I’ll never let you go
If you promise not to fade away…
                                     – Muse, Starlight

Dusk on The Esplanade.  As the evening hubbub of Cairns comes alive, I sit at a corner table at the Coast Roast café watching the transition from day to night over the rim of a coffee cup.  Day ends quickly in Far North Queensland. The arrival of darkness isn’t so much a slow adagio dimming of light as a sudden shut-off.

But although the sun has long since slipped behind the rampart of hills west of town, the night sky retains a faint afterglow of soft indigo light.  The sodium vapour street lights add their orange blush to the sky and a few stars twinkle on the horizon.

The silhouettes of fruit bats, like scale models of stealth bombers, wheel in the air overhead.  From the fortress tangle of a gigantic strangler fig across the street, screeching rosellas compete with the techno-throb of car sound systems as the city’s

cairns 3
Evening on The Esplanade (photo supplied)

population of boy-racers begin their nightly patrol.

My day had begun deep in the Outback among the Quinkan rock-art sites near the township of Laura, three hundred kilometres inland from Cairns.  For the previous ten days I had driven alone on the long straight roads of the Outback, with only the stereo in my 4WD for company. But the silence and vastness of the empty bush had begun to get to me.  I needed a latte, a comfortable bed and a text message. There was only one thing for it: I had to flee the Outback and drive, hell for leather, down to Cairns.

A sudden descent through rainforest, three bars of coverage appeared on my phone and I was in Cairns…

I’d left Laura as butcher birds were gurgling their dawn wake-up calls to the bush.  The eastern sky had the burnished copper glow which heralds yet another scorching day in the Outback.  The road unfolded ahead like a red scar scratched across the dirt landscape.

The drive to Cairns passed in a blur of images spooling past the window: an endless movie backdrop of trees and ancient rocky hills.  A bush fire crackled to itself beside the road; tiny half-abandoned settlements of timber and tin appeared in the rear-view mirror before I had time to notice their arrival.   

Later, miles from anywhere, I passed the bloated corpse of a bull, its rigid legs pointing to the sky and its mouth a rictus grin of surprise from the ambush of the road train which had killed it.  A sudden descent through rainforest, three bars of coverage appeared on my phone and I was in Cairns. Within minutes of hitting town I was feasting under the golden arches.

August mornings in Cairns are perfect.  The air is cool and dew sparkles on every surface.  The man-made beach on the Esplanade, with its gleaming steel fish sculptures

The Esplanade (photo supplied)

and glossy boulders, reflects the pink and blue pastels of the sky. Offshore, massed clouds glow in the sunrise.  Magpie larks flit from tree to tree, while market stallholders set up their colourful tents.

I watch the city’s morning rituals from the same café table I sat at last night.  A pair of teenage Aboriginal girls screech and giggle beside the phone boxes, their chatter competing for attention with the “pee-wee” of the larks and the cheeky warble of strutting mynahs.

Fuck you, fuck you…” one of the girls is shouting at her friend.  The roar of a jet taking off drowns it all for a moment. The Esplanade is virtually empty.  The backpackers and tourists which thronged the bars and restaurants late into the night have yet to surface.  I finish my coffee a set off to explore.

A forest of masts and rigging rocks on the sluggish water of Trinity Inlet.  Lying beyond the weed-strewn railway tracks and framed by dusty godowns, the Port of Cairns seems a long way from the tourist melee of The Esplanade.  Leaving my car in the shade of a palm tree I wander the wharfs where fishing boats, prawning luggers and yachts bob on the ebb tide. Mangrove forests choke the muddy banks on the far side of the inlet. Sparks of molten metal fall from blow-torches, and angle grinders howl on rusty steel as shipwrights refurbish a trawler in the dry dock.

Eddy James, manager of the Cairns Sugar Terminal, is opening the security gates of the terminal to allow a truck and trailer-load of sugar into the compound.  The terminal consists of a pair of vast warehouse, each able to hold 117,000 tonnes of raw sugar trucked down from the mills of Far North Queensland. A zigzag of conveyor belts connect the warehouses.  I talk to Eddy through the chain-link fence and ask if I can have a look around.

The air is heavy with the sickly smell of sucrose.  Eddy pushes a tiny red button set into the cliff-like front wall of Warehouse Two and a giant door slides open.  Inside, a conical, twenty-seven metre high mound of raw sugar gleams sweetly in the gloom.

“Makes yer teeth hurt just lookin’ at it eh mate?” says Eddy.  We descend a staircase to a chamber beneath the floor where a kilometre-long conveyor belt takes the sugar out to the hold of a waiting ship.  I picture the tonnes of sugar pressing down on the concrete above and imagine my last thoughts if it gave way: “parting is such sweet sorrow…”        

Violent waves are shattering themselves on the rocks at Machan’s Beach, a cluster of shacks and houses scattered across the delta of the Barron River on Cairns’ northern edge.  American ex-pat Gage McCassan is casting a prawn net into the river where it empties into the ocean. The water is the colour of black tea from tannins leached from the rainforest by the river on its short, precipitous journey from the brooding hills.

Northern light has a look all of its own…

“I ain’t caught a damn thing,” says Gage ruefully.  His net, fringed with lead weights plops into the water and he draws it back towards him.  Nothing. “But I don’t mind,” he adds. “The kids are happy playing on the beach and this is better than working in the garden.”  

At Sonya’s On The Beach it’s a lazy Saturday afternoon.  A couple of girls chat over the newspaper; a collection of locals yarn at the bar. A radio warbles somewhere inside, tuned to a talkback station no-one is listening to. I order a beer and sit gazing out across the ocean.  You could while away a lifetime in a place like this, talking about cyclones and tides and the minutiae of life by the sea.

Later, I stand in the sandy bed of another of the Barron’s streams. Out on the mangrove-lined, crocodile infested river, a couple of fisherman in an aluminium dinghy pull a giant

The Barron River near Machan’s Beach (photo supplied)

barramundi out of the water.  A thunderstorm glowers offshore. Northern light has a look all of its own. The bay is a sheet of silver welded to the sky.

Evening again, another coffee at Coast Roast.  Another day is ending and the nightlife is humming.  There are beers to be drunk, nightclubs to frequent, all manner of adventures to be had in the warm night air.  Cairns invites action. I could melt into the crowd and lose myself in the sybaritic pleasures of this northern night under these northern lights. But I find it easier to just sit and watch. I order another cappuccino as the rosellas begin to screech.

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