Narrow country roads, sugar cane fields, flecks of soot in the air. This was Nambour, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland: my childhood home.
Now the sugar cane has gone from around here, replaced by housing estates and turf farms.
Back then, farmers burned the cane before harvesting. The cane fires blazed in the still evening air, spreading across the paddocks, and flecks of black fell out of the sky night and day. In crushing season, the smell of sugar filled the town, and narrow-gauge, coal-burning cane tram engines rumbled across the main street on their way out to the fields and back, whistles blowing in warning. Lengths of cane lay across long lines of flat cars towed to the mill yard, with a plume of purple cane flower sticking up out of the last truck as a flag.
We kids would pick up half-burned lengths of cane fallen from the trucks, and bend and crack them until the sugar juice ran out into our mouths and down our chins.
In Queensland, only the Railway Department call their rolling stock trains. The narrow-gauge sugar mill engines and trucks are referred to as trams. In North Queensland, brightly-painted, chunky diesel locomotives, known as locos, still drag long rows of cane bins to the mills, crossing the highway while tourists take photos.
Until the twenty-first century, sugar mills seemed to Queenslanders to be as permanent as mountains, indicators of employment and prosperity. Now, in Babinda, Far North Queensland, where until recent years a steam-belching mill stood alongside the Bruce Highway, there is nothing to see but long grass and concrete foundations; and at Mourilyan, south of Innisfail, only the old mill sheds still stand, roosting spaces for Indian mynah birds.
Moreton Central Sugar Mill in Nambour seemed enormous to us kids, with its chimneys, high corrugated iron roofs, towers and sheds, and the unloading deck for the cane trucks. We were taken on tours of its mysterious and noisy workings. I looked with horrid fascination into the pit where the trucks rolled over and tipped the cane into devouring steel crushers. The pleasant scent of sugar became a foul stink inside the mill.
There’s something special about sugar towns, though: green and tropical, with palms and fig trees, the impressive mill manager’s house, and tram lines running along the street to the great mill buildings. It’s a nostalgic pleasure for me when we drive north towards Tully in crushing season and see from a distance the clouds of steam billowing from the chimneys of its busy mill, white against the forest green of the mountains behind.
I recently drove down to see South Queensland’s only remaining sugar mill, the Rocky Point mill near the small bayside town of Jacob’s Well, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I’d never been there before, but it was instantly familiar. Old trees and palms, a magnificent house, and the looming mill with its tram lines and chimneys.
Moreton Central stayed in operation until 2003, when the last of the locos pulled a train of empty bins into the mill yard. The Sunshine Coast street directory no longer shows the cane tramlines as it used to do: North Branch, Maroochy, Petrie Creek. The locos with their familiar, local names – Petrie, Dunethin, Coolum – have gone; and Nambour has lost something picturesque, as well as its long-time economic heart.
A few years ago, Con and I drove back from the far north in rain all the way down the Bruce Highway. Just before dark, rather than face the city peak hour in the wet, we turned off the motorway and checked into a motel in Nambour for the night.
When the rain eased off, I walked up Mill Street, and found that the sugar mill was gone. Demolished. There is a Coles Supermarket on the site now. Only the cane tram tracks and traffic lights remain, down Howard Street, as a reminder. Coles has bought the old mill administration buildings and restored them; and those once-terrifying steel crushers have been welded into an attractive industrial sculpture, standing in the middle of the garden roundabout in Mill Street. Nambour has moved on.