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.

innisfail riverfront
Innisfail waterfront at the junction of the North and South Johnstone Rivers

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.

5 - con, jim and colin. innisfail 1940
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.

innisfail Canecutters_Memorial,_1999
Canecutters Memorial

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.

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.

Innisfail etty
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!!

Innisfail etty 2
Celebrating Second Beach

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

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.

innisfail shire hall
Johnstone Shire Hall

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Enter a caption

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.

Blog at

Up ↑