Forecast: rainy with toads

For Grand Tour Magazine

"Well how long do you want to stay here?"

Brigid was never far from a smile. But, yes: impatience there.

I sighed.

"I'd prefer not to land in a war zone or a cyclone," I said.

It was hot as a greenhouse in Darwin. The fungus crawled up the walls like a swarm of ants. The bacteria thrilled and rioted in wounds. Everything was filmed over with the airborne biology of the tropics.

The Northern Territories, of which Darwin is capital, are not a province but a kind of Majority opinion that all Australia should have white people in it. Darwin wouldn't be there at all if the government didn't hold it there by main strength. God knows how much money they put into it, this mess of '60s architecture clinging to the edge of a continent. It is said that Darwin consumes more beer per capita than any city in Australia. Some say the world.

We sat on the porch of the empty hostel. One backpacker had left in the morning, the hostel keeper vanished in the afternoon. Brigid wore her new straw hat and her old blue T-shirt, which had been washed about 40 times in 40 different sinks, then worn with wrinkles still fresh.

The streets were empty. You imagined tumbleweeds rolling through. A few distant figures moved slowly in the mildewed air.

"There's a cyclone moving into Cairns," I said, knowing this was bad news.

"Figures," Brigid said. "There goes scuba diving."

"Another one behind that, if the paper's right."

"We got a gift for timing."

True. We had left Thailand just as forces of the United States began bombing Baghdad, making good its threat to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Reports of terrorists came out just as we left Bangkok. We didn't know enough to ignore them. Instead of returning to Bangkok as planned, we scrambled down the the Malay peninsula to Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bali--and, finally, Darwin, where we landed in a tiny room with tiny damp cots and no hot water.

Why come in the rainy season?

Who knew?

Every day the thunderheads built in around 1 p.m. and the rain fell in sheets. The streets became canals, the water rose above the curbs. The trees streamed water from their fronds and the runoff cut grooves in the gravelly beaches.

In the Australian winter of June, July and August, the backpackers crowded in from everywhere, using Darwin as a departure point for Alice Springs and Ayres Rock to the south, Kakadu National Park to the east, Broome and The Great Sandy Desert to the west. But now, during the rainy season, Australian Summer of December, January and February, flooding closed all the roads in the Northern Territories. The rains could close any road in about 10 minutes.

"Let's stay five days," I said. "A week at the most. There's got to be five days worth here."

Moisture from an upper leaf condensed over our heads and formed a heavy drop. One drop came down to the leaf below. Then down to the leaf below that. Then down to the leaf below that. Along each leaf, God help me, we could hear it roll.

Brigid's eyes went very deep.

"What the hell do people do here?" she said.

The sun was a white smudge.

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"It says here that you can feed fish every day at the mammal center," Brigid read from her book. "They come right up and take the food from your hands."


"June through October," she said. Her voice flattened.

The dry season.

We walked toward the beach.

"And the swimming off the beaches is excellent," she read, "in the Australian winter, though sometimes chilly."

"And in summer?"

"In summer you take your chances with giant box jellyfish, and several varieties of poisonous fish. And then, mmm, stone fish, which is the main poisonous fish. And, of course, sharks."


"And the beachfront teems with the action of a thriving fishing industry. In certain months."

Vestey's Beach spread out to our left and right, the breakers crashing upon the berm. We stood alone in the eclipse-like twilight of noon, the clouds above massing for the afternoon assault.

"The fishing boats use Darwin as their main port of call, and much of the industry here is devoted to their service."

"That would be the bars," I said.

"And the shops," Brigid said. "Darwin is known among fishermen as the place for rejuvenation and relief.

"That would be the prostitutes," I said.

Brigid looked at the empty beach, and theempty streets adjacent to it.

"Maybe they left with the fishermen," she said.

Down along the coast the breakers rolled. Far off a steel and concrete hotel slouched toward the water, tilting its floors dangerously seaward, its upper balconies extending empty hands to the sea.

There are several picturesque ways to meet your demise near Darwin. One expected to see this in the guidebook. "In and around the capital: ways to die." Nearby Kakadu National Park, for example, advertises termite mounds 12 feet tall, and crocodile exhibitions--some months only. ("In fact, crocodiles don't kill by biting, but by drowning," one man told us. "You take that woman last year in Kakadu," he said. "When she fell from the boat, the croc snatched her from beneath, spun her around to disorient her, and dragged her down. That's the typical way.")

And then, with the rain, there is always good old-fashioned drowning.

During the war, the Japanese found in Darwin a convenient western province to stomp on--much more convenient than Melbourne or Pearl Harbor. Ostensibly they went after Darwin's mining operations. But probably nothing enticed the Japanese air force so much as the simple closeness of the place. It was a city of huts then, easily rebuilt, basically defenseless except for the rat-shack durability of it, which nothing could kill.

Our walk had taken us to the heights west of town, where the shell of an old church stood, built in Australia's ancient history, the first half of the 20th century. A monument stood near, bearing the names of those killed by the Japanese raids. The list of dead filled two long columns on the stone. The church stood yet without a roof, a deliberate omission to commemorate them.

The ocean rolled in below our heights. In the late afternoon, the sun got free long enough to light the western waters gold, and flame downward toward a red sunset, if the clouds held off that long. The air was pure and warm. And the tropical smells of flowers floated to us.

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

At East Point Park, an undeveloped bushland north of Fanny Bay, we staggered in late afternoon across an open field crowded with wallabies. They occupied the field in even distribution, and only moved when you ran toward them, as I did, just to see them bound away.

Michael, a young Danish man, led us to a small stream where tiny walking fish scampered across the shallows. Scampered and paused, scampered and paused. Their fins angled downward from their sides and hinged, the lower fin splaying outward like a foot with wide-spread toes. Their little fish eyes bugged above the surface.

Mutation capital of the world.

Night fell promptly at 6. Walking home, the upper limbs of the deciduous trees lowered and swayed of by themselves. A noise like chattering squirrels descended to us.

Fruit bats, Michael told us. Called flying foxes. Big as foxes, too.

That night, it rained. None of the swamps in the area had a prayer of being grass again. The ongoing noise of the hostel faded to the occasional clang and crash. Door slams echoed down the long halls. In place of windows we had fixed, giant louvers, the whole wall was a louver of rigid slats. Looking through them we could see downward but not out. Somehow this was not encouraging. The slats conveyed to us there was nothing at our own level we needed to see.

Brigid in her t-shirt and I in my hat, had just settled in when the frogs began. The slats looked down into a vacant lot next door, and after 10 seconds of the frog sound we searched through them for the cause of the noise. We saw only wet grass. The steamy air rose as if from a hot towel.

Thousands of frogs, millions of frogs, set up a thrumming roar that destroyed all human conversation in the room. Orrr orrr orrr orrr--not so much a chorus of frogs but a sustained keening, halfway between duck quack and hog grunt. A thousand full-throated croaks from elastic gullets made the static state a restless regurgitant choke. Now and then in the continuum a particular voice stood out, croaking incessantly ahead of the others, sometimes deeper, sometimes higher, but always against the background consensus of endlessly competing croaks.

And then, silence. Some agnosticism swept the frog population and by one accord they ceased their cries, and the night returned to the regular sound of the torrent.

Then, after a minute, a single tenor voice speculated again on the question. A few of his colleagues took up the theme, and then the rest of the congress came crashing in. The whole quarrel opened fresh again in parliament for a complete review.

I lay on my cot with my eyes closed watching membranous little frog throats ballooning in my mind.

I rose and searched through the slats for a glimpse of the enemy: nothing. Darkened grass. Rain. Industrial strength rain. Rain intended for a planet much larger than ours.

I lay back down. The crowd of frogs appeared in my mind again, big as cats, all looking straight at me, plump, soft, fiendish. With each croak their eyes disappeared into their heads, and their throats ballooned so far out I could see through them. They had arranged themselves haphazardly around me, and sometimes they tumbled in half-hops and landed on top of each other. Still their little throats bloomed, and, oh, to stab one of them in mid croak would have exploded him in a rush of goo. My mind had generously supplied me with a sharpened stick. And with this I went around gigging them in zeal.

I sat up again. The droning permeated the place like a stink, and the stink made the room darker. Yet there was Brigid in her cot, her eyes made into slits.

"Damn it," I told her.

"One fuel air bomb could take them all out," she called.

The terrorist news had given our vocabulary new possibilities of vengeance.

"We can leave tomorrow if we go standby," I said. "Cairns is out, don't you think?"

"But then we fly standby on three different planes to Bombay."

"A shaky plan," I said.

"Or we could still try to do Kakadu."

"Orrr," I said.

"Orrrr," she said.

"Oorrrrrrr!" I said this and puffed my cheeks.

In the swamp next door there was a sudden recess again.

"You stupid goddamned frogs," I shouted through the slats.

The single frog voice began the eternal debate once more, and the Parliament opened another session.

  *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"They're having a topless pool party across the street," I said.

Brigid rolled her eyes. She had just come down from the room with her radio, caught me about to abandon my notebook on the picnic table.

"How do you know?"

How did I know?

I could feel it. That's how. From the pool behind the hedge across the street came shouting and splashing and the occasional nervous silence one associates only with topless pool parties. The hotel behind the pool had been vacant all week, except for a small, tightly knit band of mostly drunk Australians. About eight of them, male and female.

"It sounds like an ordinary pool party," she said, listening.

"Brigid," I said, impatient. "You can't expect me not to be curious about my surroundings. We may be missing an opportunity for meaningful cultural exchange."

A squeal went up from the pool behind the hedge, followed by the churning of kicking feet in pool water.

"It's come to this," she said.

"If you will pardon me," I said, gathering up my material.

"It's time to go," Brigid said. "Before we begin to hallucinate."

And I knew she was right.

Next morning we made a run for it.

Up at 3 a.m., we launched for the airport at 3:30 in a biblical downpour, and found ourselves at a collection of quonset huts with vending machines in them and airplanes parked outside. Our plan: get to the airport early, try to fly standby to Bangkok, then to Brunei, Singapore, and so on to Bombay. All could be done in one day. Could be.

Waiting two hours for the plane, a drunk Australian told us how much he liked Americans, a handsome man of 25 with dirty blond hair and ragged beard. He leaned in close enough to convey the exact style of the beer he drank.

"Love you yanks," he said. "Love you. Why don't you stay in Darwin?"

Then the plane took off without us, unexpectedly full. The rain hit the ground as if shot from a cannon.

Next morning we made another run for it. Arrived at 4, waited two hours, heard our names called, made the plane. The gangway retreated, the plane pushed back, the usual plane noises began. Dinging, whirring, roaring. Cool air jetted down on us from the overhead nozzles.

The last I saw of Darwin: In the darkness of the pre-dawn, the water lying in lakes around the tarmac, a single man stood in silhouette before the floodlight of the terminal.

He wore a wide hat, shorts, and a shirt which somehow communicated its color even though the darkness: khaki. He stood matter-of-factly watching us from the ground as the plane moved back, observing the wheels turning, observing the flex of the wings. He looked non-chalant. Then, just before the edge of my window cut him off from view, he raised his hand for a crisp wave. It was half salute, half goodbye and bon-voyage. Then he turned and walked back toward the terminal, the rain streaming from his hat.

© Rob Laymon

Return to Travel Writing