On my way from the Cairns airport to Port Douglas, I hold back from peppering the shuttle driver with questions. Not everyone is as willing as Lorraine to feed my encyclopedic appetite. But then he points out a field of grazing wallabies and we’re off. I ask him about the cane and banana fields. He tells me about Cyclone Yasi, local beach use politics, and the controlled burning needed to incite new growth in the ten-foot high tree ferns. He calls the burnt trunks “black boys,” observing that he’s not supposed to, but insists, “That’s what they are.” Along a stretch of road lined by mango trees, the shoulder is covered with yellow-orange smash and splatter; the air is sweet with fermentation.
I am at first daunted by the sheer flatness of it all, the divided highway passing dense bush-barricaded resort after resort, each with its degree of ostentation and exoticism: the Beachfront Mirage Resort, the Pelican Motel, the TiTree, Dougie’s Backpacker’s. My destination, the Pink Flamingo, is just one of many, and I’m grateful that Stacey found it for me, for how else would I have possibly picked one out? It stands out in its vibrant color: a fuschia barrier wall, orange and saffron buildings behind, its eponymous non-native exotic emblem in mosaic tile in a wall niche and in wrought iron on the gate.
The place currently called the Pink Flamingo was built to be a motor court in the 1980’s, with a driveway down the middle leading to the carport that fronted each unit. The buildings are squat, square, and would be unlovely if you could see them. But every possible space has now been filled with fern- and staghorn-covered palms, frangipani and hibiscus trees, large glazed pots planted with orchids and more ferns. The larger spaces have been divided into smaller square lily ponds or patterned step stones. And everything is brightly painted in what I realize after a day of snorkeling are reef colors: deep violets and dark orange of corals; the blues, yellows, and greens of parrotfish.
As I’ve had a very conversation-filled ten-week term, I am at first happy as a clam (more on those later) not talking to anyone. This is a good thing, as I’m just about the only person in the place anyway, which makes it seem like my own personal resort. The exception is Marika, who is substituting for regular managers Andrea and Gigi. Happily enough, in a day or two, after the usual logistical exchanges, we move past the simple issues of where to go in this tourist paradise and on to the subject of its precarious condition. Half Australian, half Kiribatian, Marika is the ongoing author of the website ‘The Little Island that Could…” about Kiribati, the South Sea island-country equivalent to the canary in the coal mine, the front line of the climate change debate. (http://thelittleislandthatcould.wordpress.com/about/). When she began the website in 2011, she announced that is was “about her educating herself” in response to reports she’d been hearing that “the main islands may not exist due to climate change and rising sea waters.” She has been writing continually since, about visits and conversations, what’s she’s heard and seen. She tells me about family photos of picnics on the beach in which the distance between the water and the family home is growing narrower and narrower.
I walk on Four-Mile Beach, a ten-minute walk down a public access path. On the dry stretches between the tree line and the low tide, some hundreds of small creatures have excavated holes by rolling out little balls of sand in the most beautiful arrays. It’s like an endless patterned carpet where the pattern never repeats.
The few other walkers on the beach stride straight through, but I can’t bring myself to place my juggernaut of a foot on any of these offerings and so zigzag my way down the beach. No one swims, because it is Bluebottle season. I do not, like young Gerald Durrell in My Family and Other Animals, squat in the shadows to observe the creatures at their work, but I admire the endless array of design-without-intent: Erratic lines, spraying out in efflorescent fans. Every once in a while, one of the same creatures has created instead a ring of piled up balls, bunker-like, around his or her hole. An innovator. I wonder which design strategy will serve the creatures best, in the long run.