I have spent a night in the mangroves on Mars. No, I haven’t explored the depths of the mental universe on psychedelic cocktails. Mars is the name of the houseboat that Stephen and I hired when my sister, Jo and her partner, Alan visited us in Australia for a two-week holiday.
Queensland, as the tourism commercial says, is beautiful one day, perfect the next. And our first day was beautiful. The subtropical Gold Coast sun was shining brilliantly as we loaded all the essentials on board with the precision of a highly trained gang of professional watersiders. By essentials, I’m referring to three slabs of beer, the half dozen Chardonnays and an excellent assortment of Barossa Valley reds I’d picked up on special at the bottle-o.
Mars was moored at Runaway Bay Marina, and after undergoing a crash course in houseboat handling, we headed off down the Broadwater. Alan was at the helm, Jo was reading the charts, Stephen (who doesn’t function well unless he is within a two metre radius of communications technology) was making a few last-minute calls on his mobile, and I was in the kitchen cracking open a few tinnies.
Our first night was spent at Jacobs Well. Anchoring proved to be a bit of a problem, but the sun was shining, the home cooked meal excellent, and the Australian Chardonnays had a buttery quality that was not lost on our English guests. Life on Mars was ‘not ‘arf bad’, as Alan put it. That, however, was before we entered The Mangroves.
I once watched a documentary suggesting that mangroves can make human beings go a little bit doolally. I put this down to the somewhat histrionic presenter who in my opinion, would do well to curb his enthusiasm about the impact of mangroves on life on Earth. In hindsight though he may have had a point, but it pales into insignificance with the impact they had on life on Mars.
The next day, which was supposed to be perfect according to the Queensland Tourism Board, began with relative normality. Jo and Alan rowed over to stock up on supplies, while Stephen and I remained on Mars indulging in some spectacularly unsuccessful fishing. We then weighed anchor and set off for Jumpinbin Bar. We had been instructed that we were, under no circumstances, permitted to cross the bar. We took one look at it and decided that none of us particularly wanted to anyway. The Barossa Valley reds required our attention. It was time to find a suitable place in the mangroves to anchor for the night.
Considering the hitherto laid-back atmosphere on Mars, it came as some surprise to me that it could be transformed into a hotbed of frenetic activity at such remarkable speed. The main concern among the more able-bodied seamen was the threat of winding up high and dry on the mud when the tide went out. Stephen and Alan both had their hearts set on particular anchoring locations, which regrettably were not one and the same. After several aborted anchoring attempts in Alan’s favoured site, Jo and Alan began spitting over the side of the boat. Unsure of whether they were having a hoicking competition, feeling squeamish, or indulging in some sophisticated wine tasting ritual, I whipped the top off a well-rounded Cabernet Sauvignon. The full-bodied red had a calming effect on the inhabitants of Mars and it was decided, albeit reluctantly by Alan, that we would anchor at Stephen’s preferred place.
A wide variety of weird and wonderful creatures flourish in the mangroves of Queensland and before long, the area was abuzz with animal activity. Unfortunately, the most active and buzzy of these animals were industrial-strength mosquitoes that seemed blissfully unaware they had no business biting people who’d liberally applied three coats of expensive personal insect repellent. It was only Alan who braved the mosquitoes and went out on deck to do a spot of fishing, only to return half an hour later with a very peculiar grey and black spotty creature on the end of his line. It had a neck that puffed in and out like a semi-deflated balloon being squeezed and appeared quite at home on Mars. I pondered briefly on the probability if that might be its birthplace.
Later that evening, after a plateful of Spag Bol and surrounded by the now empty bottles of Barossa Valley reds we had sampled and appreciated throughout the evening, we paused to contemplate and reflect on the tranquility of Life on Mars. I couldn’t help but feel however, that the anchoring incident had not quite been forgotten as there was an underlying tension between Alan and Stephen that the red wine intake magnified rather than suppressed.
My worst fears were confirmed when Alan suggested that we sing Christmas carols. Stephen thought this was a stupid idea and by this time, anything Stephen did not want to do, Alan wanted to do twice over and with gusto. This degenerated into a name calling exchange, resulting in Stephen sloping off to bed with a flea in his ear and Alan electing to sleep on the sun deck. Jo and I spent a sleepless night, not only worrying about our men, but also about the fact that Mars was gradually starting to tilt to one side. When the morning sun rose over the mangroves, it became apparent that Mars was high and dry and quietly sinking into the Mangrove Mud.
It was mid-morning before Stephen and Alan slowly emerged from opposite ends of the now virtually diagonal Mars. Stephen resembled a haphazard dried flower arrangement, but Alan was almost unrecognisable. The burgundy hue surrounding his lips and teeth was clearly attributable to the red wine and his swollen and distorted face put me instantly in mind of the peculiar marine creature he’d caught the night before. My first thought was that he’d come off second best in a dust up with Stephen during the night. However on closer examination, diagnosis was prompt. Alan had neglected to liberally apply the expensive personal insect repellent before going out on deck. An entire herd of industrial-strength mosquitoes had clearly been grazing on him throughout the entire night.
Although it was patently obvious that we were grounded, not a word was said. We all sat down to a hearty breakfast and slipped away as soon as the tide permitted.
The mangrove incident on Mars was never mentioned again.