Golden Gumboot

It’s December in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the chimneys of Tully Sugar Mill are quiet. Crushing has finished for the year. Behind the town, the rainforests of Mount Tyson are cloaked in rain.

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Wet Tropics

This is Golden Gumboot country. The Golden Gumboot is an unofficial, hotly contested yearly competition for the highest rainfall, between the Far North Queensland towns of Tully and Babinda.

Tully, 140 kilometres south of Cairns, has at the start of its main street a concrete gumboot 7.9 metres high with a frog crawling up it. Having survived two fierce cyclones, the boot was recently refurbished by means of a state government grant and given a spectacular coat of gold paint. There is a staircase to the top, and a viewing platform. 7.9 metres is the amount of rain that fell here in 1950: the highest annual rainfall ever recorded in a populated area of Australia. Tully’s average annual rainfall, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, is 4 metres.

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Tully’s Golden Gumboot with renewed gold

Tully has a Golden Gumboot Festival each year whatever the totals are; but in recent decades Babinda, 80 kilometres further north, has had the higher rainfall, averaging 4.28 metres annually, compared to Tully’s 4.09 metres. It’s Babinda that has the Golden Gumboot bragging rights.

To give an idea of what these numbers signify, Brisbane has an average rainfall of just over one metre a year.

Babinda nestles close to the rainforest-covered slopes of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain. If you can see the top of Mount Bartle Frere, so locals say, it’s going to rain. If you can’t, it is raining.

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Towards Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest

People in these northern towns and farms face a challenging climate, economic threats and agricultural tribulations. Bananas and papaws are major industries around here, but the focus of Tully’s economy is its sugar mill. Chinese-owned, it is the economic heart of this working town. Tully Mill crushes the second highest tonnage of any in the country.

Banana crops, papaw trees and sugar cane are vulnerable to disease, and all are at the mercy of the market – and the weather. Because the rainfall in this region is so reliable, farmers don’t irrigate.

The locals are down-to-earth and practical. They drive twin-cab utes, often with a pig dog cage on the back, and there are boats parked in many back yards. Men dress in boots, work shorts, polo shirts and hi-vis. Women favour denim shorts, black singlet tops and rubber thongs.

The locals relish an earthy form of humour. For instance, a visitor to Tully might talk about driving up the main street, Butler Street; but to a local, it’s “going up the Butt.”

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Up Butler Street, Tully, towards Mount Tyson

Both Babinda and Tully have spectacular tourist draw cards nearby. The famous Tully Gorge, where white-water

rafting tours ride the outpour of water from the Kareeya hydro-electricity plant, runs right up against the ranges of the Atherton Tableland and the three hundred metre drop of Tully Falls. The falls lie directly below Tully Falls Lookout on the map, but the distance between the two by road is over two hundred kilometres.

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Tully Gorge seen from Tully Falls Lookout, 200km away by road

Electric-blue Ulysses butterflies flit through the forests along the gorge.

Babinda has The Boulders, a famous swimming hole and granite boulder-strewn creek of matchless beauty. We called in there for a swim a few years ago, floating in that clear pool in the rain as if in a cool, green heaven.

“We used to come to The Boulders for picnics,” Con told me, kicking against the gentle flow of the water. Con grew up in Innisfail, which lies between Tully and Babinda, looking out towards Mount Bartle Frere. Innisfail, famous for its papaws, averages a mere 3.4 metres of rainfall annually.

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Innisfail banana farm

“Downstream from the main swimming hole there’s a place we called the Chute, which was like a fast water slide. It was great. And the Devil’s Pool – you’d have to be crazy to jump in there, but people did.”

This is a dangerous place for people who venture too close to where the creek is sucked down among huge granite boulders. Adventurous young men have died here.

“When I played for Innisfail Brothers League team and we had a game in Babinda, we’d come to The Boulders afterwards for a swim. We played at the Babinda showgrounds, and there was no such luxury as showers there.”

I first visited The Boulders with my family during a road trip from the south. My dad climbed up on a large boulder and swung out on a rope swing before performing a cartwheeling belly flop into the creek. He swam ashore with his chest scarlet from hitting the water. We were laughing; he didn’t see the funny side.

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The Boulders, Babinda

In 2011, Cyclone Yasi brought disaster to a thousand kilometres of  Queensland coast, its eye crossing the coast at Mission Beach, the closest coastal town to Tully.

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Cyclone Yasi crossing the coast

Yasi’s devastation still shows in an occasional roofless building and in the thinned rainforest on the hillsides. Mission Beach people were isolated for days. A couple of years after Yasi I spoke to a young Frenchwoman living there. I asked her how she had fared.

“During the cyclone, I got a call from my family in Paris,” she told me. “My mother had died. I wanted to get out, to get to the airport in Cairns and fly home. The roads were blocked with debris. The army was clearing them with chainsaws, but no one was allowed in or out.

“I finally managed to get a ride out to the highway with the police, and a bus to Cairns, but the funeral was over long before I reached home.”

We visited friends at South Mission Beach in their beautiful timber house on the hill, and stood on their verandah looking down through greenery towards the tranquil beach where Yasi made landfall.

“Did you leave, when Yasi was coming?” I asked.

“No, we stayed here. We bunkered down in the bathroom, but it was scary. The noise was incredible. The glass doors at the back blew out, and the garden was a mess of shredded trees and debris. We couldn’t get down the road for smashed branches and tree trunks.”

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A local’s comment on Cyclone Yasi

In the Tully branch of Cassowary Coast Libraries there is a display of local historical photographs. Looking at them and seeing the difficulties involved in land clearing, timber felling, road building and transport in the old days, and considering the difficulties they still face today from the weather and the markets, it’s easy to see why the locals need to be tough.

2019 has been drier than usual, even here in the Wet Tropics. The Cassowary Coast Council, which includes Tully and Innisfail, has announced Level 3 water restrictions. The beautiful creek at The Boulders is at its lowest level for years. Babinda and Tully have both recorded much less than their average rainfalls, and little rain is forecast for the rest of the year.

The Wet Tropics is still the greenest place in the state. Sugar, banana and pawpaw farmers are watching the forecasts, though. They must wonder what the future will bring.

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Ulysses butterflies

 

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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