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Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head

I can't wash my car. No matter how dirty it gets from desert bugs splattering the windshield, I can't take a hose and wash the car. This is because Australia is under very tight water restrictions imposed because of an on-going drought. Yet, everywhere I go in this enormous country, I run into mass quantities of rain.

It actually started before I even arrived. Ronit claimed there were more rainy days than sunny ones, which I witnessed a week after I landed in Sydney, when it rained a little each day for almost 10 days straight. I came down to the Southern Hemisphere to escape winter and rain, and here I was, getting dumped on instead of sitting on the sunny Sydney beach. The rain continued in Tasmania, where weather fronts came all the way from South America just to pour on us. The rain did not give us a break on Fraser Island, making the sandy road tracks full of dangerous mud puddles. Even on the boat on the Whitsunday Islands, the last day there was a freak tropical storm making visibility underwater very low and creating a rocky boat ride back to the mainland which left all of us feeling a bit queasy. But nothing would compare with the drama of the rain falling in the middle of Queensland.

First, some background information: According to the Bureau of Meteorology web site (www.bom.gov.au), Sydney actually didn't get all that much rain in 2003. As a matter of fact, compared with the average rainfall in the years 1961-1990, Sydney received almost 200mm less during 2003. The only three places in Australia that received more rain than the 30-year average were the Western Australia desert, a tiny section of Queensland coast and the upper half of the Northern Territory. The country as a whole is not recovering from the drought despite the fact I have had to buy 2 rain jackets while here.

The upper section of the Northern Territory, where the city of Darwin is located, is a tropical climate prone to large cyclones during the wet season. Wet season, of course, being all year long (actually, it's December through February). Darwin was actually our destination for our driving trip. The plan was to drive up to Darwin, sell the car and fly down to Melbourne. Whenever we would inform a local of our plans, the response was always the same two things: A) "Your going to Darwin in January? You know it's the wet season up there, right?" and B) "Watch out from crocs." Both of these responses were given with the utmost seriousness, punctuated by typically un-Australian grave expressions. Now, it is a given that everything in Australia will kill you, so care must be exercised when undertaking any activity in this country. However, if an Australian tells you to be careful, it must mean you are doing something stupid, dangerous or both. We got similar warnings from EVERYONE we spoke with about our proposed trip. We had a different, but equal concern. The concern was this: with more rain we were more apt to be stuck due to road closures. With limited time on our hands, we decided not to chance floods, but rather head across Queensland to the desert to keep things dry. From there, we would drive all the way down to Melbourne, sell the car there and take the short flight up to Sydney. Feeling confident, we each purchased our Melbourne to Sydney flights and headed up north. What we didn't count on is one of the wettest January months Queensland has seen in the last 30 years.

Again our friends at the Bureau inform me that compared with the 30-year average, some sections of Queensland have seen between 100-400 millimeters more rain in January 2004. But let me assure you, the sections of Queensland we were driving through were closer to the 400mm above average. For those of you slow with math, that is about 13.33 inches above the average monthly rainfall.

Northern Queensland has a series of rivers all flowing north towards the gulf at the northern edge of the state. When the water comes (and it does come every year, at least once), these rivers overflow and flood near by roads and towns. Now, instead of building roads that might travel above the water, the fine folks of Queensland actually make their roads dip down when the highway comes near water. The upshot is the roads become impassable and everyone driving through the state must stop and spend money in towns they would most likely only see in their rear view mirror. Let me also stress here, these are not small back roads, but rather the MAIN HIGHWAY that connects the center with the coast.

As we started our drive inland, we were immediately greeted by a downpour, the likes of which I have never seen. I had the privilege of driving at the time, and we could literally only see 5 feet in front of our bumper. We past through that storm in 10 minutes, but our confidence was shaken. When we got to the next town, we were informed the roads inland were closed, so we stopped for the night.

The next day, similar news, though the weather was now dry and the water levels in the rivers were slowly going down, so we pressed on to the next town. Again, we heard the roads were closed, so we stopped for the night. There was only one section of road closed, just past the town of Julia Creek, and that road was reportedly passable the following day.

In the morning, we spoke with some people who had come from the direction we were heading and they informed us that cars were able to make it through the swollen river. We quickly packed the car and ignored the "Road Closed" signs to check out the river for ourselves. When we got to the river, we saw that it really wasn't passable. The water was flowing pretty fast, and was a half-meter deep. There was a police officer on site supervising, wearing a traditional Queensland copper outfit, mainly a red shirt, short shorts and flip-flops. He was actually letting trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles through, but our Magna station wagon would have to wait.

After a few hours, some sedans crossed from the other side, and he must have thought it would be safe for us to cross. The plan was to have a semi truck go first, followed by another sedan, then us, then another large truck. The first truck would clear the way, and if either small car stalled, the back truck would just push us through to the other side. It didn't sound like the safest bet, but, being 2 days behind, time was not on our side and we were anxious to get through. Before long, the first truck started to move, so we fell in line behind the second car. About ¼ of the way through, we realized there was no truck behind us to push through if we stalled. We stalled.

There we are, in a white Mitsubishi Magna, in the middle of the river, brown, muddy water rushing all around us, almost above the base of our doors, and we are stuck. The car won't start, and I am terrified that we are just going to float right on down the river. Luckily, the car held its ground and the police officer drove across the river to help us out. As he was attaching the towrope to the car, he was gently describing what kind of people we were. Apparently, we are some combination of the female anatomy and the indigenous people of central Africa. The "F" word was peppered throughout the conversation, which I was quite expecting. However, despite our dark tans from the Whitsundays, I was not quite expecting to be called the "N" word.

After he dragged Matilda out of the water (there was actually quite a ways to go across a series of overflowing sections, almost 1.5km) we thanked him profusely. He, in turn, again likened us to part of the female anatomy.

We continued on our way into the desert outback, and we have made it all the way to Alice Springs. After the water was taken out of the carburetor and distributor, it was running like new. And even though Matilda had a bath, I would love to give her a good wash. Unfortunately, and despite all of the rain, there is still a drought going on. Even as I type this in the arid desert of Alice Springs, the rain continues to fall; you gotta love this country.



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