|Much to our astonishment, the Palm Cove was lovely, a purpose-built village inserted with care into a stretch of tropical luxuriance beside a curving bay. We claimed our rooms and then went for a walk along the beach, watching as ominous clouds filled the sky. A few other people were strolling over the sand, but no one was in the water, and for a very good reason: It was March and so the height of the season for box jellyfish, also known as sea wasps, marine stingers, or just stingers. By whatever name they go, these little bubbles of woe are not to be trifled with. From October to May, when the jellyfish come inshore to breed, they render the beaches useless to humans. It is quite an extraordinary thought when you are standing there looking at it. Before us stood a sweep of bay as serene and inviting as you would find anywhere, and yet there was no environment on earth more likely to offer instant death. Each jellyfish has 60 tentacles reaching up to 15 feet in length and each tentacle has enough nematocysts—venomous barbs that puncture the skin—to kill a person. Or put another way, one box jellyfish can kill 60 people. Get entangled in more than one (and they are often found in bunches) and you can only pray you pass out before dying ten minutes later.
"So you're telling me," said Allan, for whom all this was new, "that if I waded into the water now I would die?"
"In the most wretched and abject agony known to man,"
"Jesus," he muttered.
"And don't pick up any of the seashells," I added, stopping him from leaning over to pick up a seashell. I explained to him about coneshells—the venomous creatures that lurk inside some of the handsomest, conical shells, waiting for a human hand to sting.
"They've got lethal seashells here?" he asked.
"There are more things that will kill you up here than anywhere else in Australia, and that's saying a lot, believe me." This is a country, I told him (recalling what I had learned browsing a fat book titled, if I recall, Things That Will Kill You Horridly in Australia: Volume 19), where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip. I told him about the cassowary, a flightless, man-size bird that lives in the rainforests and has a razor claw on each foot with which it can slice you open in a deft and appallingly expansive manner. I mentioned also the loathsome, sluggish stonefish, so called because it is indistinguishable from a rock, but with the difference that it has 13 spikes on its back that are sharp enough to pierce the sole of a sneaker, injecting the hapless sufferer with a myotoxin bearing a molecular weight of 150,000.
"And what does that mean exactly?"
"Pain beyond description followed shortly by muscular paralysis, respiratory depression, cardiac palpitations, and a severe disinclination to boogie." He might similarly be discommoded by firefish, I continued, which are easier to spot but no less hurtful. There's even a jellyfish called the snottie.
"You're making this all up," Allan said, but without conviction.
"Oh, but I'm not."
Then I told him about the dreaded saltwater crocodile, which lurks in tropical rivers, lagoons, estuaries, and even bays such as this one, leaping from the waters from time to time to snatch and devour unsuspecting passersby. Just up the coast from where we now stood a woman named Beryl Wruck had been taken in a startling manner. "Shall I tell you about it?" I offered.
"Well, one day," I went on, knowing that he really wanted to hear, "a group of locals at Daintree got together for a festive pre-Christmas barbie when some of them decided to go for a cooling dip in the Daintree River. The river was known to be the home of crocodiles, but none had ever attacked anybody in the area. So several of the party scampered down to the water's edge, stripped to their underwear, and splashed in. Ms. Wruck apparently thought better of leaping in, so she merely stepped a foot or so into the water. As she stood there watching the happy frolicking, she idly leaned over and trailed a hand through the water. Just at that instant the water split in a flash and poor Ms. Wruck was gone. That is what a crocodile attack is like, you see—swift, unexpected, extremely irreversible."
"And you're telling me there are crocodiles here in this water?"
"Oh, I don't know whether there are or not," I replied. "But it's why I'm letting you walk on the inside."
Just then from the restive skies there came a single startling crack of thunder. Abruptly the wind kicked up, sending the palm trees dancing, and a few fat splats of rain fell. Then the skies opened in a warm but soaking downpour. We hied back to our hotel, where we took refuge under the veranda of the beachfront bar and watched the rain beat down with a tumultuous fury. I had thought that having grown up in the American Midwest I was familiar with lively weather, but I am happy to concede that where the elements are concerned, Australia plays in a league of its own.
"So let me get this straight," Allan was saying. "We can't go to Cooktown because we can't get through. We can't swim because the ocean's full of deadly jellyfish. And the road to Cairns might be cut off at any moment."
"That's about the size of it."
He blew out thoughtfully. "Might as well have a few beers then." He went off to get some. I took a seat at a small table on the veranda and watched the rain pour down. One of the bar employees came and stood in the doorway. "Worst wet in 30 years," he said.
I nodded bleakly. "We were supposed to be going out to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow."
"Oh, you've got no worries there. They don't cancel the reef tours unless it's a hurricane."
"People go out to the reef in this kind of weather?" He nodded. The water in the bay was sloshing around like a bath into which a fat man had just jumped. "Why?"
"How much did you pay for your tickets?"
I had the tickets with me and pulled them out. "A hundred and forty-five dollars each," I squeaked in miserly disbelief.
He smiled. "There you go."