humid as. Not something we'd experienced in Ferny Creek in October. Cane fields along the highway, the harvest having just finished. The port has a huge terminal specifically for sugar loading and exportation. Palm trees (imported, non-native), hoop pines, some of our favourite Norfolk Pines. Dry. It's a rainforest area, at least up in the mountains just west of the coast, but it was dry, and will be dry until the rains of the "Wet" hit in January -- the summer is the wet and humid season. Found our way to the Strand, an area to relax, walk, or swim, depending on your mood.

We went to see Stephanie, a European travel friend of Tom's from 30 years ago, and she'd told us to wait for her on the Strand as she had to work in the morning. She works for the Justice Department, and can't just take off whenever she feels like it. A few text messages back and forth, and when we were swimming in the rock pool (sheltered from the main ocean, keeping crocs, etc. out), there she was. She and Tom had hitchhiked together in Great Britain and spent some quality time together. Now we were all descending on her and her partner, Peter. Just after we left the rock pool, a 1.5 metre crocodile was spotted swimming along the ocean shore. Stingers, who produce a bad to deadly sting, are another thing to avoid in the northern summer, but there are stinger nets set up at popular beaches so people can swim with relative safety.

They hosted us with grace, humour, friendliness and intellectual stimulation. When they moved to Townsville (considered the hinterland by many), they adapted a local Queenslander house (built on stilts for airflow and protection from cyclones) and removed a few walls and added large screened windows to increase airflow, insulated the ceiling, added some overhanging roofs and decks front and back, and don't need air conditioners. It was pure bliss to sleep there with a light sheet, feeling the warm night air blowing over our bodies. They live 3 blocks off the ocean ... the salt air can be very destructive, so they're somewhat protected, yet have the benefit of the breezes. Stephanie served some fabulous food, Peter uploaded some great Aussie tunes to my iPod, took the gang for flights in his ultralight plane (reminds me of the dragonflies at Vic Beach), and got us over to Magnetic Island (named that way because Captain Cook's navigation devices didn't work, so he assumed there were magnetic forces at work) and showed us around.

We are certainly jealous of their lifestyle. I know they've worked for it. Stephanie is doing her regional service in the "north", not something everyone wants to do. Peter is able to adapt his work life to working from home. Their daughter is doing her gap year in Europe, working, travelling, and enduring chicken pox. We laughed so hard poor Stephanie almost choked. We talked, got to know each other, caught up, and learned new things about life. We want more. Stephanie pointed me to more Aussie literature and literary journals. I must catch up. Peter downloaded some fantastic Aussie music onto my iPod, and I'm listening regularly. They are adventurous and generous, and we thank them for their hospitality and our introduction to northern Queensland.

I miss the sight of the ripening mango trees in their backyard (2 of them!), although the fruit bats are now gorging themselves silly all night, making all kinds of noise. They also have a lychee tree, but the bats had picked it clean except for the very top, so we couldn't snatch anything off the tree. Townsville feels unspoiled, althought some development is creeping its ugly head into a few choice spots, such as the reserve near the National Park, home of rock wallabies (an endangered species). Money talks, I guess, and rock wallabies don't bring in much cash.

We made it up to a rainforest north of Townsville, in an area called Paluma, and swam in the Crystal Creek waterholes on our way back. Of course we stopped at the Paluma Pottery, checking out the artist (Len Cook) and his work.

The moon was full when we visited -- this is the full moon (the first one in November) that inspires coral polyps to spawn, a yearly event, building the Great Barrier Reef. We didn't get out to the Reef -- time and money were factors. So we'll have to get back!

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