Cherries to North Queensland

I once posted a coconut. I wrote the address on its husk with a black marker, took it to the post office, stuck on the stamps and off it went.

I’d picked up the coconut at Etty Bay, near Innisfail, where cassowaries stroll, rainforest trees shade the beach and coconuts fall on the sand. To me, on my first visit to Far North Queensland, it was like a scene from a tropical fantasy.

I sent the coconut to my younger brother, Mike, in Stanthorpe. No coconuts there.

It’s fascinating to see fruit growing when until then we’ve only seen it in shops. German tourists, touring the Sunshine Coast hinterland, exclaim in wonder at pineapples plants in a field. “So that’s how they grow!” they say in amazement.

As a young man, Con was transferred from Thursday Island, off the northerly tip of Queensland, to Stanthorpe, a half hour’s drive from the New South Wales border: over three thousand kilometres away, into a very different climate. For the first time, he was living in an area producing not bananas, papaws and sugar cane but stone fruit, apples and grapes – all of which lose their leaves in autumn and lie dormant through the winter.

When winter came, he caused loud laughter in the pub when he said, “All the peach trees are dead! What a disaster for the farmers!”

A couple of years ago, we bought a box of cherries to take with us to Far North Queensland at Christmas – expensive, Southern New South Wales cherries, fat and dark, bought at a fancy Brisbane fruit shop.

Fruit cherries 2

“There are cherries in North Queensland shops, you know,” said Con.

I do know that. You can buy almost any fruit anywhere in Australia these days: avocadoes in Kalgoorlie, blueberries in Cairns. But still northerners send cartons of mangoes to family in the south, and south Queenslanders take Granite Belt fruit to relations in the north. It’s a tradition my friend Carol says she could do without, as she drives across Brisbane to collect a box of mangoes sent down on the train by her aunt in Ayr.

“What am I going to do with a whole box of mangoes, anyway? If I want to eat a mango I can buy it at my local fruit shop!”

For this trip to the north, I’d decided to avoid the busy Bruce Highway. We’d drive west to Toowoomba, then head north to Yarraman to join the D’Aguilar Highway. We’d take the Burnett Highway to Ban Ban Springs, then turn east, eventually reaching the Bruce Highway and turning north to spend the night at Gin Gin.

These minor highways are good, sealed roads, with beautiful bush scenery along the way, blue ranges in the distance and very little traffic.

It was a humid day, and by the time we left home we were irritable. “Why can we never, ever get in the car without having to go back for something?” Con grumbled as I headed back inside for my sunglasses, left on the kitchen table.

“Did you check that the iron is turned off?” he said as I got back in the car.

“No, I didn’t. You go and check if you’re so worried.”

It wasn’t until we were driving along the Gatton bypass, just thirty kilometres from Toowoomba, that I remembered something else we’ve forgotten.

“The cherries! Oh, no! We left them at home in the fridge!”

“Bugger it!” said Con. “That’s really annoying!”

He thinks a bit. “Do you want to go back?”

“No. That would be just too silly.”

The cherries would be rotten by the time we got home, in three weeks’ time. We’d planned to give some to Con’s brother and sister-in-law, at Balgal Beach, north of Townsville. The rest were for our son Joe, his partner Izzy and little Danny, our grandson, who live near Innisfail.

Fifteen minutes later we were still heading west, and still thinking about the cherries. They’d haunt us all the way, I knew. I made a suggestion.

“Let’s keep going to Toowoomba, have a coffee, then drive back to Brisbane, collect the cherries and head directly north on the Bruce Highway. We’ll still get to Gin Gin tonight. And while we’re home we can return that overdue library book I forgot.”

That’s what we did.

We were in Toowoomba by ten o’clock, back in Brisbane by midday, and by half past twelve we were on Highway One heading north. The cherries were in the boot, an old towel over them to keep them cool.

Two days later, at Balgal Beach, in a house noisy with the sound of warm tropical rain on the roof, we filled a bowl with their lush, dark sweetness and put it on the kitchen table, where anyone passing could take one.

At Joe and Izzie’s place, passionfruit were hanging heavy on every vine, and roadside stalls were loaded high with watermelons; but the cherries were welcomed with delight, and Danny boy sat in the empty cherry box and grinned, his chin red with cherry juice.

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