From here the world looks like a map.

White fingered frost coated the grass on the lawn. The car was spangled with ice. You could scratch thin dark lines on the car windows; you could have written your name if you had chosen to do so. According to later reports it was the coldest Melbourne morning for almost half a decade. It was cold, even by the hairy chested standards of those who claim that we don’t have real winters in Melbourne. It was, as it happens, a good day to travel. Clear air, clear skies, clear roads. A diary clear of the kinds of things you have to do, but would rather someone else do for you; full of the kind of things you plan to do.

Rainbow Lorikeets flew over head, magpies squabbled on the nature strip. The taxi turned up on time and we were on our way north to Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. That’s about 2317km north. Almost the same as London to Istanbul or New York to Dallas. It’s a long way by any measure, but it’s a good measure of how big Australia really is. You can fly and fly and it just keeps going on in front of you, like a rolling road or a treadmill – mile after mile after mile. Sheep stations larger than Surrey. Garden plots larger than Andorra. Although it’s not our intention we will fly far enough north to escape the cold of winter. We pack shorts and sandals. We leave behind heavy winter coats and AFL. We fly over the snow of the high plains and head for the sun of Queensland.

If Queensland was an independent country (and many would claim it’s already a different country!) it would be the 25th biggest in the world – and Queensland is not even the biggest state in Australia. It is, to repeat myself, a good measure of how big Australia really is. Thoughts of travel fill my head. It was not that long ago that the only way people had to see the world beyond their own doorstep was to be shipped overseas to fight in a war. The revolution that started with the steam train broke the bounds of parish and patch. With a steam train you no longer had to marry the girl next door, who was probably a distant cousin, and you could eat food that had been grown miles away. Clipper ships, steam ships, prop planes, jet planes, all pushed out the boundary of what was possible, of what was near and what was far. For a while travel for its own sake remained the privilege of the rich on the Grand Tour. Travel for business was the tricky domain of Jack the Lad sales teams with their “Have I got a bargain for you!” shtick, briefcases full of exaggeration and broken promises. But the gravity of travel pulls more and more people into its orbits – cheap flights and travel agents in your lounge room mean that people can now plan trips beyond the dreams of past generations from the comfort of their own homes. Travel daydreams become the reality of the next morning with a mouse click and a credit card number.

The kids wriggle settle into their seats, stow books in their seat back pockets, arrange their totem animals around them and ask if we are there yet. As we take off H grins at the acceleration, P giggles and we know we are on holiday. We soon settle into the tedium of flight; short sleeps, cheese and biscuits for a king’s ransom, fingering pages of magazines with already completed crosswords. P looks out of the window, down past the wing edge, and declares with the imagination and joy that kids hold and school and adolescence can damage, that “from here the world looks like a map”. We trace a road, count dams and look to the horizon where, and with your eyes half closed you can image the curve of the Earth. The engines drone and in stark defiance of common sense we keep flying.

But the shear unlikeness of the whole process breaks through and makes me think. On board the shiny metal tube of the plane we rely on the push of the engines and the flow of air to lift us from the ground and move us onwards. People dismiss physics as too hard, but rely on it from the moment they step on board the plane. It seems more acceptable to just hope for the best rather than think of pressure and the collision of molecules. Easier to put understanding to one side and embrace the easy words of charlatans. Travel may have become easier, but I think we owe it to the builders of planes to at least think about why we can now fly. The dreams of Icarus have come true, but now some stay so far away from the Sun as to dwell in darkness of ages past. It seems that the weather in Queensland has also made up its mind that we will not get too close to the sun either. The clouds gather and darken as we fly north. Water drops sprint along the windows, a six inch race over in seconds. We step from the plane to walk under lead grey skies and through a gentle rain. It’s not the sunshine state we were promised. The travelling sales team has shifted from the door to the screen – and they still seem to butter the truth to make it more palatable.

But it’s also soon clear that they grey skies shroud a different kind of winter to the one we left in Melbourne. Plants still push up through the cracks between paving stones, tumble from the edges of uncleaned gutters and twist around road signs with a kind of vibrant energy that I have not seen for months. The rush of growth here feels suspended for a little while rather than stopped. The chill of winter may linger for a day or two, but that does not count as a whole season. The locals in their coats and long trousers seem to disagree.

Within minutes of leaving Cairns the road is flanked by fields of tall, coarse grass – sugar cane. You can hear the wind rustle through the cane heads – although the sound could be made by the army of snakes that surely lurk in the dense, waiting fields. Cattle Egrets stalk, white and sharp. In one place they follow the plough as gulls did when I was a kid. In another they gather in a tight circular group, far from the road, harvesting an unknown abundance, looking like an out of place snow field. Whistling Kites drift along road edges seeking the unwary. A Brown Falcon sits on a lonely tree top. A watcher. A waiter. A seeker of movement from the small and furry, the fleet and the feathered. It watches me with focussed disinterest and moves only its head as I walk to towards it. Its patience outlasts my desire to stand in the rain and watch.
Forest Kingfishers sit on the roadside wires and fences in loose family groups. Four birds in twenty metres, then none for a kilometre. In profile they look all beak. For a while we count them, but the numbers run away from us. White Breasted Wood Swallows perch on roadside wires, smart in their formal dinner suit plumage. I flash back to House Martins, another black and white bird and wonder if the colour of these distant birds is a coincidence, or is there a selective story hidden in the black and white, hidden in the sharp divide between breast and belly.

Our accommodation plays on the needs of functionality rather than grace, but at least we get out of the rain. Ceiling fans stir the damp, mild, air. There is no ice in the fridge and the water container is empty. You have to ask why?

As the darkness of evening grows the air fills with the wail of Bush Stone Curlews – strange and possibly unnerving if you did not know its source. Fruit bats fly over head – not “Die Fledermaus”, large enough to be “Die Fledercat”! The drip feed of nature washes away the boredom of the flight and the sterility of the room. To the sound of gentle rain on a cool tropical winter, I go to sleep at the end of the day when my holiday began.

Next morning we head towards the town of Mossman, a real town with a high street, butchers, bakers and (thankfully) a computer store. Behind the town lies Mossman Gorge, a national park with a brand new visitor’s centre. The garden beds are empty apart from a cover of mushrooms. The paths are soft and sticky. Whoever decided to build them from porridge made a mistake. It clags, grey and damp, onto our shoes and later joins us in the car. Rain rushes from the roof of the building into wide stainless steel troughs on the ground. Is this to collect the water? Or is it needed to prevent conventional gutters from flooding in the wet season? No one seems to know, and for once there are no boards telling us the whys and the wherefores.

The centre’s shop sells plastic animals and aboriginal art works, neither of which really feel authentic. The best selling item seems to be plastic rain ponchos, see through and shapeless, only one step removed from cling-film. Putting them on seems to violate the time honoured advice about putting your head into plastic bags. People wait for the shuttle bus, rustling gently, looking like badly wrapped shop window mannequins.

The forest itself is dark and very damp. There is movement everywhere. Leaves flutter from the impact of falling drops; occasionally a whole leaf is dislodged. A damp branch falls near the path. The signs say “your safety is our concern, but your responsibility” – which is refreshing in such a litigious world. But it also means that the walk we want to do is closed because of the risk of “lasting injury or death”. So we walk on well made paths with people in ballet flats and thongs (flip flops for those not up to speed with the Australian version of English) who seem not to have read any of the signs.

The Mossman Gorge is in flood. Torrents of pale grey water crash into rocks and boulders. Even in seeming flat sections there are the tell tale signs of sunken hazards. Waves roll back on themselves, round and round and round; stoppers. Cushions of water boil to the surface, pushed up by rocks that will stay hidden until the level falls. The water pushes through the branches of riverside trees, catching anything floating; strainers. It’s an impressive stretch of water. Full of noise and energy, full of power, but essentially a product of today, or at least yesterday’s, rain. When you walk into the forest you can feel something much older, much slower; the product of thousands of years. A day could pass and nothing would seem to change, the movement of trees and the growth of leaves outside the watch of human, and especially my tourist, eyes. The rapid and the slow, side by side in the rain. The rapids flooding the forests, the forest slowing the rapids. Over head the cloud packed sky gives up its rain.
The forest floor is rich in greens and browns. It smells of freshly turned compost. It smells of growth and decay. White-Rumped Swiftlets dash over the river. Through the binoculars you can see them opening and closing their mouths. I can’t tell if they are calling or feeding, the river drowns all sound. They come from nowhere and disappear again, grey sickles under a grey sky. The river keeps flowing. People keep walking. I stand in the rain and watch the birds. It’s wet, but I don’t really care. Out of the corner of my eye I see a dash of yellow and red – an Australian Brush-Turkey runs from the safety of cover to a patch of open grass. It feeds with jerky head plucks, and preens with slower, smoother movements. It seems to eye the American tourist with an air of distrust – but early July has passed and it’s probably safe.

We walk back towards the car park to catch the bus. The rain still falls. The forest still rattles to the drip of flowing water. The next day we will go across the river and into the trees.

Plan B

When I awoke it was almost silent. I mistook the settling of the logs in the fire for the rattle of leaves and twigs on the roof top. Last night’s wind and rain had passed in the night, leaving the trees a little thinner and the roof a little more cluttered. I wondered if I should put more wood on the fire, but it felt too cold to try and I was too warm to worry. The clock gently talked on the bedside table. Its echo seemed to come from the ticking of the cooling fire surround, time and energy counting down to the cool of the morning. I settled back into the warmth and slept.

I was by no means late when I woke again, but it’s hard to remain asleep when somebody stands on your chest.

“Morning H”.

“Morning D”.

I was about to drift off again when the small human earthquake that is my daughter climbed into bed.

“Morning P”.

“Humphhh” she replies, still more than half asleep.

The bed now contained two adults, two children, one bear, one hippo and a large purple unicorn. It was, too say the least, a little crowded.

A kookaburra – the bushman’s clock – called from the balcony. It rattled an under its breath kind of call requesting breakfast. But rules are rules. The fire was long dead and I regretted my night time decision. A flat ding announces that the kettle has boiled. The kookaburra calls once more and is joined by another. I make tea and return to a warm but crowded bed. There is no rush. The day can wait a while. It’s a slow dawn, a pale dawn, a holiday dawn.

Later that morning we walk on the beach. The sun still shines, but clouds are building in the distance. A few outliers move ahead of the pack. A different dog chases a different gull. The surfers still seem to be turning blue. After less the 24 hours I can feel the rhythm that would be possible if you could stay here, and you had nothing else to do but just be. It’s the typical holiday headset that dreams of release, brought on by the air and the surf sound, by the cloud scapes and the distant, falling horizon.

The tyre noise changes from a dull wave roar to gravel top hiss. There is a faint breakfast cereal popping on the underside of the car as the loose surface of the road is spat up by the action reaction of the turning wheels. Your hands tighten ever so slightly on the steering wheel, and if you succumb to good sense, you lift your right foot ever so slightly too. Last week’s rain still runs over the road. Graded sweeps of silt lie smooth where the water pooled and put down its load. You can feel the bump rattle of ruts and tiny wash outs through the steering wheel. The tyres grab at rough spots and slip through water sheened mud. You need to concentrate.

After a short while we pull into the car park and pull on coats and shoulder bags. As we are leaving we are met by an old school friend of my wife. In French films this coincidence would expand to fill the rest of the weekend, but here the collision is short lived. We walk off and I wonder if I will ever meet a school friend, by accident in a car park again: probably not.

The path cuts down from the road and winds, mud deep, towards the sound of water. A scattering of blue objects – milk bottle tops, pen lids, scraps of plastic wrappers – lead the eye from the path towards the deeper underbrush. A Satin Bowerbird has been working here, building the avenue that runs through the centre of the decorated dance floor. This is DNA at work. Trapped inside the nuclei of the bird the DNA’s expression becomes a landscape on the river side. Where do the birds end and the bowers begin? Both are created by the imperative of DNA. Both are a function of the flow of proteins cascading within cells. The bower tells a story of generations of selection, bird upon bird, year upon year. I walk back to the path and find the same thing.

The paths that run through woodland and swamp, through desert and over cliff tops are an extension of our own DNA. The repeated foot fall of people may not have made the first paths, but they keep many of them open. The need to link and communicate, this need to move between the place where we are and the place that has what we need, seems to be a basic human drive. The path leads down and along the water’s edge, a natural path that follows the flow of the water. We walk upstream, looking into whatever the river brings. The bank side plants have been combed flat by the rush of the water that closed the paths to Lake Elizabeth and set us off on Plan B. All of the stems point away from the flow, twisted into parallel lines by the force of the water, a kind of conformity to the trend of the water. Around the bridge a cushion of debris has formed. Jagged edged and uneven slabs of wood, sawn to shape but now lost to nature, stick out from the bank. Stems of bamboo form a carpet. Alien and out of place they bend as you step on them. A little way out into the flow, a tree trunk from an older flood cuts across the stream. Water piles up behind it and shoots, under pressure, beneath it to form high dimples and water crowns. Leaves circle and bob in the down flow behind the trunk, trapped, for now, by the eddy, vertical rather than flat.
At a farm the path cuts away from the river and through an old orchard. Trees bare of leaves and fruit, but heavy with lichen. A clear air place, with clean air growth. This path feels familiar, even though I have never walked it before. It’s shape and direction, seemingly random, but almost certainly not, reminds me of the paths that spider over the English countryside. Paths change direction for no reason that can be detected on the ground, but in reality follow boundaries and needs that have long since ceased to be visible. They are maintained in place by the passage of feet, the erosion of soles on the ground. If it is possible, as some have suggested, that paths hold the collective memory of all those who have walked along them, then the paths of England would sing a deeper history than many can imagine. This path, pushing away from the river, through the orchard and back towards the water, feels the same. Mud and slight streams freckle the path with interest, while down in the river bands of rocks push the water into foaming streamers. Mushrooms grow in the wet grasses and the alien trees have lost their leaves. The gums hold their leaves more tightly, and rattle in the cool wind. This is a winter walk, a walk for boots and a jacket. By its end the inner sides of my jeans will be coated in mud, just like they were as a kid when mud and walking were an everyday event, not a weekend delight.

Kicking away from the river the path starts to climb. Here it becomes clear that this is not an old path at all. The sightlines of its route are straight and unforgiving of the land. One short stretch is as steep a path as I can remember, not because it passes up a rock face, or hugs the side of a waterfall, but because it just goes straight up the hill. Its path is a frontal assault on the slope, without any care for the zig zag flanking moves that would increase the length, but reduce the angle. This is not a path copied from the feet of walking people, but one made under the wheels of vehicles. At the top of the slope you can turn and look down the length of a valley, lined with trees and busy with small rapids - riffle, pool and short rock reef and deeper pool again.

We arrive at the first destination, a way station on the way to Plan B – Phantom Falls. We drop down a steep path and hop over spray slick, damp, stones to stand at the base of a 15m falls. The water that robbed of us Elizabeth tumbles down here, slight brown and chill. More sticks and branches are wrapped up here, breached over hippo back rocks, stuck in the white water funnel flows that rush between the others. It’s a place of simultaneous calm and violence, the contradiction that lies at the heart of many beautiful places. Uplifting, but also a reminder of how fragile we and the things we make really are. The movement of the water seems to rob my kids of energy and spirit, and they stand stiff limbed in front of the falls. Smiles don’t seem to flow; they seem wooden, rather than fluid. They just turn and watch the water. I press delete on the camera.

Now we move with the water rather than against it, downhill away from falls, away from this two thirds midpoint of the walk. Another steep vehicle track pulls away from a ford. It cuts the contours at right angles, slices across the cartographers imagined landscape in an ugly but now familiar fashion. The path is wide and well made, but it’s no pleasure to be on it. It’s a put your head down and walk path, it’s not one to enjoy and its clear the kids don’t. They walk slowly, they stop often. We produce the magic potion of chocolate biscuits and the perk up. H, map memory intact, remembers we need to grow round a sharp bend, and at the top of the hill there it is.

Allen Reservoir opens out before us. Without the stamp of a royal sounding name, Allen sits in a gentle tree lined bowl. One end is blocked off with a sloping concrete wall – a perfect place to sit for a family with tired legs of various lengths. We produce more biscuits. I produce two telescopes, tripods and binoculars from my bag. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the kids pay more interest to the biscuits than the glassware. We don’t have a huge amount of time before the day starts to darken and we will need to walk back past the falls, back through the mud to the car.

Coots and grebes move across the surface – a light streak on the water with a dark full stop at the end. A moving exclamation mark. We keep looking. More grebes cause a spike in the interest. Just as the kids are becoming restless, just as I am becoming restless too, I notice a line on the surface without a bird at its start or end. It is at the point that I am glad I brought my ‘scope and tripod – known, with no sense of irony, as ‘the anvil’ – along. As I focus a small brown animal dives out of sight in the middle of the field of view. “Got one” I declare.

The next minutes pass too quickly as we look and find first one and then two platypus. Distant they may be, but the air is cool and clear and (for a while at least) the light is OK. You can see the bill pushing out in front, and see a quick splash as the platypus dives. On a couple of occasions I follow bubble trails in the water and see them pop back up the surface. The air cools, the light fades. We need to go. The platypus are still there as I pack, not keen to leave. I take one last look and walk away.

Twenty minutes later I realise I did not take a single photograph. I just watched. I felt like I was a participant rather than an observer. Allen, my family, the platypus and me. Sometimes Plan B really is the best option.