You don’t need special tools to husk and crack a coconut. You can do it with a rock.

I went with my family many years ago on a boat trip to Green Island, off Cairns, but for some reason we had no money. Not for us a café lunch with the other tourists. Instead we set off to walk around the small coral island, just one and a half kilometres, with only a packet of Arnotts wheatmeal biscuits to share.

Green Island postcard from the 1960s, about the time Dad cracked open the coconut

There was food lying around, though – coconuts fallen from the palms that ringed the island. My dad, always the boy scout, set about opening one of them with a rock – slicing through the husk, then cracking the shell. Fresh coconut meat for lunch.

Back at the wharf with the other, well-fed tourists we felt the slight smugness of those who choose the more adventurous path.

Years later, I went again to Green Island with my own children. It was 1982, and Hayles Cruises had just begun a fast catamaran service to the island. A cold meat and salad buffet was served on the way.

Joe was not quite six at the time, and all he remembers of the day is not the glass-bottomed boat or the underwater observatory, but that to eat our lunch we were provided with double-bowled plastic cats’ dishes. Catamaran. Get it?

Green Island with a modern tourist catamaran

Queensland has a long coastline and many islands, spread over more than two thousand kilometres, from Torres Strait to Moreton Bay – rocky islands that are an extension of the mainland, coral islands and sand islands. Coconuts grow as far south as the Great Barrier Reef stretches, to the Bundaberg area. Some were planted on the islands by European expeditioners so there would be food for seafarers marooned there in the future.

Queensland’s islands attract tourists and people looking for an idyllic way of life, artists and academics of various disciplines and the occasional filmmaker and politician. The ageing James Mason and teenaged Helen Mirren starred in the 1969 movie “Age of Consent”, filmed on Dunk Island, off Mission Beach, surely one of the most idyllic islands of them all. It was great for the locals to see one of their own beautiful places on the big screen. Con and I watched it at the Airdome Theatre in Innisfail.

“Age of Consent” promotion, 1969

We watched it again last year, and found that our values have changed. The story of a naïve young girl persuaded to take off her clothes to model for the much older artist, and then having an affair with him, seems most unsavoury now.

I first saw Dunk Island (Coonanglebah in the local Indigenous language) from a holiday flat at Mission Beach, a much cheaper option than staying at the island resort. Islands are expensive.

Torres Strait, Australia’s most northerly region, has around 274 islands and coral cays, many uninhabited, with dry and rocky Thursday Island (Waiben to the locals) the administrative centre. There is a story about a group of marine scientists from the United States who went to the Strait to study dugongs. For weeks they went out in boats, searching the seagrass beds for dugongs, and found none. When it was time to leave, they were invited to a local feast. The main course was dugong.

When driving over the Cardwell Range, we often stop at the lookout for one of Queensland’s most spectacular sights: Hinchinbrook Island (Pouandai) – a place of beauty and mystery.

Pouandai (Hinchinbrook Island) seen from the Cardwell Range lookout

Fifty-two uninhabited kilometres of cloud-capped granite mountains, jungle and waterfalls, mangroves and crocodiles and long, long beaches.

Hinchinbrook Island

Lizzie and I went there on the ferry from Lucinda and walked up the white, sandy beach, sadly littered with plastic bottles and rubbish washed up by the sea, and into the forest to visit beautiful Mulligan Falls for a swim.

Swimming at Mulligan Falls

Hinchinbrook Island used to have a resort. Ruined by financial difficulties, and then by Cyclone Yasi in 2011, it is now derelict, like the lush resort on Dunk Island. If you want to stay on Hinchinbrook, perhaps to hike the rugged Thorsborne Trail, you have to book ahead, and take everything you need on your back.

My kids recall with pleasure a family boat trip around the Whitsunday Islands, off Airlie Beach and Proserpine, during our 1982 trip.

South Molle Island before Cyclone Debbie

We called at Hook Island, and then South Molle Island – memorable to the kids because of its magnificent swimming pool.

These islands are a tourism magnet – or they were before Cyclone Debbie arrived. Cyclone Debbie, in January 2017, wiped out the South Molle Resort. It now lies rotting away in the heat, its fine pool derelict.

South Molle Resort pool three years after Cyclone Debbie

The climate is challenging. It’s also extremely expensive to build and maintain isolated island resorts to the high standards expected by modern tourists. Many of these idyllic places may never recover, but in the Whitsundays, Hayman, Daydream, and Hamilton Islands have reopened for business.

Fraser Island (K’gari), the world’s largest sand island, is 122 kilometres long, and World Heritage listed for its variety of outstanding natural features – rainforest, long sandy beaches, gorgeous freshwater lakes perched in its sand dunes.

Two of Sidney Nolan’s iconic Fraser Island paintings in Queensland Art Gallery

With friends in a 4WD we drove up that wonderful stretch of beach past people swimming and sunbathing and fishing in the surf.

Fraser Island

Crossing the island on sand tracks we visited Lake Mackenzie and the beautiful clear water of Eli Creek, and stayed the night at Kingfisher Bay Resort.

Late last year, a bushfire started from an illegal campfire in the national park in the northern part of Fraser Island was allowed to burn through much of the precious bushland before serious firefighting began. Professional firefighting resources were not brought in until “assets” were under threat – Kingfisher Bay Resort, for instance. If the World Heritage forests of Fraser Island are not its chief “assets”, however that is defined, I don’t know what is.

Fraser Island burning

Do insurance companies contribute heavily to fire brigades? Maybe that has something to do with it. National parks don’t make insurance claims.

I hope one day I’ll get to visit Lady Musgrave Island (Wallanginji), a tiny, protected coral cay at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. I’d like to snorkel in the clear waters of the lagoon, spot green and loggerhead turtles, dolphins and birds, as our Lizzie and her family did a couple of years ago. For them, it was an unforgettable experience

Snorkelling with turtles at Wallanginji

You can camp there, with a permit, and I’ve heard that large sea turtles have been known to crawl through campsites and under tents, single-mindedly heading for a sandy spot to lay their eggs or on their way back to the sea.

Camping at Wallanginji (Lady Musgrave Island)

So many Queensland islands to write about, and I haven’t even started on the Moreton Bay islands, some of the most beautiful of them all.

No coconuts there though.

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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