The cane harvest

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We left Cardwell early, there being no point in looking for breakfast there. It wasn’t far to Tully, a much bigger place than Cardwell. Maybe we’d be lucky there.

The cane harvest was in full swing in Queensland. We had already passed a number of mills belching thick columns of steam into the atmosphere.

A sugar mill doing its thing

Out in the paddocks, the harvesting machines were busy, much to the delight of the cattle egrets rummaging around in the disturbed earth for bugs.

Warnings about cane trains were common. They’re slow-moving, with a lot of weight behind them. Plenty of idiots have tried their luck getting through a crossing ahead of a cane train. Not wise. And that’s why you see a lot of train signs in the fields. I wondered what kids would make of them? Modern trains don’t look like that at all.

Although a lot of the cane is moved by rail, quite a bit is moved by truck. And this is one of the great joys of driving on the Bruce. These days in Queensland all loads must be covered, even your trailer load of palm fronds going to the tip. But these cane trucks appear to be exempt – or maybe just illegal. We were forced to follow this one for quite a way, not willing to fall too far back in case we got a chance to pass. I would have hated to be riding a motorcycle behind this truck. Bits of rubbish drifted off it and once it threw off a sizable rock that thunked on the windscreen.

Yes, this is the A1, the Bruce Hwy

We finally managed to pass and made our way to Tully, where the Chinese-owned sugar mill was belching clouds. The highway doesn’t pass through the town although I expect it did in times past. Now you have to tun left and cross the railway line to get to the main street. Tully copped the absolute brunt of TC Yasi in 2011. It’s a little further inland than Cardwell and maybe that’s why there is no lingering sign of the storm’s passing. That’s remarkable. Here’s a news report from the time.

The town itself is actually off the Bruce, nestled up against the hills. We soon found the olde worlde main street where cars have to be reversed into angled parking. Again, it was like revisiting the fifties, with not one of the major chain stores in sight. It was still early and most places were closed but we found an open café. It did serve breakfast, but Pete wanted bacon and eggs, not smashed avocado on sour dough. The local bakery didn’t do breakfast, either. The ladies there sent us to the roadhouse on the Bruce. We drove around the town looking for the main road out and went past the local school and, of course, the sugar mill. Superficially, at least, Yasi’s visit hadn’t left permanent scars.

The restaurant at the roadhouse wasn’t much more than a closed-off area at one end of the shop. Even then, due to covid, only two people could be there at any one time. That’s not very many customers to sustain a business. But, as is usually the case at roadhouses catering for truckies, the breakfast was good, with suitably runny poached eggs.

This far north the Bruce runs pretty well parallel to the Great Dividing Range. On the flat lowlands the farmers grow cane and bananas and mangoes and cattle. It’s picturesque, too. The mountains are rocky under their green mantle. In the rain this area would be running with waterfalls cascading down the hillsides but it has been dry; much drier than usual.

As we approached Cairns we came across two Sikh temples. I remembered watching an ABC documentary where somebody visited the Sikhs up here and I looked up their history. It seems the Sikhs started coming to Australia as early as the 1830’s. Convict transportation was coming to a halt and the colonies needed labour. Sikhs came here from Punjab and set up communities in Victoria and NSW. They came up here later. Now, they have a thriving community. They own their own banana plantations and have become Australians just like Pete and me. They still wear their turbans, it being part of their culture, but they speak Strine just like the rest of us.

We arrived in Cairns around noon and booked into our hotel at the marina without having to wait until 2pm. Here’s the view from our little balcony.

We’ve been to Cairns several times and loved the vibrant, busy city full of people from everywhere, enjoying the food, the culture, and the laid-back atmosphere. But this is the Year of the Plague. Cairns relies on tourism more than most places we’d visited and covid had taken its toll. At that time (mid-November) the borders had not yet been opened to NSW and Victoria – and, of course, not to overseas visitors. Hotels were half empty, offering great deals to attract customers like us.

The go-to destination for visitors is the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a whole building devoted to getting people onto boats and out to the reef or some of the day trip islands. When we’d been here before the main hall where people get their boarding passes was as packed as an airline terminal, with passengers snaking through lines to reach counters. Not today, though. The place was virtually empty.

We’d hoped to go out to the reef but honestly, with that easterly wind blowing fit to burst we’d decided it was pointless. I’d done a lot of snorkeling in my day and with the water churned up like that you can’t see your hand in front of your mask. But we asked. Maybe the wind would die down tomorrow or the next day. Not only was the wind not going to die down, cruises out to the reef had been severely cut. Most of the boats only went out once a week so that what custom there was, was shared between the operators. Covid restrictions didn’t help.

We visited the night markets that evening, a bustling shopping precinct filled with colour and smells, where you could buy food and souvenirs. Most of the stalls were closed, giving the place a kind of sad, deserted air. But I bought a few tee shirts. I’d thought they were made in Australia and was disappointed to learn the designs were Australian but the garments were actually made in China. I wouldn’t have bought them if I’d realised that at the time.

From our third floor room we’d noticed a number of boats called Prawn Star. Pete had read about them, four decommissioned prawn trawlers that had been converted to restaurants of a sort. Our friends had arrived from their (separate) drive up the coast and we all thought it might be nice to eat some fresh seafood for dinner. We duly wandered over and were seated at a bench, where Pete bought a beer and Sandy, Col, and I shared a bottle of wine. That was when we discovered this wasn’t really a full blown restaurant. They just sold freshly cooked seafood – prawns, bugs, oysters – but not fish and no sides. That wasn’t really what we were looking for so we finished our drinks and walked up to the Esplanade. In retrospect I suppose we could have ordered some seafood and had it as an entree. But retrospect’s a bitch.

On the esplanade people were out and about. Quite a few of the restaurants were open, though not as many as in the past. We settled for a pizza (very nice) and went back to the hotel for an early night.

Tomorrow we were going to the Babinda Boulders.

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