It never rains but it pours: thus runs that overused English expression, employed as much metaphorically (to denote how troubles come in threes or other multiples) as in connection with our genuinely terrible weather. The North and the West Country alike have suffered dreadfully in recent years: heavy rains have preceded catastrophic floods that blighted homes, businesses and lives. Nature, particularly in a period of extreme and unpredictable weather (or “weather events” as meteorologists insist on saying nowadays), reminds us all too often that humankind hasn’t tamed it yet.
But that’s Britain, right? The country whose inhabitants’ conversation revolves almost entirely around the miserable character of the weather. It would never happen in, for example, Australia.
Except that it did. It happened to us. Uluru, Ayer’s Rock, one of the hottest, driest places in all that vast continent, was closed due to flooding – on the very day we were booked to visit it.
But I’m jumping ahead. First I should give an account of our family Christmas on a near-tropical Pacific island.
The Rough Guide describes Lady Elliot Island as “a 2km-square patch of casuarina and pandanus trees stabilizing a bed of coral rubble, sand and… plenty of overpoweringly pungent guano”. Certainly, as we emerged from the little 16-seater plane that had flown us from the mainland and bounced along the sparsely-grassed landing strip that bisects the island, we were deafened by the screeching of seabirds – gulls, noddies and terns – while our nostrils were assaulted by the acrid stench of their excrement. We learned immediately that this was essentially their habitat, on which we were encroaching.
We swiftly learned to respect the fragility of the living coral, indeed of all the marine and airborne wildlife: noddies were nesting and hatching eggs in trees and on the ground all around the accommodation, the parents screaming protectively while their fluffy, as yet flightless offspring took their first steps around the white coral paths.
The Rough Guide is amusing but gives a misleading impression of Lady Elliot Island. It is indeed a coral island such as those I used to read about as a boy, loving those sea-faring stories of RM Ballantyne, GA Henty and other writers of Adventures for Boys [sic]. It’s protected to the East by a huge coral reef, the waves constantly crashing on the sort of natural barrier that used to tear the bottoms out of wooden sailing ships and create a calm lagoon teeming with life. Besides, it’s not any old coral island, but the last at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.
This largely solar-powered eco-resort isn’t fighting with nature: on the contrary, it’s very much in harmony with it, the money from tourism helping to fund research and monitoring, not least of the coral which is unaffected by the rising sea-temperature currently killing it to the north.
It’s a comfortable place to stay, though not luxurious or showy. The constant wind mercifully dissipates the smell of gull-poo, while simultaneously keeping the temperature bearable. We were housed in a comfortable cabin (the middle-aged among us) and a tent/hut (the younger and heartier contingent). We were sumptuously fed, buffet-style, the bar was well-stocked and the staff were charming.
Scuba-divers were the hard-core visitors, but even such humble and inexpert snorkellers as us senior Traffords could drift for hours in the warm, silent waters and imagine ourselves David Attenborough, swimming alongside placid turtles (I touched one on Christmas Day), enormous eagle- and manta-rays, reef sharks and fish of every shape, colour and size, most of them strikingly beautiful, some comical, others bizarre, all swimming peacefully through the garden of myriad forms of corals: it was a richness of unmolested wildlife beyond both our dreams and my ability adequately to catalogue here.
Loggerhead and green turtles lay their eggs there. By chance both high tides occurred in daylight last weekend, so the regular night-time turtle-spotting walks didn’t take place. Nonetheless, on our last morning, with high tide arriving just after dawn, we rose betimes in the hope that we early birds might catch the late turtle. We saw new tracks on the beach leading to egg-nests, as ever, but entirely failed to spot one disorientated turtle whom the staff found sheltering under one of the planes: they were obliged (we heard afterwards) to carry it back to the sea before they could start the engine.
The tail of the storm that had attacked the Red Centre hit even this paradise on Christmas Night, however. Our last snorkel was done with rain on our exposed backs, the wind stronger than ever and making the sea rough and murky for snorkelling. Next day, as we flew back to Sydney for our connection to Uluru, we heard about the extraordinary storm that had rendered that mighty monolith a series of waterfalls, flooded the nearby hotels and made our trip impossible.
Choosing Adelaide instead, just for a couple of nights, we found that the storm, or its last gasp, had followed us there. We strolled around the elegant city’s sights under heavy, humid cloud, and were mercifully tucking into an evening meal when the rain hit. We slept through the storm, but encountered mild disruption to a wine-tour of the Barossa Valley the next day, since in some parts the rain had knocked out power-supplies. Shocking to think that we had to taste some white wine that was more like the temperature you drink at a hot summer barbecue (not in England, obviously!) than you’d expect at a Winery.
If some inhabitants of South Australia were furious at yet another failure of their power-supply, demanding that “someone should do something”, most Aussies we found phlegmatic and pretty relaxed. Perhaps it’s easier out here to forget quickly the effects even of a flooded home when, the very next day, the temperature soars above 30 degrees and there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
It was sobering to be 17,000km from London (according to a sign we saw) and confronted by storm, flood and colossal damage. When we witness extreme weather of this kind at opposite ends of the globe, and when the guardians of the Great Barrier Reef – which we’ve now been privilege to see – are watching its northern end die by inches as a result of global warming, it’s tempting also to demand action – from someone.
It never rains but it pours. I must try to end this overlong travelogue by drawing some conclusions from what we’ve learned on this holiday. We’ve witnessed human life significantly disrupted by storms: we’ve also learned both about how the damage we do to the planet affects some of its most beautiful environments and about how we can live with it, and enjoy it, without doing them harm. With the benefit of great distance, I’d say the UK government does indeed need to do far more to prevent the flooding of homes and businesses, given the increase in frequency of extreme “weather events”.
Much more pressing, and much harder to achieve, is the need for world leaders to get together and genuinely abandon selfish interests in the quest for a solution to global warming and climate change. Given the current uncertainty in the world, and the rise of strident nationalistic voices even in the democratic West, I find it hard to predict much progress in the near future.