Wednesday, August 18, 2010


There are no words to describe the heat around here. All the words have been used before; used so often their meaning has dried up, withered away like a night-blossom in the sun.

I can't believe I used to live in something like this. Except, of course, that Cairns wasn't so bad for six or seven months of the year. Only during the four or five months surrounding the wet season was it anything like this. The rest of the year it was almost civilised, in comparison. But that hot, wet period... how many of them did I live through? How did I do it?

I remember a lot of swimming: the ocean, warm and green and turbulent along the sharply angled coral sand beaches that form behind the barrier reef. Sure, the box jellyfish might end your life in an explosion of unendurable agony, but if if you know the terrain and you know the rules, you risk it anyway, just for the blessed relief of the water.

Rainforest rock pools, clearer than finest crystal and sun-shot under the whispering canopy of leaves. Pick the wrong one, though, and you're swimming with a man-eating crocodile. Still: if you know the territory and you know the rules, you take the risk anyway, because you're already half-mad from heat and sweat.

Murderously chlorinated swimming pools, shimmering pale blue, with that unmistakeable, unforgettable smell of wet concrete and urine, steaming under the sun, water that turns your eyes red and bloodshot, clouds your vision, turns your hair green. But it's still water, and you go in anyway, trying not to think of all those other bodies, all those little kids pissing happily into the same pool where you're swimming, trying to get some relief from the filthy, sweaty, stinking, cloying heat.

That for Cairns, and the summertime. But heat's a bitch with a long, long reach. Even Brisbane knows her, from time to time. The weather turns sullen, nasty and the sky goes hard and brassy. The winds die away to nothing. The city bakes and steams.

There's no relief with nightfall. Not until three, maybe four hours after dark does the concrete and asphalt finish giving up the worst of the sun's warmth. The air is still and heavy. Mosquitoes whine in the high-ceilinged corridors of the old wooden houses. Then the sun rises, and it starts all over again.

A day. Two days. Maybe three, even four, but finally it breaks. It starts in the west, with mountainous masses of cloud towering to the sky. As the afternoon wears on, the clouds get darker, turn slate-blue, maybe green, sinister colours like a fading bruise. Tattered rags of wind, fitful at first, then gusty and threatening, toss fallen leaves, scraps of plastic, shreds of paper, but the wind isn't cool at all: it's hot, like the breath of the devil himself.

Lightning flickers. Growling, muttering, thunder rolls around the edges of the beaten sky.

Then the rain comes down. Cold, heavy, stinging, it comes with such force on the tin roofs and the gutters and the frangipanis and jacarandas that you have to shout to be heard above the roar. The wind throws the treetops back and forth with savage strength. Hailstones – always the size of golf balls, for some reason – come shattering from the skies. Water like a cascade, like a citywide Niagara pours down, jumps up again from the puddles and the pools, the debris-choked gutters, the streets and the sidewalks. The world exists in brilliant instants, flashes of flickering, searing light followed by sounds too big to be heard, huge, savage, rasping crackles and vast booms that resonate in your chest and your belly.

And then it fades away, and suddenly, miraculously, the city is cool again. For a while, anyhow.

That's a Brisbane summer storm. That's heat, the way they do it there.

Not here. It's relentless here. If you sleep at all, it's fitful, twisting and turning on sweat-damp sheets. You have air-con. That's a given, these days, unless you're out in the bush somewhere, but it's only so much use. Step outside, the heat's still there, waiting right outside your door, waiting to envelop you, swallow you, eat you alive. And inside; that air-con hums and knocks and clicks and growls, and streams of too-cold air pour over you until the thermostat is convinced you've had enough, and the machine shuts down. But the heat's still there, right behind all that empty technological trickery, and the moment the cooler sighs to a halt, it sneaks back in. Under the doors, through the glass of the windows, seeping through the very walls and floors, it crawls right into bed with you, snuggling up close, clinging to your skin like a moist, sticky tongue, intimate and vile. You sweat. Armpits, crotch, neck. Where your chest and belly touch the mattress, the bedding grows damp. You move, roll, let your skin breathe, but now your back is starting to sweat, and your ass, and the backs of your legs. Irritably half asleep, you kick the sheets off, but the aircon starts up again and the sheen of sweat starts to cool on your skin and you shiver, drag the sheets back up, and the whole cycle starts over.

Fans are no good at all. They just whine and wheeze, and push masses of hot air around the room, annoy the mosquitoes, maybe. Still, at least they're consistent. No highs and lows, no thermostat-induced sine-waves of wakefulness. If you can fall asleep at all under a fan, you'll stay that way until morning raises the stakes.

The sun is up and doing business around seven, but by eight, it's already a hammer, a cudgel, a goddam Zulu knobkerrie pulsing away in the east, and everything shimmers and steams under its impact. There's no real dawn nor dusk in the tropics; it's pretty much an on/off switch between light and dark, between steaming, moist, nocturnal heat and the fierce, deadly, crushing blast furnace of the day.

Indoors, in the shade, hoarding the last goodwill of the night behind thick walls of concrete and stone and deep, recessed windows, you're already sweating. Thick, glutinous, the stuff drips from your hairline, greases your armpits, turns your crotch into a slimy swamp. You wear cotton, maybe linen, grit your teeth when it soaks through and clings to your skin like fungus. The air doesn't move at all. The sky might as well be dead, killed by the fierce golden rage of the sun.

The locals aren't stupid. Watch them: they don't start business until ten thirty or later, using those last, precious, almost-bearable hours of the morning as personal time. Then, through the weariest hours of the day they go about their work: indoors, in the shade, in the air conditioning if they can arrange it. The work goes on until sundown, and only then does the place begin returning to life.

The daytime heat is beyond oppressive. It's heavy, like a fresh corpse draped over your shoulders. It weighs you down with every step. If you walk, you do it slowly. If you have to lift, or carry, or work, you do it in short bursts and you rest in between. You drink a lot of water. Litres of it. You feel like a drainpipe, because as fast as it goes in, it comes out again, soaking your clothes, streaming down your skin, making your sandals slick and slippery. You drink, and you drink some more, and you're thirsty all the time, and the only way to win is to remember that sweat is more than just water. It's salt, and electrolytes, and you have to replace some of that stuff or all the water in the world won't help you.

They do good sports drinks here. Really good. I stick with one called 100+. Carbonated, you can get it everywhere, in icy-cold cans beaded with condensation. Rip the top off one, you can drain it in a single long draught, and even though it's a little sickly from the glucose, a little brackish from the salt, it's cold and sharp and it tastes absolutely right and when you're done you realise that yes, that was exactly what your body needed.

Not enough, though. Never enough. And when the lightning flickers and the thunder growls and the rain sheets down, it's still not cool. The rain itself is warm, warm as blood, warm as sweat. Walk through it, feel it soak your clothes until they cling like a second skin, but you're still hot, and now it feels like the biggst sauna, the biggest sweat-bath in all history. The rain brings no relief.

And after the rain? Still no better. Worse, if anything. If it's daytime, the sun comes out and the steam rises from every surface, turning the air into a filthy soup. You want to know about Borneo after a rainstorm? Easy: put a stinking, sweat-soaked sock over your head like a balaclava mask, so you have to strain to draw the air into your lungs. Now step into a sauna. Instant tropics. Want the beach experience? Pour damp sand into your underpants. Don't bother with the salt water; you're already soaked completely with sweat.

My wife complains about the cold in Tasmania. I don't understand it, personally. For me, twelve degrees centigrade is about the point where I start thinking that just maybe I should bother to put on a shirt. But Natalie? Anything under 25, and she's kvetching and carping like a Russian grandma in the depths of a Siberian blizzard.

Screw that. You can always put on more clothing if you're cold. But when you're dealing with the kind of filthy heat you get in the tropics – well, there's only so much clothing you can take off before you're down to your skin. And where do you go after that?