In the beachside house where I used to live near Cairns in Far North Queensland, looking out through the coconut palms to the placid tropical sea protected by the coral reefs on the horizon, it could be hard to remember the region’s natural perils, and its far from picturesque history. In most seasons you could only swim within protective netting, as deadly stingers lurked in the summer currents. The rainforests were full of scorpions and snakes and ruthless logging operations, the mangrove swamps harboured crocodiles, the mosquitoes carried fatal diseases, cane toads were a plague, the Great Barrier Reef’s corals were dying under too many cruise ships and glass-bottomed boats, the cane fields had been established by the forced labour of Pacific Islanders, and cyclone warnings were common.
I left Queensland three and a half years ago, just before Brisbane City Council began to give away four-minute egg-timers to help people spend less time in the shower. On beaches all along the coast the outdoor taps had been turned off. People were encouraged to report the malfeasants who watered their gardens or washed their cars. When I returned last August, the drought had not yet broken: reservoirs were at their lowest levels ever; people were showering over buckets to save water. No one was meant to flush the toilet till it was absolutely necessary. You’d certainly never leave the tap running as you brushed your teeth. Then the rain came, and at first there was widespread rejoicing. But it kept coming, till the floods covered an area the size of France and Germany combined. I’m now in Melbourne, watching the news as floodwaters rise in Victoria, thinking about the day I first saw Brisbane from the river.