Gympie

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Gympie park. queensland.com

Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, Tower Bridge, the Great Pyramid of Giza: between Nambour and Gympie, nestled in a wide bend of the road and standing out of the long grass, there was once a group of these metre-high “Famous Sights”. As we passed on the highway I would look out for them, huddled there incongruously in the paddock.

Someone’s hopes and energies went into casting the concrete, welding the steel, painting the details. Like other would-be tourist attractions along the highways – a life-sized dinosaur at Palmwoods, concrete teepees near Slacks Creek, a Big Pineapple beside a Gympie service station – the Famous Sights are long gone now.

Instead of winding up and over the way it used to, with traffic backed up behind slow caravans and farm trucks on the steep curves and blind corners, the modern highway to Gympie cuts through these beautiful, productive green hills north of Nambour, typical of southern Queensland’s coastal hinterland.

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“Nambour Country”, John Rigby Caboolture Art Gallery

The Famous Sights are bypassed; or maybe the new motorway was built over the top of them. Perhaps a bulldozer crushed them under its tracks – an apocalyptic sight worthy of a movie.

 

“It’s easier to get to Gympie these days,” Con says. “Not like when we came in the Galloping Ghost.”

In the late 1960s, when we were engaged, Con and I drove to Gympie for a weekend Apex Conference at which he was to make a speech. We went in Con’s car, the Galloping Ghost, a 1956 Austen A90, the first car he’d ever owned.

We’d arranged to stay with Con’s elderly Uncle Jack. Jack ushered me to his sister’s bedroom, where I was to sleep. Holy pictures adorned the walls and the old-fashioned dresser.

After the Saturday evening event, it seemed tame to just go back to Uncle Jack’s place.

“Let’s go down to Rainbow Beach,” said Con. “It’s only an hour’s drive.”

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Rainbow Beach. Surf Club towards the bottom left. gympie.qld.com.au

We parked in the dark near the surf club, looking out over the sea, and went for a walk on the beach in the moonlight. There was some cuddling, then Con started the Ghost to drive back to Gympie.

That’s when we discovered that we had parked in sand, blown up into the club’s carpark. We were bogged to the axles, with no way of extricating ourselves. We spent the night in the car, and at daybreak Con, still wearing his suit, pounded on the door of the surf club. Two sleepy lifesavers came out, grumbling, and pushed us out of the sand.

Uncle Jack looked at us with silent disapproval when we sheepishly got back to his place, still in our party clothes.

Gympie, with its history and its heritage buildings, reminds me of other gold-mining towns I’ve visited. Although not as grand as Ballarat and Bendigo, it has charm; and it is promoted as “the town that saved Queensland”. Until gold was discovered here in 1867, Queensland, with its long distances, small population and agricultural economy, was broke. Gympie gold made all the difference. Railways were built to open up the inland, and impressive government offices arose in Brisbane, including the massive Treasury Building, now the Treasury Casino.

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At the Gympie Gold Mining and Historical Museum

People who live and work in modern Gympie don’t have it easy. Unemployment rates are high, and every summer, it seems, the Mary River floods the lower parts of town, and business people have to hose mud out of their premises.

A few years ago, we revisited Gympie to go to the races. The O’Brien Cup, in fact. There are lots of Irish in Gympie. Irish communities everywhere, even fifth and sixth generation Australians like these, love horseracing, and they love to celebrate their Irish background.

gympie irish craic

The night before the races we drove two hours from Brisbane after work, checked into a motel, and then wondered where to go for dinner. That’s a common issue for travellers in country towns. And there is a common solution.

“The R.S.L. Club has a Courtesy Bus,” said the motel manager. “I’ll give them a ring. What time would you like to be picked up?”

Locals know where to find good places to eat, but clubs are easier for a tired newcomer, with guaranteed cheap food and cold drinks, and no need to book ahead; and these days it’s not just Fisherman’s Basket or Roast of the Day, eaten to the sound of the pokies.

And there’s always a Courtesy Bus.

That evening in Gympie, the R.S.L. bus picked us up from the motel and delivered us soberly to the Club, in Mary Street, with its old pub buildings and Federation-era facades. An elegant 1880s building has on one corner of its roof the figure of a kangaroo holding the Australian coat of arms, and on the other, an emu.

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Gympie buildings. flickr.com

 

We had a typical club dinner and listened to a duo playing old songs, then went out to catch the bus home.

This ride was more interesting. Everyone was cheerful and relaxed, and there was singing, laughter and craic all through the dark suburbs of Gympie, people dropped off at their front doors, yells of “Ta mate!” as they left the bus. Irish all the way.

As a young man, Con’s father came to Gympie in the 1920s, cutting timber. An old photo shows him grinning at the camera, arms folded, sitting on an upturned packing crate on a railway station platform. In the background logs are stacked ready for the mill, and beyond is the scrub.

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Old Con at Amamoor Station, 1920s

He and his two friends are wearing work boots, long pants and braces, crisp white shirts with the sleeves rolled up, their hair slicked down. They’re probably waiting for the train to town – to Gympie. The sign on the station building says “Amamoor”.

Nowadays Amamoor, twenty kilometres south of Gympie, is famous as the home of the Gympie Music Muster, one of Australia’s biggest Country Music festivals, held on the banks of Amamoor Creek, surrounded by the hills that produced the timber that Con’s dad helped to fell.

Gympie Music Muster 2018 Drone.
Drone footage of the Gympie Music Muster. gympietimes.com.au

A couple of years ago we turned off the Bruce Highway to search for the site of the photo. The tall timbers have disappeared; but the small station building seems unchanged after nearly a century, and the sign still says “Amamoor”.

For many of us travelling up the Bruce, Gympie is just a place to get through with the minimum of hold-up, and usually all we see is the busy highway. But like every town along the way, there’s more to it than service stations and speed zones.

If you should drive down to Rainbow Beach in the dark, though, be careful where you park.

Sugar Town

 

Narrow country roads, sugar cane fields, flecks of soot in the air. This was Nambour, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland: my childhood home.

Now the sugar cane has gone from around here, replaced by housing estates and turf farms.

Back then, farmers burned the cane before harvesting. The cane fires blazed in the still evening air, spreading across the paddocks, and flecks of black fell out of the sky night and day. In crushing season, the smell of sugar filled the town, and narrow-gauge, coal-burning cane tram engines rumbled across the main street on their way out to the fields and back, whistles blowing in warning. Lengths of cane lay across long lines of flat cars towed to the mill yard, with a plume of purple cane flower sticking up out of the last truck as a flag.

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We kids would pick up half-burned lengths of cane fallen from the trucks, and bend and crack them until the sugar juice ran out into our mouths and down our chins.

In Queensland, only the Railway Department call their rolling stock trains. The narrow-gauge sugar mill engines and trucks are referred to as trams. In North Queensland, brightly-painted, chunky diesel locomotives, known as locos, still drag long rows of cane bins to the mills, crossing the highway while tourists take photos.

Until the twenty-first century, sugar mills seemed to Queenslanders to be as permanent as mountains, indicators of employment and prosperity. Now, in Babinda, Far North Queensland, where until recent years a steam-belching mill stood alongside the Bruce Highway, there is nothing to see but long grass and concrete foundations; and at Mourilyan, south of Innisfail, only the old mill sheds still stand, roosting spaces for Indian mynah birds.

Moreton Central Sugar Mill in Nambour seemed enormous to us kids, with its chimneys, high corrugated iron roofs, towers and sheds, and the unloading deck for the cane trucks. We were taken on tours of its mysterious and noisy workings. I looked with horrid fascination into the pit where the trucks rolled over and tipped the cane into devouring steel crushers. The pleasant scent of sugar became a foul stink inside the mill.

There’s something special about sugar towns, though: green and tropical, with palms and fig trees, the impressive mill manager’s house, and tram lines running along the street to the great mill buildings. It’s a nostalgic pleasure for me when we drive north towards Tully in crushing season and see from a distance the clouds of steam billowing from the chimneys of its busy mill, white against the forest green of the mountains behind.

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I recently drove down to see South Queensland’s only remaining sugar mill, the Rocky Point mill near the small bayside town of Jacob’s Well, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I’d never been there before, but it was instantly familiar. Old trees and palms, a magnificent house, and the looming mill with its tram lines and chimneys.

Moreton Central stayed in operation until 2003, when the last of the locos pulled a train of empty bins into the mill yard. The Sunshine Coast street directory no longer shows the cane tramlines as it used to do: North Branch, Maroochy, Petrie Creek. The locos with their familiar, local names – Petrie, Dunethin, Coolum – have gone; and Nambour has lost something picturesque, as well as its long-time economic heart.

A few years ago, Con and I drove back from the far north in rain all the way down the Bruce Highway. Just before dark, rather than face the city peak hour in the wet, we turned off the motorway and checked into a motel in Nambour for the night.

When the rain eased off, I walked up Mill Street, and found that the sugar mill was gone. Demolished. There is a Coles Supermarket on the site now. Only the cane tram tracks and traffic lights remain, down Howard Street, as a reminder. Coles has bought the old mill administration buildings and restored them; and those once-terrifying steel crushers have been welded into an attractive industrial sculpture, standing in the middle of the garden roundabout in Mill Street. Nambour has moved on.

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