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, otherwise known as the freshwater crocodile or freshie, which doesn’t eat people; but the saltie, or saltwater crocodile, does eat people – and it also inhabits these rivers.

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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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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 a 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.

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Cape Hillsborough (Image: Queensland.com)

Burketown

Rosevale is beautiful. The old one-teacher school (now closed) and the even older principal’s residence are set on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, with a view over dairy farms to Cunningham’s Gap. We lived in that house for the two years that Con was Principal of the school, but after that I wanted a change.

“Let’s apply for a transfer to somewhere up north. It would be exciting and adventurous. Not the Gulf of Carpentaria, though! I don’t want to go there. It’s probably hot, dry, flat and miserable in the Gulf Country.”

Burketown, a small, isolated town in the heart of the Gulf Country, was where they sent us. It was hot, dry and flat. But it was rarely miserable. Just different.

These days, there are conveniences in Burketown that were unimaginable when we were there: mains power, street lights, treated water, sewerage, a swimming pool complex, a coffee shop, even a green and shady caravan park.

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Burketown Caravan Park today. From its Facebook page

For us, shade would be a luxury.

We moved to Burketown in January 1973, with our two small children. The car and our pets went on the train with us from Brisbane to Mt Isa: the dog in the dog box in the Guards Van, cats in the luggage van in pet packs and our HR Holden on a flat-car.

From Townsville to Mt Isa there were no sleeping berths available, so we curled up on a couple of seats at one end of the Buffet Car, with people coming and going all night.

On the train we met a pink-cheeked Irish family, just arrived in Australia and travelling to work at Mount Isa Mines. Arriving next day, we all stepped out of the train into what seemed like an oven. I sometimes think of that Irish family and wonder how they coped.

A couple of days later, we flew to Burketown with Bush Pilots Airways in a twenty-seater Twin Otter. It was a mail run, stopping at Mornington Island and a couple of cattle stations, swooping over the station landing fields to chase horses away before setting down.

At Mornington Island more passengers boarded, a couple of them sitting cross-legged in the aisle. One woman was wearing a broad felt hat with a tape measure as a hatband. I was in southeast Queensland no longer.

At the tiny Burketown airport, the shire clerk met us, and he drove us into town. We left our suitcases in the principal’s house, a neat, new highset house of the style used all over the State for Queensland Government employees. Next door was the recently-built school.

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Burketown State School, with the Principal’s house in the background, 1974

Awaiting the arrival by road of our furniture, we checked in at the pub.

The Burketown pub, known as the Albert Hotel, was in those days a square concrete two-storey building. It had been built originally as Customs House for the then-thriving port on nearby Albert River. The sleeping areas were accessed via an outdoor staircase. We were warned that when the bar closed, the generator, which thumped away all day in the neighbouring shed, would be switched off, and there would be no lights until morning.

There is no quiet like that of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere when the generators stop.

Stars never seem brighter than on a clear night in a town with no streetlights.

There is no heat like that of a tropical night in the middle of summer without fans.

The publican also warned us that there would be no breakfast, as his wife, the cook, was away in Cairns. Next morning in the hotel kitchen I cooked bacon and eggs for us all.

In our three years in Burketown, we got to know the Albert Hotel well, along with its eccentric regulars, animal and human.

A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Whacko sat on top of the doorway into the bar, chewing the heads off matches.

Fishermen and locals spun endless yarns, not only to the new schoolteachers, but also to visiting politicians and media.

A film crew asked a group of locals playing euchre how long they’d been playing. “A couple of weeks,” came the laconic reply.

Once we found a large fresh-water crocodile tied to a post outside the door, like a dog waiting for its owner.

On our second evening in Burketown, when the bar was full and card games in progress, our furniture van arrived and pulled up in front of the pub. The card players offered to help with the unloading.

South-east Queensland had suffered a heatwave over Christmas of 1972 and into the New Year. Con and I had been busy during those hot weeks before leaving the south. Driving round Brisbane with little kids in the back seat, trying to buy a kerosene fridge and a thirty-two volt washing machine, had taken precedence over sorting our belongings. In the end, we’d instructed the removalists to pack everything; and so the blokes from the Burketown pub, in their footie shorts, singlets and thongs, carried electric heaters and winter coats into a house without electricity in the middle of a Gulf Country summer.

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Burketown general store, 1975. So hot inside, condensed milk would caramelise in the can

In our time, there was a hospital, general store, shire offices, fuel depot, school and hotel and not much more in Burketown, and barely a tree or blade of grass; but it was a friendly and welcoming place. The locals told us what sounded like tall stories, but I learned to believe the lot. Crazy things happened here all the time.

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Con and our children in Burketown

We never regretted the move to the Gulf, in spite of insect plagues, the trials of operating the thirty-two-volt generator, kerosene fridge and petrol iron, the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the rough dirt roads, the isolation. Sometimes it was lonely, though. I would stand on the verandah, looking north to where the Gulf lay, out of sight beyond endless desolate salt flats and mangroves, and feel sorry for Burke and Wills, who got this far and then turned back, to die of starvation.

It can feel like the end of the world, up in the Gulf Country.

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Looking north from the Principal’s house, 1974

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