Australia was a jolt to the senses. It is such a massive country, with infinite variety of plant and animal life. What’s more the animal life is seriously peculiar compared to the rest of the world, and the plants are unique. So what plants you know here in England counts for zilch in Oz it really was upside down to me.

After Christmas (on the beach?) We hitch hiked down to Tasmania to organise work picking apples. The jobs were plentiful but the season hadn’t started and there was nothing doing so we hitch hiked back to Sydney.  With funds quickly depleting I just had enough money to get to Cairns and take a flight to Papua New Guinea, then what? No clue. Expecting a plan to form we hitched to Brisbane and took a train to Cairns, it was a 5 day journey because the ‘wet’ had started and the train had to wait at Mackay for the flooding to subside.

Eventually we arrived at Cairns and decided to spend the last of our play money on a day trip to Green Island. The heat and humidity in the tropics was unbearable, so a day on the water was welcome. Once the catamaran docked we trundled down the long pier toward the beach. At the end of the pier was a chalkboard advertising 3 jobs, Barmaid, Kitchen Porter and Receptionist.  With barely a second thought we asked about the jobs and were directed to the managers office. Duane was sitting in a pair of swimmers with a tinnie in his hand, feet up on the table. The briefest of conversations followed and we had ourselves jobs! Mad but true.

Do I look like a fish?

Green Island was like nothing I had experienced before. A true coral atoll, and only one hotel with a few permanent staff. Everyone else either visited for the day or were guests at the hotel. For 3 months I worked two shifts and in between snorkelled or walked into the jungly stuff, there was nothing else to do. I borrowed a couple of books one to identify the fish and coral. Another to identify the birdlife, and another to understand the flora. The first and easily identifiable shrub was the frangipani. With it’s creamy flowers and intoxicating scent. It was such a learning curve, nothing was within my experience and it was like being Robinson Crusoe to sit on a liana vine, strong enough to swing on, to look at cocoanuts growing freely, to have such unusual birds all around. The flora really gripped me because it was there to be touched, smelt and admired. Only one other person who worked on the island seemed at all interested in the flora. An old guy who was the caretaker/groundsman. He flicked a switch around the cabins occasionally or cut back things that were a nuisance for the guests. His crowning glory were the cocoanuts. He collected cocoanuts that were washed up on the beach and put them in mushy pea tins with the lid cut off and a couple of nail holes punched in the bottom. They sprouted quickly in the white sand and he tended them, basically this involved throwing a bit of freshwater on them each day. He had a mini forest of cocoanuts growing in tins. When they were a reasonable size he would put them at the end of the jetty and sell them to the tourists.

Idyllic as this life seemed it became ultra boring. Apart from drinking at the bar there wasn’t anywhere to go and most of the staff didn’t want to go anywhere, getting hammered seemed to be the apex of their life. After 3 months we couldn’t hack it any longer and moved back to the mainland, but the hook had been set and we lapped up life in Cairns. Released prisoners comes to mind, but the money earned on the island allowed us to rent a stilted house.

Without restriction on our movement we covered every part of the town gawping and babbling about every new plant or bird . We sometimes had to go to the library to discover the identity of things, or ask the Aborigine family who lived in one third of our house. We nailed them all over time and it began to feel like home.

No matter where we went in Cairns the frangipanis blossomed and thrived. We had a frangipani bush by the front steps, frangipanis were on the roundabouts, in every garden and epitomised North Queensland for me. I can still smell them and feel them in my mind. Potent stuff.