National Geographic : 2004 Nov
grumbles in the haze, like meteorological throat clearing for the tongue-lashing to come. It's the time of year locals call the buildup, the steamy tension-building prelude to the second act-an explosive Wagnerian crescendo of angry purple skies, jagged bolts of lightning, kettledrum thunder, and downpours culminating in what some northern Aborigines know as banggerreng, the "knock 'em down rains." This is the wet itself, which can start anytime from the first week of December and generally lasts through March. Outback rivers that have been dry for months suddenly become raging cataracts, vast areas are flooded, and washed-out roads mean that towns such as Karumba can be cut off for weeks, some times even months. Then, usually in April, with the skies clearing and the once harsh outback landscapes revealed as flowering wetlands, it's back to dry times again, the third and final act. The script is never the same two seasons in a row, and the story never loses its impact or appeal: The wet, with its transforming rains and spectacular electrical storms, is the defining event of the year to those who live above the Tropic of Capricorn, while it tugs at the imaginations of those of us (and that's most Australians) who live below it. For a long time one of my favorite escapist fantasies had been to sit through the wet in some remote tropical town-just to see what it would be like. So when Mick Jones invited me to come up to Karumba and do just that, thoughtfully offering me the independence of the old bunk house at the police barracks, I jumped at the chance. In my mind's eye, I was already picturing hard tropical rains coming down like a beaded glass curtain, sizzling on the pavement of the town's main street and making the palm fronds glisten. The rains hadn't yet arrived when I drove into town early in November, but the heat light ning pulsing in the skies that first night at the Animal Bar seemed the perfect curtain-raiser. Scene Two Yappar Street Roosters were crowing in backyard gardens all along Yappar Street-Karumba's main thoroughfare-when I set out in the predawn dimness for my morning stroll around the town, a much looked-forward-to part of my daily rou tine the past few weeks. It was early December, six o'clock-the "cool" of the day-and already 94 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * NOVEMBER 2004 a feverish 80-odd degrees. I caught sight of Mick and his wife, Kerriann, on their usual four-mile jog to the edge of town and back-way too vigorous for my cool-climate blood. But then Mick was born in Papua New Guinea, grew up in the tropics in an old Queensland fishing family, and has spent his 15-year police career in the bush, and Kerriann was raised here in Karumba. To them the temperature was fresh and inviting. Karumba, which has about 500 people, is nes tled among the seasonal marshes, tidal flats, and crocodiles at the mouth of the Norman River, the only town along hundreds of miles of a ragged, mangrove-fringed coast virtually unchanged since the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed along it in 1644. It's a fishing town: tiger prawns, banana prawns, and barramundi. A few large blue-and white prawn boats are tied up on the riverfront, while a handful of scruffy old sloops and trawlers lie at anchor along the mangroves on the oppo site bank. Mick and Kerriann live with their two little girls, Jessica and Kacie, in a high-set house behind Karumba's two-man police station, with a shaggy old mango tree in the backyard and a broad, flowering poinciana shading the front. He walks about 15 paces to work. In most places these days a town of 500 would have just a pub and a post office, a little shop if it was lucky, but Karumba has two pubs, a bak ery, druggist, cafe, marine repair yard and fuel depot, and two cold-storage warehouses. Out here there's no other place to go, no larger town nearby to rob it of business; the nearest neigh bor is Normanton, population 1,500, 40 miles away across the flats. After that it's nearly a hun dred miles to a sleepy little place called Croydon, and then another achingly empty 90 miles to Georgetown-and so on, a scattering of outback villages along a thin ribbon of bitumen stretch ing nearly 500 miles to Cairns and the coast. A notice tacked on Karumba's community bulle tin board outside the grocery store gives the dates when a traveling dentist will be passing through, while a sign on the sidewalk announces that a traveling hairdresser will be in town this com ing weekend, setting up shop for two days only in the back room at the cafe. I sauntered across the street and down to the slipway on the river, where the old Empire flying boats used to dock and refuel back in the seat-of the-pants days of aviation in the 1930s, when flights between Sydney and Britain took nine days.