Innisfail

The air feels different here in the Wet Tropics. The sun is hotter, it’s more humid, and in the wet season mould grows on everything.

The hilly town of Innisfail, ninety kilometres south of Cairns, is situated at the junction of two beautiful rivers: the North Johnstone and the South Johnstone. No one swims in them. This is the home of the Johnstone River crocodile.

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Innisfail waterfront at the junction of the North and South Johnstone Rivers queensland.com

The first time I visited Innisfail, I came up from Brisbane on a Greyhound bus. Con and I were engaged, and we were travelling north together so I could meet his family. It took us over thirty hours to get here.

With roads much improved now – motorways, passing lanes, highway redirection – you can (in theory) drive here in eighteen hours, but the bus still detours to drop off and pick up passengers at tourist spots – Noosa, Hervey Bay, Proserpine, Mission Beach – so it still takes a long time. The train takes about twenty-four hours, and if you pay the rather enormous cost of a railbed you can sleep for eight hours of that. We usually drive, stopping for one or two nights on the way, perhaps at Rockhampton and Ayr, or at Sarina, south of Mackay.

Con grew up in Innisfail but left long ago. We’ve been back many times to visit, and each time he gives me a guided tour of his special places. Including pubs.

“Dad’s Shell fuel depot was over there, near the Goondi Hill Hotel.

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Con Snr (centre) at his Shell fuel depot, Innisfail 1940

“There were lots of hotels back then. As well as the Goondi, there were the Commonwealth, Innisfail, Crown, White Horse (we called that the Blonde Donk), Grand Central (that’s an arcade now), Riverview, Exchange (that’s near the canecutter statue), Federal, Imperial and Queens hotels. It was a lively town.”

The white marble Canecutters Memorial was erected beside the river in 1959 by Innisfail’s Italian community, to celebrate Queensland’s centenary.

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Canecutters Memorial      en.wikipedia.org

Many of Innisfail’s hotels are gone now, either closed down, or blown down by a cyclone. 

We drive twenty-four kilometres to Paronella Park, where Con went to dances as a young man. “It had a mirror ball in the ballroom. It was great!”

He took me there on that first visit, borrowing his mum’s little Datsun. Built by Spanish immigrant Jose Paronella, the Park, with its fantastic castle, walkways, staircases and bridges gently rotting away in the rainforest beside Mena Creek’s waterfall, was first opened in 1925 as pleasure gardens. It even had its own hydroelectric system, using the force of the nearby falls.

Damaged by floods and cyclones, picturesque Paronella Park has been listed with the National Trust, and it has now been developed for modern tourism, its hydro system restored. Chosen as the setting for a recent feature movie, “Celeste”, it’s unique and authentic, a FNQ treasure. Nowadays we go there with our grandchildren.

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Climbing the stairs at Paronella Park

We drive out to Etty Bay, sixteen kilometres from Innisfail, one of Australia’s prettiest beaches, where rainforest and coconut palms shade the coral sand, and cassowaries wander.

 

Sometimes we spend a night in the caravan park and eat a fish and chips dinner at the kiosk.

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A cassowary wanders through the Etty Bay Caravan Park

Con is sentimental about Etty Bay.

“There’s another little beach up here,” he says, climbing over the oyster shell strewn rocks at the northern end of the beach. “We used to call it Second Beach.

“And look – here’s another beach! It’s tiny, but it’s a beach all right! We called it Third Beach!!

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Celebrating Second Beach

“We opened the oysters with a screwdriver. They were small, but they were the best oysters I ever ate!”

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Etty Bay oysters

Innisfail is a pretty town. The Johnstone Shire Hall, built in the 1930s on the side of a hill, has a top-floor ball room and concert hall. Con takes me up the steep stairs to take a look. People are setting up for a concert, and the double door at the back of the stage is open.

There is a lift platform outside the door, suspended far above the ground, for winching equipment, pianos and sound systems up to the stage. “Workplace Health and Safety was never much of a consideration when I was in shows here,” Con tells me.

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Johnstone Shire Hall abc.net.au

 

We visit Con’s old school, and the Catholic church, a spectacular building at the top of the town, dressed with Italian marble, with an altar constructed by Irish Trappist monks. Innisfail is an old name for Ireland, and lots of Irish migrated to this green countryside. Italians came, too, to cut cane and take up farming. Innisfail has the lively and well-stocked  Oliveri’s Italian delicatessen, where old families meet up on a Sunday morning for coffee and chat.

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Mother of Good Council Catholic Church, Innisfail

Chinese immigrants came here, too, working in the cane and the bananas, and going into business. The Innisfail Temple, also known as the Joss House, is still the spiritual home of the Chinese community here. Taam Sze Pui (Tom See Poy) came from southern China in the 1880s and set up one of North Queensland’s largest and most successful department stores, See Poy and Sons. Tom See Poy named his sons after North Queensland rivers – Johnstone, Gilbert and Herbert.

Con tells me about the time he worked in Men’s Wear at See Poy’s one Christmas holidays, as well as singing carols in the shop and changing into a Santa Claus suit to ask children what they wanted for Christmas.

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Mr Tom See Poy

The fine old department store is gone. Now Woolworths, Coles and Bunnings supply the town. Roadside stalls sell fresh, seasonal produce along the highway, and in March, the Innisfail Feast of the Senses Festival celebrates the local tropical fruit.

In regional areas like this, improved roads and large operators have undermined some local businesses. It’s easy to drive to Cairns for clothes and household goods, or a show or movie. Both of Innisfail’s two movie theatres are gone. Mechanical harvesters cut the cane; and backpackers pick the fruit.

Ironically, though, disasters have brought money into Innisfail. Since Cyclone Larry in 2006 and Cyclone Yasi in 2011, there are new, shiny roofs, new parkland and a walkway along the river. The old art deco buildings in the centre of town and the water tower on the hill have been painted in bright colours.

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Innisfail water tower

The bridge where the rivers join has been rebuilt in art deco style. There is now a Tropical Art Deco Festival in Innisfail. Who knew that these old buildings, always taken for granted, had such potential for charm?

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Rankin Street shop fronts

We drive down Coronation Avenue, beside the river, where Con’s family lived. All is green and lush, and the air is so humid it’s like being in a cloud – only hot. At the end of the street is Con O’Brien Park, named after his father, old Con. I take his photo with the sign; then we get back in the car and head south, before the rain begins.

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Cairns

I’m walking along the Cairns Esplanade, past the hospital. It’s a classic tropical scene with coconut palms, figs trees and lush plantings. The tide is out, and beyond a narrow strip of sand, mud stretches two hundred metres out to the waterline. Sea birds stalk on their long legs and webbed feet, pecking for worms and crabs. A blue sky is reflected in patterns of mud and water, and the calm sea behind gleams like pewter, right across Trinity Bay to the forests of the Yarrabah Range.

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Trinity Bay, Cairns, from the Esplanade

Opposite the hospital, a man in a yellow work vest stops me. “There’s a helicopter coming in,” he says. “It won’t take long, but we need to keep people away from the helipad for a few minutes.”

I stand with other walkers and watch. I hadn’t noticed before, but there is a helipad set into the broad grassy parkland across the road from the hospital buildings. “That’s strange,” I say to the man in the yellow vest. “Usually hospital helipads are on the roof of the hospital.”

“They can’t do that here,” he replies. “It’s too close to the flight path from the airport.”

Guards have stopped cyclists on the bike track, too. Across the road, in the hospital entrance, another uniformed man, wearing earmuffs, waits beside a wheeled stretcher. I hear a helicopter coming in from the west, and soon it lowers itself on to the helipad. It’s a large Queensland Government Air rescue helicopter.

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The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter ready to evacuate a patient from a remote property to Cairns Hospital

Crew in navy blue uniforms climb out of the helicopter as the traffic is stopped and the stretcher is brought across the road from the hospital. A middle-aged man in a high-vis work shirt and straggly goatee beard is loaded on, sitting propped up as he is wheeled back to the hospital.

The helicopter takes off, the men in yellow vests disappear, and we all continue our walking, jogging or cycling along the Esplanade as if nothing had happened.

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Jogger passing Cairns Hospital helicopter pad

Cairns Hospital services a huge geographical area, most of it wild and sparsely populated. Patients are transported here from as far away as Croydon, over five hundred kilometres to the west, from Thursday Island, eight hundred kilometres to the north, and even further. From here, patients requiring the most complex care are transferred to Brisbane, eighteen hundred kilometres south. The hospital can provide up to five hundred beds, making it a major regional facility. And its windows offer a view of palm trees and the Coral Sea.

I’ve been a patient here myself. Years ago, Con and I lived at Yarrabah Aboriginal Community, as it was known then, a forty-five-minute drive from Cairns. I’d worked hard one day hacking at the guinea grass and weeds that grew along the creek running by our house, and went to bed as usual that evening; but by next morning I was unconscious, and Con drove me urgently to the emergency department here at Cairns. At four o’clock that afternoon I woke up in the Intensive Care ward, startled by the sight in the next bed of a man wrapped completely in plaster and bandages, his limbs in hoists. He’d been in a plane crash.

While I’d been unconscious, I’d had an encephalogram and a lumbar puncture. The doctors concluded that I’d been bitten by some unknown tropical insect and had had a nasty response.

For the following twelve months I suffered debilitating attacks of vertigo, and it still troubles me from time to time. In North Queensland, it’s not just obvious things like crocodile attacks and jellyfish stings that can hurt you.

Con is a North Queenslander by birth. A tropical plant, as I tell him. He was born in Innisfail, an hour’s drive south of Cairns.

“Did you come to Cairns much when you were a kid?” I ask him.

“Sometimes. We’d come up here in the old man’s Ford ute, to rugby league games.”

“I didn’t know your dad was involved with rugby league.”

“Yes, he was president of Innisfail Rugby League Club for a while. League was strong there.”

Rugby league is strong everywhere in Queensland, but in regional areas there’s a special enthusiasm. In Townsville, in recent mayoral elections, an informal vote had an extra name pencilled on to the voting slip, with a “1” in the box and next to it, “Johnathan Thurston”, then star of the North Queensland Cowboys.

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Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections
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Johnathan Thurston, North Queensland Cowboys

Cairns has always been a lively place, both busy regional centre and tourist hotspot, the best-known place to come if you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef. As an American woman said to me at Uluru, “I went to Cairns first, then here. The Reef and the Rock – that’s all I want to see in Australia. I’m off home now.”

We’ve stayed in many parts of Cairns over the years, but the north-western stretch of the Esplanade (the ‘Nade to locals) is my favourite – beyond the tourist restaurants and biggest hotels, across the road from the seaside parklands and within walking distance of the centre of town. Towards Trinity Inlet and the cruise boat terminals is the spectacular swimming lagoon, built to relieve the frustrations of locals and tourists who find themselves beside the sea on a hot day, but unable to swim in it because of the mud – and the crocodiles.

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Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

The tropical plantings along Shield Street and Abbott Street are lush and beautiful, and it’s a treat to wander through Rusty’s Bazaar markets, with its tropical produce and hippy vibe; but I avoid the cheerless souvenir shops selling nothing made in Cairns, or even in Australia.

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Rusty’s Bazaar

More interesting are the renowned Cairns Botanic Gardens at Edge Hill, the Tanks Arts Centre now occupying the old fuel tanks tucked in behind the hill during the war, and Centenary Lakes, with its boardwalks and walking tracks and a wonderful, wild Nature Playground.

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Tanks Arts Centre

Joe, like his father, is a tropical plant, born in Townsville and just ten days old when we moved to Yarrabah. I’ll never forget the day we first drove over the range and down the steep descent into the town, stopping at the lookout to admire the view over Mission Bay to Fitzroy Island. The Yarrabah Range is covered in rainforest. It is beautiful, and the road is steep. Here and there beside the road are large stones, known as handbrakes, which can be used to put behind the wheels of your car if you break down halfway up the hill. Occasionally a cassowary strolls out of the forest and across the road.

In Yarrabah, we lived in a Queensland government residence, with a view out to sea, the steep, forested hillside behind us, and the sound of a waterfall close by. It was a tropical paradise; although for the local people life was, and is, often hard. I would drive to Cairns once a fortnight, to do the banking and grocery shopping, and I always took little Joe with me, to visit Rusty’s Bazaar and eat icecream on the Esplanade. Now Joe lives in the north, and he takes his own children to Cairns, to play in the waterpark and watch the birds on the mudflats.

It’s amazing what a pull this place has, with its brooding greenery and humid tropical air, its rain-forested hillsides and calm sea. If you were born a local, or even spend a few years here, it has the atmosphere of home.

I can recommend the hospital, too.

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Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

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