CAIRNS, Australia — It doesn't take many walks up and down the boulevard here to determine that this is a city known for its proximity to a creature that swims, has a long bill and can weigh three-quarters of a ton.
All you have to do is read the signs: Marlin Coast Nursery, Marlin Coach Tours, Marlin Radiator, Marlin Bar, Marlin Coast Lawn Bowls Club, Marlin City Hi-Fi, Marlin Marina, Marlin Gifts . . .
Things have not been the same in this Queensland coastal city since a fisherman named Richard Obach caught a 1,064-pound black marlin in 1966 on a boat named Sea Baby, owned by an American, George Bransford. Obach caught the fish on the Great Barrier Reef, about 25 miles out of Cairns harbor. Australians always knew black marlin inhabited the reef, but not marlin that big.
"The black marlin fishing we used to do, before the mid-'60s, was light-tackle fishing in the inner reef, for 30- to 80-pound juvenile blacks," said Laurie Woodbridge, longtime marlin charter boat skipper. "Bransford was convinced that since we always seemed to have a lot of little blacks in the inner reef waters, that big, mature marlin were somewhere in the area, that the inner reef was a nursery."
Today, two decades later, a virtual navy of marlin sportfishing boats patrols the outer reef waters, most of them based in Cairns. Many marlin charter boats, in fact, spend the entire season fishing for big blacks--October through early December--on the outer reef, 25 to 30 miles from the Queensland coast. The boats tie up at night on the lee side of big reefs, to larger mother ships, where fishermen are housed and fed, only minutes away from prime trolling waters.
Mother ships, yachts in the 55- to 70-foot class, also are chartered--for roughly $1,000 a day--by diving groups. Divers spend days exploring and photographing the clear, blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Cairns, which is served by daily non-stop Qantas flights from Honolulu, was once described by San Francisco writer Stanton Delaplane as "a blend of Dodge City and Singapore."
Several old Victorian hotels and civic buildings suggest a 19th-Century American frontier town. But Asian influences are also seen--tropical trees growing along the Esplanade, tin-roofed houses built on stilts, a picturesque waterfront walkway and the rain forest that begins at the edge of cane fields just outside Cairns.
Cairns has a population of about 50,000 but its downtown streets have a slow-paced, small-town feeling. Take away half a dozen or so high-rise hotels and apartment buildings built along the waterfront in the last half-dozen years, and walking Cairns' streets might feel like Balboa in the early 1950s.
It can also seem like your worst nightmare, or like a scene from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." By day, green parakeet-like birds called lorikeets flit about the city in noisy groups, from one tree to another.
On the Esplanade, at night, roughly the same sound is heard from the dense, dark limbs of an ancient fig tree. Tourists walk across the street, expecting to gaze upward and see lorikeets. This is a source of much amusement for the natives, who elbow one another in the ribs, then positively fall down laughing when the tourists are descended upon by giant, screeching flying foxes, fruit bats the size of flying poodles.
The view from any third-floor window in town clearly shows that Cairns is a tropical city. The surrounding hills are lush and green, part of the Atherton Tablelands and its dormant volcanoes.
Cairns may one day lose its rain forest ambiance, however. Many locals fear the rush to development along the Queensland coast will cost them their green hills in coming years. The city sits on the shores of Trinity Bay's wetlands and a century ago was a commercial center for miners, who visited the city from their outback diggings for supplies and visits to the city's pubs.
At Marlin Marina, on the waterfront, is the Cairns Game Fishing Club, where the city's fishing history can be seen in old pictures and impressive marlin mounts on the walls. Recently, club members were lamenting the passing of one of their American members and frequent visitors, actor Lee Marvin.
Another favorite stopping point for Cairns marlin fishermen is Bransford's Salt Water Tackle Store, owned by Jack Erskine, famed throughout Australia for his light-tackle fishing skills. Erskine, besides having a store full of big-game and light tackle, has a collection of black marlin video tapes, including some memorable footage shot by Hollywood director John Frankenheimer.
In the 1980s, tourism has propelled Cairns into far more than a place where wealthy Americans can go on expensive marlin fishing trips:
--It's Australia's backpacking capital, where youth hostels line the Esplanade, where young European, Japanese and American backpackers are lodged at rates ranging from $6 to $12 a night.