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Australia's Monsoons On Assignment

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Australia's Monsoons
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Six-month Forecast: Heat, Humidity, Downpour

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Australia's Monsoons @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By Roff SmithPhotographs by Randy Olson



When it rains it pours in Australia's northern outback. The steamy, temper-testing buildup to the wet has locals and visitors alike "going troppo."



ACT ONE
The Buildup

Scene One
The Animal Bar, Karumba
 
Everybody comes to the Animal Bar. It's the popular nightspot in Karumba, a raffish old port on the Gulf of Carpentaria in outback Queensland's far northwest. And never is it livelier than on a hot, thundery Friday night such as this, with the monsoon building, the fleet back in town, and the cash prize in the pub's weekly "lucky dip" jackpotting to nearly $5,000. By eight o'clock, when I rolled up, the notorious old watering hole was just hitting its stride, a row of hard-bitten four-wheel drives angle-parked out front and, under the roof, a welcoming swirl of noise and smoke, bare feet and tattoos, brassy laughter, clinking bottles, and the occasional sharp crack of a cue ball.

I ordered a bottle of XXXX, or as the joke around here goes: How Queenslanders spell "beer." The barmaid handed me some colored paper chits with my change, tickets for the night's big draw. As I stepped away from the bar, an old friend of mine, Mick Jones, the police sergeant in town, sidled up beside me with a few words on local etiquette: "If you win, mate," he said, "remember, there's no way they're going to let anyone run out of here with five grand in their pockets and not buy drinks. So just be sure you say, 'basics only'—that's wine and beer—because if you don't, there's blokes here who'll start ordering doubles and triples of some very fancy drinks, and you won't be left with a brass razoo." I stole a swift look around at the eager, sunburned faces of the Animal Bar's cast of regulars and thanked him for the advice.

As things turned out, I didn't have to shout any rounds of drinks that night. Nobody did. The jackpot didn't go off for a few more weeks. When it finally did, it was won by a woman who had the ready wit and good nature to announce—and get away with it—that instead of buying drinks for the house, she'd be making a thousand-dollar contribution toward the town's Christmas pageant. "What a brilliant idea," Mick exclaimed that night. "Wish I'd thought of it."

By then I'd come to know the faces in the crowd so much better—"Fatty" Daniel, the heavily muscled captain of the M.V. Wunma, the vessel that ships out zinc, lead, and silver ore from the Zinifex Century Mine about 170 miles (274 kilometers) to the southwest; Alan Lourie, the skipper of the Karinya II, the supply barge that does the weekly run out to Mornington Island; Brendan Carter, who runs the prawn factory; Bruce Davey, a colorful third-generation mackerel and barramundi fisherman and skipper of the fishing vessel Wildcard. And by then I'd come to understand that they—and I, and Mick, and all of us up there—were walk-on characters, bit players, in the great traveling show that barnstorms Australia's wild tropical north this time every year: the coming of the monsoon, better known as the wet.

It's a three-act drama that opens each spring, late in September, when the complex climatological machinery that drives the monsoon changes gear and begins to draw the rainy-season weather down from India. Clouds appear over the Timor and Arafura Seas. Temperatures soar, tempers fray in the humidity, and thunder 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, sometimes 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 bunkhouse 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 lightning 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 routine the past few weeks. It was early December, six o'clock—the "cool" of the day—and already 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 nestled 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 opposite 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 bakery, druggist, café, 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 neighbor is Normanton, population 1,500, 40 miles (64 kilometers) away across the flats. After that it's nearly a hundred miles (161 kilometers) to a sleepy little place called Croydon, and then another achingly empty 90 miles (145 kilometers) to Georgetown—and so on, a scattering of outback villages along a thin ribbon of bitumen stretching nearly 500 miles (805 kilometers) 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 coming weekend, setting up shop for two days only in the back room at the café.

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. I liked to sit at the old picnic table there, watch those huge monsoonal clouds glowing pink and gold in the sunrise and speculate about whether this day might finally, at long last, see rain.

But it never seemed to. And today wasn't shaping up any differently—clouds towering 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) above the savanna but with an aloof look to them, and a feel in the air that I was beginning to recognize like a local: no rain today. Not here, at least. I found myself thinking about that droll bit of dialogue from Casablanca, where Bogart tells Claude Rains that he came to Casablanca for the waters. "The waters? What waters?" asks the bemused Rains. "We're in the desert." To which Bogie replies, with his trademark irony: "I was misinformed."

I was feeling that way myself. So far I had idled here for weeks in sweltering heat without a drop of rain falling, only blazing tropical sunshine and not much in the forecast but more of the same. Sometimes there wasn't a cloud in the sky—just those arid southeasterlies blowing up from the deserts, dry-season weather that rattled the palm fronds along dusty old Yappar Street and frayed tempers in a town that had been waiting on the rains now for eight months. Drive to the edge of town and look all around. You'd see nothing but heat waves shimmering to the horizon.

The waters? What waters? We're in the desert. I sat by the old flying-boat ramp watching the clouds boil up over the savanna until the sun started to bite too hard. I walked back up Yappar Street in blinding glare, suffocating heat already radiating up from the bitumen. It was going to be another stinker.

Scene Three
Yappar Street, a Week Later

One hundred and seven degrees in the shade, rainless skies, and nothing moving at midafternoon except the mercury in the thermometer. Fishing was finished for the year, the boats hoisted out of the water for refits or to be dry-docked in their skippers' backyards, safe from cyclones. The fish factory and cold-storage warehouses had slowed to care-and-maintenance pace, while the local helicopter pilots—who'd been leading full and dangerous lives these past few months mustering livestock on the huge cattle stations—now had time hanging heavy on their hands, since the work needs to be wrapped up well ahead of the rains. Pilots and cowboys alike spent their afternoons tinkering with their machines down at the hangar or improving their bank shots at one of the pool tables in the Animal Bar.

"This is the time of year when the women get bitchy and the blokes get into fights," Rob Thomson, the engineer for the prawn trawler Ocean Pearl, told me. "The heat and humidity sends them crazy."

"Going troppo" is the local phrase for it; it's also called mango madness, since it all happens around the time the mangoes are ripening on the trees. A snippet I came across in a "Police Patch" column in another remote tropical town's newspaper says it all: "The weekend had its usual riots, beatings, and dangerous driving incidents, and the weather and mangoes seem to be bringing out the best in us all."

Here in Karumba the mango trees were fruiting nicely—Mick and his kids picked a wheelbarrowful in an hour in their backyard. Madness, happily enough, was in shorter supply. The town's two jail cells were unoccupied. For all its outward rough-and-tumble and the hard-drinking larrikins in the Animal Bar, Karumba is a good-natured little town, the sort of place where nobody locks their doors, everybody knows everybody else, and despite the odd Friday night dustup in the pub, people largely tolerate one another's foibles. It's a quirky combination of Mayberry R.F.D. and Cannery Row.

"What's the secret for getting through the wet?" I asked "Grandma," a sprightly 88-year-old who runs the town's busy thrift shop out of a corrugated-iron shed behind the café. I'd stopped in to browse her stack of old paperbacks, hoping to find a hefty potboiler to help kill the time. It was dying mighty hard.

"Go to the pub," she replied. "There's nothing else to do."
My question drew a chorus of jocular replies from the other browsers:
"Send the wife to town—or go yourself."

"Go to the pub."

"Stay drunk."

"Good music, good food, and a good woman—but not necessarily in that order."

"Go to the pub."

At least there was always the weather to talk about. Somebody said a fellow from the "met office"—the Bureau of Meteorology—had passed through town a fortnight ago and proclaimed a 60 percent chance of a wetter than normal wet, with unusually good odds of a cyclone before Christmas, most likely in the gulf. This bit of news was explored, probed, turned over, and examined like an interesting pebble, and, ultimately, discarded. Outside the shop the sun flared overhead in a hot clear sky the color of old denim, and those stubborn southeasterlies continued to rattle palm fronds and tempers.

Scene Four
Going Bush
 
"Now I ask you, what good are green ants?"

"Well, you can eat 'em."

"All right, I'll ask again. What good are green ants?"

"Seriously, you can eat 'em. They're supposed to be very nutritious."

"Come on, mate, who's going to want to eat green ants if they can get anything better?"

"Maybe you can't get anything better. Maybe you're bogged out here in the wet, and you don't have anything else to eat."

"OK, OK—so except for a last-minute desperation menu item, what good are green ants? And why do they always have to drop on you and bite you every time you walk under a tree, for God's sake?"

"Why do mosquitoes give you Ross River virus? All part of the ecosystem, mate."

Policemen everywhere run to a fine line in deadpan irony and sarcasm—but when you add an outback setting and a pair of veteran bush coppers in full banter, you get dialogue with an almost Tarantino-like genius for the droll and offbeat. We were on "bush patrol." Mick and his partner, Senior Constable Jason Jesse, were making their periodic two-day circuit through the remote country along the Staaten and Gilbert Rivers, a hundred miles (161 kilometers) or so northeast of town, and I was along for the ride.

Only a few weeks ago there'd been the liquored-up pig shooters camped along the Gilbert River, letting off steam and rounds of happy-go-lucky, heavy-caliber rifle fire into the night; Mick and Jason had relieved them of their (unlicensed) firearms. And then there was the carload of mango-maddened yahoos from Mount Isa who had replaced a wheel on their broken trailer with a road sign one of them ripped down. They'd beerily sped along the Matilda Highway in a cloud of dust—the sparks from the metal igniting fires for the next 150 miles (241 kilometers). "They thought it was a hoot."

But all was dead calm out here this time, nothing but the vast conspiratorial silence of the bush. In 400 miles (644 kilometers) we encountered nothing more suspicious than a cagey old crocodile basking on a riverbank; it slid partway into the murky water, eyed us for a few moments, and then slipped from sight. The only drunks we saw were rainbow lorikeets, a noisy flock of them, stoned on the overripe and fermenting fruit scattered beneath the huge mango tree that shaded the homestead at Vanrook Station. They chattered incessantly and chased their reflections into windows. Humans, it seems, aren't the only creatures around here susceptible to a touch of mango madness.

"You know, sometime before I leave the gulf, I'd like to come out here and spend the wet on one of these big lonely stations," Jason remarked as we rolled away from the Vanrook homestead. "Get flooded in."

"Yeah? And do what? Kill mosquitoes?"

"Contemplate."

"Contemplate what?"

"I don't know. Just contemplate."

Scene Five
Back in Town

My own long, sultry weeks of contemplation in Karumba dragged on through December, the monsoon seeming ever more like the proverbial watched kettle that refuses to boil. But by now at least storms were gathering. We could see them most afternoons, thunderheads curdling up to stratospheric heights over the savanna or out to sea, but they always slipped away, usually under cover of darkness, without dampening a single rooftop in town. News of capricious rainfalls in the region—an inch and a half at Mount Isa, 240 miles (386 kilometers) to the southwest, a like amount on Mornington Island, 110 miles (177 kilometers) out in the Gulf of Carpentaria, half an inch 90 miles (145 kilometers) away at Donors Hill Station—served to irritate rather than encourage.

One afternoon we were certain we were at last going to get that cracking thunderstorm we'd all been hoping for. Jason and I had been watching Australia and India play cricket on TV when a deep boom of thunder shook the house. Outside the skies to the south were purplish black, with wicked tongues of lightning dancing on the horizon and the maddening smell of desert rain carrying across the savanna.

"Who wants to go out and watch the storm roll in?" Jason called out, a suggestion his two little girls greeted with glee. His wife, Julie, put dinner on hold, and we all bundled into their big four-wheel-drive and headed out to the favorite storm-watching spot. As we rolled down the street, I noticed a good number of neighbors standing out in their yards, looking up. Once on the flats, we parked and arranged ourselves on the hood in an upbeat expectant sort of way that made me think of going to the drive-in. We'd even brought candy and nibblies, grabbed in haste, for the show. The curtain-raiser was magnificent, but the main event never happened. The storm foundered before our eyes, breaking up as it neared Karumba. It was a gloomy ride back to town.

Normanton—an old river port about 50 miles (81 kilometers) upstream from Karumba—got about half an inch out of it. I know, because I happened to pass through there a couple of days later, and the woman behind the counter at the gas station told me about it—and wanted to know how much we'd had in Karumba.
"Not a drop," I muttered, surprised at the bitterness in my tone.
"Funny, it seems like Karumba always gets the rain, and it's almost always Normanton that misses out," she replied, as waspish as I and even a little accusatory.

"Really?" I said. "Well, that's not what I've heard."

"Well, it's true."

'Tis. 'Tain't. The mangoes were getting the better of us all.

I drove on back to Karumba in the afternoon heat, watching another spectacular mass of thunderheads performing a slow tease on the horizon. Christmas was coming up, and it was still dry in town, and the power lines by now so coated in statically charged particles of dust that even the briefest of midnight sprinkles was enough to short-circuit a transformer, start an electrical fire, and black out half the town. It happened the morning of the Christmas pageant. They held it anyway, out at the Sunset Tavern, where the Norman River spills into the gulf, and powered the show and the little merry-go-round with the portable generators canny townsfolk keep on hand in case of cyclones.

The pageant was pure Karumba; almost everyone turned up, and Mick acted as master of ceremonies. Santa was a lean, wiry, sun-browned trawlerman, with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles and an enthusiasm that would have knocked any department store Santa I ever saw into a cocked hat. He strode up through the mangroves in his fur-trimmed red suit, hat, and boots, gloriously disdainful of the 109-degree heat (and the crocs too, for a nine-footer is said to lurk along that stretch of beach), while the town's children massed and chanted: "We want Santa! We want Santa!" And for the next hour or so he sat on a dais distributing presents and surreptitiously sipping beer. The schoolchildren put on a concert of lustily sung, Australianized carols, and a fragrantly smoky barbecue followed while a huge blood-red sun sank into the humid haze over the gulf. We drove home that night under a blaze of stars with that outback version of "Jingle Bells" running through our heads:

Dashing through the bush  /  In a rusty Holden ute
Kicking up the dust  /  Esky in the boot
Kelpie by my side  /  singing Christmas songs
It's Summertime and I am in my singlet,
shorts, and thongs
Oh! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,
Christmas in Australia  /  on a scorching
summer's day, Hey!

It continued to scorch for a fortnight, but then, in the season of giving, the first rains splattered our roofs. At long last the wet had arrived.


ACT TWO
The Wet
 
Scene One
Yappar Street

Steam rising off the bitumen, the hard-green leaves on the mangoes and frangipani still glistening from the latest cloudburst, and the sun burning its way through the mist, making things feel hotter and steamier than ever. The only thing moving in town was a skinny old man, burned down by the sun, pedaling his rattletrap bicycle down the puddle-strewn road. He was barefoot, wearing only white canvas shorts and a floppy hat, which he'd decorated with a long plume of feathers. With his extravagant handlebar mustache and erect bearing, he made me think of some eccentric governor-general "gone native" in one of Queen Victoria's tropical backwaters.

They'd told me when I first came to Karumba that an Australian wet season was unpredictable. "It's not like those regular-as-clockwork rains you get in Singapore," an old hand had explained one night at the pub. "The wet can do anything, absolutely anything." And anything, it turns out, could also include those regular-as-clockwork performances they get in Singapore. As January—traditionally the time of the heaviest rains—gave way to February, Karumba remained for the most part bathed in hazy sunshine, the breathless afternoons punctuated by sudden sharp tropical showers that roared down for a few heady minutes, kicked up a dense rainy-gray mist on the main street, sluiced gloriously from the drainpipes—and then stopped as suddenly as if someone had turned off a faucet. The show was over for the day.

Still, it wasn't bad as wet seasons go—a foot of rain fell in January and almost as much the next month—and the rains were certainly quickening the landscape. Seemingly overnight the flatlands had bloomed into flowering wetlands—all silvery reflection pools, lush marsh grasses, banks of lily pads, and delicate yellow flowers. There were flocks of magpie geese, ibises, storks, and brolgas. The flooded terrain forced mammals such as wallabies onto drier, firmer ground, so that when we played our games of touch rugby at the park on Wednesday nights, we usually had an audience of bemused marsupials. Go for a drive at night, and the air would be so thick with flying insects, you'd feel as if you were driving through a snowstorm. The humans might be hunkering down for the duration, but the bush was going on a bender of feasting, growing, and breeding. One morning I just missed tripping over a stick insect that was nearly as long as my size-14 sneaker; one night I came across a pair of pythons copulating on the pavement.

But where was the drama foretold by those mountainous clouds during the buildup? The heavy dark monsoonal rains, the floods, the washed-out roads, the tropical cyclones? They were there all right. Everybody else across the top of Australia—from the remote iron-mining towns far in the west to Weipa, nearly 1,700 miles (2736 kilometers) away on the upper part of Queensland's Cape York Peninsula—was getting a good old classic monsoonal wet. Burketown, 90 miles (145 kilometers) to our west, was having one of its wettest wets in years, the road to the famously isolated town washed out for weeks, and supplies having to be airlifted from Mount Isa. Tropical Cyclone Debbie brought heavy rains and widespread flooding to the Northern Territory, while Tropical Cyclone Ken did the same for most of Western Australia, dropping nine inches (23 centimeters) of rain in four days over the drought-stricken Ellavalla cattle station near Carnarvon, more than the property had seen for the previous three years. And more wonderfully dark clouds were gathering across northern Australia as the wet gathered momentum.

Except here in Karumba, where we had our very civil afternoon sun showers. Expectations rose briefly, then subsided again in mid-February with news that Tropical Cyclone Fritz was expected to swoop across the southern part of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Fritz had already drenched the Queensland coast and dropped eight inches (20 centimeters) of rain over Weipa, but the heart of the storm passed a hundred miles (161 kilometers) north of Karumba—and gave already well-watered Mornington Island another drubbing.

Mick and Kerriann and the rest of Karumba closely followed these happenings on the met office website. Up here the rains are like a paycheck: There is not only an interest in how much is falling on your own roof, but a lively and jealous curiosity about how much might be falling on your neighbor's as well.

"Would you look at that!" Mick exclaimed, after he tapped the mouse over the Weipa icon: The screen had bloomed into a mass of pixelated yellows, greens, and plenty of pinks and reds, the colors of the heaviest tropical downpours. "The lucky bastards! They're always getting it. I hate to say it, but Weipa's where you ought to be going if you want to see some real monsoon."

Scene Two
At Sea

Nighttime on the riverfront, and a freighter—the M.V. Warrender—tied up beside a wooden wharf, waiting to slip down the river to the open waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Moths swirling in the lamplight, and the warm night air full of whirring and chirpings from the tall grass as well as the restless hum of a forklift loading cargo onto the deck.

Mick dropped me off at the waterfront a little before nine, and I made my way to the wharf.

"I just hope it's going to be better up there than it was last week," a deckhand named Tyson said, as he showed me where to stow my gear. "The rain was coming down so hard you could barely breathe. We had about a foot of water sloshing around on the deck when we were trying to unload, which meant we couldn't see the slots on the containers for lifting with the forklift."

"Up there" meant Weipa, a town of 2,500 people, mostly mine workers and their families, tucked into a bay at the upper part of the Cape York Peninsula at the end of one of outback Australia's most challenging roads. It's a tough drive in the dry season; impossible in the wet. Since it's not feasible to airlift supplies to such a large town for months on end, the rain-stranded community depends on weekly barges from Karumba—or all the way from Cairns, 400 miles (644 kilometers) southeast, if the trucks can't reach Karumba.

This year's been plain sailing, or at least as plain sailing as things ever get when it comes to resupplying a remote outback town during the wet. Every Monday morning a couple of road trains—those huge trucks, often triple-rigged, that rule the outback highways—set out on a lonely 1,400-mile trek from Brisbane, through the bush to Karumba, rolling onto the wharf on Tuesday night, where the Warrender is waiting.

That Tuesday, the deckhands cast off the lines a little after ten, and we glided down the river under a hazy gibbous moon, past the sleeping town and out into the gulf. The late-night jungly chorus of insects and frogs on shore carried a surprisingly long way across the water.

"We've got everything aboard you need to run a small town," said Peter Hurley, the skipper. "Soap, razor blades, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, toilet paper—you name it." There was also cargo for the mine and a shipment of blank ammunition for a jungle-warfare training exercise the army had penciled in for its special forces.

It's normally a 32-hour passage between Karumba and Weipa, but this run was slightly longer because Hurley decided to hug the coast to avoid squalls that were said to be kicking up a nasty swell farther offshore. "This thing rides like a pig in heavy seas," he said. Hurley, a former navy diver, has worked barge runs around the gulf for 15 years. "It can get really rough out here. The waves don't get as big as they do on the open ocean, but because the gulf is a fairly shallow body of water, they have a wickedly short wavelength and can absolutely hammer you."

We had a relatively smooth run as far as the swells went, although we met a torrential wall of rain the second night. It tapered off by morning, and when we drew into Weipa at dawn, the air was still and muggy, and the glassy surface of the bay simmered in the heat. The crew of the Warrender got their wish: The rain held off while they unloaded their cargo, but it thundered down again all that afternoon.

Scene Three
Far North

Here at last, in Weipa, was the wet I'd been looking for—the lush growth along the shore, the brooding thundery skies, the heavy curtains of rain. Nearly three feet (1 meter) of rain had fallen here in the past month, and more drenchings were on the way. "All this can get to be really depressing," a woman named Lorisa Morgan told me one morning when I dropped by the community center and thrift shop. "You get so tired after a while of mold growing on everything. You want to go out for a nice dinner? First you have to clean the mold off your belt and shoes. We have to store our videos and computer disks in the refrigerator to keep the mold from ruining them.

"But at least there's one nice thing about it," she joked. "All the rains drive the ants indoors, and they scare away the cockroaches."

After the first couple of days, I found myself thinking of that old adage: Be careful what you wish for—you might just get it. I'd wanted to be flooded into a remote tropical town, and now, like locals who'd spent months looking forward to the rains, I was growing restive.

Lorisa put me in touch with an exterminator who was planning on driving to Aurukun, a settlement about 50 miles (81 kilometers) down the coast, as the frigatebirds fly. I called him up. "I've got a job down there," he said. "Leaving in the morning, should be back late tomorrow. Want to come?"

I was only too glad. Three days in Weipa, and I was already weary of the local watering holes—none of which quite managed the hard-boiled cheer of the Animal Bar. There was nowhere to go in town, and the fact that I couldn't leave by road—or so I'd been told—only made me want to drive somewhere. Here was my chance.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the bar of the Weipa Bowls Club, drinking beneath a softly whirring ceiling fan with a few old hands: gruff, beer-gutted, craggy-faced men who'd between them put in about 150 wet seasons up here on the cape. One of them said he'd heard that Aurukun got four inches (10 centimeters) of rain overnight.

"I'm heading down there tomorrow," I said

"Yeah? How're you planning on getting there?"

"We're driving."

Noticing the amused skepticism on his face, and not wanting to appear too naive, I mentioned the exterminator who'd offered me the lift, and who was, I knew, a popular local with plenty of bush experience.

"So Mike reckons he's going to make it through to Aurukun, does he?" The man sipped his beer thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Well, it ought to be an interesting day out anyway."

"Short" and "illustrative" might have been better adjectives. We got as far as Myall Creek, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) out of town, where the muddy track disappeared into a black swirl of water and reappeared on the opposite bank, perhaps 50 yards (46 meters) away. Mike climbed out of his truck to assess the situation. "There's a bridge in there," he said after a moment. "It's not too far underwater, I don't think—maybe only three feet (1 meter), and if I kept the wheel perfectly straight, I reckon we could probably make it across. But what worries me now, looking at how that current is undercutting the bank over there, is that I'm not at all sure the bridge is connected to the other side anymore. What do you reckon? Back to town?"

We drove home in a pelting rain.
 
ACT THREE
The Dry

Scene One
Karumba

"Those old southeasterlies are really starting to blow," Mick said, speaking to me by cell phone from the veranda, while I sat looking over the cool gray skies back home in South Australia. "We're freezing up here—it was only 25 degrees [77°F] when we went out on bush patrol the other day, and bloody cold at night."

Yappar Street in May, I learn, is unrecognizably busy, the boat ramp crowded, the motels and trailer parks full, the Sunset Tavern doing a roaring trade. For hard on the wings of the magpie geese comes the other great winter migration: that of the "gray nomads," the adventurous retirees who flock to Karumba with their trailers for the warm, dry-season winters, the barramundi fishing, and, not incidentally, the Australian government's remote-area tax breaks.

"It's like your favorite reality TV show down by the boat ramp," Mick said. "Everyone trying to get in ahead of each other, nobody knowing what they're doing—yelling, squabbling, punch-ups. We had one old guy die of a heart attack as he was backing his boat into the water. One minute he's looking forward to a day's fishing, next thing he knows he's knocking at the pearly gates. Not a bad way to go when you think about it.

It seemed a world away from the hot drowsy steamy place I remembered. Every season has its time, but I like to remember Karumba as it was toward the end of the wet, the day Mick, Kerriann, the kids, and I took a drive out onto the flats to see the birds, the water lilies, and the silvery pools reflecting skies already starting to clear.

The girls wanted some of the pretty flowers on the lilies, and so Mick pulled off the road. "I sure hope there's no crocs in here," he laughed, a little uneasily, as he waded into the thigh-deep water and sloshed 20 yards (18 meters) to a mass of flowering lily pads. He picked two bouquets of delicate yellow and white flowers and brought them back to Jessica and Kacie. "Here you go, sweethearts. But we've got to be careful with these—enjoy them while we can; they won't keep." 

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Video
What's it like on assignment? Watch a day in the life of photographer Randy Olson and his close encounter with a crocodile. Videography by Melissa Farlow and Kerry Trapnell. Video editing by Brian Strauss.

Postcards
E-greet a friend with a saltwater crocodile capturing morning light in Australia's Kakadu National Park.

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting-room floor is this month's Final Edit, an image of cattle tormented by a swarm of buffalo flies brought on by the downpour in northern Australia.



More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Australia's seasons may look topsy-turvy from the Northern Hemisphere—midsummer falls around Christmas—but there are still four of them, right? Not necessarily. People in the tropical north recognize only two seasons—the wet and the dry. And, depending on where they live, Australia's Aborigines may recognize as few as two or as many as six seasons.
 
Aboriginal names, such as Jiorrk, Wulujunjun, and Yurluurrp, vary by area, but designate periods of heat and humidity (the buildup to the monsoon season); heavy rains; cold air with no rain; hot, dry air with no rain; or  violent storms. Today's Aborigines recognize upcoming seasonal changes by drawing on tens of thousands of years of observations of plants and animals. For instance, certain animals, especially birds, appear or migrate at the beginning of the rainy season. The flowering of a particular plant can mean that the dry season will soon begin. This sense of the seasons has practical value. One season, for example, has heavy nighttime dews that keep fires in check, making it the best time of the year to burn sections of the bush to encourage new growth and prevent later, more damaging blazes.
 
The Aboriginal knowledge may also help Australia's meteorologists who have begun to study these seasonal clues to sharpen their own picture of the continent's unique weather and climate.
 
—Alice J. Dunn
Did You Know?

Related Links
Bureau of Meteorology
www.bom.gov.au
Follow tropical storm warnings, get local weather forecasts, explore climate statistics, and more for all of Australia.
 
Indigenous Weather Knowledge
www.bom.gov.au/iwk/index
Modern meteorologists are studying how Aborigines observe the natural world for clues to weather and climate.
 
Crocodiles
www.epa.qld.gov.au/nature_conservation/wildlife/native_animals/living_with_wildlife/crocodiles
Learn which crocodiles are found in Australia, how to tell them apart, differences in their behavior, safety tips, and more.
 
Karumba Flying Boat Base
www.airwaysmuseum.com/Karumba%20Aeradio%201
Find historic photos and read a first-hand account from a radio operator who was stationed at the Karumba Flying Boat Base  in 1938.
 
Kakadu National Park
www.deh.gov.au/parks/kakadu
Explore the beauty and history of this part of Australia's tropical north and find links to information to help plan your visit.

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Bibliography
Berra, Tim M. A Natural History of Australia. Academic Press, 1998.
 
"A Draft Management Plan for Crocodylus porosus in the Northern Territory." Parks and Wildlife Service of the Northern Territory. Available online at www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/trade-use/sources/management-plans/crocodile-wa/index.html.
 
Mulvaney, John, and Johan Kamminga. Prehistory of Australia. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.
 
Simpson, Ken, and Nicolas Day. Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. Christopher Helm, 1996.

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NGS Resources
Purcell, Lee. Great Barrier Reef. National Geographic Windows on Literacy, 2004.
 
Smith, Roff. "
Banjo Paterson." National Geographic (August 2004), 2-29.
 
Shnayerson, Michael. "Outback for More." National Geographic Adventure (January/February 2001), 41-3.
 
Newman, Aline Alexander.  "Australia's Platypus Is a Living Puzzle."  National Geographic World (April 1999),  6-9.
 
Smith, Roff Martin. National Geographic Traveler: Australia. National Geographic Books, 1999.
 
Menzies, Hugh D. "Taste of Australia." National Geographic Traveler (September/October 1998), 36-42.
 
Smith, Roff Martin. "Australia by Bike: A Bloody Long Way Home." National Geographic (December 1997), 48-67.

Smith, Roff Martin. "Australia by Bike, Part Two: Over the Top."  National Geographic  (February 1998), 112-31.

Smith, Roff Martin. "Australia by Bike, Part Three: Closing the Circle." National Geographic  (April 1998), 42-61. 

Eugene, Toni. Koalas and Kangaroos: Strange Animals of Australia. National Geographic Books, 1981.

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