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.

D39C46BE-AFC8-41F4-A8A7-DE5B186AF171
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.

cairns helicopter 3
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.

cairns hospital
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.

cairns thurston
Ballot paper, Townsville mayoral elections
cairns thurston 2
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 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.

cairns lagoon
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.

cairns_rustys-markets_own
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.

cairns tanks
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.

cairns cent lakes
Boardwalk, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

Mackay Crocodiles

“Daily Mercury”, Mackay. 30 July 1913

The search for Mr George Noble, who wandered from his home near The Leap at the beginning of the month, has now been abandoned without the slightest trace of the missing man having been discovered. The missing man might have been taken by alligators, his farm being situated between Reliance and Constant Creeks, the waters of which are infested with these reptiles. Native dogs also frequent the neighbourhood and may have attacked the man once he became helpless through exposure. Mr Noble was a man of 78 years of age and in his declining years had become rather childish. He evidently lost his way through wandering off on a bye-track.

Reliance Creek National Park now protects one of the last patches of scrub along the creek, not far from its estuary between Mackay and Cape Hillsborough. A century ago, although already surrounded by farms and sugarcane fields, this area, dense with vines and palms, would have been a dangerous place to be lost.

mackay reliance creek nat park mackay conservation group
Mackay Conservation Group explores Reliance Creek National Park

In 1883, George and Jane Noble had emigrated to Mackay from Newcastle on Tyne, England, with their children. They settled on the farm at The Leap, amongst the cane fields and wilderness north of Mackay. It was thirty years later, in his old age, that George disappeared. The search involved local people, police and a tracker, but nothing was ever found.

Perhaps somewhere out in the Reliance Creek estuary there is a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth lying hidden under the sand, lost by poor old George Noble, his Geordie accent stilled forever, far from the Tyne.

George and Jane Noble were the great-grandparents of my husband Con, and only a vague story of the old man wandering off and disappearing was passed down in the family.

Every year in Northern Australia, people are taken by crocodiles. North Queenslanders have lost access to many of their old favourite swimming holes because of them. Endlessly cynical about governments in the south, they say whenever an appeal for crocodile culling is turned down, “When the first croc appears in the Noosa River, they’ll change their minds!”

Or the beaches of the Gold Coast. Perhaps the Brisbane River, near the Tower of Power, home of state government administration, poised above the river at 1 William Street. A crocodile under the mangrove boardwalk there would cause a stir.

Queensland has a service called “Crocwatch” that people ring to report crocodile sightings. Every year there are many such calls, from Torres Strait to Rockhampton. This year, someone said they saw a crocodile at Tin Can Bay, which is scarily close to south Queensland waters.

mackay croc-country
Qld Government’s “Crocwatch” map

This year there have been twenty-five recorded crocodile sightings in the Mackay region, near swimming enclosures along the coast, up the creeks and the Pioneer River, and one in Constant Creek, near where George disappeared.

On trips north to Cairns we’ve often spent a night in Mackay, where the cattle country to the south changes to the land of sugarcane, coconut palms and rainforest. It’s fine old city, and a good place to break a journey. This is spectacular country, from the beautiful beaches, up the sprawling Pioneer Valley to the rainforest-covered ranges of Finch-Hatton and Eungella. The climate has extremes – from cyclones and floods to the occasional fall of snow on the ranges.

This year, just before reaching Mackay we turned west on the road to Walkerston, then right on to Mackay Eungella Road, and drove up the Pioneer River valley, through picturesque small towns – Marian, Mirani, Pinnacle, Finch Hatton.

581BB516-EEB8-4002-A387-BF2A77F5ED33_1_201_a
The Pioneer River at Marian

Con’s mother Min grew up here. George Noble’s son Bill and his wife Mary became cane farmers in this valley, still one of Queensland’s richest sugarcane areas. Bill farmed at Alexandra, on the Palms Estate, a large area of farms located about ten kilometres south-west of Mackay, somewhere between Walkerston and the river.

In 1908 it was from this family farm that Bill and Mary drove away in a buggy to Mackay Hospital. Mary was to have an operation for a goitre in her neck. She died under the anaesthetic. She and Bill had six children under nine, and it was hard times for the bereaved family.

F46C1516-64C7-4F34-87DF-B8C1873CFE45_4_5005_c
Mackay District Hospital, 1910 (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min was the second-eldest child, and she told us stories about life on the farm.

She spoke of the time her little brother, Jim, lost two fingers in a chaff cutter.

She spoke of city men, desperate for work as the Great Depression started to bite, who came here with soft hands and cut cane with blood running down their arms until their blisters turned into calluses.

9E6749DF-53E1-42A7-B261-B9DD605A9341_4_5005_c
Cutting sugar cane (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min spoke of going to dances at nearby Walkerston or Marian. During the Wet, when the roads were cut, to get there they would travel along the cane train tracks on a pumper trolley.

This year it’s dry in the Pioneer Valley, like most of the state. Last December, for the first time, bushfires got into the iconic rainforest on the Eungella range. It was a shock to us all. Rainforest doesn’t burn, we thought.

CFE12488-DC2A-407A-AE05-7FBDFF5E4B4F
Eungella Range: fire damage from December 2018

The barman in the Finch Hatton pub, where we enjoyed a beer and toasted sandwiches, looked up at the hillside across the road and said, “It was burning right to the top of that range. Up the Gorge as well. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’ll grow back, though. It always does.”

I hope he’s right, but rainforest trees, unlike eucalypts, are not adapted to burning. This September, South-east Queensland’s Binna Burra rainforest also burned, along with its heritage-listed lodge. Perhaps we’ll have to become accustomed to fires in ancient forests.

B7CBC891-E637-45A3-B20B-297C5AE3214C
Coomera Falls, Binna Burra, 2018

When you take the winding Mackay Eungella Road up the range, the scars of last year’s fire are still visible, although green is emerging. Over the range and down to Broken River, the forest is untouched, with platypuses in the river and whip birds scratching among the leaf litter; but we’ve had a shocking taste of how things may be in the future.

Crocodile attacks might be the least of worries for the people of Queensland, both north and south.

Mackay, though, is beautiful, in all its faces; and one of the loveliest sights in Queensland is that of kangaroos on the spectacular beaches of Cape Hillsborough, only a few kilometres north of where old George Noble’s specs may still lie hidden in the sand.

mackay cape hills kanga(Queensland.com)
Cape Hillsborough (Image: Queensland.com)

Bowen Arrow

“Bowen Arrow. That’s a good name for a motel!”

As Con drives, I’m looking online for a place to spend the night. Bowen will be a convenient place to break our trip.

In 1963, on a road trip with my family, we put up Dad’s old army tent in a caravan park in Bowen. It was a depressing spot, squeezed up against a fence, down by the wharf.

Bowen the Beautiful – No Place More So! said the tourist brochure.

“Oh really?” we scoffed.

I’ve since taken a closer look at Bowen. Queens Beach is indeed beautiful, and Horseshoe Bay is one of the sweetest spots in the country.

I like the way the coconut palms here wear upside-down skirts to stop the coconuts from falling on people’s heads.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Coconut palms, Bowen

I like to walk around Mullers Lagoon and stand under the shady umbrella of the biggest fig tree I’ve ever seen.

IMAG5309
Mullers Lagoon, Bowen

Herbert Street, which sweeps grandly down the hill to the harbor, was named after Queensland’s first premier, and Bowen itself after Sir George Bowen, the first governor. This was North Queensland’s first port and first major settlement, retaining its stature until Townsville was developed, two hundred kilometres to the north. It still has a feeling of the important centre it was intended to be.

Bowen has had time in the spotlight. We last visited in 2007 while scenes of Baz Luhrmann’s epic movie Australia were being filmed here, with Bowen’s harbour standing in for Darwin Harbour, and the Grand View Hotel, since lavishly renovated, made over as a bombed-out ruin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Security barriers around the set of Australia in Bowen

Bowen also boomed with the mining boom, and perhaps is now suffering, as Mackay is, from the consequent bust.

I’m fussy about motels. Con and I have stayed at some dodgy ones over the years. An old-style air-conditioner in the corner roars all night, too far from the bed for us to feel the cool air it may or may not be producing. The bed is hard, the sheets are short, and the bedspread is a multi-patterned affair, designed to hide stains.

The room is never quite dark. There are tiny lights on smoke detectors, air-conditioner, clock, television and microwave. Security lights peek through the curtains where they don’t meet properly no matter how hard you yank them together; headlights flash across the ceiling as people arrive late or leave early.

The milk in the small, noisy fridge is the long-life variety, and the freezer section isn’t cold enough to actually freeze anything.

Everything reeks of that scented cleaning product found only in motels.

Things have improved a great deal in recent times, and very few motels have all of the above. These days, road workers, railway workers and tradies stay in country motels. It’s common to see loaded utes and work boots outside rooms, with a bloke in a high-visibility shirt having a beer next door. These hard-working people want a good night’s sleep. Now there is always hot water in motel showers. The television works, the air-conditioning is efficient, the beds reasonably comfortable.

The bedspreads haven’t changed, though.

Up to a third of travelling time is spent in accommodation, so it should be a pleasurable experience. Location, security, comfort and affordability are essential, but atmosphere, charm and hospitality also rank high with me.

I don’t mean a Bed and Breakfast place packed with crocheted doilies, potpourri and milk churns painted with roses. A friend told me about a B&B where the bed was decorated with boy and girl rag dolls, leaning against the ubiquitous stack of ornate pillows and cushions. When she and her partner came back from dinner, the covers had been turned down and the boy and girl dolls were cuddled up together in bed.

Not really my style.

Here in Bowen, on a previous trip, we stayed in one of the best motels I’ve ever come across, for hospitality, amenities and comfort: the Bluewater Harbour Motel. We won’t stay there tonight, because it’s off the highway and we’re in a hurry.

In the end, I decide on the Ocean View. I’ve noticed this place over the years, positioned above the highway south of town, next to the Big Mango, with an outlook over the sea and the islands. According to the online description, it also provides dinner.

big mango
The Big Mango, Bowen

We check in in the late afternoon, and eat our simple meal on the verandah, looking past a flowering frangipani at the lights of Bowen across the bay.

This is not exactly the Bowen Hilton, but it is comfortable, the situation is beautiful, and it turns out that the manager was best man at Con’s niece’s wedding. In North Queensland, that’s the way of things. Everyone is connected.

It’s all good. But next time we come, I want to have a shot at the Bowen Arrow.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑