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