|They were having a terrible wet season in tropical Queensland. Cyclone Rona had buzz-sawed along the coast, causing $180 million of havoc, and lesser storms had been teasing the region for weeks, disrupting travel. Only the day before, all flights had been canceled. It was evident from the dips and wobbles of our approach into Cairns that a lot of assertive weather was still about.
It is remarkable now, when more than two million people a year come to the Great Barrier Reef and it is universally esteemed a treasure, how long it took the tourism industry to discover it. But then again, all of Australia—much less the reef—is a difficult place to keep track of. It is a country where it took quite a while for pioneers to discover what was there, and where people often go missing.
On my first visit, some years ago, I passed the time on the long flight reading a history of Australian politics in the 20th century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt, was strolling with some friends along a beach in Australia's southern state of Victoria when he decided to take a quick dip, plunged into the surf (the beach was known for its dangerous undertow), and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me—first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I mean, come on), and second that news of this had never reached me.
Preparing for this visit, I read of two more mysterious cases not far from Cairns. There was an American couple, Thomas and Eileen Lonergan of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who in January 1998 went for a day's scuba and never returned. And there was the sad tale of a young British backpacker named Daniel Nute. The year before, in 1997, Nute set off alone on a six-hour hike to a place called Mount Sorrow, on the Cape Tribulation promontory. His body, too, has never been found.
When we arrived in Cairns, we went first to pick up our rental car. I had left the arrangements to a travel agent, and I was mildly surprised to find that the agent had plumped for an obscure local firm—Crocodile Car Hire or something—whose office was little more than a bare counter on a side street. The young man in charge had a certain chirpy cockiness that was ineffably irritating, but he dealt with the paperwork in a brisk and efficient manner, chattering throughout about the weather; 1999 was the worst wet in 30 years, he told us proudly. Then he led us out to the sidewalk and presented us with our vehicle—an aged Holden Commodore station wagon that seemed to sag about the axles.
"What's this?" I asked.
He leaned toward me and said, as you might to a dementia
sufferer, "It's your car."
"But I asked for a four-wheel drive."
He sifted through his paperwork and carefully extracted a fax from the travel agent. It showed a request for a large, standard, high-polluting car with automatic transmission—an American car, in other words, or the nearest local equivalent. I sighed and handed back the paper. "Well, do you have a four-wheel drive I can take instead?"
"Nope, sorry. We only do town cars."
"But we were going to drive up to Cape York."
"Oh, you won't get up there in the wet. Not even in a four-wheel drive. Not at this time of year. They had a hundred centimeters of rain at Cape Tribulation last week." I had no idea what a hundred centimeters was, but it was evident from his tone that it was
considerable. "You won't get beyond Daintree in anything less than a helicopter."
I sighed again.
"The road to Townsville's been cut off for three days," he added with yet more pride.
Allan looked at me in the happily brainless way of someone who doesn't realize disaster is afoot, irritating me further. I sighed and hefted my bags. "Well, can you point us to the Palm Cove Hotel?" I asked.
"Certainly. You go back out past the airport to the Cook Highway and head north. It's about 20 kilometers up the coast."
"Twenty kilometers?" I sputtered. "I asked for a hotel in Cairns."
He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, it's sure not in Cairns."
"But the road is open?"
"You mean it might flood?"
"Always a possibility."
"And if it floods we're stuck in the middle of nowhere?"
He looked at me with a touch of pity. "Mister, you're already in the middle of nowhere." The point was inarguable.