There are places you will visit in your life that will make you stop and ask the following question: “If there is such a beautiful and lovely place to live such as this, why do I chose to live where I do and not here?” Of course this question is completely devoid of such practical considerations as what it might be like to work in this beautiful and lovely place, or rather if one could even get work in one's given field. Or how long and how easy it may be to get something such as a telephone installed, a tattoo removed, or to learn Icelandic. And lest we forget the most important consideration of all - is it a place that Amazon might deliver books to?
I ask myself this question (minus the practical considerations) every time we travel abroad and visit a hot sunny place that has sea views, friendly waiters, and plenty of fresh fish on the menu. Of course there are probably more mundane realities to these places when one looks beneath the surface, but one so seldom does.
So yes, Port Douglas here in Queensland – which is situated in rain forest terrain - is most definitely such a place. It is tropical and lush and filled with extraordinary animals, and scenery. The people here are however very strange. And by very strange I mean they are friendly and lack the paranoid cynicism that every self-respecting Londoner has beaten into them by one too many encounters with nutters on the underground, or superficial city slickers.
Just today we were in the small town of Port Douglas itself and fancied a bit of Japanese food for lunch, though had no idea at all of where one might find such a place being visitors and all. We walked into the nearest shop, which just so happened to be a betting establishment – at this moment I might just add that I have never been into a betting shop before, and had the (quite possibly ignorant) view that they were dimly lit cigarette smoke shrouded places, populated by ill-tempered people blowing their weekly wages or their kids college funds. To my surprise, it was a well-lit friendly sort of place, with a friendly young woman behind the bar (it was a betting shop and a bar), and she told us not only where the best Japanese restaurant in town was, but ordered us a taxi to take us there.
In fact, the Australian people we have met so far have all been friendly and helpful like this, going above and beyond the call of duty to assist you, which leads me to believe that living in a big city may not be the best thing in terms of fostering one's belief in the goodness of mankind. At Mark and Sophie's wedding, an exhausted and severely jet-lagged Robert and I asked one of the bar staff if she could call us a taxi to take us home ahead of the 1am coach. She explained that getting a taxi would be extremely difficult at that time of night (Mc Claren vale is a small small town), but that as she was heading off home at the end of her shift, she would gladly run us back to our hotel on the way. People visiting London should not expect such a thing to happen to them there. Ever.
However, although it is best not to be cynical and paranoid as a rule, one should always be mindful wherever one goes, as we discovered this morning. We were so lulled into a false sense of security by the friendliness of the locals, that we accidentally got chatting to a small leathery middle-aged woman who turned out to be the resident lunatic. Sitting at the adjacent table of the ice-cream parlor we visited, she began firing questions at us from the moment we sat down. It started innocently enough with where we were from, but rapidly veered towards her firmly-held beliefs that all the computers in the world land up on large waste piles in India, and that the world would be a better place if more people fasted.
She asked Robert if he was of the Christian faith, a question I have come to learn almost always indicates trouble to follow. I generally avoid any further discussions by saying I'm a Catholic, which more often than not ends things there and then. Although I am not a practicing one, I find most people don't choose to argue with a person who is prone to wearing effigies of a man dying an excruciating death around their necks. I'm not proud of this, but sometimes, especially in the face of a lunatic, a small alteration of the truth is better than the ensuing debate.
Ah, but not my Robert – he's too decent, and honestly responded that he was an agnostic. She didn't like this response at all, and started to tell him how he and the world at large would be better off with Christ in their lives, and strongly advised him to institute prayer meetings at work. She also instructed him to return to England, and make an appointment with Charles (as in the future king of England) and Camilla at Clarence house, and implore him to introduce prayer, and a one meal a day fasting practice for all citizens. It was when she started on her opinions of condom wearing (we never did discover if she was for or against) that Robert stopped being so polite, informed her we had people to meet, and abruptly herded both of us out of there. He's a good man, and not prone to lying, but even the best of us need a lie on occasion to get us out of the grasp of the unreasonable.
Yesterday we went along to Hartley's Crocodile Adventures. No relation at all to Jonathan Hartley who is a very respectable non-crocodile owning friend of ours, who also happens to be a very clever computer programmer.
Hartleys is not just a crocodile farm - the kind you might laboredly wander around in the heat, being lucky to spot one or two crocodiles lazily taking in the afternoon sun and not doing much at all. No, Hartley's is more of a crocodile experience – with a strict timetable which includes the opportunity for you to see estuarine crocodiles (which here means large, fierce, salt water creatures one wouldn't want to encounter while out taking a dip) being hand-fed by insane/brave handlers. You also go out on a boat in the lagoon and watch more large crocodiles swim alongside. But best of all, has to be the crocodile attack show which has an even braver/more insane handler show you how the crocodile attacks – using a live, large, and very frightening estuarine crocodile male as a presentation assistant.
I filmed quite a bit of the latter on my camera and will be putting up the nail-biting footage here upon my return. But before I do that, let me paint you a picture: One barefoot man, a small pole (which here refers to a long stick as opposed to a Polish person), and the aforementioned large scary male crocodile in a not very big enclosure.
The chap tells stories of terrible things that have happened to silly people who have ventured out into well-known crock infested waters (a large number of which are surprisingly well-informed locals as opposed to poor lost tourists), while using the croc and some rope to demonstrate how these unfortunate people may have met their ends or near-ends. The last story involved a man who had been dragged out of his camp in the middle of the night but one of these large males, and was saved by a 60-something year-old granny (his mother-in-law I think), after the brave old girl jumped onto the reptiles back and wrestled him. This is a true story, and one that was in the news not so long ago. I don't know what's more surprising – the fact that a 60-something year old woman would take on such a large lethal creature, or the fact that a mother-in-law would try and save her son-in-law.
Some of these crocodiles are almost six meters in length, and have been known to reach weights of 800kgs. That's a lot of crocodile. They can also live up to 100 years old, and go for a year without food. One of the more famous residents is called Paul – who is between 50 and 60 years-old, weighs 700kgs, and was eventually captured after years of sticking his head out of local waters and biting off the heads of cattle watering themselves.
Watching these chaps hand-feed or do demonstrations with the crocodiles is a very strange experience. It's one thing watching a show at the circus where the lion tamers do tricks with the lions or some big guy carries a python around his shoulders. Yes, they are dangerous animals, but they are also vaguely trainable. A crocodile, on the other hand, is a purely instinctual creature who is programmed to survive, which generally involves killing and eating things, and there is no bonding experience between the handlers and these animals. They are smart enough to know that at a certain time of the day some chap will come in with food and do things with them – because they seem to become a bit more animated around these times. But in the demonstration we saw, the handler kept his eye on the crocodile at all times and once or twice looked genuinely scared when he got a bit too close. It was like watching a trapeeze artist peform without a net.
The personal highlight for Robert and I was the opportunity to hold a rainbow python – which we were told are not poisonous, but can bite. These snakes tend to wind themselves around their prey and strangle them to death. Bearing this in mind I chose to take his head while Robert got the tale end – just so I could keep a good eye on that mouth and those fangs. I don't quite have the instinctive horror and revulsion some people have when it comes to snakes, and the chap we held was incredibly smooth and somewhat cool to the touch, and didn't seem to mind the attention at all. I think the old saying is quite true with these and most animals – they are more frightened of us than we are of them, and should always be treated with utmost care and respect. I also think that if you plan on having children, with the risk of one of two of them being boys, things such as snakes are something a future mother should get used to.
Today it has been mostly raining, which as we are staying within a rain forest is perfectly reasonable and to be expected from time to time. Tomorrow we are due to go out on a sail boat with ten other people to explore the Great Barrier Reef, which we are both incredibly excited about. We have already bought our underwater cameras and sunscreen. And although crocodiles have been known to cover great distances in the sea, we've been assured where we're going is not one of those places.