You left me last week in a playground on the esplanade at Cairns in Northern Queensland. I say that with some authority, but the truth is that I left you sitting at your kitchen table reading about me and my four-year-old swinging in the antipodes, whereas in fact I was in frosty south London. I still am – that’s psychogeography for you. Like some bizarre typing bee, I like to store up my memories of hotter, sunnier climes so that I can write about them through the long, crepuscular winter days.
Although it was none too bright in Queensland last August. That close to the tropics there are only two seasons: wet and dry. But displaying an unrivalled flair for the holiday cock-up, we’d managed to decamp around the world only to find ourselves sloshing about in the wettest dry season on record. Not that the Australians were perturbed by this climatological anomaly; they chose to see it as just that, rather than sinister evidence of global warming.
One night, sitting on our dripping verandah, we were lectured by a local science teacher on the vast span of the continent’s geological history. He told us how an ocean once separated the eastern and western halves of Australia, while a land bridge connected the northern coast to New Guinea. To listen to him talk – discoursing on antediluvian inundations and prelapsarian droughts – I got the impression that he himself had been present in the Jurassic, wandering the rainforests of Gondwanaland, a rampant bore in pursuit of tiny-brained diplodocuses.
We, on the other hand, couldn’t help but see the shitty weather as a timely smack delivered by Mother Nature. We should never have squandered our carbon allowance for the next 20 years, jetting 12,000 miles to see the Great Barrier Reef and in the process helping to speed its destruction. We only managed to get out to the reef once, and even then the wind-tossed waves had churned up too much sand for us to see much besides the flapping fins of the snorkeller in front. True, from the dive boat on the trip back to shore we did see migrating humpback whales, but their tail fins looked to me like two massive fingers stuck up in our general direction.
After a week or so of this Australian water torture we could take it no more. We loaded up the people carrier with little people and set off for the Atherton Tableland. Beyond these mossy green hills, the great semi-arid plain of Central Australia opened out. There would be sun, there would be heat, all our illusions would be burnt away and we would face the true and authentic Australia. Up we wound through dripping, lush farmsteads, where the Friesian cattle grazed incongruously beside palms and tree ferns. We stopped for a damp sandwich at Milla Milla Falls and then headed on, the windshield wipers carving slices of bitumen out of the greenish blur.
We were a few clicks past Revenhoe and heading downhill on the Kennedy Highway when it happened all at once: the rain ceased, and the convolvulus of the rainforest – which had been retreating for a while – was replaced by the regular stippling of eucalyptus, row upon row of straight trunks shading the dips and runoffs of the semi-arid landscape like charcoal marks. The metalled road stuttered then gave out, to be replaced by a corrugated track of red dust; and there, lumbering towards us like a dinosaur of the carboniferous era, was our first road train.
As soon as it had pummelled past I slewed the people carrier over to the side of the track and rousted the family out. “This is it!” I cried. “This is the true and authentic Australia! Look at that,” I gestured at the too much of wilderness, “it spreads from here all the way to West Australian, thousands of miles! It goes on forever!”
“You go on forever,” snapped a surly adolescent, before replacing his earphones and crawling back into the car.
We ended up that evening sleeping in a defunct railway carriage which had been converted into a tourist chalet. This was at something called the Undara Experience, a faux “bush camp” sighted on the edge of the Undara Volcanic National Park. We had dinner at Fettler’s Iron Pot Bistro, and the breakfast the following day at the Ringers’ Camp. It was all deliriously inauthentic, from the “billabong-style” swimming pool to the grotesque didgeridoo class held by some inner-city refugee the following evening. Even the wallabies and kangaroos lolloping through the bush were there under sufferance; on any real cattle station they’d have been shot on sight.
But I didn’t care, I kept dragging the kids hither and thither, thrusting their pimply snouts into the illimitable, as if I could somehow get them to consume this vast hinterland. After a while they did begin to appreciate it – all except the four-year-old that is. He said he’d rather go to the playground again, even if it meant getting chomped by a saltie.