The Narrow Road to the Deep North


This week I arrived in Mackay after seven days on the road with my family. We left Wollongong in our trusty Hyundai pulling a trailer load of bikes and books and camping gear, bound for the deep north. Well it seems like the deep north to us, but it’s still only half way up the length of Queensland, which is a colossal state (FACT: Queensland is actually much BIGGER than Texas).

trailer loaded up
The trailer loaded up and ready to go.

Carrying our own gear we felt like motorised gastropods migrating towards warmer lands:

Trailer packed for the
narrow road to the deep north –
Snails toward cane fields.

I’m in Mackay to begin my first extended stint of work on Sugar vs the Reef. This is an experiment to see what can happen when artists work together with farmers on a serious environmental management issue. It’s an affirmation of the wisdom of the people who work with Land as their medium, and I’m here to listen, learn and feed back my observations into the community.

The story about how this whole thing came to pass is told briefly here.

This is my fourth trip to Mackay. Up ’til now, my visits have been brief – about 4 days each, packed with meetings and attending events and doing interviews. But it’s now time to settle into the rhythm of Mackay, forget about all the rushing around, and let things evolve at their own pace. This place will be our home for the next 7 weeks.

It was important to drive, rather than fly, so that we could better feel the rise and fall of the land – and the immense distance from our home to the place where we are to be guests, and temporary citizens. Driving from Wollongong to Mackay continuously would take about 20 continuous hours if you took the most direct route. We took a whole week, travelling just 3-4 hours per day, and stopping off along the way.

We left about a week later than we had planned.

The hardest part:
Breaking away from
Our own home’s
Gravitational pull.

(Our friends from Artist as Family travelled a similar road a few years back, but much more slowly – by bicycle. You can get a taste of their story here.)

Here’s how our journey went:

Monday and Tuesday – Bulli to the Hunter Valley – 276km (NSW)
Two nights at Dad and Gayle’s place in Lower Belford. The lime tree we planted for Dad back in 2006 has finally come good, and is now taller than me. Dad helps me practice reversing the trailer which is a real brain boggler. This goes surprisingly well – the key seems to be kicking out all passengers, rolling down the windows, and working with your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. Dad notices that the wheels of the trailer have been put on backwards (the direction of the tyre tread is wrong), so we swap them over. Albie May gets to walk “Pop’s Dogs”, and we eat like kings thanks to Gayle, who is getting her new florist shop ready.

albie may drawing of pops house
A page from Albie May’s travel diary: “Pop’s House”

Wednesday – Hunter Valley to Sawtell (near Coff’s Harbour) – 420km (NSW)
We stay with “Nana Mic”, who is the grandma of Albie’s friend Hazel, and have a wonderful dinner at local restaurant “Hello Sawtell”. The beaches at Sawtell are stunning, classic white powdery sand and blue-green water. Arranging shells in the sand, Albie makes a small, serious “grave” for our friend John Demos who died from lung cancer earlier this year:

Albie May's 'grave' for John Demos, Sawtell Beach
Albie May – A ‘Grave’ for John Demos, Sawtell Beach
Albie's drawing of her John Demos grave
Albie’s drawing of her memorial grave for John Demos, at Sawtell Beach

Thurs – Sawtell to Possum Creek, (near Byron Bay) – 245km (NSW)
After Coff’s Harbour, we stop in for a cuppa with my friend John Causley from Big Fag Press, who is staying with his parents briefly in Maclean as part of his own journey onto a new life in Brisbane. Just before Maclean, we pass our first sugar cane farms. This is as far south as they grow.

sugar cane farm

Growing two metres
tall, the sugar cane field is
a Lawn for Giants.

The “Grand Tour of Grandparents” then continues: our next host Claire is deep in the painful process of moving out of her beloved Possum Creek rainforest home. As we arrive, our first trailer mishap: The Incident at Possum Creek. Half way up Claire’s very long, steep, narrow driveway, the road surface switches from concrete to loose gravel, and the wheels of the (pissweak front wheel drive) Hyundai spin ineffectually.

We can go no further, so we leave the gastropod where it is, blocking the driveway, and unpack what we need for the night. Next morning while Claire is at her pilates class out we hurry to back the trailer down the hill, but with me at the wheel the trailer Will Not Obey. It goes off kilter, and because of the steep gravel, I can’t go forward to straighten up. The trailer heads offroad and hides itself in the bushes. (To get a taste of how hard this is for beginners, play this trailer reversing game).

After much head-scratching and child-unfriendly-cussing, we unhitch it and manually twist it around so it’s pointing downhill, then sneak the car past it and re-hitch it. Very stressful, but a lesson grudgingly learnt about steep hills, trailers and front-wheel drive cars. Sadly, I have no visual evidence of our feat of ingenuity in the face of general incompetence, but we pledge to take a photo next time something like this happens.

Friday – Possum Creek to Eumundi (near Noosa) – 289km (Queensland)
Finally we cross the border. First stop in Queensland is The Yeomans Plow Co., where we have an appointment with Allan and Christine Yeomans. I’ve been wanting to visit Allan for many years, so it’s a great pleasure to finally see the factory where it all happens.

visit to allan and christine yeomans
Christine, Albie, Lucas, Allan. At Yeomans Plow Co. Gold Coast, Queensland.
allan yeomans with part of the carbon still
Allan Yeomans with a component of the Carbon Still – this part sifts and crushes the soil to produce the very fine particles needed by the Still.

I’m particularly interested to pick Allan’s brains about his Carbon Still invention – a device farmers can use to measure carbon sequestration on their land. It’s ingenious and simple and everyone should be using it (more on this in a later post). After Gold Coast, we head for Noosa, but we don’t quite make it. Instead we call in at a farmstay place in Eumundi for the night.

Saturday – Eumundi to Wongi Waterholes – 140km (Queensland)
We’re hoping to make it to camp at a town called “1770” tonight, but we spend a lovely morning at the Eumundi markets and thus make very slow progress. So we change our minds and stop short, camping at the Wongi Waterholes state forest.

The Hyundai and trailer don’t like the dusty corrugated road one bit. But it’s fantastic to make a small fire and cook on the camping stove and have a dip in the freezing waterholes.

lizzie and albie at wongi waterholes
Albie and Lizzie around the not strictly-speaking-allowed campfire.

Sunday – Wongi Waterholes to Rockhampton – 400km (Queensland)
As we roll into “Rocky” I’m in the passenger seat trying to shoot photos of all the fantastic Queenslanders up on their stilts while also keeping track of the navigation.

queenslanders in rockhampton

We stay in a hotel near the river. We survive our second trailer frustration: try as I might I can’t decouple the trailer’s socket thingy from the car’s towball, they’re jammed together somehow. Luckily, The Potential Incident at Rockhampton is resolved when the longsuffering hotel lady lets us park sideways across three disabled spots. This time Lizzie is handy with a camera to capture my folly.

lucas struggling with the trailer
(Note – later I work out how to solve this minor trailer problem. Hint – see this picture.)

Monday – Rockhampton to Mackay – 336km (Queensland)
Opposite our very corporate-feeling Rockhampton hotel is a fantastically ramshackle shopfront called “Joe Hockey’s Cigar Tokin Yobbo’s Den”. Unfortunately it’s shut when we pass by on Monday morning, but this place seems like a gem of community engagement in the heart of the city.

joe hockey's cigar tokin yobbos den

joe hockey's den rockhampton
Joe Hockey’s Cigar Tokin’ Yobbos Den, Rockhampton.

We spend the morning at the Rocky swimming pool. Although it’s a balmy day we’re pretty much the only people there. Apparently it has to get a lot hotter before Queenslanders will jump in the water (which is 26 degrees celcius).

mudflats, clairview
Mudflats, Clairview, between Rockhampton and Mackay, Queensland.

We call in at Clairview, where the beachscape has changed to tropical mudflats. The tide is way out, and a complementary bottle of Stinger Vinegar is available for anyone brave enough to go swimming here.

stinger vinegar

In Clairview, we learn something about the seasonal availability of the locals’ favourite crustacean:

Mudcrabs are available
In any month with an “R”
In its name.

The road from Rockhampton to Mackay is long and straight and without many stops. Our nearly-five year old has been very patient on this journey. She keeps asking, “Dad if we were at home what would we be doing now?”

road rockhampton to mackay
Long flat fields cleared of trees, with the occasional lonely cow: Rockhampton to Mackay.

By now we are nearly there.

Towards 6pm a beautiful orange sunset lights up the endless sugar cane fields. We have arrived on the outskirts of Mackay.

Whatever comes next is whatever comes next.